Thursday, October 19, 2017

Who Has A Hold On You?

     I wrote recently that The Cult of the Victim Regnant appears to have passed its zenith and is now in decline. Though the evidence for such a decline is considerable, it might take a while to have pronounced sociopolitical effects. I wouldn’t advise anyone to hold his breath while waiting. However, as is the case with most bottom-up developments, this one is already having effects on individuals’ decision making.

     Let’s talk about debt. Time was, Americans considered it near to criminal to indebt oneself for any reason other than one’s survival or the survival of a loved one. Today, debt is the near-universal condition of American families from coast to coast. Clearly, the change in attitudes has been enormous. That makes it supremely important to question the practice; that which is ubiquitous and habitual almost never receives appropriate scrutiny.

     If you’re “in debt,” you have an obligation to someone else for which no reciprocal obligation exists. You must pay him; he doesn’t owe you a thing. Depending on the terms of the obligation, he might have the first call on every dollar you earn. Indeed, he might have the option, backed by the power of the State, of turning you out of your home. That condition would constrain your options severely.

     My esteemed colleague Dystopic, who was once a skeptic of my notions about debt, had an unfortunate episode in which he found that a mortgage debt was a shackle around his leg that others could use to limit his latitude of decision. Indeed, anyone who lives in or holds title to mortgaged real property is shackled that way. Yet “home ownership” under exactly those conditions remains the Holy Grail to most of the American work force. How does that comport with the increasingly urgent need for personal mobility in the face of a labor economy changing faster with each passing year?

     The same is true for any kind of debt. The strength of the fetter does decline as the size of the debt declines, but a number of such shackles can fasten one into place as effectively as a six-figure mortgage. Yet very few parents ever describe their experiences with debt to their teenage children.

     Non-financial, non-material obligations are harder to analyze, but their grip can be as restrictive as a jumbo mortgage. People become obligated in many ways. The great majority of such obligations appear nowhere but in the mind. But the power of contingent guilt, amplified by personal pride and the value of one’s reputation, is easy to underestimate.

     Don’t make promises you can’t keep is an old wisdom. I would never deny its importance. However, over the years I’ve come to believe that it’s badly punctuated. The period belongs after the word promises.

     Quite a lot of people are rather free with their verbal commitments. Much of the time, they take those commitments less seriously than those who hear them. If Smith commits himself to some undertaking, freely and out of his own mouth, in the presence of Jones, the most important thing about the promise isn’t how Smith feels about it; it’s how Jones does. That’s even more the case if Jones dislikes Smith or has been looking for a hold on him.

     More, few people grasp how easy it is to commit oneself without intending to do so. The great flexibility built into human languages makes many utterances susceptible to interpretations the speaker did not intend. In any circumstances other than those in which metaphor and hyperbole are absolutely understood to be the rule by all parties, you can easily be held to have made some “promise” you never intended to make. Competitive contexts, such as those that pertain in the typical workplace, make this especially important.

     Granted, there are promises that must be made, though they’re fewer and further between than many would admit. That having been said, your de facto latitude of action varies inversely with the number of promises others believe you to have made – and that will vary directly with how often you open your mouth, before how many listeners, and how casual you are about what issues forth. The moral “should” be “obvious.”

     Though I hold that it’s a peccadillo rather than a mortal sin, I’m no fan of gratuitous, emotion-free (other than lust) sex. (Yes, I know my Church teaches that it is a mortal sin, but the Church has been wrong before, and anyway, it’s a subject for another time.) Sexual contact is virtually always fraught with implications that go far beyond supposedly simple bodily friction. The attempt to behave as if that weren’t the case has damaged a large number of lives. (The desire to forget such mistakes of judgment has damaged an approximately equal number of livers.)

     The implications of sexual congress – no jokes about Congressional pages, please – can go from “calling the next day” all the way to lifetime support of another person and her progeny. If she doesn’t feel the same as you about having opened herself to you, the two of you are in for a lot of trouble. The sex partner who took the act less seriously is in the greater danger. The danger emanates mainly from the other partner, but also from one’s family, friends, and coworkers.

     The hold such persons can have on you arises from their expectations and standards, and from the value you place on their opinion of you. To the extent that they feel you’ve obligated yourself, and to the extent of your reluctance to “disappoint them,” you can be manipulated – sometimes all the way to the altar, if not worse. Play Misty For Me was a dramatization that’s been acted out innumerable times by real people.

     “Who has a hold on me?” is a self-assay I’d like to recommend widely. It should be repeated fairly often. More, when facing a decision that will or might create a fresh obligation, asking yourself not just “can I afford it?” but also “can I stand for this new person to have a hold on me?” is an important preliminary step. Not all obligees are kindly or generous, many have the power to pose before a court (including the Court of Public Opinion) as victims, and as Benjamin Franklin has told us, “Creditors have better memories than debtors.” Verbum sat sapienti.


John C. said...

I have reconsidered home ownership even without a mortgage. The hold the government has on you when you own property is dramatic. Taxing authorities having no relationship to the property can confiscate and liquidate it in their quest for everything you've created so can individuals. It makes you a target for law suits. It impedes one's ability to move freely when opportunity arises and can limit a person. The great thing about cash is you can carry your check book to Cali and start a new life. Try that with a split level.

Reg T said...

There really is no such thing as owning your home, or even bare land. Not when local, state, or federal government can confiscate it, practically on a whim. If I recall correctly, asset forfeiture laws decree that your home and property can be seized if a crime such as drug dealing or other offenses takes place upon it.

Property - even that of our own bodies - exists at the whim of government. The prisons are full of non-violent users/sellers of marijuana, and a significant number of people who may actually have never even committed a crime.

My realtor, a very nice gentleman, tried to talk me into buying property that I could pay cash for, so that I did not risk my ownership to debt and the possibility of foreclosure. I reminded him that a mortgage was merely a more inclusive rental agreement, which government could terminate unilaterally any time they wished, by "public domain", if nothing else.