The 20072008 financial crisis had its genesis in the United States housing markets, but it rapidly spread to other economies, first to the United Kingdom, but then almost everywhere else, including such unlikely spots as Iceland whose banking system collapsed. Because events in the United States triggered the crisis, this essay will concentrate on the US causes although they had their many counterparts elsewhere.
There are at least three long-standing background influences that contributed to the financial debacle that dominated the US economy in 2008:
For almost 100 years, the US government has not felt constrained to match its expenditure with its revenue. This policy was given intellectual justification by the writings of John Maynard Keynes who argued in the 1930s that, during periods of slow economic growth, active and purposeful government policies would allow the economy to spend its way out of recession. It was simply a matter of time before citizens aped the financial habits of their governments by living beyond their means.
The Federal Reserve System (the Fed created in 1913) has accommodated government’s policy of spending to excess by inflating the money supply and keeping interest rates artificially low. Today’s dollar will buy what in 1913 would cost less than a nickel. This easy-money policy has not only led to inflation but has resulted in investments taking place that would not be justified had the money supply been constrained, and had interest rates more clearly reflected economic reality.
Since the 1960s, politicians parroting the suspect theories of Keynes have fed the public’s naïve belief that government can provide ever-increasing living standards by means of its monetary and fiscal policies. Pulling a fiscal lever here and pushing a monetary button there meant that constraints on spending were old fashioned, and living standards would forever improve. The limitations imposed by the laws of economics had been repealed if you voted for politicians who promised to provide you with something for nothing. Fiscal prudence was simply a capitalist lie.
It is against this long-term, more philosophic backdrop, that the following, more immediate issues, assumed greater importance.
January 1, 2009