Friday, October 15, 2010

Realism About the Housing Mess

cross-posted at Dagblog

Most public debates over the mortgage and housing mess have been running aground on the false-dilemma problem, framing a problem with several possible solutions as a choice between only two options. At least one of the options in false dilemmas is always completely moonbat crazy, and frequently they both are. The false dilemma I've been hearing these days goes like this:

"We either have to give mortgage lenders a free hand, and forget about the legal details, or just let borrowers keep their houses for free without paying anything!"

Obviously, this is not the actual set of choices. It's the two most extreme choices within that set. The point of this either/or formulation is to make one unreasonable course of action seem sane and necessary by pairing it with an even crazier course of action. Letting banks foreclose on people's homes with forged documents is so clearly insane (and such an attack on basic property rights) that it can only be justified by pretending that there are no other options except giving away six-bedroom homes as gifts to deadbeats.

Of course there are other options. How could there not be?

I tend not to trust people who tell me there are only two ways to, especially when both ways are extreme. The world really is not a set of choices between Galt Gulch and Soviet Communism, between repealing the Fourth Amendment and accepting Sharia law, between life in a religious commune and life in a Vegas brothel. And generally when somebody tells me that I have to make a choice like that, I presume that person is trying to hustle me. The choice between "never foreclose on any home for any reason" and "foreclose on people whether you actually have title to their home or not" is obviously a hustler's presentation of the choice. And of course, you can't take a time out to think, because we have to foreclose now! Right away! There's no time to think over the actual rights and wrongs! (This is why it's called hustling.)

Ezra Klein has a characteristically excellent post running down four practical solutions to help homeowners in realistic ways that help homeowners without simply ripping off the lenders. The whole piece is worth a read, and the options are basically sensible. They include simple things like requiring mediation before a foreclosure and changing HAMP so that banks have to opt out instead of opting in, bigger things like allowing bankruptcy judges to modify the principal on mortgages for primary residences, and practical fixes like the "right to rent," in which borrowers lose the house and their equity but can remain as tenants paying market rents for a set period.

All of those sound reasonable to me. I'm personally a big fan of cramdown, the modification of principal by bankruptcy judges. That could allow banks and borrowers to split the difference between the inflated house prices on which the original loan was based and the current market price, so that both the lender and the borrower take a haircut on their mutual bad investment. That would also help separate the borrowers who can actually pay from the ones who never could, and the borrowers who genuinely bought much more than they could afford from the homebuyers who, because of the bubble, had to spend a million dollars for what would usually be four hundred thousand dollars of house.

In other news, here's Digby recommending serious jail time for the people who actually turned fraud into something routine. I have to admit that sounds pretty reasonable, too.

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