One Wet Metepeira in Need of a Housing Bailout

Monday, February 09, 2009


For several months, I’ve been checking in on this Metepeira sp. single mom where she lives in a Montrose rosemary bush. During the summer, she enjoys certain advantages over other denizens of the Southern California housing market. She pays no association fees, and faces no adjustable mortgage. Sure, there are strings attached, but she controls the strings. She thatches together an awning in the center of her web, here and there tacking on the carcass of an insect she’s sucked dry. Notice, she’s not the one being sucked dry.

But in today’s rain, she looked pretty glum. It was obvious she was retaining water. She’s an obvious candidate, first for a bailout, and then a little stimulus. Seems everyone's a candidate these days.

I took this picture on low density, so it misses out on a lot of details. You have to trust me that she has eight legs and eight eyes. That’s kind of the way I look at the packages being put together now in Washington. When an $800 billion bonus is being designed on short notice by a president, his cabinet, 100 senators, and 435 congressmen, the first thing that is certain is that no one understands the details. The second is that hundreds of pet projects that couldn’t see the light of day last year suddenly found the light. Picture yourself winning a spending spree at Walmart, up to half a year's salary, but only what you could personally drag to the checkout counter in fifteen minutes. Then multiply that by astronomical dollar amounts, 100 senators and 435 congressmen. A thousand Metepeiras couldn’t spin such a tangled web. Finally, imagine how you will feel to learn it wasn't a true giveaway. The full price went on your credit card.

And then next week we will do it again with Round Two of the mortgage bailout, doubling-or-more the Bush bailout that seemed incomprehensively massive such a short time ago. There is no way for me to analyze the Stimulus Bill. The point is to create jobs, and even Bridges to No-Where create jobs. I can’t even judge the Bailout. It’s a roll-of-the-dice whose repercussions will be felt for several generations. I can, however, make a few observations I haven’t seen elsewhere.

First, the bailouts are a de facto method of devaluing the dollar. Nations do this when they want to make their goods more attractive to world markets, and overseas products less attractive to buyers at home. It's probably something we need, but it’s something we ought to acknowledge we are doing if that is our goal. The law of supply and demand says that if three trillion dollars are dumped into a stable or over-supply of housing, each dollar already there will buy that much less, thus devaluing all dollars. It is a quiet way to roll back pension obligations and union contracts (of which no entity is so burdoned as government).

Similar situations have occurred twice in my lifetime. Home ownership had been out of the reach of most urban dwellers until the GI Bill at the end of World War II, but in the 1950’s and 1960’s, my parents’ generation found that most couples could buy a house on one income. In the last 60’s and 70’s, many couples decided they could gain a market advantage by applying a second income to home buying. True, the average new house got a little bigger, and added a few amenities, but even older homes doubled and tripled in price. In the supply-and-demand bidding war for houses, suddenly a second income became a requirement for home buying. Baby Boomer buyers were working twice as hard for the same house, and World War II era sellers were carting the new-found wealth to the bank. Boomers eventually got some of those bank deposits back as inheritances, but it was a poor trade-off for many.

Prices again took off during the Clinton and Bush years as government policies allowed for riskier and riskier loans, but a similar pattern emerged. Easy loans allowed bidding wars that left sellers rich and buyers enslaved. In California, we then penalized the new buyers with Proposition 13, which gave them property tax rates three or four times higher than the house next door.

So with that record, we are now going to pour two or three trillion dollars into the housing market. The banks will get theirs. The sellers will get theirs. The big losers are buyers and those on fixed incomes. Fortunately, there will be a few new jobs earning our new devalued dollars. Those will help cover the taxes that the next generation will owe to pay for all this.

For a lot of young couples looking for housing, it may be time to learn a lesson from the Metepeira: Thatch together an awning, and hope for dry weather.
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Nature-Walking with Natu (In Lieu of a 25 Things List)

Sunday, February 08, 2009

As a dedicated fadoclast (for example, I have never watched a Superbowl), I will not be doing one of those Facebook 25 Things Lists, though I have been tagged twice. I don’t foresee enough time for making lists anytime soon. I have my thesis due to the committee in ten days, an important speaking engagement (sidebar) next month, a daughter’s wedding in early April, the daily-ness of teaching junior high, and a myriad of unexpected demands on my time. Take today, for example. I brought the love-of-my-life to L.A. so she could spend a day with our soon-to-be-married daughter and take advantage of Disneyland’s current offer of free entrance on a birthday.


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In L.A., I have a son attending seminary and two grandsons. By watching the eldest for the day, my son could get off for some research for a paper he has due. For me, the height of delicious decadence is a bug net, an expanse of foliage, and maybe a child or two to share the discoveries. (I’ve never met a youngster who couldn’t get excited about a bug net. That’s an experiment I’ve conducted on three continents.)

Catching bugs has nothing to do with my employment, or getting my novel written. It is totally frivolous. I constructed my first bug net when I was 25, after graduating UCLA with no more biology than the lower division Intro course. That’s why it tickles me that my little bug-net excursions find occasional mention in the scientific literature, like this one in the journal Biota Colombiana. (See pages 2 & 3, and Tatepeira carrolli listed on page 5.) I even had the privilege of editing the English abstract (not yet on-line) for the Chinese PhD. thesis from which this gallnut article was taken.

With all this as background, this morning Natu and I took off looking for some spiders. Unfortunately, it was chilly and damp, and the spiders didn’t come out to play. We had to content ourselves with other diversions.

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I like to crumple fresh bay leaves and hold them to my nose. I like turning over rocks, to see what scurries away. I like watching a little boy’s eyes get big at a sow bug.

Whaddya know, I’ve said 24 random things about myself. I probably won’t finish, though. I live under a cloud of unfinished projects, but hey, there are so many delightful distractions.

#26 - One of my favorite songs is a tune by Bob Dylan. The only lyric goes, "All the white horses in the sun, how'm I s'posed to get any writing done?"