To take pleasure in everyday life, we tell ourselves a few everyday lies. These might include, “I love my job”, “I will read Ulysses” or “the diet starts next week”. Another delusion some of us low- and middle-income earners uphold is “renting gives me so much freedom”. Those of us about as likely to own a residential property as we are to read the collected works of James Joyce sometimes tell ourselves porkies. With no secure place to live, we live inside a silver lining.
We say, “I don’t want to be tied down like those mortgagee losers!” or, if we read some anarchists in high school, “property is theft!”. This is irrational self-trickery. But it’s of a fairly pardonable sort. When you’re on a stagnant wage, your most valuable asset is a smartphone with three months left on its lease and an expensively dressed 20-year-old property manager blows into your home every six months with a clipboard and the reminder that you should really buy more bleach, there’s nothing else for it but to lie to yourself. “I am so happy I didn’t fall into the trap of home ownership” is a thing that I sometimes utter in private.
Private life becomes unendurable without the antidepressant of hope. So you and I are permitted to talk bunkum to ourselves or to a very small audience. Media commentators, however, are charged with the higher responsibility of truth. I can tell myself that I just love renting and that its impermanence suits my go-go lifestyle. A columnist with a major news service really has no business promoting this view.
Yesterday, in The Sydney Morning Herald,Money columnist Melissa Browne took a falsely libertarian turn and took as read that “freedom” is synonymous with short-term residential leasing. While her proposal that home ownership may not be a splendid investment -- a claim reputably discussed by the RBA in 2014 -- is worth considering, it’s incidental to a piece that holds that people with nowhere secure to live feel “free”. In the Browne view, there’s no thrill more redemptive than that found in writing to your landlord and asking if it’s OK to hang your family pictures by a nail on the wall. Browne suggests that the human drive to put roots down is “primeval” and urges us to move beyond biology.
In a justifiably maligned April piece for The Guardian, economist Stephen Koukoulas didn’t so much ask people to get over their biology as to get over their butt-hurt. In an essay addressed to millennials, he suggested, with even less recourse to evidence than the popular economist is wont to show, that persons in this age range buy houses less frequently because they eschew meals in tins. He reminds the kids to toughen up, that buying houses has always been difficult, that they should stop it with the posh flavoured coffees, etc.
Koukoulas did not remind himself that the nation’s house price-to-wage ratio is now among the very worst in the world. Or that it’s getting progressively worse with dwelling prices rising at a faster rate than household income. Or that household income is now far more often the product of two wages than, as it was in the 1970s, of one, thereby failing to factor in unpaid domestic labour. Or that the capital gains tax concessions (CGT) introduced by Costello in 1999, cost aspiring first-home buyers much, much more than their posh flavoured coffees ever could. Or, peculiarly, that the many of the nation’s policy minds had been working on a revision to the CGT and negative gearing for a few years. Kouk is a smart guy who works for a professedly progressive think tank. So the strong focus on coffee and the lack of focus on what many of his peers had publicly said were peculiar.
He linked to an RBA report that gainsaid his moralising claim that it was young people’s indolence that had led to what might be reasonably called a crisis of housing affordability. That a Per Capita research fellow chose to focus on the bad character of individuals and not years of policy settings that have, according to the Grattan Institute and other organisations, changed the housing market was astonishing.
Kouk proposed it was a lack of backbone that led to a financial year that had property investment loans exceeding those approved to owner-occupiers in 2015. If there’s a people lacking backbone, it’s the investor class, a group at higher risk of default than owner-occupiers. And one so keen on their posh flavoured coffee that certain of them misrepresented themselves as owner-occupiers to lenders to secure a favourable interest rate until the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) stepped in with some controls.
Even Kouk tells himself fibs to make life more bearable. We all do. Even good Guardian columnists like Brigid Delaney, who proposed last December that we need to downsize our “sense of entitlement” and just live with the reality that we will never own a home. And even affirm it.
Sometimes when I’m on my own, improving the soil in a yard I know I’ll leave when my landlord’s daughter enrols in the nearby university, I tell myself versions of these untruths. Like Browne, I say that I need to get over my biology and be a Modern Miss who doesn’t need the “primeval” security of a permanent dwelling. I join Koukoulas and blame myself for my own financial failure. With Delaney, I tell myself to evolve, to fit the form of society and not demand that society fit people like me.
Then I remember the current national conversation on housing affordability that Kouk somehow forgot. And I remember that these media commentators must offer fewer individual moral injunctions, more scrutiny of the ALP’s encouraging proposals and keep their reassuring self-trickery for their days off.
We all tell ourselves soft lies to moderate hard reality. What we must not do is tell them to other people.
Burnside, as you likely know, is a barrister, a refugee advocate and a man with an honourable alphabet of letters appended by others to his name. He's also a fighter and dogged correspondent who seems to thinks a lot about death.