American Dream Dies! Again! Or Maybe Not

When writing an appropriately gloomy tale about the imminent death of the American dream, it helps if you stir together a heterogeneous helping of downbeat, but completely unrelated crap. Then put the worst spin on every detail, while overlooking any clearly contradictory evidence that the grim details might be self-inflicted and that, for most people, the sun just might come up tomorrow. And so it is with an apocalypse-now piece by Ron Fournier and Sophie Quinton over at the National Journal, insisting that "Americans are losing faith in the institutions that made this country great."

The article sets the tone with the tale of Johnny Whitmire of Muncie, Indiana (the slice-of-America in which our story is set), now living in a trailer through no fault of his own, but still trimming the weeds on his repossessed ... Wait. What's that?

Whitmire tells a familiar story of how public and private institutions derailed an American’s dream: In 2000, he bought the $40,000 house with no money down and a $620 monthly mortgage. He made every payment. Then, in the fall of 2010, his partially disabled wife lost her state job. “Governor [Mitch] Daniels slashed the budget, and they looked for any excuse to squeeze people out,” Whitmire says. “We got lost in that shuffle—cut adrift.” The Whitmires couldn’t make their payments anymore.

Never mind that the phrase "no money down" still brings the same chill to my heart as it did when I discovered the details of my then-girlfriend's (now-wife's) brand-new, carny-barker-quality mortgage. A monthly payment of $620 over ten years should have put Mr. Whitmire $74,400 to the good toward paying off that $40,000 dream house. Even allowing for interest, how far could he have been from walking away with the title? Unless there's something missing from the story, it seems unlikely that the bank wouldn't discuss something a little more productive than the trial loan modification that ultimately fell through. Some financial details seem to be missing from this story.

And while losing a job sucks — I've been there and I feel sympathy for anybody undergoing that particular tour through personal hell — Indiana has been shedding state employees since about 1992. Mitch Daniels has played a role in that, but whether that's a bad thing or a good thing depends on whether you were one of the folks on the public payroll, or one of the taxpayers thankful that the Hoosier state is one of the few components of the union not facing a short-term fiscal disaster.

But none of this addresses the core argument of this wrist-cutter of a journalistic endeavor: Americans are losing faith in the institutions that made this country great. "Government, politics, corporations, the media, organized religion, organized labor, banks, businesses, and other mainstays of a healthy society are failing," say Fournier and Quinton. To prove their point, they emphasize religion, education and government, and point to ... a booming, popular church and thriving schools.

But the booming church is a new-style church:

Union Chapel’s pastor, Gregg Parris, speaks in phrases you’d expect from an M.B.A. (“I’m in the word business”) or a sociologist (“We’re going from a Gutenberg world to a Google world”). He keeps his sermons simple because “you can’t assume everybody knows the Lord’s Prayer,” and he strives to make the liturgy relevant to life’s challenges. 

The new church offers a coffee shop, a gymnasium and a bookstore and actually attracts parishioners. By contrast, a more-traditional Methodist church is aging and dying.

And the thriving schools are charter schools:

“Every year,” Whitehead says of Jordan, “the light got dimmer and dimmer, and finally he hated school.” His joy of learning didn’t return until she enrolled him in the sixth grade at Hoosier Academy, one of many charter schools that have sprung up across Indiana to provide an alternative. ...

At Hoosier, four days a week, the queue of small sedans, SUVs, and trucks waiting to drop off students forms a wide circle around the parking lot. The academy leases space in the unused wing of a Catholic school on the city’s south side. Under its “blended” model, children go to their classrooms two days a week for face-to-face instruction. Three days a week, they work at home with a parent or other adult while connected electronically to the high-tech school. Teachers and coaches meet at least once a month to review each child’s progress. “Everybody is on the same page all the time,” Whitehead says.

Homeschooling, too, is taking off. It's  the old-style public schools that are losing students and support.

In both cases, Muncie residents aren't turning away from churches and schools, they're substituting newer models that suit their needs for older models that don't. The authors prefer the older models over the new, but time doesn't stand still, and institutions have to adapt and improve or be replaced. 

Except, of course, in the case of government. Nobody has yet developed an easy way for individuals to choose a competitor to a failing government without physically moving locations. And Muncie sounds like it has a doozy:

The first City Council meeting in 2008 is the stuff of legend. Republican Sharon McShurley had just become Muncie’s first female mayor. (Her margin of victory: 13 votes.) Coming into the session, it was all-out partisan war. Democrats were contesting the election in court. Republicans accused Democratic council member Monte Murphy of voter fraud after rounding up a half dozen witnesses who said that Murphy pressured them to vote Democratic on the absentee ballots he collected. The Democratic-controlled council had vowed to gridlock city government if that’s what it took to consign McShurley to a single term.

But ... that's government. After decades of epic fail, people can probably be excused for losing faith in an institution from which it's so difficult to escape and replace with something better. Federal government has shouldered the brunt of the anger, but state and local governments are also losing fans.

Note that people are flocking to the new church and to charter schools and homeschooling. So new institutions are gaining the trust of the people in the article and replacing the old ones which, we're told, "made the country great." And isn't it the ability to choose what's right for you and not being bound to hoary old museum pieces that has actually made this country relatively habitable?

As for those other institutions losing public faith ... all the ones in the dumper of public confidence are those with close ties to the state. Banks, unions, big corporations— all are enablers of or enabled by friends in politically powerful places, and all rank just above Congress at the bottom of the heap. Public schools somehow cling to the middle. Small businesses actually rank only second to the military, according to Gallup, with churches not far behind.

Maybe America is on the verge of some terrible moment. But if and when it comes, it will be the result of our own bad choices and because of coercive institutions of which we can't rid ourselves, not because we occasionally toss out the old and embrace the new.

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  • Fat Man & Little Boy||

    Frump!

  • juris imprudent||

    It was bad enough when Progressives became conservative - conserving the progressive legacy of the New Deal. But when the fuckers become reactionaries - it is time to put them out of their (and our) misery.

  • Bingo||

    Someone pointed out that the only advancement made in Public Schooling since 1895 has been the change from black boards to dry erase boards. I think it's pretty safe to label the progressive movement as a conservative/reactionary movement.

  • Gladstone||

    It also gets ridiculous after the prorgressives have spend decades attacking these institutions and are shocked when people actually start distrusting them. I guess we were only supposed to distrust them when the Wrong People are in charge and when the progressives are in charge distrust is a sign of insane idiot racism.

    Of course one could argue that the real progressive movement was laissez faire and its statists opponents are in fact the reactionaries. Certainly this is clearer in Europe where the socialists didn't try to hide behind the liberal label.

  • Formerly Almanian||

    I guess we were only supposed to distrust them when the Wrong People are in charge

    Well - duh!

  • tarran||

    How the fuck could faith in the criminal justice system have gone up?

  • R C Dean||

    Only 1%, which is probably statistical noise.

    At least faith in cops is down 3%.

    Still way too high, IMO.

  • Formerly Almanian||

    I AM THE 99%!!

  • $öç íñδ√ Sparky||

    There are three different CSI shows now and three different Law & Order shows. The good guys always win and that makes people really believe in the justice system.

  • Gladstone||

    Well it's just one percent, could just be the vagaries of polling.

    Suprised that support for HMOs and medical system have gone up. I guess ObamaCare makes people realize that things are going to get worse.

  • R C Dean||

    The new church offers a coffee shop, a gymnasium and a bookstore and actually attracts parishioners.

    Churches have always been at least as much a social as a spiritual institutions. I don't see a problem with this.

    By contrast, a more-traditional Methodist church is aging and dying.

    Many mainline churches are dying because they became infested with lefty claptrap.

  • Formerly Almanian||

    Yes, I found this interesting. We're in the process of joining the biggest (and growing) church in our area. It's very traditional in terms of the services, sticks to scripture, and avoids the liberal, social-justice bullshit we'd heard more and more in the last 30 years in other churches.

    Absolutely growing like a weed.

    No coffee bar, no bookstore - just a really good church from our perspective.

    Hmm...

  • Aresen||

    OK, you believe in God.

    But why go to church if not for the social aspect?

    Why would the Patrem omnipotentem, factorem caeli et terrae, visibilium
    omnium et invisibilium
    want to be worshipped?

  • RBS||

    I thought they were dying because they are stuffy and boring while the new churches let you wear whatever clothes you wanted and taught the Gospel of God Will Provide You With All You Could Ever Want?

  • Bingo||

    I would guess that is because the Left has pretty much substituted religious faith with statist faith. The So-cons still conflates the two.

  • Formerly Almanian||

    institutions that made this country great

    Funny. I'd always believed it was individuals that made this country great. Some great, some just people - but individuals. Not institutions.

    Guess I have that wrong. Thanks, National Journalosers!

  • $öç íñδ√ Sparky||

    Individuals? No wonder nobody takes Libertarians seriously. Nobody ever got to where they are without help from all over the place.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Liberals and so-cons agree on one thing:

    They both hate individualism.

  • ant1sthenes||

    Not a capitalist, I take it? Institutions are social machinery. It's rare that an individual can make anything great without access to the necessary tools.

  • Aresen||

    I am going to call bullshit a bit on that 'decline in faith' WRT the Presidency.

    The earlier date - June 2002 - was when GWB was still riding the 9/11 high and before Gulf War II got started, so the percentage drop to June 2011 is a bit misleading.

  • NL_||

    No mention of Internet companies even though today people interact with the world through Google, Facebook, Wikipedia and Craigslist. Interesting that the poll doesn't mention family, friends, or ourselves. If we lose faith in government, business, religion and media, then we must be turning somewhere for things we need - including ourselves and those close to us.

    I don't think we can really poll on how much people trust themselves or their close friends and relatives (too complicated, too variable, too difficult for people to answer in a useful manner). But to try to draw a picture of societal trust that excludes the people we spend our lives with is going to leave a skewed picture.

    Also, I wonder if "big business" would get a better hearing if you asked about specific corporations. I'm a market-loving anarcho-capitalist but if you ask me to trust "big business" you're going too far. But then I trust Safeway/Dominick's to sell me safe meat, I trust Walmart to get me low prices and everybody trusts fast food retailers to give them safe and edible coffees and burgers. We might SAY we don't trust big business in general, but in practice we'll ingest the food they sell us without any inspection.

    Also, we should add "lawyers" and "paparazzi" to the list so Congress can feel less lonely at the bottom.

  • robertzcole||

    It is very tough to get mortgage refinance these days especially major banks. It is not a secret every one knows, what is the solution? Check our your local guys or check online for 123 Refinance they should be able to find a solution for you.

  • Maigretus||

    Re: "Even allowing for interest, how far could he have been from walking away with the title?" The real question is, "What interest was he paying?" With a little Excel work I got the following, for $40K loan, $620 monthly payment & 10 years of payments:

    30 year fixed.
    Interest rate: *18.5%*
    Principal paid: $1,449.78
    Loan-to-value: 96%

    15 year fixed.
    Interest rate: *17.2%*
    Principal paid: $15,486.76
    Loan-to-value: 61%

    Obviously, he should have gotten a 15 year, but the real shocker is the interest rates. Those are credit card rates, not mortgage. At first I thought the $40K was a typo that left off a zero, but with a loan of $400K and $620 payment, this is a negative interest rate, unless the term goes up to at least 55 years (works the same if we assume the typo was adding a zero to a $62 monthly payment).

    I have to agree, there is something completely screwy about that loan. In 2000 I can't imagine interest rates that high.

  • Maigretus||

    Just to clarify what I meant by, "Negative interest rate.":

    $620 times 30 years of payments=$223,200.00

    In other words, if the loan was for $400K $620/month won't even pay the principal in 30 years.

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