Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Credit Democracy

(((Not universal healthcare, but universal credit; except when you marry your dream girl and you didn't know her credit was bad; relationship between credit, democracy, and housing, especially housing bubbles; credit is not the way to provide housing.)))

Ross McKibbin in the LRB. Aspects are quite specific to Britain, but some fundamental observations are not.
The second inescapable obligation is the return of housing to its proper function: as providing places to live in rather than to speculate on. The relationship of housing to politics in both Britain and the United States is not fully understood even by those who transformed it. They don’t understand it because that would require confronting awkward facts about Anglo-American democracy. Fundamentally, private housing has become a compensation for the increasingly gross maldistribution of income. Inadequate incomes mean that large numbers of people don’t have access to the style of life that has always been the ultimate justification of neoliberalism and to which, reasonably enough, they now believe they have a right. What does give them access to it (in the short term) is credit. But credit has to be secured, and that’s what housing does. However, it works only if house prices keep rising and people have enough income to repay debt. When prices stop going up and people can no longer repay what they owe, the financial system begins to disintegrate. This is what has happened; and it has happened because we have replaced something like social democracy with credit democracy, or universal access to credit, and credit is a thoroughly inadequate substitute because sooner or later it has to be repaid. Which means that people’s incomes have to be sufficient to repay it, and in many cases they aren’t. What we have put in place is a dynamically destructive cycle. The number of houses is rationed in order to force up prices [this ir related to a specific Tory policy]; people buy houses in order to secure credit on the strength of those prices; this encourages a heady belief in perpetual profit and thus both risky lending and risky borrowing; this renders the banking system unstable; and lending both to individuals and among banks then collapses. Such a cycle involves a paradox. Since these credit democracies still hold elections, governments are forced to underwrite savers at the expense of creditors and stockholders. And if savers are also small shareholders, as many are, the price they pay for protecting their deposits is the devaluation of their shares. This is absolutely not what was originally intended. The rationing of house building has one other consequence: it means that many cannot acquire somewhere adequate to live.

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