DRI-168 for week of 5-17-15: Who Killed the Amtrak 8?

An Access Advertising EconBrief: 

Who Killed the Amtrak 8?

At 9:21 PM on Tuesday, May 12, 2015, Amtrak Northeast Regional passenger train 188 was proceeding northeast en route from Washington, D.C. to New York City. Specifically, it was traveling through Philadelphia a few miles north of 30th Street station in an area called Frankford Junction. Passing through a short stretch of eastbound track, it came to a fairly sharp northeast curve. The speed limit for a train entering the curve was 50 mph. According to the train’s “black box,” or data recorder, it was traveling at 106 mph as it entered the curve. The train’s engineer apparently applied emergency brakes immediately after reaching the curve, but a few seconds later – the point at which the data recorder stopped receiving data – the train had slowed only to 102 mph.

The reason the data recorder ceased operations was that the train derailed at that point. Seven people were killed at the crash site and one died subsequently; around thirty others were hospitalized with injuries of varying severity. The dead included the CEO of a technology firm and a naval-academy midshipman.

Reactions were predictable. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter solemnly, somberly lamented the tragedy. Federal-government regulators stressed the desirability of transportation safety and passage of time necessary to decelerate a train. And, most predictable of all, politicians and political commentators placed blame on their political opponents.

Murdering Republicans Strike Again

An activist liberal policy group called “Agenda Project Action Fund” made a video giving their version of the events leading up to and including the derailment. It was titled “Republican Cuts Kill Again.” The “cuts” referred to were budget cuts by the U.S. Congress, a majority of whose members are currently Republican. An author named Josh Israel of “Think Progress” wrote an article titled “Currently Available Technology May Have Prevented Fatal Amtrak Crash, But Congress Never Funded It.” Politico.com chipped in with the headline “House panel votes to cut Amtrak budget hours after deadly crash.” Rep. Nita Lowey sententiously volunteered that “starving rail of funding will not enable safer train travel” – without, of course, mentioning that the combined federal and state Amtrak budgets have increased every year since 2008.

The immediate questions that arise are: What is this “currently available technology?” Why didn’t Congress fund it? But that doesn’t begin to exhaust the relevant sources of curiosity. How long has the technology been available? Why is Congressional funding even an issue in the first place, since Amtrak is nominally a for-profit corporation? Most importantly of all, what is the optimal framework for providing transportation services in general and passenger-rail services in particular – and how does Amtrak fit into that framework?

What is Amtrak and Why are People Saying These Terrible Things About It?

“Amtrak” is a hybrid name for the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. It is one of those centaur-like organizations common to modern big government – a nominally for-profit corporation that is nevertheless publicly funded. It receives annual appropriations from the federal government that have averaged around $1.4 billion in recent years. It also receives annual funding from various state-level sources, particularly about 14 state governments and the three largest Canadian provinces.

Amtrak serves 46 U.S. states and those three Canadian provinces. But the bulk of its business is provided in what is called the “Northeast Corridor” of the U.S. Although Amtrak’s routes comprise over 500 destinations, more than two-thirds of its nearly 31 million passengers come from the ten largest metropolitan areas in the U.S.; 83% travel routes of less than 400 miles.

Amtrak began operations on May 1, 1971. Today it runs over 300 trains per day across 21,000 miles of track. It has over $2 billion in annual revenue. But it has yet to turn a profit. It has always required subsidies. During the Reagan administration, these subsidies hit an annual low of $600 million before rising again subsequently. They have waxed and waned, but state-level subsidies have recently tended to compensate for cuts at the federal level. Government has also provided capital subsidies for investment; this explains why the left wing can call for Congress to fund safety improvements.

Although Congress provided limited authorization for Amtrak to deviate from labor-union agreements in the late 1990s, Amtrak has long employed union labor. It negotiates with 14 separate unions and has 24 separate agreements with those unions. For many decades under federal regulation by the ICC, the railroad business was a classic case of “featherbedding,” or the employment of superfluous workers in union-protected jobs. This remains true today with Amtrak. It is no coincidence that Amtrak’s national headquarters is Washington, D.C.

Amtrak is a lightning rod for political controversy. The left wing loves it because mass transit is a sacred cow of both the old left and environmentalists. The fact that Amtrak is horrendously inefficient is politically advantageous to the left because it means that it employs more labor than necessary to produce a given output – the very thing that outrages any competent economist delights the left wing.

It is true that left-wingers cite cost comparisons claiming that train travel is the most efficient form of passenger transportation. Unfortunately for their argument, the comparisons are bogus. They use “on-time” as a criterion for comparing airlines and trains while rigging the definitions to allow trains absurd margins of lateness. Even more telling is the fact that they completely ignore the element of consumer demand. The reason most people do not ride trains is the same reason that they prefer to drive automobiles – cars provide point-to-point transportation and maximum personal convenience. This economizes on the value of an individual’s time. Since we are all mortal and have limited hours in the day and in our lifetime, this is a vast benefit to us. But this is completely ignored in the cost comparisons claiming superiority for train travel. When economists conduct the comparisons and account for human time preference, this claimed superiority for mass transit vanishes.

The right wing hates Amtrak, but that doesn’t mean that it is unpopular with Republicans. Amtrak is popular in the most populous parts of the country, which means that most of the geographic U.S. (but a minority of the population) is subsidizing a relatively small part of the country (but a majority of the population). Consequently, Republicans – most of whom have the political backbone of invertebrates – tend to support subsidies. (This is particularly true in the House of Representatives, which is based on population.) How else have they continued, year after year after year? Instead of cutting Amtrak loose or voting for privatization, Republicans content themselves with rhetorical volleys against it and cosmetic measures designed to “make it work better.”

The “Currently Available Technology”

The “currently available technology” referred to by the liberal activist group is the Positive Train Control (PTC) system. It uses a combination of radio signals and GPS technology to pinpoint the position of all trains. Not only can slow speeding trains, it can also prevent collisions between trains, prevent trains from proceeding through wrongly positioned switches and prevent trains from entering work zones. In other words, PTC is an all- (or at least, multi-)purpose train safety system.

In 2008, Amtrak suffered a derailment in California with loss of life. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Cal), one of the most powerful Senate Democrats, did not let this crisis go to waste. She seized the chance to push through legislation mandating full installation of PTS for both passenger and freight railroad systems in the U.S. by 2015.

So what, many readers are doubtless thinking to themselves? Isn’t that the way the system is supposed to work? Isn’t this a victory for big government, the regulatory state?

Not hardly. Just the opposite, in fact.

Why PTS Is DOA

To an economist, the first thing that pops into mind is the question: If PTC is the greatest thing since sliced bread, why does Congress have to mandate its adoption? After all, freight railroads have been an extremely successful industry for years. Those ads touting their success in squeezing efficiency from train fuel are not hyperbole. Warren Buffett didn’t buy Burlington Northern because he thought its management was brain-dead. Why in the world wouldn’t the industry rush to adopt PTC if it were the last word in safety, since safety is vital to any successful freight operation?

The answer to that question was provided by the Reason Foundation. Thanks to the expertise of its founder, Robert Poole, the Foundation has long been recognized as the ranking expert in transportation. Policy analyst Baruch Feigenbaum gave his readers the lowdown on PTC.

The Federal Railroad Administration performed a cost-benefit study on PTC technology. It found a projected benefit range (discounted present value) of $0-$400 million. But the cost was $13 billion. Whoops. That means that for every $1 of (maximum) benefit, it cost $20 to install.

But because Congress, in its infinite wisdom, forced both passenger and freight railroads to install it, the entire railroad business has been laboriously slaving away at it for the last seven years. Of course, nobody is too crazy about throwing money down this rathole. The use of radio signals requires coordination with the FCC, and Amtrak, which can’t even coordinate with itself well enough to make a profit, is finding that difficult. Then there are the various regulatory hurdles. Yes, that’s right – the same government which has legislatively mandated the adoption of PTC is throwing up regulatory hurdles to it in the form of environmental and historic-preservation review for each of the 20,000 required communications antennas in the system. This has led to a year-long moratorium on installation, according to Association of American Railroads’ CEO Edward Hamberger in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

But..uh, well, at least PTC is better than nothing, right? Wouldn’t we be stuck with no safety at all if we hadn’t passed that unbelievably dumb, wildly wasteful law? Apparently that’s what the political left wants us to believe; that is its intellectual fall-back position when confronted with the facts about PTC. Presumably, that is as far as the average person’s thinking goes on the subject.

But the inherent meaning of cost-benefit analysis is that “cost” refers to foregone alternatives. When cost exceeds benefit, there are better, more beneficial ways of spending the money than on the project being analyzed because the foregone alternatives represent benefits available elsewhere.

And in this particular case, some of those benefits are alternative safety projects within the railroad industry itself.

ATC – A Better, Lower-Cost Alternative

Both Feigenbaum and Hamberger describe another type of railroad safety technology now in use. Amtrak and freight railroads currently utilize a type of safety technology that relates specifically to speeding trains. It is called “Automatic Train Control” (ATC). It is installed on the tracks and sends signals to trains telling them what the speed limit is, allowing the train to automatically slow itself before reaching the speed-change point. In short, it is a mechanism for eliminating the particular type of human (engineer) error apparently responsible for the Philadelphia derailment. It would have prevented the Philadelphia accident.

It is quite true that ATC handles only this particular type of error; it lacks the all-encompassing scope of PTC. But ATC has the advantage of being relatively cheap and easy to install. We know this because after the recent Philadelphia derailment, Amtrak quietly installed ATC on the section of track where the accident occurred. It accomplished the installation in one weekend.

Nor is this the only type of alternative safety improvement to ponder. Marc Scribner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute recently noted that about 270 people die every year in accidents at train crossings. Why not take some of that $13 billion and devote it instead to improving crossing safety in various low-cost ways, thereby saving dozens of lives every year instead of 8-10 lives every 7 years or so?

Both Amtrak and private freight railroads have installed ATC. Why haven’t they completed that installation? Well, they both labor under the burden of meeting mandatory legal deadlines for which they will eventually be fined when 2015 expires without completion of the PTC system. Hamberger estimates 2018 as the PTC completion date, with another two years necessary for “testing and validation.”

Who Killed the Amtrak 8? 

Given the facts as outlined above, it is obvious who killed the Amtrak 8. Big government and the regulatory state killed them. Even Amtrak might have had the corporate brains to install ATC throughout the Northeast Corridor – by far its biggest revenue generator and arguably profitable in its own right – were it not faced with the overwhelming burden of having to install PTC.

This verdict is seconded by Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins in his latest column (WSJ, 05/20/2015, “How Congress Railroaded the Railroads”). “Is there a more absurd technology than positive train control, which Congress imposed as an unfunded mandate on railroads in 2008, and which supposedly would have prevented last week’s Philly Amtrak crash? Except it didn’t since its implementation has been draggy and its design so clearly inferior to cheaper, faster, more up-to-date solutions.”

Even beyond this, though, is the decisive point relating to the fate of passenger rail had big government not established and continually sustained Amtrak in the first place.

A World Without Amtrak

When Lyndon Johnson succeeded John F. Kennedy in the White House, he recognized that Kennedy’s assassination had created an extraordinary mandate for change. Johnson was perhaps the century’s premier legislative spearhead, and he essentially created the regulatory welfare state that presides over the country today. Johnson predicted that it would take 50 years to determine the success or failure of his “experiment” in social policy. A half-century later, we can deliver the verdict that the welfare state is imploding not just in the U.S., but worldwide.

Similarly, forty-four years should be sufficient to pronounce Amtrak a failure. Its infrastructure is ramshackle, its finances are a mess and its organization is a shambles. Amtrak’s only positive feature is a core constituency that leaves open the possibility of a profitable passenger rail service. That constituency, in the “Northeast Corridor” of America, boasts a population density roughly ten times greater than the rest of the U.S. This makes it possible for a for-profit, private-sector business to identify and isolate this customer base. In no sense is passenger-rail service a “public good” in the classical economic sense; it is neither non-exclusive nor non-rival.

Thus, the obvious solution to the problems plaguing Amtrak, of which safety is merely the one occupying front-pages currently, is to end its public subsidies, acknowledge its bankruptcy and sell off its assets. This includes its rights of way, which would enable a privatized successor to operate passenger rail for the benefit of the large number of people in the relatively confined area where that business is economically feasible.

To be fair, it should be noted that some are skeptical of privatization not on principle but as a practical matter. Like Holman Jenkins of The Wall Street Journal, they think the profits of the Northeast Corridor are overestimated and costs of service underestimated. Variable costs should take into account incremental wear and tear on infrastructure, which are now obscured by capital subsidies. Congress has given Amtrak preferential right-of-way over freight traffic on lines owned by the freight railroads – another implicit subsidy that would vanish under privatization. Various regional commuter transporters now tacitly agree not to compete with Amtrak, which is still another hidden subsidy. Could a privatized rail carrier still serve the Northeast Corridor without these subsidies? The only way to know is to try it and see.

To be workable, privatization would demand relief from the killing mandate currently crippling Amtrak and greatly hindering freight railroads – namely, the 2008 law mandating the adoption of the already-obsolete and dreadfully expensive PTC. This would save hundreds, if not thousands of lives, and improve life for millions of people. The only losers would be regulators, politicians and, possibly, union members who would lose jobs and be forced to take lower-paying ones. The union members could be bought off through severance. The others would simply have to eat their losses. In fact, this is increasingly the choice that confronts us not merely in passenger rail but in the entire transportation system.

As things stand today, the American transportation system is a massive form of human sacrifice to the gods of government regulation and unionization. Tens of thousands of Americans lose their lives every year so that government regulators and union members can hold their jobs and earn more money than would otherwise be the case.

Let us hear from Holman Jenkins again: “Which brings us to another headline from the brave new world of self-driving vehicles. This month the truck maker Freightliner introduced a robotically controlled truck, licensed to operate on the roads of Nevada. Its onboard system, designed to relieve drivers of the monotony of motoring for hours down calm stretches of well-marked interstate, ‘never gets tired. It never gets distracted. It’s always at 100%,’ company executive Wolfgang Bernhard told the media.”

“Alas, Mr. Bernhard deflated expectations by predicting that, though the system is ready to roll today, deployment is likely five years off. ‘The biggest obstacle that we see is the regulatory framework'” [emphasis added].

“Five years may be optimistic: An unspoken burden for the future is the legacy of the Toyota travesty of 2010, in which congressmen and, most damningly, a head of the Transportation Department, whose agency knows better, preferred to allege an undetected electronic bug in Toyotas rather than acknowledge that drivers (i.e., voters) cause accidents by pressing the gas instead of the brake.”

“This scandal, hugely costly to Toyota and largely fabricated, has never been acknowledged or investigated by the government of the media…One big inconvenient precedent lies in its wake. As Toyota found, because it’s impossible to prove the nonexistence of a software bug, anytime there’s an accident involving a system in which software plays a role, the software will be blamed and the driver will be excused. Perhaps the only way forward, then, is to remove the driver altogether” [emphasis added].

Whether it is cars, planes or trains, the dirty little secret that nobody is willing to talk about is the driver – the source of almost all the deaths and injuries. Here we have a train traveling at 106 mph in a 50 mph zone and an engineer with a case of amnesia. Sure, there was a dent in the windshield and talk of a projectile. But the dent didn’t penetrate the windshield and there is no logical explanation for how a projectile would cause the train’s speed to double. Is a left-wing lawyer going to emerge claiming that the train’s engine was manufactured by Toyota? Or are we eventually going to wind up with “driver error” as the cause of the derailment? Once again, with trains as with planes and cars, self-driving is the ultimate way forward.

Holman Jenkins is now acknowledging what this space declared over two years ago with respect to self-driving cars and almost a year ago with respect to commercial aviation. Now the same chickens are roosting on the tracks of passenger rail. Big government and regulators are standing athwart technology and yelling “Stop!” while over 30,000 people are killed every year on the nation’s roads, hundreds die in each commercial air crash and hundreds more die annually in various forms of railroad accident.

Up to now, none dare call it murder. Yet Democrats get away with accusing Republicans of murder for the sin of holding a Congressional majority.

DRI-284 for week of 7-13-14: Why Big Government is Rotten to the Core: The Tale of the Taxpayers’ Defender Inside Federal Housing

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!

Yeah, right.

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.

DeMarco, DeMartyr

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.

DRI-312 for week of 9-29-13: Suppose They Gave a Government Shutdown and Nobody Cared?

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Suppose They Gave a Government Shutdown and Nobody Cared?

Midnight on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013 is the deadline for the shutdown of the federal government. That is the start of the new federal fiscal year. The U.S. Constitution specifies that Congress must authorize spending by the executive branch. Strange as it seems to a country by now inured to executive and regulatory high-handedness, the government cannot legally initiate operations by writing checks on its own hook. Fiscal delinquency, delay and deceit have long been the hallmarks of Congressional action, so it seems only fitting that Congress has failed to agree on the spending authorizations for departments that would get the federal government up and running in the New Year. And this year’s calendar offers a special treat, since the Oct. 17 deadline for default looms on the horizon as the next bureaucratic drop-dead date for civilization as we know it.

Amid the breathless media countdown to Armageddon, a sober pause for introspection is in order. How big an emergency is the federal-government shutdown, really? What underlying significance does a government shutdown have? How did we reach this position? Has the underlying economic significance of our situation been correctly conveyed by commentators and news media?

OMG! The Federal Government is About to Shut Down! Oh, Wait, Time for Vacation…

The attitude of Congressional representatives toward the prospect of government shutdown might best be compared to that of college students facing final exams. The exam schedule is announced at the beginning of the semester; indeed, it is printed in the course catalog distributed at registration. The course syllabus carefully explains the importance of the final to the student’s grade. The student knows the format of the exam, its location and exact time of day.

So, having had nearly four months to prepare and all the advance warning anybody could ask for, students are well versed, confident and unruffled in the waning days of the semester, right? On the night before the exam, they spend a short time reviewing basic ideas before retiring to get a good night’s sleep, to arise refreshed and eager to meet their task on final-exam day, don’t they? And they pass the exam with flying colors?

No, students generally seek out any excuse to avoid studying the material – and excuses emerge in profusion. As time passes and the semester ages, the knowledge of their approaching fate weighs on students’ minds, producing a buildup of anxiety and kinetic energy in their bodies. This demands an outlet, and late semester is a popular time for beer busts and other recreational modes of escape. The waning days before the final exam are spent in frantic efforts to complete course work and accomplish several months’ worth of study in a few days. The culmination of this crash program arrives on execution eve, when the students cram as many isolated facts as possible into their brain cells, relying on short-term memory to pinch-hit for solid comprehension. The surprising success rate of this modus operandi is owed less to its inherent effectiveness than to the grade inflation that has overwhelmed higher education in recent decades.

Anybody who expected their Congressional representative to behave in a more mature, sensible fashion than a college underclassman has been bitterly disillusioned by experience. Consider this latest example of budget brinkmanship.

The end of the fiscal year is not a national secret. Congress has known all year it was coming. The issues dividing the two major parties were well-known from the first day; ObamaCare has been a dinosaur-sized-bone of contention since its proposal and passage in 2010 and shocking reaffirmation by the Supreme Court in 2011. There was ample time to resolve differences or remove the legislation as a political roadblock to process.

As the year wound down, it became increasingly clear that opponents were eyeball to eyeball, each waiting for the others to blink. Now it was August, with only two months left in which to stave out a shutdown. When the going get tough, the tough… go on vacation – which was exactly what Congress did, for five weeks.

For the last week, leaders like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Republican Ted Cruz have suddenly come alive with frantic last-ditch efforts. Each side has crafted and passed proposals (in the Democrat-controlled Senate and the Republican House) that the other side has torpedoed. At this writing, we are down to the last-minute cramming… but it should not escape notice that Sen. Reid was not too appalled by the prospect of shutdown to leave town the weekend after superintending the defeat of Rep. Cruz’s proposal in the Senate.

A few of the more cynical commentators have observed that we have been down this road before without careening off the highway and down a mountainside into oblivion. One set of talking points refers to this as our third experience with actual shutdown, but this is far from true. In fact, the federal government has survived 19 previous shutdowns – 17 since 1977 alone, according to the Congressional Research Service. Most have lasted a few days; the most recent (and famous) one in 1996 lasted for 21 days. So much for the artificially contrived atmosphere of urgency surrounding this one, which has been another production of political theater brought to you by your national news media.

Is There a Point to the Shutdown? If So, What is It?

It should be obvious that the hype surrounding the shutdown is phony. Even if we make allowances for the timing coincidence of the fiscal-year dividing line and debt-ceiling deadline, the attention paid to the shutdown is out of all proportion to its real effects on American well-being. But even though the shutdown may be relatively innocuous in its effects, that does not make it a good idea. What does it accomplish – ostensibly or actually?

It goes without saying that detractors of the Tea Party and the Republican Congressional leadership foresee nothing good coming of the shutdown. Since these are the people who got America into the mess that now plagues it – or stood by while that happened – we can disregard their opinions.

If there is an overriding goal of those who drove the events leading to the shutdown, it is opposition to ObamaCare. This opposition has taken the form of attempts to “defund” it; that is, to deny the Obama Administration the money necessary to implement the program. Were this successful, the program would remain on the books de jure as law, but would be repealed de facto by the lack of funds to run it. The most direct means taken to achieve this end is by passing a spending authorization bill containing a rider that defunds the Affordable Care Act. The problem with this measure is that the President will never sign this bill; ObamaCare is the signature legislation of his presidency.

Plan B of the defunders has been to replace that defunding rider with one that delays implementation of ObamaCare provisions for individual citizens by one year. This is directly analogous to the delay instituted by the Obama administration itself for businesses; in effect, it simply gives private individuals the same one-year reprieve given to employers by the President himself. This measure not only has the virtue of symmetry but also of fairness and logistical convenience. It is not clear why the bill should be delayed for businesses and not for everybody else. The state exchanges that would enable individuals to acquire health insurance are not up and running anyway in several states, so this would give the system more time to iron out the kinks. And this delay is entirely legal, being instituted by the Congress and submitted for Presidential signature; the business delay was a flagrantly illegal action imposed by Presidential fiat.

But President Obama is not about to agree to this compromise measure, either. He knows that the longer ObamaCare is postponed, the longer opposition will have to build and the longer its defects will have to become manifest. Once in place, a national system this massive and bureaucratic will be almost impossible to dislodge if only due to the inertia that will set in. The President only delayed applying its business provisions out of direst necessity; everybody was so unprepared that imposition would have led to complete fiasco. So Obama wants to get half of ObamaCare going while the going is good – or at least feasible.

Republic Speaker of the House John Boehner is already confronted by panic in the ranks. Republican representatives have hardly faced the first unfriendly fire from the news media – accusing them of irresponsibly jeopardizing the welfare of the nation for their own petty political purposes – before bolting for cover. Boehner’s queries as he gives them the flat of his sword are: What is this all about if not standing on principle against the President’s program? If we can’t work for the repeal of a terrible law as soundly unpopular as ObamaCare, when will we ever oppose the President? If now isn’t the time to stand firm against policies that are spending the country into the ground and destroying the heritage of our children, when will a better time come around? Over 30 years ago, President Ronald Reagan asked: If not now, when? Well, we didn’t do it then. If we don’t reform the budget now, when?

And those are indeed the relevant questions. Most Republicans oppose ObamaCare, all right; they have enough political courage to stand up against a law when the polls proclaim it heavily unpopular. But ObamaCare is merely the tip of the spending iceberg; the entitlement programs lie jutting beneath the surface waiting to scuttle the most unsinkable of reformers. There is no sign of Republicans boarding icebreakers, kissing wives and children goodbye and signing on for the duration of the voyage to clear the sea lanes of entitlements.

And Now for Some Opinion Completely Different

Holman Jenkins of The Wall Street Journal is a commentator not noted for his sunny optimism. Nevertheless, his take on the federal-budget stalemate is decidedly more upbeat than others commonly bruited. “What if, 10 years ago, Greece had made itself a laughingstock, sacrificed its credibility, brought shame on itself – all phrases used against Washington this week – by shutting down its government because certain legislators saw ideological and electoral rewards to be gained from making a fuss over unsustainable spending? Greek TV hosts would have shouted ‘Athens is broken!'”

Instead, as Jenkins knows only too well, Greece went sleepily on its corrupt, lazy, insouciant way, only to collapse in a heap nearly a decade later. Meanwhile, Americans today “all shake a fist at Washington, denouncing its irresponsibility because politicians are ‘playing politics’ with the debt ceiling and government shutdown.” But “then again, politics is how we govern ourselves. It’s better than despotism not because each moment is a model of stately order and reason, because America is a diverse, fractious society. The only way it works is by the endless grinding out of political compromises amid shrieking and making threats and turning blue.”

Jenkins anticipates the typical facile rejoinder. “The usual suspects at this point will be stamping their feet and insisting the U.S. isn’t Greece, as if this is an insight. No country can borrow and spend infinite amounts of money, and no political system is immune to the incentive to keep trying anyway. Herein lies the real point that applies as much to Washington as to Athens.”

“It would be nice if today’s fight were genuinely about the future. Oh, wait, that’s exactly what the ObamaCare fight is about. By trying to stop a brand new entitlement before it gets started, in a country already palpably and indisputably committed to more entitlement spending than it wants to pay for, those radical House Republicans aren’t trying to chop current spending amid a sluggish recovery (however much one begins to doubt that pump-priming from Washington is the solution the economy needs). Those terrible House Republicans aren’t trying to force colleagues to commit painful votes to take away established goodies from established voting blocs – votes that neither Republicans nor Democrats have the slightest yearning to cast.”

“Those disgraceful House Republicans have made the fight exactly about the long term. Where’s the grudging approval from our Keynesian friends who constantly say immediate spending must be protected and reform saved for the long term?” Again, Jenkins knows full well that Keynesian economics is no longer a putatively consistent set of theoretical propositions; it is now a policy admonition in search of a theory and for sale to any political sponsor willing to fork over lucrative, visible jobs to Keynesian economists.

“Not only will there by more such shutdowns,” Jenkins predicts. “What passes for progress each time will be tiny – until it’s not. The 2011 sequester, which caused critics to engage in choruses of disapproval and the S&P to downgrade U.S. debt, set us on a path to today’s modestly smaller current deficits. This week’s peculiar fight may be resolved by a near-meaningless repeal of ObamaCare’s self-defeating medical-device tax – a teensy if desirable adjustment, having no bearing on the deficit tsunami that begins when the baby boomers start demanding their benefits.”

Jenkins’s peroration combines elements of Churchill and Pericles. “We are at the beginning of the beginning. Yet the birth pangs of entitlement reform that will one day inspire the world (as we did with tax reform in ’80s) may be what we’re witnessing.” Hence the title of the column: “Behind the Noise, Entitlement Reform.”

Too Little, Too Late

Holman Jenkins’s vision is seductive, but unconvincing. Its visceral appeal lies in its pragmatism and its familiarity. Pragmatism is the great American virtue. We have grown up learning to accept and adapt to incremental change. Surely the changes necessary to cope with the downsizing of the welfare state will be just one more set of adjustments – painful but bearable. How many times have we heard Cassandras prophesy doom? How many times has it appeared? This is apparently the comforting set of rationalizations that insulates us from the truth of our situation.

Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that a long series of small changes will be both timely and sufficient to our purpose. Not only has the Obama Administration’s fiscal policies shifted the velocity of fiscal decline to warp speed, but its monetary policies have changed our major problem from financial crisis to monetary collapse. Financial crisis is something that both individual countries and world systems recover from. Monetary collapse can lead to the destruction of a nation’s economy and the end of the civil order. We not only have to change our ways, we must reverse course by 180 degrees. And do it quickly.

It seems that Jenkins envisions entitlement reform from the austere perspective of an actuary contemplating the future of a program like Social Security. Tut-tut, the actuary admonishes, this program will be bankrupt in another 20 years or so. Well, in 20 years, a solid plurality of Wall Street Journal readers will be dead or near death. Quite a few will be financially independent of the program. Most of the rest view 20 years hence as imperceptibly distant – ample time to recover from the financial improvidence of youth.

But the real crisis on our trip planner is not actuarial. Social Security affects it long before it actually becomes insolvent because its unfunded status will be factored into the calculations of bond traders, credit-rating agencies and interest-rate setters. We may or may not be at Jenkins’s “beginning of the beginning,” but we are certainly not standing in the starting blocks in terms of debt. Government at every level is in hock up to its hairline. The private sector has been making a valiant effort to deleverage – and for its pains has caught hell from Keynesian economists who lecture us about the evils of saving in the middle of a recession. (Just prior to the Great Recession, the same people were decrying our “consumption binge” and running public-service ads begging us to save more.) American banks have trillions loitering in excess reserves, just spoiling for the chance to torch the value of the dollar at home and abroad. Foreign holders of dollars and dollar-denominated assets are dying for a convenient chance to unload them. Business forecasters need binoculars to view the upside potential of U.S. interest rates. And when interest rates skyrocket, interest payments on the federal debt will crowd out practically everything else on the docket, making the budget wars of today look like Sunday-school theology debates. The endpoint of this process is monetary collapse, when the U.S. dollar is abandoned as a medium of exchange, unit of account and store of value.

Oh, and just in case the foregoing doesn’t fill you with a sense of dread, there’s the little matter of international “currency war” to ponder. During the Great Depression, many nations used monetary expansion to deliberately trash the value of their own currencies. Their aim was to make their goods look cheap to foreigners, thereby hiking their number and value of their exports and increasing employment in their export industries. Since their depreciated domestic currency would also buy fewer imports, this would supposedly encourage the citizenry to buy fewer goods from abroad, thereby increasing domestic employment in import-competing industries. This game plan is well-known to economic historians as the “beggar thy neighbor” strategy. Its inherent flaw is that it can work if, and only if, only one nation employs it. When all or most nations do it simultaneously, the effects cancel each other out in the currency market and the only result is that international trade evaporates – which is roughly what did happen during the Depression. Since international trade is a good thing which makes practically everybody better off, its virtual elimination was a disaster for everybody. And guess what? The rest of the world, watching Ben Bernanke and the Fed at work creating money like there’s no tomorrow, may well suspect the U.S. of trying just this tactic. Whether they’re right or wrong is beside the point, since it is their belief that will determine whether they retaliate by starting a trade war that mimics the devastation of the 1930s.

It is barely possible that Congress might embark on a program of haphazard, gradual deficit reduction a la Jenkins. But a thoroughgoing reform of the process is not in the cards. Thus, the danger is not a collapse caused by a government shutdown. The danger is a collapse caused by the failure to shut the government down. It is government at all levels that has turned itself into a machine for spending citizens’ money to benefit employees without providing substantial benefits to the citizens. Since there is virtually no competition for government services, there is little or no way to gauge whether any government good or service is worth what we have to pay to get it. So government just keeps rolling along, like Old Man River, carrying us all along with the flow.

The mass delusion afflicting America is cognitive dissonance. Most of us agree with Jenkins that no government can increase spending indefinitely. Yet we do not admit that this requires our government to actually cut spending for the purposes that (we believe) benefit us – or, at least, we do not admit this necessity in our lifetime. The same people who normally consider government to be intrusive, inept and unproductive magically reverse their position 180 degrees and assume that government is efficient and productive when pursuing their pet project, benefitting them and saving the world from their latest hobgoblin. This is the politico-economic equivalent of William Saroyan’s lament that everybody had to die but he had always assumed that an exception would be made in his case.

The dissonance is actually three-sided. We fail to recognize not only its quantitative dimension but also its qualitative side – government’s utter failure to solve problems and produce things of value. Thus, the real entrenched constituency for big government is not its ostensible beneficiaries – the poor, downtrodden, minorities and such. It is the bureaucrats and their minions, who collect paychecks but whose real net contribution to the social product is negative.

Until this dissonance is dispelled, it is idle to blame politicians for acting true to form.