By L. Randall Wray
In recent weeks the wingnut right wing ideologues have made a lot of headway in their goal of gutting Social Security. Well-funded by hedge fund manager Pete Peterson as well as right wing Washington think tanks, they have promoted the preposterous notion that our wealthy and productive economy cannot afford to take care of our elders. Now they have turned their sights on Fannie and Freddie. They argue that it is time to cut Uncle Sam out of the home mortgage market. Just as he has no role to play in providing decent pensions to our retired population, he should not help make homeownership affordable for most Americans. “Free markets” can do it all so much better than Uncle Sam can do.
Give me a break. These are the same bozos that are promoting home foreclosure and happily cheering the biggest transfer of wealth to Wall Street that the US has ever seen. Without Fannie and Freddie there would be no home financing or refinancing going on right now. Oh, right, free markets did such a good job with the subprime mortgage market, creating a global financial crisis that rivals the Great Crash of 1929. Hey, let’s reward them by getting government out of the mortgage markets so that Pete Peterson can run the whole shebang for the benefit of Wall Street. That, of course, is the real goal. Wall Street wants to get back to predatory lending as quickly as possible, and hates the competition from a newly missioned Fannie and Freddie—which have turned away from the practices that assisted rapacious private lenders from 2004 to 2008. Better close them down because Wall Street hates competition.
And, yes, let’s reduce Social Security benefits and raise payroll taxes, squeezing our seniors so that they have no choice but to let Pete Peterson charge them exorbitant fees to manage their miniscule life savings. Government is running out of keystrokes and won’t be able to afford to credit retiree bank accounts fifty years from now. Better slash Social Security now.
Ain’t it all just so convenient for the Pete Petersons of the world? Shift the blame, no matter how ridiculous the claims. Our current problems are caused by runaway Fannie and Freddie and Social Security—providing safety nets that our homeowners and seniors abused, taking advantage of poor little defenseless Goldmans and Morgans and Citibanks. That was the cause of the crisis! If we had just had more free market abuse of consumers, everything would have just been fine. Besides, government is broke. We’ve got to tighten the purse strings. Running out of cash, you know. No more keystrokes to credit bank accounts.
How about a reality check? Fannie and Freddie made no subprime loans. Indeed, they originated no loans at all. Yes, they offered insurance on privately originated mortgages, and yes, they lowered their standards. This has been carefully studied, and all analysts have reached the conclusion that Fannie and Freddie got into trouble because they catered to “free” market demands that they either insure the kinds of toxic mortgages markets wanted to provide or that they become irrelevant. The free markets wanted to do Liar loans and NINJA loans, making loans that borrowers could never service. The old fuddy duddies Fannie and Freddie would never have agreed to guarantee this trash, so they were partially privatized, with big gun, high paid CEOs hired. And just like magic, they started behaving like a Goldman or a Countrywide—maximizing CEO pay while damning the firms. Yes, that is the free market solution and my colleague Bill Black calls it control fraud. Fannie became a control fraud, just like all the big boy private financial institutions. Peterson’s solution? Promote control frauds by freeing markets.
The thing that the wingnuts cannot explain is why Fannie and Freddie—which had a history that goes back to the mid 1960s – did not encounter significant problems until they were directed by Congress to replicate a market-oriented strategy. And the wingnuts cannot explain why defaults on home mortgages were so rare until the “free markets” took over the mortgage sector. Heck, Fannie and Freddie even survived the savings and loan fiasco of the 1980s, when thrifts were “freed” to pursue free market maximization that resulted in suicide for the whole industry. It was only after 2004 when Fannie and Freddie were directed to cater to control frauds like Countrywide that they got into trouble.
Make no mistake. The wingnuts are likely to win these battles. President Obama will not put up a fight—he’s already bought the Peterson story, hook, line and sinker. Social Security is a done deal. It is going to be “reformed”. That is, it will be handed over to Pete Peterson, who will manage it right down the rat hole where all the private pensions are going. Wall Street will gamble away all the funds, whilst enriching itself with management fees. And Fannie and Freddie will be shut down so that Wall Street will have free reign in the housing market. Homeownership rates will plummet. Predatory mortgages will be the rule. Wealth will trickle up. Democratic Party coffers will be replenished. Obama will declare Social Security and Fannie and Freddie to be reformed—just like the healthcare system.
The only possible hope is that financial markets completely collapse in the next three to four months. That would discredit Pete Peterson and the wingnuts at his think tanks. It would make it possible to stop the right wing stampede and the collective amnesia about the last three years—that is, about the global financial crisis caused by free market wingnuts. Resumption of the crisis could discredit the crazy troglodyte thinking promoted at Chicago and Washington think tanks.
What is the free market path to homeownership? A subprime crisis.
What is the free market path to private pensions? Across the board collapse of commodities, real estate, and equities markets.
What is the free market alternative to Social Security? An impoverished elderly population.
What is the free market alternative to Medicare? High priced health insurance that most elderly people cannot afford.
Not to worry, all these reductions of government interference into the finely oiled free market machine will help to enrich Pete Peterson and the other funders of the wingnut think tanks.
Ok, how about a politically feasible alternative? We all know that Pete Peterson’s well-funded effort has convinced most policy makers that the federal government has run out of money, so cannot afford costly Social Security or government guarantees of mortgages. Any federal spending must be offset by tax hikes or spending cuts. Pete Peterson’s minions are fond of “infinite horizon” calculations that show that “government entitlements” will lead to shortfalls of tens of trillions of dollars. It is all nonsense, but it guides all policy making.
So here is a proposal consistent with such calculations. Let us raise Social Security benefits today to help seniors through the current depression. Let’s have a payroll tax holiday—stop collecting the taxes from employers and employees to put more pay into the hands of workers and to reduce the costs of employing them. Let us provide debt relief to homeowners so that they can keep their homes. Let us create a jobs program to put 12 million people back to work (the number of jobs created by New Deal programs).
To please the deficit hysteria crowd we will need to offset all of this spending. So let us propose that beginning in 2050 all seniors above age 65 will be ground to produce soylent green burgers, with a proviso that implementation can be postponed by majority vote of the population annually from 2050 on. For budgetary purposes, the future savings to Social Security and Medicare can be counted today, eliminating Peterson’s infinite horizon unfunded entitlements. Voters in 2050 and thereafter can decide whether they want those burgers—year-by-year so that infinite horizon forecasts will remain favorable. Each year voters will decide whether they want to eat seniors or feed them for one more year.
Personally, I don’t eat mammals, but I won’t be voting in 2050. Now, reptiles are an entirely different matter, and only discretion prevents me from naming a few that could be candidates for reptilian burgers. Bloodsucking vampire squid cakes, anyone?
Heck, no matter what we do today, it will be voters in 2050 that will decide the fate of seniors in 2050. That is what scares the Beetlejuice out of Pete Peterson—he’s afraid that American compassion and reason will triumph, hence the scaremongering to convince voters that retiring babyboomers expecting government to credit their bank accounts using keystrokes represents the biggest threat facing America today. And that is why the wingnuts think it is so important to start cutting benefits and raising payroll taxes today—to eliminate America’s most popular government program so that no one will have any alternative to Wall Street management of pensions. Yes it is unimaginatively silly—the agenda of simpletons who have no understanding of balance sheets or of sovereign currencies or of anything else that is important to the issues of Social Security or government guarantees of home mortgages. Unfortunately, these are the most dangerous kind of simpleton—with billions of dollars to throw around to get their way.
Remember Thatcher’s motto: TINA = there is no alternative to free markets. The wingnuts have learned these lessons well. Remove any alternative to Wall Street’s complete control over all aspects of life. Then TINA will be true.
I do not want to be accused of being unfair to wingnuts. There is certainly room for debate on the necessity of reforming Social Security and government guarantees of mortgages (and student loans, and small business loans, and farm loans, and veteran’s loans). One can coherently—even if repugnantly—argue that government should play no role in helping to provide seniors with a decent living standard. Declaring that any senior who is not sufficiently lucky, industrious, and foresighted to provide for her own retirement ought to live out a miserable old age is an opinion that deserves to be debated. But declaring that government simply cannot afford current law Social Security benefits it just plain ignorant—it is a position that deserves no attention. Siding with Wall Street against government protection of homeowners might be an unpopular position but it is, again, worthy of debate. Yet claiming that Fannie and Freddie as originally constituted would have contributed in an important way to the global financial crisis does not merit consideration. It is not even worthy of Fox News. It is beyond stupid. It is an outright misrepresentation of the facts.