What happens, socially and politically, when the U.S. sinks into protracted economic malaise as many are now predicting? The chickens are coming home to roost on “The Era of Greed,” a 27-year time span that may earn its own chapter in future history books, running roughly from the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 to the present.
Repudiating and running roughshod over LBJ’s “War on Poverty” and the Carter years’ appeals for restraint and resource conservation, this extended orgy of unbridled personal hoarding and consumerism is about to run smack into a brick wall. The license to greed launched by the Reagan presidency has finally stuck millions of average Americans with an amazingly untenable situation.
In short, these folks have bought far more than they can pay for, and are now suddenly discovering they can’t dispose of what they’ve bought and can’t resort to getting any further in debt to pay for it.
The sub-prime mortgage crisis is only the first phase of what will follow in the coming months. Persons with sub-prime credit ratings predictably have been the first to fall out of the good times, seduced by offers of no down payments, interest only payments and adjustable rates to buy over-priced housing far beyond their means.
Now, however, wave upon wave of folks with good credit begin to come who were suckered into the same kinds of mortgages, buying gigantic homes at inflated prices with no real eye to the future.
Many of them reasoned that if their mortgage costs got out of hand, once the initial grace period of an adjustable rate expired and monthly bills doubled or tripled, they could always “flip” their house to the next sucker, and come away ahead.
That premise, of course, was based on a few years of ridiculously-appreciating home values, an abundance of seductive mortgage and second mortgage offers, and terrific demand by consumers stampeding into this market.
We now know that, in the veritable twinkling of an eye, all this has changed. Home values are flat and declining. Credit has dried up. Demand is at a standstill.
Now, these happy homeowners are panicking. For many, the triggering of higher interest rates on their adjustable rate policies will hit in 2008, shooting their monthly payments through the roof. They can’t sell. They can’t borrow. They’re stuck.
The original problem, of course, was that they bought more than they could actually afford. The old federal guideline, that housing costs should not exceed more than 30% of an annual household income, was mocked during the recent years’ excesses.
I couldn’t believe what a realtor friend of mine said a year or so ago. When I raised the subject of the 30% guideline, she scoffed. That is no longer applicable, she said, because people can now so easily get no down-payment and other mortgage deals.
She didn’t seem to compute the simple notion that the guideline pertained to a long-term, sustained ability of a family to remain in a home.
The homeowner crisis is compounded by the role of credit cards in covering the costs of essential consumer goods and services. With the unbelievably high interest rates associated with these debt mechanisms, consumers used to running up their cards to pay for groceries and discretionary items alike, will be stuck in the fallout from the declining housing market and commodity price increases associated with the rising cost of oil.
So far, economic policies from the Federal Reserve and others are aimed at stretching out the current conditions with more liquidity, a Band Aid solution that cannot work forever. It is already starting to unravel, and that unraveling will escalate in 2008.
Naturally, none of the “powers that be” want the general public to know about this. They will project the “I’m all right, Jack” persona as long as they can. While Americans are distracted by what were called in Roman times “bread and circuses,” now sports and TV, the nation’s three-decades-long run of shallow materialism and accumulation of stuff is expiring.
Some are sitting in their gigantic homes, wrestling with their quiet desperation as their nervous hands reluctantly open their next mortgage payment and credit card bills. Others rail at immigrants. Still others slump with their worldly goods to the homes of friends or relatives.
What’s nowhere in the national discourse now, even as a presidential race rages, is any serious attention to what, programmatically, some serious shifting of gears would involve.