Sunday, March 30, 2008

If You Don't Get It, It Might Be A Joke

by Tanta on 3/30/2008 09:29:00 AM

Taking notice of the endless silliness in the political blogosphere is no part of the mandate of this blog, and we normally try to carry on with our main mission while pretending that we can't hear most of the background noise and cannot feel that terrier gnawing on our ankles. It has never, really, been that we're stupid; it was mostly that we didn't want them to come over here and ruin a perfectly good nerd blog. Political discourse in this country has been so poisoned for so long that we were quite attracted to the possibility of pretending that it wasn't there in case it decided to go away while we weren't looking.

However, I for one did argue, quite early in this mess, that 1) housing policy is political in this country and 2) financial crises are even more so and that therefore 3) whether or not it "should" be that way is immaterial; it is so. The housing bust and the debt bubble pop have been and are going to remain political footballs for the foreseeable future. The least we can do about that is insist that everyone get the elementary concepts right.

Let me therefore do my obligatory least by pointing out that this kind of thing just has to stop:

Apparently, a lot of foreclosed tenants like to trash the house before they leave. I don't get it. It's hardly the bank's fault that you can't make your mortgage payment. I mean, I understand the rage at fate that has pushed you out of your home and left your credit record in shreds--yea, even if you had a hand in that fate yourself. But I don't get pointless destruction.
I can't do anything about anyone who can't quite "get" vandalism, as if it had never existed in the world before middle-class homeowners got in over their heads with mortgage loans. (Really. I was "not getting" the point of cutting off the handset on pay phones and stealing the directory back in the days when we had pay phones and they cost a dime. I was therefore prepared to "not get"--or to "get," as it were--foreclosure "trash-outs," at the point they began to arise (again, in this cycle), since, well, it's a reusable conceptual paradigm thingy.)

But it isn't the not-getting of the "pointless" destruction that makes it less than completely pointless for us to examine this silly little blog post. It's that first sentence with the term "foreclosed tenants" in it.

I "get" vandalism a whole lot more than I "get" a self-described "economics blogger" weilding the English language like that. Which is to say, I suspect I do "get" it. And I don't approve of the latter any more than the former.

There has, for a long time now, been a certain persistent critique of a variety of boom-lending that went something like this: when you take an interest-only no-down-payment loan to buy a house at market price--that is, at anything other than a significant discount to market price--you are in effect, if not in fact, merely "leasing" the house from the bank.

This is a "critique" because, see, "secured lending" only really works when the collateral that secures the loan belongs to the borrower, not the lender. I suppose I could write you a loan that involved my promising to hand over an asset that I already owned to myself--that'll teach me!--in the event that you fail to pay me back as agreed. I'm not sure I could pass a licensing exam with an understanding of the process like that, but you never know.

So the critique came in on the grounds that 1) this is self-defeating for lenders and that 2) it is self-defeating for borrowers. I occasionally run into newbies to the financial world who demand to know why anyone would buy one of these "PO strips" or bonds that do not pay interest. They "get it" once you explain that such bonds are purchased at a "deep discount" to their par or face value. Of course their next question was always why people were using wacky subprime and Alt-A loans to buy houses at "par," and out of the mouths of babes came wisdom.

The point being that "foreclosed tenant" is not simply a curious misunderstanding of law and fact. It is, you know, a way to "get" the "pointless" behavior, if you apply any degree of attention to a contradiction in terms. Possibly some borrowers are coming to the belated recognition that they were, de facto, not much more than tenants who were paying well above "market rent," but the market no longer allows them to "sell" the "lease" to the next sucker, and the law does not allow them to simply forfeit the security deposit and move away. To be a "foreclosed tenant" is to live in the worst of both worlds.

It is possible, you know, that about-to-be-former homeowners understand these things better than self-anointed "economic thinkers" do. They begin to grasp that they had only ever been given a short-term lease on the "American Dream," not a piece of the "ownership society" pie. More than a few of them are very, very, crabby. This, I can "get."

What I also "get" is that here you have a classic example of where the rush to start making a list of people you don't have any "sympathy" for gets you: nowhere, fast. It always disappoints me whenever a thread on one of our foreclosure or predatory lending posts immediately degenerates into a lot of people writing the same comment repeatedly: "I have no sympathy for these people."

It has, actually, been hard for me to "get" why some people think that the first question to be established in any discussion of the real world is whether their own personal sympathies are engaged or not. You'd think I'd be more familiar with the profoundly self-involved than I apparently am, coming out of the banking industry, but there you are. Some entertainment can be wrested out of the situation by responding that I don't have any sympathy for people who don't have any sympathy for other people, but it's limited entertainment because we are often dealing with heads over which such a response tends to fly at a fairly high altitude.

The trouble is I do "get" it. I get why some people need to turn it all into a matter of which contestant is more conventionally attractive, sympathies-wise. The original point of the "joke" about borrowers with these dumb loans just "renting" from the bank was about puncturing the claims of a certain class of economists, who seemed ready to believe that a finance-based "ponzi" economy could go on forever, and that it ought to. If you require to have the joke "foreclosed" in order to defend against its implications for the kool-aid you've been drinking for years about the larger economy, not just real estate, then you might want to willfully misunderstand the point of making jokes. Namely, to see it as making fun of "contemptible" people rather than unmasking the contradictions in economic silliness.

Joking around actually has a long and storied history in the old, old project of arriving at conceptual clarity about important problems, you know. Jokes are not merely "transgressive" of a kind of stuffy demeanor of academics and legislators and courts of law and so on, although they do have an invaluable function in ratcheting down the pompousness to tolerable levels. Jokes are, in fact, often funny because they fail to "resolve" or paper over real contradictions and conflicts: the joke drags it out into the light of day, and leaves it to squirm while we all laugh. We are all subprime now. Is a joke. With, as they say, more than a bit of "truth" in it.

It is of course not always easy to distinguish between a joke and a bog-standard stupidity. We touched on that the other day with the Zippy Tricks. Sometimes the joke actually arises when we find the naive or uninformed or logic-impaired coming up with an inspired phrase like "foreclosed tenants."

Sometimes people feel like they're being "laughed at." That, say, the joke's on them. It has been known for them to get very, very angry. Enough, say, to knock holes in the drywall and rip out the plumbing before following one's belongings to the curb.

Those whose only understanding of humor is to ridicule the victim--not to deflate the hot air filling the designers of this doomed system--will never quite "get" why the butts of the joke become so "pointlessly" destructive. Those humorless souls who do not see an appropriate role for humor in intellectual critique--who really just have to say that this is too serious for such lightmindedness, tut tut--will fail to grasp the overall dynamics of the situation from the other end of it. Between those who have no sympathy for others and those who have only sympathy--syrupy, patronizing, Sunday School-tract simple-minded sympathy--it's a wonder you can get a good joke going some days. Not that I've ever quit trying.

It is within the realm of possibility that some folks engaging in "trash-out refinances" are, well, making the point that the joke's on you, Mr. Bank. You might consider it a kind of performance art of the gallows-humor subgenre. I do think it's a usual expectation that people who write for outfits with the pretensions of The Atlantic are, frequently, expected to try to "get" that. We call these attempts to try to "get" such things intellectual effort. Expenditure of this kind of effort is way harder than, well, just asking yourself if you feel sorry for someone today. Or yukking it up at someone else's "expense."