What are health and happiness worth?

I’ve written about chronological snobbery before. Here’s the definition from the fellow who coined the term, Owen Barfield:

Chronological snobbery is the presumption, fueled by the modern conception of progress, that all thinking, all art, and all science of an earlier time are inherently inferior, indeed childlike or even imbecilic, compared to that of the present. Under the rule of chronological snobbery, the West has convinced itself that “intellectually, humanity languished for countless generations in the most childish errors on all sorts of crucial subjects, until it was redeemed by some simple scientific dictum of the last century” (Barfield, History in English Words, p. 164). It has become to believe that “anything more than a hundred years old is ancient” and “in the world of books, or opinions about books, the age at which senility sets in has now been reduced to about ten” (Barfield, Worlds Apart, p. 148).

I’ve said that we not only need to beware such an attitude, but we need to come to grips with the fact that it was quite possible for people to live happy, fulfilled lives under what seem to us benighted circumstances. This is one reason I keep looking to history, trying to figure out not only which changes to traditional patterns are improvements, but which ones might be steps backwards. I don’t expect to discover some ideal time period, but I do expect to learn more about what makes for a good life.

Such snobbery does not have to be chronological. We can take the same wrong attitude towards cultures existing today that are somewhere behind us on the path to modernity. Here’s an account worth considering, sent by a correspondent to Dmitri Orlov who posted it on his blog (emphasis mine):

The Philippines, like a number of other countries, is living in a paradox of different proportions. Outside of the biggest cities here, food is growing everywhere, in the villages themselves, as well as the agricultural lands around them. Most people here can tell you how to grow a list of useful plants and to raise chickens.

They are also very much used to sharing. There is virtually no government safety net here. To become eligible for social welfare payments, one must have held the same job for ten years; this almost never happens. Yet even in the moderate-sized cities, nobody starves. Interdependence is local and regional rather than national and international. Of course, there is a degree of modernization contributing to the welfare of people. Some people work in the cities or overseas and send money home to support the extended family. But even without this money life would go on.

Most people here are very fit compared to developed nation’s. I have seen hardly any overweight people, let alone obese. Washing is done by hand in water pumped by hand from the ground. "Sounds horrible," I hear the average reader murmur: but it works and it means the people are physically fit. The main diet is locally grown rice with similarly grown meats and vegetables. Fruit can be expensive because a lot of it is exported, yet whatever is in season is abundant. The fishing trade here is mostly very small boats with small crews using small nets and lines; there are very few industrial scale fishing boats. I live near a fishing village where 95% of the income is derived from fishing in these small boats; the population of over 2,000 people is the healthiest, happiest bunch I have ever met.

Transport here is a world away from that in developed nations, yet there is no problem getting anywhere. Locally, there are tricycles and jeepneys going past all the time in all directions; these and the buses are very affordable for most people. Only about 2% of households have a car, and maybe half have a private 125cc motorcycle or tricycle. These vehicles get about 100 miles to a gallon of fuel.

The paradox is this: the Philippines greatest asset in the future may be its lack of assets now. Less debt, less dependence on expensive gadgets, less laziness and complacency. More communalism, more integration.

The lesson Orlov takes from this is as follows:

Chris writes of a paradox: lack of assets may be the greatest asset of all. I don’t believe that this is a paradox: the higher you climb, the harder you fall. A place that is used to an artificially high standard of living inevitably develops artificially high standards. These standards cannot be undone overnight, as soon as the standard of living collapses, delaying commonsense adaptations until it is too late. Prosperous places have expensive infrastructure, and, once it can no longer be maintained, it becomes much worse than no infrastructure at all. Lastly, poverty takes practice, and a sudden lapse into poverty is far more traumatic than the habit of a stable but constrained existence.

Fair enough, but what struck me is something simpler, namely that the correspondent found a small village of low-tech fishermen to be “the healthiest, happiest bunch” he had ever met.

To folks who are considering living a simpler life for its own sake, as well as those who are concerned that the future might force simplicity upon them, I’d recommend some extended reflection on how much happiness is actually found in the trappings of modern life. Looking at cultures that don’t have them can help. Do we really think that modernity is the means by which God has finally delivered us from the miseries of life—a few of us, anyway, and only very recently?

Preying on weakness

I don’t know how to properly balance mercy and justice. I know that it is good to spare others the full consequences of their actions; we do this for our children on a daily basis. And I also know that it is good to suffer the consequences of our actions, so that we’ll learn to act prudently and to be considerate to others. But if there is an exactly right line that divides too harsh from too soft, I never know where it is. And it gets even harder when trying to decide how much one should suffer for an action which was taken because of the unjust actions of others.

As the current economic crisis unfolds, I worry that the conservative distain for people who have gotten themselves into dire economic straits is verging on social Darwinism. On one side of the scales we have foolishness, gullibility, ignorance, and a touch of greed, on the other we have unimaginably punitive financial obligations. We assume that the scales balance because, after all, ignorance and gullibility and foolishness and greed are simply no excuse. But I think we need to remember that it is we ourselves that assign the relative weights to these things so that the scales balance, not some biblical standard or some cosmic law. Folks in other times and places have assigned the weights quite differently.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the just consequences for exhibiting weakness, and the just consequences for preying on weakness, and whether consequences for the weak should be tempered because of the strength of the temptation. I don’t have any answers yet, but I have a growing appreciation for just how irresistable the economic forces are that thrive when ordinary people stumble, and only when they stumble.

In a recent column, Joe Nocera reprints an email from a bank executive who has become disgusted at the lending practices of the past ten years. (All emphasis added.)

I received a catalog today from Casual Living and in big bold print on the front page, it said “BUY NOW, PAY NOTHING”. Then in significantly smaller print underneath, it said, (until April). That mantra has been sung throughout the credit markets over the last 10 years. The banks waive a carrot in front of the consumer and reel them in and encourage them to go deeper and deeper into debt. They do this by prescreening customers through credit reporting agencies, mailing offers to apply, and to transfer balances at teaser rates or zero percent financing. They base it on credit score and not on capacity to repay. A good credit score does not equate to the ability to repay debt.

It is important to remember that last sentence as you think through the responsibilities of the various parties involved. The executive goes on:

Over my career, I have seen thousands of consumers that have credit card lines in excess of their annual salaries. Some are sinking under their burden. Some have been fiscally responsible and have minimal amounts outstanding. My 21-year-old daughter, who’s in college, gets pre-approved offers all the time. She has no ability to repay debt, yet the offers flow in just the same. We all know how these lines are accumulated. The banks, in their infinite stupidity, keep upping credit lines because the customer pays the minimum payments on time. My daughter’s credit line started at $1,000 and has been increased over the last two years to $4,400. She has no increased earnings to support this. But the banks do it without asking. And without being asked. The banks reel in the consumer, charge interest rates higher than those charged by the mob, increase lines without the consumer asking and without their consent, and lure them into overextending. And we can count on the banks to act surprised when they aren’t paid back. Shame on them.

Out of curiosity, I totaled up our own credit limit. We have four credit cards that we keep for convenience. In 1989 (!) we got our first card, from Discover. Six or seven years ago we got a second Discover card to help us keep business and personal expenses separate (it didn’t help, and now we only use one of them). A couple of years ago Amazon was offering $25 or so to anyone who would sign up for their Visa card, so we did that, using it for Amazon buys plus other occasional purchases where Discover isn’t taken. And then Kroger offered a good cash gift when you took out one of their new MasterCards, so we got one of those (but stopped using it when we began doing the bulk of our grocery shopping at Wal-Mart.)

So, four cards, three of them lightly used, none requiring any stringent review of our finances. Credit limits?

  • Discover 1: $18,000
  • Discover 2: $13,500
  • Amazon Visa: $8,300
  • Kroger MasterCard: $9,000

Total credit limit: $48,800. Available at a moment’s notice, offered to us by people who have no clear idea of our current financial situation. Which I guarantee you doesn’t deserve even one-tenth as much unsecured credit.

How is it that our credit limit is so far out of line with our ability to repay?

As a banker, let me describe what we do wrong when we accept and review an application for a credit card. First, we don’t verify income. The first ‘C’ of credit: Capacity to repay, is completely ignored by the banks, just as it was in when they approved subprime mortgages. Then we ask for “household income” — as if other parties in the household could be held responsible for that debt. They cannot. And since we don’t ask for any proof of income, the customer can throw out any number they think will work for them. Then we ask if they rent or own and how much they pay. If their name is not on the mortgage, they can state zero. If they pay $1,000 in rent, they can say $500. (Years ago we asked for a copy of the lease to verify this number.) And finally, we don’t ask how much of a credit line the consumer is looking for. The banker can’t even put that amount into the system. There isn’t any place on the application for that information. We simply put unverified information into a mindless computer and the computer gets the person’s credit score and grants them the biggest line that score and income (ha!) qualifies for.

I recently had a client apply for a credit card. She is a homemaker, with no personal income. The house she lives in is in her husband’s name. She would have asked for a $3,000 credit line, just to pay miscellaneous expenses and to establish some credit on her own. So the computer is told that her household income is $150,000; her mortgage/rent payment is zero. The fact is that her husband’s mortgage payment is $7,000 a month (which he got with a no income verification loan). She had a good credit score, but limited credit since she has only lived in this country for the last three years. The system gave her an approval for a $26,000 line of credit!

I understand that all this is legal. And I understand that someone who falls prey to the temptations being pressed on them has made a mistake and should rightly suffer some consequences. But are the consequences in line with the mistake?

More than once while reading about yet another person who took a mortgage they obviously could never repay, the reason given was, “I figured that they wouldn’t have given me the loan if I couldn’t be expected to repay it.” Is that an unreasonable assumption?

Movement thinking destroys community

Christina Fuller, the Kansas Milkmaid, offers some wise words about the divisiveness of labels in her 11/24 post entitled “Christian agrarianism and community.” (You’ll have to look at the home page of her blog, for some reason directly linking to the post does not work.) And her conclusion is powerful:

I am hesitant to recommend tying Christian agrarianism to a specific church or denomination. One wise pastor told me churches get in real trouble when they are known more for a movement then for the gospel of Jesus Christ. While I realize there are exceptions to this rule, I think there is wise council to be considered. Our churches should not ascribe to methods, movements or lifestyles that upstage the gospel of Christ.

In summary, tight knit farm communities are a reality. I have lived it out. I expect that once I am back to farming that we will experience this again. I imagine I will meet, serve and fellowship with many great Christians as I farm. I expect I will meet those who don’t know the Lord too and my hope is to share the gospel as we farm. [Emphasis added]

You can read my own thoughts on how movement thinking can destroy community in this post, and in the posts mentioned there where I review Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together. Although I refer to “agrarianism” often, I do not view it as any kind of standard by which we should measure ourselves, certainly not a biblical one. As I’ve studied the agrarian life I’ve come to think that it is a good way to live, and perhaps even normative, in the sense that it may be the best way to live provided that God has not called you to some other way of life.

But I’ve met too many faithful Christians who have been called to a non-agrarian life to think that agrarian-mindedness can be used in any way to measure a Christian’s faithfulness. And I’ve come to a much deeper understanding of Christian brotherhood as I’ve been compelled to confront—and even rejoice in—the very different approaches to life that I’ve found among the brethren.

The woefully ignorant citizen, take #387

During every election season we can count on a round of hand-wringing over the deplorable state of civic knowledge among American citizens. Here’s an example. The writer makes a good case that when it comes to both current political events and the system of government we live under, more than half of Americans range from ignorant to completely clueless.

The writer concludes with the usual lament:

What we are left with, then, is a citizenry woefully ignorant of its civic institutions, morbidly unaware of the surrounding world, and irrationally misguided in the voting booth. How is democracy to succeed?

Is this the right way to frame the question? The majority of Americans appear to be competent to deal with life as it actually confronts them. And if I were to rank knowledge according to its potential for improving the average American’s life, I would rank political knowledge far below, say, financial knowledge or nutritional knowledge. It may be that the average American pays just about as much attention to civics as is useful to him, namely not at all.

Why does no one ever think to blame the system? If our representative democracy as it actually exists is unable to drum up the knowledgeable citizens our theories tell us are needed for its success, then perhaps that tells us it isn’t a proper system for governing three hundred million independent-minded people, and perhaps we ought to go in search of an alternative that has some hope of working in practice.

Modern living requires us to be omnicompetent

When I first began using computers, they were things that were housed in special rooms and attended by highly trained system operators, while I and hundreds of other programmers were connected to them by terminals and allowed to perform a narrow range of carefully delimited tasks. Many of the things I did were actually done by a sysop at my request; I wasn’t expected to know how to do them, much less understand the difficulties and risks involved in any of them.

When personal computers first began to appear on people’s desks, I thought: Well, this is a marvelous thing. Somehow they have managed to eliminate the complexities of computer operation that were handled by sysops, making it safe to put the entire computer in the hands of a mere user. But of course it turned out that no such thing had happened; the risks and difficulties were still there, only thinly veiled, and personal computers crashed and files disappeared with a regularity that would have brought our old sysop-maintained computer lab to its knees.

What surprised me, though, was that people didn’t run screaming back to the old arrangement. The lure of one’s own personal computer was too great, as well as the cost savings to the business providing them, and so we learned to muddle through, shouldering responsibilities we were in no way competent to bear, scrambling to thread our ways through the mysteries when something went wrong.

To me this development is one small but telling example of how modern living has progressively forced us to become omnicompetent, able to assume responsibility for any situation that comes our way, no matter how complex, no matter how little background we have in the matter. Of course as this trend has progressed we haven’t actually become omnicompetent. Modernity is not churning out renaissance men; quite the opposite. What has actually happened is that we have accepted responsibility for matters in all areas of our lives that we are unqualified to carry out. And qualified or not, when things go wrong it is we who are at fault, not those who imposed those responsibilities on us.

Debbie and I have bought and sold many houses, which means that I have signed many contracts whose implications I didn’t come close to understanding. In fact, I would say that I didn’t even read those contracts in any meaningful sense, since to give proper weight to the agreement I was entering into, pledging to spend thirty years paying back hundreds of thousands of dollars in regular installments, would have required months of study and reflection on my part. I certainly read through the words on the paper, but my willingness to sign was based much more on my understanding of how the world worked in general; in this case, I knew that people bought and sold houses, lived in them, and used part of their paycheck to make the regular payments. I figured I could do those things too, and so I signed.

The one time we followed the obligatory recommendation to have a lawyer look at a contract was very early on in our marriage, when we were selling our house in Boston. We wanted to have him look at the listing contract with the realtor, something we thought was thoroughly standardized and straightforward, so much so that it felt a bit silly to be paying for a lawyer’s time to look at it. But we got a recommendation for a lawyer, made an appointment, took the train and subway to downtown Boston, and walked into some tall office building to meet with him. He didn’t say much, just took the contract from us and picked up a pen.

Then he began to methodically cross out clauses in the agreement. And when he came to one particular clause, he shook his head, murmured “I can’t believe they’re still putting this one in here,” and crossed it out. I asked him what was wrong with that clause; he said that if the realtor found us a buyer and we accepted his offer, it would have obligated us to pay the realtor’s six percent fee even if the deal fell through. I was stunned—but not as stunned as when I handed the thoroughly marked-up agreement back to the realtor, who signed it without comment.

I’d like to say that this was one time when I had done well in shouldering my responsibilities, but in fact all that had happened was that for I had gotten a glimpse of how profound my ignorance was with respect to the agreement I was entering into. The lawyer had saved me from a few traps (that I assumed were commonly placed there by realtors, given how easy it was for him to find them), but my understanding of them wasn’t much deeper, and I had no idea what other sorts of dangers might remain in the document I signed.

Which leads me to wonder—am I truly competent to strike a legal agreement with anyone, particularly a party who has a much more sophisticated understanding of contract law and does not have my best interests at heart? Aside from whether it is even possible to give my word that I will adhere to the terms of a contract I don’t understand, should I enter into such an arrangement? Should I be promising to fulfill the terms of an agreement when I don’t fully understand those terms?

In trying to figure out how we arrived at this point, I stumbled across a blog post which spoke to the matter more directly than I ever could have hoped. The writer, a Christian but not (I think) a conservative Christian, begins with this (all emphasis is added):

The religious right in the U.S. emphasizes that its view of human freedom and democracy derives from Christian principles.  A significant pillar of the religious right’s economic theory is freedom of contract.  Under this view, government should avoid regulating private transactions because the individual parties to contractual agreements are in the best position to judge the value of their bargain and possess the moral freedom to make their own bargains.  A theological basis for this view is the inherent worth of the individual in the Christian tradition and the tendency of people with governmental power to abuse that power.

Not only does this description of contracts seem to describe modern circumstances accurately, it zeroes in on what I think is the rottenness at the core, namely that individuals are in the best position to judge the value of the bargain. Clearly, they are not, and you can sift through the wreckage of the unfolding mortgage crisis for endless anecdotes that bear this out.

The writer goes on to point out that things weren’t always this way:

These are valid notions, but they are not the whole story.  In his chapter “The Christian Sources of General Contract Law” in the splendid Christianity and Law:  an Introduction, Harold Berman traces Western contract law to its medieval canon law roots.  Berman summarizes these roots as follows:

In subsequent centuries, many of the basic principles of the canon law of contract were adopted by secular law and eventually came to be justified on the basis of will-theory and party autonomy.  It is important to know, however, that originally they were based on a theory of sin and a theory of equity.  Our modern Western contract law did not start form the proposition that every individual has a moral right to dispose of his property by means of making promises, and that in the interest of justice a promise should be legally enforced unless it offends reason or public policy.  Our contract law started, on the contrary, from the theory that a promise created an obligation to God, and that for the salvation of souls God instituted the ecclesiastical and secular courts with the task, in part, of enforcing contractual obli
gations to the extent that such obligations are just.

Wow. This is almost unimaginable today, but it fits neatly with what I wrote about modern business practices as an alternative to neighborliness:

What the people of DeSmet have forgotten, along with the rest of us, is that business practices were explicitly developed as an alternative to neighborliness, not an elaboration or enhancement of it. Karl Polanyi points out in his book The Great Transformation that until recently business trade was a relatively limited endeavor, taking place between towns and cities, leaving the countryside (and most of the population) largely unaffected. The reason was that there was no reliable means of enforcing business arrangements with villagers; until recently, a business dispute with a customer in a village had to be settled in that hard-to-get-to village, before a council of elders that might very well decide in favor of the villager if it was determined that the deal was somehow unfair to him. Business practices, especially enforcable legal contractual obligations, were developed specifically so people could conduct transactions with people who weren’t their neighbors.

What I didn’t make clear in that paragraph (because I didn’t understand it then) was that the change was not the introduction of enforceable contractual obligations, but the change from basing their enforceability on justice to basing it on the letter of the agreement, just or unjust.

This broadly social notion of contracts was modified, Berman notes, during the Puritan era.  The Puritans’ strong notion of total depravity made them less willing to place the authority to determine which obligations are “just” in the hands of a magistrate.  Moreover, the Puritans’ emphasis on order inclined them to seek the meaning of contractual documents in the literal words of the document rather than in an overarching contractual hermeneutic of justice.

It pains me to learn that my beloved Puritans were responsible for the change, but it doesn’t surprise me, since they are guilty of planting a number of seeds whose destructive nature wasn’t obvious at the time. And this one wasn’t obvious, given the nature of their community.

However, even for the Puritans, “private” contracts were social obligations within the all-inclusive fabric of God’s covenantal relationships with people.  Private contractual relations were not really “private” — they were covenantal relations between people who were also bound in covenantal relation to God.  As Berman notes,

the Puritan stress on bargain and on calculability (”order”) should not obscure the fact that the bargain presupposed a strong relationship between the contracting parties within the community.  These were not yet the autonomous, self-sufficient individuals of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.  England under Puritan rule and in the century that followed was intensely communitarian.

Really, the Puritan innovation didn’t put a brake on wickedness, it just shifted the potential for wickedness from the magistrates to the parties writing the contract. (Or, more cynically, the parties writing the contract could now join the magistrates in being wicked.) But what put a brake on overall wickedness was the strength of the community that was witness to the proceedings and with whom the participants had to live afterwards.

No surprise, then, that Enlightenment thinking took this innovation and turned it into today’s massively unjust system:

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century Enlightenment, these theories of contract based on justice and covenant were secularized.  Justice and covenant were replaced with “the inherent freedom of each individual to exercise his own autonomous reason and will, subject only to considerations of social utility.” These Enlightenment ideas “broke many of the links not only between contract law and moral theology but also between contract law and the communitarian postulates which had informed both Catholic and Protestant legal traditions.”

But the writer ends on a hopeful note:

It is a shame, I think, that contemporary evangelical discourse about law seems to focus so heavily on notions of individual freedom to contract that are more post-Christian than Christian.  We seem to be left with two options:  the current prevailing secular legal theory of contracts, which is strictly realist and pragmatic and elides any notion of higher values, and the religious right’s libertarian view of contract, which elevates the individual far above the community.  I agree with Berman:  ”[w]e may learn from history . . . that there is a third possibility:  to build a new and different theory on the foundation of the older ones.”

I’m eager to get hold of a copy of Christianity and Law: an Introduction for the same reason I was excited to read Allan Carlson’s Third Ways—both of them remind us that society has known other, better ways of approaching problems that modernity has proven itself a miserable failure at handling.

Non-recourse clauses

I suppose it’s neither fair nor productive to raise questions about the morality of walking away from a mortgage without first isolating and describing some of the factors that might bear on the questions. But I don’t yet understand enough about mortgages (or contractual obligations in general) to do that, at least in any systematic way. If I had any answers to suggest, I would tell you which factors I thought were relevant and why. For now, though, I am stumbling around.

One obviously relevant factor, though, is the non-recourse clause. Not all mortgages have them, but many (perhaps most) do. A non-recourse clause in a mortgage limits the remedies a lender may seek when the borrower defaults, usually to taking possession of the house which was mortgaged. Here’s a brief explanation of why borrower and lender might agree to have such a clause in a loan contract (in this case, the borrower is a real estate developer):

The theory behind a non-recourse clause or transaction structure is simple and reasonable. A developer puts certain assets at risk when he undertakes a project. If the project fails, that party will not be legally obligated to invest more money. If he chooses, he can walk away with impunity. Although he has lost his original investment, he has no personal liability and his other assets are not at risk. Other participants bear the downside risks of the project in exchange for benefits that make their liability worthwhile.

As part of a negotiated nonrecourse package, the lender, landlord, or other partners (depending on the transaction) assume and expect that the limited remedies they retain, such as foreclosure, will protect them in the event of a default.

We can discuss the morality of entering into such an arrangement in the first place, but anyone who walks away from a mortgage with a non-recourse clause is exercising an option which both parties agreed to up front.