Four years ago, President Bush outlined his vision for an “ownership society,” a society where, “if you own something, you have a vital stake in the future of our country. The more ownership there is in America, the more vitality there is in America, and the more people have a vital stake in the future of this country.”
This “ownership society” would be one in which the individual, not the community, increasingly took title to everything. Success, property and credit would flow to those who deserved them, and away from those who didn’t.
In doing so, Bush told us, our nation would be better. More fragmented. Less homogeneous. But more market-oriented, more dynamic, more equitable in allocating to those who won.
In his acceptance speech, before the crowds in Denver, Barack Obama took the president’s frame at its face-value meaning, with a terrible twist.
For Obama understood that ownership was a two-edged sword. It would be unfair beyond belief to allow persons to own the bounty of their success, while never being expected to hold the debt of their failures.
“For over two decades, [John McCain has] subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy -- give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else,” said Obama.
“In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is - you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck. No health care? The market will fix it. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps -- even if you don't have boots. You're on your own,” he continued.
And then he closed with this: “Well it's time for them to own their failure.”
Own their failure. Closing the loop on the ownership society. Acknowledging that there is no reward, without the burden of responsibility.
Obama said those words well before the depths of our economic collapse were evident to most, if not all. He said them before we noticed that our president, when the nation needed him most, was AWOL again.
But he spoke them as a gathering uneasiness swept the nation, a feeling that not all was well. And so his words served, should have served, as a caution to those to whom so much had accrued that soon, much would be demanded.
It would be, after all, only fair.
Looking for a scapegoat
There’s been a lot of soul-searching over the past year, as the unraveling accelerates. Why is this happening? When will it end? How much will it hurt?
Who is responsible?
Who is responsible, indeed. The Ownership Society encourages those who own to step up and claim what is theirs. And claiming what is theirs should include claiming failure; we should be seeing people step forward and say, “This is my fault.”
But they’re not. In fact, there are certain segments of the Ownership Society that have gone on a full-fledged witch hunt to find someone, anyone, but themselves at whose feet the blame can be laid.
And, unfortunately, it appears that there’s a growing movement to lay the blame not at the feet of those responsible, but at the feet of those least likely to fight back against it.
Across the Internet, on online right-wing Web sites, on electronic forums and in e-mail lists is being transmitted the meme that the root cause of our mess was not the mendacious issuance of shaky mortgages bundled into risk-opaque paper and subsequently labeled as “investment grade” by a financial sector made finally free of any regulatory restraint, whatsoever.
But that it was the purposeful issuance of mortgages to minority homeowners by the Government Sponsored Entities (GSEs) Freddy Mac and Fannie Mae, spurred on by rapacious Democrats, not mendacious Republicans, currying for votes among the poor, brown and black.
Even the New York Times has recently joined the bandwagon, with a story today attributing the fall of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac not just to pressure from mortgage originators like Countrywide, who threatened not to pass any more mortgage paper to the GSEs if the GSEs didn’t accept their crappy loans, not just to pressure from Fanny and Freddy’s shareholders, demanding higher returns.
But to Congress, particularly congressional Democrats, pressuring the GSEs to make more risky loans in order to get home ownership up, particularly among minorities.
The reality-based community
Only one little problem with the “we’re in the tank because Democrats pressured the GSEs to loan money to black people” thesis. And the problem is one of scale (not enough loans were issued, much less defaulted on, to minority/poor borrowers to bring the system down), of assignment (the GSEs, even under pressure, did not accept most risky loans), and of scale (Fannie Mae was losing its share of the mortgage underwriting market to Wall Street, coming down from a high of 44 percent in late 2002 to only a third today).
But, despite flimsy-to-no-evidence-supporting it (not even the New York Times would actually detail how much of the subprime loans actually went to minorities), the race-based explanation has traction.
Why? Because we have a failure to own. A failure in looking for everywhere to find the source of a problem, so long as that looking doesn’t involve a mirror.
Daily we are deluged with images of row upon rows of homes in foreclosure. Do those images depict street after street of inner-city tenement houses? No. They’re places like California’s Inland Empire, where half-million-dollar McMansions once sprouted like wildfire.
They’re places like beachfront Florida and the radiating suburban shockwaves around Phoenix, Atlanta and Sacramento where, in gated community after gated community, the most prominent feature after the algae-filled abandoned swimming pool, is the “foreclosure” sign.
But it’s so much easier to blame the mess on the invisible-and-out-of-sight. On the (nonexistent) welfare queen livin’ it up in her interest-only stick-built. It’s much more convenient to lay the blame not on the neighbor with the “McCain/Palin” yard sign and the Hummer in the garage with a “For Sale” sign, but on those bleedin’ heart liberals and their no-good shiftless constituents.
Because doing otherwise would mean an Ownership Society of purpose. It would mean something tangible, an equitable allocation of reward and punishment.
But ours is not a society of equality, ours is a society that rewards the privatizing of gain, and the socializing of pain -- particularly if that socialization can be done on the backs of those without a voice.
Change. It’s time.
Gregory Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.