mad anthony

Rants, politics, and thoughts on politics, technology, life,
and stuff from a generally politically conservative Baltimoron.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Greedy and uncaring? No. Entitled? Yes.

A few weeks ago, I read Michel Lewis' excellent book about the global fiscal crisis, Boomerang. At the end of the book (spoiler alert) the author ponders why we got into the crisis, and blames it on the fact that we've become uncaring about our neighbors, that we've gotten to a kind of primal instinct where we want to make sure we get everything and don't care about anyone else.

While i may be a cold-hearted uncaring jerk, I don't think that's true of most people. I think the main reason for much of the stupidity that led up to the fiscal crisis has less to do with a traditional view that life is brutal and short, and thus that we need to grab all that we can, and more of the fact that we've become accustomed to a certain standard of living, and we've forgotten that attaining and keeping that standard of living takes work. In terms of the financial crisis, I think people also mistook luck and good timing for actual work or intelligence, and then tried to base future decisions on the belief that they actually had some sort of skill instead of just luck.

Soon after buying my house, I discovered the genre of house-flipping shows that were popular at the time. Some people have blamed them for fueling the rampant speculation in housing, but some of the shows actually did a pretty decent job of showing spectacular failures, because everyone knows that spectacular failures make for great reality TV. There is one episode I remember well - it started off talking about how the guy bought a condo in California in the early 2000's, and sold it a year later for a 100k profit. This made him think he was a real estate genius, and he proceeded to buy another property to fix up and flip - which, of course, turned into a giant gaping money pit.

I suspect that's a familiar theme. People bought houses before the boom because, well, they were at the point in their lives where they wanted to buy a house. The market then went up, and they had a ton of paper wealth. They assumed that either this was the way it always is - that housing prices normally go up 20% every year - or that they were unusually adept at timing the housing market. They then either borrowed money to buy bigger houses that they really couldn't afford, but figured would continue to climb at stupidly fast rates, or they took out home equity loans against their new, bubbly, inflated house values. They weren't trying to take other people's money - they honestly believed that they were creating wealth.

The other thing is that I think people have forgotten that obtaining a high standard of living takes work - often generations of work. My great-grandparents worked in a woolen mill, 6 days a week 12 hours a day. My grandfather ran a tailor shop. My dad spent part of his career keeping the machines in a chemical plant running. Meanwhile, I sit at a desk for most of the day in front of 3 very nice 23" monitors and click on buttons - and then complain about my job.

I've always liked cars and trucks, and lately I've developed a lust for a Range Rover. I'll drive to work in my perfectly good, 5 year old pickup, and look lustfully at one when I see one, and try to figure out if I could possibly afford one. There is, of course, no good reason that a 31 year old suburban single male who drives 30 miles a day needs a vehicle that costs twice the annual salary of the average American family and is designed for crossing the African safari, but I still feel like a failure that I don't have one. Nevermind that the truck I bought at age 25 is in a lot of ways nicer than what my dad was driving at 50. And my 1200 square foot starter townhouse is actually the average size for a house in 1950 - and has one more full bathroom than the house my parents live in today.

Much of the grumbling about the Occupy Wall Street movement has been that many of the participants are college students, and that that while many have significant student loan debt and no job (or no job doing what they want to be doing) - and i think it's a valid criticism. There seems to be an attitude - not just limited to OWS types - that because you spent 4 years studying Kant and drinking PBR, you are entitled to a good-paying job doing what you want to be doing. I had that view when I graduated college in 2002 with an IT degree - right after the dot-com bubble burst and the 9/11 attacks sent the economy into the shitter. I spent some time living with the parents and temping, and eventually got a job that wasn't exactly what I wanted. I'm still not exactly doing what i want, but I've chosen stability over more money or more personal fulfillment. Because I'm not entitled to those things, and because it's not the fault of the banks, or the government, or the 1%, that I made that choice.


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