Mortgage modifications have been a key pillar of the progressive response to the economic downturn–and they’ve been one focus of the Occupy protests that have sprung up across the country lately. The Obama administration offered its own such program in 2009, though it has helped far fewer homeowners than anticipated, thanks to a flawed design. But until lately, conservatives had by and large opposed the idea, arguing, as Santelli did, that taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to pay for borrowers’ bad decisions, and that banks shouldn’t have their actions constrained by government.
So what’s changed? By and large, policy hands and political leaders alike recognize that the economy isn’t going to get better on its own, at least not any time soon,. There’s a widespread consensus that until the United States tackles the massive overhang of housing debt–American homeowners’ wealth has fallen by a stunning 40 percent since 2006–the economic recovery won’t gain steam. As Feldstein wrote: “The fall in house prices is not just a decline in wealth but a decline that depresses consumer spending, making the economy weaker and the loss of jobs much greater.” Rogoff, too, views the crushing volume of personal debt as an unaffordable drag on growth. “Simply put, you can’t operate an economy where huge numbers of people are desperately in debt and have no real way out,” he argues.
Hubbard originally offered a modification plan in 2010 as a way to avoid another “costly stimulus package” designed to spur consumer demand. But he, too, may also recognize that mortgage modification, though necessary for the health of the economy, is likely to be politically unpopular. If so, better to have President Obama take the hit, rather than a future Republican president—like, say, President Romney.
Of course, right and left don’t see entirely eye-to-eye on the issue. Dean Baker, an economist with the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research, last week slammed Feldstein’s plan as too soft on banks and a bad deal for struggling homeowners. And it’s hard to imagine that Republicans in Congress would react favorably to an aggressive mortgage modification proposal from the Obama administration.
So if this is true – and “three instances” doesn’t a trend make even as this journalist suggests – what is happening?
1. Conservatives are recognizing that the mortgage debt is holding up the larger economic recovery. If people can’t move, they can’t go to the open jobs. The debt doesn’t allow them to spend on other consumer items. If government involvement can move people past this logjam, then the “free market” can work again. Desperate times mean that political ideology has to be bent a little.
2. As the journalist suggests, they only back this when a Democrat is in charge.
3. This is pandering for votes. American culture has a dream of homeownership – neither party wants to be against that.
This bears watching. Of course, the devil is in the details: who is actually going to support what? Who is going to pay for this? How many homeowners could be helped?