Back during the stock market bubble of the late 1990s, then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan characterized the buying frenzy of the period as fueled by "irrational exuberance." That he had more than a little to do with this and the ensuing housing market collapse is a matter for somebody's dissertation and not my column.
Regardless, I thought his characterization was right on the money and aptly addressed the boom and bust cycles in American financial and social history.
In the current housing market debacle, people bought homes, even as prices rose exponentially at the end in 2004-'06, believing prices would continue to rise endlessly. Those with contrarian views supported by empirical data and a healthy grasp of history got shouted down as wet blankets.
As the "land of opportunity," America has a storied past with this phenomena. Each new market boom is viewed differently from its predecessors for the simple reason that this is how Americans think — newer, brighter, bigger, stronger, smarter, richer.
Inherent in this is the creed that "the past" is somehow backward and that it's impossible for the participants of a given vogue of financial speculation to be stupid enough to make the same mistakes that previous generations did.
The fallout from the housing market collapse has larger implications for the American economy since bankers and credit-rating agencies were participants in the rosy assessments of the mortgage-backed securities that provided the gasoline for an 85 percent increase in home prices between 1997 and 2006.
Somewhere along the line, especially during the tech boom of the 1990s, the Puritan work ethic that's governed the American economy since its inception was sloughed off in favor of the belief that wealth could be arrived at simply by investing. The lousy arguments, lack of data, and garbage information that are available to potential investors in the 24-hour news cycle pushed that boom right along to its respective and inevitable conclusion.
There are bigger problems than just money at issue here.
When Americans begin to believe that a bleak economic period is leaving them behind socially, they become reactionary. A quick scan of the timeline of the United States readily shows how the explosions of racism and intolerance are paired with a bleak economy. That man who shot up the Universalist church in Tennessee recently used the congregation's social views as an excuse for his criminal conduct, but I suspect the real reason was that he was unemployable and it was easier to blame "the liberals" for his crappy life.
That the federal government has begun to bail out Wall Street, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac while the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation is looking at a full roster of failing banks is going to be a tough pill to swallow for American pride. That it has to be done is a moot point.
What also needs to happen is a wholesale change in the financial DNA of Americans.
We learn about monetary matters through trial and error, mostly error, because we have no skills. Little kids quickly identify the importance of money, but they grow up not learning anything about its management. It's a lot to ask an overtaxed education system to add more to its curriculum, but raising generations of citizens who can't navigate basic personal financial decisions is more expensive in the long run.
I didn't buy a big house in the suburbs with no-money-down, decorate it with a high interest-rate credit card, and drive home to it everyday in a gas-guzzling SUV, not because this isn't my style, but because I knew I couldn't afford it even if I'd wanted it.
I did get tons of mail and dinner-hour telephone calls telling me I could, though.