A Little More Inflation or a Little More Socialism?

In the 1930s the right had to choose between a modest amount of inflation (returning prices to the pre-Depression levels) or more socialism.  They weren’t thrilled with big government, but their strongest opposition was reserved toward policies of inflation.  So we ended up with deflationary policies between 1929 and 1933.  Of course the voters wouldn’t accept 25% unemployment, so we got big government instead of the inflation.

As this video shows, we are essentially facing the same choice today.  We could pump up the economy through monetary policy, or we can have Fannie and Freddie continue to throw $100s of billions down the drain, socialize the auto industry, extend unemployment benefits to 99 weeks, etc.  And if that isn’t enough there are also calls to move away from free trade policies.  And then there’s the higher taxes we’ll pay in the future to cover the costs of debts run up in a futile attempt to stimulate the economy.

Just as in the 1930s, the right seems to have decided that a little bit of socialism is better than a little bit of inflation.  What do I mean by a little bit of inflation?  I mean enough so that the post-September 2008 trend rate of inflation is the same as the pre-September 2008 trend rate of inflation.  Apparently even that little bit of inflation is more distasteful than massive government intervention in the economy.

And the irony is that many of the policies I describe, such are Fannie and Freddie propping up the housing market, unemployment insurance extensions, and trade barriers, are themselves slightly inflationary.  But they don’t just raise the price level, they also cause all sorts of distortions—they move prices away from their free market equilibrium.   (I’m looking at you Morgan.)

The even greater irony is that this isn’t even one of those pick your poison cases.  The inflation I am calling for would be nothing more than a continuation of the inflation that occurred in the previous two decades.  We’d want it even if we hadn’t had a housing crisis and recession.  I don’t recall conservatives complaining loudly that 2% inflation was a disaster when Clinton was president.  So why the sudden and hysterical opposition to 2% inflation?  Is that really a fate worse than socialism?

The still greater irony is that the more the conservatives win today, the more inflation we’ll get in the long run.  The conservatives got their way in the early 1930s, but it so discredited their ideology that it opened the door to much higher inflation over the next 40 years.

Part 2.  A few more “whiffs” of racism directed against Fannie and Freddie.

As you know, some fearless bloggers have exposed the “whiff” of racism in attempts by conservative economists like Raghu Rajan to blame the government for the mortgage fiasco.  Here for example, is Edmund Andrews:

Of all the canards that have been offered about the financial crisis, few are more repellant than the claim that the “real cause’’ of the mortgage meltdown was blacks and Hispanics.

Oh, excuse me — did I just accuse someone of racism?   Sorry.  Proponents of the above actually blame the crisis on “government policy’’ to boost home-ownership among low-income families, who just happened to be disproportionately non-white and immigrant.  Specifically, the Community Reinvestment Act “forced’’ banks to make bad loans to irresponsible borrowers,  while Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac provided the financial torque by purchasing billions worth of subprime paper.

The argument has been discredited time and again, shriveling up almost as soon as it’s exposed to sunlight.  But it keeps coming back, mainly because the anti-government narrative gives Republicans a way to deflect allegations that de-regulation allowed Wall Street to run wild.   It’s the financial version of Sarah Palin’s new line that “extreme environmentalists”  caused the BP oil spill.

Paul Krugman caught a whiff of it in a recent commentary by Raghuram Rajan in the FT, and quickly denounced it.

Now Bloomberg.com seems to be making those sorts of racist accusations:

June 14 (Bloomberg) — The cost of fixing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage companies that last year bought or guaranteed three-quarters of all U.S. home loans, will be at least $160 billion and could grow to as much as $1 trillion after the biggest bailout in American history.

.   .   .

The companies’ liabilities stem in large part from loans and mortgage-backed securities issued between 2005 and 2007. Directed by Congress to encourage lending to minorities and low- income borrowers at the same time private companies were gaining market share by pushing into subprime loans, Fannie and Freddie lowered their standards to take on high-risk mortgages.

Many of those went to borrowers with poor credit or little equity in their homes, according to company filings. By early 2008, more than $500 billion of loans guaranteed or held by Fannie and Freddie, about 10 percent of the total, were in subprime mortgages, according to Fed reports.

It seems even the Fed is peddling those vicious racist lies.

Even worse, they assert that Fannie and Freddie’s heavy involvement in sub-prime lending continued even during the height of the housing bubble:

The composition of the $5.5 trillion of loans guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie suggests that the surge in delinquencies may continue. About $1.98 trillion of the loans were made in states with the nation’s highest foreclosure rates — California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona — and $1.13 trillion were issued in 2006 and 2007, when real estate values peaked. Mortgages on which borrowers owe more than 90 percent of a property’s value total $402 billion.

That doesn’t seem to mesh with what I’ve been reading in Krugman’s blog:

He [Schwarzenegger] asserted, as a simple matter of fact, that “government created the housing bubble”, because Fannie and Freddie made all these loans to people who couldn’t afford to pay them.

This is utterly false. Fannie/Freddie did some bad things, and did, it turns out, get to some extent into subprime. But thanks to the accounting scandals, they were actually withdrawing from the market during the height of the housing bubble — the vast majority of the loans now going bad came from the private sector.

Yet it’s now clear that the phony account of the crisis — that it’s all due to Fannie, Freddie, and nasty liberals forcing poor Angelo Mozilo to make loans to Those People — is setting in as Republican orthodoxy

If you are wondering what the phrase “it turns out” refers to, perhaps it is this earlier post by Krugman:

But here’s the thing: Fannie and Freddie had nothing to do with the explosion of high-risk lending a few years ago, an explosion that dwarfed the S.& L. fiasco. In fact, Fannie and Freddie, after growing rapidly in the 1990s, largely faded from the scene during the height of the housing bubble.

Partly that’s because regulators, responding to accounting scandals at the companies, placed temporary restraints on both Fannie and Freddie that curtailed their lending just as housing prices were really taking off. Also, they didn’t do any subprime lending, because they can’t: the definition of a subprime loan is precisely a loan that doesn’t meet the requirement, imposed by law, that Fannie and Freddie buy only mortgages issued to borrowers who made substantial down payments and carefully documented their income.

So whatever bad incentives the implicit federal guarantee creates have been offset by the fact that Fannie and Freddie were and are tightly regulated with regard to the risks they can take. You could say that the Fannie-Freddie experience shows that regulation works.

Just to get serious for a moment; when I get upset at “Those People,” I am thinking about the Congressmen who created Fannie, Freddie and the CRA.  And yes, I know that the CRA was only a minor factor in the crisis, but everyday it becomes clearer that Washington’s attempts to enlist Fannie and Freddie into their crusade to make every American a homeowner lies at the center of this crisis.  Indeed the misdeeds of the “too-big-to-fail” banks (and their associated bailout with TARP funds), now comes in a distance third (or fourth if you include the Fed), far less costly to taxpayers than even the misbehavior of smaller banks that exploited the incompetence of the FDIC.

The experts say we can’t eliminate F&F right now, and I suppose they are right.  But only because we don”t have a monetary policy that stabilizes NGDP growth expectations.

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About Scott Sumner 492 Articles

Affiliation: Bentley University

Scott Sumner has taught economics at Bentley University for the past 27 years.

He earned a BA in economics at Wisconsin and a PhD at University of Chicago.

Professor Sumner's current research topics include monetary policy targets and the Great Depression. His areas of interest are macroeconomics, monetary theory and policy, and history of economic thought.

Professor Sumner has published articles in the Journal of Political Economy, the Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, and the Bulletin of Economic Research.

Visit: TheMoneyIllusion

3 Comments on A Little More Inflation or a Little More Socialism?

  1. One has to remember that when someone says “inflation” they are typically talking about CPI-U, which is well below what many if not most Americans actually experience. That recent 2.2% CPI-U on paper corresponded to a real world inflation rate of 4%-7% for a large percentage of the population. Throw in the low nominal yields and we still have negative real yields. So very many are losing wealth via price inflation and losing wealth via negative real yields.

  2. Um, Roosevelt inflated the dollar 75% and literally confiscated the private gold supply to enforce it.

    And there is no such thing as a "little bit of socialism". The whole freaking point of democratic socialism is that you deceive the middle class into thinking you will stop at some point. Of course, the socialists never stop.

    Its always, "reform this and thats all we want". No. Its "socialize this and swallow our lies the next time we ask you to socialize something".

  3. "Free market" for the middle class and "socialism" for big business. The big banks shaft the middle class under the guise of "free market", then when they mess it up chasing the phony derivatives they created, the government at taxpayer expense, bails them out. "Socialism" pure and simple, but only for the big guys. Of course, if the banks and their pals can keep the moronic middle class convinced of the need for our phony wars, they can keep shafting us there too.

    Check out JP Morgan and other big banks' relationship with Hitler's Nazi Germany. Check out Bush's grandfather's relationship with Nazi Germany through investment bankers. Check out Goldman Sachs today. "Big business doesn't lobby the government anymore, they ARE the government.."

    Yes, indeed. TSA, whole body scans, eavesdropping on every e-mail and phone conversation, stagflation for the masses. Government bailouts and billions in bonuses for the banks, insurance companies, oil companies, etc. Die in the dirt in some faraway desolation for the soldier who thinks he or she is "defending freedom" but is only defending Goldman Sachs, British Petroleum, AIG, Halliburton and others.

    There is not a better definition of Fascism, of National Socialism (NAZIism). Welcome to the Fascist States of America. And America appears far too stupid and bamboozled to get it. We have been warned and warned, starting with Jefferson, Madison and others. Why don't we get it?

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