Archive for August, 2010

On Freedom

This is one of A Series of Short Takes, although this one is not all that short.  The usual disclaimers about politics apply.  If you’re offended, that is your fault.  Nobody is making you read this.  But I very much hope you do, and that you’ll tell me in the comments what you’re thinking.

Are we a free people?

With the rise of the Tea Party (note: NOT an official political party), there’s been a great deal of discussion about freedom and liberty, and whether we have it here in the United States.  Discarding the polemic on both sides, there is a real question here.  What is freedom, and do we have it?  Do we even want it?

I lived for two years in the People’s Republic of Hungary.  I lived there as a foreigner, not as one of the people in the complete sense, but I didn’t have a huge number of perks on a day-to-day basis.  I spoke the language, ate Hungarian food, rode the trams and the buses, lived in crappy apartments.  But I had a car when I needed one, and I had a passport with a gold eagle on it, meaning I could do the one thing Hungarians could certainly not do – leave.

Communism is a terrible thing, and I’m not suggesting that the USA is anywhere near that point.  But I consider what the average person in Hungary did on a daily basis, and it doesn’t seem to me that there was any terribly visible impingement.  People got up, ate food (bad food, of which there was not very much, at least in the cities), went to work, took the tram to the pub, got drunk, came home and watched the sports on the TV, went to bed.  In the morning, do it all over again.  And it increasingly strikes me that if this is your life, then pretty much any governmental system short of naked tyranny will do you fine.

Orwell and Huxley showcased this in their seminal works 1984 (which I read in Hungarian while I was there – and man, that’s one dark book in Magyar) and Brave New World.  In these books, most people are not even really inconvenienced by the totalitarian government.  Propaganda aside, for most of the people I met, the communist government of Hungary was no big deal as far as the things they were likely to ever want to do.

And yet.

Everyone hated the system.  And I do mean everyone.  The national mania was foci (soccer), but the national pastime was complaining about the government.  The things most people complained about were lifestyle problems, bad healthcare, long waits for things, unavailability of goods.  There were lots of things the average Hungarian could simply not get.  Those things were there in country, but they were behind the metaphorical gates of the hard-money stores.  If you wanted a decent television, for instance, you could only get one of those in the tourist shops that literally – by passport entry – were only for foreigners.  You can imagine how well that went over.

Since that’s what most people focused on, that’s what we now pay most attention to when comparing economic systems.  Does this one or that one produce more prosperity for the people in it?  Having spent time in the poorest parts of several countries, I can tell you that I think free-market capitalism is better at increasing average wealth than any other economic system.  I can also tell you that communism/socialism (because economically they are functionally identical) is better at alleviating actual squalor than other systems.  If you want to constrain people to the median, if you’re seeking a society where everyone is slightly above average (yes, yes I know), then you have to look fondly at socialist systems.

Which apparently is what we are doing in the US, or, at least, the political class is (the people themselves seem less excited about the wholesale government rush to annex the entirety of the economy).  There is a constant temptation to use the power of government to try to solve people’s economic problems.  The trade-off seems so entirely worth it, doesn’t it?  All we have to do is tax the big corporations, the wealthy and almost-wealthy, and we can make sure everyone has enough to eat and a place to stay.  I mean, how many pools does a house need?  How many gardens?  Isn’t a 50,000 square foot house just ridiculously too big anyway?

If only it actually worked that way.  What happens in communist societies, what happened in Hungary, is that there still were rich people, even obscenely rich people, only these people were all at the top of the government, instead of the top of Microsoft.  If you read that and think, “see, it’s the same thing,” then you need to get out more.  Bill Gates can clear a Spanish beach at the height of tourist season so that he and a handful of his cronies can frolic in peace, but if he does it, he has to pay the people to leave.  Michelle Obama does it with nightsticks.  And that’s only one difference.  But that’s tangential to this post, so I’ll leave it.

What afflicted the people of Hungary most was not their poverty (which was slight) or even their relative poverty, vis-a-vis the Austrians right over the border.  What afflicted them was not as much that they were prevented from doing things they actually wanted to do, but that they were prevented from thinking of things that they might want to do, because they knew they would never be allowed to do them.  Socialism didn’t deprive them of food and housing (at least, not often).  It deprived them of dreams and ambitions.  When you have to register with the police every time you move, you don’t move much.

There were a lot of songs and flowers thrown at the idea that, in the 1980s, the Russians and the Americans were really all the same, that they really wanted the same things and we should be able to bury the hatchet and get along.  This is a bald-faced, ridiculous lie.  We did not want the same things.  We were not able to want the same things.  Free people – people that can leave – want terrifically different things than captives do.  Free people can dream.  Free people can wake up in the morning and decide to do something entirely different than the day before, and they don’t have to get anyone’s permission.  They can move where they want.  Go where they want.  Be whatever they want.

In Hungary, you couldn’t do that.  If you moved, you had to register with the police.  You did not change jobs.  There was no discussion of starting a business, because that was impossible (unless you wanted to do a one-man deal in the gray market, with no “employees”).  You had your choice of shops, but there was not any difference between the products each was offering.  If it was next-to-impossible to fall through the cracks into abject poverty, it was also next-to-impossible to rise above the lower middle class.  As long as you had no ambition (or a conscience), you were constrained to be as close to average as it was possible for the machine to make you.  It made the people of Hungary, my friends to this day, half-men.  It made them less.  It made them almost a different species.

They would ask me about my future, and I would outline a few things I wanted, and they would shake their heads at me, half-uncomprehending.  They couldn’t process that I didn’t know or much care what I was going to do for work when I got back.  I knew I could get a job.  If I couldn’t, I could start a business.  I could do anything I wanted anywhere I wanted.  So I wanted things they couldn’t even understand.

But it is a law of humanity and nature that if you remove the possibility of failure you eliminate the chance for excellence.  It is impossible for any governmental system to create a society where no one can fail, but the possibility for unbounded prosperity remains.  As Helen Keller said, life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.  Daring means, by definition, that there is a chance of botching it.  Freedom requires the possibility of spectacular disaster.  Adults relish this, even if they don’t realize it (and frankly, most don’t).

Many people could, it is true, spend 80% of every working day locked in an iron box 10′ square, because they almost never need to get up from their cubicle anyway.  But they CAN get up, even if they don’t.  A lot of the argument about giving up freedom in order to get security centers on our giving up things we weren’t likely to do anyway.  I doubt I’d ever carry a gun onto a plane.  But now I can’t, even if I want to.  Heck, I can’t carry nail clippers or a bottle of water, things I actually DO want to do.

I doubt that I’d ever want to open a power plant.  But if I did, I would now have to pay tens of millions of dollars and spend a decade just in regulatory paperwork before I ever turned a shovelful of dirt, much less produced an erg of power.  If my business, which employs no one but me, moves even next door, it has to register with the police.  Yes, it is the “nice” branch of the police known as the city planning and zoning department, but it is the police nonetheless.  It is eerily similar to the situation I once knew 10,000 miles away.

The more we regulate, the more we tax, the more we try to get rid of the chances for failure, the less free we are, by definition.  The less we permit people to do what they want, where they want, when they want, without having to get anyone’s permission, the less we are adults.  The less we are men and women, and the more we are children.  We are not yet to the point where I cannot imagine the things my father could, but this is only because my imagination lags my reality.  The fact is that I cannot do whatever I like, even if what I like harms no one.  I need permission from the government.  Starting a business is not impossible, but it is difficult and getting more so.  Hiring people is becoming increasingly complex and dangerous.  Shortly, if we continue on the path tread currently, we will have similar economic conditions to the ones that obtained in Hungary 25 years ago, where there are three (really two) choices: work for the government, work for a large corporation functionally indistinct from the government, or run a solo shop with no official employees.

If all I want is to go to work, putter, head to the bar and get drunk, come home and watch the telly, then do it all again tomorrow, this system will work well.  The majority of people will probably not find themselves terribly inconvenienced.

But woe to those that dream larger dreams.  Freedom is not and rarely ever was a drink for the average man.   Its loss will not be felt as more than a vague unease by the teeming masses.  There will be, there already is, a lot of bashing on the people complaining about the blizzard of regulations and restrictions being daily levied on businesses.  But this is like bashing tall people for complaining that the ceiling is too low, just because the average guy’s head still has clearance.

The sky may not be falling.  But it is being lowered, and there are a lot of people having to hunch over.  We are still more free in the US than anyone else, but make no mistake: we are no longer free.  The question is, do we want to be?

Oh, I hope so.

That was some week.

You know how you get to the start of a week, and  you get everything planned out, get your to-do lists together, and you hit the week running with a ton of energy and purpose?

That was this week.

And you know how some weeks the things you mean to do and the things you have to do collide so violently that even though you are working constantly, knocking things off the to-do list with abandon, and seeing real (even some times miraculous) progress, you get to the end of the week and you realize that you accomplished almost none of the things you meant to?

That was this week, too.

Mortgages being what they are, the opportunities to do really significant good for people don’t come along every day.  When they do, you often have extremely short windows to get things moving.  That’s what happened this week, as rates dived a bit and some potential streamline refinances came into play that honestly I never thought would happen.  But you have to strike while the iron is hot, even if that puts a lot of other things – worthwhile things, even necessary things – on the back burner.  That’s what I tried to do this week, and maybe I even succeeded.  We will finish the week with more business in process than we’ve had in a year, and the immediate prospect of cutting $1450/mo in interest out of the payments of our clients, a not-insubstantial sum.

So, a good week.  I sent a son to college, set up a company, closed a purchase for a really exceptional young lady, learned to love the Tenth Doctor (but not as much as the Ninth), read Drive, by Daniel Pink (two thumbs waaaaay up), blogged a couple of times and exchanged Twitter messages with Chris Brogan.  I discovered that the most durable brand in all of business is Notre Dame football.  I debated the sociology of rites of passage with the wonderful and amazing Pastor Chuck Lovelady.  I drank homemade grape juice and took a beautiful girl to the football game.  Wrote more of my book and an article on lending in Utah.  There was some stuff I didn’t do.  But I promise not to mention any of it, if you won’t.

Go have a great weekend.  You deserve it.  Really, you do.

My son is gone.

Eighteen and a half years ago Jeanette brought a little boy into our home.  We knew his name was Alexander from well before he was born, even though, because we are just that way, we never found out if the baby was a boy or a girl until the moment he arrived.

He made our lives better the second he was in them.

We loved his little pudginess, we doted on everything he did, as parents do with their firstborn.  We still remember his first word, about when he walked, how long we had to let him cry in the other room before he finally went to sleep.  We remember sending him off to school the first time, and how we cried seeing that little child go off down the street.  His first talk in church.  His first fishing trip.  His first (of many) pets.

And then that child was gone.

In his place was a very interesting, at times exasperating, but nearly always good young man.  He got a suit.  He started noticing girls (this was the exasperating part).  He got a job making stained-glass windows.  He ran for student government (great, great speech he gave).  He was on every church committee you could be on.  He dated.  He drove (NO ACCIDENTS).  Eventually his mother he even earned his Eagle Scout award.

Through all this, his presence in the house was pretty close to always positive.  He, like his father and his father’s father, has a need to be the Smartest One in the Room, which drove his brothers crazy, but by and large he was incredibly fun to be around.  Wherever he went, things happened.  When people were crying, he cheered them up.  He organized the games.  What he was doing, they all did.  There were two of them, then three.  Then fourfivesixseveneight.  Hanging out with Alexander was how you could make your day better.  His two just-younger brothers were with him so often we called them the three musketeers.

He did fight with his mother on occasion, a credit to his mother, who was willing to wade into the vicissitudes of teenagehood and do battle with the demons there.  He never really fought with his father, and that’s a credit to him, because Heaven knows there was often what to fight about, but when I dished it out Xander took it and either shrugged it off because it wasn’t worth anything (often true) or separated the nasty tone from the nuggets of wisdom, internalized them, and became someone better.  I was very hard on him.  Vicariously, I was backhanding my own self as a teenager, seeing in my eldest son all those things I still hate so much about myself.  But Xander could see that, too, and he allowed me to be an idiot without holding it against me.  He was better than I was.  Probably, he always will be.

And now, he is gone.

Physically, he’s only just down the road about four hours.  With Facebook and cell phones and reasonably reliable transportation he’s never going to be all that far away (except when he goes on his church mission, about which much more in eight months).  But just as the little boy, my first little boy, is gone forever, so now the young man is gone, and he will never return.

That is the way of things.

I did not design the plan for us here on this earth.  I approved of it, or I wouldn’t be here, but I cannot help thinking that times like this, separating ourselves from people we love so fiercely it makes breathing an agony, were not comprehended when the plan was presented to us.  How could we have understood?  Only the Father knew what this would be like – was already like, for Him – and He though this was a good idea.  He told us so.  And so because I have faith in Him I believe that He knows what He is doing.

Because I do not.

My head knows that Alexander cannot become the person he is meant to be without leaving the place where we are.  My head knows it.  My eyes don’t, because they are weeping.  My heart doesn’t, because it’s breaking.

He walks out the door at 1:30 today.  I’ll be there, and I’m trying to do my crying now, because his mother will need me to be done with that, so she can have her turn.  My father will be there as well, to take Xander down to school, and he’ll be smiling inside, remembering when his firstborn son walked out the door and how he felt then, with the perspective of another 25 years of adult friendship to foreshorten the ache of that day.

But I don’t have those 25 years with Alexander yet.  I don’t have an adult association with my son, and a relationship with his children, and the greater joys that will come with that as he and I grow together.  Not yet I don’t.  The patch on my soul where my infant son used to be has healed over now.  The patch where the little boy ran and giggled has mostly ceased to hurt.  The place where the young man was, just a second ago, is raw, and bleeding, and it hurts like…well, it hurts like Hell, because that’s what Hell is, to be separated forever from those you love best.

I am proud of him.  He is good.  He is strong, and he is happy, and he knows everything I know and a thousand things more.  He’s as well prepared to shed this skin as any young man I ever knew.  He is and will be a delight and a joy to us, to Jeanette and myself, all the days of his life, and forever after that.

But couldn’t I have just one more day with that little, little boy?  Just one.  I wouldn’t yell at him this time.  We’d go fishing.  Or play golf.  Or legos.  Whatever he wanted.  One more day.  Just, please, just one…

Tomorrow I’ll be thrilled.  Tomorrow I get to start knowing the adult Alexander Christopher Jones, and the prospect is wonderful and delicious to me.


One Time, It Will Be the Last Time

As I left the house from my 20-minute lunch break earlier today I did what I always do when I leave, I kissed my wife and told her I love her.

I reached the office and sat for a moment and thought about that.  It’s a tradition we;ve established.  My wife does it and I do it, every time, without fail.  We never leave without taking a moment for each other.

Everyone tries to avoid thinking about the terrible things that can happen.  Most of the time, because they don’t happen all that often, we succeed.  We can get complacent.  We can get sloppy.  This is the sure path to regret.

I kiss my wife goodbye every time I leave, and I do it because one time it will be the last time.  Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but one day, one day it will.  One day I will kiss her goodbye, and it will be Goodbye.  I doubt very much that I will get advance warning.

There’s an apocryphal but wonderful story of Martin Luther.  He was out in a yard, working, when one of his parishioners came by and saw him with his hands in the dirt.  Indignantly, the parishioner said, “Martin, what are you doing?  If you knew that Christ would come tomorrow, what would you be doing right now?”  And Luther looked up at the parishioner and said, “I’d be planting this tree.”

Always be doing what you would be doing.  One time, it will be the last time.  Leave with no regrets.

FHA Fees, They Are A’Changing

The Seattle Times reports that the Senate has passed a bill allowing for some changes in the FHA fee structure, under the fascinating but slightly misleading title “Senate Approves Higher Government Mortgage Fees.”

One fee goes up (probably, depends on FHA bureaucrats), and one comes down (ditto).  Monthly mortgage insurance (which the Post calls an “annual fee” for some reason) rises from an annualized .55% of the loan to .9%, with the FHA having authority to take it to 1.5%.  But the up-front mortgage insurance fee (UFMIP), which had been 1.75% and is now 2.25%, will come down to 1%.  The net change is measurable, about $40 more per month on a typical mortgage in Utah, so the fees are being “raised” in that sense, but more importantly, they’re being shifted.

And why?  Glad you asked.  Whatever the stated rationale for the change in fees, the effect will be to increase the competitiveness of FHA loans vs. conventional financing, by decreasing the UFMIP to 1% and increasing the monthly MI, FHA loans will more closely match their conventional counterparts, but with just a 3.5% down payment requirement, FHA will now have an even clearer advantage in the marketplace.  Borrowers were skittish (and rightly) of paying a whacking 2.25% of the loan amount in UFMIP.  The number for a $200,000 mortgage in Utah is $4500, and that’s a massive and visible addition to your closing costs when shopping for a loan.  Under the new rules, it would be only $2000, a much more manageable number.  Then the fee increases are hidden in the monthly payment.  Presto!  Much more palatable to the consumer, and more money for the FHA.

Expect the changes to take effect around October 1.