Archive for September 16th, 2008

Uncle Sam is Rich Enough to Give Us All a Farm (or at least our Houses back)

Sharon September 16th, 2008

A  welcome, warm and hearty, do we give the sons of toil

To come to the West and settle and labor on free soil;

We’ve room enough and land enough, they needn’t feel alarm -

O! come to the land of freedom and vote yourself a farm.

Then come along, come along, make no delay;

Come from every nation, come from every way.

Our lands, they are broad enough - don’t be alarmed,

For Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm.

Yes! we’re bound to lead the nations for our motto’s “Go ahead,”

And we’ll tell the foreign paupers that our people are well fed;

For the nations must remember that Uncle Sam is not a fool,

For the people do the voting and the children go to school.

Then come along, come along, make no delay;

Come from every nation, come from every way.

Our lands, they are broad enough - don’t be alarmed,

For Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm.

- Uncle Sam’s Farm, a patriotic song of the Westward Movement,

I recognize that as modest proposals go, this is of far lower likelihood of implementation than eating Swift’s suggestion that we should eat the children of the poor ;-) .  Still, I feel obliged to mention that there is a way of transforming the nationalization of Freddie, Fannie and the bailout of almost every mortgage-holding bank (at some level or other - they’ve all been bellying up to the Fed’s lending table, using your mortgage as collateral) from a straight out blind rape of the taxpayer and the sale of their children’s future to something reasonably just and good (not perfect).  Because it would be reasonably just and good, and because it would strip the assets of many rich people, it will not happen.  Still, I think it is worth mentioning that given that we’ve all just committed to nationalizing our mortgages - and as long as the taxpayers are going to be paying for millions of mortgages anyway, and as long as we’re nationalizing everything in sight, there really isn’t any reason I can see (other than that it would be a just decision and wouldn’t serve the rich) that we couldn’t simply give everyone with a mortgage held by Fannie and Freddie their houses, free and clear.  And for that matter, anyone with a mortgage held by any bank that needs a massive federal bail out.

There’s even some precedent for this - in the 19th century the US got “rich enough” to give us all (an exaggeration) a farm by buying a large chunk of what is now the US, from people who had previously stolen it from the people who lived there.  The US then promptly stole it some more (I realize this is not a technical description, but it is fairly accurate), and killed off millions of the denizens, and gave away (in trade for improvement and modest fees) a lot of land.  It then helped subsidize other people to buy back the improved or partially improved land from failed homesteaders, and to a degree, improving the lot of many people who went to live in the West on the land of the people they’d destroyed to get it.

There are other precedents as well - in the 1980s, Fannie Mae took over mortgages on New York City apartments that were so far behind code that it was cheaper to sell them to the residents and stick them with the burden of repair than it was to actually fix the buildings and bring them to code.  Friends of mine living in Harlem were offered a chance to buy their apartment for $1 from Fannie Mae - they declined, arguing that $1 was overpriced, and insisting that their landlord bring the building to code, but the precedent suggests that when faced with an irredeemable loss, even the institutions in question know that a below-market sell-off is better than the alternative. 

We effectively have the government owning millions of mortgages, many of which are bad paper or likely to become it. They are, in the net, not assets, but liabilities. The government isn’t precisely rich enough to do much of anything - and they are pouring money into a losing proposition - millions of those houses are going to have negative equity, millions will go into foreclosure - many already are approaching it, since 1 in every 10 Americans is having trouble paying their mortgage.  As the houses are foreclosed upon, millions of Americans get poor, angry and desperate, and most of the foreclosed properties will never even sell at auction - they will be stripped of value, dismantled, squatted in and then bulldozed.  The government will be sued by municipality after municipality because of losses of property values, upkeep, etc…. Right now the government is facing the total loss of a large percentage of the things we invested our wealth in for the last decades.

Or, they could do something truly remarkable and radical - they could obviate the mortgages, speed up the inevitable demise of the companies but allow them a massive tax writeoff, and sell every mortgage held by the government directly, or every corporation that requires a government bailout to the homeowner for a nominal sum - I would suggest $100.  That’s it, you own your house free and clear, the broken remains of our financial system will prevent you from getting a new mortgage, so I hope you like the place, but with that sized investment, most of us would get to have houses and we’d have the pleasure of seeing the housing market hit bottom right fast. 

I’m sure this idea will take hold in congress any time now, since we all know that Bush and Co. are all for the “ownership society.”  The last decade saw more people than ever before owning their houses - and we could, once and for all, make that ownership lasting and profound, allocate property ownership to millions of people facing foreclosure or endless debt slavery.  It would be an economic stimulus package of a sort never before offered.  It would win the election and the love of the people for whoever offered it.  It would transform something nearly worthless into something of infinite value.  It would screw the companies and save the people - because if we can hold on to those small plots of land and the houses that shelter us, we can find ways to grow food, make do, make use of what we have. 

I know that our leadership won’t do this.  But there is also another alternative - we could do it.  During the Great Depression, many rural areas had “penny auctions” for foreclosures - local residents would keep out (often with force) buyers looking for a bargain, and not allow them to bid when houses came up for foreclosure.  And then, as one’s house and goods came up for auction, each person in the community would bid a penny for each item.  At the end of the auction, a hand full of change would be dispensed and the farm and land returned to the original owners.  In other places, groups of tenant activists barred evictions, and sherriffs and city leaders declined to enforce evictions or foreclosures.

The truth is that there’s a great deal that could be done to reallocate housing to the people who need it, and housing wealth to the people who will appreciate it as true wealth - a place of their own, a bit of land to grow food on.  It would require great commitment, organization, a sense of justice and a good bit of anger.  The good thing is that events are certainly proceeding towards anger, anyway.  The truth is that Uncle Sam may not do much for us in the coming years, but he could give us our houses, our little backyard farms.

Not holding my breath, though.

Past and Future - Post-Apocalyptic Novel Discussion

Sharon September 16th, 2008

The Horses
  Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
‘They’ll molder away and be like other loam.’
We make our oxen drag our rusty plows,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers’ land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers’ time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.Edwin Muir

Just a reminder to everyone - next week we’ll begin Caryl Johnston’s Peak Oil novel _After the Crash_ which is available here in downloadable form:  Now back to SM Stirling - and to Edwin Muir.  My friend George Franklin calls Muir’s poem the “happiest post-apocalyptic writing ever.”  And that’s precisely why I think it might be a useful way to explore the underlying fantasy in our fears of energy apocalypse.

This is a subject near to my heart - I wrote a good chunk of my doctoral dissertation about the black death in the 17th century and the fears and anxieties that writers expressed about an emptying world.  One of the things I found in the texts of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson and others who lived in a depopulated, partly emptied world, was that people’s fears of apocalypse were intertwined, even as they lived the danger, with their fantasies of apocalypse - that in some senses, our fears of utter disaster are the same as our fantasies.  In a way, our fears are our fantasies - we find, in some senses, that we have to go through the darkest territory of our anxieties to play out the pleasures of the fantasy of depopulation and transformation.

I think this linking of anxiety and fantasy is true both in the world of those who have undergone real disaster and in the world of some good fiction - in both Stirling’s novel and the above poem, and really in all the novels we’ve read, underlying the fear and violence is the fantasy - the pleasure of imagining a depopulated, de-technologized world in which all the structures that make people powerless are erased, and people suddenly are down to essentials, and powerful again.   But it isn’t just that.  Both texts are preoccupied with the past, with history, and about what parts of history are and are not reclaimable on the other side of disaster.

If you’ve read Naomi Klein’s marvellous book _The Shock Doctrine_ this idea of reclaiming the past shouldn’t be too surprising - traumatized survivors of disaster want familiarity, and to rebuild what they value out of what they once had.  Underlying both Stirling and Muir (and not them alone - we’ve already seen it in Tepper, and will see it in Walter Miller and several others) is this question - how far back into the past, and what parts of the past do we find inhabitable, based up on our circumstances.  Where do we have to go to find an even-partly familiar place we can inhabit again - or rather, how do we bring the past forward, and integrate it with what is left of the present.

 The most brilliant part of Stirling, I think is that where we go isn’t just into the past, but into the past of common narrative - that is of Tolkein novels, middle earth, Celtic paganism and other British folkways (we learn in the third book in this series that Prince Charles went completely batty and made everyone wear old English style smocks, thatch their houses and start Morris dancing).  That is, the familiar land isn’t really British medieval history, but a combination of what was, what an Oxford Prof transmitted in a novel to a bunch of teenagers and some realities, tempered by the present.  I find this both creative and likely - that is, whatever culture follows will probably resemble parts of the past - but filtered through our losses, our new knowledge, our hybridizations, our popular cultures.

For Muir, the trip back is shorter, but in some ways more fraught.  The return of the horses comes not as part of a story those living in a new world sought, but they come unbidden.  They are a reminder of a long past, not a moment in time, but the fact that the present was unusually separate from something that had been quite ordinary.  The line “far past our father’s land” is both a reminder of the distance from here to the world where horses pulled plows, and the proximity to it - it isn’t even our grandfather’s land we’re far past, but only our father’s.

IMHO, this shouldn’t be seen as only nostalgia - there is an element of nostalgia, of course, a strong one in both narratives.  And there’s a level of self-indulgence in both the writing and the reading of that nostalgia.  But there’s also a fascinating question there - how far removed are we really from our own past?

There have been times and places in history where our sense of our past has been very strong - and nearly every time and place in human history has had a stronger connection to its past than 21st century America.  That is, the accusation of nostalgia is often a way of suggesting that ties to the past are cheap and easy, and have little value outside that.  Often, those of us who insist on living a lower-energy life are accused of nostalgia, or willful archaism - and there’s some truth in that - but it isn’t all the truth.

Some other piece of the truth is this - industrial society operates to create a barrier between past and present that is greater than perhaps any prior cultural barrier between one’s history and one’s present - that is, the rapid pace at which ways of doing things change, and the cultural distaste for anything that seems old fashioned or poor (except in sanitized, highly self-consciously aestheticized, wealthy ways, such as antique collecting or Martha Stewart style craftiness) keeps us from looking back - or even sideways, to the billions of people in the world who live a non-industrial, or only barely industrial life.  We are unlike them.  They are far past our father’s land, the land of myth and story, not anything real, or inhabitable by us.

What is fascinating about how rapidly the past comes back in Stirling and in Muir is that both of them implicitly reject the idea that anything stands between us and our old ways other than technology - take the technology away, and the horses and the clan return rapidly.  Take the energy out of the story, and we’re still the same people, roughly - within less than a generation, the old world starts to feel strange and unreal.

And I suspect there’s actually something to that - that is, most human beings have been contiguous with their past in ways that we have not.  Some of us still are - and often, those who are are part of deliberately archaic cultures, ones struggling to find a way to retain ties to their past.  Often the extremely orthodox members of faiths, or small ethnic communities that fight to retain their identities - the Amish, the Chasidim, ultra-orthodox Muslims, the Hmong and others - for them, the past always seems close, alive, recent - in ways that it doesn’t for those who are fully integrated in industrial society.

And if it is our energies that stand as a barrier to this relationship to our past, the question becomes what price the energies have exacted, and whether there ways to get some of the price of admission to industrial society back without silencing all the radios, the electronic transmission lines and the guns.  Stirling and Muir both seem to suggest that with some leadership help, it would all come flowing back to us.  But what?  The texts we read offer suggestions, but it is hard to imagine that they’ve gotten a whole grip on what it would mean to live a life where a grandchild’s experience was contiguous with her grandmother, and the distant past didn’t seem so far away, and so uninhabitable.

What do you think?