Based on the scores of comments, people are clearly interested in understanding the causes of the economic disaster.
I want to move beyond what I call “the squishy narrative” — an imprecise, sloppy way to think about the world — toward a more rigorous form of analysis. Unlike other disciplines, economics looks at actual consequences in terms of real dollars. So let’s follow the money and see what the data reveal about the causes of the collapse.
Rather than attend a college-level seminar on the complex philosophy of causation, we’ll keep it simple. To assess how blameworthy any factor is regarding the cause of a subsequent event, consider whether that element was 1) proximate 2) statistically valid 3) necessary and sufficient.
Consider the causes cited by those who’ve taken up the big lie. Take for example New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s statement that it was Congress that forced banks to make ill-advised loans to people who could not afford them and defaulted in large numbers. He and others claim that caused the crisis. Others have suggested these were to blame: the home mortgage interest deduction, the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, the 1994 Housing and Urban Development memo, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and homeownership targets set by both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
When an economy booms or busts, money gets misspent, assets rise in prices, fortunes are made. Out of all that comes a set of easy-to-discern facts.
Here are key things we know based on data. Together, they present a series of tough hurdles for the big lie proponents.
•The boom and bust was global. Proponents of the Big Lie ignore the worldwide nature of the housing boom and bust.
A McKinsey Global Institute report noted “from 2000 through 2007, a remarkable run-up in global home prices occurred.” It is highly unlikely that a simultaneous boom and bust everywhere else in the world was caused by one set of factors (ultra-low rates, securitized AAA-rated subprime, derivatives) but had a different set of causes in the United States. Indeed, this might be the biggest obstacle to pushing the false narrative. How did U.S. regulations against redlining in inner cities also cause a boom in Spain, Ireland and Australia? How can we explain the boom occurring in countries that do not have a tax deduction for mortgage interest or government-sponsored enterprises? And why, after nearly a century of mortgage interest deduction in the United States, did it suddenly cause a crisis?
These questions show why proximity and statistical validity are so important. Let’s get more specific.The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 is a favorite boogeyman for some, despite the numbers that so easily disprove it as a cause.It is a statistical invalid argument, as the data show.