Michael Lewis sets up the story this way:
I was looking to return to New Orleans, where I’d grown up, to write a book. The move would uproot my wife and three children from California, and I felt a little bad about that. They needed a place to live, but places to live in New Orleans are hard to find. Ever since Hurricane Katrina, the real estate market there has been in turmoil. Owners want to sell, buyers want to rent, and the result is a forest of for sale signs and an army of workers commuting from great distances.
At the bottom of every real estate ad I saw was the name of the same agent. One woman ruled the market, it seemed, and her name was Eleanor Farnsworth. I called her and threw myself on her mercy. She thought my problem over and then said, ‘I only know of one place that would work for you.’ She’d suggested it to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, she said, before selling them their more modest place in the French Quarter.
That shouldn’t have been a selling point; it should have been a warning. I should have asked the price. Instead, I asked the address.
Now, this would be an engaging tale—we at The Audit are not uninterested in peeping into houses we can’t afford—if it didn’t pretend to have a larger moral dimension to it.
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.