Homeownership, the Middle Class

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President Barack Obama will visit Phoenix Tuesday as part of his “Better Bargain for the Middle Class” tour. The president is set to talk about home ownership. Economists Byron Schlomach of the Goldwater Institute and Tim James of Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business will talk about the middle class and home ownership.

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. President Barack Obama was in the valley today as part of his "better bargain for the middle class" tour. The president spoke at Desert Vista high school in Ahwatukee. The focus of the speech, improving home ownership opportunities for the middle class.

President Obama: Congress should pass a good bipartisan idea to allow every homeowner the chance to save thousands of dollars a year by refinancing their mortgage at today's rates. We need to get that done. We've been talking about it for a year and a half, two years, three years, there's no reason not to do it. Fixing our broken immigration system. It would actually help our housing market. [Applause] It's pretty simple. When more people buy homes and play by the rules, home values go up for everybody. And according to one recent study, the average homeowner has already seen the value of their home boosted by thousands of dollars just because of immigration. The good news is with the help of your senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, the Senate has already passed a bipartisan immigration bill that has the support of CEOs and labor and law enforcement. This could help home ownership here. We should address the uneven recovery by rebuilding the communities hit the hardest by the housing crisis, including many here in Arizona. Let's put construction workers back to work repairing rundown homes, tearing down vacant properties so that the value of homes in those surrounding areas start picking up. We can put people to work right now and improve the remaining housing stock that's out there. We should make sure families that don't want to buy a home or can't yet afford to buy one still have a decent place to rent. You know, we -- it's important for us -- it's important for us to encourage home ownership, but a lot of people rent and there is nothing wrong with renting. We've got to make sure that we are creating affordable opportunities when it comes to rental properties. In the run-up to the crisis, banks and governments too often made everybody feel like they had to own a home even if they weren't ready and didn't have the payments. That is a mistake we should not repeat. As home prices rise we can't just re-inflate another housing bubble. I hope everybody here in Arizona learned some hard lessons from what happened. Housing prices generally don't just keep on going up forever at the kind of pace that it was going up. It was crazy. So, what we want to do is something stable and steady and that's why I want to lay a rock-solid foundation to make sure the kind of crisis we went through never happens again.

Ted Simons: Here now to discuss the president's ideas on increasing home ownership opportunities among the middle class is economist Tim James of ASU's W.P. Carey School of Business. Good to have you here. Thank you for joining us.

Tim James: Thank you, good evening.

Ted Simons: From what you just heard, your thoughts on the president's speech.

Tim James: You know, I think the concept of the middle class quite troublesome for me in particular, somebody from the U.K. I think that what he's talking about are relatively short to medium-term measures to improve the lot of the middle class. But I think there is a more fundamental long-term problem with a squeezed middle class both in Europe and the United States. Because what's happened over the last 20 years or so, most of the benefits of economic growth have gone to the top one or two percent in most countries. So, what he's talking about are measures which will maybe improve things, ameliorate things for a short period of time, enable people maybe to get on the housing ladder more easily but I don't think they're going to cure the more fundamental problems that underlie what's going on in the western world in terms of the structure of economies more generally.

Ted Simons: Idea of owning a home being vital to a secure middle class, do you buy into that?

Tim James: I think that's quite problematic. Lots of models other places on the planet, home ownership not necessarily the be all end all. People live sometimes in the same rent the accommodation and they're comfortable with that. That is the financial model that works for them as an individual. I don't think we should put a flag up and say that's one of the big indicators that the middle class is thriving, that we have a particular high level of people who are homeowners, who are members of the quote, unquote, middle class. Think it is a signal when home ownership is rising that the economy is doing better but there is some level whereby people really shouldn't be trying to get on the home ownership type ladder if it is not really financially viable for them as an individual unit.

Ted Simons: I think for generations in the past, home ownership was a sign of security, a sign of stability, and also something for later in life, whether it's for children and tuition or passing it on to your children or for you and your retirement, you would have that 30-year mortgage, paid it off. You sell the house, you use that for retirement. Those sorts of avenues. Is that something that's going to be considered in the distant past here?

Tim James: I don't think so. I think for some groups in society that is still a model of going forward. Take out a long-term mortgage, pay it off and see it as your retirement bundle. I think that's fine. Different parts, different groups within the economy should be allowed to move at different speeds. You shouldn't necessarily bundle everybody together in the middle 60 to 70%, your ideal is to own your own home, have paid it off by the time you get to 65 or something or other, retire, be comfortable, so on and so forth. We should allow people to go down different roots. If you think about that model in the context of major urban areas, it's almost impossible to imagine people being able to buy a home in say the center of Chicago or New York or something or other, their model is rental. And they are members of the so-called middle class.

Ted Simons: The idea as well, from judging from the president's previous speeches and what he said today, the idea is that you get the middle class stable and secure all of the sudden you have demand for products. You have a vital center there where the top one percent, bottom 99, whatever the case may be. Whatever numbers you want to throw around there. It's not the income inequality that you mentioned earlier in the interview, isn't so drastic, isn't so obvious. Does that make sense?

Tim James: You know, I think that everybody needs to benefit as a result of economic growth. At the moment, the model that we're operating in in the western economies, one where largely speaking large groups aren't benefiting from economic growth. I'm not talking about the recent past, I'm talking about over the last two, three decades. That model is flawed in some way or another. We need to make sure that everybody benefits so that as the economy grows, demand comes from all sectors. The relatively poor, the middle class, the extremely wealthy, and that is what generates consumption and that is what keeps the engine of growth moving forward so that the middle class feel comfortable. So do the rich. The people who have done well out of -- their business or employment and also the poor are catered for as well. They are comfortable. I think it is something that is important. People will act differently. One of the things in economics, quite a substantial amount of evidence that says the more unequal the society that you create as a result of the dynamic processes in growth, there are two fundamental problems that will emerge. One a set of social set of problems, and the other one is basically that you break your own economy. Because rich people tend to accumulate more and more capital, buy more and more expensive houses and expensive cars and they are entrenched as the wealthy for a long period of time and it becomes more difficult for people in the middle class or poor to make their way up the economic ladder. You are destroying the dream -- pulling up the draw bridge and flooding the motor and making sure it is difficult for people in middle class to make it to the level of wealth the rich have gotten.

Ted Simons: In the speech today, mentioning trying to make it easier to refinance into cheaper, and let's face it, taxpayer backed --

Tim James: Government does some things particularly well and other things not well. If I might say, providing infrastructure, social or hard wired infrastructure, roads, and public broadcasting. I come from the U.K., BBC one of the great worldwide institutions. But I don't think does well when it gets involved in things that should be involved by the market. I have a problem with this one. I'm okay with making sure that there is regulation of supply, to make sure that banks and financial institutions behave properly and treat their consumers properly, because I think they're much cleverer than the end consume, financial products that people just do not understand. I think that is important. I do not think that the government should intervene -- people tie themselves up to rates --

Ted Simons: So, should government just say let the foreclosures roll. Let's weed it out here and if you're out, you're out. And we'll start all over again.

Tim James: I think that's a slightly different issue. There is a role for the government to play in a kind of -- in a chaotic environment such as the one we've been experiencing over the last four, five years to make sure that we don't have, you know, complete decomposition of the industrial, economic structure, so there are large number of people under water with their mortgages and they needed help. That was then. But now going forward, I don't think there is stow much of a role for -- so much of a role for the government to play in intervening in the negotiation process between people who want to take out loans and people offering them.

Ted Simons: If the president wants to cut government tape to mortgage lenders, the president wants to help more applicants apply and get results at faster rates, if the president wants those who maybe got a new job to not have to wait so long for loan eligibility, you're saying that is really up to the lenders. Government stay out.

Tim James: I'm saying that the government needs to regulate that process so that it makes a completely transparent set of regulations, you know, the person is going to buy a loan off somebody knows exactly what they're buying in a format in which they understand easily. You don't allow people who are lenders from this point forward to tie people in effectively to contracts which are all weighted towards the financial institution. So, you know, there is a possibility of refinancing. But I don't think it's right that the -- you should always give the consumers the kind of opt out. If something goes wrong, it's always on your side. Because we enter into these things in a kind of bargaining process. You should check out as a consumer what you're about to buy. I think it has to be transparent, well regulated, financial banking institutions, and then what goes on from that process is between the lender and the person who is going to take out the loan.

Ted Simons: So, again, if we see something along the lines of government guaranteed mortgage bonds, let's say you have enough capital, lender has enough capital to cover 10%, government backs that off you go if you have trouble, here we come, the taxpayers to bail out again. Is that better or worse than just letting the chips fall where they may?

Tim James: But, that's exactly my point you see. I think that's going too far.

Ted Simons: Okay.

Tim James: I think there is a role for government in the regulation at the point at which you -- the purchase takes place. I don't think it's right for the government to get involved in the actual financing of things. Because I think that's where we got ourselves into the whole mess in the past in terms of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the fiasco over the last five years.

Ted Simons: Phoenix area has seen a strong rebound as far as real estate. Are there lessons here that can be applied nationally?

Tim James: I don't think so. I always say this. I think it's still true. We are a particularly odd type of animal, you know. We really benefit from incoming groups of people, either tourists or potential long-term residents. We're -- us and Florida, I would say, we're two particular types of animal which is nothing like anywhere else. I don't really think there are a lot of lessons that people can take from here.

Ted Simons: Good to have you here. Thank you for joining us.

Tim James: No problem.

Ted Simons: Appreciate it.

Byron Schlomach:Economist, Goldwater Institute;Tim James:W.P. Carey School of Business, ASU;

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