Bloomberg Businessweek recently published an issue titled “The Great American Housing Rebound.” Their cover art choice was a drawing of an American family, sitting in four separate rooms of a house, scooping, counting, and brandishing fistfuls of cash. There is a lamp, a cat, and a dog in the house, but otherwise, it’s mostly a rising tide of cash.
The attitude of the drawing is deeply scornful. Their image of us is grasping, greedy objects of ridicule. This is what the financial media evidently thinks of American families.
I’ll bet most Americans, when they think of home, don’t say, “What I like best is sitting by myself in a room, awash in cash, fanning myself with my money.”
“I like feeding my dog a bowl of money, while I listen to music.”
“I like swimming the breaststroke through my room of money, smiling like I just saw the ice cream truck.”
“I like brandishing my money at passers-by, with one eye popping out!”
If you looked at that picture and thought, “They’re not talking about me,” then think again.
“I worked hard to buy a modest house,” you say. “It didn’t even cost me $100,000.”
Rich people are not the targets of the subprime loan industry. The median higher-priced mortgage loan in 2011 was for $81,000, which means that half of the non-prime loans issued in 2011 ranged from $47,000 – 142,000.
If you make less, you pay more.
If you make more, you pay less.
Rich folks are considered less of a risk.
Really? Bernie Madoff? Not risky?
The London Whale? It seems to me like losing six billion dollars on “ill-fated trading” did more damage than a $47,000 home loan ever could.
The former chair and CEO of Citibank, Walter Wriston, once said, “Money goes where it is wanted and stays where it is well treated.”
A handful of folks are super rich, and their worldview of the rest of us is on full display in this cover.
If you say, “this isn’t me…we lost money on our house,” well, duh.
The cover’s implication that American families got rich from subprime shenanigans is perverse. The only people who truly made the fistfuls of cash depicted on the cover were largely hedge fund managers. The most recent estimate of household wealth losses due to the old mortgage industry is seven trillion dollars. Yes, trillion, with a capital “T.”
If you say, “I didn’t cause the crisis — the guy shaking his fist full of money at me with his eye popping out, he caused the crisis; that kid feeding his dog a bowl full of money – he caused the crisis,” now we’re getting to something interesting: the stories we tell ourselves about the origin of the crisis. Some folks say their neighbors.
Other folks say financial engineering gone wrong.
I have an opinion on this, and it’s an exhaustive one.
But the Bloomberg Businessweek cover convinced me that the stories we tell ourselves is what’s important. Stories work.
This illustration says American families are greedy, selfish, isolated derelicts. Is this the story that we want to tell ourselves — about ourselves, our country, and our values? This is what we aspire to tell the world? That average American families are the laughable, stupid (“what could go wrong?”) drivers of billion-dollar financial institutions’ behavior? That we are, in our isolation and greed, awful people?
This story does not say that we care about each other. This story does not say that our country is proud that we welcome people from around the world who want to build themselves and their families a better life. It doesn’t say that we’ve tried for decades to fight hunger, violence, illiteracy, homelessness, addiction, isolation, and fear. This story does not say that young people today still aspire to owning their own homes, and that they’re desperately trying to figure out to make that happen, given the student loan debt they’re in. This story does not note that we are currently having essential conversations about new mortgage rules, child safety and well-being, and marriage equality. This story does not say that we care so much about each other that we donate and volunteer in truly staggering amounts.
Bloomberg Businessweek not only thought that their cover art told a credible story, but that it was necessary to encourage other business and financial leaders to echo this version of ourselves, this story of us.
That’s not a story I’m signing on to, and I hope you don’t either.