Monday, December 22, 2008

Liberals Are Cheap Bastards

The "great" Nick Kristof of the New York TImes states the obvious in an surprisingly refreshing op-ed:

December 21, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist
Bleeding Heart Tightwads

This holiday season is a time to examine who’s been naughty and who’s been nice, but I’m unhappy with my findings. The problem is this: We liberals are personally stingy.

Liberals show tremendous compassion in pushing for generous government spending to help the neediest people at home and abroad. Yet when it comes to individual contributions to charitable causes, liberals are cheapskates.

Arthur Brooks, the author of a book on donors to charity, “Who Really Cares,” cites data that households headed by conservatives give 30 percent more to charity than households headed by liberals. A study by Google found an even greater disproportion: average annual contributions reported by conservatives were almost double those of liberals.

Other research has reached similar conclusions. The “generosity index” from the Catalogue for Philanthropy typically finds that red states are the most likely to give to nonprofits, while Northeastern states are least likely to do so.

The upshot is that Democrats, who speak passionately about the hungry and homeless, personally fork over less money to charity than Republicans — the ones who try to cut health insurance for children.

“When I started doing research on charity,” Mr. Brooks wrote, “I expected to find that political liberals — who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did — would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led me to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.”

Something similar is true internationally. European countries seem to show more compassion than America in providing safety nets for the poor, and they give far more humanitarian foreign aid per capita than the United States does. But as individuals, Europeans are far less charitable than Americans.

Americans give sums to charity equivalent to 1.67 percent of G.N.P., according to a terrific new book, “Philanthrocapitalism,” by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green. The British are second, with 0.73 percent, while the stingiest people on the list are the French, at 0.14 percent.
(Looking away from politics, there’s evidence that one of the most generous groups in America is gays. Researchers believe that is because they are less likely to have rapacious heirs pushing to keep wealth in the family.)

When liberals see the data on giving, they tend to protest that conservatives look good only because they shower dollars on churches — that a fair amount of that money isn’t helping the poor, but simply constructing lavish spires.

It’s true that religion is the essential reason conservatives give more, and religious liberals are as generous as religious conservatives. Among the stingiest of the stingy are secular conservatives.
According to Google’s figures, if donations to all religious organizations are excluded, liberals give slightly more to charity than conservatives do. But Mr. Brooks says that if measuring by the percentage of income given, conservatives are more generous than liberals even to secular causes.

In any case, if conservative donations often end up building extravagant churches, liberal donations frequently sustain art museums, symphonies, schools and universities that cater to the well-off. (It’s great to support the arts and education, but they’re not the same as charity for the needy. And some research suggests that donations to education actually increase inequality because they go mostly to elite institutions attended by the wealthy.)

Conservatives also appear to be more generous than liberals in nonfinancial ways. People in red states are considerably more likely to volunteer for good causes, and conservatives give blood more often. If liberals and moderates gave blood as often as conservatives, Mr. Brooks said, the American blood supply would increase by 45 percent.

So, you’ve guessed it! This column is a transparent attempt this holiday season to shame liberals into being more charitable. Since I often scold Republicans for being callous in their policies toward the needy, it seems only fair to reproach Democrats for being cheap in their private donations. What I want for Christmas is a healthy competition between left and right to see who actually does more for the neediest.

Of course, given the economic pinch these days, charity isn’t on the top of anyone’s agenda. Yet the financial ability to contribute to charity, and the willingness to do so, are strikingly unrelated. Amazingly, the working poor, who have the least resources, somehow manage to be more generous as a percentage of income than the middle class.

So, even in tough times, there are ways to help. Come on liberals, redeem yourselves, and put your wallets where your hearts are

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Getting Out of the Credit Mess

The last thing we need is policy that encourages or incurs more debt

The Wall Street Journal
December 9, 2008


The federal government has announced a series of actions in the past few weeks ostensibly designed to make consumer credit more available and invigorate the economy. Obviously, the country is in recession and the recession is likely to get deeper. But will these actions reduce the depth and duration of the recession? Or, in the long run, will they make matters even worse?

Last month the Federal Reserve and the Treasury announced that the government would buy $500 billion in mortgages guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. They also announced they would lend $200 billion against securities backed by car loans, student loans, credit-card debt, and small business loans. The purpose of both moves is to create lending capacity across key elements of the consumer sector.

Most recently, the government announced that it would subsidize new home mortgages by one percentage point, effectively lowering monthly payments on a 30-year loan by about 10%. The stated reason was to help the housing market, which is crucial to an economic recovery.
With each announcement, the Fed and Treasury were careful to point out they might take additional action in support of these sectors and others as well. And it is a virtual certainty the government will cobble together some program to reduce foreclosures to keep people in their homes. I'm sure that, as other industries or sectors come under pressure, there will be new programs to help. The automobile industry will not be the last to come to Washington.

To begin to understand today's problem, we have to have a sense of how we got there. Between 1994 and second quarter 2008, the U.S, housing stock more than doubled in value from $7.6 trillion to $19.4 trillion. Almost three quarters of that increase was due to a speculative bubble, the root cause of which was government policies designed to increase home ownership, largely among people who would be considered nonprime borrowers -- i.e., people without sufficient documented income or employment history and little or no savings or credit history.

The intellectual start of this mess was in a flawed Boston Federal Reserve study published in 1992 that purported to show that minorities were treated less well than whites. That study led to increased political pressure on banks to modify their standards with increased emphasis through the Community Reinvestment Act, and aided by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations in the Clinton administration that required parity of outcomes in the lending process.

The effect of all of this meddling was compounded by the lax or incompetent supervision of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. All in all, the government got into the business of encouraging and then forcing lending institutions to make mortgage loans to people who could not pay them back. What we ended up with is a failure of government, which we have erroneously termed a failure of capitalism.

The standards applied to these subprime loans began to be applied to what heretofore had been prime borrowers who also increasingly became overextended. But, as housing prices increased, owners cashed out their equity and bought cars, appliances and other items, including using the freed-up equity to pay for everyday living purchases. Over the past decade alone, U.S. households have taken on some $8 trillion in debt, bringing the nation's current consumer debt load to $14 trillion.

This cynical and unsustainable cycle was abetted by mortgage originators who had little interest in making sure loans were good quality, investment banks that securitized and packaged these loans, rating agencies who forgot fundamental laws of gravity, and purchasers who bought securities they could not possibly understand. This was fueled by borrowers who committed fraud and bought houses, or speculated in them, when there was no realistic chance they could afford them.

All of this led to a huge overleveraging in the consumer market. The increase in debt burden fueled much of the nation's economic growth over recent decades, aided somewhat by increases in productivity and underpinned by easy money from the Federal Reserve. Since consumers represent about 70% of the nation's GNP, and since leverage cannot increase forever, we were bound to see the bubble burst and eventually enter a substantial recession.

So, are the current credit easing actions likely to be helpful or not? In my judgment, measures to create liquidity are likely to be helpful. Financial institutions that lend money to credit-worthy people for reasonable purposes have experienced a substantial reduction in available funding from which they can make loans. Hence the programs to support the securitization markets are sensible because money used for this purpose will be lent and used for purchases. Programs that deliver a short-term reduction in mortgage rates will, at the margin, help absorb some of the available housing stock, reducing the time it will take for housing to reach market-clearing levels.

However, measures intended to reduce foreclosures, per se, are likely to be ineffective at best and morally flawed at worst. When analysts say that people are being foreclosed because house values have declined they are missing the point. A large number of foreclosures are taking place because people can no longer refinance and take value out. They could not afford the houses to begin with and greed or stupidity -- not a falling real-estate market -- have caused their problems. On the other hand, measures to subsidize homeowners facing foreclosures because they have lost their jobs can be helpful.

In the longer term, our nation must delever -- either by reducing the amounts of borrowing or by increasing consumer earning power through economic growth. Relying on growth alone implies a growth rate higher than we have ever experienced in our nation's history. Nonetheless, our public policy must encourage economic growth by lowering tax rates for corporations and individuals while at the same time avoiding what would be growth killers, including "card check" legislation and trade restrictions. Public policy should support higher savings rates, and avoid encouraging increased consumer spending funded by further debt, which may be helpful in the short term but catastrophic in the longer term.

It is not only consumers that must delever. Governments must as well. State and local governments across the nation have incurred direct and indirect debt or obligations in the tens of trillions of dollars -- obligations that cannot be met under any set of reasonable circumstances without an explosion in growth and tax revenues. In fact, we continue to incur debt for politically palatable ideas, like rebate checks, which have very little stimulative power but increase the depth of the hole we're in.

To solve this problem for ourselves and future generations, we must get back to our historic reliance on personal responsibility and market forces, and get government out of economic management. It doesn't do a good job, as the current economic mess amply proves.

Mr. Golub is a former chairman and CEO of American Express.