Books

August 27, 2011

The need to rethink housing policy

Harold Pollack

A great philosopher writes in the New Republic:

Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner just published a major book, Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon. The book is excellent in explaining the misconduct of executives who ran Fannie Mae and Freddie Mack. Yet it goes off the rails by overstating the role of these firms (and understating the role of others) in creating the housing meltdown and the closely-linked foreclosure crisis. Indeed, our current economic crisis should prompt us to ask more far-reaching questions about the origins of the crisis.

Looking back, many of us—and by “us,” I certainly include liberal Democrats—were slow to recognize the general dangers posed by the housing bubble, and the specific dangers posed by the political economy of government sponsored enterprises (GSEs). Many of us were also unduly credulous about the presumed benefits of home ownership. While perhaps not as easy to address, these uncomfortable questions must be raised if we hope to guard against the possibility of something of this magnitude from happening again.

More here. And no, we don’t get to pick the titles…

August 15, 2011

Rick Perry’s Book is Really Bad

Harold Pollack

(Cross-posted at the Reality Based Community)

Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein both review Texas Governor Rick Perry’s book, Fed Up! Our fight to save America from Washington.

Matt notes what he calls “The ten weirdest ideas” in that book. Many of Perry’s ideas are, indeed, weird, such as the claim that Al Gore is part of a conspiracy to deny global cooling. Yet if I were grading Matt’s review, I would be forced to deduct points for redundancy. I’m just not convinced that Matt digested this complex work with the kind of detailed textual analysis that (say) Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz applied in several ancient and modern languages to the Talmud….

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June 12, 2011

The Promise and Limitations of Collaborative Governance

Harold Pollack

(Cross-posted at the Reality Based Community)

Last week, I attended a meeting at a federal agency to discuss how one safety-net provider screens for substance abuse. I met with two nonprofits that provide school-based youth development and athletic enrichment services. I hustled to another thing with several agencies and nonprofits working to provide summer jobs for youth. Government and sometimes foundation money financed most of what we discussed. Public purposes were pursued, but through a web of formal and informal arrangements, contracts, and negotiations to leverage many resources inside and outside government.

Public-private collaboration, for better and for worse, is the way of American government. Sometimes this is done very well. Sometimes—see Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac, and private rating agencies in the financial crisis—this is done very badly. Elected officials and public managers need to learn to do this more effectively, because that’s the way their work will get done.

John Donahue and Richard Zeckhauser provide a great starting point to ponder these issues in their new book, Collaborative Governance: Private Roles for Public Goals in Turbulent Times. As they note (about health reform and many other things): “The performance of America’s government depends on its ability to engage private players to accomplish public work.”

Donahue is perhaps most famous for writing one of my favorite public management books: The Privatization Decision. Applying agency theory to this critical, then-neglected subject, the privatization decision had a big impact at many levels of government. Zeckhauser is perhaps most famous for helping with my least-favorite book: my own doctoral dissertation.

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March 17, 2011

The 1970s were bad. So said James Tobin, anyway

Harold Pollack

Ezra Klein recently reviewed Jacob Hacker and Pail Pierson’s new book, Winner-Take-All Politics.  James Suriowecki chimed in to remind Klein of how much trauma the U.S. economy endured in the 1970s. This little exchange reminds me of one of the last conversations I had with James Tobin, the great economist.

Tobin was part of that generation of Keynesian economists who witnessed the human tragedy of the great depression. Some among this number, such as Paul Samuelson, have passed on. Others, such as Robert Solow and Kenneth Arrow, are still with us, contributing.

This group believed that policymakers could, by effectively intervening in the economy, prevent such a catastrophe from happening again. They didn’t get everything right, but they got a lot right. They had a hugely beneficial impact on the world and on their profession. Their successors leading the profession built on their work, but rarely retained the largeness of spirit of that pioneering group.

Fifteen years ago, I lived in New Haven. Tobin lived around the corner, and we became friendly. I was star-struck by his intellectual accomplishments and his deep commitment to liberal principles. I still am. He did so many things. I’d hardly be the one to summarize his massive accomplishments. Economists would note Tobin’s q, the Tobin tax, portfolio choice and asset pricing. You might think that William Julius Wilson or maybe Bayard Rustin were first to discuss African-Americans’ incredible stake in maintaining a tight labor market. They learned much from Tobin, whose long-ago observations on this topic provide chilling reading during our current economic crisis. He was even the model for a character in the Caine Mutiny.

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