Shiller: Rent, Don't Buy

In America we draw a connection between owning a home and being a good citizen. We've evolved from a feudal society, in which those who didn't own land were almost like slaves, to one in which homeownership is linked to social mobility, as well as civic virtue. In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that America "stands alone" in the equality of distribution of property and that "nations are less disposed to make revolutions in proportion as personal property is augmented and distributed amongst them, and as the number of those possessing it increases." In fact, studies like one done by Edward Glaeser at Harvard University and Bruce Sacerdote at Dartmouth have shown that homeowners are indeed better citizens—they are more likely to vote in local elections or to know the name of the head of the local school system. Speaking to a group of people at the much-maligned Fannie Mae recently, I said that I believed the work that they do contributes to the generally good feelings that Americans have toward each other.

But what's ironic, as any classical economist would tell you, is that homeownership is actually not a great idea from an investment standpoint. A better strategy would be to diversify as much as possible—put your money into stocks, bonds, many different geographies—and then use the income to rent whatever you like, which allows for greater flexibility and efficiencies. The popular argument that renting is equivalent to throwing money down the drain is really fallacious, since the money you save can be invested to produce dividends. Instead of you tinkering with the plumbing and breaking something, a professional can do it. The lawn guy who has the right equipment can come and mow all the lawns faster and better than individuals would, and so on.

Still, behavioral economics tells us that the emotional lure of homeownership is strong and would be difficult to break completely, even if that were desirable. I think that what's really needed at this point is some restructuring of the model for homeownership. Let's allow people to continue becoming homeowners, but find better ways to manage the risk around these investments. Perhaps we need to reconsider some of the tax benefits that encourage homeownership. We might also create new types of mortgages that reset depending on the ability of people to pay. We could also elevate the status of renting, by increasing the rights of renters relative to landlords.

Broad home- and stock-ownership in the United States and overseas is a good thing. But limits need to be set. To the extent that an equity culture leads to entrepreneurship and investment and wealth creation, I'm for it. But I was not, for example, in favor of George W. Bush's plan to privatize Social Security. Can you imagine what would have happened to people retiring today if that plan were in place? I like to think of capitalism as a game. We need to make sure we structure the rules of the game in such a way that we don't get injured while playing it.