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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Greed: It's a shame!

In the February 24th edition of Progressive Magazine, historian Howard Zinn is reported as saying that though elections can make a difference - think of the difference between Roosevelt and Hoover in responding to the Depression - usually there isn't that much difference between the Democratic and Republican candidates.

What matters instead are grassroots movements that pressure elected officials of either party to change.

Zinn cites the actions of farmers after the Revolutionary War, many of them veterans of that war, who couldn't afford to pay their taxes and were in jeopardy of losing their land and homes. They gathered by the thousands at courthouses, refusing to allow their properties to be auctioned.

A movement like that needs to arise in the current mortgage crisis, says Zinn.

I have been intrigued by this quote ever since I read it a few days ago. It's been buzzing around my head like a new fly in spring, appearing from out of nowhere and interrupting my thoughts.

I've been watching the deepening furrowed brows of folks in the check out line at the super market, as they gaze into their carts and realize that they are paying more for less food. You can almost see them wonder if they can afford to put gas in their car for that long weekend trip to the Jersey Shore AND pay their child's orthodontic bill this month.

I've been noticing that the parking lot in front of the local Starbuck's (or "Fivebucks" as we call in in my house) is not as full as the one over at the Dunkin Donuts, and the lines at the Cold Stone Creamery are not as long as at the Dairy Queen.

The owner of the local Cafe tells me that people aren't coming in for an afternoon gourmet pastry and decaf latte like they once used to, but the guy over at the town Pizza Parlor says in his thick Middle Eastern accent that business is not too bad, not as bad as he thought it might be.

People will purchase no-name brands to cut costs. They will stop drinking Starbucks in favor of Dunkin' Donuts coffee to save a few bucks. But, would these same folks organize a political movement to save their homes from foreclosure?

What? You don't think it could happen here, in the affluent white suburbs? Let me tell you that there are more people than you can imagine who live in this town who are two paychecks away from financial disaster. In some ways fear is felt more deeply by those who do not often have it as a companion in life - like, say for example, those who live in the gritty housing projects of my former neighborhood in Newark.

So, will suburbanites suddenly understand the systemic problems of the financial crisis and join together in solidarity with each other to form a grassroots movement to protest the obscenity that has become the mortgage industry?

I'm thinking: Not so much. Don't be expecting any protest rallies or demonstrations about the mortgage foreclosures. Not here. Not in the 'burbs. Even though foreclosures will come. Here. In the 'burbs.

Now, protests in the Cit-tay? You bet! The sistas and brothas be out there soon as the preacha start to sing, "This little light of mine." But, affluent folk from the burb's? Ain't gonna happen. No matter how important or effective it might be.

And, according to Howard Zinn, it's a grassroots movement like that which will ultimately bring the sort of change that will be a benefit to everyone.

If - when - that movement begins by the working poor in the cities, the folks who will benefit the most are the folks in the 'burbs. I suspect it was ever thus

I've been slowly recognizing that what I'm seeing on lots of people's faces, besides anxiety and concern. It's this: shame.

I've been thinking that the shame of the anticipated loss of the status of being a homeowner is a very powerful force - even more powerful, in some ways, than the actual loss of one's home. I suspect the shame of anticipating the loss of one's home is more powerful than the energy it would take to actually admit to the anger necessary to form a "grassroots movement that pressure elected officials of either party to change."

But, I've been thinking that the real shame is the greed that is driving up gas prices, and the cost of food. It's that same greed that charges $4 for a cup of coffee that also fuels the seduction of the appearance of status and the illusion of affluence.

Bottom line: it's just a cuppa joe in a cardboard cup. But, it looks so much better - YOU look so much better - sitting on the benches outside the classroom, waiting for your son to finish his private session at the Kumon Learning Center with a cup that is obviously Starbuck's Coffee as opposed to a cup emblazoned with the Mac Donald's Golden Arches, which tastes far better anyway, in my estimation, but it is, after all, 'only' from "Mickey D's".

Greed feeds on greed and feeds greed, which is insatiable. Allowed to feed itself unabated, at some point, greed sparks the flame of arrogance and begins to build a bonfire of vanity and false sense of security.

We call that 'conspicuous consumption.'

Shame is different, of course, except for the fact that it does grow deeper the more one loses economic status or slips lower even in the perception of place on the social ladder. At some point, however, shame can spark the flames of anger and the bonfires of violence and destruction begin to be built.

We call that 'social revolution.'

Does an over-abundance of conspicuous consumption lead, necessarily to social revolution? Is a grassroots movement which leads to systemic change more effective than a political process?

Greed and shame. Does the impulse for greed arise, in part, out of a defense against shame? Are they just different sides of the same coin? Is one fuel for the other?

This is a theological reflection. These are theological questions.

I'll let you figure out why.


Bill said...

It may be a three legged stool with “status” as the third wobbly leg. We work for, connive, and possibly even steal to attain a certain status. That position in life where we can look others in the eye or even look down on some. When that status is threatened and that leg becomes threatened, shame starts to kick in. What will everybody think when I can no longer afford the grand parties. I can’t possibly drive a Ford in Chatham. My kids have to be in the Pingrey School. That’s what the sticker on my LandRover says. And, I won’t be able to look my friends in the eye.

That’s when the anxiety and depression kicks in. No matter what we do, that third leg still wobbles. The problem is that we feed off others in this vicious cycle. Is driving a Chevy or a Ford really that bad. Is there any earthly reason why a home in Chatham should sell for a million-five when the same structure on more land would cost a hundred and fifty thousand somewhere else. I know, location, location, location. But that’s the rub. The only reason those homes cost so much is that other people wanting to be part of that same “status”, buy into the nightmare.

So what happens? The parents are never home for one thing. If the kids are old enough, both parents are working to maintain their social status. They are not working to make ends meet. If they think that, then they’re lying to themselves. It’s about the status.

If the kids are young and mom has to stay at home, then its dad who is working himself into an early grave. Correction, either dad or the designated significant other. This is not a heterosexuals only club. We all fall into this maelstrom of status, greed, and shame.

Maybe we need to take a lesson from nature. There are no three limbed beasts. Four seems to be the norm. There is a theory that a three legged stool is geometrically more stable than four. That theory assumes that the length of the legs stay constant. That not only the relationship of the legs to each other is constant, but the relationship to ground. That of course is a theory and not real life. The legs keep getting longer and eventually the entire structure becomes top heavy and hard to maintain. What is missing is that fourth leg. You can call it “common sense” if you wish, but you can also call it self-examination. We need to take stock from time to time and discern the difference between “need” and “want”, between “important” and “superficial”, between “love” and “lust”, between - well, you get the general idea.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Elizabeth and Bill, both of you, excellent words and true words.

You highlight the difference between "needs" and "wants". But, hey! The "wants" are what keep the engine running. A whole lotta folks are going to be pulled up short. The poor folks will bear the worst brunt, as is always the case. We are so very unprepared for what's ahead.

Lost in Texas said...

AS much as I would like to, I simply cannot feel a tremendous amount of sympathy for people living above their means. I bought a house three years ago. I could have bought a $200,000.00 house. I bought a $100,000.00 house. I drive a 1999 car with 198000 miles. My family's only "luxury" is private school for my daughter. My wife stays at home because we feel it is important for my daughter to have that security. I don't buy new clothes often and we rarely go out. It is called prioritizing and decision making. Many of the people who are in mortgage trouble bought houses speculatively. They made a bet that the market would always go up, although market never folow a straight upward trajectory. It called a business cycle for a reason. They are losing. Life is hard. I fail to see why I should bail out these people because they made poor financial decisions. Don't get me wrong, I think the government response had been ludicrous at best. The companies that bet on the sub-prime credit market should have to pay the price as well. No golden parachutes. Our governments response to anything is "Do something, even if its wrong" IT is now widely recognized by economists that Roosevelts response to the Depression made it last longer. If the government wants to help people to afford a better life, heres a thought how about taking less of their money. I pay over half of my income to local, state and federal goverment. What most people want, if they are honest is for the government to just "GET OFF THEIR BACK".

Jim said...

I cannot help but wonder what sort of social revolution can arise from the loss of 4000 sq ft homes, lattes and SUV's. I am not sure I want to know either.

Here, where I am about to loose a home to forclosure and unemployment, from a much less upper class status life style, I am amazed to see what some folks think of as poverty. One of my sons manages a restaurant for a local chain. He recounts having a 12 year old customer present a gold card and saying that only the holder of the card can use it. The young person took it in stride and produced id showing that he was indeed the person on the card.

A 12 year old with a gold card.

Yup and that town, near where Mcdonalds is headquartered, is one where there is a 'mortgage default crises.'

It seems to me that the upper levels have so far to fall that the impact cannot be predicted. When people whose business is cheap fast food are responsible for the phrase, "McMansion" we have a society that has some serious issues.

I agree there are theological questions here, albeit I am sure tie Idiot Revenue Service wont be happy with the thought. But where do we go with it? St. Ambrose was the person I think who observed: a man who has two cloaks while another man has none is a thief. That too is theology but I wonder if it is something we are ready to hear?


Paul Davison said...

"lost in texas", there are unquestionably people who are in this situation because of bad choices, but do we simply say, "tough luck" and "live with it" or do we say "we must do what we can to help you with the results of your choices." (And never forget that a very large number of people are in that situation not through bad choices, but bad events.)

Lost in Texas said...

What is the solution then. A really quick web search found that that in the last quarter of 2007 the foreclosure rate was .8% of all mortgages were in pre-foreclosure or foreclosure. Other sources put the rate at 1 in 196 houses. Now we can safely assume that we will never have 0 foreclosures. Who do we help? How do we determine who deserves help. Does the guy who bought a vastly more expensive house than he needed in the hopes that he could flip it get your and my hard earned dollars as a bailout? I have family who have lost their houses. They were STUPID. They never contacted the bank, they never sought a solution iuntil it was too late. Banks don't want the house, they want the mortgage that was agreed to. Are we going to have the feds tell everybody the terms of a contract can be redefined because it didn;t work out for one party. We have contract because they give security to both parties. If we go down that road, good luck ever getting credit. It will not exist. If the people loaning money do not feel secure in the contract, they will not loan it out and the economy will grind to a halt. So I guess that although I will come in for no end of opprobrium from the group, I would have to say that it is better for the govt. to do nothing rather than make a bad situation worse. I can think of very few times that the government has done anything that has been worth the moeny and unitended consequenses that resulted. Sorry for the long post, but this an issue I feel very strongly about. Sometimes, people have to take their medicine and the U.S. is about to get an IV bag full. And lest anyone thinks I am just hardhearted, I am in the construction and housing industry and I am not looking for a very easy time over the medium haul.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Let me tell you about the folks I know who are in foreclosure: They do not live in McMansions. Rather, they live in fairly modest homes, not unlike the rectory where I live.

They are couples with dreams not unlike yours and mine. They moved here because of the school system here and pay an outrageous tax rate for their choices. In part, the taxes are what add to the burden - sometimes as much as $18 - 20 K per year. The corruption in NJ government is legendary.

I don't have any answers. I am only left with questions. I am preaching and talking about faith - every time I get a chance. I am also talking about the theology of abundance vs. scarcity. And, lots about systemic change.

If I can get the yuppie folks here to work for systemic change, I think we might have a chance to actually effect it.

Then again, I'm a hopeless optimistic. I'm a Boston Red Sox fan.

Lost in Texas said...

What change can you propose?

Lost in Texas said...

Can you write more about this theology of abundance please?

Paul Davison said...

I didn't say that people should be shielded from the results of their choices, but I don't think we can simply stand by and do nothing to help people find a place to continue to live. And what about people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Propose? Gracious! I'm a theologian, not an economist. Having said that, I do smell revolution in the air. And, I think it's exactly what is needed.

A theology of abundance is based solidly on the gospel of Jesus and the promise of the psalms. Ultimately, it's about profound faith in God and trust in God's promises.

I think the poor can teach us more about the abundance than the theology of scarcity of the rich

Lost in Texas said...

We have an entire federal agency HUD who is tasked with helping American find affordble housing. Last year, its budget was 35.2 BILLION dollars. The budget calls for an additional 1.6 BILLION this year. There are state, county, local, city, church private, quasi-public groups every where. There is section 8 houisng. There are government and private programs everywhere. The FED, HUD and congress have passed legislation to ameliorate "hopefully" the worst of the damage caused by the credit bubble. However, it is a bandaid. The United States, through absolutely gob smackingly stupid action by both the government and the people is on track for a meltdown that will make the thirties look like a picnic. We have 56 TRILLION with a T in unfunded liabilities that will come do in the next 50 years. We cannot pay this money. It does not now nor will it exist. IF we were a company, we would already be bankrupt. I am not afraid for myself, but I tuck my six year old in and worry about what kind of life she will have. And the only solution offered is to raise taxed on the people who already shoulder 70% of the burden. We never cut a program, we never even try to live within our means.

Bill said...

There are no easy solutions. Rebellion possibly even revolution may come and maybe the playing field will get leveled. The problem is that when that happens, the rich are inconvenienced, the middle class suffers major setbacks, and the poor are virtually destroyed. There weren't a whole bunch of former tycoons on the soup lines during the great depression. Their stock portfolios may have been decimated but cash, proberty, jewelry and art made it through pretty well. The poor didn't have that to fall back on. My grandmother lived through the depression.

Lost in Texas said...

What kind of revolution are you talking about? Against who? America is the most free society in history. We have the franchise. If we dislike the government, we can change by simply pulling a lever. I am pretty sure that most of the people on this site dislike George Bush. Fine. In January 2009, he is gone. I ask again, What are you suggesting we revolt against. Corporate heads make too much money. They are or should be accountable to their shareholders. I own a company and I make alot more than my employees. I will be damned if the government should be able to tell me what my work is worth. I took the risk. I opened the doors. I hired people. I provide a service (energy efficent green construction). I pay alot of taxes. Isn't that enough. My idea and willingness to risk provides a living for 10 families, as well as my own. What do you mean by leveling the playing field? My dad was born dirt poor to a widow during the depression. If you ever saw "Places in the heart" that was my dad. Poor and picking cotton when he was 6 years old. He grew up, got a football scholarship, joined the navy, earned a trade and by the time he retired was comfortably middle class. Along the way, he provided for hundreds of families throught his business endeavors, and provided the finances for his children to become doctors and attorneys. He had less material things growing up, but he had the same chance as every one else. We are not guaranteed equality of outcome in the constitution, just equality of opportunity. Are we inperfect? Absolutely! But our system allows the greatest opportunity for the greatest number of people. If you took all the wealth in the U.S. and split absolutely evenly among the population, in 50 years, you would have returned to the same situation. We would have rich and poor. Some people work harder or are smarter or are luckier. Thats life, and if you try to legislate that away, you end up with the USSR and we all know how well that worked.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You ask important questions, Lost. It means that you are taking me seriously. I want to take your questions with equal seriousness.

When I talk about rallies and revolution, I'm talking about the same spirit which gave rise to this country. It's the stuff of our DNA. I think Howard Zinn, the historian, is absolutely right - we need the same kind of grassroots rally that the soldiers of the Revolutionary war made when they were losing their homes to foreclosure.

We need to stop looking to the politicians to bring about systemic change. We need to be the heroes we want and, in fact, are.

We've all got stories like your parents. My parents were poor immigrants who worked in factories for cheap labor while the owners made their fortunes on the sweat of their backs.

They did not sit complacently by. They were labor union organizers. They fought for change and got it not only for themselves, but for other generations.

That's what I'm talking about. I'm not some radical, cockeyed optimist who wants to storm the barricades on some stupid death-wish.

I'm talking about some action that will bring about long term, lasting systemic change.

As the old bumper sticker from my youth warned: If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.

Bateau Master said...

If you are looking for a possible start to a revolution, I suggest a radical change to our tax system that takes dead aim at conspicuous consumption. I suggest investigating the Fair Tax.

In short, businesses and corporations do not pay taxes – they simply are inefficient collection agencies for the Treasury as they pass on their “tax bills” to the customer by embedding the tax in the price of their services and products. The Fair Tax eliminates these taxes as well as payroll (income, SSI, Medicare), sin taxes (tobacco, alcohol), fuel …. in short everything, with a 23% sales tax on goods and services with no exceptions.

The poor would be shielded from this tax by a PREBATE equal to the amount of taxes predicted a low income family would pay in taxes during a month. This amount would be deposited into the family’s bank account, debit card, or by check each month based upon family size. Example: If the poverty level for a family of three is $2,000/month, then $460 would be prebated to the family each month. Note: All families/individuals would receive a prebate based on family size in order to eliminate the nightmare of trying to document family income. The result of a prebate system would be to shield the first x number of dollars of your income from taxes.

A Fair Tax system would encourage savings, reward thriftiness, and change our system from income based to consumer based and thus mirror our economy.

It’s worth investigating and questioning – so see You’ll have lots of questions. Ask and join the revolution.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Wow, BM. I think you may be more radical than I.

Lindy said...

"lost in texas", there are unquestionably people who are in this situation because of bad choices, but do we simply say, "tough luck" and "live with it"

Well, that's pretty much how I've had to handle my poor choices. So...

The people I know who are loosing their homes are living beyond all reason anyway. I truly have no sympathy. Let them live like the rest of us for awhile, us who are still among the richest people on the planet.

I had a long talk with a friend this weekend about how we can make a smaller footprint, what we can get rid of, how we can waste less, give more, and be responsible with this great gift and task of caring for God's earth. Let me see people who are ashamed of how much they waste, how little they give, their own desire for status at the expense of the planet's poorest. I don't think people should be ashamed of loosing their McMansions, they should be ashamed that they ever had them.

I am sorry for those who don't have anything else to believe in. I see this every week in my job. But, I just think, Honey, you had to know...

I can't think of any virtue that is cultivated by living above one's means. And several that might find more fertile soil in a little poverty.

End of my rant.