I am far from an expert on the world of finance (he said, wildly understating the case). So I’d be interested to hear what smarter folks think of the following wild speculation.

The root of the current financial crisis is housing. Lots of people were extended credit to buy houses they couldn’t really afford, and those dodgy loans were repackaged and resold in funky ways on the assumption that housing values would continue to rise in perpetuity. That didn’t pan out.

Now, most solutions have focused on the financial instruments and institutions that got us into this mess, attempting to meliorate the short-term crisis. But the long-term problem remains: too much loaned money on too little housing value.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!

So what about some attention paid to the housing itself? Seems to me we could do two things: raise the value of housing stock, and lower the monthly bills of homeowners, freeing some money up to pay mortgage costs.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

You see where I’m going with this, right? There’s a way we can do both those things at once: energy efficiency. The lower you are on the income scale, the higher a percentage of your income you spend on energy costs. A coordinated national program to boost the efficiency of our housing stock would benefit those most in need: struggling homeowners in danger of going under. (It would also, incidentally, reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.)

What might such a program look like? Glad you asked. Lisa Margonelli at the New America Foundation just released a proposal for a Energy Security for American Families initiative, which gets into the details of this kind of effort. Here’s a top-level summary:

The Energy Security for American Families initiative would provide vouchers, low-interest loans, and state-run incentives to households making less than $75,000 a year to invest in energy efficiency. The centerpiece of the initiative is a federal government guaranteed loan program that would enable qualified lenders to make low-interest loans to moderate-income families for the purchase of energy-efficient autos, appliances, and home renovations. In addition, a system of vouchers and state-based incentives would provide market-sensitive “nudges” to influence purchasing decisions. To create flexible transportation options beyond private cars, ESAF would reward those who leave their cars in the garage with a yearly voucher, while providing seed money to both the public and private sectors to develop creative alternative transit programs.

Margonelli says the program needs $45 billion a year for three years, paid for with a modest tax on imported oil.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

That’s a lot of money, but it’s a hell of a lot less that what Paulson’s asking for, and it’s an investment dead certain to yield steady returns. Rather than simply staunching blood loss, it would make our economy more resilient over the long haul and help protect those least responsible for but most screwed by the credit crisis.

Margonelli’s proposal is excellent on the merits, regardless of any connection to the current financial mess. But I’d be curious to hear if anyone else thinks there is a connection.