I’ve just finished reading Reckless Endangerment, the sixth or seventh book I’ve read about the causes of the economic collapse that led to the “great recession.” And while this book, written by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner, is one of the best and most insightful of the bunch, I can’t help but feel that they all –The Big Short, All the Devils Are here, etc. — miss the point.
In my opinion, all these books focus too narrowly. They each seem to try to find one evil and greedy hand behind the entire economic disaster. In that respect, they don’t differ very much from what you hear at cocktail parties or I suspect, on golf courses (since I don’t play golf I’m only able to speculate). They all are looking for one or two guilty parties. Somebody had to be responsible for this mess, they argue, and each book purports to tell you who it is.
Some people, and certainly left leaning politicians and columnists blame the banks and the greedy investment bankers. Some blame the rating agencies. On the other hand, my more conservative friends like to blame Bill Clinton, Barney Frank, and Fannie Mae, and not necessarily in that order.
So, what’s wrong with that? Somebody had to be at fault. Right? Well yes, but in this case it was pretty much everyone.
All of us who borrowed more money than we should have, who bought homes we couldn’t afford (or sold them to people who couldn’t afford them), all who believed home prices could only go in one direction, contributed to this crisis. And did so in a fashion not terribly different from those on the other side of the equation who lent money they shouldn’t have to people to whom they shouldn’t have. And while I absolutely agree that the greed of the investment and mortgage bankers, the complicity of the rating agencies, and the wrong-headedness of our political leadership played a determining role in getting us into the economic mess from which we have yet to recover, the American people are no more free of blame than a user of drugs who claims no responsibility for his habit.
And now we are going through the recovery period, and it isn’t quick nor easy. But we will get through it. If there is anything we should have learned from the boom that led to the bust is that things change. Good times can’t go on forever. Neither can bad times. What led us into the recession was excessive (and widespread) greed. What is keeping us in the recession right now is excess fear. But at some point, that will change and a real recovery will begin. It always does.
Finally, while I’m at it, let me talk about what we who are involved in housing should have learned from this bust.
Clearly, the “ownership society” message promulgated by Presidents Clinton and Bush, and for the last fifty years, nearly every other elected official, was wrong. Homeownership is not a guaranteed path to wealth creation. Nor should everyone be a homeowner, or at least not at every point of their adult life. Owning is a lifestyle choice. It is a choice that makes a great deal of sense when one is willing and able to trade off the flexibility that renting offers. Most of us will own a home at some point in our life. Most of us will also rent, at other points in our life. Each is a valid choice. Each is to be respected. Each has its time and its place.