“Responsible” homeowners and the problem and promise of American Moralism

President Obama spoke today about his latest plan to help underwater homeowners. As many critics have already noted, this is an ok idea, but it’s not as large a program as it could be.

And without knowing any of the details of the plan, you could already be certain of that because the president inserted the qualifier, “responsible.” It sounds harmless–who among us is opposed to responsibility? But the biggest problem the economy still has (despite something of an improved recovery) is a lack of aggregate demand. That problem started when the housing market collapsed and eight or nine trillion dollars in home values vaporized. Both the responsible and the irresponsible need more money in their pockets that they can use to save their homes, buy new consumer products, and invest in new businesses. But it’s very hard for any American politicians to say, “Look, the reasons don’t matter anymore. This is a technical problem–a very large technical problem, to be sure, but still a technical problem. Trying to evaluate who truly deserves to benefit from this program and who doesn’t won’t help the country.”

American politics since the founding of the Republic has been couched in the language of moral certainty and individual accountability. Unlike European countries, we had no founding national religion. Instead, churches sprang up all over the country, often sustained by the charismatic persona of their founding preachers. They competed with each other to make the most comprehensive and unsubtle analysis of the damned standing before them. Goodness would be rewarded. Sinners would be punished. And this Manichean temperament was bequeathed to our secular political culture, too.

Sometimes the war against sin merged with great issues of public wrong–such was the case with the Abolitionist and the Civil Rights movements. Then the argument goes beyond the plight of the individual, and becomes advocacy for a kind of collective self-improvement mediated by both government and private institutions. Sometimes sin is reduced to the failures of the individual sinner and we get Prohibition or the “war” on drugs, or various moral panics about perceived sexual deviancy of various sorts. In either case, the individual has a chance to step forward as redeemed or fallen. On this very day, Newt Gingrich is asking for forgiveness from the latest state contingent of the Republican electorate. We care very much about whether Gingrich or Obama or Romney or whomever is a good person.

So I guess we’re kind of stuck with the moralization of issues of public policy. Americans have been doing this for a long time.

But we’ve had trillions of dollars in lost economic output over the past several years, and, to paraphrase Adlai Stevenson, helping merely the responsible, whoever they are, isn’t enough. We need to put money in as many people’s pockets as possible.