We Stole It

The recent financial crisis has everyone talking at work. There are a lot of fingers pointing every which way, most of them at “Wall Street” (an amorphous group of NYC scoundrels, apparently). There are also a lot of fingers pointed at the “government”, though most people are just hoping for a free handout at this point.

Not many people will blame themselves. But it was greed and lust for consumption that brought us to this; greed, perpetrated not by some nebulous group of sinister businesspeople, but one individual choice at a time, step by step by you and me.

A few years ago, when home prices were jumping 25 to 50 percent a year in our area, I was amazed that more people weren’t outraged. It wasn’t just that it became difficult for young people to buy a house; it became impossible, literally in the space of two or three years. People who owned property prior to the boom were literally slapping each other on the back, swapping stories about how much equity they were “earning”, and how the bank had just given them an interest-only loan to speculate on some more land. Local governments publicly bemoaned the new era, complaining quietly that it was getting difficult for average working families to buy a home. But of course they were also taking up burgeoning tax revenues, each year pulling out the maximum increase in property tax collection allowed by law.

I live in a county where the average wage for a working adult is $13 an hour. An astonishingly large number of parents with children work for near-minimum wage. Ten years ago, this area was a depressed post-lumber pothole. Then came the real estate agents and the boosters. We were suddenly an item, a trendy place to retire and go on vacation. Despite the fact that wages remained abismally low, the collective self-esteem of the area rose on the hot air of a real estate and construction boom.

A small 25-year old starter home at the height of the boom was going for $200,000. A 0.25 acre lot was going for $100,000. You do the math. I wondered out loud to anyone who would listen: does this make sense? Have we all lost our minds?

Is there really a justifiable economic connection between a small square of earth and $100,000? And lots priced at that level were going like pancakes. To whom? Speculators. Not people who actually worked to save the money to buy the land, but to people flush with cash from stocks and real estate inflation.

Was it worth it? No one complained when the stock market expanded, when real estate skyrocketed. Cash floated down from the clouds. I saw a future where our kids would never be able to buy a home, where we would work like dogs to live in crowded apartments. We were stealing from our own children so that we could live the high life today.

Now it turns out we were stealing from ourselves! Years of spend, spend, spend… and a crash puts everyone in depressive fits. We were printing money as fast as we could in the fat years. Now it turns out we spent it all, and borrowed on top of that. Our country is the prodigal son of the world: we laughingly spend our inheritance, and after our fling, return home in disgrace to find that everything is gone, and we have no money to save ourselves from the current mess we’re in.

When will we recognize that our society’s fundamental values have brought us to this point? We’ve built a world based on an extreme form of market economics, in which the best motivator is selfishness and the highest ideal is uninterrupted consumption. Our most cherished belief is in the individual’s power to succeed: the lone capitalist, building for himself through sheer willpower a bright future of pavement and steel. We hear so much about our Christian values, but I never once heard a preacher coming out against consumerism and materialism during the boom years. Churches spend a lot of time worrying about winning the culture war, while their congregants violate the most fundamental commandments of the Bible in regards to caring for your neighbor. Turns out that Jesus, though he owned nothing and taught that wealth was anathema to the kingdom of God, was actually a capitalist! Surely he wouldn’t object to me taking my fair share of the economic pie! Besides, I earned it, since I work so hard (watching my stock ticker go up). And don’t ask me to share it with my shiftless neighbors, who are all lazy liberals on welfare who don’t work hard like I do!

Maybe it’s time to think that life is about more than accumulating money. Maybe caring for other people, even giving away your excess money (gasp!) is a valid way to live. Maybe it’s not OK to profit from our children’s future. Maybe we’ll find our way out of this mess and actually learn something from it.

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