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Buying a House: The Lives of Things

It’s been awhile since I’ve blogged in this series.  We closed on our house on May 3 and moved in Memorial Day weekend 2016, so this is the first spring in the house.  I am on sabbatical, so this spring, I’ve been getting up every morning, making coffee, and sitting in the dining room, gazing out the front window.  In the transition from winter to spring, the front room has become the bright, green space that sold us on the house.

I’ve never been a “lives of things” kind of philosopher.  I mean, I work on concepts of nature and I think about the ways that concepts like nature can be border markers for who or what is relevant to political and ethical questions.  But the idea that things could have lives, that they could reveal themselves, that they could have ways of resisting and conceding is not a view to which I really give my credence.  And yet, the newness of the house in springtime is making me think about the lives of things.  It’s not a different house in the springtime–I mean, it’s the same materials–and yet, it really really is a different house.   Read more

Buying a House: The Ship of Theseus

I just finished redoing the deck.  My dad who is a contractor recently told me that you should be putting 5% of the value of your house into it every year if you don’t want to be losing value.  And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he continued by saying, you’re basically rebuilding your house over the time you own it.   I was actually glad to hear the 5% because I had misremembered him saying 10-15% some years ago.  The rebuilding point is something I have been mulling over a bit.  It reminded me of the problem of Theseus’ ship.  In Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, Socrates explains that he has been waiting in jail for some time to be executed because no executions could occur during a festival.  The current festival celebrated Theseus’ defeat of the Minotaur, which I report on after visiting Knossos last summer, where the fabled labyrinth was said to be.  To celebrate the festival, a ship was sent out to Delos ritualizing a recreation of the trip to Crete.  But over time, the boards had to be replaced, raising the question of whether the ship was still the same ship if none of the original boards remained.  Socrates’ discussion of the festival in a dialogue focused on the question of the immortality of the soul raises the question of what keeps a person the same if all the “boards” that comprise a person change.  (One recent commentator points to the range of ways that the dialogue associates Socrates on the one side and the Athenians on the other with Theseus, the fabled founder of Athens, suggesting that the execution of Socrates is the final stage of this re-enactment for the Athenians, where Socrates takes the place of the Minotaur and on the other hand Socrates himself re-enacts the trip by finally dying and escaping the labyrinth of his body). Read more

Buying a House: Good Enough

Since I last posted on the house, I have not had a spare moment to blog because I was painting every day but two and on those days, I was celebrating retiring colleagues or attending graduation.  So phew.  Last night, after 79 hours of work on the house (yes, I’m counting), we finished the painting project.  Just in time for the floor guy to come this morning at 7:30 AM.  I’m exhausted.  My hands hurt.  I’m glad that part is over.  We know we’re still going to have to do some touching up after the floor guy leaves.  But in all, we tried to have high standards.  We tried to do better than good enough.

When we first move to Indiana, a friend gave me a book: Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana.  The author, James H. Madison, points to how Hoosiers have a general mentality of “good enough.”  I think there’s a legend that settlers moving westward stopped in Indiana instead of continuing westward, because, you know, “good enough.”  Since we learned about the “good enough” mentality, we see it everywhere.  We vowed that in our home, things would be otherwise.

Then we got to work.  We did two coats of paint in the living and dining room, and maybe you can still see a little bit of blue.We pulled painting tape off the ceiling and some paint came off with it.  We painted the wooden joiners in the corners and then wondered if we should have left them bare wood.   We got a little trim paint on the wall in certain places. We decided not to do a second coat in closets because we didn’t have time.  We discovered one closet is wall-papered and so we just let it be altogether.  We realized another wall is wallpapered and covered with paint over the wallpaper.  We painted over it anyway.  We don’t want to have an unfinished closet.  We don’t want to paint over wallpaper.  But we didn’t have the time to do otherwise — we needed the job to be done by this morning.  We started to understand why people settle for good enough. Read more

Buying a House: Don’t Force It

Today I primed the living room and the dining room at our new house.  I had to do a bit of prep first: spackle some holes including the very big ones left by the television mount the previous owners left (that they left it baffles me, I think I could get a good chunk of change for this ginormous piece of equipment), take off an odd bit of baseboard that was nailed to the mantel and then scrape and sand down the paint on the mantel, and clean the walls and baseboards.  Then I very carefully laid down drop cloths, and tried very carefully not to spill paint even though I had the drop cloths down.  Two things kept running through my head.  First, do better than good enough — but I’ll get to that in another post.  Second, don’t force it.   Read more

Buying a House: Manual Labor and Material Conditions

Today was my first full day of working on the new house.  At day’s end, my finger pads are sore, my arm is bloody, and I’m exhausted.  Turns out, this is what all that weight lifting this semester has been in preparation for.  The day we closed, we went over to the house and pulled the carpets up and discovered beautiful wooden floors beneath them.  The project of today was to pull up the tack boards that the carpet had been nailed into.  That didn’t sound like that much work to me.  But it took me five and a half hours to do two rooms (I had planned on doing three, but cut out from exhaustion after two — this would seem to be one of the rules of DIY home improvement projects: the project will always take at least one and a half times as long as you estimate it will take).  Part of the problem is that I had to figure out how to do it first.  I was using the back end of a hammer which was practically impossible because the boards are too close to the wall so I couldn’t get any leverage, so I googled how to do it and someone said, get a pry bar, so off to Lowe’s.  I found a tool that pried on one end and pulled nails on the other.  (Another rule of DIY home improvement projects: the right tool is key). Read more

Buying a House: The Rule of Law is a Bit of a Fiction

In the Politics, Aristotle stages a debate between those who think the rule of law is best and those who think the rule of human beings best.  The case to be made for the rule of law is that it is unbiased and equal.  The case to be made for human beings is that humans can judge singular situations that the law cannot foresee.  Moreover, the law needs human beings to be put to work.  Humans decide which law in which case should be applied.  And the law cannot work unless the citizens have developed a habit of following the law.

I enjoy teaching this section of Aristotle.  Students invested in a story we tell about the law recognize in this passage a sense that the law is more arbitrary and given to human whim than we tend to suppose.  Not only that, this arbitrariness is an essential element of the rule of law.  There’s no automated mechanism of law: we need human beings to enforce it, to make decisions about which law matters in which case and to follow it for it to have any force.

So I knew this, but I didn’t know this until I encountered people who appeared to consider themselves not in any way bound by a legal contract to which I was a party.  What’s the point of a contract?!  I have a friend who practices probate and real estate law in Texas and I remember her once telling me that a will only has legal significance if you can find a judge who is willing to enforce it.  (This same friend asked me if I had learned nothing from living in Texas when I posted on Facebook my newfound understanding that the law is a fiction.)  I remember when she said that to me I was flummoxed–“But it’s a will!  Aren’t you just supposed to do what it says?”  I guess she has a job because so many people don’t think so.  When you’re dead, you can’t enforce it, so you really want to think it has some binding power while you are alive.  But if no judge thinks it is legitimate, your will has no effect.

It turns out this is true for every contract every written.  I don’t know if this makes me more or less nervous about signing a contract.  The contract is binding because you treat it as binding. The law is binding because we all think it is.  What I take this to mean is that the rule of law is really for those who can afford it.  If you cannot afford a lawyer, and you really want your contract to be upheld, you might consider not signing the contract.  Or not expecting it to have any force other than the trust you have in the other person (see previous post).  If you have the money and the circumstances that permit you to fight the contract and you don’t want to meet the terms of the contract and the other person doesn’t have the money, then you can walk away pretty easily.

This is why a contract needs to be between not just formally legal equals but also economic equals in order for it to work as a contract, because only then do both parties have equal means to enforce the contract.  This state of affairs would seem to further support the arguments made by Carole Pateman and Charles W. Mills about how the social contract when asserted between men and women and whites and non-whites is a pseudo-contract, only binding to the extent that it can be enforced, and the only ones with the power to enforce it are the ones who refuse to be bound by its terms.  Or rather, the contract on its face is about equality, but the contract in fact binds those who are unequal to a situation whose terms they cannot negotiate or challenge because they cannot afford to.

My insight about the extent to which the law is a fiction also confirmed for me the sense that law enforcement is about protecting property.  We tend to think that criminal law, the law that the police enforce, is one code (and well it is), and the civil law, the law that lawyers enforce, is another.  But recognizing that the law that the lawyers enforce is backed by those who can afford them, made me see more clearly why people say that law enforcement is for the sake of protecting property by those who have it.  The property owners who see themselves as the truest members of the community need protection from the property-less, the not-quite-so-fully-fledged members of the community.  The property owners want police cars patrolling their streets.  The people who own feel safer when they see law enforcement.  The people who own put their money to work to give the law force, either in property taxes or in hiring a lawyer.

I was discussing this on social media, this idea that the law is a fiction, and a friend commented that it was time to resort to force.  But, it became very clear to me in that moment, it’s all force. This is the reason that money should not count as speech in political life, because really, it’s the mechanism of force behind the law.  If only some have it, then only those with money can put the law to work.  That’s why inequality in a community that considers itself to follow the rule of law is a threat to the rule of law in fact.  Now I find myself seeing the fiction of the rule of law everywhere I look.  I also understand better why we are a litigious society because in some sense, we all recognize it’s a bit of a fiction.  And I think we’re all a little pissed off about it.

Buying a House: Learning Not to Trust

I wrote the quoted part of this the week after we learned that the sellers were trying to back out, before inspections, and the second part about five days after the inspections, when we learned that the sellers had been in touch with their real estate agent and were now planning to go through with the sale.

Growing up in Philadelphia, I’ve met my share of con artists.  People who were down and out might stop you on the street with their sob story.  A classic was that someone was in the hospital and they needed money to get the SEPTA regional rail to the hospital in New Jersey.  Everyone was always going to the hospital in New Jersey.  Or their car broke down just down the way and they somehow forgot their wallet that day and they needed twenty bucks to get to the gas station and buy gas.  These stories worked because they could have been true.  Sometimes you would brush them off, because eventually, you knew it was just a story, and sometimes you would pay because it felt like they had done some creative work coming up with the story, and sometimes you actually thought, maybe it was true.  Because, like I said, it could have been true.  One time, I had enough money at the SEPTA terminal to pay cash for one ride, but I really needed just another quarter or something so I could buy tokens and get a round trip.  I don’t remember why I came to the station without the change, maybe I thought I had it when it turned out I didn’t.  Or the change machine was down and I only had dollars. I had to ask people for change at Fern Rock.  I was explaining why I didn’t have the money and I was thinking, I sound so full of shit.  But still, I’m a believer.

I tend to believe.  In people.  In things working out.  In somehow, against all odds, gleams of justice and truth shining through.

I think buying a house might have finally taught me not to believe.  Or rather, it taught me not to be sure that I could or should believe.

The people who sold us our house said they were going to withdraw after twice refusing access to our inspector.  So as I said in the last post, we hired a lawyer, and the sellers responded directly to our lawyer, sans realtor, that there has been a misunderstanding and they are not refusing inspection.  So we’re back on right?  Now it’s this odd stage, where technically, they haven’t actually withdrawn from the purchase agreement, and the only evidence we had that they were planning to is from their realtor who told our realtor that they had decided not to sell.  Can we believe her?   We don’t know.  Our realtor keeps saying that despite all the strangeness of the sellers, that really, she’s good at her job.  Now this makes us suspicious.  Are they trying to save the realtor from a suit that we could bring if the sellers do finally renege on the sale?  At first I thought it all good because I had people.  Now I think the people just produce distance that makes me more skeptical about who should be trusted.  Now I’m wondering if they have agreed to do inspections but are going to sabotage the inspections to prevent us from wanting to buy.

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Buying a House: Or Not

One afternoon, about a week after we signed the purchase agreement for the house, I got a call from my real estate agent.  This is what I wrote on this blog before it became legally advisable not to publish:

The sellers decided they don’t want to sell.  After two offers (ours is the second), and four months on the market, and lots of back and forth about little things in the house, they think they might have to move back from where they are and they want the house to be available.  I thought that this was going to be a cheery exciting process of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and now we are back to square one.

Today we finally closed, so now I’m going back and publishing posts I wrote while we were in house-buying limbo. This post was written the day after this first paragraph.

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Buying a House: Debt

I’m in the process of buying a house for the first time.  This is exciting and strange.  I first started looking for a house the same week that I was teaching John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government.  I realized even more forcefully this time around how much social contract theory’s claims to belonging are tied up in relations to private property.  Witness the ongoing opposition between owners and renters documented in San Francisco in the wake of the tech boom.  Then last week, as we were signing the purchase agreement, I was explaining Marx’s analysis of capitalism to students, that wealth is produced by labor.  Fine, work harder.  But in the capitalist mode of production based as it is on private property, the worker never sees the fruit of her labor.  Private property gives the owner license to recoup the surplus value of labor, while the worker only has the right to the compensation that is socially determined is sufficient to return her to work again.  I realized I was living smack dab in the center of the contradiction between ideology and economic mode of production that Marx maintains will be the end of capital.  So being a good member of the typing left (per Jodi Dean), I decided the best mode of resistance is surely to blog about it.   This will then be the first in a series of blogs about house buying, private property, home-owning, home repair and remodeling, and town vs. country.

So, debt.

I have tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, even though I had tuition remission and a stipend from my graduate program.  I definitely made decisions in college based on money rather than on what I wanted to do because I was paying for college by myself and I couldn’t afford not to work during summers and winter breaks (like I didn’t think I could afford study abroad, and was never told otherwise, and I just didn’t know that I could take my loans to off-campus housing which could have been cheaper and things like that).  I thought Occupy’s efforts to take on debt and organize for debt forgiveness were a good idea, but not at the top of list of efforts to join.  So yeah, I read David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and I know debt is a burden and a historical rather than an intrinsic social relation, but I don’t think I ever realized how much a racket the debt industry is until this morning when I had to read through the 70-something pages related to my mortgage agreement.  Even though intellectually I know better, I thought debt was just the price you have to pay to be in the middle class.  By the end of the life of my loan, 69% of what I will have paid back will be interest on the principle.  69%!  What I realized in reading my mortgage agreement is that this situation is not just an economic necessity, borrowing with an interest rate that has 69% of what you pay back going to interest (i.e., to the bank, and I have a great rate!) could not happen without the institutional support of the government which makes the penalty for failing to pay, not just financially costly, but dire for families who are foreclosed on.  Government officials–sheriffs!–do the bank’s work of putting people who cannot pay on the street.

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Doomsday Prep for the Superrich and the Privatization of Public Crisis Response

Two days ago Terry Gross had journalist Evan Osnos on Fresh Air discussing a new phenomenon of super rich people in the tech industry making plans for the failure of the government, of the food supply, of the electrical grid, of our world as we know it.  Osnos has an article in the current issue of The New Yorker on the same topic.  He tells the story of a guy who decided to get laser surgery so that he wouldn’t be dependent on contacts or glasses when “we have trouble,” because the supply lines might dry up.  That same guy bought some motorcycles, guns and ammo and a bunch of food so that he could  get out of town and have some supplies when things go bad. Read more

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