Clearances, Foreclosures, and Evictions

I used to wonder how it is that after generations of Americans spent their entire adulthood paying mortgages just as their parents had, only a tiny fraction actually owned their modest homes outright upon retirement. The next generation, in most cases, starts the process all over again with little if any inheritance. Where is the accumulation of wealth in home ownership? In the 1950s, interest rates were very low, around three per cent, and the credit card had not yet been invented. Of course, World War II had pulled the nation out of the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs had only partially alleviated the suffering against all odds and aggressive opposition by the wealthy. But after the full employment of the war and the educational and lending benefits of the GI bill, a returning veteran could get an education and a job with a wage to support a family. With most women staying home, a man could still support his family and save enough for that standard twenty percent down payment to purchase a home. That’s quite a contrast with conditions today.
I had been reading a lot about money and the debt-based economy before I began a trip through Scotland last August. But I wanted to get a sense of the lives of the Scots in the centuries past that were represented in the many historical sites I observed across that land, so I decided to read Neil Oliver’s A History of Scotland, as I traveled. The thick small paperback traveled well and the saga drew my interest, although I was a bit stunned by the incredibly bloody record of violent transitions among clan chiefs, noblemen, kings, and eventually the industrialists. That got me thinking about the possible inheritance of America’s culture of violence from Great Britain’s violent evolution. What I did not expect was to find parallels in economic history.
Then, later in Oliver’s book, I read of “the clearances,” which had occurred with the agricultural “improvements” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and had accompanied the early stages of the industrial revolution. After countless generations of attachment to the land through tradition and relations of fealty, large populations of both highlanders and lowlanders were forced off their land and into the industrial towns or expanding coal mines, or to emigrate to North America or Australia. James Webb chronicles the subsequent lives of the Scots-Irish descendants of those emigrants to the U.S. in his fascinating book, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. The landowners, clan chiefs and noblemen, needed to combine the small traditional plots into larger more efficient holdings to apply the new agricultural techniques with far fewer workers and vastly greater profits.
Those “clearances” reminded me of the eighteenth and nineteenth century English “enclosures” which ended traditional rights to common lands, but were accomplished by the legal means of the parliamentary “Inclosure Acts.” As I traveled through Scotland, that context brought to mind the current massive loss of the homes of American mortgagees. How could it not? Our national economic crisis was brought on by the vast concentration of “paper wealth” (indeed, more accurately, electronic forms of abstract wealth) in the shape of heavily leveraged sub-prime mortgage debt packaged into a falsely valued derivative “asset” pyramid that ultimately collapsed because investors could not be paid when inevitable losses occurred.
The government covered the losses of the Big Banks because the Treasury and Fed officials all came from Wall Street firms where their first loyalties (and wealth) could be found, and because too many in congress drank from the trough of Wall Street lobbyists. The Banksters kept their giant bonuses and nobody went to jail. But we know all that. My point is that in each case, a very small number of very wealthy people found a way to exclude very large parts of the population from any viable participation in the economy in order to vastly advance their own wealth.
New and old ways of removing people not needed for the current ‘capital formation’ game, and consolidating assets among the wealthiest 0.1%, are essentially much the same. The technological, economic, and political tactics have changed, but the plunder of the larger society by its most powerful elites remains the same. Having read of the bloody history of Scotland, I cannot say that today’s billionaire bandits are any more ruthless than their historical counterparts, except in the scale of the suffering their plunder causes. But they get to keep the suffering they cause at such a greater distance that they are conveniently insulated from it. It is clear that given the planetary impact of their misdeeds, the consequences for humanity are vastly greater.

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