Risky Business

I’ve been chewing on this post for some time, but it comes as an especially salient answer to Alpha’s question in class today, “what does any of this have to do with the Housing Crisis?”

I’ll begin by circling back to Lear. When we read that play, one scene that really stuck out to me was the moment it became clear that Goneril was angling to end up married to Edmund. This desire seemed so illogical; she was already comfortably married to the Duke of Albany, and pursuing Edmund put her in direct competition with her sister Regan, who up to this point had been her close ally. More than illogical—this undertaking seemed downright… reckless.

Reckless is exactly what Goneril’s strategy ended up being, and after Edgar reveals her conspiracy to her husband, she commits suicide, poisoning her sister along the way. Her high stakes wager did not pay off.

Circling forward, we saw more risky business in Dominion. Jasper Merian risked everything by claiming a piece of land that was both rocky and haunted to be his family’s estate. Both he and his wife Sanne fought Ould Lowe and defeated him, and even after that they nearly starved in the grueling process of eking out a living from nothing on the land. Yet despite the difficulty, and despite the risks, the Merian family thrived.

These examples display very different kinds of risky behavior. Goneril’s behavior was made under conditions of abundance: she had a plethora of options before her and an entire kingdom of wealth under her control. Merian’s situation was different: he faced conditions of scarcity, and he risked it all because he had nothing to lose.

In their similarities and differences, I would argue that these risky behaviors have everything to do with the Housing Crisis.

First, the riskiness Goneril exhibits from her position of privilege powerfully evokes that of the Wall Street bankers we saw in Inside Job. The temperament it takes to survive on the modern trading floor certainly includes a level of being comfortable with risk, but what our country saw in the build up to the Housing Crisis was unprecedented. Financiers made bigger and bigger bets on sub-prime mortgages until eventually it all came crashing down and the world realized that these people had actually bet the whole economy. They did not need to do this; no one’s survival depended on it. Like Goneril’s bid for Edmund, the sub-prime craze was perpetrated in pursuit of greater and greater accumulation.

In contrast, Merian’s recklessness in the face of desperation conjures a ghost from even further back in the semester: that of Herbert Gettridge. In the devastation of Katrina, Mr. Gettridge was left with as little as Jasper had at the conclusion of his bondage in Virginia. He chose to rebuild his home in a neighborhood that had just been devastated by a hurricane—a neighborhood that will certainly be hit by violent storms from the sea again. There is a direct parallel between the cyclic devastation of the hurricanes in New Orleans and the centennial hauntings of Ould Lowe. Even more striking is the parallel in stance between the two men faced with these natural ordeals: they aren’t going anywhere, damn the risks.

That such radical differences in circumstance could produce behavior that is in some ways similar and in some ways different squares well with the existing social science. Extreme poverty places extreme stress on the mind, leading to a variety of mental illnesses (as we saw with Lelah’s gambling addiction in The Turner House). On the other end of the spectrum, privileged people often exhibit behavior outside of what we would typically consider normal and healthy. In the case of Ethan Couch, a wealthy teenager never learned to take the consequences of his actions seriously because his privilege shielded him from those consequences. Couch drove drunk at the age of 16 and killed 4 people.

In fact, researchers are showing that many conditions that we think of as mental illness—a phrase that locates these conditions’ origins in the brain or the mind—are actually profoundly linked to social status, which includes one’s material wealth. Authors, it seems, have known that for centuries.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.