By Joel Garreau
Sunday, November 16, 2008
Let us consider for a moment those people being blamed for destroying the economy because they heedlessly bought houses that "they knew they couldn't afford."
I for one have nothing but sympathy for this all-too-human behavior. For more than 30 years, I have noted the absolute lack of connection between mathematics and money. For lo these many decades, I've never understood how I manage to make my mortgage payments. Or my tax payments, for that matter. In my experience, these things never add up.
Not that I haven't worshipped at the shrine to arithmetic. When my wife and I first started sharing a checkbook, budgets were big issues. I thought that mathematics was the most exact of sciences, yielding cold, hard, demonstrable results. There was no squish in numbers, I believed. You could either afford things or you couldn't. Pay check in, rent check out. There was no gray. It was so obvious that it would drive me nuts when she would blithely say, "Well, the money will just have to come from somewhere."
Turns out she acquired this elastic theory of money with her mother's milk. Whenever she and her siblings told their mother that they wanted something, mom would always say, "We can't afford it." Then, a few weeks later, the object of desire would magically appear. When the kids asked her to explain, sure enough she would say, "Well, the money will just have to come from somewhere."
The amazing thing is: It did. This was a family that sent seven kids to college on a writer's salary. To this day, nobody in that entire family can explain how that happened. Nonetheless, they are proof that the money came from somewhere.
The funny thing is, the longer I've paid bills, the more the evidence has piled up that my wife's theory is right -- that money is far too human an invention to be neatly described by the laws of mathematics. When we bought our first house for $80,000, I was able to demonstrate beyond a doubt that there was no way we could make the payments on my salary. When we bought our current house for $200,000, I knew beyond question that we were doomed.
Nonetheless, the money has come from somewhere.
Mortgage payments aren't the only area of finance that never obey the laws of mathematics. Tax returns enter into this nebulous realm all the time. Visions of prison dance through my head every time I dutifully sign the Form 1040 that my tax person has prepared for me. I haven't understood my tax return for decades.
Of course, the mysterious lack of correlation between mathematics and money works in the opposite direction, too. How many times have people told me that I should just sit tight with my 401(k) and that over time, the market would magically make it grow by 7 percent per year? Savings accounts are for chumps, right? No matter how often I told her that she was nuts, my mother kept her retirement money in a credit union until the day she died.
Of course, she had lived through the Depression.
Don't get me wrong. I've never completely abandoned my belief in a vengeful mathematical god who will someday smite the profligate. Maybe that's what's happening now.
But this is to address those righteous commentators who say that perdition is too good for those poor souls who signed away their birthrights along with their mortgages during the credit bubble.
If they think those are the only people who have been deluded by the elastic relationship between money and arithmetic, they'd better lay in some more rope and kindling. There's going to be an enormous share of the population that they're going to have to tie to the stake before this is over. That would be all those people who believed -- for the excellent reason that all the evidence of their lives demonstrated that this is the way the adult world works -- that the money would come from somewhere.
Joel Garreau writes for the Style section of The Washington Post.