John LanchesterPosted: July 1, 2018
One example I saw when I was researching Whoops!, my book on the crisis, was in Baltimore. There people going to buy houses for the first time would turn up at the mortgage company’s office and be told: ‘Look, I’m really sorry, I know we said we’d be able to get you a loan at 6 per cent, but something went wrong at the bank, so the number on here is 12 per cent. But listen, I know you want to come out of here owning a house today – that’s right isn’t it, you do want to leave this room owning your own house for the first time? – so what I suggest is, since there’s a lot of paperwork to get through, you sign it, and we sort out this issue with the loan later, it won’t be a problem.’ That is a flat lie: the loan was fixed and unchangeable and the contract legally binding, but under Maryland law, the principle is caveat emptor, so the mortgage broker can lie as much as they want, since the onus is on the other party to protect their own interests. The result, just in Baltimore, was tens of thousands of people losing their homes. The charity I talked to had no idea where many of those people were: some of them were sleeping in their cars, some of them had gone back to wherever they came from outside the city, others had just vanished. And all that predatory lending was entirely legal.
Napoleon said something interesting: that to understand a person, you must understand what the world looked like when he was twenty. I think there’s a lot in that.
I notice, talking to younger people, people who hit that Napoleonic moment of turning twenty since the crisis, that the idea of capitalism being thought of as morally superior elicits something between an eye roll and a hollow laugh. Their view of capitalism has been formed by austerity, increasing inequality, the impunity and imperviousness of finance and big technology companies, and the widespread spectacle of increasing corporate profits and a rocketing stock market combined with declining real pay and a huge growth in the new phenomenon of in-work poverty. That last is very important. For decades, the basic promise was that if you didn’t work the state would support you, but you would be poor. If you worked, you wouldn’t be. That’s no longer true: most people on benefits are in work too, it’s just that the work doesn’t pay enough to live on. That’s a fundamental breach of what used to be the social contract. So is the fact that the living standards of young people are likely not to be as high as they are for their parents. That idea stings just as much for parents as it does for their children.