For the past four decades, liberals have pilloried conservatives as greedy, heartless bastards whenever they dared to question any well-intentioned government social justice or welfare initiative.
The reason we do it, of course, is because government programs have a proven track record of waste, fraud, and corruption. And this is universally true, regardless of how much the authors of the programs wanted to help people.
Case in point: the revolting transformation of Fannie Mae by its former CEO James Johnson, who took a financially sound, decades-old investment handling company created to ease the risks associated with mortgage loans made to first time home buyers, and turned it into a “political animal” that was up to its corporate eyeballs in corruption, political demagoguery, and shady accounting practices. Johnson’s leadership paved the way for the implosion of Fannie Mae under the equally corrupt Franklin Raines. Johnson had previously been a campaign manager for Walter Mondale and also held high level positions in both the Kerry and Obama campaigns. It was his clout as a Democratic party power player that gave him the ability to manipulate the Federal government in such an appalling fashion.
Recently, NPR’s Fresh Air spoke with Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times, who spent years covering Wall Street and the recent mortgage meltdown. Here are a few of her remarks, during the interview:
Fannie Mae was on very solid footing in the early ’90s, when James
Johnson took over, and according to people who worked there at the time
and worked with him, it became a completely political animal at that
It became all about preserving the government backing,
preserving the -essentially the subsidies that the government was
providing Fannie Mae and making sure that those sort of – that sort of
special treatment or special relationship with the government never went
… I sort of characterize Jim Johnson as corporate America’s founding
father of regulation manipulation. And what that sort of means is, I
mean this is a person who really, really wrote the blueprint for how to
neutralize your regulator, how to manipulate Congress to get your way
and, you know, essentially how to destroy your critics.
… Now, their
regulator at that time was very weak. It was HUD, the Housing and Urban
Development, and essentially what Johnson did, which was really amazing
at the time, was to help write legislation in 1991 and ’92 which became
the Safety and Soundness Act that was designed to prevent Fannie Mae and
Freddie Mac from calling on taxpayers in a time of failure.
helped write the legislation in two critical ways: one, to make sure
that his company did not have to maintain high levels of capital cushion
– i.e., he did not have to set aside a lot of money for a rainy day if
losses were to come across.
That meant that earnings were juiced. That meant his pay was
increased. So that was a crucial thing that he did that wound up in the
legislation. Fannie Mae’s capital requirements were far lower than other
The other thing that he did, and according to people who
worked with him was very instrumental in, was making sure that Congress
sort of was his overseer, not HUD, and so he kept HUD sort of under the
thumb of Congress, where he knew he had a lot of friends.
… One of the really big beneficiaries, albeit indirectly, was
Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts. Back in 1991, when Congress
was writing the legislation that would, you know, enhance or improve the
oversight of Fannie Mae, or so they thought, Frank actually called up
the company and asked them to hire his companion, who had just gotten an
MBA from the Amos Tuck School of Business.
Of course the company
was happy to provide a job for his companion and rolled out the red
carpet in a series of interviews with a variety of executives, and it
ultimately did hire the man. And he stayed there for I believe seven
So that was an example of the kind of thing that Fannie
Mae would do. Now, when I asked Mr. Frank about this, I asked him, did
it have any impact on his approach to the company. You know, was it a
conflict? Did he feel that it had been a conflicted, put him in a
conflicted spot? And he said absolutely not, that he didn’t really
remember being interested or having much to do with the 1992
But the record shows that he was very aggressive and
really tough on those who were testifying in Congress about reining in
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He was very aggressive to, for instance, the
head of the Congressional Budget Office at that time, who was trying to
call for increased capital requirements and to call for a focus on
safety and soundness at Fannie Mae, that Frank really took him apart in
There’s a lot more in the interview, including Johnson’s cozy personal relationship with disgraced former Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo. Johnson was personally responsible for legitimizing Countrywide’s extremely risky subprime loans, by bundling them through Fannie Mae and then selling them to investment houses as safe, government-backed securities.
And did you notice that one of Johnson’s first major power plays was helping to author the Congressional legislation that was supposed to regulate Fannie Mae? You will recall that JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and other mega banks pushed hard in favor of the recent Dodd-Frank (yes, Barney Frank strikes again) financial “reform” bill, and that Congressional insiders confessed that lobbyists for the mega banks had largely written the preliminary drafts of the bill. How comforting.
Although I am a fierce defender of free markets, I have often criticized the relationship between the Treasury, the Federal Reserve, and the mega banks, which has concentrated a disproportionate amount of wealth in the hands of a precious few incredibly powerful individuals. Congressmen like Barney Frank and big-time political operators like James Johnson understood this corrupt system as well, but instead of using their talents to ensure an equitable, stable distribution of power and wealth among all banks and private enterprises (which is what Democrats are always supposed to be doing, isn’t it?) they eagerly became a part of that system and actually managed to make it worse.
And any time Congressional Republicans or other government accountability groups dared to question Fannie Mae or the subprime mortgage scam, Barney Frank, Maxine Waters, and other Congressional Democrats wrapped themselves in the American flag, extolled the virtues of home ownership, and praised Fannie Mae for the ever-increasing number of minority borrowers whose loans were being underwritten. Implicit in these praises was the idea that any criticism of such a noble undertaking could only be the result of greed or racism.
So much for the virtue of “government oversight.” Sadly though, this is not the only way that greedy individuals can manipulate the government for their own gain. The progressives who run the City of San Francisco pride themselves as practitioners of social justice. They have, over the years, devised a complex set of provisions and quotas designed to ensure that city contracts are fairly divided among vendors owned by racial minorities, women, and gays and lesbians.
But a recent audit turned up an embarrassing truth: many of the special minority-owned businesses favored through city contracts are little more than third party front companies, who are ripping the city off for millions of dollars every year:
In one case, a Muni worker said the city paid $3,000 for a vehicle
battery tray. Such parts can be found online for $12 to $300, depending
on the type of vehicle. City officials said they couldn’t verify that
purchase, saying the trays are usually bought in bulk with the battery.
Other city purchasing policies, if followed, would mean paying about
$240 for getting a copy of a key that actually cost a worker $1.35 to
get done at a hardware store on his break, the employee said. Another
city worker called the use of catalog pricing for supplies
Markups from approved vendors range from 10 to 150 percent, employees
said, with one calling the city’s requirement that contractors provide
health care benefits for domestic partners “the expensive white elephant
standing in the middle of the room (that) no one wants to mention.”
Some vendors are suspected of being little more than middlemen who
comply with San Francisco’s very specific requirements for contractors –
like disclosing historic ties to slavery and providing domestic partner
benefits, a provision known as 12B because of its chapter in the
Administrative Code – then turn around and buy the products from
companies that don’t meet the restrictions, city officials acknowledge.