THE NEW CONSENSUS
The speed with which a consensus has emerged about the underlying cause of our current financial crisis tells us that it was something we knew all along – but didn’t let ourselves know we knew it. The unwanted truth now is clear: we have been spending beyond our means. It was not just homeowners taking out mortgages they couldn’t pay for and consumers running up astounding levels of credit card debt, it was banks, hedge funds, mortgage companies, investment firms and governments that discovered how easily the traditional limits of debt could be ignored.
This presents as an economic problem, to be sure, but fundamentally it is a problem of mass psychology. Beliefs become validated as truth when opposing ideas became silenced or disparaged, when they become the only ideas that can be espoused without the fear of ridicule. Two forces contribute to bringing this about: the desires that pull people into convictions they want to believe, and then the fears that drive people away from alternative ways of thinking – the fears that rule out the doubts that might otherwise cross their minds. If everyone believes something is true – or appears to — how can you stand up against it?
In this case, of course, the clear desire was for more wealth and more purchasing power. In a consumer society who could object? The consumers purchasing more goods and services? The manufacturers expanding production? The merchants increasing sales? And then the American dream of home ownership was activated for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum. The ambition to acquire great wealth and status kicked in at the top.
Moreover, after the defeat of communism, other ways of thinking became proscribed. The victorious ideology of the market silenced critics who thought markets needed to be monitored or regulated. Even Alan Greenspan in his recent congressional testimony now admits there was a “flaw in his ideology.” His faith in the market’s ability to self-correct was too great.
Realizing that government could not afford to sustain basic levels of security for all its citizens, we created an Ownership Society in which everyone could aspire to the goods and services they wanted. We didn’t cut back on our desires, we simply found a new way to pay for them. Leveraging assets, borrowing from abroad, hedging bets, bundling and securitizing debt, we created an alternative to the defunct promise of the Welfare State. Once, people were worried about being in debt, but now debt now became normal, even a source of profit. No one would be left out of the opportunities that debt created. We persuaded ourselves that the risks could be safely managed — and democratized.
It became our biggest bubble ever – and no one raised a warning cry. To be sure, doubts were expressed about the housing market, and concern about the credit swaps, but no one thought it would led to the disaster we now face. And yet, in retrospect, it is all too clear.
But no amount of correction and reform learned from the lessons of this disaster will protect as against future bubbles. We continue to be vulnerable to the hopes and fears reflected in Mass psychology.