Walking Away From Shame
April 25, 2009
Patrick Deneen at Front Porch Republic notes an uptick in visits to a post he wrote about Walk Away, the company that helps homeowners foreclose on homes they cannot afford. A bit from the interview he cites:
Kroft observes to real estate agent Kevin Moran. “There was a time, I think, when people felt really bad about not paying off a debt.”
“Yeah, I think in those days, loans were made by your local banker or building and loan associations or savings and loan,” Moran replies. “They were guys you saw in the grocery store. They were on the little league team with you, the PTA, the school. And I think as mortgages became securitized and Wall Street became involved, they became very transactional and there was no relationship built with the borrower and the lender. And I think that makes it easier for someone to see it as an anonymous party at the other end of the transaction and just walk away from it.”
“Just a business decision,” Kroft says.
The real root of the issue though, Deneen suggests, is the lack of a culture of shame that would take the decision to foreclose beyond just business:
As the Greeks well knew, the vital ingredient for shame – and, correspondingly, honor – to function in society was immediacy and care for the people in one’s polis, their views and opinions, the esteem they bestowed or withheld. Elites were honored in our society to the extent that they were themselves exemplars of the virtues that they both preached and expected of others in turn. The current widespread hostility to all these elites – Wall Street, lawyers, doctors, politicians – reflects the breakdown of a covenant of respect and honor. As our economy has become more abstract and distant, as our “communities” are compared to bedrooms (or perhaps, more aptly, hotel rooms), as our sense of continuity between past and future has been undermined by rampant mobility, impermanence and instability, there can be little wonder that “shamelessness” has spread like a contagion through our society. Such lack of shame and disregard of honor began at the top and now ripples downward through the feeding chain of class and status. Indeed, the idea that one would walk away from a house requires just such a perspective – it’s just a house, made of cheap 2×4 studs (that aren’t even 2×4 anymore, but a bit smaller) and drywall. We live not in homes, a vital part of a neighborhood, a town, a community – but in cheap structures without inherent worth. Just as our economy has shown us no sense of obligation and concern, so too in return are ordinary people shucking off the social norms or covenants that bound us in communion and fidelity. There is a great unraveling taking place, and at times I do truly fear for the future of this great nation.
I was fairly suspicious of this explanation when it ran back in February, and now that I’ve got an excuse to revisit it there’s a lot I think could be said about it. To begin with, although buyers definitely played an enormous role in creating the crisis, I think describing them as shameless is pretty callous; youwalkaway.com is certainly without shame, and I think anyone would be rightly horrified at their approach to marketing themselves. But to suggest that we have a crisis in the very institution of shame seems a bit hasty; what we have is a crisis in how shame operates collectively, and where it emerges in the public discourse. There are certainly some who would follow the vagabond-speculator ethic Deneen suggests, but that kind of homebuying-as-hedgefund stupidity only emerges when the bubble is at its apex, when people stop buying as homeowners and start buying as highly leveraged speculators, and when a large number of poorly informed, but basically well-meaning home-buyers have already entered a market they should never have been in in the first place. For many of these people, the experience of loosing a home is a tragic and shameful thing with real consequences that go beyond a lowered credit rating, and I was a bit surprised to read Deneen suggesting that sub-prime borrowers lack this sense. (Particularly given that the interview is with a real estate agent, who has definite reasons to downplay his role. Yeesh.)
But this isn’t to say that the question of shame doesn’t have a place in this analysis, and on that front I think Dennen is absolutely spot on. The question though, is not one of absent shame but of shame channeled in new and different directions, a question not whether defaulting is shameful (it is) but how it is shameful. Home-buyers who default have plenty of guilt in their lives, but its the guilt of, say, not being able to co-sign on their children’s student loans, not being able to replace a broken car, or, obviously to find a place to live on a permanent basis. What’s key is that all of these forms of shame exist solely in the private realm, between family members and the very limited extended networks they operate under. Where it is notably absent is exactly the place Dennen points to, the business sector, which has in recent years become an impersonal shell of the vital institutions that once laid the groundwork for the average American’s economic being.
Setting aside the foreclosure issue, I think there’s another important ramification of the privatization of personal economic life, particularly under the conditions of economic disturbance. It is, one could argue, at the root of American’s resurgent sense of class warfare as well: that if we are to rage against mortgage lenders, it is against no particular lender, but abstract conglomerates, executives we have never met, entire tax brackets, but rarely someone we know personally, or who could be the subject of our contempt in anything other than an objectified abstract sense. It’s this anonymous aggression on the part of Teabaggers and anti-Bailout activists, and the equally anonymous looting of AIG execs, that may be the biggest cost of this crisis; without trust – and shame – building the polis will prove exceptionally difficult.