youwalk2

In addition to frequent searches that lead people to an earlier posting on “monoculture” on my site “What I Saw in America,” among the most frequently searched words that bring people to another of my postings is the effort to find information on the firm “Walkaway.com.” This company – and others like it – provide legal and practical advice on how to abandon your “home” and the mortgage that you agreed to repay. Sadly, this remains an oft-visited posting, mainly because people believe that it provides information on how to get in contact with this company. Here’s what I wrote on my site on January 30, 2008:

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A new trend to keep an eye on: businesses based on the premise that growing numbers of people will rather choose to ditch their devalued houses rather than pay their inflated mortgages, which it turns out, were huge bets that such leveraged “investments” would reap mind boggling dividends. Absent this expected if unjustified return on investment, the houses are just now so much worthless detritus to be thrown in oversized trashbins.

One can hardly be surprised at the vulture economy that will spring up as the carcasses begin to putrefy. However, what is most arresting for me in this posting is the growing evidence of shamelessness among our middling debtor class, a vice that can be itself directly traceable to the elites of our society, in particular those quasi-aristocrats who were the trustees and caretakers of our society and its norms. These people of visibility and distinction in settled communities – established businessmen and storekeepers, attorneys and doctors, clergy and civic figures – have reneged their status as responsible keepers of their community and as conveyors and exemplars of its norms, and now ironically are reaping the harvest that they have sown.

Here is an exchange between Steve Croft of Sixty Minutes and a real estate agent who has been witnessing these “walk aways”:

Kroft observes to real estate agent Kevin Moran. “There was a time, I think, when people felt really bad about not paying off a debt.”

“Yeah, I think in those days, loans were made by your local banker or building and loan associations or savings and loan,” Moran replies. “They were guys you saw in the grocery store. They were on the little league team with you, the PTA, the school. And I think as mortgages became securitized and Wall Street became involved, they became very transactional and there was no relationship built with the borrower and the lender. And I think that makes it easier for someone to see it as an anonymous party at the other end of the transaction and just walk away from it.”

“Just a business decision,” Kroft says.

Implicit in this segment is that families are not entitled to make “business decisions.” But you know who is entitled? Why, businesses of course. When businesses laid off 1.5 million workers in 2007, it was purely a “business decision.” When Wall Street banks “wrote down” more than $100 billion in losses in 2007, it was purely a “business decision.”

Look for families to become more comfortable making “business decisions” of their own in 2008.

As the Greeks well knew, the vital ingredient for shame – and, correspondingly, honor – to function in society was immediacy and care for the people in one’s polis, their views and opinions, the esteem they bestowed or withheld. Elites were honored in our society to the extent that they were themselves exemplars of the virtues that they both preached and expected of others in turn. The current widespread hostility to all these elites – Wall Street, lawyers, doctors, politicians – reflects the breakdown of a covenant of respect and honor. As our economy has become more abstract and distant, as our “communities” are compared to bedrooms (or perhaps, more aptly, hotel rooms), as our sense of continuity between past and future has been undermined by rampant mobility, impermanence and instability, there can be little wonder that “shamelessness” has spread like a contagion through our society. Such lack of shame and disregard of honor began at the top and now ripples downward through the feeding chain of class and status. Indeed, the idea that one would walk away from a house requires just such a perspective – it’s just a house, made of cheap 2×4 studs (that aren’t even 2×4 anymore, but a bit smaller) and drywall. We live not in homes, a vital part of a neighborhood, a town, a community – but in cheap structures without inherent worth. Just as our economy has shown us no sense of obligation and concern, so too in return are ordinary people shucking off the social norms or covenants that bound us in communion and fidelity. There is a great unraveling taking place, and at times I do truly fear for the future of this nation.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar John Médaille April 24, 2009 at 11:36 am

A few years ago, I sold a home to a recent immigrant from Ethiopia. A few days after the close, he knocked on my door and handed me the keys. “I don’t want the house anymore,” he said. He explained that he had pulled back the vinyl siding to discover that the wall was just studs with wallboard nailed over it, what we call a “stick-built” house. I explained that you couldn’t just give the home back, but I got him into the car and drove to a section of town where they were building multi-million dollar homes. They were all stick-built. I told him if he were going to own a home in America, that is the kind of home he would own.

He was amazed. In Ethiopia, he told me, such homes are no more than huts, only for poor people. “Real” homes were built of masonry: brick, stone, concrete block, cement, etc. It is somewhat strange to have to apologize to somebody from the “third world” for the quality of our housing.

avatar D.W. Sabin April 25, 2009 at 9:11 am

The individual within the Aztec Empire has been characterized by some as being similar to a set of Russian Nesting Dolls. Some have asserted that there was a kind of functioning schizophrenia where identity was layered, like an onion with multiple urges and concepts of existence defined by a multiple panoply of “realities” tied to their rich spiritual pantheon. In such a context, paying homage to a priesthood as it cut the still pumping heart out of sacrificial victims and tossed the carcasses down bloody monumental stairs was considered one of the accepted “realities” worthy of great crowds at rapt attention. Though this is a vast simplification of a far more complex condition and we are perhaps not as directly bloodletting in our own public place, we “moderns” display similar shizophrenic tendencies.

We have our immediate reality, the family connection and perhaps our relations with neighbors, church, townspeople and the workplace. Then, we have that alternate and increasingly dominant “reality” of the vicarious agora…the reality with an on-off switch on the radio, television and computer. Simple spectatorhood is confused with actual participation. There is overlap and confusion between these two “realities” but it is an illustrative larger distinction. More troubling is the fact that the more stylized and artificial reality is fast-becoming the outer shell of our existence and we begin to take it on face value that the vicarious agora, rather than our own authentic existence is what defines us as both individuals and as a civilization. It is a distilled reality, a chaotic parody of sorts, entirely incomplete and increasingly base. Listening to the vicarious agora explain the current economic travails , it is easy to understand that there are some who would think it both morally and intellectually acceptable to walk away from both their “home” and their contractual obligation because the “people who got them into the trouble they are in” are doublecrossing curs and deserve to be punished because “they” took advantage of “us”. Just like when we turn the telly off and the outside world goes quiet, perhaps our individual actions with regard to the evil greedy bankers “out there” will not actually effect “me here”.

We have a government that lies, a media that propagandizes or lies by sloth or acquiescence , an omnipresent entertainment venue that is an exercise in suspended belief even though it is held as a “reality” and when combined, these formers of self perception…our buzzing vicarious agora sanctions the lie. Skepticism is wacky or unpatriotic or , in the fullness of time an “Enemy combatant”. Disaffection skyrockets. Resentment and belligerent associations increase…a strange crazing of the surface of our society begins to penetrate from the outer gloss to the inside structure itself.

When the artificial and real are confused, the social contract is confused and nobody should be surprised by ANYTHING. Today’s larger culture is a veritable font of satire and toothsome wicked smiles but the fact that our most penetrating news is to be found on a thirty minute comedy show is cause for a sadness similar to that which might have been experienced by those Aztecs who perceived the dysfunctions of their declining culture as they surveyed the rent bodies littering the base of their highest holy temple.

Interestingly enough, the reality of our personal existence and it’s relationship with authentic life remains strong and fully capable of driving the larger culture rather than being driven by it. This reducing bastion of authenticity needs to stop retreating.

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