Housing Speculation, Mobility, Marketing and Convenience
  (February 3, 2010)

Are mobility, marketing, housing speculation and convenience related? Perhaps.

Maybe it's an exhaustion-induced hallucination, but I have been pondering the causal chains between housing speculation, mobility, marketing and convenience. The proximate inspiration of this line of thinking: reader feedback on the decline of quality and the American public's seeming acceptance of low quality regardless of price. (More on that later this week.)

The causal chain starts with the incentives to speculate in housing. I have addressed the incentives before; offer savers essentially no return on investment, while offering those who speculate in the "hot bubble" of the moment vast unearned rewards, and what behaviors and values do you reckon we're fostering?

The average household may have been wary of technology stocks in the late-1990s bubble, but "everyone understands real estate:" they're not making any more land, housing always rises, as the population grows people need more housing, etc.

Thus a common-sense foundation could be constructed to support widespread massive speculation (and over-investment/mal-investment) in housing.

Next causal link: to rake off the vast unearned profits from speculation in housing, you have to move. Yes, one could always buy two, three or four investment properties, but the big tax incentive/tax breaks are reserved for owner-occupants.

So to skim the big bucks, the middle-class/aspiring-class speculators have to sell their manse and move to a new one.

Corporate America's favorite pastime (a distant second to massaging their accounts with off-balance sheet assets and derivatives, and "adjustments" to boost pro forma income) is to uproot their employees on a numbingly regular basis.

Here are two books on this topic:

Restless Nation: Starting Over in America.

Next Stop, Reloville: Life Inside America's New Rootless Professional Class.

And an excellent article: Relocation Nation.

“Temporary contracts—of all kinds—are based on consuming rather than sustaining relationships,” Dunham-Jones says. “The more one’s life, property, and landscape consist of temporary contracts, the more one operates as a lone nomad, a sole proprietor within the overwhelming structure of global capital. The lack of constraining relationships affords tremendous individual freedom--but at a cost.

A world of temporary contracts inhibits sustained belonging of any kind, inhibits bonding to either people of place.” She adds, “The exchange of long-term relationships for short-term transactions has left us a crowd of perpetual strangers who often fail to recognize the value of shared needs and aspirations.”

On a drive through Alpharetta’s subdivisions, Bradd Shore, an anthropologist at Emory University in Atlanta, made a novel observation: “The American family lasts only a generation and a half.” He said that families tend to keep up their rituals after the children move out and begin having children. But when the second generation of children starts leaving, the original family disintegrates unless it makes great efforts to preserve itself. The disintegration, Shore said, is most pronounced among families who abandon their generational moorings.

In Restless Nation, James Jasper asked, “What do kids lose by moving? A ‘place’ in the local culture; in the pecking order; including friendships which reinforce that place. They are still figuring out their first identity, and are hardly ready to start over with a second.”

Two researchers for the National Center for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Gloria A. Simpson and Mary Glenn Fowler, found in a 1988 survey of 10,362 school-age children that, compared to children who had never moved, those who moved three or more times “were 2.3 times more likely to have had emotional/behavioral problems, 2.2 times more likely to have received psychological help, 1.7 times more likely to have repeated a grade, and 1.9 times more likely to have been suspended or expelled.”

So what are the consequences of this increased mobility?

All this buying/selling churn places a premium on lowering transactional costs. Why buy some costly heirloom-quality furniture when you'll have to lug it around every 2 or 3 years? Better to buy "nice-looking" "cool" furniture from Ikea and junk it/give it away in 2 years.

A frenetic lifestyle places a premium on convenience, not quality. This also explains at least part of the destructive appeal of fast-food and manufactured/packaged "convenience food" (frozen pizzas, etc.): the over-amped, burned-out adults seek a quick meal so they can "relax" in front of the TV or other entertainment rather than go to the trouble of cooking a real meal with real food.

Then there's the ubiquitous and pernicious influence of marketing/propaganda. What are the primary messages of the marketing/propaganda complex? (Hint: readers of Survival+ already know the answers....)

1. That your interests are best served by supporting the status quo

2. That a series of false choices (Democrat/Republican, factory chicken/factory beef, etc.) has created a "consumer paradise" rather than a simulacrum of real choice that serves to distract a nation of debt-serfs

3. That your fragile, vulnerable identity depends on staying current with what's "cool" and "in" within your consumer-tribe (early adapters, permanent adolescents, shopaholics, etc.)

At best, quality items fall from fashion into "collectable;" at worst, they are simply "dated," i.e. poison to your status and sense of worth. The process of being brainwashed is always rich with irony; "consumers" inevitably declare that they ignore advertising, yet their financial insecurity and houses full of stuff contradict their strident claim to independent thought.

So once again: why buy quality when it might be dated? Or perhaps even worse, why buy quality if it isn't widely recognized as "cool" and thus cannot add any desperately desired sheen to one's external identity?

Add a frenetic, speculation-based housing industry, increased mobility, individual identities in thrall to "the new cool" via hyper-marketing/propaganda, and powerful incentives for convenience over quality, and you get a cheaply constructed McMansion doomed to be bulldozed filled with sagging, broken particle-board furniture, dead electronics that are impossible to repair and socially isolated inhabitants seeking solace in a crazed vortex of digital distractions.

In other words, living a despair and "sickness unto death" that they do not even fully feel lest the pain become too great.

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