TIME Magazine’s Insensitive Back Page Essay On the Foreclosure Crisis

| March 5, 2009 | 2 Replies
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In “I Bought An Expensive House. My Bad. Not Yours,” Joel Stein compares the current foreclosure crisis to Jim Carrey’s career in a flip, insensitive and uneducated opinion piece.

Here’s a taste of Joel Stein’s off-the-cuff remarks: “A lot of optimistic people bought houses near the historic height of the market, say November 2005, for absurdly high prices, say $1.12 million, in places like the eastern Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles. These people are very, very sad.”

Talk about irresponsible journalism. Now let’s contrast that with a recent Chicago Tribune article on emerging ghost towns: “The children who live on West Wilcox Street won’t go out at night for fear of 12 vacant graystones that draw criminals to their block. In Rogers Park, a half-empty 39-unit condo building on Farwell Avenue has become a hide-out for squatters and feral cats.” Joel Stein is talking about his friends – or wannabe celebrities while the Chicago Tribune deigns to report on the little people.

The title of Stein’s essay belies his self-involved analysis: “I Bought a Bad House. It’s overpriced, and I’m an idiot. That doesn’t mean the government should help me.” This makes it sound like Stein personally bought an overpriced home on an ill-considered impulse. The implication of this statement is that Stein needs help keeping his house, but he would rather refuse any government intervention offered by Obama’s Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan than move his family (if he lives with one), his beloved possessions and his sorry self out. If so, Stein can go ahead and refuse any money that the government might offer him.

By the end of the article, readers might wonder if Stein owns a house at all, instead of wisely renting, as he suggests that people who are “really worrying about an economic downturn” should do. Stein could be losing his home; sitting pretty in it with temporarily diminished equity, or wisely renting. As smug as Stein sounds, it’s doubtful that Stein rests in the last category.

“It’s not that the housing market has suddenly gotten sick and needs medicine.”

When Stein states that the government should NOT help him, is he stating a moral principle?  Stein compares “idiot” homeowners who bought an overpriced home that they can no longer afford – to children. Why should the government “fight [its] instinct to save their [idiot citizens] from the consequences of their mistakes? Well, since Stein chooses to compare the government to parents and idiot homeowners to naughty kids, perhaps he should ask himself whether he would bring a daughter to the hospital after near-fatal accident caused in part by her audacious decision to ignore his safety instructions.

What planet has Stein been hiding on? Hindsight is fifty-fifty. If Stein honestly thinks that he’s a homeowner with below-average intelligence, why does he bother to share his opinions with readers of Time Magazine? If Stein is an idiot homeowner about to lose his home, I want to know if he bought his house with the knowledge that the housing bubble would burst and cause this bloodbath.

If he means to say that home values are becoming truer, then I agree with him wholeheartedly. But Stein uses his sickness analogy to support his oversimplified contention that – like Jim Carrey’s career – “we [the homeowners] are undergoing a needed correction.”

Less than a year ago, The Pew Charitable Trusts released a study showing that1 in 33 homeowners would face foreclosure in the next two years. Now, members of the middle class are calling their local homeless sheltersto check for available rooms, shelters are turning away more people, and the backpage essay of Time Magazine argues that the Obama Administration should be doing less, not more. Does Stein think that the parental laissez-faire option is the only moral one?

I haven’t even gotten to the first sentence of the first paragraph of Stein’s essay: “I don’t like populists.”

According to Wikipedia, populism is a discourse which supports “the people” versus “the elites.” Stein makes himself sound like a laissez-faire economist until the penultimate paragraph. There, he claims that adjustable-rate mortgages should be outlawed(!) Is Stein all over the map, or what?

I’m no economist, but Stein’s analysis reeks of an underdeveloped sense of market nuance, or an oversimplified polemic.

Joel Stein hasn’t been reading the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times or any other periodical covering the mortgage crisis. If he has, he’d know that an adjustable rate mortgage can be tied to the LIBOR or similar interest rates that are tied to the market. An adjustable rate mortgage that doesn’t start out incredibly low and then balloon after 6 months or a year, or 3 years, for that matter, is a good thing.

Perhaps what Stein means to outlaw are exotic mortgage loans that let borrowers pay interest-only or pick their own payments and then leave them out to dry when their interest rates skyrocket and the equity in their home is nonexistent or laughable. This is called subprime lending, and it, too, has defenders.

I dare you to ask any economist, business person, policy analyst or college finance major if making adjustable rate mortgages illegal is a good idea. Or ask her if adjustable rate mortgages are like “those sweet microprint Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes contracts that trick people into subscribing to your finer newsweeklies.” Now ask Time Magazine why Joel Stein gets to write the back-page Essay.

Then check out how Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s house just got sold in foreclosure.

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Category: Economy, Law, Media

About the Author ()

Zoevinly is a poverty lawyer practicing in the bible belt.

Comments (2)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Zoe: How about the following as rhetorical counterpoint to Stein's blatherings? It's from a new blog by Chris Krehmeyer, President and CEO of "Beyond Housing," a Saint Louis based community service organization that is really trying to something about this massive problem rather than ranting about it and pointing fingers:

    Among some people, there seems to be a need to look for a place to assign blame. I am confident that no one enduring this unimaginable nightmare is looking for sympathy, but I do suggest that what is needed is empathy. Empathy is understanding, being aware of and being sensitive to the feelings or circumstances of others. I hope that each of us can exhibit a degree of empathy for everyone who struggles today, not only those who are affected by the financial downturn, but also those who have been carrying the weight of poverty on their shoulders for years.

    • Zoevinly says:

      Thank you, Erich. It's important to hear from community leaders about what they see on the ground. Not all advocates for the poor sound the same, either. Here's an academic view, for instance:

      State-enforced racial discrimination created the ghetto: in the early 20th century local governments separated the races into segregated neighborhoods by force of law, and later, whites used private agreements and violent intimidation to keep blacks out of white neighborhoods. Worst, and most surprising of all, the federal government played a major role in encouraging the racism of private actors and state governments. Until the 1960s, federal housing agencies engaged in racial red lining, refusing to guarantee mortgages in inner-city neighborhoods; private lenders quickly followed suit.

      -from Richard Thomas Ford's review of "More Than Just Race," by William Julius Wilson in this Sunday's New York Times Book Review.

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