For some time now, we've been noting that the recently-concluded housing bubble wasn't like most of the bubbles that preceded it. Unlike the railroad, telegraph, and dot-com bubbles--which, for all their short-term wreckage, created new infrastructure of immense economic value, as Daniel Gross argues in Pop!--the housing bubble has left behind virtual ghost towns, economically useless infrastructure (e.g., roads, water, and power leading to virtual ghost towns), and a brutal overhang of household and government indebtedness.
So we were pleased to see the (sometimes breathless, often prophetic) Nouriel Roubini make special note of the unproductive nature of the U.S. housing stock. Here are the key passages from Roubini, via Naked Capitalism:
Sixth, the existence of [Government-Sponsored Enterprises,] GSEs...is a major part of the overall U.S. subsidization of housing capital that will eventually lead to the bankruptcy of the U.S. economy. For the last 70 years investment in housing –- the most unproductive form of accumulation of capital -– has been heavily subsidized in 100 different ways in the U.S.: tax benefits, tax-deductibility of interest on mortgages, use of the FHA, massive role of Fannie and Freddie, role of the Federal Home Loan Bank system, and a host of other legislative and regulatory measures.
The reality is that the U.S. has invested too much – especially in the last eight years – in building its stock of wasteful housing capital (whose effect on the productivity of labor is zero) and has not invested enough in the accumulation of productive physical capital (equipment, machinery, etc.) that leads to an increase in the productivity of labor and increases long run economic growth. This financial crisis is a crisis of accumulation of too much debt -– by the household sector, the government and the country –- to finance the accumulation of the most useless and unproductive form of capital, housing, that provides only housing services to consumers and has zippo effect on the productivity of labor. So enough of subsidizing the accumulation of even bigger [McMansions] through the tax system and the GSEs.
We're not sure that the subsidization of housing capital "will eventually lead to the bankruptcy of the U.S. economy," but we're pretty sure it's not a very good use of currently-finite resources in growing the country's real wealth. But aside from that non-trivial quibble, we think Roubini gets this under-appreciated story exactly right.