A Letter from the Provinces: On the Ownership Society

by Patrick Baker                                                                 October 6, 2008

The recent economic meltdown has made us in the provinces familiar with a phrase we had never actually heard before: the ownership society. After years of assuming that George Bush had as little an agenda for the American people as he had an idea about anything else of importance, we were shocked to find out that he indeed did have a vision for the country, a vision in which all Americans owned things, especially homes.

    Here in Europe, where socialism and communism are still valid ideals (although no longer in the discredited Soviet form, of course), many people were wondering if Bush had switched teams. After all, the system in which everyone owns is socialism, not capitalism. So I did some research and found out that the things Americans were supposed to own were stock options, cars, homes, small businesses, and health care. That is, they were supposed to own everything except the means of production. So I guess socialism is out. Someone should actually tell Bush about this, though, seeing as how he has just proposed and seen passed the largest piece of socialist legislation ever in the history of the empire.

    So if the ownership society isn’t socialism, what is it? The kind answer is that it is a society in which ownership of important goods is available to most people. The true answer is that it is a society addicted to debt. The root of the entire economic crisis is not that we tried to get most people to own something, but that we tried to get most people to control the use of something without owning it at all. This used to be called “renting,” but now apparently it goes under the name “buying.” Well, there’s no helping changes in the meaning of plain English words. After all, owning no longer really means “believing” – as in the phrase, “I own he did it” – so why should it still mean “owning,” as in the phrase, “I own it because I paid for it with actual money”? Can’t we just all agree that “owning” now means, “I get to use this good because I have promised a credit institution that I will pay it in the future an amount that I know now I will never actually have”?

    Having come from the land of outrageous financing, lax mortgages, and easy credit, I was astounded to find out that German friends of mine had actually laid out hundreds of thousands of deutschmarks in cash when they bought their house in the late nineties. Elasticity of meaning aside, now that is what I call owning. And come to think of it, I can’t think of any American I know who has ever paid for a large-price item in that way – unless he was trying to evade taxes. And come to think of it, I can’t think of any American I know who pays for anything in cash. It’s all credit, from the last gallon of milk to the next cup of coffee. But let’s be serious. If you have a $300,000 mortgage on your house home, even if you paid $50,000 down (which in itself is unheard of), you don’t own it. The bank owns it, and what you own is debt. And if you sell that house, you are not selling a house. You are selling debt. The whole financial crisis comes down to this: for too long Americans have bought and sold not things, but debt. They have not owned; they have been owned.

    Let’s go back to Main Street’s bailout of Wall Street, or whatever quaint name they’re giving it today. What did the American people buy with their soon-to-be-printed 840 billion dollars? Debt. Whose debt? The debt of the private sector. Maybe this is a new kind of socialism, in which the masses own the debts of the few, rather than seizing control of their capital. See, it’s an ownership society after all. If we think about it a bit, though, it becomes obvious that the American people, rather than doing the owning, are just plain being owned. That’s how it looks, at any rate, from my rented apartment in the provinces.

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