Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Biden: "Gird Your Loins, I'm About to Put My Foot in My Mouth Again"

At a recent fundraiser in San Francisco, Joe Biden dazzled his audience with his grasp of foreign policy: "Mark my words, " he said. "Within the next, first six months of this administration, if we win, they're going to -- we're going to face a major international challenge. Because they're going to want to test him, just like they did young John Kennedy. They're going to want to test him."

Biden was essentially (albeit inadvertently) saying that if we elect Barack Obama, the chances of an international crisis will be increased because the world's bad guys will be tempted to test a President with little international experience. That's certainly an interesting way of trying to convince people to vote for your guy.

But lest anyone accuse Biden of learning from his mistakes, he went out and said the exact same thing the very next day--except this time with greater emphasis. At a fundraiser in Seattle, he said: "Mark my words. Mark my words. It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. Remember I said it standing here, if you don't remember anything else I said. Watch, we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.

"Gird your loins," Biden warned. "We're gonna win with your help, God willing, we're gonna win, but this is not gonna be an easy ride. This president, the next president, is gonna be left with the most significant task. It's like cleaning the Augean stables, man."

What could possibly explain why Joe Biden would insist on inflicting such damage on his own campaign not once, but twice? Perhaps he was jealous of all the attention that Sarah Palin has been getting from those in the mainstream media who would question her fitness to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency. Perhaps, then, this was a cry for attention, with Biden essentially saying: "Hey, guys, I'm here, too. And if you think you ought to be worried about Palin's fitness for office, try this on for size. My judgment is so bad that it ought to make you forget about her and focus on me instead."

Or perhaps columnist Charles Krauthammer got it right when he said: "Obviously, Biden is a Republican plant." That theory certainly merits serious consideration, as it is more plausible than any other explanation for why Biden would say what he said.

Speaking of Sarah Palin, she perhaps said it best when she said that "the looming crisis that most worries the Obama campaign right now is Joe Biden's next speaking engagement." I guess that's one thing on which Republicans and Democrats, even in the midst of this heated campaign, can find common ground: Joe Biden scares the hell out of us.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Obama on Financial Crisis: Wrong Diagnosis, Wrong Remedy

Senator Obama believes that he knows what caused the financial crisis: "The old trickle-down theory has failed us," the Illinois senator said in an ad. "We can't afford four more years like the last eight." He and his allies now claim that the mess that we're in is a repudiation of the free-market ideology favored by Republicans.

He's got it backwards. While people in both parties must share the blame for this crisis, the fundamental problem is not that we had too much faith in market principles. It's that we had too little faith.

Our financial system is tumbling down upon the shaky foundation of loans which would have never been made had market principles been allowed to prevail. A well intentioned effort by Democrats to support affordable housing led to misguided pressure on banks to relax lending standards for mortgages. As a result, thousands of people took out loans that they ultimately were unable to repay. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which began their supercharged growth under the Clinton Administration, encouraged these unsound loans by relaxing the standards for loans that they would purchase.

The role of Fannie and Freddie here was crucial. Their mandate was to make more more funds available for people to buy their own homes. They did this by buying mortgage loans from banks and other lenders, packaging those loans into large pools, and then selling interests in those pools of mortgage loans on Wall Street to investors.

If you were a typical person wanting a mortgage loan, you would go into your local bank and apply for one. Under the old way of doing business, the local bank would only give you a loan if they thought you would be able to pay it back. They would carefully evaluate your ability to repay the loan, because if you didn't, they would be left holding the bag.

Fannie and Freddie helped to make more money available for home loans by buying mortgage loans from local banks. Your local bank, rather than keeping the loan that it made to you on its books, would sell the loan to Fannie or Freddie and get cash up front. In exchange for that cash, Fannie and Freddie, rather than your local bank, would be entitled to the monthly mortgage payments that you would be making over the next several years. (Your mortgage bill would not indicate that Fannie or Freddie had purchased your loan; you would be paying a "servicer", perhaps even the local bank that you got your loan from, and the servicer would then pass your payment on to the appropriate place.) Your local bank would no longer have to worry about whether you would be making your payments on time. That headache was passed on to Fannie or Freddie--or, more accurately, to investors who bought pieces of mortgage pools that were put together by Fannie and Freddie. Your local bank could then take the cash that it had received from Fannie or Freddie to make another mortgage loan, which it would then sell to Fannie or Freddie as the cycle continued.

While that process might sound a little exotic to some, there's nothing inherently wrong with it. Rather than your small local bank having to take the risk of you not repaying your loan, that risk was shared by thousands of investors who were willing to pump money into the system. That money meant that there was more funding available for people who wanted to buy homes.

If market forces had been allowed to work, then the system would have worked fine and helped more families purchase homes that they could afford. If the market had been allowed to work, then Fannie and Freddie would have been very careful about the loans that they purchased. In a properly functioning market, investors would only buy shares in Fannie's or Freddie's mortgage pools if they were satisfied that the riskiness of the mortgages had been properly evaluated and that the return was sufficient to compensate for that risk.

How did the system break down? In a nutshell, well-intentioned affordable housing advocates complained that not enough poor people were getting home loans. Under the Carter Administration, the Community Reinvestment Act pressured banks to make more loans in poor communities. Under the Clinton Administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac relaxed the standards they used to decide which mortgages to buy. The intention was laudable: to help more families buy homes. The result, as we are seeing today, was disastrous: Thousands of those people are now losing homes that they could not afford, and the effect of these bad loans has spread like a deadly epidemic throughout the worldwide financial system.

Your local bank was getting both a carrot and a stick to approve loan applications of people who really couldn't afford loans. The stick was mandates like the Community Reinvestment Act. The carrot was Fannie and Freddie essentially saying: "Go ahead and make that loan. We'll buy it from you, and then you won't have to worry about whether it ever gets paid back." At that point, making the loan becomes a no-brainer for the local bank.

But the system wouldn't work unless Wall Street investors were willing to put their cash into it, buying shares in those mortgage pools that Fannie and Freddie were putting together. Why would they do that without assurances that sound, market-based underwriting standards were being followed? Simple. Since Fannie and Freddie were government-sponsored entities (although they were owned by shareholders, not the government), everyone assumed that the government was guaranteeing Fannie and Freddie's obligations. In other words, investors assumed that if they bought shares in those mortgage pools, and the money they were expecting eventually didn't materialize because people were defaulting on the underlying mortgage loans, Uncle Sam (i.e. you, the taxpayer) would come to the rescue and pay off the investors.

Because of this "implied guaranty" by the Federal Government and the need to satisfy their shareholders' demands for more and more profits, the management of Fannie and Freddie embarked on a hyper-growth strategy during the Clinton Administration that made CEOs like Franklin Raines and Jim Johnson (both Obama allies) extremely rich. (Both Fannie and Freddie would eventually get into trouble over accounting irregularities, including overstating earnings in a manner that boosted bonuses for top executives like Raines.)

Both Fannie and Freddie were able to borrow at very low rates: since investors assumed that Uncle Sam would ultimately protect them against losses on their Fannie and Freddie investments, investors did not demand the higher returns that they would have demanded on investments that they perceived to be more risky. Fannie and Freddie could thus access funds from investors rather cheaply, and had every incentive to turn these funds into profits by buying up and selling interests in as many mortgages as they could.

This implied guaranty, like the pressure to ignore sound underwriting standards, was a distortion of the free market. Fannie and Freddie had the incentive to take much more risk and grow much faster than they would have had free market principles been allowed to impose discipline on the system. The implied guaranty became a self-fulfilling prophesy: It allowed Fannie and Freddie to grow so large that they became "too big to fail." Thus, even though the Federal Government never promised to bail out Fannie and Freddie, everyone assumed that they would and they were right.

But couldn't anyone see that this whole system was being built on a house of cards, and that the failure to follow free market principles would eventually cause the type of crisis that we now find ourselves in? Yes, some did see it. The Bush Adminstration expressed great concern about this situation. Back in 2003, Bush proposed what even The New York Times called "the most significant regulatory overhaul in the housing finance industry since the savings and loan crisis." The proposal was designed to head off a disaster by reining in the market distortions that were being perpetrated by Fannie and Freddie.

Bush's proposal was ultimately defeated in the face of stiff Democratic opposition. From The New York Times on September 11, 2003:

Among the groups denouncing the proposal today were...Congressional Democrats who fear that tighter regulation of the companies could sharply reduce their commitment to financing low-income and affordable housing. "These two entities — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — are not facing any kind of financial crisis," said Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee. "The more people exaggerate these problems, the more pressure there is on these companies, the less we will see in terms of affordable housing." Representative Melvin L. Watt, Democrat of North Carolina, agreed. "I don’t see much other than a shell game going on here, moving something from one agency to another and in the process weakening the bargaining power of poorer families and their ability to get affordable housing," Mr. Watt said.

Boy, did Barney Frank get it wrong. John McCain, by the way, got it right. He sponsored legislation to reform Fannie and Freddie in 2005. In 2006, while the bill was still languishing, he warned that "[i]f Congress does not act, American taxpayers will continue to be exposed to the enormous risk that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac pose to the housing market, the overall financial system, and the economy as a whole." The Democrats ultimately killed the bill in Committee, preventing the Senate from voting on it.

My point here is not to say that it's all the Democrats' fault. I strongly object, however, to Democrats like Obama and Frank now pushing the fiction that this crisis was caused by Republican free market ideology. Not only do I find that objectionable; I find it scary. Because if the public buys this nonsense, they are also likely to buy the nonsensical "solutions" that are likely to follow from it--"solutions" that move us farther from the free market principles that could have averted this disaster. People like Frank, by misplacing the blame for this mess (and in Frank's case, not accepting his significant share of it), would move us closer to a stultifying socialism where the state takes responsibility for people's bad decisions.

We can't have it both ways: We can't have a hybrid system where people are allowed to gamble and keep their winnings but get bailed out if they lose. Under such a system, people will have every incentive to take excessive risk and pass that risk on to all of us. If we're going to socialize losses, as the misguided Barney Franks of the world would have us do, then the only way to protect us from reckless risk-taking is to deny people the freedom to take risks. If we get to that point, then America can no longer be that special place where visionary entrepreneurs are free to take inspired risks that can enrich us all. We will have lost an essential element in what made us the greatest country on Earth.

This time of crisis is a time for us to renew our commitment to the principles that made this country great. I fear that many of the people who are leading the charge to address this crisis don't understand those principles. Barney Frank did not see this crisis coming, does not understand what caused this crisis and hence does not understand how to solve this crisis. I'm sorry to say that the same applies to Barack Obama.

Monday, September 22, 2008

African American Derangement Syndrome

A "performance artist" recently warned that if Sarah Palin entered Manhattan, she would be "gang-raped by my big black brothers." I won't mention the performance artist's name, because she doesn't deserve the publicity that she would derive even from this no-readership blog. Suffice it to say that the reference to "my big black brothers" struck me as odd, since the "artist" happens to be white.

Many have said that this is the latest example of Palin Derangement Syndrome. PDS is a disease that causes people who are gripped with an irrational hatred of Sarah Palin--frequently Hollywood celebrities--to make ridiculously vicious statements that damage their own reputations more than Governor Palin's.

That's not how I interpreted it. I thought the remark was an example of African American Derangement Syndrome, whereby people damage their reputations by launching hateful and irrational insults against African Americans. I mean, if you predict that a certain person will become the victim of gang rape perpetrated by members of a certain race because members of that race (who, of course, all think alike) disagree with her political opinions, then who are you insulting? The predicted victim? I don't think so.

What made the remark so incredibly offensive was its racism against African Americans. You would have to be an idiot to not see that, but the sad thing is that the "artist" clearly did not see that. As a liberal, she would be horrified at the suggestion that she harbors the racist sentiments that were so clearly betrayed by her outrageous words.

The artist has apparently tried to defend her racist statement by suggesting that it has to be understood in the proper context. You see, her statement was made as part of a comedic performance in which she was making an important statement against racism, sexism and all of the horrible things that are embodied by the evil Sarah Palin and her party. Since I'm a member of Sarah Palin's party, I'm probably too much of a buffoon to appreciate the profundity of the performance artist's work. She's a liberal, and people like her are just plain smarter than people like me.

This "comedic context" defense is essentially the Michael Richards Defense. And as we all know, that defense worked out just fine for Michael Richards. Oh that's right--it didn't.

All that aside, the performance artist can get away with statements like that because as a white liberal, she's Down with the Black Man. And besides, racist statements aren't racist when liberals make them. Why? Because they're liberals. If you don't get it, then you just don't get it. But it's kind of like how sexual harrassment isn't sexual harrassment when Bill Clinton does it.

You see, famous liberals can get away with almost anything simply by loudly proclaiming how much they care. They can absolve all of their sins by walking into the voting booth once every two years and pulling the "D" lever, which is their equivalent of walking into a confession booth and saying 40 Hail Mary's.

Us normal people, however, have to mind our P's and Q's. We don't get a free pass on racist and sexist remarks. That might explain why, during this election season, virtually all of the racist and sexist remarks by public figures have come from liberals.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Be Kind to Charlie Rangel

When House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel was asked why Democrats were so afraid of Sarah Palin and her popularity, he responded with a non sequitur: "You got to be kind to the disabled." When asked whether he was calling Governor Palin disabled, Rangel responded: "There's no question about it politically. It's a nightmare to think that a person's foreign policy is based on their ability to look at Russia from where they live."

Many have criticized Rangel for contributing to the mountain of vitriol that has been hurled at Sarah Palin since was selected for the Republican ticket. Many have also criticized Rangel for not grasping that the thing about being able to see Russia from Palin's house was a "Saturday Night Live" joke, and does not really form the basis of her foreign policy.

I, personally, am not going to join the chorus of criticism against Congressman Rangel. You've got to be kind to the ethically disabled.

Friday, September 19, 2008

On Sarah Palin's (and Joe Biden's) Foreign Policy Experience

Much has been made of Sarah Palin's lack of foreign policy experience. What no one seems to have noticed is that over the last 30-plus years, we have only elected one President--George H.W. Bush--that had any previous foreign policy experience. Four of the five Presidents that we have elected since 1976--Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush (George W.)--were governors with no foreign policy experience. That didn't stop those Presidents from achieving such foreign policy accomplishments as winning the Cold War, brokering the Camp David accords and ousting Saddam Hussein and the Taliban from power.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, is often said to have the most foreign policy experience of the major party candidates for President and Vice President. He has served in the Senate since 1972 (!) and chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. All of that experience, however, hasn't stopped him from being wrong on almost every major foreign policy issue he has ever weighed in on.

He opposed the Reagan military buildup policies that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. He opposed the first Gulf War to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Although he voted in favor of the current Iraq War, he opposed the surge and pushed instead for a policy--vigorously denounced by virtually everyone in Iraq--to split Iraq into three pieces. Had Joe Biden been our Commander in Chief, we might still be engaged in a Cold War with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Saddam Hussein might be still alive and well and occupying Kuwait (if not Saudi Arabia as well). Biden is the guy that, according to Barack Obama, has "stared down dictators." Yeah, right.

Biden aborted his first campaign for President after he was charged with plagiarizing Neil Kinnock, Britain's leftist Labour Party leader at the time. Perhaps Biden could have demonstrated sounder judgment on foreign policy by instead plagiarizing Margaret Thatcher.

On foreign policy, Senate experience is fine, but I would much rather have someone with toughness, sound judgment, common sense and strong convictions. I see much more of that in Sarah Palin than I do in Joe Biden (or Barack Obama, for that matter).

Perhaps much of the anxiety that some feel over Palin is the fact that she's uncharted territory. Put aside for a second the fact that she's a woman. Think of Palin's unique mix of characteristics, for better or worse: Under 45, put on the ticket with less than two years' experience as a governor, avid outdoors enthusiast, member of the National Rifle Association, large family, reputation as a reformer unafraid to take on fellow Republicans. There's never been a major party candidate for Vice President with all of these characteristics. Well, actually there has been. His name was Teddy Roosevelt. If we could put Teddy Roosevelt in a time machine and insert him into the current race, he would make a much better choice for Commander in Chief than Joe Biden. And so would Sarah Palin.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Sorry, Charlie: If You're Going to Play "Gotcha," You Need to Get Your Facts Straight

In his long-awaited interview with Sarah Palin, Charles Gibson's attempt at a "Gotcha" moment was undermined by his own confusion over the facts. He asked Palin about her views on the "Bush Doctrine." Palin asked for clarification. Gibson did not initially clarify what he meant by the "Bush Doctrine," in an obvious attempt to make Palin appear ignorant. At long last, he "informed" her that the Bush Doctrine meant that the U.S. has the right to launch pre-emptive military strikes to prevent an attack on us.

Sorry, Charlie. You are the one who is ignorant. The fact is that there have been at least four successive doctrines that have been known as the "Bush Doctrine," and the right of pre-emption is not the one which is currently in common usage. The more commonly accepted current version of the "Bush Doctrine" is that the survival of our freedom and democracy depends increasingly on the spread of freedom and democracy around the world. Palin was justifiably confused by Gibson's question, since there is no one "Bush Doctrine." He might as well have asked Palin to read his mind.

This is just the latest example of the mystical judo that Palin has been effortlessly practicing against the elite chattering class. The harder they try to make her look stupid, the more they make themselves look stupid. I'm almost starting to feel sorry for them.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Obama Campaign Questions John McCain's Honor

Responding to a campaign ad highlighting Barack Obama's support for comprehensive sex education for kindergartners, Obama press secretary Bill Burton issued the following statement: "Last week, John McCain told Time magazine he couldn't define what honor was. Now we know why."

Now, the campaign is close and heating up, and both sides are taking hard shots at each other. Each side believes that the other side isn't always being fair; it's normal for those in the thick of the battle to feel that way.

But does the Obama camp really think that it's a good idea to question McCain's honor? Most Americans believe that a man who fought for his country and suffered through five and a half years of torture as a POW--which worsened after he refused early release because it would violate his honor code--has demonstrated enough honor to last several lifetimes.

I believe that Barack Obama and Joe Biden are both honorable men, but have they ever proven their honor in the way that McCain has? Attacking John McCain's honor will only make people remember Sarah Palin's pointed line in her speech at the convention: "Though both Senator Obama and Senator Biden have been going on lately about how they're always, quote, 'fighting for you,' let us face the matter squarely: There is only one man in this election who has ever really fought for you."

After the raucous applause died down, Palin elaborated on her point: "There is only one man in this election who has ever really fought for you in places where winning means survival and defeat means death. And that man is John McCain. You know, in our day, politicians have readily shared much lesser tales of adversity than the nightmare world, the nightmare world in which this man and others equally brave served and suffered for their country. And it's a long way from the fear, and pain, and squalor of a six-by-four cell in Hanoi to the Oval Office."

In this election, each side will have plenty of legitimate grounds to criticize the other. It's a free country, and anyone is free to question John McCain's honor. Those who chose to do so, however, will only succeed in demonstrating that they don't know the meaning of the word.