The Illusion of Ownership

When I started this blog last November my intention was to write about politics, religion, and money fairly evenly.  I don’t know what I was thinking, because with a very controversial presidential election happening I should have known there would be very little interest in the latter two.  As a result, I spent 90% of my time writing about politics and I received great encouragement to do so.  For example, if I wrote an article about religion, it didn’t matter how good it was, I was lucky if I got a couple dozen readers.  However, if I wrote an article about Trump I was guaranteed to get hundreds of readers from all over the world.  The interest in that guy is off of the charts.  When it comes to my blog, President Trump can easily co-opt John Lennon’s controversial statement that he is “bigger than God” and by huge margins.  As proof, my most popular Politics article has outperformed my most popular Religion article 19 to 1.  My artist friends tell me that I shouldn’t get hung up on the number of readers; that I should write for the love of the art.  I respect that perspective but I am a math guy with a limited amount of free time.  If I am going to invest an entire Sunday morning into writing something of quality I want it to reach the most people possible and have the greatest impact.  If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound if there is nobody there to hear it?  I argue “yes,” but it was a wasted conversion of potential to kinetic energy. (Chuckle)

I have told you this because in an attempt to balance the blog I have been writing about nothing other than religious matters for the past month.  The problem is that the topic of Money has become the ignored middle child of the family.  Today I endeavor to take that child on a play date as I attempt to convince you that ownership has become nothing more than an illusion for most Americans.  I hope you enjoy my thoughts.

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There was a prior time in America when people owned things.  Not “owned” in the way that we use that term today but really owned things; owned-owned them.   If you owned a guitar it meant that it was completely yours, that you had completely paid for it and whoever the prior owner was had given up all claims of ownership to it.  In other words, it was entirely yours.  I have become convinced that ownership of that kind has become rare in the United States.  Today we use that term so loosely that when we buy a car with no money down, meaning that we have yet to invest a single dime in it, we say that we have “bought” the vehicle or that we now “own” it just because we have signed a bunch of papers at a dealership.  I argue that that kind of ownership is a complete illusion.

A few years back I was riding through Berkshire County of western Massachusetts and I looked around at all of the houses I was passing by and the cars on the road and I wondered to myself how many of the people in those houses and cars actually owned them outright.  What I mean by that is how many people completely owned them, meaning that there was no debt associated with the property.  In an attempt to make a mental calculation I asked myself how many people I personally knew who owned a house without a mortgage and I was hard pressed to count out all of the fingers on just one of my hands.  There are over 100,000 people in the county and I knew less than five homeowners who didn’t have a mortgage! That meant that by my estimation the vast majority of the houses were actually owned by banks.  Why do I say that?  Because, so long as you have a mortgage the house really isn’t yours.  Doubt me?  Stop paying that mortgage and what will happen?  The true owner of the house, the bank, will take possession of their property, sell it at auction to recoup the money you haven’t paid them, and there is nothing you can do about it because that house was never really yours.  You were just living an illusion.

The same goes for cars.  How many cars on the road do you think are actually owned by the drivers?  I know that many of these new trucks sell for more than $40,000.  How many people have that kind of money sitting around in their bank accounts waiting for them to purchase a new vehicle?  Very, very few.  That means that all of those vehicles are actually owned by banks and the people driving around in them are essentially renters until the entire debt has been paid off.  Again, if you doubt me just stop making your payments.  What will happen?  The bank will hire a “repo” guy who will come when you aren’t expecting it and RETAKE POSSESSION of the vehicle on behalf of the bank.  That’s where the term “repo” comes from, “REtaking POssession” or “REPOssion.”  How can they do that?  Because they are the real owners of the vehicle so long as you owe them even a single dime.

There was a time in America when people didn’t borrow money to buy cars.  In fact, it was socially unacceptable.  When you borrowed money to acquire “things” it was known as “buying on time” meaning that it was going to take time to actually buy it.  They had the right idea that so long as something wasn’t entirely paid for then it wasn’t entirely bought and therefore not really owned.  People who borrowed money to purchase nice cars were considered social pretenders because they were projecting a lifestyle that was above their means.  Back then you drove what you could afford to save for and buy outright.  If you didn’t totally pay for the Corvette that you were driving then you were pretentious and “honest” people would look down on you.   Not unlike today, the quality of a person’s possessions said something about their personal success.  The difference is that back then people resented other people pretending to be more successful than they actually were.   Today we don’t even think about it beyond the payment.  Today, when we see somebody driving a $40,000 truck we say “good for them” that they can afford the $800 per month payment to the bank.  “They must be doing well financially.”  Back in the day we would have sneered at that person for being a pretentious ass because all of their neighbors knew that a vehicle of that expense was beyond their means.  Basically, the only socially acceptable thing that could be “bought on time” was a house and back then you had to put a 20% down payment on the home.  This meant that you spent a good portion of your life living frugally as a renter and saving so that one day you could realize the dream of home ownership.

Obviously our culture has changed but has it changed for the better?  We borrow money all of the time to buy all sorts of things that we can’t immediately afford, right down to the most basic necessities of life like food.  Is this a good thing?  Our society appears affluent on the surface.  As you drive around you see all of these beautiful cars and beautiful homes.  People are wearing lovely clothing and jewelry but how much of it is really theirs?  Are we seeing the evidence of an affluent culture or are we seeing the evidence of an affluent banking industry that has hundreds of millions of Americans essentially working for them?  “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go” is the humorous refrain set to the tune of the popular Disney classic.

I know I promised to write about money matters today but I just can’t escape making at least one religious reference.  The Bible teaches that the “borrower becomes the lender’s slave.”  If you owned outright everything you possess wouldn’t you be a freer human being?  Think about how much extra money you would have if you didn’t have any debts to pay.   I don’t know about you but I would be swimming in money.  Where does most of our money go every month?  To banks.  Student loans, car loans, mortgages, credit cards.  We work all week long and it quickly disappears from our accounts and ends up in the accounts of the banks.  I argue that we did away with slavery plantations 150 years ago only to replace them with this modern version.  No, you weren’t pressed into slavery, you volunteered for it in exchange for physical goods that you couldn’t afford, but you’re still a form of slave.  No, you weren’t sold on the slave trader’s block but banks do buy and sell debt meaning that ownership of your future finances and thus ownership of you is up for sale.   There is an ancient wisdom regarding all of this that I desire to apply to my own life and so I pass it along to you for your consideration.  It is simply this…

Owe no one anything, except to love each other.

If we can pull that off I believe we will be free to leave the illusion behind and start to truly own things again.


A friend of mine dubbed me “The voice of reason in a very unreasonable world” which I am flattered by because I am less than that.  Having said that, if you enjoyed my writing I invite you to scroll to the very bottom of this page where there is a button labeled “Follow”.   If you press that button you will receive a notification whenever this blog is updated with new posts.  Thank you for reading.  

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