Senator McCain has been characteristically direct in confessing his lack of economic policy credentials, which puts him in sharp contradistinction to President Reagan, who actually studied economics and thought a lot about it and turned out to be, not to put too fine a point on it, a lot smarter than his critics. "The issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should," Mr. McCain is said by the Boston Globe to have said in December 2007. In November 2007, he told the Wall Street Journal, "I'm going to be honest: I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated."
Well, it's one thing for Senator McCain to go around announcing that he doesn't know much about economics. It's another for him to start making policy speeches that prove it, as he did yesterday in respect of the so-called housing crisis. "I will consider any and all proposals based on their cost and benefits," he said. Obvious, but it underscored that Mr. McCain, unlike the Democratic presidential candidates, has no proposal of his own for dealing with the situation. He added ominously: "In this crisis, as in all I may face in the future, I will not allow dogma to override common sense." Forgive us, but we took that as a thinly veiled attack on principled free-market conservatives who oppose government intervention in the mortgage market. What Mr. McCain calls "dogma" is what a lot of conservatives and free-market types call "principle" or, simply, "economics."
Mr. McCain's compounded this jibe with a threat to lean on the banks. "We should also convene a meeting of the nation's top mortgage lenders. Working together, they should pledge to provide maximum support and help to their cash-strapped, but credit worthy customers. They should pledge to do everything possible to keep families in their homes and businesses growing. Recall that immediately after September 11, 2001, General Motors stepped in to provide 0% financing as part of keeping the economy growing. We need a similar response by the mortgage lenders. They've been asking the government to help them out. I'm now calling upon them to help their customers, and their nation out. It's time to help American families."
Sorry, Senator McCain, but the analogy between General Motors after September 11 and American banks now just doesn't hold water. First of all, GM came up with its plan on its own, not after being hauled into a summit and being leaned on by some politician. Second of all, General Motors is in the business of selling cars. If it sells someone a car with zero percent financing, it's still selling the car. Banks are in the business not of selling houses, but of selling access to money. Asking them to provide 0% financing is like asking General Motors to give away that Chevy outright. It would be like asking the federal government to keep providing America with Social Security checks and a national defense while setting the tax rate at 0%. How are the banks, and their owners, supposed to make any money?
Mr. McCain spoke of the lenders' obligations to "their customers" and "their nation," but he omitted their primary and fiduciary responsibility — to their shareholders. Not that the lenders are all heroes; all too many of them, as Errol Louis has been writing, first for this newspaper and then the Daily News, conned customers into loans they did not understand and could not afford. But neither are the customers all heroes — some of them bought houses they couldn't afford, while other, more prudent consumers lived in smaller houses or remained renters. Somehow we trust the market to figure this out better than Mr. McCain. The last time he got involved in a high-profile way in a big banking issue, it was the savings and loan crisis, and Mr. McCain wound up as one of the Keating Five. Our hope is that Mr. McCain's 0% financing proposal is an aberration and that he comes back with more serious economic plans before the campaign moves into high gear.