You know what the problem is with America?
The poor don't get just how great they have it.
I've been hearing this a lot lately; the basic thrust of the discussion is that all those cars, TVs, DVD players, refrigerators, and stoves that have found their way into the homes of the economic underclass are proof there's really no such thing as "poor" in America.
If they were truly poor, the argument goes, well…think recycled corn.
And if the poor want things to get better, let 'em pull themselves up by their own bootstraps – and if they can't, then let 'em rot, because that's the best thing for the economy.
But I don't buy all that, and by the time we're done today, I hope to have given you a whole new perspective on how jobs get created in this country.
There isn't a rich man in your vast city who doesn't perjure himself every year before the tax board. They are all caked with perjury, many layers thick. Iron-clad, so to speak. If there is one that isn't, I desire to acquire him for my museum, and will pay Dinosaur rates.
--From the letter "A Humane Word From Satan", by Sam Clemens
We must have completely misjudged how many Americans live here about 15 years ago, because everywhere I go I see vacant buildings.
Empty retail space, empty office buildings, empty factories, and all of it apparently just thrown up for no reason whatsoever.
But then I recently saw some historical pictures from the 1990s, and it turns out a lot of those buildings used to have businesses operating within their now-abandoned walls – businesses which have since gone away.
And that's when I began to get confused.
You see I've always known, just as you have, that it's all about capital; that's why it's only the very wealthiest people who can create jobs in this country.
And I've always known that they can only do that when they are 100% certain that nothing was going to hurt their current economic condition, and that any sacrifice on our part, no matter how large, was crucially important to keep this very special source of economic vitality full and happy and creating jobs for America's future.
And when I look at the statistics, I know we've been doing our part: the wealthy have been getting wealthier, faster, over the past 30 years than at any time in memory…and yet, for some reason, all those businesses were closing down.
So many, in fact, that I began to question whether America actually understands how jobs get created. It even began to cross my mind that maybe we've been coddling the wrong people.
I mean, what if the actual job creators…are the people who no longer work in those empty buildings?
It makes sense, if you think about it.
The common argument is that those with capital make investments, which creates jobs.
But why would anyone invest capital unless there was perceived demand for a product, or a need to do research to meet perceived future demands?
That seems to suggest demand drives investment; a good way to "prove" the point would be to consider what happens to capital without demand: building factories and ships and warehouses does no good if there are no buyers at the store.
Of course, I'm not the first to think workers drive demand: Henry Ford famously paid his workers double the prevailing wage; part of the idea was to create demand for all those Model Ts he was cranking out in his new factories.
So now that we know who the job creators really are, and we established years ago that we have to do every single possible thing on the face of the Earth to keep the job creators happy, happy, happy…how do we get started?
Well, here's an idea: the Fed willingly gave more than $1.5 trillion to banks for bailouts, mostly by simply "creating" money; now I'm proposing we do the same for homeowners.
If you have a loan backed by Fannie Mae or Freddy Mac, let's allow you to apply for a one-time $200,000 markdown on your mortgage – and let's allow the first "tranche" of any markdown to apply to any back-due loan payments.
The amount of "haircut" (fancy technical term) you might impose on each loan could vary, but $1.5 trillion would allow 7.5 million writedowns at $200,000 each; if you limited the haircut to 50% of the loan value many would be less than $200,000. (It's estimated that 11 million homes in the USA from are underwater; $2.5 trillion or less would cover all underwater loans.)
Since Fannie and Freddy back $10 trillion or so in mortgages, and you probably won't be able to write down every loan, how would you decide who gets writedowns?
One way would be to create a "triage score" that incorporates things like the odds an applicant/borrower can pay off a restructured loan and the amount of foreclosed or underwater homes in any given community; the 7.5 million highest (or lowest) scores get the writedowns.
(One caveat: many who are having trouble today with home loans are also laid off; unless we can find ways to keep those folks in homes until they can find work, we'll still have a substantial foreclosure problem.)
Writing down mortgages does several things: it quickly applies a "moral hazard cost" to those who deliberately lent to unqualified borrowers, it turns millions of "underwater" loans into homes with equity, it turns millions of "nonperforming" loans into "performing" loans, keeping millions out of foreclosure, it gives communities a chance to either stabilize or recover from "mass foreclosure-itis", and it finally breaks the deadlock between banks and regulators over who will blink first on loan "haircuts" versus bank recapitalizations.
Wait? What was that last one?
Banks are scared to death that if they write down all these loans they will have to find new capital to make up the losses – and they probably won't be able to raise that new capital by charging a $5 fee to have a debit card.
That could mean a few things: it could mean big banks are going to have to more sneakily raise lots of other fees and sell things to raise capital, or, perhaps, the Feds ease back a bit on capital requirements.
Or…it may mean that the banks end up having to get smaller. Consider this scenario: a forced haircut of significant size, followed by regulators who stand firm on capital requirements, followed by a less-than-stellar round of stock offerings or asset sales; next thing you know, "too big to fail" becomes "we have to spin off some part of the retail business for reasons related to the rules governing capital requirements".
This could happen without the passage of new regulations or legislation beyond the initial bailout authorization – and even that might be within the power of Federal regulators already, since Fannie and Freddy, as the owners of many of these loans, have the power to forgive some or all of that debt, and capital requirements are not set by legislation.
And where does all that leave you?
Well, you'd have 7.5 million families that could more easily afford to make house payments than before, and those folks will probably take that money and spend it on things they haven't been buying for several years: home improvements, cars, appliances, and the travel and entertainment markets could all see substantial bumps in sales.
Many, if not most of those families, would immediately go from being "underwater" to having equity, which always helps turn reluctant consumers into willing consumers.
Cities could begin to recover as well, as the number of foreclosures bottoms out; once banks are forced to write those properties down from "2006 value" to today's market value they'll be looking to sell 'em at bargain prices; that'll help soak up today's housing supply "overhang". All of this is good for beleaguered new home builders, who are today in a holding pattern.
And here's the best part: if you get a handle on foreclosures, and put some cash back in some pockets, and start selling stuff…well, that looks like a bit of a jobs program, even if Congress might not be willing to sign up for one just at the moment.
So how about that?
If we make an effort to give to the actual job creators the same level of incentives that we gave to the "demand responders" since November of '08, we could actually find ourselves creating actual jobs with our money – and doing it by the millions, just when we need 'em.
Considering how fast we were able to find ways to create TARP, QE1, QE2, an alternative auto industry bailout, and anything else a banker could ask for, including, I'm sure, partridges in pear trees…well, we should be able to knock this out over a weekend, assuming we can either make a really convincing argument – or do like the banks do, and lay out a million a day for lobbyists until it gets convincing enough to get things done.
Of course, if we have to we could also start Occupying the Offices of reluctant Members of Congress to help make the point; as long as the end result is some serious pampering of the real job creators, I'm all good.