Social Forces, More than Bad Actors, Led to Crisis

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Throughout the various policy, scholarly and media debates over the financial crisis — up to and through release of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission's report — the focus has been on a handful of bad actors.

Among the identified culprits are greedy homeowners, lazy underwriters, asleep-at-the-wheel regulators, irresponsible investors, fraudulent appraisers and credit rating agencies, misguided housing policy agencies of government and a range of other individuals and organizations. Missing from virtually all discussions is the crucial role that several broader, and more fundamental, contextual factors played in nurturing the crisis events, factors that promise to create future bubbles and crises if attention is not paid.

Perhaps the most crucial factor, hidden in plain sight, is the role of residential racial segregation. As Jacob Rugh and Douglas Massey recently reported in American Sociological Review, racial segregation is a stronger predictor of the number and rate of foreclosures in U.S. metropolitan areas than creditworthiness, level of subprime lending, home price inflation, coverage by the Community Reinvestment Act or other factors. Because low-income and minority communities were targeted by subprime lenders, it is no surprise that the best prospects for such high-pressure marketing could be more easily identified in segregated communities — and higher foreclosure patterns were an inevitable outcome.

Fair housing enforcement, consequently, is important for financial services reform, as well as for equal housing opportunity.

A related contextual factor has been the skyrocketing trajectories of economic inequality. The fact, if not the cause, of such inequality is widely agreed upon in journals ranging from Mother Jones to The Wall Street Journal. As more families find themselves economically stressed, and falling further behind their neighbors, they become more vulnerable to exploitative home refinancing schemes that, again, lead directly to foreclosures. Strengthening the role of unions, rebuilding the social safety net and restoring the middle class, therefore, also are essential steps toward financial services reform.

An ideological commitment to the false notion that markets are self-correcting led financial institutions and regulators down the same path. Even Alan Greenspan admitted to the House Oversight Committee in 2008 that his view of how the world worked was wrong. Greenspan testified, "I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms."

Committee Chairman Henry Waxman followed up: "In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working." Greenspan replied, "Absolutely, precisely."

But the notion that all goods and services are and should be distributed through voluntary decisions by individual buyers and sellers in a free market where entrepreneurs are properly driven to maximize private returns to stockholders remains an article of faith, though a faith that has proven unfounded.

Some observers have commented that a blind faith in free markets is part of the problem, but only to support a call for stronger regulation. Rarely does any "serious" student of financial services question the role of private capital accumulation as the appropriate, ultimate objective of our economic system or propose alternative structural approaches to prosperity. Nowhere has anyone suggested, for example, that the state-owned Bank of North Dakota, which has financed industry, agriculture, finance, education and more since 1919, might have any lesson to teach us.

Of course, this ideological perspective does not appear out of thin air. The nation's elite (and not so elite) business and law schools train — and socialize — the leaders of our nation's financial institutions and their regulatory agencies, and they preach the free-market gospel. The minions learn it well. Among the consequences is the revolving door between industry and regulatory offices. Imposing a firm hiatus between leaving a regulatory agency and joining one of its regulated companies would be a step in the right direction.

A related contextual factor is the political power of the nation's financiers. Industry lobbyists do not always get their way in the legislative process, but they are well prepared to continue the more opaque rule-writing battle. As The Wall Street Journal reported, months before the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was signed into law, but in anticipation of legislation along those lines, lobbyists began working closely with agency employees to write the regulations. No doubt some of what the industry lost in the law will be regained in the rule-writing. And some in Congress are already considering legislation to repeal the law itself.

The industry's political power is occasionally noted but, again, primarily to demonstrate the need for stronger regulation rather than broad political changes. Yet absent a broader context of campaign finance reform, reforming the nation's financial institutions will be far more difficult.

Perhaps the most challenging force is global capital. As David Harvey argued in his recent book, "The Enigma of Capital," we are experiencing a crisis of capitalism, not a crisis of regulation. The unsustainable demand for permanent private returns on capital made mortgage-backed securities an attractive outlet for surplus capital, at least until the bubble burst. But failure to rein in global capital invites more frequent, and more severe, booms and busts.

These contextual factors present far more fundamental and problematic challenges to the nation's economy and overall well-being than whether we figure out how to resolve the too-big-to-fail problem, regulate derivatives or which financial products to ban. Technical fixes are part of the solution. But bringing a strong dose of democracy to our economy should be the first order of business.

Gregory D. Squires is professor of sociology, public policy and public administration at George Washington University.We want to hear from you, too. Join the conversation by posting a comment using the form below.

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