WASHINGTON ( TheStreet) -- The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission was set up in 2009 with a simple mission: Figure out what went wrong and blame someone for it. The
release of a 550-page report from the Democratic majority on Thursday had plenty of blame to throw around. Another 100-some pages of dissent tried to capture whoever was left out. So, who caused the financial crisis? It was regulators and it was Wall Street and it was the president and it was bankers and it was Congress and it was lobbyists and it was management and it was policy and it was boards of directors and it was traders and it was ... fill in the blank. Pick a financial firm, a CEO or a regulator who had anything to do with anything related to finance from the late-1990s through 2008, and there's a good chance they're mentioned in the FCIC's documents. If not, they surely fall under the broad, often cliché categories included in the FCIC blame game, like "kings of leverage" and "captains of finance" and "public stewards of our financial system." "To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault lies not in the stars, but in us." Yes, the report actually says that. In response to the majority's conclusions, four right-leaning panel members came up with two different dissents. One laid all the blame on housing finance policy while the other dissent blamed 10 different factors, saying it couldn't blame just one thing and it couldn't blame everything either. "When everything is important, nothing is," they say. Indeed. But in all the conclusions and dissension, one group of culprits is notably missing. Call them consumers, homeowners, voters, taxpayers or simply Americans - they're the millions of people who were buying what Wall Street was selling or what elected officials were peddling in the name of the so-called American dream. The reason the FCIC has such a hard time blaming Average Joe is the same reason that politicians have a hard time doing it. It's tough to hold up a mirror to the very people you're accountable to - particularly when they're the weak, the poor, the jobless, the people whose stories evoke sympathy and heartbreak.
It's easier to blame former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan; he was once the most powerful and respected economist on Earth, who has become incredibly unpopular in the intervening time. He's got money and a memoir and friends in high places. It's also easy to blame bankers who walked away with multi-million-dollar bonuses as the system was unraveling -- not to mention faceless corporations like Goldman Sachs ( GS), Citigroup ( C), American International Group ( AIG), Lehman Brothers, Moody's ( MCO), Fannie Mae ( FNMA.OB) or Freddie Mac ( FMCC.OB) and esoteric concepts like "concentrated correlated risk" or the "shadow banking system." When you're writing a report trying to explain to Americans why they're so jobless and foreclosed-upon, it's much more difficult to say, "It's your fault for borrowing too much to buy things you couldn't afford." In fact, it's downright rude. One dissenting paper notes this element as an explanation for the housing bubble, but doesn't go as far as to list borrower greed within its 10 factors that caused the crisis. "Many borrowers neither understood the terms of their mortgage nor appreciated the risk that home values could fall significantly," they say, "while others borrowed too much and bought bigger houses than they could ever reasonably expect to afford." In an interview several months ago with TheStreet, Cornell University economist and law professor Robert Hockett pointed out the "classic collective action problem" that's at the heart of all boom-and-bust cycles. In his book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, in 1841, Charles Mackay first noted this phenomenon: Consumers always act in their own best interest, but those actions often mask broader implications that burn them -- and the rest of society -- in the end. For instance, if bread prices are climbing rapidly, a family might fill its pantry with lots of Wonder bread. The breadwinner, so to speak, buys as much as he can, as soon as he can, before prices climb further. But he's also fueling price hikes in the process. When prices eventually drop, as they inevitably do, people are left with cupboards full of molding bread. This wasn't a big consideration when they feared being left hungry and broke. When it came to home-price inflation, the effect was even more disastrous because consumers playing offense, not defense: They actually wanted home prices to keep rising. None of their short-term incentives were aligned with long-term effects.
Borrowers didn't have to put much money down and money was cheap. Borrowers committed themselves to debt they couldn't afford, with incorrect income information and unreasonable payment terms. Sometimes they didn't even bother to read the paperwork. What did it matter? Demand would remain strong, home prices would keep rising, they could always get another job and, if not, the government would help them out. In effect, their wealth was indestructible, right? Well, maybe not. "A rash of events that are individually rational, collectively are irrational," Hockett explained. "Expectations adjust and you expect prices to keep going up. ... If everybody acts rationally, they go out and buy now, and it drives the price up even faster. It goes on until the credit dries up -- but nobody knows when that is. But once that point is reached, the pyramid structure is no longer self-sustaining and has to come crashing down like the proverbial house of cards." Of course, the FCIC is correct in blaming all the things it blamed. There was, indeed, ineptitude on Wall Street and in Washington, D.C. There was Wall Street greed. There were politicians pushing what's right, rather than what's sensible. And yes, there was shoddy risk management from the top of the regulatory structure to board management to individual employees. But Main Street had a hand in the financial system collapse, too -- perhaps more than anyone would like to admit. And while the FCIC called the crisis "avoidable," there's an argument to be made that crises, by nature, are just the opposite. "It's no one's fault -- it's essentially a collective action problem," Hockett said. "These things are bank runs, and they are in and of themselves inevitable because a bubble is a bank run in reverse."
>>>Read The Full Report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission >>>Read The Dissent By Keith Hennessey, Bill Thomas and Douglas Holtz-Eakin >>>Read The Dissent By Peter J. Wallison -- Written by Lauren Tara LaCapra in New York. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Lauren Tara LaCapra. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/laurenlacapra. >To submit a news tip, send an email to: email@example.com.