Monday, February 09, 2009

David Mamet must be feeling like a prophet

Remember Glengarry Glen Ross? His amazing play from the 80's about real estate sharks selling swampland in Florida?


The New York Times reports today on the fiasco that is Florida's rapacious development.
And last week, the New Yorker ran a fantastic article by George Packer about the foreclosure disaster in that ridiculous state. He called it, quite accurately, "Florida:" The Ponzi State."
Mamet aforethought.
I do not smile on other people's misfortunes (unless they're Nazis, literally and at heart), but a Republican state, with zero regulation, Jeb Bush as governor, an economy based almost exclusively on speculation, and now look who's crying.
My own longstanding prescription for Florida is to saw it off and push it into the sea, but so far no one has taken it seriously. Perhaps they will now.
As I flew out of Miami on my way to Charlotte, a couple of weeks ago, I could see from the plane window these ugly developments of cookie cutter houses sitting on the edge of what looked like vast swampland, in the middle of nowhere, with no apparent center, park, school, downtown, bar, Hooters, mall, whatever. Looks like you need a car to go somewhere for a walk.
Why do people want to live like that? As some commenters point out in the NYT article, the suburban culture is a culture of unconscionable waste, social isolation and needless consumption, not of community or productivity. I hate the suburbs. They have always given me the creeps.
The other question is why do people spend money they don't have?
We all get swamped with credit offers, but does that mean we have to take them? What are we, morons?
Every time I shop at Macy's (less often than you think) or Bloomie's or Banana Republic (I'm trying to make a point here), I am offered a discount if I open a credit card with them. I've taken the discount once and never used the card. Why? Because I don't buy that shit on credit (they have usurious interest rates). I pay my credit cards in full. Every time. And if I can't pay in full for something, then guess what? I don't buy it.
Now, the only items I can understand buying on credit are a home and a car.
I will confess last year I was snooping around property. Not because I wanted to buy anything, but because you are supposed to own property. Everybody around me was buying property. I was looking at the possibilty as a safeguard, as a diversified investment in case stocks and mutual funds, should God forbid, tank. Well damned if you do and damned if you don't, because quite clearly, everything has tanked anyway.
I was not looking to live in the property I'd buy, which I now believe should be the only reason to buy a house in the first place. I was looking to rent it so the mortgage would almost pay itself. Prices in NY were insane. And as a freelancer without a steady job I was extremely concerned that if I bought the freaking thing, my entire life would be devoted to worrying about paying for it. I might need to take a full time job again in order to pay for the thing. I might be able to flip it at a modest profit a couple years down the line, but it may might have meant the end of my freedom. In any case, I did not feel comfortable with owing money. It was not only a monetary calculation, but also a deeply personal fear of becoming enslaved. And a deeply personal fear of bankers, mortgage lenders, lawyers, tenants, etc. The stock market, alas, is easier. So I didn't buy. Phew.
A seer friend of mine who used to work in the financial sector told me to wait a year, when things were really going to drop. That is about right now, but who needs to get into that mess right now?
The American Dream should be to have a good job and make a good income (to be decently remunerated whether you are blue collar or white collar or ring around the collar) so you and your family can afford a good life, with good schools, a good health system, decent leisure time, a nice sense of community and enough to yield you savings to send the kids to college, for retirement and for a rainy day. This I believe, used to be called France (where college is free, by the way). If owning a house can be part of that scheme, good. If not, renting will not make you into a loser and the American Constitution is not going to pulverize into thin air.
But that is considered socialism around these parts. So don't hold your breath waiting for it to happen.
Now, this may sound really naive. But why are we giving money to the banks that lent money to the foreclosed people instead of allowing the foreclosed people to retain the houses that they owe money on? Why are the banks benefiting from the repossession of the houses? I'm not saying that people should be awarded for defaulting on their payments, but foreclosing them only makes matters worse.
Some buyers, as Packer points out, bought for speculative reasons and deserve the fire and brimstone they are getting. But others were duped, they bought honestly and believed in the stupid dream.
I will never forget the case of the 90 year old Black woman whose house was already totally paid for and some unscrupulous lender convinced her to take a loan against her house and they ripped her off with horrible interest rates and foreclosed her.
Why are those people penalized? Why are the unscrupulous lenders not penalized?
Every day I get some prerecorded call from some criminal asking me to call him about my credit situation or my mortgage situation. They think I am an elderly person and they want to rip me off.
As David Mamet has eloquently illustrated in his plays, this is a nation of conmen and snake oil salesmen, from real estate offices to Capitol Hill, and the chickens are coming home to roost (or whatever it is that you say in these cases).

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