Home Truths on the Economy

One definition of the word economy is "an orderly, functional arrangement of parts; an organized system." But neither orderly, nor functional, nor organized were terms that came to mind watching Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson in his press conference last week. Insisting that "the facts changed," he tried to explain the government's shift from an asset-purchase plan to the recapitalization of troubled banks. As he tried to explain, the public tried to understand - and neither succeeded. The overall impression Paulson made was of an exhausted man, grasping at straws. I have no idea what's happening. No surprise that the stock market tanked again.

That the housing crisis is at the heart of the economic collapse is fitting since the Greek word oikos, which gives us "economy," means house. Managing household affairs seems to have been the originating meaning, and though confidence in the way the government is managing the nation's affairs has been shaken, broad anxiety has also settled into American households. And with good reason. What is at risk for many suddenly is not just savings for the future, but the structure of the present - the literal structure, which is home. That is reflected in news reports of retirees facing the prospect of having to replace assets lost in the stock market by selling their houses or condos. But who is buying now?

At the other end of the age-scale, many young families are caught in a house that is worth less than the outstanding mortgage. Those are the bad debts that roil the banking system, but first they wreak havoc in the lives of families. What used to be home is now a financial albatross, which is enough to make the place feel like jail. Not even renters are immune from such anguish, since, as jobs disappear or threaten to, the loss of steady income can make the first of each month a debtor's nightmare. The drastic outcomes of job loss, foreclosure, eviction, or forced sale need not actually take place for fear to grab people by the throat - the fear of losing home.

What is home? More than the place where humans live; more than the physical location defined by roof, walls, doors, and windows; more even than shelter, refuge, and privacy - home is the moral center of a universe. The political philosopher Michael Walzer observes that a hotel room can offer safety and comfort, but it is not a home because it fails to offer "the dense moral culture" that locates a person in time and space. Home, in everything from familiar furniture to the clutter of mementos to the imperfections of chipped dinnerware, is a visible manifestation of the golden tie between past and present; between choices made long ago and consequences that present new choices to this day. Life is not a series of unconnected episodes, but a flowing drama, across generations and phases, driven by intense emotions, which are understood only in the tranquility of familiar rooms. Home is not just the stage on which the human drama plays out, but is the character against whom all other characters find their measure.

Home, in shared quarters with family, and in proximity to neighbors, and in the less personal but still precious fabric of civic association, nurtures life in community, which is the only life. Home is the cosmic center, the secure spot on the earth from which men and women venture forth, and from which children test themselves. Thus the economy exists to protect the human home. If the present crisis has made a broad population newly sensitive to the fragility of the social arrangements by which people live, and how easily those arrangements can be upended, perhaps the crisis can also open the eyes of the relatively well-off to the situation of those for whom the word is not home, but homeless. Where is the orderly, functional arrangement of which they are part?

November is the time of lowering the storm windows against the weather, of gathering around the fire. Soon, families and friends will come home for the holidays. Home coming. Home cooking. Home made. Home. These comforts, this year, will not be taken for granted.

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