Next bubble burst to show we didn't learn our lesson last time

It's looking more and more likely that we've been in a real-estate bubble - and that things are going to get mighty ugly as it deflates.

It's looking more and more likely that we've been in a real-estate bubble - and that things are going to get mighty ugly as it deflates.

If the situation, already worrisome amid the spate of sub-prime loan defaults, turns into the meltdown that many are belatedly forecasting, one result will be predictable: a hunt for culprits.

We'll find them everywhere. When speculative bubbles inflate, you have to search hard for skeptics, at least in the early days. But when the law of supply and demand reasserts itself, the obvious suspects will be, in many cases, the ones who led the cheers.

That will include some of the same cast of characters whose malfeasance, or at least nonfeasance, helped turn Silicon Valley in the 1990s from a place of innovation to a place where sheer greed was equally ascendant. The notable villains in the debacle of the early part of this decade were to be found in executive suites in the valley and on Wall Street.

A sleazy daisy chain of entrepreneurs, bankers, lawyers, and brokers shifted virtually all risk - from "equities" that had little or no chance in the long term - into the public markets. They moved the peril from the bank accounts of the people with the most information into the later-emptied wallets of the naive, but admittedly greedy, small investors who had the least understanding of what was going on.

They had a host of enablers in the media and PR industries. Sometimes those were difficult to tell apart.

I remember, back when the bubble was at its height, the half-joke of a valley personality who's observed the rise of stock prices in newly public companies that not only had no earnings, but also scarcely had revenues. When you couldn't do a P/E (price to earnings) ratio, he said, the next best thing was P/PR: price to press release ratio, where the more press releases you issued, the more the company was allegedly worth.

It doesn't just remind me of the tech bubble. Go back to the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. The same kind of irresponsibility was in evidence.

Journalists were a semi-witting part of these games, serving as we so often do as recording and playback devices rather than serious reporters. At a recent PR panel in which I participated, a journalist said with a straight face that everyone had learned a lesson from the tech meltdown.

I responded that he must have missed the housing bubble, when so many of the same practices were visible: financial machinations that irresponsible regulators ignored until far too late; super-optimistic touting by industry leaders and PR spokespeople; credulous reporting by journalists.

What will happen to the people whose hands are far from clean in this new debacle? Not much, if history is any guide. However, I'll be watching the journalists who helped fuel this latest unsustainable boom. As the market returns from mania to reality, they should hold one another accountable and offer a few mea culpas in the process.

Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grass-roots Journalism By the People, For the People. He is also director of the Center for Citizen Media (www.citmedia.org).

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