I Am Not Caligula.

September 17, 2012

As a 42-year old Midwestern father, my standard deviation for zaniness has narrowed.
You are not likely to find me running with the bulls. Nor will you see me watching Great White sharks from a submerged steel cage. Or kayaking down the Nile River in Uganda. Or fighting a cage match.
My Midwestern sensibilities raise the hairs on the back of my neck at the very mention of risk. I never learned how to do a flip off the diving board. (What happens if I hit the side of the pool?) I carry hand sanitizer in my brief case. I eagerly await the cleansing of my hands after sharing the sign of peace. At church.
Not saying it's a positive trait. But, it's kept me from some sticky situations. And like many Midwesterners, it kept me from participating in this decade-long debt orgy that has the nation's financial system requiring so much penicillin.
I'll square with you. I've never been to an orgy. Even the word makes me nervous. My eyebrows wince at the sound.
But, I'm no Boy Scout.
I saw Tom Cruise in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.
I watched Porky's. When I was 13.
Listened to Princess Purple Rain album. With girls...
And I glanced at the definition of the word "orgy" in the dictionary. I didn't look long... didn't feel right. But, what I saw had an impact.
What is an "orgy," by definition?
"A revel involving unrestrained indulgence..."
"Uncontrolled or immoderate indulgence in an activity..."
Also, "A secret rite in the cults of ancient Greek or Roman deities, typically involving frenzied singing, dancing, drinking and sexual activity."
Sounds seedy. Self indulgent. American. In fact, I'd say that today's debt orgy is every bit as much a rite of passage in modern America as the original, more "earthy" version was to those in Greece and Rome.
On a return flight from Boston last Friday evening, a colleague and I had a conversation. Which led to an epiphany. Which culminated with the coining of a phrase. A piece of terminology that is certain to make an exciting contribution to the American lexicon. Propel us into the linguistic pantheon.
What we realized last Friday, careering across the firmament at about 8,400 feet, was that Americans have for the last 12 years engaged in an orgy of debt and interest financing. A mortgage orgy. A "Mortgy."
Americans spent much of the last decade salaciously satiating our every little desire for creature comforts via an interest-induced, fully leveraged, no-holds-barred, "I-think-my-roommate-in-college-might-have-one-time" Mortgy.
Imagine it... the American consumer shows up at some seedy looking apartment complex on the outskirts of town. Three rapid knocks and the creepy peephole slides open.
An impatient voice can be heard from the other side... "Password?"
"Toucan Sam likes green eggs and ham," the consumer responds meekly.
The door opens. Our consumer enters, pauses, nervously scans the room.
It's packed with Credit card purveyors. Revolving credit issuers. Installment credit purveyors. Mortgage brokers. Lenders. Securitization specialists. Bond salesman. Derivatives specialists. Bankers. Buyers. Sellers. Owners. Rich. Poor. Young old. White. Black. Asian. Hispanic. All seeking the same short-term thrill.
A stench emanates throughout. It's the smell of desperation. And regardless of any cheap, short-term pleasure to be had, the feeling thereafter is always the same. Cheap. Dirty. Hollow.
A mortgage orgy, err, Mortgy, is exactly what we've held. Our government. Our banks and brokerages. Our consumers. We drove out. Parked. Looked nervously over our shoulders. Whispered the password. And the next day, after waking in a fog, looked at the new sedan in the driveway. The 64-inch plasma television. A brand new McMansion. Realized that the high was gone. The rush was over. All that remained was the hallow pangs of guilt. And a high annual percentage rate.
Your dad wouldn't have Mortgied. He was able to defer his need for immediate, cheap gratification. And he always paid in cash.
As a nation, we were never the Mortgying types. Well, we weren't. But, social mores loosen. And times change.
Today's average American household is almost $76,000 in debt. Hundreds of thousands are expected to file for bankruptcy this year. Not all for the first time. We have engaged in an orgiastic amount of debt financing as we sought to satisfy all of our deepest commercial desires. The payoff? Never what you hoped it would be.
Yea, I got 4,700 square feet, but my interest-only mortgage doesn't permit me to dine out anymore...
Yea, I got that monolithic SUV, but now I can't afford the gas to get to my daughter's soccer game...
Yea, I got that graduate degree, but the $400,000 in tuition debt dictates that I'll be paying back creditors until I'm sixty...
Whereas an actual orgy might spiritually bankrupt you, our decade-long Mortgy has financial bankrupted us. Left us remorseful. And in a financial bind from which we're not soon to walk away.
You see, the other thing about Mortgies, much like their seedier counterparts, is that they can leave you damaged. A little less wholesome. Physically and mentally.
In all, I would say that Mortgies are overrated. We're healthier as a fiscally celibate bunch. But, were only human. And so we occasionally stumble, becoming shortsighted pleasure seekers incapable of deferring any bit of gratification.
So long as the American Express logo bares the image of a Roman Centurion, I guess there will remain a little Caligula in each of us.

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