Josh Barro, writing from his new column at Bloomberg, wonders if Mitt Romney has a secret economic plan to fix housing: “But where I think a big improvement from Romney is likely is on housing policy. While Romney has been conspicuously silent on housing, one of his top advisers, Glenn Hubbard, advocates an aggressive plan to restructure mortgages. The Hubbard plan would lower mortgage rates and reduce principal for underwater borrowers, both of which would stimulate the economy. That’s a tough sell to Republicans in Congress — but they would be much more open to it under a Republican president than a Democratic one.”
As David Dayen noted in a great, comprehensive Salon piece, none of this matters if Congress doesn’t extend a special law put into place during the crisis that keeps principal reduction, even reduction from a short sale, from being treated as income, and thus requiring it to be taxed. The law is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2012. Extending it has bipartisan support in the Senate, but none in the House so far. I can’t emphasize how much this matters – homeowners would get a giant tax bill under any relief program, making them difficult to do. It isn’t clear what Romney would do about this.
Let’s grid out those two dimensions:
With this grid in mind, let’s re-examine the high-level critique of the Obama administration’s housing policy. During the debate over the second round of TARP, the then-incoming Obama administration promised to take action on bankruptcy reform and hinted toward direct government action, or the top two rows in the grid. Larry Summers wrote to Harry Reid promising action on “reforming our bankruptcy laws.” Donna Edwards wrote that she “appreciate[d] the personal commitment that Senator Obama” would look “at a program such as one that existed in the 1930s to 1950s to work directly with homeowners.”
This did not happen. Timothy Geithner was against direct government action from the beginning, as this letter he wrote to Brad Miller shows. The administration was publicly silent and privately pushed against reforming bankruptcy. The administration also seemed asleep at the wheel when it came to pushing for big action through the GSEs, making no recess appointments and only updating HARP and pushing for principal writedowns this year.
Their main effort was to work through the already existing mortgage framework. This effort has largely been seen as a failure. This isn’t surprising, as there are well–documented problems with our current mortgage servicing system. The same problems with Wall Street slicing and dicing mortgages that were present when the housing bubble was inflating are still there now that it has collapsed.
We often don’t get second chances in life, but the Obama administration had a second chance at a serious reform of this broken system when news of the scandals surrounding financial fraud started breaking. Though there’s still a taskforce out there somewhere, I think it is safe to say the administration wanted to remove these problems rather than take them on directly, which would have opened up a space to reform the current system. They succeeded. This only leaves working through the system.
Maybe your eyes roll when you read the term “neoliberal hegemony,” but there’s something to the idea that the Obama administration simply felt that the only legimate way to try and deal with the foreclosure crisis was by nudging the incentives of various markets this or that way. The market is the ultimate, efficient arbiter of value, and policy should only seek to adjust some incentives here and there. Measures to intervene directly by the government, or measures to change the way property is regulated through bankruptcy, were ignored right away. Those actions require the government to act as a force in the marketplace directly, or to acknowledge that the economy is created through law and can be adjusted accordingly, both of which are taboo under neoliberal economic ideology.
Working within a system, no matter how aggressive your actions are, means you don’t ultimately have to challenge that system. As Harper’s wrote back in 2009, in a great essay on President Obama as Hoover, “The common thread running through all of Obama’s major proposals right now is that they are labyrinthine solutions designed mainly to avoid conflict.” In a practical sense, for Romney to go bigger than Obama on housing would require either adjusting the bankruptcy code, running a government program that directly intervenes in the marketplace in a big way, or firing DeMarco. In the theoretical sense, it would likely require challenging the reigning paradigm in political economy as well as challenging the current financial system. Are these actions realistic for Romney?
Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog: