In Maine, the most obvious example of misguided demonization is the tendency to blame “greedy developers” for the problems of sprawl, while steadfastly resisting every effort to alter the three-acre minimum lot size zoning. It is human nature to seek and find villains.

We want reasons that explain disasters. We need to place blame on someone’s shoulders. The driver was drunk when he ran the light. The engineer was texting on his cell phone when the train crashed.

Sometimes this urge produces wisdom and justice — lessons learned and rules improved.

Other times, the drive to demonize someone else is really just a way to evade our own responsibility — think Adam’s response to the original disaster, “But she made me eat the apple!”

And so it is with economic disasters. We need to sift both the evidence and our motives very carefully.

For every explanation, every reason, every villain, we need to ask, “Is this explanation the result of a searching and fearless inquiry leading to wisdom and a better set of rules to guide our behavior? Or, is it the romantic fabrication of an imaginary paradise whose ultimate, if unconscious, purpose is to allow us to evade the painful process of admitting some degree of personal culpability and trying to change the policies that produced such unwanted results?”

In Maine, the most obvious example of misguided demonization is the tendency to blame “greedy developers” for the problems of sprawl, while steadfastly resisting every effort to alter the three-acre minimum lot size zoning we are so convinced will protect “rural, small-town character.”

In fact, such policies constitute an open request for developers to cover the fields and hillsides with single-family subdivisions as far as the eye can see.

The resultant traffic jams on the roads leading from the homes to the jobs (which aren’t located in the towns seeking to preserve “rural character”) have little to do with greed (or any other individual motive) and everything to do with the policies we set in place that guide economic behavior.

Blaming greed for the results of bad policy is like blaming the insects for ruining a picnic spread over the top of anthills and wasp nests — the problem is not their motives but our grasp on reality.

The so-called Great Recession of 2007-09 and its anemic (and now two-year-old) recovery have led to a rash of explanations, most intent on finding someone to blame.

News stories, books, TV shows, even documentary films present a parade of greedy, double-dealing, self-serving, hypocritical and occasionally illegal behavior that all undoubtedly contributed to the financial panic of 2008 and the consequent economic collapse that has hurt so many.

By focusing on the behavior of individuals — undoubtedly despicable — these exposes may help us feel better by identifying some villains to blame. But by that very fact they are less successful in helping us learn the more complicated policy lessons that are the only sure way to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

The idea that some “correct” form of re-regulation will reduce greed is naive. The idea that it can improve the rules of a game we all play is essential.

And that goal — making better rules for the game — rather than seeking villains to blame is where we ought to be focusing our attention.

It is more than a bit ironic that the very name of the financial re-regulation bill passed a year ago and very much a reason for the current economic weakness (Dodd-Frank) comes from two of the primary authors of the policies that led to the financial collapse in the first place.

Equally ironic is the fact that those charged with implementing it (Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, former White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers, and a former Goldman-Sachs executive and now head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Gary Gensler) were all initiators of the financial deregulation of the late 1990s that enabled a handful of financial institutions to become “too big to fail.”

My point is not to join the blame game by identifying another set of villains whose decisions a decade and a half ago may or may not have been based on greed but were certainly based on an inaccurate and incomplete understanding of economic reality.

If we maintain policies that channel the flow of capital into housing and provide government guarantees against losses to that flow; if we fail to define “too big to fail” while continuing to promise bailouts for institutions that clearly are; if we continue to pump money into an economy that is producing new jobs at the lowest rate since the 1930s, we are simply demonstrating that we haven’t learned the important lessons. And we are guaranteeing another collapse when a new generation of greedy financial wizards finds new ways to play the game we have designed for them.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

[email protected]