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Brick-and-mortar conservatism? - click opera
February 2010
 
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Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 07:26 am
Brick-and-mortar conservatism?

Is there a link between owning a house and conservatism? Intuitively I'd say yes, there is, and that conversely there's a link between renting and radicalism. Take a look, for instance, at this ranking of the percentage of people renting in various cities:

Berlin 87
Geneva 85
Amsterdam 83
Hamburg 78
Vienna 76
New York 70
San Francisco 65
Chicago 60
Brussels 57
Copenhagen 50
Stockholm 49
Helsinki 47
London 41
Oslo 30
Barcelona 30
Dublin 28
Athens 27

Aren't the cities at the top of that list some of the most radical? Surely it's no accident that people in cities like Berlin, Amsterdam, New York and San Francisco prefer to rent than buy? Surely it changes the whole tenor and texture of civic life in those cities?

But when Evan Davis asked contributors to his interesting investigation into the politics of home ownership, The Price of Property (BBC Radio 4) the same question, he got resounding "no"s all round.

Geo-demographic expert (and iMomus ultra-villain this week) Richard Webber -- author of the Mosaic consumer segmentation tool -- said that there couldn't be a connection between home ownership and conservatism because South Wales contains constituencies where Conservative MPs regularly lose their deposits, and yet South Wales has a high proportion of home ownership. Meanwhile, Labour MP Roy Hattersley and Conservative MP Michael Gove were busy agreeing that because three quarters of British people own their own home, and 90% aspire to, it's impossible to align home ownership with one party or the other. This, it seems to me, is akin to saying that if enough British people -- and all British political parties -- loved Hitler, loving Hitler wouldn't make you a fascist. Surely it's possible that property ownership has shifted the whole of Britain to the right, so that no political party now would dare propose a policy actively encouraging people to rent, or suggesting that renting is a virtue?

House prices -- which for the time being continue to rise feverishly -- drive the UK economy as well as every dinner table conversation. Home ownership is official policy in the UK; the government wants 80% of Britons to own their own homes. Currently, 70% do, the same percentage as in the US. The European average is 60%, though in cities like Berlin that can drop to a mere 13%.

British people borrow more money than anyone in the world to buy their homes. Ownership satisfies a deep need, we're told, in the British psyche: every Englishman's home is his castle. Owning allows you to decorate your place the way you want it, to express yourself, even if in practice that just means that your substandard, identikit, vastly overpriced house has a front door painted in a colour you picked yourself, and that instead of holding your habitat somewhat at arm's length, you hug its horrible chintzy bay windows, dingy garden and meanly-proportioned staircase close to your heart, regarding them as your very own special things.

The politician most responsible for Britain's recent surge in home ownership is Margaret Thatcher, who's quoted on the programme saying that Britain would only be united when everyone in the land owned property. Part of her mission to eradicate socialism saw her selling off public housing, now desperately scarce in the UK.

In fact, owning property has long been at the heart of the British political system. The Great Reform Act of 1832 linked it directly to the right to vote. You could only vote if you owned property worth 40 shillings a year in the counties or 10 pounds a year in the cities. This led to some strange anomalies: the London borough of Westminster returned the most radical MPs, only because property was so expensive there that everyone had the vote, which meant that radical views usually excluded from parliament had to be heard.

Britain in the 19th century was a country where the majority of people rented their accommodation. The Conservative party made it policy to extend property ownership to a wider group in order to fend off threats to property from liberalism, radicalism and socialism. These threats were very real -- Marxism threatened the abolition of private property altogether, and the Liberals and Socialists were generally against it. Meanwhile, as you can read here, withholding rent was a powerful political tool for the working classes. A rent strike in London's East End helped win the Dockers Strike of 1891, for instance, and there were further successful rent strikes during the First World War and in the late 1930s. People who own property tend not to go on "mortgage strike" in support of their brothers in the mines.

What about Japan? Well, occupier-owned homes account for 60.3 % of homes in Japan, the same as the general European level. But, unlike in Britain, ownership in Japan is declining. Many young people are renting, and will rent for life. The Tokyo rental sector is expanding 4% a year, and is at record levels. Meanwhile, ownership is not seen as a good investment; property prices continue a long, slow slump from the absurd over-valuations of the Bubble period.

Journalist, photographer, artist and iMomus all-round superhero Kyoichi Tsuzuki puts a more human face on this situation in his preface to Archilab Japan 2006: Nested in the City. Tsuzuki, author of the Toyko Style photo book, is rather down on architects in general.

"For young people," he writes, "interior design is unimportant. Anything will do, a bit like camping in the mountains. Camping is not a desire in itself. What counts is the desire to be in the mountains. Likewise, young people first choose to live in a city they like. Then they rent a room to live in. As for the rest, they know how to take advantage of what the city offers. Indeed, what could be simpler when meeting with friends than to transform the corner pub into a dining room, the places where one meets for a drink, to dance, listen to music into a living room, or the gym into a bathroom. All these functions can be projected outside because they are available in the city. In the end, only the sleeping function remains attached to the room."

This dependence on local services as extensions of one's tiny living space makes for an effervescent and vital city, with lots of youthful fizz in public places.

"Nowadays," continues Tsuzuki, "young urbanites no longer feel any compelling desire to be anchored... Singles for the most part, they tell themselves that, if they had enough money, they would spend it on travelling abroad. This is the first generation that is really aware of the possibilities available to it, possibilities that no longer require them to become attached to one city. For those broken to life in New York, taking a plane to Paris or Tokyo from Kyushu amounts to virtually the same thing."

Obviously this is a lifestyle I totally recognize and identify with, and places where a lot of people feel this way are places I fit right into. There's something in the spirit, the feel, the texture of towns like this that's like oxygen. And maybe -- just maybe -- what's so liberating is the lack of brick-and-mortar conservatism.

125CommentReplyShare

bopscotch
bopscotch
bopscotch
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 06:50 am (UTC)
Brick and Mortar Conservatism

That phrase makes me think of the "artist" Thomas Kincaid, who pains these god-awful fugly things:


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 07:43 am (UTC)
Re: Brick and Mortar Conservatism

That really is "ownership porn", isn't it? I mean, it's well-nigh impossible to imagine the people living there as renters.

That said, I'm not immune to Kinkaid's brand of utopianism. A part of me -- even me! -- thinks "God, if someone gave me that house, the radical things I could do with it! Turn it into an arts lab! An anti-psychiatry asylum! A plutonium-grade weapons research facility!"


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bricology
bricology
bricology
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 06:55 am (UTC)

"Surely it's no accident that people in cities like Berlin, Amsterdam, New York and San Francisco prefer to rent than buy?"

I believe this has more to do with the fact that the cheapest studio condo here in SF costs at least $400,000 and "middle-class" houses start at twice that. And there's nowhere to spread to build more housing.

Otherwise, I agree with the rest of your entry. I just feel a little sad for no longer having much of that "camping in the mountains" spirit. I too much value my brick cocoon against the harsh world outside.


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nicepimmelkarl
.
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 07:44 pm (UTC)

never heard of san francisco. what's it like there? anything special going on there?


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 08:19 am (UTC)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 08:36 am (UTC)

Are they my lunch date for today? Oh Jesus, what are we going to talk about?


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mcgazz
mcgazz
McGazz
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 09:06 am (UTC)

I never saw Geneva (second on your list) as a hip and happening place. Maybe it is.

As a socialist with a mortgage, I'm divided over this. A few thoughts:

I'd imagine that list corresponds fairly well with a list of the earnings/property price ratios for those cities. People rent because they can't afford to buy

In the neoliberal era of low interest rates, low inflation, and low wages, the only way working class people can increase their wealth is to buy a house. A lot of people, especially soi-disant soft-left types, want to see the working class kept in little boxes their whole lives, and castigate them for aspiring to anything.

You make a snide remark about "chintzy bay windows, dingy garden and meanly-proportioned staircase" - at least homeowners have the ability to change that. People who rent have little incentive to bring anything to their area - as they can just move out again, and go wherever's "up and coming" (Neukoln? Wedding?). Renters are pure consumers. I bought a house that had been reduced to a hovel by a string of renters, and spent a lot of time and money restoring it. In contrast, areas taken over by landlords see vintage houses stripped of anything of value and then split into tiny bedsits (Britain's housing stock is the most subdivided in Europe), turning areas safe for families into slums.


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charleston
charleston
Bonham C
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 01:07 pm (UTC)

People rent because they can't afford to buy

Paradoxically, living in London, & having saved just enough for a deposit on a studio flat, I bought because I couldn't afford to rent. With an interest only mortgage my flat costs me £550 pcm as opposed to £780 to rent a similar property in the same area. When I was younger I never wanted to own property, to be tied to one place and committed to a 9-5, but rents in London make renting even more of a bind. By owning in this way I have the freedom to reduce my hours, go part-time, take unpaid leave if I want to etc - all things which wouldn't really be possible if I was renting.

And yes, I think Thatcher (both with selling off of council homes and ending rent capping) created a much more capitalist & conservative culture in this country - one that envelopes us and affects us in insidious ways, whether we are aware of it or not. But like McGazz I'm divided over whether home ownership itself equates with conservatism, or renting with radicalism.

Very interesting post...


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 09:39 am (UTC)

Do you believe that it's better for capitalist rentiers to own houses and flats than the people living in them?

This is another issue where you solipsistically derive a universal moral position from your own morally-neutral preferences. You have no children, and given your advanced age I'm guessing you have no plans to have any either. You'd accept, though, that having children is a morally acceptable aspiration, and in fact the majority of people end up parents. And once you have children, having a home space, rather than just somewhere to sleep, and having a stable environment you have reasonable control over, and can't easily be kicked out of, becomes more important.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 11:04 am (UTC)

Perhaps the 'being kicked out of' is the problem? One can be kicked out of work, and default on mortgage payments, then lose a purchased property. Why should 'stability' be a benefit at home, but the 'dynamic' and 'fluid' approach be a benefit in the workplace? Why not keep families on their toes and looking over their shoulders, the threat of the gutter in every waking second? Isn't that what a competitive society is all about?


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barnacle
barnacle
The Plain People of Ireland
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 09:47 am (UTC)

"For those broken to life in New York, taking a plane to Paris or Tokyo from Kyushu amounts to virtually the same thing."

That's a bit of a vapid, late 1990s analysis, isn't it? To what extent is climate change on the cultural agenda in Japan? I'd have thought they'd be shitting bricks about it, as there's presumably only so much land they can afford to lose to flooding.

Arguably, although we wouldn't have rental strikes without rents, that's hardly an argument for having a rental economy: we wouldn't have rental strikes without class injustice either, but I'm not a cheerleader for squeezing the proles. It strikes me that renting is as much a cause of class divide as a weapon in it: certainly I've met a number of buy-to-letters who need to be humanely killed, and it's only the rental market that keeps their head above water.

I think what will puncture any bubble of renting-as-freedom utopia is that this middle ground is fundamentally unstable. Such a society will swiftly (on economic timescales) either move to a homeowner economy or a predominantly landlorded economy, with the inbetween model hard to sustain. Even Japan, it seems, is hurtling from one extreme to the other rather than achieving any sort of stability.

And I always cringe when I hear that phrase Tsuzuki uses: "for young people." Talk about cementing a cultural hegemony. So very Radio 4; so invariably inaccurate. Would we get away with talking about the UK demographic like that? "For young people, Chris Martin is very much a role model." "For young people, mobile phones and 'iPodules' are the new hip thing." "For young people, to live in N1 6HG is to live the dream."


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 11:18 am (UTC)

You have to talk about young people here, because there is a generation gap which emerges, inevitably, when housing markets with a scarce supply of stock get overpriced and change hands for more and more money each year. A gap develops between those "on the property ladder" and those not. Those not being, usually, the young, who are late arrivals at this "highest bidder" version of Musical Chairs.

We didn't even go into the way governments want private property to replace their pension and health provision, something they wouldn't be able to go anywhere near suggesting if the majority rented.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 12:18 am (UTC)

Could you turn that down?

Yeats' own advice:

"Cast a cold eye on life, on death
Horseman, pass by"

But honestly, I don't have to own every drafty folly I enjoy visiting. I spent a long time in a wonderful swimming pool today, and it was wonderful mainly because it was public. I didn't have to maintain it, for a start.


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gybexi
gybexi
gybexi
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 10:11 am (UTC)

Even though I'm quite sure that there are people in the cities you mentioned who enjoy the liberty of not owning property, I'm reasonably sure that the majority are much more constrained by rising property prices than anything else.

I find the concept of renting for the sake of renting - especially for some vague culturally ethical notion - much more conservative than owning.

Although I can understand what your point is I feel that you've attributed renting a "morally superior" stand and discarded any of the possible (and ultimately culturally and financially liberating) advantages ownership may have.

For example - isn't a squat, perversely, closer to the idea of "owning" (in spirit) than "renting"?


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 10:17 am (UTC)

I'm a renter.

I come from a strictly utilitarian hunter-gatherer Northern Soul background.

I can't stand owning too many things, it drags me down.

I own a Macbook, a pile of good clothes and that's about it.

I don't think owners are conservative, I think they're dupes.

Mortgages, loans, credit cards, insurance, health insurance, life insurance, risky pensions, shopping (yugh) it's all such a fucking scam. How can people be so stupid?

I don't think I know anyone in my age group (mid-forties) that doesn't owe at least 8 grand to the credit cards.

I don't owe anyone anything and I've always got plenty enough cash to get around with.

That's enough. Why bury yourself in matter?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 11:13 am (UTC)

Hurrah! Another happy camper. I also don't owe anything, which makes me feel remarkably... light.


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gogogh
Alex
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 10:18 am (UTC)

I'm surprised Los Angeles isn't on the list seeing as how "condos" cost $500k a piece.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 10:26 am (UTC)

Apart from the racism levels in Dublin I can't see why the cities at the bottom are any more objectionable places than those at the top. You like the youthful fizz of Geneva?! If anything, this list suggests no pattern whatsoever. "In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." Be 'bad', go 'wild', fuck in the streets like dogs, but apart from your 'opinions' do you (or any Berliners) really and genuinely do anything less conservative than David Cameron? Name one thing! Isn't it more a case, like the Lou Reed line, Berlin is 'still doing things I gave up years ago'.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 10:35 am (UTC)

Here here, no more journo-negative repression! Give in to the voluptuous joy of the fiscal-sexual flow!


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kaipfeiffer
kaipfeiffer
Kai Pfeiffer
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 10:49 am (UTC)

not shure about geneva, rather doubtful about hamburg, and i know that vienna definitely is amongst the most conservative cities anywhere. and, to understand vienna, one must know: even most of the extremely provocative vienna actionists are/were reactionary at heart. guenter brus & co have let the state & its institutions embrace them with prices and titles a long time ago.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 11:11 am (UTC)

Sure, Vienna is an anomaly. But there's something about New Yorkers (70% renters) or Berliners (87%) which makes them choose to live the way they do. What is that something, do you think? In terms of attitudes to life?

We all live in roughly the same capitalist system, with the same sort of logic. And yet some of us are "using" that system quite differently from others. In one place a tiny minority owns where they live, in another (an hour away by plane) a huge majority. In a world characterized, by and large, by convergence and the erasure of differences, what keeps these very major ones in place? In a hundred years, will Berliners be buying?


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nato_dakke
nate
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 12:11 pm (UTC)

on buying in tokyo.
buying a place instead of renting month by month usually sets you back for of 30 years of rent even before interest or maintainance fees. couple that with laws that disfavor owners of condominiums and the market reality that japanese apartments, like cars, lose 20% or more of their value the minute a person has slept in them, and buying here is downright ostentatious.


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girfan
girfan
GIRfan
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 12:13 pm (UTC)

I rented for years when I lived in Chicago and have always considered myself a liberal (I've voted Democrat, Socialist and even Communist a few times), but never linked that to not owning my own place.


I've only been a home owner for 6 years (in the UK) but still consider myself a Liberal, and, if I could vote in the UK, would vote Labour, Lib Dem, Green or Socialist. I rarely agree with Tory (conservative) policies or ideas.


I'm happy to own a place since I am no longer subject to the whims of landlords. I've had a few great landlords in the past, but have had my share of ones who raised the rent 50% or more per year, didn't do any improvements, were slow to fix major problems (heating not working, refridgerator dying, mouse infestation, security issues), etc.


Owning a home is great since we can do what we want regarding decorating inside and out, don't have to wait when something goes wrong and are not lining other people's pockets with money.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 12:35 pm (UTC)

We are still in a Thatcherite state in Britain, the Market shifts the goal-posts and the political parties become mere 'office admin' for it. No-one, not even the 'left', espouses curtailing the Market. The Guardian and The Daily Mail could swap reporting on the matter. Because - some people think hurting others is fine as long as no-one sees it (the Market Lite, Liberal Market, 'my mortgage does my dirty work for me') and some people think hurting people is fine even if other people see it (the traditional red-braces yuppie Market). That is the only difference in a Britain of 'the smug and the damned'.


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the23
the23
the 23
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 12:50 pm (UTC)

People in South Wales vote Labour rather than Conservative for conservative reasons rather than radical reasons these days. At this point Labour seem just as conservative as the Conservatives in general.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 01:16 pm (UTC)
Geneva

Geneva!!?!!?!

"specialized in private banking (managing assets of about 1 trillion USD) and financing of international trade."

Your talking rubbish.
Berlin is more bourjois than London.


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 02:14 pm (UTC)

Stockholm will fall off that list if the so called "Alliance for Sweden" get to have it their way.

If it happens I'd suggest that they rename their "alliance" to "Alliance against Sweden".


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desant012
||||||||||
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 02:49 pm (UTC)

In New York, when you rent and somebody owns you get shit on from the top. See: The Super, dir. Herzog, W; starring Joe Pesci.

If the NYC metro area continues on this upward climb, in 4 years nothing will be affordable, thanks to the soldiers of Wall Street and Greenwich - that's what inspires some people to buy, maybe. It'd be nice to check out Berlin's style, but being an American that's a pretty difficult thing to do without a ton of money or connections.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 02:55 pm (UTC)

Doesn't this sort of depend on what you mean by conservative and radical? I'm from Sweden and I've lived in Berkeley, and let me tell you. Even SF-style liberals and hippies come in to the right of the Swedish right in most issues.


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charleshatcher
charleshatcher
charleshatcher
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 03:22 pm (UTC)

Sometimes I wonder, Nicholas, who it is exactly that you're trying to convince.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 03:27 pm (UTC)

I am trying to save the world -- well, Britain -- from itself!


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nicepimmelkarl
.
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 05:19 pm (UTC)

french doors.... whistles...


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freesurfboards
freesurfboards
freesurfboards
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 05:49 pm (UTC)

do you think it's possible that renting can be connected to radicalism since those who don't have a lot of money would like to change the status quo and those who have enough to own a house and fill it with nice things just would like to keep it that way?
I mean your choice to rent is because you prefer it that way, but for motivations for others may have other factors. I enjoy renting since I just enjoy being where I am anyway.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 05:55 pm (UTC)
anxiety

i'm a temp and a renter in SF, i barely make it month to month, sometimes i have to use credit cards for dental work, but being-in-the-world at it's most healthy is being in a constant state of anxiety, or so says Heidegger...

Rr


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mikeswimm
mikeswimm
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 06:49 pm (UTC)

If conservatives were making these kind of baseless accusations you would murder them for it.

I have rented for 12 years now and want to buy a home precisely because I am tired of living under the constraints of the rental system.

When you own a home, a real home, I am not talking about a townhouse or McMansion, you gain freedom!
I can make as much noise as I want, put solar panels on the roof, upgrade my water heater to be more efficient, stop mowing my lawn, etc, etc, etc.

"British people borrow more money than anyone in the world to buy their homes."
Don't confuse poor money management and home ownership, they are not the same thing.
Cheap houses can be found all over the world.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 07:06 pm (UTC)

This is really just the same old "poverty equals purity" argument that Momus trots out every so often. People don't choose to rent - they rent because they can't afford to buy. Momus can't afford to buy as he's told us many times. How is that a choice? This just sounds like intellectualized sour grapes to me.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Mar. 9th, 2007 07:26 pm (UTC)

Bravo! I completely agree. I also agree with most of what Momus says and his viewpoint in general, that's why whenever he trots out ridiculous arguments like this, it probably irks me more than it would someone like Marxy.

Momus, you're brilliant, but sometimes you need to be more intelligent.


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