Friday, February 12, 2010


I was listening to a podcast the other day while cleaning a house. Its my one respite every week; I get three hours alltogether alone to clean and put a house in order and listen to podcasts uninterrupted...NERD! I know, I am a nerd, not ashamed to own it. So, Planet Money was talking about the sharp rise in strategic defaults on home loans.

Adam Davidson was talking to a lawyer named Jane that works for an insurance company. Her job is to advise homeowners who are having financial difficulties. She talked about how the calls have changed in the last two years. At the beginning of this crisis, she was getting a lot of heart-wrenching teary calls; people who were desperate to keep their homes and make their payments. Foreclosures started with people who had gotten themselves into homes they couldn't afford. They could make the first payments...barely, but as soon as the loans ramped up to the next payment ( what a-holes devised these?) they were underwater. Jane's job was to gently advise them that it would be better for them to let the bank take the house and start over. This was not welcome news. We see home ownership as almost an inalienable right in America.
This is evidenced by the surplus of home improvement and house flipping shows (where have they all gone?). Most adults who have a job, kids, a spouse would feel like a failure if they aren't living in a dwelling they own. Add that to the traditional shame that comes from defaulting/declaring bankruptcy in our culture, and its hard to decide to default.
Side note, why is there such a strong sense of disgrace for someone who has money problems, and yet we've allowed domestic abuse to go largely unchecked in our culture? It all has its roots in the same soil. What do we value?
Back to loan defaulting. Jane says that in the past year the calls have changed. She now hears from people who have good credit who can make their loan payments, but have realized that it makes more money sense to get out from under a $400,000 dollar loan on a house worth $200,000. They are buying new houses and letting the old house go back to the bank. Who is left to shame then? Everyone else on their block has already lost their homes and left. When asked why they would do this, the homeowners say, "its a business decision." Sound callus? It is. Since when do people see their home in these terms? Where is this coming from? I think its the last trickle down of an attitude that has pervaded our American culture for over 50 years. We didn't pay attention to the canary in the well, and now miners left and right are dropping around us.

Here's my theory: We value money and the acquisition of money above all else. Our glorification of all things corporate shows where we place value. In fact corporate culture has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. We have corporatized all aspects of life in an attempt to squeeze more "profit" out of it. Even farming, the last hold-out, has been taken over by corporations (to disastrous effect) aided and abetted by our government. We disdain small things. We pity people who can't get on board for "progress."

What is the explanation when a company does something questionable or heartless? Its not personal, its business. The underlying implication is that if something must be done to make more money, morals should not enter into it; its business. There are two different accepted mores, one for business and one for personal dealings. Well I'm here to tell you that that is no longer true. There is now just one. Because we no longer place value in anything but money ( in fact we value almost everything with money, how much is it worth?) we are becoming untethered from any decision process that takes intangible value into account.

Let me clarify that I don't think we ALL think this way, but we have come to accept it by default. We have allowed this line of thinking to pervade everything around us. I don't think if I asked most people what they believed in that they would say money. We don't profess it with our mouth, but we do confirm it with our actions, or lack of action.

I find it a little amusing that Jane and Adam (remember the podcast? man I love a tangent) were so surprised to see people, everyday people like you and I making choices that would be deemed shameful and excusing themselves by saying "Its a business decision." Isn't that what companies, banks, corporate culture has been preaching for YEARS?!!?! They have repeated the same mantra while raping and pillaging the environment, the little guy, other businesses, heck anything that stood in the way of them and more money. Are we really surprised that "the little guy" is now playing by the same rules?

We need a hard reset.

Since when did our goal become, who can behave the worst and get away with it?

If things continue the way they have been, the whole system is going to crash down around our ears. I'm not so sure that's a bad thing anymore. Corporate culture has been allowed to run largely unchecked for too long. There is no balance. We've allowed its poisonous thinking to inform our own behavior. Think about it, don't you apply different standards and rules for the workplace than you would with your wife? (I hope) Well, that distinction is quickly slipping. This valuing money above all else has one end result: dehumanization.

Ok enough of my rant. I believe that we are called to more. I believe that we can choose to be different, stop feeding the machine that is grinding up people into soilent green. Its up to each of us to decide not to conform to this system. What does that look like? I'd welcome your thoughts and ideas.


  1. Shoot, Mollye. I have not a clue what a new strategy would be. I also agree with you that to just not make payments and let the bank take over is lame. Ultimately, I believe that comes back to sit on the average taxpayer's shoulders. How is it that someone like Donald Trump can declare bankruptcy (he did a while back, if not more than once) and still be so 'successful'? There is something seriously flawed with our system. It's no wonder we have financial issues. Our trillions of dollars in national deficit that none of our presidents seem to know how to handle helps nothing. I am so not a politicist, so I can't say what I would do. The only thing I can do is try to manage my own finances well and see how it turns out in the end. It may not be up to me, ultimately....

  2. I guess I'm still at the recognition stage. I absolutely agree with you on the managing ones own finances first. Starts with each person. I am not really surprised that people are doing just what they have seen "big business" do for a while. I think that the real pressure needs to be put on the shiesters who set up this system to benefit themselves. Oh I could go on and on. I guess I just wanted to throw it out there. Thanks for responding :)

  3. Here is something I have realized about myself this past year. I have little to no money, and I am a very happy person. I don't care about money, mostly, and I value that so highly in myself that I laugh in the face of nay-sayers that would call me stupid or crazy. Money's nice, but it ain't everything. You can't take it with you. We're not all born to be millionaires, and we won't all be famous.

    Plant a fricking tree instead, you know?

  4. Totally Suz! Although...I must confess, the thought of having some money has crossed my mind. I am trying to find a balance. Its hard not to be drawn into the system which tells you that unless you are making money and consuming things, you haven't achieved anything worthwhile.

  5. This was really thought provoking, Mollye, thank you. My view may be on a bit of a tangent, but: from here, across the ocean, I see corporate culture and American consumerism so much more clearly. I don't want to generalise, because I know that not every American is following that path, but man, it ain't a pretty picture from where I sit. Everything is disposable, everything has a price, convenience rules supreme, and whoever has the most stuff: best house, nicest car, biggest TV wins. What horrifies me slightly is that some of those ideas are creeping into England, and I get nervous that the idyllic, non-consumerist attitude that I see in the people here will slowly but surely start to disappear. The US has such an amazing influence over the rest of the world...I just so desperately want all that's GOOD about American to be what makes it across the pond...

  6. Interesting thoughts... I recently had an email thread that included this in it from an article on the NPR website.

    "A contract is not a moral document, it's a legal document," white said. "So all this language about moral obligation and contractual obligations rest upon homeowners not knowing what a contract is."

    Sad to say the least.