We created the cultural climate for this shared madness. Television shows advised how to “flip” a house after putting in cosmetic improvements. Real-estate seminars and popular videos convinced us that homes were not places to live in and raise a family but rather no different from piles of chips on a Vegas table.
We created the phony populist creed that everyone deserved to own a house. So lawmakers got the message to relax lending standards in service to “fairness.” But Americans forgot that historically nearly four in 10 of us aren’t ever ready, or able, to sacrifice for a down payment, monthly mortgage bills, home maintenance and yearly taxes — and so should stick to renting.
The problem went way beyond real-estate fantasies. Five-percent interest as a return on our money was once considered pretty good — especially inasmuch as a factory or farm on the other side of the banking equation could not really stay in business paying 10 percent in interest to banks for its necessary borrowing.
But soon retirement-account holders and institutional investors began to expect as a given 7, 10 — and even 20 — percent “return” on their portfolios. Wage earners and professionals alike compared the glossy brochures that appeared in the mail, and then jumped to this 401(k) investment or that mutual fund to “maximize” retirement portfolio earnings.
How Wall Street managers, eager for more multimillion-dollar bonuses, planned to deliver on their promised sky-high returns no one asked. But it often proved to be more by hook-and-crook shell games than by financing new productive businesses or by extending credit for the production of real goods in vital plants.
In a larger sense, this zeal for quick profits and easy money reflected an oblivious too-good-to-be-true culture in which we drove larger cars but demanded more oil drilling from everyone except ourselves. We expected both expanded government entitlements and lower taxes.
Our government borrowed ever more money from foreign creditors, because it was a collective reflection of our own profligate financial habits. Of course, we should reform Wall Street and Washington — and punish severely the crooks in both places. But Americans should remember that Frankenstein was not the name of the monster but of its creator.