Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"Bouncing ball politics"

What's bouncing ball politics? Thomas Sowell explains this brilliant metaphor:

If you are driving along and suddenly see a big red rubber ball come bouncing out into the street, you might want to put your foot on the brake pedal, because a small child may well come running out into the street after it.

We all understand that an inexperienced young child who has his mind fixed on one thing may ignore other things that are too dangerous to be ignored. Unfortunately, too much of what is said and done in politics is based on the same tunnel vision pursuit of some "good thing," in utter disregard of the repercussions.

For years, home ownership was a big "good thing" among both liberal Democrats like Congressman Barney Frank and Senator Christopher Dodd, on the one hand, and moderate Republicans like President George W. Bush on the other hand.

Raising the rate of home ownership was the big red bouncing ball that they pursued out into the street, in utter disregard of the dangers.

A political myth has been created that no one warned of those dangers. But among the many who did warn were yours truly in 2005, Fortune and Barron's magazines in 2004 and Britain's The Economist magazine in 2003. Warnings specifically about the dangerous roles of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were made by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in 2005 and by Secretary of the Treasury John W. Snow in 2003.

Many, if not most, of the children who go running out into the street in pursuit of their bouncing ball may have been warned against this by their parents. But neither small children nor politicians always heed warnings.

Politicians are of course more articulate than small children, so the pols are able to not only disregard warnings but ridicule them. That was what was done by Congressman Barney Frank and Senator Christopher Dodd, among many other politicians who made the pursuit of higher home ownership rates the holy grail.

In pursuit of those higher home ownership rates, especially among low-income people and minorities, the many vast powers of the federal government -- from the Federal Reserve to bank regulatory agencies and even the Department of Justice, which issued threats of anti-discrimination lawsuits -- were used to force banks and other lenders to lower their standards for making mortgage loans.

Lower lending standards of course meant higher risks of default. But these risks -- and the chain reactions throughout the whole financial system -- were like the traffic ignored by a small child dashing out into the street in pursuit of their bouncing ball. The whole economy got hit when the housing boom became a housing bust, and we are still trying to recover, years later.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"Did you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?"

After a woman described how she left her now-destroyed house, narrowly escaping the Oklahoma tornado which would have killed her and her infant son if she had followed the family's standard procedure of waiting in the bathroom, Wolf Blitzer asked her whether she thanked God that she and her infant son weren't hurt. (The husband/father was safely out of town at the time.) This led to a mildly amusing moment when she responded that she's an atheist.

Just once I'd like to see a TV host ask someone who survived a natural disaster unscathed: do you blame God for the fact that it killed, maimed, and trapped other people?

(You can watch the full interview here — it's actually a very touching testament to the ingenuity and resilience and goodness of ordinary people.)

Monday, May 20, 2013

The forgotten lesson from the Clinton impeachment and the 1998 midterms

Ramesh Ponnuru explains why the trifecta of ongoing news stories that are widely seen as harmful to President Obama (Benghazi, IRS, and Associated Press) might not help Republicans in the midterm elections:

The biggest danger for Republicans in giving themselves over to scandal mania is one that the conventional retelling of the Clinton impeachment neglects. Republicans didn’t lose seats simply because they overreached on Clinton’s perjury. It is true that his impeachment was unpopular, and public approval of the Republicans sank as they pursued it. Still, only 5 percent of voters in the 1998 election told exit pollsters that the scandal had played a role in their decision, and Republicans got a majority of those voters.

Social Security was the top issue for more than twice as many voters, and Republicans lost that issue by 18 percentage points. Even more voters cared about education, which Republicans lost by 34 points. They lost on health care and the economy by similar margins.

For the most part, Republicans didn’t campaign on impeachment in 1998: They didn’t say, “Vote for me and I’ll do my level best to oust Clinton.” Their strategy was more passive. They were counting on the scandal to motivate conservatives to vote while demoralizing liberals. So they didn’t try to devise a popular agenda, or to make their existing positions less unpopular. That’s what cost them -- that, and the mistake of counting on statistics about sixth-year elections, which also bred complacency.

Republicans have similar vulnerabilities on the issues now. They have no real health-care agenda. Voters don’t trust them to look out for middle-class economic interests. Republicans are confused and divided about how to solve the party’s problems. What they can do is unite in opposition to the Obama administration’s scandals and mistakes. So that’s what they’re doing. They’re trying to win news cycles when they need votes.

Congressional Republicans were right to press for hearings on all of these issues. But investigations of the administration won’t supply them with ideas. They won’t make the public trust Republicans. They won’t save them from themselves.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Jacques Barzun on life

This is Charles Barzun (a University of Virginia law professor) writing to his grandfather, Jacques Barzun, who died last year at age 104:

[F]or all the words spent on your achievements, I still felt as though the tributes had missed something. What they failed to capture was the way in which you used the written word not only to define and distill cultures past and present, but also to reach out, to lift up, and—for lack of a better phrase—to establish a human connection. . . .

In 1997 I had taken a job in San Francisco at an Internet media company. For a while I performed well enough as director of product development, but then in the winter of 2002 I wrote to you out of a genuine crisis of identity. The crisis had been partly brought on by the events of 9/11 and partly by my own discovery that I could not have cared less about my job. I had started reading philosophy again for the first time in years and wanted to tell you this: "More than anything," I wrote, "I am trying to find that which is true, permanent, and enduring in myself—to find or create (which is it?) my life philosophy of sorts. So much philosophical inquiry has been devoted to deducing or discerning that which is true, timeless, or eternal in the universe. For me, merely finding the eternal for me, in my lifetime, would be sufficient!"

I will never forget your response. You immediately demonstrated that you knew exactly what I meant. Such a "spiritual search," you reassured me, was not at all unusual for someone my age: "It really had been brewing for some time and the event that triggered your new awareness was certainly of a magnitude to justify the ensuing disarray. You may be assured that it is not damaging or permanent, but fruitful of good things." You then continued:

"When you have worked through it, by further reflection and some decision as to the immediate future it will turn into something like a path marked on a map, to be followed for a good while and possibly for the rest of your life. To put it another way, you will have made a Self, which is indeed a desirable possession. A Self is interesting to oneself and others, it acts as a sort of rudder in all the vicissitudes of life, and it thereby defines what used to be known as a career."

Even now I find it hard to describe the effect your words had on me. Suffice it to say that my life, or, more accurately, the way I lived it, took on a different cast. I became more conscious of what I was doing and why I was doing it. . . .

Amazingly, you played such an immense role in my life almost entirely through your letters. They were just words, but they were words written with care and attention and with the thought of a particular individual in mind. It occurs to me that for much of your own lifetime, there was nothing unusual about writing letters on a regular basis. Now, of course, that seems like an antiquated craft. No one writes letters anymore, and that includes me, now that you are gone. . . . Then again, everything I write that requires some degree of thought and reflection is a letter to you. So in that sense our conversation continues.