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Newt And The Lucrative Field Of Housing History

Thanks to some good reporting by Bloomberg News, we now know that Newt Gingrich's consulting gig at Freddie Mac earned him not $300,000, as John Harwood’s question at the recent CNBC debate suggested, but $1.6 million. Gingrich maintained at the debate that he had been hired not for his influence on Capitol Hill, but for his perspective as a "historian." I'll leave it to others to point out the sheer hypocrisy of Gingrich’s taking the cash from Freddie Mac before turning around and bashing it at every possible oppportunity.

Instead, I set out this morning to learn more about the immensely lucrative field of housing history. I called up Alexander von Hoffman, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Policy. Von Hoffman gasped when he heard how well remunerated his fellow historian had been. "Oh man, I’d love to have that gig," he said. "I’m a housing historian ... but no one ever knocked on my door for that kind of figure."

Here’s the thing, though: in framing his consulting for Freddie as historical research, Gingrich may have realized that there was a potential sheen of plausibility to such a claim, because the fact is that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have on occasion supported academic research by universities and think tanks. "People of all different political ilks like to use our data, but on the other hand, think tanks of any sort need somebody to pay for the researcher to collect the data," von Hoffman said. "That's where you enter this interesting gray world." Von Hoffman, for instance, got a "just barely five-figure" grant in the 1990s from the Fannie Mae Foundation for a year-long research project on community development corporations and their relationship to a financial intermediary known as the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. The product was a lengthy article called "Fuel Lines for the Urban Revival Engine," published in December 2001.

As for his fellow housing historian, no, there was no written output, reports Bloomberg:

Freddie Mac officials expected Gingrich to provide written material that could be circulated among conservatives on Capitol Hill and in outside organizations, said two former company executives familiar with Gingrich’s role at the firm. And executives looked to him to help them find innovative ways to address the problems confronting Freddie Mac, said an official familiar with the company’s internal dynamics.
The former speaker attended brainstorming sessions with Freddie Mac’s management. He didn’t produce a white paper or any other document the firm could use on its behalf.

Von Hoffman is troubled by this. "Whenever I did something like this, I produced a written and I must say carefully researched piece," said von Hoffman. "For $1.6 million, I’d like to say, where is the product?....It sounds like this wasn't historian's work at all, it sounds like it was influence peddling." 

But who cares about such quibbles? It could just be typical grousing by a jealous academic who wishes that he, too, was able to shop for friends’ birthdays at Tiffany’s.