On HAMP, officials were surprisingly candid. The program has gotten a lot of bad press in terms of its Kafka-esque qualification process and its limited success in generating mortgage modifications under which families become able and willing to pay their debt. Officials pointed out that … even if most HAMP applicants ultimately default, the program prevented an outbreak of foreclosures exactly when the system could have handled it least. There were murmurs among the bloggers of “extend and pretend”, but I don’t think that’s quite right. This was extend-and-don’t-even-bother-to-pretend. The program was successful in the sense that it kept the patient alive until it had begun to heal. And the patient of this metaphor was not a struggling homeowner, but the financial system, a.k.a. the banks. … I believe these policymakers conflate, in full sincerity, incumbent financial institutions with “the system”, “the economy”, and “ordinary Americans”.
I want to write something longer, soon along the lines of that last sentence. It’s a good heuristic that when seemingly intelligent people keep doing things that fail to achieve their stated goals, their actual goals might be different from their stated ones.
In economic-policy debates, we tend to operate with the convention that maximizing economic growth — with perhaps some consideration of distribution — is the only objective, and we’re only disagreeing about means. But whose objective is that really? Ok, it’s society’s, insofar as society is embodied in the state; which is to say, in conditions of total war. (Another future post: All Keynesianism is military Keynesianism.) But outside of the case of a broadly-supported government fighting for national survival, the interest of “society” is seldom operational. Especially in a hyper-pluralistic polity like the US, what you have are broader and narrower particular interests. And when it comes to economic policy, the interest that matters is the interest of owners of financial assets.
You know the old joke of adding “in bed” to the end of fortune-cookie fortunes? I’ve increasingly felt the same kind of thing works for economic writing, especially financial journalism: Anytime you see a word implying a value judgment (good, bad, disaster, opportunity, frightening, promising), you just need to add “for bondholders” for it to make sense.
This is all more or less abstract and theoretical. But not with HAMP. There, the government of hope and change is willing to say right out that they don’t care about people losing their homes, as long as the banks don’t lose money. That it’s true is bad enough, that they’re willing to say it is worse.
As I said, at some point soon I want to write something more substantial about how things look when we take the bond’s eye view. But I can’t right now. Right now I’m so angry I can hardly breathe.