Commentary Magazine


Topic: Great Recession

Housing Collapse Has a Lesson for the Ages

Earlier this month the New York Times ran a feature on the newest discipline to come to college campuses: capitalism. Major universities in the United States are now going to start devoting some class time to learning about it. Which is another way of saying they will learn about America.

Conservatives often complain that liberals talk about conservatism as if they’ve only heard vague rumors about this bizarre species, mostly because it’s easy to avoid conservative opinion if you want to. But they’ll also justly complain that major liberal institutions, like the mainstream media and universities, don’t understand capitalism, and don’t seem to want to. Yet these institutions shape young minds.

There are many choice quotes in the Times article about the sudden interest their own country, but this one stands out:

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Earlier this month the New York Times ran a feature on the newest discipline to come to college campuses: capitalism. Major universities in the United States are now going to start devoting some class time to learning about it. Which is another way of saying they will learn about America.

Conservatives often complain that liberals talk about conservatism as if they’ve only heard vague rumors about this bizarre species, mostly because it’s easy to avoid conservative opinion if you want to. But they’ll also justly complain that major liberal institutions, like the mainstream media and universities, don’t understand capitalism, and don’t seem to want to. Yet these institutions shape young minds.

There are many choice quotes in the Times article about the sudden interest their own country, but this one stands out:

While most scholars in the field reject the purely oppositional stance of earlier Marxist history, they also take a distinctly critical view of neoclassical economics, with its tidy mathematical models and crisp axioms about rational actors.

That about sums it up. They may not like the “purely oppositional” (read: given to mass murder) nature of Marxist history, but they don’t like the rationality of capitalism either. They have now designed the perfect course for those students who have an interest in economics but don’t like numbers or genocide.

But one thing conservatives have been known to repeat ad nauseam about capitalism is that it is truly race-blind. In a market economy, the basic trade principle of mutual benefit based on rational self-interest dominates. And attempts to distort the market in favor of one racial or ethnic group can end up helping that group marginally in the near term while hurting that group in the long term. On that note, those college professors just starting to explore capitalism might want to take a look at today’s New York Times report on the housing bust and the recession:

The Urban Institute study found that the racial wealth gap yawned during the recession, even as the income gap between white Americans and nonwhite Americans remained stable. As of 2010, white families, on average, earned about $2 for every $1 that black and Hispanic families earned, a ratio that has remained roughly constant for the last 30 years. But when it comes to wealth — as measured by assets, like cash savings, homes and retirement accounts, minus debts, like mortgages and credit card balances — white families have far outpaced black and Hispanic ones. Before the recession, non-Hispanic white families, on average, were about four times as wealthy as nonwhite families, according to the Urban Institute’s analysis of Federal Reserve data. By 2010, whites were about six times as wealthy….

Many experts consider the wealth gap to be more pernicious than the income gap, as it perpetuates from generation to generation and has a powerful effect on economic security and mobility. Young black people are much less likely than young white people to receive a large sum from their parents or other relatives to pay for college, start a business or make a down payment on a home, for instance. That, in turn, makes their wealth-building prospects shakier as they move into adulthood.

The Times explains why minorities are suffering more during the current economic downturn:

Two major factors helped to widen this wealth gap in recent years. The first is that the housing downturn hit black and Hispanic households harder than it hit white households, in aggregate. Many young Hispanic families, for instance, bought homes as the housing bubble was inflating and reaching its peak, leaving them saddled with heavy debt burdens as house prices plunged in places like suburban Phoenix and inland California.

Black families also were hit disproportionately by the housing collapse, because heading into the recession housing constituted a higher proportion of their wealth than for white families, leaving them more exposed when the market crashed. Higher unemployment rates and lower incomes among blacks left them less able to keep paying their mortgages and more likely to lose their homes, experts said.

And the housing bubble and bust were brought about in part by well-intentioned presidents from both parties trying to expand home ownership. But George W. Bush’s attempts to rein in the lending practices of the government-sponsored lenders and improve federal oversight were stymied, most effectively by Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank.

That housing slump will forever be a major part of Frank’s legacy. And as the Times story notes, the widening of the wealth gap, especially during a down economy with high unemployment, can have lasting effects by constricting the generational transfer of wealth and enabling the wealth gap to persist or widen further even as the economy recovers.

Of course, leftist ideologues would love for this to be a tale of rapacious capitalists bent on profiting by stealing the wealth of minorities. The reality is that the government was only trying to help, and ended up doing lasting damage. It’s a familiar story with an important lesson that American academia’s newly minted professors of capitalism will have a hard time avoiding.

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Obama’s Ominous FDR Precedent

Polls have consistently shown that far more Americans still blame George W. Bush for the country’s economic difficulties than those who were prepared to place responsibility on the man who has been president for the last few years. That fact, along with an economy that wasn’t very good but still not as terrible as many thought it might be, was enough to re-elect Barack Obama earlier this month. In doing so, Obama became the first president to successfully run for a second term, while blaming his predecessor for his own failures, since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who buried Alf Landon in 1936 by running against his predecessor Herbert Hoover.

That was quite a trick, but President Obama should be wary of emulating FDR in every respect. As Amity Shlaes wrote yesterday in Bloomberg News, Roosevelt’s second term provides some ominous precedents for an Obama second term. As our colleague John Steele Gordon wrote earlier this year, it may always be 1936 for liberals who believe conservatives are doomed to perpetual defeat. But what the president and his supporters should be worrying about is whether 2013 turns out to be a repeat of 1937, when a country mired in the Great Depression suffered another economic setback that heightened the country’s misery. As Shlaes points out, signs abound that the “Great Recession” that Obama claimed to save the country from during the campaign may be about to get worse.

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Polls have consistently shown that far more Americans still blame George W. Bush for the country’s economic difficulties than those who were prepared to place responsibility on the man who has been president for the last few years. That fact, along with an economy that wasn’t very good but still not as terrible as many thought it might be, was enough to re-elect Barack Obama earlier this month. In doing so, Obama became the first president to successfully run for a second term, while blaming his predecessor for his own failures, since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who buried Alf Landon in 1936 by running against his predecessor Herbert Hoover.

That was quite a trick, but President Obama should be wary of emulating FDR in every respect. As Amity Shlaes wrote yesterday in Bloomberg News, Roosevelt’s second term provides some ominous precedents for an Obama second term. As our colleague John Steele Gordon wrote earlier this year, it may always be 1936 for liberals who believe conservatives are doomed to perpetual defeat. But what the president and his supporters should be worrying about is whether 2013 turns out to be a repeat of 1937, when a country mired in the Great Depression suffered another economic setback that heightened the country’s misery. As Shlaes points out, signs abound that the “Great Recession” that Obama claimed to save the country from during the campaign may be about to get worse.

The key clue is the drop in industrial production that set off a decline in the stock market in the aftermath of the president’s victory. One can’t compare that drop to the precipitous decline that America suffered in 1937 (when most stocks lost half their value). But as Shlaes writes, the link between the two situations may be the federal government spending sprees that both Democratic presidents engaged in, followed by tax hikes that spiked any chance for growth.

Another troubling parallel is what she calls the fallout from first-term legislation. In FDR’s case, the New Deal may have given many Americans hope, but the result of the vast expansion of federal power and the consequent diversion of money from taxpayers to the government was “reduced available cash, increased uncertainty and lower business confidence.” As Bethany wrote earlier today, the impact of the implementation of ObamaCare on business has the potential to raise unemployment and send the country into another “Great Recession.” In both cases, governments that have tried to “play God” with the economy may bring down on the nation policies that can “spook markets and employers whatever the decade.”

While FDR was able to keep blaming the country’s ills on Hoover until Tojo and the Japanese imperialists bombed Pearl Harbor and finally ended the Depression, it remains to be seen whether Americans will still be grousing about George W. Bush if a year or two from now that they are stuck in another “Great Recession” brought about by Obama’s policies.

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Get Ready for Obama’s Great Recession

As John Steele Gordon rightly points out, Ben Bernanke’s latest attempt to bail out a failing economy by manipulating interest rates isn’t likely to be met with any more success than his first two tries. Some Democrats may think the Federal Reserve’s decision to print more money will inflate the economy enough to get President Obama re-elected. The assumption is that it will cause a rise in the stock market that will be interpreted as a sign that the recovery has finally succeeded. However, the result of another dose of inflationary economics, compounded by growing debt, unemployment and less than 2 percent growth may be another recession that will come on the heels of the current anemic recovery.

The constant refrain coming from the administration and its defenders has been that a change of course away from the president’s reliance on trying to spend our way out of the economic ditch would be a return to the failed Republican policies of the past that created the problem in the first place. But as James Pethokoukis writes at the American Enterprise Institute blog, it is cheap money and too much debt that caused the so-called Great Recession that the president inherits. That recession ended in the summer of 2009. It was followed by a recovery for which the president once took credit. But the feeble nature of that revival is something he still blames on his predecessor. Thanks to the continuation of the spending and debt binge that took place over the last four years, the country may soon be faced with another Great Recession no matter who wins in November. But it is not likely that most Americans will be willing to blame that one on George W. Bush.

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As John Steele Gordon rightly points out, Ben Bernanke’s latest attempt to bail out a failing economy by manipulating interest rates isn’t likely to be met with any more success than his first two tries. Some Democrats may think the Federal Reserve’s decision to print more money will inflate the economy enough to get President Obama re-elected. The assumption is that it will cause a rise in the stock market that will be interpreted as a sign that the recovery has finally succeeded. However, the result of another dose of inflationary economics, compounded by growing debt, unemployment and less than 2 percent growth may be another recession that will come on the heels of the current anemic recovery.

The constant refrain coming from the administration and its defenders has been that a change of course away from the president’s reliance on trying to spend our way out of the economic ditch would be a return to the failed Republican policies of the past that created the problem in the first place. But as James Pethokoukis writes at the American Enterprise Institute blog, it is cheap money and too much debt that caused the so-called Great Recession that the president inherits. That recession ended in the summer of 2009. It was followed by a recovery for which the president once took credit. But the feeble nature of that revival is something he still blames on his predecessor. Thanks to the continuation of the spending and debt binge that took place over the last four years, the country may soon be faced with another Great Recession no matter who wins in November. But it is not likely that most Americans will be willing to blame that one on George W. Bush.

Bernanke’s third chorus of interest rate cuts is a last-ditch attempt to save Obama’s recovery. But we may look back on it next year as the moment when the next Great Recession became inevitable. In the long run, only a program that aims to reform our out-of-control spending, tax cuts to fuel real economic growth and to create wealth, and sound money policies from the Fed will create a genuine recovery.

But a steady diet of more spending, debt and cheap money has set the stage for a transition from a weak recovery to another collapse. Indeed, the bad employment numbers show that the recovery never reached some sectors of the economy or the army of unemployed Americans. That means that for many Americans the downturn we may have to face next year will feel more like the tail end of a double dip recession than a fresh downturn.

President Obama is hoping Bernanke’s latest stunt will give him the boost he needs to stay ahead of Mitt Romney in the final weeks of the campaign. But the long-term impact of the Fed chairman’s QE3 may merely pave the path for a poor economy that will make a second term a misery for both Obama and the American people.

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