The Joys of Perma-Renting a/k/a Getting America Comfortable With Serfdom
Updated: Jul 18
When the media starts pushing the perks of renting, you know we’re heading toward a feudal society
Last week I came across a Bloomberg op-ed that would have shocked me a few years ago. Now I see it as just another sign that we’ve moved to the next phase in the re-shaping of America.
Not-so-subtly titled “America Should Become a Nation of Renters,” the op-ed found a silver lining in dizzying home prices that are putting home ownership beyond the reach of most Americans. The author, Karl Smith, pointed out that while single family homes used to be moderately-priced, stable investments, Wall Street and pension funds have turned real estate into a bubble-prone market. If you get caught on the wrong side of a crash, you could lose bigly.
That’s bad news for homeowners, but not for renters. Because they don’t have to worry about being tied to a bad investment. They enjoy the bliss of asset-free living.
Smith claims that as more people are forced to rent, a new breed of carefree Americans will emerge: people who have the luxury of “try[ing] a new place for a few years without the commitment of a mortgage or down payment.”
But that's not all. Not owning a home can even improve our quality of life: “A nation of renters could lead to a world where location decisions are driven far more by personal preferences and life-cycle demands. Younger workers might prefer the excitement of the city. A couple just starting a family could reunite with their parents or siblings in a small town.”
Do you see the potential? Can you taste the freedom at your fingertips? Renting is liberating!
Bloomberg isn’t the only media outlet pushing the advantages of renting. In March, a similar article (“Renting Is Terrible. Owning Is Worse”) appeared in The Atlantic, extolling the “intrinsic” advantages of renting (flexibility and the opportunity to invest in other assets topped the list).
You don’t have to be an economist to spot the real world “kinks” in these rental utopias — like the op-ed’s assumption that investors will build enough units to accommodate rental demand (because market players always increase supply to make products affordable, right?). Or the fact that renting, unlike home ownership, doesn't provide a path to wealth creation as inflation continues to erode our purchasing power.
Granted, it’s probably naive to expect someone writing for Bloomberg to consider these real world implications. After all, they’re creating content for a publication owned by one of the world’s richest men.
But it’s the responses to the op-ed that surprised me: at least half of readers agreed that renting is better than owning. My surprise turned to shock when I read the comments to a Medium article written about the same op-ed, clueing me in to how seamlessly people are transitioning to the asset-free mindset:
“I honestly don’t think any future of humanity will be ‘The American Dream’ or anything even close. That was a weird, boomer gen fantasy that, frankly, needs to die. My honest advice is to let the past ideas of home ownership die.”
No, that’s not a typo. The American Dream of home ownership needs to die.
My shock turned to disbelief when I read another comment:
“I don’t know. Most of the rest of the world rents. I lived in Europe for a few years. Hardly anyone owns their home or apartments. They mostly rent. For the most part they are doing pretty good.”
That’s when I realized something is shifting on a fundamental level in the minds of many Americans. We’re rapidly losing the ability to own the roof over our heads, but we aren’t up in arms about it. We’re not taking to the streets. Instead, we’re getting comfortable with this reality. But why?
I think it’s because our understanding of history, like almost everything else, is being distorted.
We’ve forgotten who we are and how we got here. We have no memory of what this country was based on and what made it special for so long. Without that memory, we will change as a people, and not for the better. Without that memory, we will easily surrender what our ancestors fought and died for.
That’s what’s happening now.
Owning a home wasn’t some weird Boomer fantasy; it was the vehicle that fueled the rise of the middle class. My grandparents, children of sharecroppers who never graduated from high school, owned a home that allowed them to accumulate wealth as they aged (a home that’s now worth nearly $800,000). My parents, who never went to college, owned a home. I graduated from law school, and I own a home. For generations, owning a home has allowed hundreds of millions of Americans of all races and classes to raise their standard of living and pass wealth along to their children.
No, home ownership wasn’t a dream every American wanted or could pursue, but if they were willing to work hard enough it was within their reach. Not anymore. Today, homeownership isn’t even available to people who work multiple jobs or went to college. Increasingly, the ability to own a home is being reduced to a single class of people: the ones with a LOT of money.
If you live in another country, you might not be able to relate to this. In most parts of the world, property has been in the hands of elites for centuries and has been the foundation of the social and economic order.
But anyone who stayed awake during American history class in high school knows the United States was supposed to be different. Our Founding Fathers waged war with the British Crown to escape a world where land was only available to monarchs and those they favored. Americans didn’t think they were “better” people, but they fought for something that has eluded most humans for centuries: a “better” way of life.
250 years later, we’ve come full circle. Now we’re being encouraged to think we shouldn’t want or expect to be different from billions of people around the world who cling to survival. Influencers are trying to persuade us that aspiring to independence at the most basic level — owning the shelter we crawl under every night — is an unrealistic dream that needs to die.
What these people don’t bother to mention is that not owning the roof over our head creates insecurity at a core level, which is why humanity has suffered under the fist of those with money and power for eons. Not owning a home leaves us prone to egregious rent hikes or eviction at a landlord’s whim, factors that have spurred the pandemic of homelessness erupting around the country. Is this the America we want to live in, where increasing numbers of people are forced to dodge homelessness?
When the world locked down last year, I warned that the class divide would widen because the uber-wealthy were siphoning a staggering amount of money from the economy. Now we see what they’ve done with that money: pension funds and private equity firms have rolled trillions of dollars of interest-free stimulus loans into home purchases, edging out first time buyers.
We’re witnessing a fundamental realignment of property ownership in America, a massive transfer of wealth to our new feudal lords. At some point in the future, most Americans will find themselves renting from the top .01%.
Of course, this won’t happen overnight. The lucky among us will keep jobs that allow us to cling to our homes during the early stages of this realignment. We might even be able to pass them on to our children. But will a generation of young people waiting on tables and driving Lyft be able to keep what they inherit, or will soaring property taxes force them to surrender the real estate wealth their parents accumulated? After being fed COVID stimulus checks and unemployment for years, how many young people will want to work to keep these homes?
As this re-alignment in property ownership kicks into high gear, the Biden administration is busy launching a full-scale attack on “domestic terrorists” (translation: racist Americans plotting to overthrow the government). But anyone who peers beyond the chatter of critical race theory and white supremacy can see our government has already been overthrown, quietly, by the “real” domestic terrorists and saboteurs of democracy: the oligarchs who are aggressively re-shaping America into a feudal society.
Because there are 328 million Americans (many who are fond of the Second Amendment) and we still live in a “democracy,” re-shaping can’t be forced on us; it will require us to fundamentally change the way we think: to abandon the old fashioned/“conservative” notion that hard work should lead to wealth creation and independence for as many people as possible, to believe that relying on corporations and institutions for our survival is actually a good thing.
In other words, re-shaping America will require our consent — and judging from the narrative we’re seeing in the media and readers’ reactions, that’s already happening. Wealth, and ultimately control over our lives, is being openly transferred to elites, without a fuss or a fight, because Americans are accepting and embracing their fate as asset-free serfs.
We’re not just getting comfortable with the idea of being perma-renters; the idea of “owning” anything is rapidly falling out of favor. We’re being conditioned to move to a “subscriber" mentality, renting or borrowing whatever we need. We use Uber instead of owning a car. We license software from Microsoft and rent DVRs from DirecTV. The e-books we buy aren’t really “ours.” Most people don’t even own their phones; they trade them in every few years and keep making monthly payments.
A subscription/rent lifestyle works fine — until you run out of money to participate. As the cost of living continues to skyrocket, that’s the position more Americans will find themselves in: unable to subscribe/rent the things they want or need. And therein lies the real cost of not “owning”: we live at the whim of others.
It’s a no-brainer that the housing situation is only going to get worse — more expensive, more inequitable, more precarious. But the solution isn’t to give up on the idea of owning a home; the solution is to fix the problem by identifying the root cause.
The source of this crisis, and almost every other systemic problem we face, is hiding in plain sight: our toxic monetary system. When banks create money out of thin air — in the form of debt — it systematically transfers wealth to elites over time by raising the price of goods and services. There’s no way to avoid it. This isn’t a flaw of capitalism because it’s not how capitalism is supposed to work. But it is how debt-based capitalism is designed to work.
Solving the housing crisis will require us to do what the people we elect and the elites who support them will never consider unless we demand it: transition to an economy that doesn’t rely on debt.
That’s the elephant in the room.
But when we’re distracted and divided, it’s tough to get people to notice the elephant. We won't take to the streets to protest anything that doesn’t involve black lives. We avoid coming together because of our politics or vaccination status. We’re too frightened and too overwhelmed to think clearly. We’re ashamed to discuss “radical” measures that might give us leverage against elites; tax boycotts and debt jubilees are still dirty words not used in polite company.
We may not be ready to take action now, but the pain from a subscription/rent lifestyle is bringing us closer every day. When that moment arrives, as more people awaken and demand a solution to the root cause of our problems, please don’t be afraid to stand up and lock arms with them — whether or not they look like you, vote like you, carry a vaccination card, or adopt your preferred pronouns. Don’t be cowed into silence because you’re a fan of the people in office now, or because you think we have bigger problems.
Right now, the fundamental re-shaping of America is our biggest problem.
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