343. Government and housing
March 7, 2010 § Leave a comment
The creepingagreement to do things differently.
Mom, Apple Pie and Mortgages
By ROBERT J. SHILLER
FOR decades, the federal government has subsidized housing — particularly owner-occupied housing. This has been especially true during the continuing financial crisis, with Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration propping up the housing market by issuing guarantees for investors on most new mortgages.
But what is the long-term justification for putting taxpayers on the line to subsidize homeownership? Is this nothing more than a sacred cow in American society — a political necessity because so many voters own homes and are mindful of their resale value?
In fact, there is much more to the history of subsidizing housing. While the crisis in the housing market shows that our current approach is far from perfect, there is a certain wisdom behind it, related not only to economic stimulus but also to the preservation of a sense of national identity. It’s important to remember this as we consider re-engineering our institutions as the crisis ebbs.
Federal subsidies for housing essentially began in the Great Depression with, among other things, the creation of the F.H.A. in 1934 and Fannie Mae in 1938. It all started for a simple reason: more than a third of all the unemployed were identified, directly or indirectly, with the building trades. At the time, there seemed to be no way to reduce unemployment without stimulating housing, and much the same is true today.
But consider what will happen once the economy is again operating at full capacity. Basic economics tells us that when Americans, over all, spend more on housing, they must ultimately spend less on something else. Why should housing consumption be better than other consumption, or investments that people might choose?