As with the first piece, this one starts to veer off several paragraphs in, when we get a meditation on class:

Upper middle class: That’s how I’ve always thought of myself. Upper middle class is the class into which I was born, the class to which I was always told I belonged, and the class with which, until this moment, I’d never had a problem. Upper middle class is a sneaky designation, however. It’s a way of saying ‘I’m well-off’ without having to say ‘I’m rich,’ even if, by most standards, you are. Upper-middle-classness has allowed me to feel like I’m not only competing in the same financial league as most Americans—I’m winning! Playing in the middle class, I have enjoyed huge success.

In this house, I now glimpsed the problem with upper-middle-classness: It isn’t really a class. It’s a space between classes. The space may once have been bridgeable, but lately it’s become a chasm. Middle-class people fantasize about travel upgrades; upper-class people can’t imagine life without a jet. Middle-class people help their children with their homework so they’ll have a chance of getting into Princeton; upper-class people buy Princeton a new building. Middle-class people have homes; upper-class people have monuments. A man struggling to hold on to the illusion that he is upper middle class has become like a character in a cartoon earthquake: He looks down and sees his feet being dragged ever farther apart by a quickly widening fissure. His legs stretch, then splay, and finally he plunges into the abyss.

We are starting to feel like we are listening in on a therapy session here. The logic is sufficiently convoluted that it seems to say more about Lewis than about social structure. But, taking a cue from our own therapist, we reserve judgment as Lewis explains that he decided to rent the mansion because it stood “on the more appealing side of the chasm.”

We do, however, object when Lewis tries to offer his story about paying $13,000 a month in rent as the key to understanding the housing crisis:

In all the public finger-pointing about the American real estate bust, surprisingly little attention has been paid to its origin. There’s obviously a long list of people and ideas that can share in the blame: ratings agencies, mortgage brokers, big Wall Street firms, small Wall Street firms, Angelo Mozilo, Alan Greenspan. Every few weeks, the New York Times runs a piece exposing some new way in which a big Wall Street firm has exploited some poor or middle-class family. The rich people on Wall Street blame their bosses. The brokers at Merrill Lynch blame Stan O’Neal; the traders at Bear Stearns blame Jimmy Cayne. Everyone blames Countrywide.

And the ultimate point:

But all of this misses the point: However terrible the sins of the financial markets, they’re merely a reflection of a cultural predisposition. To blame the people who lent the money for the real estate boom is like blaming the crack dealers

yes, crack dealers

for creating addicts.

Americans feel a deep urge to live in houses that are bigger than they can afford. This desire cuts so cleanly through the population that it touches just about everyone. It’s the acceptable lust.

Then, in case this explanation of the problem didn’t quite sink in, Lewis goes on to tell us about a May 30 New York Times story on how California residents Lilia and Jesus Garcia bought a house beyond their means, and to explain:

But the real moral is that when a middle-class couple buys a house they can’t afford, defaults on their mortgage, and then sits down to explain it to a reporter from the New York Times, they can be confident that he will overlook the reason for their financial distress: the peculiar willingness of Americans to risk it all for a house above their station.

Look, here is the fundamental problem with blaming the root of the financial crisis on ingrained attitudes: If Americans have always wanted expensive houses, why did the crisis occur now? Of course, the only way to answer that question is to look at the structural causes. At that whole list of people and institutions Lewis rattled off before proclaiming they were pretty much beside the point.

We know Portfolio has fallen on hard times recently . We are sorry. But too many stories like this, with the lack of vision they imply, are a key part of the problem.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

 

Elinore Longobardi is a Fellow and staff writer of The Audit, the business-press section of Columbia Journalism Review.