Monday, December 29, 2008

The Next Round of Bailouts: The States

So with all these bailouts, one of the effects they are having is greatly increasing the moral hazard throughout society. One of the reasons why we are in the mess we are currently in is that a huge moral hazard was created via the implicit guarantee of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Investors correctly felt that the institutions would be bailed out if they got in trouble and this allowed the two firms to borrow money at a below market rate and pump an excessive amount of capital into housing. So apparently not learning from our lessen, we’re now doing exactly that again with banks, auto makers, your uncle who’s delinquent on his credit card and so on.

So the next one on the list is bailing out state governments. Senator Schumer has stated that his state of New York will likely be getting $5 billion in increased transfer payments via the Obama administration's proposed stimulus package. It has also been suggested that California is to be bailed out. One of the beauties of State governments is that unlike the Federal Government, they cannot borrow endlessly. This is mixed with the fact that if they raise taxes to too high of a level residents and businesses will move out. These two forces combined place a check on State budgets and this forces them to be fiscally responsible and relatively efficient. These two mentioned states, along with many others went on spending sprees in the most recent good years without regard for long-term planning. California’s budget grew almost 30 percent in the past 3 years. But now that the Federal government will step in and bail them out, the moral hazard of over spending has increased greatly for years to come. The California legislature is being resistant to spending cuts currently. Perhaps it’s because they know if they wait long enough, they will be bailed out? Now every state legislature knows it does not need to keep spending in line or create rainy day funds for use in recessions, because every time we get into one, they are going to be bailed out.

This creates the obvious problem of promoting irresponsible behavior on the part of the States, which ends up being paid for by the Federal taxpayer. Beyond that however, is the continued erosion of the notion of the States being sovereign bodies. Rather than being independent levels of government, if the budget processes are now created with the assumption of Federal help, the States become more similar to the French Departments, merely administrative districts rather than separate governments. Power therefore only becomes more centralized and less in touch with constituents. Furthermore, how come New York and California are the ones in which the bailouts are being designed? Why not Rhode Island, Virginia or Arizona, which have huge budget problems themselves? Could it possibly be that both these states are heavily Democrat (and therefore the same party as the current controlling government) with influential Congressmen representing both of them, including the Speaker of the House, the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and a woman soon to be Secretary of State? Bailouts just become another mechanism of corruption and party hackery. Just as soon to be former Senator Stevens was allowed to get away with his abhorrent pork projects because his party controlled Congress, so will those who now have favor with the current government.



It certainly seems like, in this new culture of bailouts, there ought to be an increased risk of the moral hazard that EJB mentions. After all, it stands to reason that if the Federal Government is willing to bailout banks for bad business practices - and now, apparently, some States for their failure to adequately plan for their future - other sectors of business (and indeed, other States) would feel comfortable knowing that their fiscal shortcomings will be federally insured. I'm not sure it's just that simple though. Look especially at the recent automobile bailout. Officially, I guess it is a bailout but the bill never got through Congress; Bush had to semi-legally divert funds to GM from the original "stimulus package." I think it's safe to say that a large contingent of the population (and of Congress) is tired of taxpayer bailouts. This shifting of public will may not allow for further bailouts. Furthermore, all it takes to soften the blow of the moral hazard is one major bailout proposal rejection. We may have seen that with the auto bailout. If the Federal Government refuses to bailout a company or State that is asking for money, other entities won't be so quick to assume that they'll be guaranteed any sort of insurance.

Now to the California and New York stuff. Again, I think it's sort of facile to point out that NY and CA are liberal states and thus, wink wink nudge nudge, they're getting bailed out. I'm not saying there isn't some truth to that, but EJB points out later in the post that Rhode Island isn't being bailed out. Is there a more liberal State than Rhode Island? I've lived there. There is not.

Also, I bet we could discover all sorts of plausible rationales for the bailing out of New York and California. My first thought was to note that these are two of the largest States, by population, in the country. In fact, they are first and third in that category. Thus a State business bailout or a capital injection that props up Medicaid in New York helps more people than a similar plan in Arizona. Perhaps Obama, curtailed by a sinking economy, is implementing a fiscal triage.

But maybe you don't buy this strict utilitarian explanation. Fine. I think another relevant factor in the bailing out of California is the fact that the State is literally out of money. As much as I'd like to back EJB's moral/philosophical argument about moral hazards and learning important lessons, it's probably vitally important to first make sure that each State has enough capital to continue its operations. Otherwise we're simply winning the battle to lose the war. Or perhaps we'd be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. All I know is, there must be some folksy idiom that applies here.

As for NY, another possible explanation for bailing it out is that this could be a very good move for the national economy. NY ranks fifth amongst the States in GDP per capita. Thus it seems logical to conclude that more business is done in NY. Complete the syllogism and it points to the fact that bailing out NY is more economically beneficial for the Federal Government than bailing out Alabama.

So anyway, I'm not sure why they're doing this. Perhaps EJB is correct and this is merely a political pork move. I think there's probably some truth to that. But I propose that there are other, more legitimate, reasons for the NY and CA bailouts.