Plain Money ideas

“Conservative economic theory” sillies

The Wall Street Journal columnist Thomas Frank has come up with something he calls “conservative economic theory,” apparently placing the term in the mouth of a source on the subprime mortgage fiasco.

Like many people outside the field he assumes there’s a conservative economic theory and a liberal economic theory — overlooking the large analytical core shared by all economists. What does that core say about the role of mortgage originators in the subprime affair?

Simply this: that self-interested private firms disregard the costs they place on others. (See “externalities.”)

Therefore, if you want firms to be careful about costs, you make sure they pay the relevant costs. In the subprime mortgage affair, mortgage originators faced simple incentives to write as many mortgages as possible, short of outright fraud. They received origination fees for doing that while being relieved of liability if the owners later defaulted. Naturally, the law is complicated, but mortgage originators who simply reflected the overall market’s bad judgment — as opposed to committing fraud or misrepresentation — aren’t in much trouble.

Put yourself in the position of a mortgage officer. The housing market is hot and a ready market exists to buy up the loans you write. Are you going to inquire deeply into whether the borrower will pay it back? I didn’t think so.

It’s not a failure of economic theory, “conservative” or “liberal” or otherwise, when people respond rationally to perverse incentives. The task for reform is simple in concept: correct the incentives (as opposed to lamenting greed or making broad pronouncements about non-existent schools of thought).

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