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Sat., May 21, 2011, midnight

Froma Harrop: Bad housing news has an upside

Just as busts follow booms, booms are supposed to follow busts. But there has been no boom, not even a boomlet, to light a candle in the gloom of the housing collapse. Many economists thought that a recovery from the real-estate meltdown that started in 2007 would be well on its way by 2011.

The unhappiness is understandable. But some extension of this pain would not be a terrible thing in the long run.

The latest news shows new home construction down almost 11 percent in April from March, and housing starts were off by 24 percent from a year earlier. The causes are weak demand in a tough economy and hard-to-get home loans, but also a heavy dose of negative reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement is a principle of behavioral psychology whereby repeated punishment reduces the likelihood that a human or rat will continue doing something. If whenever the rat hits a lever, he gets a shock, he stops pressing after a while.

A parade of shocks on the housing front is delivering Americans much negative reinforcement. And they need it.

An American mystique about homeownership has kept us ignoring history and going back for more and bigger houses. In the recent real estate bubble, consumers who couldn’t afford it desired far grander digs than a simple nest with room for the chicks. They wanted media rooms, wine cellars and hotel-size kitchens opening onto three-car garages.

And they had the federal government cheering them on. Washington has long let homeowners deduct mortgage interest from their taxable income, thus encouraging bigger home loans. It has kept interest rates super low, providing incentive to borrow larger sums. And in the boom, because homebuyers could borrow more, they could pay more for houses, thus launching real estate prices into outer space.

Only constant negative reinforcement will change a society that never seems to learn that homeownership is not the low-risk path to wealth and happiness. In the 1920s, Americans gorged on Florida real estate, some of it underwater. The Depression came, and – ka-boom! – property values fell like a rock in the Everglades.

Shabby lending practices and deregulation during most of the 1980s set off another real-estate stampede. That run-up in house prices went south late in the decade as lenders, chiefly savings and loans institutions, went bust in another financial scandal.

Then as now, scams and the collusion of government had created a market of glass, leaving taxpayers to pick up the shards. Then as now, a busted housing sector hurt the larger economy.

Only it’s worse now.

The temptation for government to extend yet more support for housing is great but must be resisted. Granted, Washington can’t abruptly stop the federal loan-guarantee programs that currently back nine out of 10 mortgages. They are nearly all that’s left holding up the sickly market.

However, the Feds are eyeing the beginning of the end for subsidies that help feed real-estate frenzies and, besides, make no macroeconomic sense. One fix already on the way is a cut in the size of home loans that the federal government will guarantee – now as high as $729,750 in the most expensive communities – to $625,500.

Another worthy proposal is to reduce the size of mortgage debt on which interest may be deducted from taxes. The current maximum is $1 million. Eventually, no mortgage interest should be deductible. (Ignore the screams, and arguments, from the real estate interests.) There is no mortgage-interest deduction in Canada, and rates of homeownership there are comparable to ours, and the economy a lot healthier.

In the meantime, let the pounding bad news on housing change American attitudes toward home-buying – and start moving the government out of the business of egging on the worst behavior.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for the Providence Journal.

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