Thursday, November 13, 2008

What is the American Dream?

Tonight I had a really long phone conversation with my parents and we did what parents and children do. They give advice and I tell them how things have changed and how wrong it is. The subject of the evening was real estate, as my parents tried to convince me that with this downturn in prices, that it made a lot of sense to consider buying a house. I argued that given economic conditions, prices would probably go down. But in the end it wasn't about the value of a home but a debate about what a home means.

The premise was that if I bought a house, I'd be more comfortable. That I'd have more space. And it got me thinking is why more space makes you comfortable. While it is true that too little space can make you feel uncomfortable, it's not true that more space will make you more comfortable. At a certain point you can have too much space. And with that space, there is the need to to fill it up with stuff. Which then drives the economy. It got me thinking that American dream is very much about ownership, and with ownership comes control. But does that make you more comfortable. Does it make you feel better? If you have more, you have to manage it which causes it's own pain. We often feel that if we had more money our lives would be less stressful, but ask anyone with a sizable 401K how little stress their lives are? Granted it's a nice problem to have, but it changes our problems.

So why is home ownership so ingrained in our country's mythology, for pete's sake, it's called the "American Dream" but why is it the dream. I think one part of it is control, the freedom to do with your space what you want. However, covenants and home owners association rules are denying us that "freedom" In the course of my conversation, I explained to my mother that for me comfort was not the space that I had, but the time that I had and how much of it was mine. The dirty secret of our lives is that so much of it is committed to maintenance. Think about how much time is spent to cleaning, polishing, clipping, dusting, washing. Life is maintenance, a constant battle against the second law of thermodynamics. And having more house, means more stuff and that means having more maintenance. It's not all roses.I wonder if the American Dream of homeownership was some wicked form of industrial policy. An indebted population tends to be more pliant. I remember the line from the movie "Thank you for smoking" that went "Everyone's got a mortgage as justification for selling tobacco.

But the question persists, the American dream is a big part of country's narrative, it's part of the Anglo Saxon narrative as Britain and Australia have strong home ownership ethics. But why is the dream about owning things. I think I've been fairly discordant with my peers all my life is that ownership of material things is not important, but it's not trivial either. My American dream is about authorship, about the goal of creating something of worth and that will express something new and original. Ownership of ideas is ownership, but it doesn't benefit from space.

So why do we want castles instead of cottages? What is implicitly better about larger? We are tackling these questions as people bought more home than they needed, and the dream is now a nightmare. We have an opportunity to author our own definition of happiness now.


At 10:04 AM , Blogger Boris said...

You bring up some great points. There is a lot of "bigger is better" mentality in the real estate market. My wife's parents can't fathom how we could possibly live in "merely" 1400 feet. I gave up some square footage for the luxury of being able to walk to downtown Mountain View and ride my bike to work or Caltrain, and couldn't be happier.

I don't buy into the "bigger is better" mentality, but I do believe that owning real estate is a good thing, if you can afford it. If for no other reason, it's one of the best investments you have access to. Once you're in the market, you've locked in your payments and no longer have to worry about real estate prices going up, because the value of your home is going up too. Call me materialistic, but I think there's something to be said for a smart investment.

And I'm prophesizing about this in the middle of the biggest real estate downturn that I've ever seen... :-)


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home