A few days ago, I watched an interview that Tavis Smiley did recently with Time magazine columnist Joe Klein on PBS (video here) and I was struck by this statement Klein made while talking about people he met on a recent tour around the country –
One guy, a deputy police chief, started talking about his neighbors, who had been his best friends, who had just walked away from their mortgage, and he thought that that was immoral because it lowered the property values of all the properties around them. He said, “Would our parents have ever walked away from a contractual obligation like that? I don’t think so. What’s happening to us as a people?”
… I think that people look at our parents, people my age, baby boomers, and also younger people, look at our parents and saw people who had a very strict code of ethics, who had gone through the Depression, World War II, who had worked hard, who kept themselves informed as citizens in a way that we don’t, and they wonder whether we’re measuring up on the leadership level, but also in our own lives.
Both points that Klein makes are interesting – that people today are less inclined than in past generations to view their financial obligations as a moral responsibility and less inclined to take seriously their civic responsibility to be well informed about world they live in. The comments are interesting partly, I think, because so much public discourse today revolves around the views of politicians and their supporters, who are happy to demonize their opponents but have a very strong vested interest in not expressing criticism of the public at large. So Klein’s remarks strike me as being refreshingly outside that norm.
It’s hard for me to comment on how people’s attitude’s today compare with past generations (really, I’m not old enough to have any insights about that at all :)). Nonetheless, Klein’s comments are consistent with my own impression of the situation in the US today.
In the wake of the global financial crisis, few people seem willing to suggest that people who lose their homes through foreclosure are actually responsible for the situation they find themselves in. Given the key role that the behavior of many mortgage originators and financial institutions played in creating the conditions that led to the crisis, it’s understandable that people tend to focus their criticism there. However none of this, in my view, absolves individual borrowers of responsibility for financial commitments they find they are unable to meet.
The reluctance to criticize borrowers was evident in Paul Krugman’s column in the New York Times this week. Referring to precisely such criticism he went as far as to claim that “that kind of moralizing is the reason we’re mired in a seemingly endless slump” and “governments should be promoting widespread debt relief“. Sometime soon I hope to say more about Professor Krugman and his particular brand of liberal advocacy, but for now I just point out that his attitude seems to reflect a pretty common inclination to simply discount any responsibility that borrowers have for not meeting their commitments.
On the other point that Klein makes, that people don’t take as much responsibility as they should for staying informed about the world, I think there is truth here as well. The just-completed US election campaign is probably indicative of this – it’s disappointing that there seems to have been so little attention given to really serious debate on substantive issues and yet so much energy has been expended attacking the character of the candidates.
Having said that, I also think that the world is more complicated than it once was and frankly it takes a lot of effort to truly understand some of what is going on around us. It’s unfortunate in view of that that the media do not do a better job of helping people to see beyond the theater of politics to digest some of that complexity. Still, at the end of the day, the responsibility for being well informed about the world belongs to each of us and sadly I think there is a lot more ignorance around than is good for us.