The Dukes of Moral Hazard

I’d imagine that everyone has seen Rick Santelli’s absolutely absurd tirade on CNBC yesterday, but in case you haven't:

Santelli's tirade is remarkable for his anger about (amongst many other things) the idea that the Obama mortgage plan throws the concept moral hazard to the wind. According to Santelli's line of argument, people are now going to make irresponsible decisions about their housing and general economic behavior because of this government policy. And he’s getting cheered by a bunch of stock traders behind him.

The irony (as if there's only one) is that much of his cheering section had long ago thrown caution to the wind, as they took tremendous risks, many of which were premised on the notion that, if things got really bad, government salvation was a foregone conclusion. Big banks knew they were too big to fail; the financial world felt invulnerable. And I didn't hear them complaining about moral hazard when now more than a trillion dollars has been thrown at these banks, which makes the Obama housing plan, which will affect 8-10 million Americans and cost $75 billion, look cheap.

In the current economic climate, moral hazard has become a convenient piece of poorly understood economic theology that critics of any given government plan use to oppose it. The economy is in such shape that being overly concerned with this theology is folly. Policymakers need to focus on pragmatic solutions that fix these incredibly serious problems with the economy, including the housing market, in large part because figuring out the incentives that will nudge Americans’ behavior in the proper direction in incredibly complex markets is not going to happen by tonight’s closing bell.

David Brooks writes on this today as well.

Update: Press Secretary Robert Gibbs delivers harsh words for Santelli at today's White House press conference. Then Gibbs offers to buy him a cup of coffee -- decaf.