An Access Advertising EconBrief:
Why Big Government is Rotten to the Core: The Tale of the Taxpayers’ Defender Inside Federal Housing
Today the trajectory of our economic lives is pointed steeply downward. This space has been disproportionately devoted to explaining both how and why. That explanation has often cited the theory of government failure, in which the purported objects of government action are subordinated to the desires of politicians, bureaucrats, government employees and consultants. Economists have been excoriated for sins of commission and omission. The resulting loss of personal freedom and marketplace efficiency has been decried. The progressive march toward a totalitarian state has been chronicled.
A recent column in The Wall Street Journal ties these themes together neatly. Mary Kissel’s “Weekend Interview” column of Saturday/Sunday, July 12/13, 2014, is entitled “The Man Who Took On Fannie Mae.” It describes the working life of “career bureaucrat” and economist, Edward DeMarco, whose most recent post was acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Ms. Kissel portrays him as the man “who fought to protect American taxpayers” and “championed fiscal responsibility” in government. As we shall see, however, he is really integral to the malfunctioning of big government in general and economics in particular.
The Career of Edward DeMarco
Edward DeMarco is that contradictory combination, a career government bureaucrat who is also a trained economist. He received a PhD. in economics from the University of Maryland in the late 1980s and went to work for the General Accounting Office (GAO). As “low man on the totem pole,” he was handed the job of evaluating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. They had been around since the 1930s but were known to few and understood by fewer in Congress. The decade-long-drawn-out, painful series of savings-and-loan bailouts had scalded the sensibilities of representatives and regulators alike. DeMarco’s job was to determine if Fannie and Freddie were another bailout landmine lying in wait for detonation.
His answer was: yes. The implicit taxpayer backstop provided to these two institutions – not written into their charter but tacitly acknowledged by everybody in financial markets – allowed them to borrow at lower interest rates than competitors. This meant that they attracted riskier borrowers, which set taxpayers up to take a fall. And the Congressional “oversight” supposedly placing the two under a stern, watchful eye was actually doing the opposite – acting in cahoots with them to expand their empire in exchange for a cut of the proceeds.
DeMarco sounded the alarm in his report. And sure enough, Congress acted. In 1992, it established the Office of Federal Housing Oversight (OFHO). A triumph for government regulation! A vindication of the role of economics in government! A victory for truth, justice and the American way!
DeMarco pinned the tail on this donkey right smack on the hindquarters. “‘The Fannie and Freddie Growth Act,’” he called it, “because it told the market ‘Hey, we really care about these guys, and we’re concerned about them because they’re really important.’” In other words, the fix was in: Congress would never allow Fannie and Freddie to fail, and their implicit taxpayer guarantee was good as gold.
This was the first test of DeMarco’s mettle. In that sense, it was the key test, because the result jibed with the old vaudeville punchline, “we’ve already agreed on what you are; now we’re just haggling about the price.” As soon as the ineffectual nature of OFHO crystallized, DeMarco should have screamed bloody murder. But the “low man on the totem pole” in a government bureaucracy can’t do that and still hope for a career; DeMarco would have had to say sayonara to the security of government employment in order to retain his integrity. Instead, he kept his mouth shut.
Kissel discreetly overlooks this because it doesn’t jibe with her picture of DeMarco as heroic whistleblower. She is acting as advocate rather than journalist, as editor rather than reporter.
Any doubts about the fairness of this judgment are dispelled by Kissel’s narrative. “After stints at the Treasury and Social Security Administration, DeMarco found himself working at the very oversight office that his reports to Congress had helped create.” Oh, he “found himself” working there, did he? At the very office that had doublecrossed and betrayed him? “It was 2006, when Fannie and Freddie’s growth had been turbocharged by the government’s mortgages-for-all mania. Mr. DeMarco recalls that during his ‘first couple of weeks’ at the agency, he attended a conference for supervision staffers organized to tell them ‘about great, new mortgage instruments’ – subprime loans, he says, with a sardonic chuckle.” But what exactly did he do about all this while it was in progress, other than chuckling sardonically?
The first twenty years of Edward DeMarco’s career illustrate the workings of big government to a T. They depict the “invisible handshake” between orthodox, mainstream economics and the welfare state that has replaced the “invisible hand” of the marketplace that economics used to celebrate.
The Mainstream Economist as Patsy for Politicians and Bureaucrats
Mainstream economists are trained to see themselves as “social engineers.” Like engineers, they are trained in advanced mathematics. Like engineers, they are trained as generalists in a wide-ranging discipline, but specialize in sub-disciplines – civil, mechanical and chemical engineering for the engineer, macroeconomics and microeconomics for the economist. Like engineers, economists hone their specialties even more finely into sub-categories like monetary economics, international economics, industrial organization, labor economics, financial economics and energy economics. Economists are trained to think of themselves are high theoreticians applying optimizing solutions to correct the failures of human society in general and markets in particular. They take it for granted that they will command both respect and power.
This training sets economists up to be exploited by practical men of power and influence. Lawyers utilize the services of economists as expert witnesses because economists can give quantitative answers to questions that are otherwise little more than blind guesses. Of course, the precision of those quantitative answers is itself suspect. If economists really could provide answers to real-world questions that are as self-assured and precise as they pretend on the witness stand, why would they be wasting their lives earning upper-middle-class money as expert witnesses? Why are they not fabulously rich from – let us say – plying those talents as traders in commodity or financial markets? Still, economists can fall back on the justified defense that nobody else can provide better estimates of (say) wages foregone by an injured worker or business profits lost due to tortious interference. The point is, though, that economists owe their status as experts to default; their claim on expertise is what the late Thorstein Veblen would call “ceremonial.”
When economists enter the realm of politics, they are the veriest babes in the savage wood. Politicians want to take other people’s money and use it for their own – almost always nefarious – purposes. They must present a pretense of legitimacy, competence and virtue. They will use anybody and everybody who is useful to them. Economists hold doctorates; they teach at universities and occupy positions of respect. Therefore, they are ideal fronts for the devices of politicians.
Politicians use economists. They hire them or consult with them or conspicuously call them to testify in Congress. This satisfies the politicians’ debt to competence legitimacy, competence, virtue and conscience (if they have one). Have they not conferred with the best available authority? And having done so, politicians go on to do whatever they intended to do all along. They either ignore the economist or twist his advice to suit their intentions.
That is exactly what happened to Edward DeMarco. His superiors gave him an assignment. Like a dutiful economist, he fulfilled it and sat back waiting for them to act on his advice. They acted, all right – by creating an oversight body that perverted DeMarco’s every word.
Deep down, mainstream economists envision themselves as philosopher kings – either as (eventual) authority figures or as Talleyrands, the men behind the throne who act as ventriloquists to power. When brought face-to-face with the bitter disillusion of political reality, they react either by retreating into academia in a funk or by retreating into their bureaucratic shell. There is a third alternative: occupational prostitution. Some economists abandon their economic principles and become willing mouthpieces for politicians. They are paid in money and/or prestige.
It is clear that DeMarco took the path of bureaucratic compliance. Despite the attempt of WSJ’s Kissel to glamorize his role, his career has obviously been that of follower rather than either leader or whistleblower. His current comments show that he harbors great resentment over being forced to betray his principles in order to make the kind of secure living he craved.
For our purposes, we should see him as the wrong man for the job of taxpayers’ defender. That job required an extraordinary man, not a bureaucrat.
The second career of Edward DeMarco – that of “DeMarco, DeMartyr” to the cause of fiscal responsibility and taxpayer interests, began after the housing collapse and financial panic of 2008. After bailout out Fannie and Freddie, Congress had to decide whether to close them down or reorganize them. They fell back on an old reliable default option – create a new agency, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, whose job it was to ride herd on the “toxic twins.” When FHFA’s director, James Lockhart, left in August, 2009, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner appointed DeMarco as acting director.
DeMarco began by raising executive salaries to stem the exodus of senior management. This got him bad press and hostility from both sides of the Congressional aisle. DeMarco set out to reintroduce the private sector to the mortgage market by reducing loan limits and shrinking the mortgage portfolios of Fannie and Freddie. But we shouldn’t get the wrong idea here – DeMarco wasn’t actually trying to recreate a free market in housing. “I wasn’t trying to price Fannie and Freddie out of the market so much as get the price closer so that the taxpayer capital is getting an appropriate rate of return and that, more important, we start selling off this risk,” DeMarco insists. He was just a meliorist, trying to fine-tune a more efficient economic outcome by the lights of the academic mainstream. Why, he even had the President and the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOV) on his side.
Ms. Kissel depicts DeMarco as a staunch reformer who was on his way to turning the housing market around. “Mr. DeMarco’s efforts started show results. Housing prices recovered, both [Fannie and Freddie] started to make money – lots of it – and private insurance eyed getting back into the market. Then in August 2012 the Obama administration decided to ‘sweep’ Fannie and Freddie’s profits, now and in the future, into the government’s coffers. The move left the companies unable to build up capital reserves, and shareholders sued.”
That was just the beginning. DeMarco was pressured by Congress and the administration to write down principal on the loans of borrowers whose homes were “underwater;” e.g., worth less at current market value than the value remaining on the mortgage. He also opposed creation of a proposed housing trust fund (or “slush fund,” as Kissel aptly characterizes it). Apart from the obvious moral hazard involved in systematically redrawing contracts to favor one side of the transaction, DeMarco noted the hazard to taxpayers in giving mortgagees – 80% of whom were still making timely payments – an incentive to default or plead hardship in order to benefit financially. How could mortgage markets attract investment and survive in the face of this attitude?
This intelligent evaluation won him the undying hatred of “members of Congress [and] President Obama’s liberal allies [including] White House adviser Van Jones [who] told the Huffington Post “you could have the biggest stimulus program in America by getting rid of one person;” namely, DeMarco. “Realtors, home builders, the Mortgage Bankers Association, insured depositories and credit unions” fronted for the White House by pressuring DeMarco to “degrade lending standards” to the least creditworthy borrowers – a practice that epitomized the housing bubble at its frothiest. “Protestors organized by progressive groups showed up more than once outside [DeMarco's] house in Silver Spring, MD, demanding his ouster. A demonstration in April last year brought out 500 picketers with ‘Dump DeMarco’ signs and 15-foot puppets fashioned to look like him. ‘My first reaction was of course one of safety,’ [said DeMarco]. ‘When I first saw them, I was standing a few feet from the window of a ground-level family room and they’re less than 10 feet way through this pane of glass, and it was a crowd of people so big I couldn’t tell how many people were out there. And then all the chanting and yelling started.’ His wife had gone to pick up their youngest daughter…’so I had to get on the phone and tell her ‘Don’t come.’ Then he called the police, who eventually cleared the scene. ‘It was unsettling,’ he says. ‘I think it was meant to be unsettling… They wanted me to start forgiving debt on mortgages.’” This is what Ms. Kissel calls “the multibillion-dollar do-over,” to which “Mr. DeMarco’s resistance made him unpopular in an administration that was anxious to refire the housing market.” Ms. KIssel’s metaphor of government as arsonist is the most gripping writing in the article.
Epilogue at FHFA
Edward DeMarco was the “acting” director at FHFA. The Senate capitulated to pressure for his removal by approving Mel Watt, Majority Leader Harry Reid’s pick, as permanent director. Watt immediately began implementing the agenda DeMarco had resisted. DeMarco had successfully scheduled a series on increases in loan-guarantee fees as one of a series of measures to entice private insurers back into the market. Watt delayed them. He refused to lower loan limits for Fannie and Freddie from their $625,000 level. He directed the two companies to seek out “underserved, creditworthy borrowers;” i.e., people who can’t afford houses. He assured the various constituencies clamoring for DeMarco’s ouster that “government will remain firmly in control of the mortgage market.”
DeMarco’s valedictory on all this is eye-opening in more ways than one. Reviewing what Ms. Kissel primly calls “government efforts to promote affordable housing,” DeMarco dryly observes, “‘Let’s say it was a failed effort…To me, if you go through a 50-year period, and you do all these things to promote housing, and the homeownership rate is [the same as it was 50 years ago], I think the market’s telling you we’re at an equilibrium.’ If we assume “that only government can foster homeownership among people ‘below median income,’ that ‘suggests a troubling view of markets themselves.’”
And now the whole process is starting all over again. “If we have another [sic] recession, if there’s some foreign crisis that …affects our economy, it doesn’t matter whatever the instigating event is, the point is that if we have another round of house-price declines like we’ve had, we’re going erode most of that remaining capital support.” Characteristically, he refuses to forthrightly state the full implications of his words, which are: We are tottering on the brink of full-scale financial collapse.
Edward DeMarco: Blackboard Economist
The late Nobel laureate Ronald Coase derided what he called “blackboard economists” – the sort who pretended to solve practical problems by proposing a theoretical solution that assumed they possessed information they didn’t and couldn’t have. (Usually the solution came in the form of either mathematical equations or graphical geometry depicted on a classroom blackboard, hence the term.)
Was Coase accusing his fellow economists of laziness? Yes and no. Coase believed that transactions costs were a key determinant of economic outcomes. Instead of investigating transactions costs of action in particular cases, economists were all too prone to assume those costs were either zero (allowing markets to work perfectly) or prohibitive (guaranteeing market failure). Coase insisted that this was pure laziness on the part of the profession.
But information isn’t just lying around in the open waiting for economists to discover it. One of Coase’s instructors at the London School of Economics, future Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek, pointed out that orthodox economic theory assumed that everybody already knew all the information needed to make optimal decisions. In reality, the relevant information was dispersed in fragmentary form inside the minds of billions of people rather than concentrated in easily accessible form. The market process was not a mere formality of optimization using given data. Instead, it was markets that created the incentives and opportunities for the generation and collation of this fragmented, dispersed information into usable form.
Blackboard economists were not merely lazy. They were unforgivably presumptuous. They assumed that they had the power to effectuate what could only be done by markets, if at all.
That lends a tragic note to Ms. Kissel’s assurance that “Mr. DeMarco isn’t against government support for housing – if done properly.” After spending his career as “the loneliest man in government” while fighting to stem the tide of the housing bubble, Edward DeMarco now confesses that he doesn’t oppose government interference in the housing market after all! The problem is that the government didn’t ask him how to go about it – they didn’t apply just the right optimizing formula, didn’t copy his equations off the blackboard.
And when President Obama and Treasury Secretary Geithner and the housing lobbyists and the realtors and builders and mortgage bankers and lenders and progressive ideologues hear this explanation, what is their reaction? Do they smack their foreheads and cry out in dismay? Do they plead, “Save us from ourselves, Professor DeMarco?”
Not hardly. The mounted barbarians run roughshod over Mr. DeMarco waving his blackboard formula and leave him rolling in the dust. They then park their horses outside Congress and testify that “See? He’s in favor of government intervention, just as we are – we’re just haggling about the price.” Politicians with a self-interested agenda correctly view any attempt at compromise as a sign of weakness, an invitation to “let’s make a deal.” It invokes contempt rather than respect.
That is exactly what happened to Edward DeMarco. He is left licking the wounds of 25 years of government service and whining about the fact that the fact that politicians are self-interested, that government regulators do not really regulate but in fact serve the interests of the regulated, that the political left wing will stop at nothing, including physical intimidation and force.
No spit, Spurlock. We are supposed to stand up and cheer for a man who is only now learning this after spending 25 years in the belly of the savage beast? Whose valiant efforts at reform consisted of recommending optimizing nips and tucks in the outrageous government programs he supervised? Whose courageous farewell speech upon being run out of office, a la Douglas MacArthur, is “I’m not against government support for housing if done properly?”
Valedictory for Edward DeMarco
The sad story of Edward DeMarco is surely one more valuable piece of evidence confirming the theory of big government as outlined in this space. Those who insist that government is really full of honest, hard-working, well-meaning people full of idealistic good intentions doing a dirty job the best they can will now have an even harder time saying it with a straight face. It is one thing when big government opposes exponents of laissez faire; we expect bank robbers to shoot at the police. But gunning down an innocent bystander for shaking his fist in reproof shows that the robber is a hardened killer rather than a starving family man. When the welfare state steamrolls over an Edward DeMarco’s efforts to reform it at the margins, it should be clear to one and all that big government is rotten to the core.
Even so, the fact that Edward DeMarco was and is an honest man who thought he was doing good does not make him a hero. Edward DeMarco is not a martyr. He is a cautionary example. The only way to counteract big government is to oppose it openly and completely by embracing free markets. Anything less fails while giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Failure coupled with career suicide can only be redeemed by service to the clearest and noblest of principles.