Bubbling below the 24-hour stream of sensational news coverage are topics too complex for reporting in a newspaper or magazine but too urgent to leave to book publishing. Enter Columbia Global Reports, a new university-sponsored publishing imprint for serious journalism on underreported global issues. It was launched Tuesday, September 15, at an event I attended at Low Library connected to the release of the first book, Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the U.S. Mortgage Giants by Bethany McLean.
Turnout was great, with a waiting list line and a mix of students and faculty filling nearly every seat (I spotted the Global Center directors sitting up front). Nancy Bobrowitzs joined me and we remarked on the skew in gender (some 85% male).
After an intro from President Bollinger, Nick Lemann, the former J-School dean who is heading up Columbia Global Reports, opened the discussion. Bethany McLean contextualized the untold story of the response to the mortgage crisis and the (some would argue illegal) government takeover of FannieMae and FreddieMac. Bill Ackman, a high-profile investor, framed why we average Janes and Joes should care, leading us to imagine a future without the possibility to purchase a home with a 30-year fixed prepayable mortgage. Former FannieMae Chairman and CEO Franklin Raines provided inside perspective on the workings of the GSEs (government-sponsored entities), which underpin our economy. This is a tale too toxic for lawmakers to discuss in the sphere of electoral politics, too unwieldly for the public to digest in 30-second sound bites, yet too important to be ignored.
We left realizing how much rides on the stability of the housing sector. If the 30-year mortgage goes away, Ackman predicted home values to plummet 25-35%, and rents to increase, and income inequality to spread even wider than it is now. It’s disconcerting stuff, but at least there’s a new forum at Columbia for taking such things on.