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The non-prodigal son

By Michael J. Smith on Sunday February 22, 2009 04:20 PM

Folks brought up on the Bible -- as I was -- will recall the surly older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. (I think he's the scowling chap next to the sawhorse on the right in Tissot's lovely picture above).

The Prodigal took his inheritance and went catting around the ancient Near East, spending his substance in riotous living.

The elder brother, good dutiful fellow that he was, stayed home and did his duty.

When the Prodigal finally returned home, and was met with rejoicing by his Pop, the elder brother was understandably aggrieved.

The story, as told by its distinguished author, puts the elder brother obscurely in the wrong. But perhaps because I am an elder brother myself, I always felt a certain sympathy for the sullen, pouting non-prodigal.

These old memories have come to the fore recently as I read about the mortgage bailout. Here's a sample from the Boston Globe:

Bailout lament: What about me?
Many who played by rules see unfairness

Brian Carpenter bought his Woburn home [sc. 'house' -- MJS] in 1980, and 29 years later, he has never missed a mortgage payment. It wasn't always easy. With three kids, it meant driving old cars, clipping coupons, and brown-bagging it to work.

Now, he sees the federal government committing nearly $1 trillion to bail out banks and struggling homeowners, and nearly $800 billion to offset economic damage caused by reckless lending and borrowing. What's in it for him? Probably $13-a-week, the middle-class tax cut in the stimulus bill.

"What about people like me who are playing by the rules, who got a mortgage we could afford?" said Carpenter.

Me, I never bought a house, never had a mortgage, never saved, never denied myself anything. I'm a grasshopper, not an ant. But in spite of Carpenter's terrible smug virtue, I'm entirely on his side here.

The other day on NPR -- I was driving at the time, that's my excuse -- some "economist" was trying to explain this problem away. One of Mr Carpenter's fellow-elders had called in with precisely the Carpenter complaint: Where's the justice here?

The "economist" gabbled and stammered. For quite an agonizing long time. I nearly drove off the road, I was laughing so hard.

Finally the "economist" came up with his answer: it's not about justice, it's not about fairness, it's not about keeping the promises the system made. It's about saving the "system" itself.

To the "economist", this seemed like a pretty good response, no doubt. But I wonder whether Mr Carpenter will be convinced. If I were Carpenter, I would be asking myself whether virtue is really worthwhile.

Personally, I asked this question years ago, and answered it in the negative. But this was a quirky non-standard contrarian response, back then. The "system" seemed to have a certain moral authority at the time.

The moral authority is now shot. It's clear what the "system" was about in fact. It wasn't about rewarding virtue. It was about encouraging speculative frenzy.

Saving the system means: let's keep the suckers speculating, at all costs. Virtuous or not, they must stay in the game. Or all is lost.

Will that work, I wonder, if the moral story that the Carpenters like so much is undermined? Didn't the scam need that?

I guess we'll find out.

Meanwhile -- where did I put that damn fiddle? All this moving around, from rented anthill to rented anthill -- it's next to impossible to keep track of what little movable property you have.

Comments (19)


Sad to say, the success of this system is predicated upon the belief that poor people tend to pay their debts. That poor carpenter suspects there are termites afoot, but they tend to scatter in all directions every time he turns on the light.


As Chomsky has basically analyzed it: "Market Discipline for you working stiffs, Socialism for the elite"; Socialize risk, privatize gain.

Yes, Virginia, the economy really is more like a Ponzi scheme than anyone was ever willing to publicly admit in polite society...


There's something wrong with Michael's reasoning here. Since I just saw Milk last night, I can't help thinking that Anita Bryant is the kind of person who'd complain about rewarding bad behavior. Come on! These people already have a home. They can't stand it that someone else might get one too?

Years ago I read a sociological study of women who opposed abortion. Most of them were working class women who'd stayed home and had kids, following the values of their parents and church. They resented the younger women who saw broke through the old patterns, because they proved that the older women had been in some sense stupid.


Hey, I wasn't dumb enough to buy a house on a flood plain! Where's my FEMA check?

Hey, I wasn't dumb enough to be born a woman and walk down the street and get raped! Where's my rape counciling?

Hey, I wasn't dumb enough to not graduate high school and enlist in the military and get sent to Iraq and get my legs blow off! Where's my veteran's benefits?

why is the anger and resentment directed at the home"owners" and not the lenders who gave out these crummy loans? the policy would seem to help the lenders cut their losses at our expense.

the poor schmucks living in and maintaining the house, while essentially paying rent as property values decline, will get the shaft pay for their sins eventually.

with a series of bail-outs and stimuli that appear equivalent to a plundering of the treasury (or is it the cashing of bad checks, or the running up of the national credit card?) if flesh-and-blood people get any benefit whatsoever, (say, staving off foreclosure for a few months,) i can't fault those people for benefiting.

Using public funds to deal in stolen property, something George Washington himself was not averse to, has been the American system since, well, 1787. As the guarantor of ethnic cleansing, land grants and subdivision of a continent, the United States of America is a hedge fund, so to speak. While my expertise in real estate speculation as an industry is limited, the pattern of theft is hard to miss.


The relief side runs the same gauntlet as welfare

The kulack klass
Needs to feel no
Poor Slacker
Just like no rich senior bondholder
Oughta escape
the cicle of mundane hell
he or she made for themselves
These past 3 dcades
While buddy kulack
Played by the rules

The counter move is to tie everthing to job hours
We live in
A society where job attendence
is playing by. The rules

Hence the payroll tax holiday and reversal of the trust fund bindle swindle

That oughta be the spirit of all this
Recovery biz

Uncle runs huge deficits by giving back what folks earned in the first place

Next start building trillions
In green shit

And spewing out sba loans
Like a thousand fire hoses

Oh and....
Death to the trans nats

This isn't about more people getting houses. That could only come from rising incomes below, which is the "never" item on the agenda, the crumb that never falls from the table.

So, MJS isn't taking the wrong side here. He's saying enough already with subsidizing this rotten "home-owning" game.

By the way, only 35 percent of those who are being "rescued" in this farce are getting lower payments. Half are getting HIGHER ones. This is Ponzi squared. As such, the only thing worse than not getting your mortgage rescued is getting it rescued.

All of Fadduh Smiff's entirely-valid arguments about house "owners" being suckered in with blue-sky talk about not having to pay rent aside... did anyone here see that video clip of that CNBC nutcake shouting* from the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange about how all those people who are losing their houses -- most likely because they've lost their friggin' jobs -- are losers? What the fuck was that about? Does that scum-sucking greedhead really honestly believe that people who worked all their lives, saved their money for when they got old, paid their bills and tried to do everything right, and now are being screwed and thrown out into the street to live in their goddamn' cars are losers? What a goddamn' piece of work. I hope that sonofabitch owns a Kevlar vest, for his own sake.

Wrt the "home-owning" game, I can only say that I wish I could remember the URL of one of my favorite stories in The Onion, with a headline to the effect of Area Couple Thrilled With Chance To Enjoy Illusion Of Owning A House.

Oh, and btw, Smiff -- do you mean to say that you actually still listen to the goddamn' radio in your car? Dude, haven't you heard of in-dash CD changers? (Or, perhaps, given our respective ages, in-dash cassette decks?)

* Yeah, yeah; I know...everybody shouts on those goddamn' talking-head shows these days. I can't believe my wife is able to fall asleep in front of the TV with Chris Matthews bellowing in her face. One of the reasons I like Keith Olbermann is, aside from his politics, the fact that he's about the only commentator on TV today that speaks in a normal, civil, conversational tone of voice.

did anyone here see that video clip of that CNBC nutcake shouting* from the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange...?

did you see brian williams unconstrained glee at being able to show that footage as the top story the evening it happened? (my wife watches the news, that's my excuse.) i'll bet the floor was sticky behind his desk that night.

Where is the anti-war movement?

What anti-war movement?

Barack Obama ate their balls.


Perhaps I was being a leeetle bit contrarian. It's been known to happen.

I don't begrudge the undeserving anything. Hell, I'm one of the undeserving myself. But I do hate to see the undeserving -- or even the deserving, God rot their smug souls -- schnookered back into the mortgage trap, which is if nothing else the most effective form of social control known to man.

Gotta admit, though, I'd love to see foreclosures on a mass scale -- and at the same time, I'd love to see resistance to foreclosures. But even if the resistance never materialized, the net effect of mass foreclosure could only be positive, after the initial shock of decathexis (anacathexis? acathexis?) from the fetish-house wore off.

For one thing, the banks would be stuck with properties worth far less than what the banks lent on them. They'd never get their money back, or anything like it. Now you can't have too many bankrupt banks.

Moreoever, people would be renting, and knowing they were renting, rather than wallowing in the illusion of ownership. Nothing makes a smug middle-class citizen into a bloody-minded prole as fast as a landlord.

Finally, with any luck at all, the whole grisly process might be educational. At the very least, we could hope that folks would become gun-shy about the whole house-ownership shell game for a generation.

but, but, but, the american dreeeeeeeeam!!!

i'd like to see the whole thing come crashing down too. but living in maine this time of year, getting through the winter becomes kind of a high priority--doing so and surviving, a badge of honor. can't we put off some of these foreclosures 'till summer at least?


I agree
This mortgage crunch
Is a corking good struggle rouser...
So long as the anger of most kulacks remains
Directed toward their royalist betters
Not their dark
Lower shadows...


Owen has got it right, of course. Which way will the Carpenters jump?

You can never tell. I suppose we should all do our bit, whatever that might be, to affect the outcome. If we knew the virtuous Carpenters -- what should we tell them?

Somehow I feel it wouldn't be very useful to take the usual sanctimonious tender-hearted liberal gambit and tell them that they ought to feel more sympathy for the undeserving. That strikes me as an uphill struggle.

On the other hand, it just might be possible to redirect their justifiable anger and hatred against the people who really schnookered them.


"On the other hand, it just might be possible to redirect their justifiable anger and hatred against the people who really schnookered them."

Unfortunately, they aren't the ones who are being snookered, unless they too lost their jobs.

What Michael picked up here is an early symptom of the really ugly right wing/left wing split that is coming to this country, fanned as always by right wing radio. Any guesses about which way the state will go?


why is the anger and resentment directed at the home"owners" and not the lenders who gave out these crummy loans?

Because those lenders and CDO brokers have large amounts of money and an instant pipeline into every American's home via an invention known as television where they can explain ad nauseum how it isn't their fault - it all the fault of those evil poor people who aren't paying their mortgages.

"It's clear what the 'system' was about in fact. It wasn't about rewarding virtue. It was about encouraging speculative frenzy."

It's amazing how consistently, adamantly and proudly this blog misses the point.

The system is, in fact, not about rewarding virtue or encouraging speculative frenzy, it is about perpetuating the myth of infinite growth on a finite planet.

As Eric Alterman--not my favorite either but he gets it where you miss it--recently observed, "there’s an elephant in the room, but a bunch of blind men are hanging out way too close to his rear end".

SMBIVA should see the elephant--its ivory-tower writing style appears to indicate above average intelligence--but clearly can't--or won't--for whatever reasons...


The economy is wounded — I hope it dies!

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on Sunday February 22, 2009 04:20 PM.

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