Saturday, January 31, 2009

Death By (Inner) Suburbia

I admit I haven't seen the new Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet film Revolutionary Road. Since it is rated R for nudity (and since my conscience is rather Puritan when it comes to movie sexuality) I'm sure I won't go see the movie either. But perhaps the book would be worthwhile.

Revolutionary Road the movie is based on Richard Yates 1961 novel of the same name. The plot sounds pretty predictable. Frank and April Wheeler live with their two kids in a posh Connecticut suburb of New York. As they grow increasingly discontent with work, family, and life in the burbs, they devise a plan to move to Paris so as to reinvent themselves and loosen the reins on their artistic sensibilities. The result is lots of marital conflict, infidelity, and unending unpleasantness for the horribly unpleasant Wheelers.

As you might imagine, Revolutionary Road has gotten plenty of rave reviews as well as Golden Globe and Oscar attention. Of interest to me, however, was the largely negative review in The Weekly Standard by movie critic John Podhoretz, who argues that the film adaptation, while faithful to the book's basic plotline, entirely misses the savage satire of the original.

What makes Revolutionary Road [the novel] so memorable is not its story of a dissatisfied young couple, the Wheelers, who hatch a disastrous escape plan from the leafy suburbs of New York where, they are certain, life is being choked out of them...No, what gives Revolutionary Road its unforgettable resonance is Yates's fundamental dismissal of the grievances of his characters. Whatever woes they have are entirely of their own making. The Wheelers are fools to believe that their lives are horrid when they and the marriage they have contrived together are the only really horrid things in it. And they are fools to believe they are better than the people around them, a view that derives directly from those novels and works of sociology Revolutionary Road is subtly parodying in its portrait of the Wheelers.

As Adelle Waldman put it in a brilliant piece that ran on the New Republic's web site, "Yates isn't seduced by his characters' emotions, no matter how earnestly experienced; he lays bare the roiling pools of vanity and narcissism that underlie them."

The suburbs have their problems like every other human locale this side of heaven. Bourgeoisie America has its serious flaws too. But its the inner suburb that really kills us. The problem is less tract housing, prosaic jobs, manicured lawns, and whatever else seems to suck the life out of us, and more all the ways our hearts betray us with feelings of self-importance and self-regard, not to mention the illusion that we can find ourselves without losing ourselves first (Matthew 10:39). The human heart is deceitful above all else and desperately sick; who can understand it (Jeremiah 17:9)?

Friday, January 30, 2009

What Went Wrong With Our Economy?

More bad news today. The U.S. economy in the fourth quarter of 2008 shrunk by 3.8%. Although economists feared the decline might be even worse, it's still the sharpest quarterly plunge since the 6.4% dive in the first quarter of 1982.

So what's the problem? Everyone knows that the poor economy has something to do with the "housing bubble" and the "credit crunch." But where did these problems come from? There are lots of popular villains to choose from, be it President Bush, capitalism, Wall Street fat cats, or just plain greed. But the simplistic answers, in this case, are not the right answers. There are several factors which contributed to the meltdown of 2008.

In the book, A World of Wealth: How Capitalism Turns Profits into Progress (FT Press 2008), Thomas Donlan suggests several reasons for the housing bubble and ensuing credit crunch. The book as a whole is uneven and awkwardly written at times, but Donlan's list of "candidates for blame" is extremely helpful.

1. Allan Greenspan. He led the Fed to lower interest rates far below normal and supplied credit to almost anyone. The result: people were borrowing at alarming rates.

2. George W. Bush. The President and the Republicans in Congress did not reign in spending.

3. Bill Clinton. His administration's legislation and regulation made borrowing and lending easier and easier.

4. William R. Fair and Earl J. Isaac. They started a credit analysis company called Fair Isaac which is used in three out of four U.S. mortgages. Fair Isaac's "objective analytics turned credit decision making from a character judgment into a commodity." Now hundreds of loans with the same credit score could be packaged together and sold to another buyer.

5. Wall Street Invesment Bankers. Bankers packaged thousands of mortgages into "collateralized mortgage obligations" (CMOs). Investors and speculators started buying up the CMOs, with the promise of high returns. Investors didn't analyze these bundles on their own. So when bankers started slipping in more and more risky mortgages (people with low credit scores, shady loans, houses appraised too high, etc.), investors didn't take the time to figure out they were purchasing damaged goods. But as along as investors kept buying up the bundles, people kept getting loans and housing prices kept going up.

6. Rating Agencies. These are the agencies, like Standard and Poor's, that rated the CMOs. They also believed the hype and gave the securities higher ratings than they deserved. Plus, those issuing the CMOs pay the rating agencies to rate their products. So the rating agencies have an interest in giving good ratings, so as not to bite the hand that feeds them.

7. Investors. Even though the CMOs were producing a relatively small yield on average, investors were still dreaming of high rewards. They ignored the increasing risks and kept investing anyway. That's where the bubble came from--too much money going too fast into something that is not producing a strong return (like the dot com bubble in the 90s where investors were pouring millions into companies that had yet to make a profit).

8. Predatory Lenders. Some lenders wrote mortgages just because they could. They collected the fees (from people who didn't need to refinance or couldn't afford the loan) and sold the mortgage to a hungry market. Some lenders also started selling unhelpful products that put people into loans they could pay in the very short term (because of subprime interest rates), but had no way of paying in a few years once the rates automatically went up.

9. Predatory Appraisers. Lenders need appraisers to assign a high value to a home. Appraisers need the work that the lenders bring their way. The two groups were often happy to help each other out in ways that hurt the consumer. Houses got appraised far too high. As long as prices went up, people bought and sold houses, sometimes buying them just to "flip" them for a profit. Meanwhile builders were building at a record rate, figuring that they could sell their houses at the inflated prices. Eventually reality caught up with prices and the bubble burst.

10. Predatory Borrowers. The fault was not all with the bad guys in corporate America. Many borrowers lied on their loan applications. They lied about income, about assets, about employment, about credit history, about their intentions to live in the house. "As many as 70 percent of mortgages that defaulted in the first year turned out to have false information on the original loan appplication."

The mess we're in, as the list makes clear, is complicated. It's not the fault of any one person or any one orginaztion. It's the product of sinful motives and sinful actions as well as honest mistakes and unintended consequences. These things happen and they don't allow for simplistic explanations. Or, for that matter, simplistic solutions. Beware the silver bullet. And beware the love of money.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Jesus Came to Save Grimace and Hamburglar Too

My buddy Ted Kluck mentioned this video on his blog. It's pretty funny.

I admit it's funny because I like McDonald's more than I like coffee shops. (I can get a filling meal at McDonalds for the same price as a thimble of hot chocolate at Starbucks). Some people don't like the ad because they think it makes fun of jazz music, facial hair, and reading poetry. I like the ad, not because I think it makes fun of these things, but because it makes fun of the haughtiness that sometimes comes with these things. McDonalds has cheap greasy food, the atmosphere is utilitarian, and their coffee is pedestrian. But, hey, some people like burgers, fries, frugality, and bad coffee.

I mention all of this because so much that passes for spirituality these days is nothing more than middle class, 20something coffee culture. If you like jazz, soul patches, earth tone furniture, and lattes, that's cool. But this culture is no holier than the McNugget, Hi-C, Value City, football culture that most people live in. Why does incarnational ministry usually mean hanging out at Starbucks instead of McDonalds?

Jesus came to save Grimace and Hamburglar too.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Like a Hole in the Head

The world needs another blog like I need a hole in the head. But, alas, here I am anyway.

Welcome to DeYoung, Restless, and Reformed. My name is Kevin DeYoung. I'm the Senior Pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan. I'm married to my lovely wife, Trisha, and we have three kids--Ian (5), Jacob (3), and Elsie (1)--with one more on the way. I love Jesus. I the Bible. I love the church. At times I love myself, which is my biggest problem. I am a sinner saved by grace and being sanctified by the same.

I have no designs to be the web's new uber-blogger. I have no illusions to net-grandeur. In fact, I resisted starting a blog for a long time. There are plenty of good reasons I should not be blogging: (1) I don't have the time. (2) I don't need to express all my opinions to everyone. (3) I have no desire to engage everyone who might love or loathe what I have to say. (4) There are already tons of good blogs to follow. (5) I don't need the distraction of following blogger comments and the temptation to track my hits and think I'm important--or more likely, feel like I'm unimportant (which is pride's soft underbelly). (6) Who really cares what I have to say anyway?

Despite these compelling reasons, I'm entering the blogosphere. My reasons are twofold: (1) I like to write. A blog will be a good avenue to practice the craft and good opportunity to vent my spleen when I feel some apparently original (but probably recycled) thought welling up within me. (2) Perhaps a few people out there will be helped by my comments and reflections. The great thing about a blog is anyone can read along but no one has to. So I'll write and post and comment and leave the rest to God. If he can use my musings to encourage or exhort, I'll be grateful.

What will you find on my blog? Nothing too unusual--book reviews, thoughts on the Bible, comments on culture, reflections on contemporary church life, and whatever other ideas aren't fortunate enough to find their way into the "not for public consumption" file. I hope a few people out there enjoy reading them almost as much as I'll enjoy writing them.

So, worst case scenario this blog leads to the end of the world. Second worst case scenario, it's boring and no one reads it. Slightly better scenario, someone learns more about the Word of God and I have fun.

That would at least be better than a hole in my head.