Decaying Social Trust and Moral Indignation

Pop quiz!

Who wrote: “This is how the world will end—not with a bang, but a whimper.”

a. T.S. Eliot
b. W. H. Auden
c. Robert Frost
d. e.e. cummings
e. Alfred E. Neumann

Answer at the end; no fair peeking.

I don’t know about the world, but the subprime/mortgage/credit crisis shows how social trust ends. Not with a whimper, but with righteous moral indignation—on all sides.

We are in the midst of the deflation of a debt or credit bubble, itself based on an asset bubble—overpriced houses. As of today, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association, 24% of subprime mortgages are delinquent or in foreclosure; ditto for 4% for prime mortgages; and for all mortgages it’s a record 7.9%, the highest since records began in 1979.

Everyone played musical chairs. And the more frantic the music, the more rightous the talk.

Here’s the Heritage Foundation—mind you, just last November, 2007—demonstrating its utter subordination of logic to ideology, arguing against H.R. 3915, a House bill to reign in predatory lending:

[the bill] would establish an explicit series of credit standards for lenders, which could have the effect of excluding many moderate income borrowers from the ownership market. In sum, the enactment of H.R.3915 would delay the housing market recovery that is now struggling to get underway.

Yup, Congress killed the real estate bubble appreciating market.

A year earlier, in September 2006, the Mortgage Bankers Association stated that

“the subprime market has evolved dramatically in recent years, providing significant benefits to consumers…increasing regulation could decrease competition and increase rates that the subprime market offers consumers.”

But this is not a populist rant.  Consumers were far from just hapless victims.

An FBI Mortgage Fraud report 3 months ago stated that up to 70% of early payment defaults may have been linked to buyer misrepresentation on loan applications.

What about FICO credit scores?  Courtesy of BusinessWeek, meet “credit doctors,” companies who will manipulate credit ratings by blitzing credit agencies with disputes about old reports (which have likely been lost), setting you up as an “authorized user” of an account owned by someone with good credit, or just creating paper accounts.

“All legal,” they protest. Of course. No miscreants here.

So—end game—bang or whimper?

Dateline, CBS Evening News February 12, 2008.  Meet Karen T., a married San Francisco suburbanite who bought a condo as a second home for $505K, financing it 100% with mortgage debt. Now it’s worth $340K, and her adjustable mortgage goes up $900 this June.

They own another home. They can afford the rate increase. So—what to do?

Karen’s answer?  Walk away. Default.  Give it back to the bank.

Is Karen distraught? Not really. “I’m not doing anything illegal.  Everything’s negotiable in business—this is just another business decision. I don’t see why this is any different. I’m within my right to walk away from a bad deal.”

And 60% in an LA Times Real Estate blog poll agreed with her.

Karen is morally indistinguishable from a landlord turning off the heat under rent control; insurance companies withdrawing sole-provider coverage from unprofitable markets; banks charging usurious credit rates; emergency rooms turning out the uninsured; de facto mortgage redlining; and a thousand forms of “fine print."  Or—come to think of it—from a banker foreclosing on a never-should’ve-approved-that-loan loan. 

The rallying cry is always, “I’m not doing anything illegal.”

But here’s the kicker.

Karen’s not morally indignant about walking away. To her, that’s “a business decision.”

No, her moral indignation is reserved for the consequences she might face.  She leans her face on her hand, her voice intensifying, as she says, “It is devastating to think that my credit scores are going to drop 200 points," she said.

OMG, it’s just so, like, unfair!

Huh? Devastated because you were educated, had the money, and placed a 100% bet on an overheated market—and lost? And you can afford to pay the piper—but don’t want to?

Take a trip to Vegas, Karen, and see if the blackjack dealers buy it.  Better yet, go tell it to someone with half your education and income who’s been foreclosed on after having spent their last money trying to pay the bank. 

It doesn’t matter who started the food fight.  It seems that the decay of social trust is accompanied by higher levels of self-righteousness and narcissism on both sides.

When business and consumer alike choose moral bankruptcy over financial bankruptcy—without even thinking about it—and then justify it indignantly through Darwinian arguments—well, Houston, we’ve got a problem in trust-land.  Not to mention ethics-land. 

Oh yeah—T.S. Eliot
 

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