Republicans claim the poor caused the global financial collapse. New economic evidence proves they're wrong.

Commentaries on economics and technology.
Jan. 19 2011 4:52 PM

Did the Poor Cause the Crisis?

Republicans claim that poor homeowners are to blame for the global financial collapse. New economic evidence proves they're wrong.

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Using data from Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, Acemoglu also points out that the dynamics of the wage distribution for the top 1 percent of U.S. income earners look different. As Thomas Philippon and Ariell Reshef have suggested, this group's sharp increase in earning power appears more related to deregulation of finance (and perhaps other sectors). In other words, the big winners from "financial innovation" of all kinds over the past three decades have not been the poor (or even the middle class), but the rich—people already highly paid.

Finally, Acemoglu examines the role of federal government support for housing. To be sure, the U.S. has long provided subsidies to owner-occupied housing—mostly through the tax deduction for mortgage interest. But nothing about this subsidy explains the timing of the boom in housing and outlandish mortgage lending.

The FCIC Republicans point the finger firmly at Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and other government-sponsored enterprises that supported housing loans by providing guarantees of various kinds. They are right that Fannie and Freddie were "too big to fail," which enabled them to borrow more cheaply and take on more risk—with too little equity funding to back up their exposure.

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But, while Fannie and Freddie jumped into dubious mortgages (particularly those known as Alt-A) and did some work with subprime lenders, this was relatively small stuff and late in the cycle (e.g., 2004-2005). The main impetus for the boom came from the entire machinery of "private label" securitization, which was just that: private. In fact, as Acemoglu points out, the powerful private-sector players consistently tried to marginalize Fannie and Freddie and exclude them from rapidly expanding market segments.

The FCIC Republicans are right to place the government at the center of what went wrong. But this was not a case of overregulating and overreaching. On the contrary, 30 years of financial deregulation, made possible by capturing the hearts and minds of regulators, and of politicians on both sides of the aisle, gave a narrow private-sector elite—mostly on Wall Street—almost all the upside of the housing boom.

The downside was shoved onto the rest of society, particularly the relatively uneducated and underpaid, who now have lost their houses, their jobs, their hopes for their children, or all of the above. These people did not cause the crisis. But they are paying for it.

This article comes from Project Syndicate.

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Simon Johnson, a former chief economist of the IMF, is co-founder of a leading economics blog, http://BaselineScenario.com, a professor at MIT Sloan, and a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. His book,13 Bankers, co-authored with James Kwak, is now available in paperback.