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Weekly Audit: The Worst is Yet to Come

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium MediaWire Blogger

Last week’s passage of the economic stimulus bill marked the first major win for progressives on economic policy under President Barack Obama, but the hardest economic battles have yet to come. The fight against entrenched corporate interests and a global order that ignores the needy will likely be as long and arduous as the recession itself.

The stimulus package may be an absolutely essential step for fending off economic catastrophe, but it does nothing to overhaul the deeply flawed structure of our economic system. "In unleashing a flood of deficit spending and avoiding tax increases, the legislation didn’t threaten moneyed interests, didn’t alter the existing economic topography, and therefore didn’t attract the withering hostility from business groups that typically prevents ‘hope’ from becoming ‘change,’" David Sirota writes for Salon.

The Obama team seems to be considering nationalizing big, troubled banks temporarily, a prospect which was politically unthinkable just a few weeks back. Progressives have been pushing nationalization hard and it seems to be working. Several Republican Senators are supporting the idea, as temporary nationalization is already government policy for smaller banks that don’t employ massive lobbying teams.

But getting Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on board is only half the battle. In a piece for The Nation, Thomas Ferguson and Robert Johnson detail how hedge funds and private equity firms hope to capitalize on a big bank nationalization policy by using political clout to score unfairly cheap prices from the government.

"Much of the wind in the sails of this new push comes from private equity firms like KKR, Blackstone, or their political allies, mostly, though not entirely within the Republican Party," Ferguson and Johnson write.

When the government nationalized troubled banks with the Resolution Trust Corp. under President George H.W. Bush, politically connected investors made out like bandits when the government resold the banks into the private sector. It is important that this corruption not be repeated. We don’t tolerate our politicians doing favors for wealthy constituents, and we shouldn’t allow our financial regulators to do so either.

The current recession has roots in excessive consumer debt—some of it predatory, some of it spawned by consumerism run amok. U.S. economic well-being has depended on destructive and environmentally unsustainable spending habits of its citizens for too long. Writing for In These Times, Terry Allen notes that "our own addiction to consumerism and failure to save tie us to debt and stress." While consumer spending kept the economy from crashing until last year, it was very bad for individual households.

Over at The American Prospect, Matthew Yglesias discusses the global implications of lower levels of U.S. consumption. As the U.S. consumes less product, there will be major consequences for economies that rely on U.S. demand. Yglesias emphasizes that the current downturn is fully global, unlike every U.S. recession since the Great Depression. Potential solutions will have to involve coordinating policy responses with other countries to ensure that everyone is shouldering the stimulus load—and to help everyone adjust to an era in which U.S. consumers buy less stuff.

As Nomi Prins explains in Mother Jones, Wall Street bankers have always had a knack for bestowing lavish compensation upon themselves. Bonuses are routinely based on ill-conceived criteria that focus on short-term gains and create unnecessary risk. The key reforms, Prins says, do not merely involve capping executive compensation for bailed-out firms, but regulating bonus compensation and imposing heavy taxes on it in both good times and bad.

In recent years, Wall Street has dealt homeowners an absolutely devastating blow with various exotic mortgage schemes, but another major housing crisis is now looming for renters. Despite an overabundance of sprawling suburban developments, U.S. cities are facing a dramatic shortage of affordable rental housing. As hard as the economic crisis is for homeowners, those who rent in urban areas are being hit even harder. Many renters who cannot afford to buy a home under still face housing hardships today.

In the below video for American News Project, Garland McLaurin and Mike Fritz reveal the dire straits currently facing federal affordable housing programs. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, known as HUD, received a significant funding boost under Obama’s economic stimulus package—its $40.4 billion 2009 budget was supplemented by $13.6 billion. But thanks to years of neglect and political cronyism under the Bush administration, HUD housing units have a backlog of at least $22 billion in needed repairs, which severely hinders HUD’s ability to expand operations.

And the number of affordable rental housing units falls well short of what is needed. McLaurin and Fritz highlight Baltimore in their video, a city that has roughly 30,000 subsidized housing spaces, but will require 60,000 more to built in order to meet the city’s needs.

The proliferation of subprime mortgages was one of the chief drivers of the foreclosure epidemic. They seem absurd in retrospect. Lenders charged people with relatively weak credit scores higher interest rates to counter the risk in making loans to people with bad credit. But since credit scores are fairly closely linked to income level, lenders were essentially charging people with less money more than they would have charged an ordinary borrower. Not surprisingly, that business model is now completely destroyed.

But, as Daniel Fireside reveals in Yes! Magazine, there is a more effective way to expand access to homeownership, one that relies on charging—shock!—less for homes. Several U.S. cities now make use of non-profit land trusts to lower the costs of homeownership. Here’s how it works: The land trust purchases a swath of property and builds housing on it if none already exists. The trust then sells homes to new homeowners, but does not sell the underlying land. The trust negotiates mortgages with banks on behalf of low-income borrowers. By using the land equity as part of the mortgage calculation, the necessary down payment is dramatically reduced. As a result, the home never falls into the hands of real estate speculators and the cost of owning a home falls by around 25%. If borrowers ever run into trouble on their loan, the trust works with them and the bank to fend off foreclosure. Land trusts feature foreclosure rates 30 times—not 30 percent, 30 times—lower than the national average.

Each of these initiatives is absolutely essential and will, unfortunately, involve brutal policy battles. Many people make a lot of money from the status quo. Let’s hope Obama has the political clout to tell corporate opportunists that the times are a-changing.

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