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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Moral Hazard in Mortgages

“The cherished American ideal of self-reliance has a flip side,” according to the New York Times. Before getting to the implications, or flip side, I want to fill out what informs this ideal. One could add to it the ideological stance that came into its own in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan, who declared that government is the problem. This implies that government should be minimized, and otherwise corrected as much as possible. Government is hardly to be viewed as the solution. This is the legacy of the Kennedy assassinations of the 1960s, the Vietnam War, and Watergate as well as Ford’s pathetic “WIN” buttons and Carter’s micromanagement and failure in regard to the hostages in Iran. I was not old enough for the Kennedys’ truncated optimism (and that of Martin Luther King) to resonate; I knew the political (and economic) pessimism of the 1970s and the energizing “fix it” mentality of the early 1980s. Of course, Reagan’s “new federalism” failed, as did his aim to balance the federal budget, and the jury is still out on whether “peace through strength” pushed the USSR off the cliff.

Reagan is perhaps best known to historians and political theorists for having formally shifted the political paradigm’s default to “government is the problem” after at least a decade of political and economic paralysis. Dovetailing with the American ideal of self-reliance, the default on government was still a headwind for Barak Obama as he found he had to capitulate even on a “public option” for health insurance—relying instead on the same private insurers who had been excluding pre-existing conditions and otherwise cancelling policies at the advent of a new illness. In other words, that the health-insurance lobby could still call the shots at the White House suggests the continuance of the headwind running against government. Relatedly, in the 1990s Bill Clinton had to give up on his vision of using government for grand purposes because the American people were “not there.” Clinton found in the presidency instead a plethora of smaller accomplishments, such as adding to local police forces and otherwise acting as the mayor of an empire as if it took a village. He had figured out how to avoid the headwinds.

With this background in mind, we can now get to the matter of the implications of self-reliance and “government is the problem” as regards moral hazard. In economic terms, it refers to “the undue risks that people are apt to take if they don’t have to bear the consequences. In other words, if the money is free, why not spend it on a designer purse?” Because of moral hazard, backed up by the ideal of self-reliance and the default of “government is the problem,” there is significant discomfort with the idea of bailouts and safety nets in American society. According to the New York Times, the notion that even a small portion of aid even to homeowners who are “under water” (i.e., they own more on their mortgages than their houses are now worth in terms of equity on the market) might find its way to the undeserving (or cheats) “can be enough to scuttle support, or restrict help so drastically that few can use it.” Adding to this sentiment, typically by vested interests, is the sanctity of contract dogma. This means that a mortgage borrower is obligated to pay whatever he or she had agreed to pay regardless of changed circumstances either of the borrower or the housing market.

The New York Times reports that bankers “say that generously easing loan terms or reducing mortgages outright would only encourage homeowners who can pay to pretend they can’t. It would also, the bankers say, send a dangerous message: a financial commitment isn’t really a commitment.” Additionally, homeowners “who keep paying their mortgages, even if their homes have lost value, reasonably wonder why neighbors who weren’t as responsible are getting help.” Behind both of these concerns is resentment that someone else might get something too easily (i.e., beyond that which is deserved and what one can get oneself). It is not a very laudable mentality, psychologically and ethically. In other words, it is rather small. Even worse, bankers who themselves received bonuses paid for in part from bailouts were keeping borrowers from also being bailed out. It is as if the financial crisis of 2008 hit only one side of the ledger.

Shaun Donovan, the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said that although there is was a “nugget of truth” to the moral hazard argument, “only about 10 or 15 percent of Americans who can still pay their mortgages try to walk away from their debt. Most troubled homeowners, like the Katrina victims, are genuinely hard up.” Accordingly, the bank bailout should have been oriented to them. Had it been, the banks’ balance sheets would not have been toxic and “two birds” would have been “killed” with “one stone.”

According to the New York Times, the “specter of moral hazard haunts a basic tension in American life: to what extent are people responsible for their own problems? The more trouble you’re in, moral hazard suggests, the less we should help.” This relationship is the inverse of what it should be. That is, moral hazard should not apply as if survival itself were conditional. I am perhaps as innately American as they come, being born and raised in the Midwest, or “heartland of America.” Even so, when I hear politicians or others refer to others’ survival as somehow conditional (typically as based on a work history), I sense that the ideological belief is distinctly American. I revolt at the sheer self-centeredness of the people expressing the view and I reject the validity of the claim itself. For a society in which survival is deemed to be inherently conditional (as defined by people whose survival is not an issue) is no society at all. Put another way, if we all knew in the back of our heads that were we to fall on hard times and not be able to provide for our own shelter and food without taking them from others (i.e., remaining in society), life for all of us would be a little lighter and less existentially anxious. This is not to say that everyone has a right to a t-bone steak once a week or a mansion. The moral hazard argument conflates these with sustenance needs.

If a person is seriously under water, the sheer depth naturally dwarfs any consideration of culpability. If someone is barely breathing or starving, a natural sentiment of sympathy orients others to the question of how the plight may be quickly assuaged. I submit that the bailed out banker actively resisting any assistance for homeowners near foreclosure has a rather unnatural “hardness of heart,” or hardness more generally. To make aid conditional where basic necessities like shelter, food and medical care hang in the balance is to apply moral hazard beyond its ken. This overreach operates at the expense of human rights.

Essentially, applying moral hazard conditionality where survival itself is at issue for others is to presume a godlike position for oneself. In other words, the propensity to judge others’ extent of deservingness is premised on self-idolatrous pride. Given the nature of self-idolatry, it is no surprise that bankers who have benefited themselves (as well as their banks) would apply moral hazard to their counterparties but not to themselves. The conditionality does not apply to those bankers, whose lobby—which Sen. Durbin said owns Congress—makes sure of it. The resulting asymmetry can be interpreted as a reflection of the bias in the “self-reliance” and “government is the problem” default—a game-board that is tilted toward the rich because they can afford to be self-reliant and scoff at government as part of any solution to societal ills.

Ideally, a social contract, and thus a society, should be in balance, with basic human rights being beyond the reach of the inevitable swings in the political-ideological pendulum (i.e., the headwinds). Where the latter are definitive (and exclusive), sustenance needs, being an inherent human right, become valid outside of societal limits. In other words, where moral hazard is applied to basic shelter and food needs, people needing them have the inalienable human right to take them without regard to societal rules bearing on them. Even in political theory, possession of property is salient. Thomas Hobbes refers to the right of self-preservation as going beyond any law. Is extending moral hazard to cover necessities worth making society (and its laws) conditional?

Source:
Shaila Dewan, “Moral Hazard: A Tempest-Tossed Idea,” The New York Times, February 26, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/26/business/moral-hazard-as-the-flip-side-of-self-reliance.html