by The Other Katherine Harris
Feb. 21, 2009
It’s a question I’ve heard frequently during the past few days – and I know that my friend who keeps asking it is far from alone in feeling greater outrage about public aid to homeowners than about the far larger sums we’re handing to financial elites who already grabbed trillions of dollars while wrecking the global economy.
Probably you’ve also appealed to friends to direct their wrath more appropriately at the banksters; their affiliated hedge-hogs and buyout vultures; and the governments which have been and continue to be their puppets. My friend theoretically grasps the wisdom of that, but still he seethes more furiously over any little break given to ordinary folks. He’s especially upset by the idea that an owner might receive $5,000 for keeping the adjusted payments current over a period of years.
That must be partly because we understand $5,000. Few can get their heads around millions and billions, let alone trillions, but we all know what $5,000 will buy. Its value to us varies with circumstances, of course. The privileged set drop that much on a handbag, while it would solve or significantly lessen many people’s urgent problems and, for many more, it would provide a welcome emergency fund or a special treat. Spent wisely, it could supply a life-changing chance for education or to launch a business.
For my friend, as for most of us, it’s not a princely sum but worth having. So it’s understandable that someone who’s always been able to pay his bills would resent its being given to somebody else, simply for paying up. This just doesn’t seem fair to him.
Neither does spending $275 billion to subsidize mortgages — which is how my friend views the program, never mind that homeowners won’t see a penny of the funds paid to incentivize lower interest rates from banks and to expand Fannie and Freddie. Nor will homeowners see any reduction in their mortgage principal. In fact, the plan does lots more for lenders and speculators in mortgage securities than for homeowners, but my friend isn’t fretting about that part of the deal (the part that galls me). What we know so far about how it will actually work is explained excellently HERE.
When my friend – who bought his house for a pittance 30 years ago and is now very comfortably retired — fumes with “where’s mine?” indignation, it isn’t becoming, but it’s certainly natural. Something in us cries out against obvious inequity. Even animals are profoundly distressed when rewarded differently from others performing the same task, as studies of dogs and monkeys have shown.
It’s a pity we have such trouble transferring our inherent sense of justice to inequities that aren’t precisely in our faces. Because they don’t move in our circles, we’ve allowed the rich and powerful to operate as if they’re a separate species not subject to normal standards — and, while they’ve been busily robbing us blind for a generation, we’ve taken their bait as they set us covetously against one another.
For instance, my friend bought their anti-union line and is a hard-core champion of free trade, so he opposes “Buy American” rules and the Employee Free Choice Act, wailing, “Pretty soon it would cost $100 to buy a shirt!” And yet he sees the decline of opportunity in America clearly enough to say, “I don’t know what I’d do, if I were young now, maybe emigrate or raise an army.” Despite being kind and generous in his personal life, he doesn’t think twice about patronizing big box stores that routinely exploit workers and states, “I vote my pocketbook,” without an ounce of shame. There are further ways in which he’s conflicted — such as:
- decrying “socialized medicine” while lauding the quality of VA care (which he continues to enjoy free, courtesy of his first career);
- endorsing rampant privatization of government functions, although most of his benefits in retirement derive from holding good federal jobs;
- expressing scorn for liberals, while being appalled by the religious right and eager to bring back all our troops and habeas corpus;
- supporting both the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association; and
- having a life-long distrust of Wall Street and a degree in economics, among other fields, but not bothering to dig beneath corporate media’s blame-the-victim accounts of the present crisis.
Of course, we’re all masses of contradictions, riddled with blind spots. And, even as we strive to discard old habits of thought, learn more and fit the pieces into a coherent picture, we’ll find it distorted at times by fits of selfishness and stubbornness that reduce us to toddlers refusing to share. This grasping, egocentric attitude has, unfortunately, been encouraged since the rise of Reagan, with the result that behavior we wouldn’t permit for long in a two-year-old we often tolerate in ourselves — at least in our civic selves.
Perhaps, by the same means that banished ethnic slurs and sexist remarks from polite discourse, we could make it just as unacceptable to speak for avarice. I’m going to give it a whirl. The next time I hear that whine about paying somebody else’s mortgage, I’ll skip the usual recital of contradictory facts and even the moral arguments – and, instead, try a horrified stare, then an earnest, “I’m sure you didn’t MEAN to sound so greedy.”
I’ll let you know how it goes.