Last week the Bush administration decided to "freeze" for five years the interest rates of certain types of mortgages. You've probably caught the tail end of news stories about "subprime" home loans, lots of foreclosures, etc. Never a happy moment when the bank takes the farm.
So now the government has stepped in and said that, if you fall into a particular category of adjustable-rate mortgage (ARMs, in the biz) and you're worried that it's getting way too adjustable, don't worry: The Nanny State is about to readjust it well inside your comfort zone. By fiat of the Treasury secretary, your adjustable-rate mortgage is henceforth an unadjustable adjustable-rate mortgage. These new UNARMs will spread their healing balm across the land until it's safe enough for the housing "market" to once again be exposed to market forces.
The government has, in effect, nullified the terms of legal contracts mutually agreed by both parties borrower and lender, Mr. and Mrs. Joe Schmoe and the First National Bank of Pleasantville.
This is a pretty remarkable act by a "conservative" administration. The government's general absolution for imprudence by both borrower and lender doesn't seem a smart move for the U.S. credit markets, for real estate, for responsible borrowers for future homeowners, or for state and municipal taxpayers whose governments are being encouraged by Washington to bail out home "owners" by issuing tax-free debt.
Democrats bemoan the lack of "affordable housing" while simultaneously demanding government rescue home "owners" with unsustainable mortgages. But saving the latter obstructs the former: the principal benefit of a property-bubble correction is, after all, much more "affordable housing."
One of the great strengths of the United States is that property is not, by comparison with other developed nations, an overspeculative enterprise. Most of us buy a house, and it increases respectably in value but not spectacularly. In Britain, by contrast, you buy a basement flat in a rundown slum for a quarter-million pounds, put a cat flap in the back door and sell it as "extensively remodeled" for a half-million pounds.
I write often about the demographic decline in Europe the lack of children but quite a bit of that has to do with the space constraints. If you're living in a small apartment, as many Germans do, do you really want three kids clogging up the joint?
America is one of the cheapest places in the developed world to buy a four-bedroom house on a one-acre lot. A few years back, I noted that a three-bedroom, air-conditioned home in Crawford, Texas, cost $30,000, but, if that sounds a bit steep, you could get a couple of acres and a double-wide for about a fifth of the cost. And a rather sour leftie said, well, what do you expect? Bush moves in, and there goes the neighborhood. Well, if that's the case, you'd think he'd be applying the Crawford Effect and depressing the property market nationwide instead of artificially obstructing its operation.
One shouldn't overstate the administration's actions: in Zimbabwe, the government seizes your property; in the United States, the government seizes your property contract and then hands it back to you all fluffy and painless. But still it's a very curious move.
Yet out on the campaign trail no candidate initially seemed very bothered by it. Musing on various ninnyish programs being mooted by candidates of both parties, Fred Thompson said the other day, "I don't think that it's the primary responsibility of the federal government to tell you what to eat." It's apparently not the primary responsibility of the government to tell you to suck it up (which is what columnist Michelle Malkin proposed as an alternative outreach plan to troubled mortgage holders). "The fact of the matter is we got an awful lot of knowledge," Sen. Thompson continued. "Sometimes we don't have a whole lot of will power, and I don't know of any government program that's going to instill that."
There don't seem to be a lot of takers for small government out on the hustings this season. We were told by plenty of experts that this would be the year in which the Christian right would be rendered politically irrelevant: Nominating Rudy Giuliani (a pro-choice candidate positively Chiracesque in his sexual habits and the taxpayer funding thereof) would leave the religious right out on the fringe. Instead, the evangelicals found a candidate, destabilized the race, and we've spent the past couple of weeks talking about nothing but religion. Mike Huckabee's declaration in his Iowa advertising that he is a "Christian leader" seems a barely coded dig at Mitt Romney's Mormonism, and Mitt's big speech Thursday was his own attempt to put the Mormon question to bed.
As far as Christian conservatives are concerned, Gov. Huckabee is obviously a sincere Christian. But he doesn't seem to be any kind of a conservative not if you look at his record on domestic policy.
As for Gov. Romney, one of the most interesting passages of his speech was his contrast of America's faith with Europe's: "I'm not sure that we fully appreciate the profound implications of our tradition of religious liberty," he said. "I have visited many of the magnificent cathedrals in Europe. They are so inspired ... so grand ... so empty. Raised up over generations, long ago, so many of the cathedrals now stand as the postcard backdrop to societies just too busy or too 'enlightened' to venture inside and kneel in prayer. The establishment of state religions in Europe did no favor to Europe's churches."
That's very true. As America demonstrates, faith thrives in a free market. In Europe, the established church, whether formal (the Church of England) or informal (as in Catholic Italy and Spain), killed religion as surely as state ownership killed the British car industry. When the Episcopal Church degenerates into wimpsville relativist milquetoast mush, Americans go elsewhere. When the Church of England undergoes similar institutional decline, Britons give up on religion entirely.
Instead of a state church, Europe believes in the state as church the all-powerful beneficent provider of cradle-to-grave welfare.
"Freedom requires religion," said Mitt Romney, and, whether or not one agrees, in Europe big government has led naturally to small religion a point Gov. Huckabee might want to ponder. I would rather we talked less about religion in America (which can take care of itself) and more about government, which seems to be trending in an alarmingly European direction, Democrats and Republicans disagreeing merely on the speed at which we'll get there. Yet the two are explicitly connected.
Europe's religious decline derives in part from the state's usurpation and annexation of so many of the other supporting structures of society, including the church. I am in favor of a free market in religion and a free market in housing, but right now I'd like a conservative candidate with a clear-headed commitment to both.