Tag Archives: Ilya Somin

With Government Shekels Come Government Shackles

Though privileged firms may not focus on it when they obtain their favors, privilege almost always come with strings attached. And these strings can sometimes be quite debilitating. Call it one of the pathologies of government-granted privilege.

Perhaps the best statement of this comes from the man whose job it was to pull the strings on TARP recipients. In 2009, Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace interviewed Kenneth Feinberg. The Washington compensation guru had just been appointed to oversee compensation practices among the biggest TARP recipients. Here is how he described his powers:

Ryssdal: How much power do you have in your new job?

FEINBERG: Well, the law grants to the secretary who delegates to me the authority to determine compensation packages for 175 senior executives of the seven largest corporate top recipients. The law also permits me, or requires me, to design compensation programs for these recipients, governing overall compensation of every senior official. And finally, the law gives me great discretion in deciding whether I should seek to recoup funds that have already been distributed to executives by top recipients. So it’s a substantial delegation of power to one person.

Another example of shackles following shekels comes from Maryland. That state has doled out over $20 million in tax privileges to a film production company called MRC. MRC films House of Cards, a show about a remarkably corrupt politician named Frank Underwood. The goal of these privileges was to “induce” (others might call it bribe) MRC to film House of Cards in Maryland. One problem (among many) with targeted privileges like this is that there is no guarantee that the induced firm will stay induced; there’s nothing to keep it from coming back for more.

In this case, MRC executives recently sent a letter to Governor Martin O’Malley threatening to “break down our stage, sets and offices and set up in another state” if “sufficient incentives do not become available.” Chagrined, state Delegate William Frick came up with a plan to seize the company’s assets through eminent domain. It is clear that Delegate Frick’s intention was to shackle the company. He told the Washington Post:

I literally thought: What is an appropriate Frank Underwood response to a threat like this?…Eminent domain really struck me as the most dramatic response.

As George Mason University’s Ilya Somin aptly puts it:

But even if the courts would uphold this taking, it is extremely foolish policy. State governments rarely condemn mobile property, for the very good reason that if they try to do so, the owners can simply take it out of the jurisdiction – a lesson Maryland should have learned when it tried to condemn the Baltimore Colts to keep them from leaving back in 1984. Moreover, other businesses are likely to avoid bringing similar property into the state in the first place.

My colleague Chris Koopman notes that there are also a number of practical problems with this proposal. The only real property the state could seize from MRC would be its filming equipment: its cameras, its lights, maybe a set piece or two. And by the U.S. Constitution, it would have to offer MRC “just compensation” for these takings. The company’s real assets—the minds of its writers and the talents of its actors—would, of course, remain intact and free to move elsewhere. So essentially Mr. Frick is offering to buy MRC a bunch of new cameras, leaving the state with a bunch of old cameras which it will use for…well that hasn’t been determined yet.

In this case, it would seem that the shackles are more like bangles.

The Maryland State House adopted Frick’s measure without debate. It now goes to the Senate.

Richmond, Calif., Eminent Domain, and the Problems of Political Privilege

Sign Of The Times - ForeclosureRichmond, California is now moving forward with a proposal to use eminent domain to acquire more than 600 “underwater mortgages” (mortgages with unpaid balances greater their properties’ market value).

Eminent domain has long been used by governments for various public uses, such as highways, roads, and public utilities.  More recently this has been extended to include shopping mallsbusiness parks, and professional sports stadiums. However, while contemplated by other cities, eminent domain has never been used for the purpose of seizing mortgages. Richmond would be the first city to actually carry out such a plan.

On its face, the plan is straightforward. The city has offered to buy these underwater mortgages at discounted rates from the banks and investors currently holding these mortgages. If the offers are rejected, the city will use eminent domain to force the sale of these mortgages to the city. The city will then write down the debt, refinancing the loans for amounts much more in line with current home values.

While the stated objective of this plan is to provide mortgage relief to homeowners hurt by the most recent housing crises, the plan is rife with opportunities for political privilege and favoritism.  Ilya Somin, a law professor at the George Mason University School of Law, has laid out several problems involved with this scheme:

  • Far from benefiting low-income people as intended, the plan will actually harm them. Much of the money to condemn the mortgages and pay litigation expenses will come from taxpayers, including the poor. Most of the poor are renters, not homeowners, so they cannot benefit from this program. But renters do indirectly pay property taxes through the property taxes paid by their landlords, a cost which is built into their rent.
  • The program would also enrich those who took dangerous risks at the expense of the prudent. It isn’t good policy to force more prudent taxpayers to subsidize the behavior of people who took the risk of purchasing high-priced real estate in the midst of a bubble. Doing so will predictably encourage dubious risk-taking in the future.
  • Prudent Richmonders will also lose out from this policy in another way. If lenders believe that the city is likely to condemn mortgages whenever real estate prices fall significantly, they will either be unwilling to lend to future home purchasers in Richmond, or only do so at higher interest rates. That will hurt the local economy and make it more difficult for Richmonders to buy homes.
  • We should also remember that eminent domain that transfers property to private parties is often used to benefit the politically powerful at the expense of the poor and the weak. In Kelo v. City New London (2005), a closely divided Supreme Court ruled that government could take private property and transfer it to influential business interests in order to promote “economic development.” As a result, multiple New London residents lost their homes for a “development” project that still hasn’t built anything on their former property eight years later. Property owners lost their rights and the public has yet to see much benefit. The Richmond policy would create another precedent to help legitimate future Kelos.

You can read Somin’s article here.

It should be noted that there is a legal challenge underway as banks and investors argue that the city’s plan is unconstitutional. However, regardless of the plan’s legality, it is clear that it will do little to support economic development, aid the housing market, or support future investment in the local economy. It seems more about using these mortgages to privilege the few at the expense of the many.