Wrong on Housing Bubble. Next Up: Oil Will Always Be $12
It must be depressing to be Paul Krugman. No matter how well the economy performs, Krugman’s bitter vendetta against the Bush administration requires him to hunt for the black lining in a sky full of silvery clouds. With the economy now booming, what can Krugman possibly have to complain about? In today’s column, titled That Hissing Sound, Krugman says there is a housing bubble, and it’s about to burst:
Meanwhile, the U.S. economy has become deeply dependent on the housing bubble. The economic recovery since 2001 has been disappointing in many ways, but it wouldn’t have happened at all without soaring spending on residential construction, plus a surge in consumer spending largely based on mortgage refinancing. Did I mention that the personal savings rate has fallen to zero?
Now we’re starting to hear a hissing sound, as the air begins to leak out of the bubble. And everyone – not just those who own Zoned Zone real estate – should be worried.
Well, if we believed anything Krugman writes, we’d be worried all the time. Or at least until we have a Democratic administration, when everything will be rosy again. Krugman’s description of the housing bubble is amusing for what it reveals about how Krugman views the country:
When it comes to housing, however, the United States is really two countries, Flatland and the Zoned Zone.
In Flatland, which occupies the middle of the country, it’s easy to build houses. When the demand for houses rises, Flatland metropolitan areas, which don’t really have traditional downtowns [Ed.: Huh? I don’t think Krugman gets out here much.], just sprawl some more. As a result, housing prices are basically determined by the cost of construction. In Flatland, a housing bubble can’t even get started.
But in the Zoned Zone, which lies along the coasts, a combination of high population density and land-use restrictions – hence “zoned” – makes it hard to build new houses. So when people become willing to spend more on houses, say because of a fall in mortgage rates, some houses get built, but the prices of existing houses also go up. And if people think that prices will continue to rise, they become willing to spend even more, driving prices still higher, and so on. In other words, the Zoned Zone is prone to housing bubbles.
I don’t doubt that some people in places like San Francisco and San Diego have paid too much for their houses. But it isn’t clear, and Krugman doesn’t even try to explain, why that constitutes a bubble or why level or declining home prices in selected areas around the country will somehow imperil the economy. Here are Krugman’s reasons for claiming that a housing bubble exists:
One piece of evidence is the sense of frenzy about real estate, which irresistibly brings to mind the stock frenzy of 1999. Even some of the players are the same. The authors of the 1999 best seller “Dow 36,000” are now among the most vocal proponents of the view that there is no housing bubble.
There are, of course, obvious differences between houses and stocks. Most people own only one house at a time, and transaction costs make it impractical to buy and sell houses the way you buy and sell stocks. Krugman thinks the fact that James Glassman doesn’t buy the bubble theory is evidence in its favor, but if you read Glassman’s article on the subject, you’ll see that he actually makes some of the same points that Krugman does. But he argues, persuasively in my view, that there is little reason to fear a catastrophic collapse in home prices.
Krugman will have to come up with something much better, I think, to cause many others to share his pessimism.
I’d say these guys should be eating crow about now, don’t you, though none of us really have the energy to gloat on this. I wish Powerline were wrong. We’d all be better off.