No one will really understand politics until they understand that politicians are not trying to solve our problems. They are trying to solve their own problems— of which getting elected and re-elected are number one and number two. Whatever is number three is far behind.
Many of the things the government does that may seem stupid are not stupid at all, from the standpoint of the elected officials or bureaucrats who do these things.
The current economic downturn that has cost millions of people their jobs began with successive administrations of both parties pushing banks and other lenders to make mortgage loans to people whose incomes, credit history and inability or unwillingness to make a substantial down payment on a house made them bad risks.
Was that stupid? Not at all. The money that was being put at risk was not the politicians' money, and in most cases was not even the government's money. Moreover, the jobs that are being lost by the millions are not the politicians' jobs— and jobs in the government's bureaucracies are increasing.
No one pushed these reckless mortgage lending policies more than Congressman Barney Frank, who brushed aside warnings about risk, and said in 2003 that he wanted to "roll the dice" even more in the housing markets. But it would very rash to bet against Congressman Frank's getting re-elected in 2010.
After the cascade of economic disasters that began in the housing markets in 2006 and spread into the financial markets in Wall Street and even overseas, people in the private sector pulled back. Banks stopped making so many risky loans. Home buyers began buying homes they could afford, instead of going out on a limb with "creative"— and risky— financing schemes to buy homes that were beyond their means.
But politicians went directly in the opposite direction. In the name of "rescuing" the housing market, Congress passed laws enabling the Federal Housing Administration to insure more and bigger risky loans— loans where there is less than a 4 percent down payment.
A recent news story told of three young men who chipped in a total of $33,000 to buy a home in San Francisco that cost nearly a million dollars. Why would a bank lend that kind of money to them on such a small down payment? Because the loan was insured by the Federal Housing Administration.
The bank wasn't taking any risk. If the three guys defaulted, the bank could always collect the money from the Federal Housing Administration. The only risk was to the taxpayers.
Does the Federal Housing Administration have unlimited money to bail out bad loans? Actually there have been so many defaults that the FHA's own reserves have dropped below where they are supposed to be. But not to worry. There will always be taxpayers, not to mention future generations to pay off the national debt.
Very few people are likely to connect the dots back to those members of Congress who voted for bigger mortgage guarantees and bailouts by the FHA. So the Congressmen's and the bureaucrats' jobs are safe, even if millions of other people's jobs are not.
Congressman Barney Frank is not about to cut back on risky mortgage loan guarantees by the FHA. He recently announced that he plans to introduce legislation to raise the limit on FHA loan guarantees even more.
Congressman Frank will make himself popular with people who get those loans and with banks that make these high-risk loans where they can pocket the profits and pass the risk on to the FHA.
So long as the taxpayers don't understand that all this political generosity and compassion are at their expense, Barney Frank is an odds-on favorite to get re-elected. The man is not stupid.
What is stupid is believing that politicians are trying to solve our problems, instead of theirs.
As for the FHA running low on money, that is not about to stop the gravy train, certainly not with an election coming up in 2010.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation is also running low on money. But that is not going to stop them from insuring bank accounts up to a quarter of a million dollars. It would be stupid for them to stop with an election coming up in 2010.
To find out more about Thomas Sowell and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com. Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. His Web site is www.tsowell.com.