Saturday, March 28, 2009

Kool-Aid for All

This is one of those entries that started as a comment-reply and grew beyond its banks like the Red River.

I've been thinking about what got our country into such a mess. I've read several interesting articles about the rise and fall of the sub-prime mortgage (and more importantly of the sub-prime mortgage-backed security) and I've found them useful. My husband is a great source of information as his market-color has come to be read and praised by traders all over the country. (Sorry to embarrass you honey, but it's true.) So, I feel that I'm probably more educated on the matter than the average aspiring English professor. Which is to say, not very. Nevertheless, I think the media has taken a complex soul-issue and boiled it down to WALL STREET VERSUS MAIN STREET binary with a great color graphic and a few choice soundbites.

What we have here is not as much a tale of corporate greed and Wall Street traders gone amok (Because corporations and Wall Street traders have always been greedy. Seriously, that's their JOB.) as it is a tale of the average American and his and her feelings of insecurity and entitlement. What we have here is a bad case of use-my-house-as-a-piggy-bank to fund the lifestyle I can't afford. People got ARMs without considering what would happen if their rates reset before they got better jobs and used their HELOCs to fund their vacations. And it doesn't take an economist to deduce that when you spend money you don't have in the hopes that an investment you made will pay off at a rate of 20%, you run into trouble. And then, when the real estate market Fairy Godmother didn't come through, these people felt owed something. By the government, by the Wall Street folks who thought up those crappy securities, and by those people who paid their mortgages and didn't try and go to the Bahamas on HELOC money. This is overly simple, and David is probably going to find all kinds of problems with it. Maybe I'll let him amend and correct.

But my point, and the really sad thing about all of this is that people all over the country are busting their guts to make an extra $30K on their houses. They're pulling teeth (sometimes each other's) over that extra $300 a month they got from their ARMs that they needed so desperately to construct the veil of prosperity over a false face of debt. And don't get me wrong, $30K is a lot of money to me, too. A LOT of money. But I'm thinking, even as our little cottage is on the market, about the value of an extra bedroom and an extra 300 square feet. And you know, the conclusion I come to is that it just doesn't matter. It doesn't really matter at all.

What does seem to matter to me increasingly are the sweet faces of my children (the tiny little baby who I've seen only once and the little bigger baby) and my husband. What matters to me is that spring is here and summer is coming and my roses are blooming. I care that the broad fields spread out along the banks of the Tennessee River are plowed and black and ready to plant. I remember seeing acres of dead corn because of the drought, but God sent the rain and this summer there will be corn and tomatoes and peaches and okra and watermelon for everyone. And this is important to me.

I care that my parents are strong and in their right minds. I care that my nieces and nephews are all growing up in to the people God made them to be. I care that my priest notices when I don't come to church and writes to ask how I am. I care that Jesus has called me by my name.

It matters that when my head hits the pillow, I sleep with a clear conscience. It matters to me that when my baby is hungry, I have enough for her to eat and when she is dirty, I have clean water in which to wash her.

And what does it matter in the end if you or someone else judges me by what I have or don't have? I have everything. So, I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time trying to impress those people who I don't really like anyway. I'm not going to talk about whose house sold for what and how mad I am that I didn't get more. I'm not going to lose my temper over money I never really had in the first place. I'm not going to scramble to cover the nakedness of an impoverished soul with clothes I don't like. It's time to loosen the burden of the phony baloney suburban-urban, housewife-corporate wife, spend-the-money-you-don't-have-on-stuff-you-don't-need-to-impress-your-neighbor-who-you-really-hate culture we've grown here. I'm sick to death of it. Literally, to death because it's a pernicious little grub in otherwise fertile ground. If that makes any sense at all.


House said...

I love this. I need to read more Wendell Berry because every time I see something like this I understand everything I ever knew. I'm guessing you dig Wendell like your rose garden.

susan said...

It's weird, because I've read a lot of W.B's poetry and I have written probably more than 100 pages about it, but I don't really consider myself a fan of his prose. I probably would be, but he just seems so popular right now and I'm a little put off by that. (And part of that is the professional urge I have to explore things that other people have ignored. And part of that is just a deep-seated prideful aversion to the bandwagon.) I imagine that in the next few years I'll get over myself.

I'm shaping up a prospectus that deals with "southern agriculturalism" to say it poorly, and he'll probably show up somewhere.

I hope everything with your house goes well. Stressful times. I've been thinking about you.

sara said...

This was very good. I wish I could link to it for any students / reporters who ask me what happened.
In a word, "Word."
Also, I am a fan of some of WB's stuff, but I am wary of his views of trade. I won't say more, because all I know was told to me by a WB convert, and not from my own reading of his stuff.

- the econ prof

susan said...

Sara, you should look at David's blog. He is much more scientific in his appraisal, but I'm not sure he's posted his thoughts yet.

I'm glad you think this is a not-so-terrible estimation of the situation. It is so much more complex than lay-people (or Congress apparently) can really wrap their brains around. Me included.


Charlene said...

Hey Su, I saw this article and it made me think of your two most recent blog posts:

susan said...

Obama is trying to make Europe follow suit with their own gigantic stimulus packages, but Europe is telling him to stick it. That's pretty much the take I got from the Economist.

Maybe Europeans are more than nice suits and smelly cheese after all. :-)

susan said...

Oh and BTW, David said that he doesn't really agree with my appraisal here. He says you can't put all the blame on anyone because it was a Perfect Storm of sorts.

So, yeah.

Under The Mountain said...

I think you're right.

But what really made me want to comment was your response to House where you explained that you don't like Wendell Berry because "he just seems so popular right now and I'm a little put off by that." This is why I don't like Wendell Berry, either. Maybe we can form a club for people who don't like Wendell Berry because he's too popular!

"Too popular" is why a friend of mine didn't like Rick Springfield's top-40 music in 1983. Based solely on that data point, I'd say Wendell Berry's future isn't looking too bright.

Aren't irrational prejudices fun, as long as no one gets hurt?

Robert said...

I agree with you more than David. Those forces you mention contribute to things like real estate inflation in an exponential way. The harbinger of death, Alan Greenspan, and our elected officials decided it would be OK to lend money in a way that is terribly bad stewardship by lowering the interest rate to almost nothing. This created over inflation in the housing market and wall street because of excess leveraging (margin accounts) and fostered unrealistic expectations in the growth of capital. So, if anyone should get the blame its Washington. But, who elected these people?

These people know what the hell they are talking about:

God is gracious, God is just, God punishes sin... The One and The Many.

Micro economics, macro economics.

Saving wealth is an act of obedience (both at a corporate level and an individual one). However, what is missing in the post enlightenment west, is that fiscal stewardship actually bleeds over into moral stewardship (since how you handle money is in fact a moral act). The oneness of reality dictates that fiscal responsibility leads to other kinds of responsibility. There are studies out there we could never do like: the correlation of debt to teenage pregnancy or health care costs to video games consoles sold or tax base to hours of American Idol watched. We all (Christians) know that moral bankruptcy is expensive (cultural bankruptcy is moral bankruptcy).

Luckily, once it gets really bad, our government and economy can look to the church to learn how to spend/save its money wisely... right?

"We have met the enemy and he is us."

susan said...

There are no clubs for non-conformists! And there is no crying in baseball.

Robert, he's right, though. I really don't have a complete grasp on the situation. But I'm in good company because neither does our President or Tim Geithner or anyone else in a position to fix anything apparently.

And if anyone who actually does know anything criticizes the President, he or she might well get a scary shout out from the W.H. (not Waffle House) press secretary just like Rick Santelli did. (Notice you haven't heard from him in a while.)

Robert said...

I heard from him this morning (Santelli). His quote of the day: "Shouldn't we preserve Americans constitutional right to fail?" Hes one of the few editors on CNBC that has a brain.

Geither's criticism is unjust. Granted, he and Bernanke are attached at the teet of Keynesian economics (Keynes was a homosexual, so I've cleaned this phrase up a bit). When Ron Paul questioned them the other day, it was apparent that they weren't about to loosen from their basic ideologies.

Where are the evangelicals in all this? Something tells me that we haven't taught a whole lot about the connection between economics and theology. ...particularly that short term suffering leads to sanctification.

susan said...

Robert, I'm over my head with the economic aspects of this discussion, so I'll bow out gracefully here.

I laughed when I read the last part of your comment, though. I think the evangelicals are probably at home with their heads the place they like to keep them. And I also thought of this article.

susan said...

Robert, I'm over my head with the economic aspects of this discussion, so I'll bow out gracefully here.

I laughed when I read the last part of your comment, though. I think the evangelicals are probably at home with their heads the place they like to keep them. And I also thought of this article.