The Subprime Solution

J8714 Chapter 1 of Robert J. Shiller’s book, over at Princeton University Press:

The subprime crisis is the name for what is a historic turning point in our economy and our culture. It is, at its core, the result of a speculative bubble in the housing market that began to burst in the United States in 2006 and has now caused ruptures across many other countries in the form of financial failures and a global credit crunch. Th e forces unleashed by the subprime crisis will probably run rampant for years, threatening more and more collateral damage. The disruption in our credit markets is already of historic proportions and will have important economic impacts. More importantly, this crisis has set in motion fundamental societal changes—changes that affect our consumer habits, our values, our relatedness to each other. fRom now on we will all be conducting our lives and doing business with each other a little bit differently.

Allowing these destructive changes to proceed unimpeded could cause damage not only to the economy but to the social fabric—the trust and optimism people feel for each other and for their shared institutions and ways of life—for decades to come. The social fabric itself is so hard to measure that it is easily overlooked in favor of smaller, more discrete, elements and details. But the social fabric is indeed at risk and should be central to our attention as we respond to the subprime crisis.

History proves the importance of economic policies for preserving the social fabric. Europe after World War I was seriously damaged by one peculiar economic arrangement: the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty, which ended the war, imposed on Germany punitive reparations far beyond its ability to pay. John Maynard Keynes resigned in protest from the British delegation at Versailles and, in 1919, wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace, which predicted that the treaty would result in disaster. Keynes was largely ignored, the treaty remained in force, and indeed Germany never was able to pay the penalties imposed. The intense resentment caused by the treaty was one of the factors that led, a generation later, to World War II.

A comparable disaster—albeit one not of quite the same magnitude—is brewing today, as similar concerns are hammering at our psyches.