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Restoring Capitalism: Occupy Our Homes Shines a Light on Our Great Failure

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Salon recently reported that the Occupy movement is planning to begin a nationwide action protesting the foreclosure crisis, called Occupy Our Homes. Whatever your views of the movement itself, they are casting a bright light on the place where capitalism, our democracy, and our society have all failed: the housing crisis.

The financial crisis effectively started with the housing crisis, and it will not end until we find a way to resolve the housing crisis.

Economists who have repeatedly forecast a healing economy have misjudged the need for a healthy housing market as a central component for any type of economic recovery. The administration's current plans for preventing foreclosures are woefully inadequate, some experts believe housing prices are likely to decline as much as 20 percent this year, and our nation's cycle of economic misery will continue.

Since mortgage meltdown begin in 2007, six million homes have been lost to foreclosure. At present, another four million homes are at some stage of the foreclosure process. As the New York Times recently reported, one of the nation's leading housing analysts anticipates that a "staggering" total of more than 10 million of the nation's existing 55 million mortgages are "reasonably likely to default." Another recent article noted that,"If the U.S. foreclosure crisis were a baseball game, we'd probably be in the bottom of the fourth inning." This national tragedy is a long way from over.

The housing and foreclosure crisis represents a conundrum with plenty of blame to go around: banks that violated lending standards in a search for easy profits; the creation of complex mortgage-backed securities whose risks were not fully understood; borrowers who took on far more debt than they could afford; the list goes on.

What the Occupy protesters recognize, either explicitly or implicitly, is that since the start of the housing crisis, government actions have by and large penalized suffering homeowners while rewarding banks that should have failed because of poor business decisions. The government has not adequately enforced the laws associated with ensuring foreclosures are valid, appears to have no concerns when banks wrongfully take possession of homes (which, I believe, used to be called "criminal trespass" and "breaking and entering"). On the flip side, all of the administration's plans associated with helping homeowners facing foreclosure have failed miserably.

All of this is bad economics, violates the rules of accountability and equal justice that are essential to a viable capitalist economy, and undermines our democracy. The Salon article reports that the Occupy protesters plan to "disrupt" foreclosure auctions. These actions are strikingly familiar to the "penny auctions" that took place during the Depression era. As detailed in my 2009 book, It Could Happen Here, which focused on the danger of growing income inequality to our nation:

Civil disobedience can emerge, even among the most conservative and normally upright citizens. During the Great Depression, foreclosed farms were auctioned on local courthouse steps. As the situation worsened, farmers took matters into their own hands. In what became known as "penny auctions," neighbors of bankrupt farmers would gather for an auction, physically prevent people from bidding on foreclosed farms, and then bid a token amount for the farms with the goal of returning the homesteads to their original foreclosed owners."

What is striking is the lack of creativity or sense of urgency that has been applied to the housing crisis. Here is a guiding principle for action: Homeowners must remain homeowners. Yes, this may not be an idea that is universally supported. And yes, it may be unfair to those who acted more responsibly. But the bailouts of the banks were also grossly unfair and I suspect hundreds of other significant, unfair government actions biased toward financial institutions and not consumers have taken place since the start of the crisis.

As a nation, we no longer have the luxury of concerning ourselves with fairness. Our economy is on life-support, unemployment is far above the 6% to 7% level which then-candidate Obama called an "immediate economic emergency" when running for office in October 2008, and further declines in housing prices will send the economy into a greater tailspin.

We have adopted a dangerous complacency around the housing crisis that must be abandoned. If our economy and social fabric are to heal, a sense of urgency is desperately needed.

One rarely remarked upon but dramatic aspect of the New Deal were the many innovations associated with ensuring continued homeownership. This was a central focus of FDR's effort to heal the nation. In 1933, Congress created the Homeowners Loan Corporation (HOLC), which bought up one in every five mortgages in the U.S. and reissued longer term, lower monthly payment mortgages. In 1934, Congress created the Federal Housing Authority to insure long-term mortgages in a manner similar to the way the FDIC insures deposits, which ultimately made private lenders comfortable with 30-year mortgages. Most of us don't realize that the 30-year mortgage was effectively invented in the era of the New Deal and that previously mortgages ran for periods as short as five years.

A recent study estimated that 29 percent of all homeowners with mortgages are underwater, and it's likely that a sizeable portion of this total is more than 25 percent underwater, which is generally agreed upon as the point where even solvent homeowners simply abandon their properties (also known as jingle-mail, since the former homeowners send the house keys to the mortgage lender). As housing prices continue to drop, and I strongly believe they will, these numbers will continue to accelerate.

I do not have a specific policy proposal for fixing the housing crisis, but I have no doubt that with sufficient determination and creativity, this mess can be solved and we can move forward. The solution is likely to involve some pain on both sides -- losses for financial institutions and homeowners perhaps trading a portion of their equity (under the auspices of some new type of government agency) for a substantially lower mortgage principle. Or, any number of completely different solutions. But both sides made mistakes and so shared pain is not a bad thing.

But what is a bad thing will be to do nothing. We simply cannot allow the impact of additional foreclosures to to further destroy our economy or allow our social fabric to disintegrate as more and more people conclude that they were cheated out of their homes.

In the era of the New Deal, increasing farm foreclosures also led to riots and widespread violence in the Midwest, something we disregard today at our peril. In It Could Happen Here, I wrote:

These generally conservative farmers viewed their rebellion within the context of American principles. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who published the three volume study The Age Of Roosevelt, wrote, "Theirs, as they saw it was the way not of rebellion but of patriotism."...

I have no doubt that these [rioting] farmers would have explained their actions as a combination of anger and righteousness that would be echoed in our modern era: A corrupt system of home loans, combined with an economic system that was run for the benefit of a privileged few, unfairly destroyed their lives.

The housing crisis emerged and has been exacerbated by a violation of the fundamental principles that make both capitalism and democracy work: accountability, bankruptcy for bad business decisions, enforcement of our laws, and equal justice.

I have written elsewhere that the Occupy movement would not simply disappear into the night. It is the flashpoint for the deep anger and sense of unfairness that pervades our society, with millions of people who feel their lives and dreams have been unfairly destroyed, while those who played a central role in causing their misery continue to profit. The transition of the Occupy movement to a focus on foreclosures was inevitable; this is the epicenter of our national tragedy.

The movement's focus on foreclosures will shine a necessary, even brighter light on our failure to address this central aspect of the financial crisis. These actions are an important and necessary wake-up call to our society about what is happening throughout the nation on a daily basis.

We can, of course, dismiss this latest act of protests. But if we do nothing, I wonder how far we stand from the violence of the New Deal era or worse. At the time, FDR said, "The West is seething with unrest." Where are we?

This is article is part of my ongoing series at the New Deal 2.0 blog.