Friday, January 27, 2006

A Real Estate Crash Has Advantages

Last year Michael Kinsley, former editorial editor for the LA Times, wrote soem pretty bright stuff about the housing bubble. Seemed appropriate to remember some of those words as we get closer to the popping. Here's an excerpt:
Perusing the real estate ads like pornography and imagining what our houses are worth is the great American pastime. But a real estate crash, if it came, would have some advantages. The 19th-century American Henry George explained how rising real estate values harm the economy by operating as a tax on both labor and capital. Money for labor makes people work harder. Money for capital makes people save more. Both make the country richer. Money for land just makes the owner richer. There are all sorts of complications and qualifications, but the basic point is a good one.

People do foolish things under the impression that they are getting richer because their houses are worth more. They save less, they spend more. Egged on by television commercials, they "consolidate their debts" (i.e., buy a new boat) with a second mortgage. And who really gains from soaring house prices? First-time buyers don't. Nor does anyone who plans ever to trade up. The only beneficiaries are those who are selling their last house, after a lifetime of appreciation. The bigger the house, the bigger the windfall. This is yet another thank-you from America to the so-called Greatest Generation. I'm not sure it's necessary.

— The Boy in the Big Housing Bubble