Countering the Rent-Masters Out to Own Others

Wednesday, June 19, 2019 - 19:30
A brick wall painted in white with the word "RENT"

Every investor craves the perpetual income source, the cash cow, the cornucopia of everlasting rents and fees handed over by payers who assure with their acquiescence or ignorance that the payments will stretch long into the future and way out over the horizon. You know: Verizon mobile phone contracts, cable TV or newspaper subscriptions, utility bills, that small recurrent charge buried in the monotony of your monthly bank statement. Subtler still are the “payments” we make when using social media platforms like Facebook or Google. In those instances, our outlay consists of cumulative bits of our personal privacy that is then harvested in volume for repackaging, resale and profit by the corporate entities whose services we use. Consumers tend to accept these arrangements as the price of convenience, comfort, speed and maintaining a stake in modernity.

So what about those same consumers who enter the bargain voluntarily but wake up down the road and find themselves captive or imprisoned by obligations too onerous to continue but nearly impossible to stop? People are being caught up in impersonal, capital-collecting systems operating on auto-pilot that give not a whit about their well-being and reduce them to near fiscal enslavement. What if, for all practical intents and purposes, the investor ends up ‘owning’ the consumer?

John Oliver on a recent “Last Week Tonight” ran a great piece about corporate ownership of mobile home parks. He highlighted ordinary folks who first finance a roll-on housing unit that sits on a sliver of land rented from the corporation. Mobile homes have a way of depreciating very quickly, but the corporate-ownership business model often has the rent rising steadily upward. Many renters, particularly those living on fixed incomes, eventually find themselves unable to bear the continual increases. Since a mobile home is difficult and expensive to move, the renter starts hearing homelessness whisper from the legalese of a rental agreement, a blare like a siren when the eviction notice comes.

Examples of business models that subordinate people to profit crop up everywhere:

  • So-called “payday lenders” charge exorbitant interest rates on short-term loans, chiefly in low-income neighborhoods populated by residents with incomes under $30,000 per year, 58 percent of whom find it difficult to meet their monthly expenses. Some 12 million U.S. borrowers use payday loans to cover cash flow issues from pay period to pay period and end up shelling out more than $9 billion in fees annually to stay afloat. The average borrower is in debt for five months of every year, mostly because of short term loans. Result: Poor, often elderly Americans are owned.
  • Banks and other financial institutions hold $1.6 trillion in education finance notes for about 45 million Americans with the built-in risk of an ever-receding compound interest horizon bulking up the loan balance before pay-off day ever arrives. Result: going on two generations of (mostly young) Americans are owned.
  • Corporate farming interests scoop up struggling family farms, use their muscle to lobby Congress for dairy and other price supports, now totaling more than $20 billion a year, and then sell off the deliberately generated crop surplus to the federal government that subsidized them in the first place. Result: American taxpayers are owned.
  • Large medical corporations employing physicians bank on the fact that the majority will not breach their sense of professional and ethical responsibilities to patients. Doctors risk burn-out keeping up with their duty amid demands for ever-higher profit margins driven by outsized patient loads, complex cases and only so much time to complete all required tasks in the span of a 15-minute visit. Result: quality of care suffers and dutiful doctors are owned.

To the extent we fail to appreciate where all of this leads, we risk an even greater human fault: the failure of imagination. Imagine for a moment a society captive to interests organized for plutocratic control of human beings harnessed like mules to their labor and forced to pull the weight of other people’s gain. Everywhere we go, rent-seekers detect our needs, wants and vulnerabilities. If we’re complicit, shame on us. To the extent rent-seekers feed on legal loopholes, power imbalances, uneducated minds or just need and misery, shame on them. What evaporates in the present scenario is any true caring for social conviviality, the space in which “habits of the heart,” as scholar Robet Bellah called them, hold a central place in democratic society.

Resistance to such a fate occurs in settings as ordinary as social ventures sponsored by Community Partners and as massive as citizens moved to march in the streets stirred by appalling conditions, grinding injustices, fear for their safety and social deterioration. Modest or massive, engagement begins in the bracingly unruly hearts and fertile minds of humans resisting reduction to the status of animals leashed to tight reins. Artful, activist and angry minds and voices find vent and action through purpose-steeped civil society. True purpose rears its rebellious head against being owned. The giant question: do we have the strength and endurance to resist?


"Rent #2" by Christopher Paquette (CC BY 2.0)