Sunday, December 27, 2009

By the waters of babylon -the 00s

I notice that people are summarizing the decade. What was good about it? What was bad?

On a personal note, the aughts were without any doubt the worst decade of my life. I became permanently poor, I destroyed my social life, and I made the worst of all career choices – to become a freelance writer – just when that career, so gloriously begun in the Western world by Daniel Defoe, laid down and died. A better way of saying this is: my personal life died in the aughts. Even I don’t care about it any more. that is how dead it is.

So there was that. But on a larger level, there was the country I live in, America. I paid far more attention to politics than is good for one’s sanity over the last ten years. My conclusion about American as an enterprise is rather like Jeremiah’s about Israel: “And from the daughter of Zion all her beauty is departed: her princes are become like harts that find no pasture, and they are gone without strength before the pursuer.” America has always been half con game, but there was always something hopeful and naïve on the other side of the table. It now takes a huge act of faith to think that it isn’t all con game. And it is sheer ignorance to think that, at the moment, something good is being generated by a culture that, on the negative side, contributes a quarter of the human generated CO2 in the atmosphere. In cosmic bookkeeping terms, Jeremiah says it best: “Jerusalem hath grievously sinned; therefore she is removed: all that honoured her despise her, because they have seen her nakedness: yea, she sigheth, and turneth backward./
Her filthiness is in her skirts; she remembereth not her last end; therefore she came down wonderfully: she had no comforter.”

You can’t beat the prophets for a pithy summary.

For those who have eyes to see, parables of this comfortless state are all around. My favorite, at the moment, is a debate being waged on the eco blogs about jingle mail, to wit: should you feel guilty about walking out of your house and mortgage if you are underwater? According to Calculated Risk: “Nearly 10.7 million, or 23 percent, of all residential properties with mortgages were in negative equity as of September, 2009. An additional 2.3 million mortgages were approaching negative equity, meaning they had less than five percent equity. Together negative equity and near negative equity mortgages account for nearly 28 percent of all residential properties with a mortgage nationwide.” As has been observed by many, when businesses – say Morgan Stanley – find themselves saddled with underwater properties, the jingle is immediately in the mail. But often, householders go down with the house. Why? The answer Nietzsche gave was: slave morality. Nietzsche lived in primitive times! We now speak of asymmetrical norms. That means, what Morgan Stanley does is done as though a god did it. Mere mortals, however, should pay forwever, even unto their blood and bones. However, Nietzsche has found some new and unexpected advocates:

“Go ahead. Break the chains. Stop paying on your mortgage if you owe more than the house is worth. And most important: Don't feel guilty about it. Don't think you're doing something morally wrong.

That's the incendiary core message of a new academic paper by Brent T. White, a University of Arizona law school professor, titled "Underwater and Not Walking Away: Shame, Fear and the Social Management of the Housing Crisis."

White contends that far more of the estimated 15 million U.S. homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages should stiff their lenders and take a hike.

Doing so, he suggests, could save some of them hundreds of thousands of dollars that they "have no reasonable prospect of recouping" in the years ahead. Plus the penalties are nowhere near as painful or long-lasting as they might assume, he says.

"Homeowners should be walking away in droves," White said. "But they aren't. And it's not because the financial costs of foreclosure outweigh the benefits."

To the rightwing, that nest of demonic voice and the double bind, this is the advocacy of loosing the immoral tide. What? Homeowners operating guiltfree to stick it to the gods? I thought the best summation of the decade, from the rightwing point of view, was in the comment thread on Mark Thoma’s Economists view post, Should You Feel Guilty About Walking Away?

“If the deal was "too good to be true", as we see know, afterwards; why did so many of us accept it hook-line-and-sinker? If it were not for the fact that, like others, we thought we could make a quick-buck for little effort?”

The writer, of course, sees this as a wonderful argument to imprison people in their negative equity palaces. Myself, I see this as the final play of the dirty decade: first, the elite – the Bushes, the Greenspans, the press, the tv – proposes an ‘ownership society’ in which the Lion of poverty lies down with the lamb of self interest as the government does what it does best (seeking and finding meaningless wars to fight in perpetuity) and the householder does what he does best with "his money’ – takes those risks that makes capitalism so sexy. During this wash phase, the chatterers tell us that the housing market is no bubble, but a solid investment guaranteed to last forever. Then, in the second, drying phase, we get the ‘it was the fault of the suckers’ line – they knew the deal was ‘too good to be true’! We need to equip the gods with sharper forks, to pitch into the skins of these sinners who have now been revealed!

Myself, I think the demons, as always, can only operate if they are taken seriously. But if one sees them as the ludicrous beings they are, then one is free – at least of this misplaced guilt. But the larger aspect of too good to be true is, of course, the way the entire country operated in the aughts. My comment in Mark Thoma’s thread sums up what I think about the past ten years:

“You - I'm assuming this is Americans - have many things to feel guilty about. The invasion of Iraq, the decimation of Afghanistan, global warming. Everyone in this country should feel very guilty that so far, a good half a million or more Iraquis have died, and 2 million are refugees, on account of a ludicrous war we started.
But walking away from your house when it is underwater - there's no reason at all to feel guilty about that. The only bond between the people and the banksters is one of pure coercion.
Don't waste your guilt.”

In conclusion: I think we should go down to the waters of Babylon, look back at the horrorshow of the aughts, hang our harps on the willow trees, and weep.


Anonymous said...

Yup, one can't beat the prophets for a pithy summary of catastrophes. One that might nail the coffin of the 00s shut, but that would be too easy, wouldn't it, the business of funeral parlor managers.

In Jeremiah one reads - Jusqu'à quand seras-tu errante, fille rebelle...


Roger Gathmann said...

Oh, to nail that coffin shut! But - as you and I are both aware, Amie - you can't coffin the spectre. And surely there was an overproduction of spectres during the 00s.
By the way, did you see that Godard film?