This week my husband and I took ourselves to market to see what we were worth. Like many individuals, most governments, and for that matter, most souls, we are in debt. Like most people our age, we started our “adult lives” in debt with college loans. Before we met, I took out debt even larger than the cost of higher education when I decided to buy a house. Since then, we’ve acquired new debts together, first in paying for our wedding, and most recently because of expenses from the house I bought and we decided to rent after jobs took us farther away from that home than we were willing to travel.
Economists may have different opinions about the value of home ownership, but there a few who will ever tell you that renting your home from a distance is a smart decision. It isn’t. We knew when we first decided to rent our home it was a leap of faith that it might work, and so far it really hasn’t. We hoped to get tenants who were like us in that we treat the home we are renting from landlords literally on the other side of the world with the care we would our own. Some did, but those who didn’t left us with legal fees and repair bills that have become to us like Sisyphus’ rock. We hoped to come close to breaking even between the costs and rental income. We haven’t.
So, in the past few weeks, we met with a realtor about putting what we still consider our home on the market, and then, based on several factors, applied for an equity loan to consolidate our debts. Our hope was that when we could keep the rock of our financial well-being from rolling farther downhill each time we try to push it up. We put on what we thought were the right clothes and proper facial expressions, and met with a loan officer. From her, we learned the biggest obstacle we face in trying to make this work: trying to pay the debts we currently have while keeping our current tenants happy and protecting the investment we made in the house. The biggest obstacle is that we decided to make that leap of faith to take the jobs farther away than is practical commute and rent the house. Banks don’t deal with “landlords” or “investors” the way they do with “homeowners.”
I’m not an economist. If I was, I probably would have made better decisions before. If I was an economist, the rest of this blog would probably make more sense. The only way for me to view my financial choices, and what I witness on the larger economic scales of this country and the world, is to ask myself what I think is morally right and have faith that by doing the right thing, my husband and I will be okay.
What does any of that have to do with religion, or specifically Unitarian-Universalism? Well, for one thing, the entire time we were reviewing economic advice online or meeting with the loan officer, I had that familiar frustration of whenever anything – monetary, legal, or spiritual – is treated as a black and white issue. I felt that the rules that exist in the financial industry are like the early attempts of religion to see this action as “bad” or “immoral” and these as “good”, without examining the circumstances. Show me any place where someone, higher power or government agency has said “thou shalt not” and there is sure to be an example where it is morally less objectionable to break the law than to follow it. I know it’s wrong to think of a house you’re not physically living in as your home (according to tax law), but our only other choice at the time we got jobs away from home was to abandon it, leaving it vacant and not paying the mortgage. We chose to rent our home, and I stand by that choice, even though I understand the economists view that it wasn’t the right choice.
Meanwhile, our personal economic struggle was transpiring over the backdrop of the latest pledge drive beginning with the start of another church year and the U.S. government’s credit rating being down graded. It seems that tough times are here in the micro and macro level, and there just isn’t enough to go around. But, the truth of the matter is that the day before I applied for a loan and the day before Standard & Poor said our government isn’t worth as much were almost identical to the individual days before them. The only factor that had changed was that someone, somewhere, with economic power, decided how much faith a bank should have in us. Sure, there are all kinds of mathematical formulas to give reason to the belief that the debts will or won’t be paid. But it’s still about predicting the future, and that requires as much faith in determining whether a debt will be repaid as what may happen the to your soul after you die.
Kurt Vonnegut, the great writer who claimed to be a UU so people would stop bothering him about not having any faith, pointed his finger not at god, but evolution to the sufferings of man. He wrote in his novel Galapagos about fictional, but familiar problems with the global economy:
“It was all in people’s heads. People had simply changed their opinions of paper wealth…This financial crisis was simply the latest in a series of murderous twentieth century catastrophes which had originated entirely in human brains… The planet … was as moist and nourishing as it is today… all that had changed was people’s opinions of the place.” (pg 24-25)
This sums up our situation today. The grocery stores are still full of food. There is still gas in the pumps to fill our cars. There is still power in the grid to turn on your lights when you flick the switch. The question is not whether any of these things still exist but whether you have the resources on hand or credit with which to purchase them. In other words, do you have access to our physical possession of those little pieces of paper that state “in God we trust,” that are really valued based on the faith we have in all manner of things, including our government?
The stuff we want is still the same as it was a day, a month or years ago. The paper we use to get the stuff is still the same (with a few security measures added over the years, though you can still use the old-low tech bills that get handed around.)
If you read the various op-eds, the difference between now and the “boom years” is that we’ve lost faith in that stuff. Americans have lost faith that their money will continue to grow in worth. Standard & Poor has lost faith in the U.S. ability to pay back its debts. The red and blue sides of our political system have lost faith in whether or not the extremely wealthy will continue to work hard if we do or do not do something to their tax rates.
It comes down to faith in the things you can’t see, but affect your daily life anyway.
We may have lost our faith in our money, which ironically makes most of us want to hold onto what we’ve got as tightly as we can. Still, some people who have the most money, including Warren Buffet, have faith in the power for our brains to get us out of this mess. Two weeks ago, Buffet wrote an open letter to the President and Congress that he should have his taxes raised, and doing so would not make those with the largest pocketbooks to lose faith or the country to collapse. (If you have not already read it: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/15/opinion/stop-coddling-the-super-rich.html)
Where does that leave us? Apparently stuck between two sides of what is being framed as an economic issue, with clear black and white answers derived from rigid mathematic principles and infaliable equations. But, really where we’re stuck is between those who have faith, and those who do not. The problem is, neither side sees their point of view as “faith” in that it is unknowable whether you are right. Instead, they see their point of view on the economy and what would fix it as “truth” or “law, ” those who don’t follow their ideas are infidels and savages. It’s those who don’t agree who are sending us all to hell in a handbasket.
Meanwhile, those of us who are not the macro-economic decision makers wish that there could be away for those with different beliefs to live and work together toward the common goals of justice and equity, plus a little compassion for those who need a hand up. Maybe we need to all remind ourselves that when we use those funny little pieces of green paper, we’re not exercising faith in god, or even faith in the government. We’re showing faith in ourselves, that we can continue to find a way to provide for ourselves and our family. We’re showing faith in the soul attached to the hand that receives our money: that they will treat us fairly and they have a right to be paid for the good or service they are offering us.
And, we have to have faith that somehow, Warren Buffett and the super-rich aren’t there to just swoop in with charitable donations, but have some good ideas that will trickle down. Namely, that higher taxes on some who can afford it won’t make them lose faith and do whatever they can to avoid helping others. That a higher tax rate on those who succeed won’t stop people from trying to succeed. Perhaps if we had faith that those who succeed the most aren’t afraid of a little higher taxes, we wouldn’t be afraid of loosing our jobs, since many of our salaries are about equal to the “burden” being debated here.
Perhaps if we all believed the inherent worth, dignity, and compassion in all people, we could have faith in the economy again.