Saturday, December 20, 2008

The NYT wrongly puts more blame on Bush than Clinton for the housing bubble

In the latest installment of the NYT's ongoing series about the financial collapse, The Reckoning, three reporters trace the history of Bush's housing policy, from its initially bullishness on housing and desire to increase homeownership rates, to the latter half of his presidency when he was forced to come to terms with the GSEs' imminent collapse, but wasn't up the task of convincing Congress that reigning in the quasi-public mortgage giants was necessary.

It could be that the Times has another article up their sleeve, in which they investigate the Clinton-era roots of the housing bubble, but the tone of the article places the lion's share of the blame on Bush, mentioning his predecessor only once: "Advocating homeownership is hardly novel; the Clinton administration did it, too."

The truth is that there's a lot more to say about Clinton and the housing bubble than just that. BusinessWeek took a stab as far back as February, unearthing some Clinton administration documents that clearly signal that the White House considers mortgage lending terms too strict. Clinton also tried (but luckily failed) to allow mortgage down payments to be drawn, without penalty, from retirement accounts. While Bush's successful attempts to ease the burden (obviously necessary in retrospect) of the down payment is met with scorn from the NYT, Clinton's failed attempt (along with other attempts that succeeded) doesn't even seem to have caught the eye of the Times, from what I've read of their financial reporting.

The NYT just a few days ago did manage to publish an article about a Clinton-era special tax break, though the focus of the article was the tax break, not Clinton's role in it. So Clinton passes a law seriously exacerbating the crisis, whereas Bush merely fails to curb a phenomenon that was already underway – and yet Bush's article is decidedly more critical of him as an individual than Clinton's.

Now, I'm not saying that I think Bush is blameless. Obviously he toed the same line as Clinton – homeownership is an unalloyed good, no matter how much you have to intervene in the article to achieve it. And in some ways it's even worse, since Bush is at least supposed to care about libertarian issues like, "Is the government unnaturally pumping up the housing market?" But to paint Bush as individually more responsible for the crisis than Clinton is just intellectually dishonest.

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