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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Umble pie

Little distortions we make have a way of adding up

Issue: "Bleeding economy," Oct. 18, 2008

Remember the old saw about being careful when you point a finger at someone else-because you've still got at least three fingers pointing back at yourself?

It's not bad advice these days when we're all inclined to be pointing out those we think are responsible for the fiscal foul-up that is so changing our lives. It's easy to blame the Wall Street smart-alecks, the Capitol Hill know-it-alls, the oil company tycoons. It's a good bit harder to face up to our own role in the mess.

I am compelled, for example, to go back 40 years to the time when I bought my first house. It was a modest 1100-sq. ft. rancher, for which I had to squirm to qualify for a $9,000 mortgage on an $11,000 purchase price.

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"I think I can make this work," the bank officer told me a wee bit worriedly, "if I can just confirm for them that you are a military veteran."

"But I'm not, really," I told him.

"I thought you were drafted last year," he said, coaching me along a path of half-truths.

"Yah, but my left eye was so bad that I flunked my physical. I reported for duty but was never inducted."

"No matter. We'll just put here that you were drafted for Vietnam. Do you remember what month that was?"

I am embarrassed now to confess here-in public-that I bought my first house in 1968 on the basis of a falsified (however slightly) mortgage application. I am embarrassed, except that as I discuss these issues with others, I discover how common it has been for supposedly principled people to justify moral lapses in the pursuit of what they think are worthy goals.

Professionals in the mortgage industry, of course, have become smoothly adept at easing us into those moral lapses. A number of young people have told me how they have been encouraged to state their incomes in overly optimistic terms. And who among us hasn't heard a "professional" appraiser ask with a wink, "And just where do you need this appraisal to come in?"

We've gone along with the game because we are all coveters at heart. We've wanted to enjoy something that God, in his providence, hasn't yet financially equipped us to enjoy.

Tim LeFever, a loyal WORLD reader and real estate broker from central California, stressed in a note to me recently that "the housing crisis that has now become a world economic crisis has specific roots in our changing morality. I would even argue that this economic crisis could not have come about a generation ago."

LeFever points out that thousands of the much-publicized foreclosures have not been "last resort" actions, but deliberate walk-aways and calculated trade-offs. "My house has become worth $50,000 less than I owe," someone will say. "If I give it back to the bank, I'll get a ding on my credit-but I can live with that." A generation ago, there would have been too much shame connected with losing a house. Now it's just part of a deliberate and very high-stakes game.

Nor, LeFever says, is the church insulated from such behavior. He's had Christian acquaintances who have boasted about the "good deals" they've derived from foreclosure. "Bankruptcy and foreclosure laws have roots in the biblical law of Jubilee," some have told him. LeFever responds that in the Bible, Jubilee was a scheduled event-not something someone grants to himself.

So am I suggesting that we add Tim LeFever's friends to our growing list of culprits-along with Wall Street's investment bankers, the congressmen who defended Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and the speculating crooks who helped manipulate the oil market all the way up to $4-a-gallon gasoline?

Yes, they belong on the list.

But so do I. So does everyone who has ever compromised the truth-even a little bit-to enhance his wealth. Because every single time we stretch the truth-even a little bit-we make it easier for the next fellow to stretch it even more the next time.

Ken Blackwell, who lost a race for governor of Ohio in 2006 and now serves with the Family Research Council in Washington, wrote last week that "We have become a culture addicted to instant gratification and a fixation on the material. Increasingly, concepts such as duty, self-denial, hard work, delayed gratification, and patience have been swept away."

In saying "we" rather than "they," Blackwell is suggesting that we'd best get used to the taste of umble pie. It may, after all, pretty soon be the only thing left on the table.

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