Eduardo Porter asks how much the housing bubble and its collapse cost us in his column today. (He actually asks about the financial crisis, but this was secondary. The damage was caused by the loss of demand driven by bubble wealth in a context where we had nothing to replace it.) Porter throws out some estimates from different sources, but there are some fairly straightforward ways to get some numbers from authoritative sources.
We can use as a starting point the Congressional Budget Office's projections for GDP growth from 2008, before it recognized the damage from the collapse of the bubble. We can then compare these projections with the most recent projections from last year.
If we just take the dollar losses through 2013 we get $7.6 trillion, in 2013 dollars. This is just economic losses, it does not include any effort to quantify the pain that workers or their families have suffered from being unemployed or losing their homes. This comes to roughly $25,000 for every person in the country. Alternatively, it is 190 times as much as the Republicans hoped to save from their cuts to food stamps over the next decade.
Many folks around Washington like to talk about 75 year numbers, which is the period over which we project Social Security and Medicare spending and revenue. If we assume that the economy's growth rate in years after 2018 is not affected by the collapse of the bubble, then the cumulative loss in output through 2089 as a result of the collapse of the Greenspan-Rubin bubble would be $66.3 trillion. This amount is almost seven times the size of the projected Social Security shortfall.
If we really want to have fun, we can sum the shortfall over the infinite horizon, an accounting technique that is gaining popularity among those advocating cuts to Social Security and Medicare. The loss over the infinite horizon due to the Greenspan-Rubin bubble would be over $140 trillion, or more than $400,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country.
Obviously these numbers are very speculative but the basic story is very simple. If you want to have a big political battle in Washington, start yelling about people freeloading on food stamps, but if you actually care about where the real money is, look at the massive wreckage being done by the Wall Street boys and incompetent policy makers in Washington.