Earlier this week, Peter Wallison presented a contrarian speech at the Hudson Institute, New York, detailing how the financial crisis was caused by government policy — not Wall Street greed, or the interconnectedness of financial institutions, or insufficient regulation, or any of the other political scapegoats blamed promiscuously throughout the collapse. (You can find a more detailed, albeit older, version of Wallison’s argument here.)
Most striking was Wallison’s condemnation of the Community Reinvestment Act and the like, which he says arm-twisted financial institutions into knowingly making bad investments, giving funds (subprime and Alt-A loans) to home buyers who were obviously unlikely to ever pay the money back. Those investments — which substantially underpinned the economy — were almost certain to fail from the beginning.
If Wallison is right, the Community Reinvestment Act is a smoking gun, and the hand holding it belongs to Uncle Sam.
To blame the Community Reinvestment Act is not, by any stretch, a new idea. And, not surprising, it has been disputed by Paul Krugman and economists from the Federal Reserve and the FDIC.
But the idea is worth mentioning because conservatives are unnecessarily losing ground in the public arena. Enemies of the free market have made their case with evocative, emotionally charged talking points. They stir public discontent by showing glamorized men of wealth and taste who travel in private planes, sipping champagne and cognac while America burns.
Blaming regulation is less sexy for sure. It’s also more vague. How much of the public can cite the specific ways the government has meddled in the market? How much of the public knows about encroachments like the Community Reinvestment Act?
But especially after ObamaCare, angry citizens want specific talking points. And overreaching politicians are as provocative and sinister as any Wall Street demon. Wallison also noted that if the government really wanted to subsidize housing, it should have done so honestly — by putting the funds to do so on the budget. Instead, it chose to coerce financial institutions to do its dirty work. Conservatives need to point to the regulatory causes — the Community Reinvestment Act being one of many examples — and make their case.
Wallison’s argument is timely because, as part of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, tasked with exploring the origins of the crisis, he’ll be fighting to present his explanation to Congress on Dec. 15, 2010. He’s outnumbered by Democrats on the commission, who might dominate the written report, in which case his ideas will be presented in dissent.
When Congress considers what caused the financial crisis, conservatives should pay attention. Even if those like Wallison must speak as a dissenting minority, there’s an opportunity to revive dinner-table debate. And as elections approach, it’s important to convince Main Street of the truth Wall Street already knows.