Fifty years later, we are treated to another tale whose outcome hinges on a semantic sleight-of-hand. This time, however, the story is real.
Early in his administration, President George W. Bush touted his Ownership Society Initiative as a potential renaissance of freedom and prosperity for Americans by making home ownership easier and more affordable for everyone. Recently de-regulated banks were eager to lend to all comers at the time--especially since those loans were backed by government guarantees.
The Big Banks and hedge funds made money by: collecting fees for originating mortgage loans based on artificially inflated property values; by bundling the riskiest of those mortgages into "AAA-rated" mortgage-backed securities and selling that risk off to unsuspecting investors; by making bets against the future performance of those securities (aka "insurance" or "credit default swaps"); and by convincing the federal government to backstop not only the balance of those guaranteed subprime loans via Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but also by getting the government to underwrite the financial institutions who insured those bundles of doomed-to-fail loans so that those rigged credit default swaps were paid, too.
We now know that Bush's policy was a recipe for economic disaster--a recipe that concentrated ownership of the nation's wealth into fewer rather than more hands. It also presents Republicans with a political opportunity like the one they exploited in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: The disenfranchisement of the displaced.
Four million families have lost their homes to foreclosure since 2007. Millions still face imminent foreclosure or are trapped in mortgage payments that total more than the home is worth. Unemployment rates are at highs unseen since The Great Depression, and more families wrestle with homelessness each day because the overwhelming majority of foreclosed properties represent borrowers' primary residences. A disproportionate number of these losses have been in black and latino communities (.pdf) according to a 2010 study by the Center For Responsible Lending. These populations along with the elderly, the working poor, the disabled, and single female heads of household tend to vote Democratic.
As was seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, displaced voters face increased challenges in maintaining and exercising the right to vote... a point not lost on the Republican Party. A dozen Republican-led legislatures have enacted measures to make voter registration more difficult. More states are enacting so-called "anti-fraud" measures requiring voters to produce valid identification in order to cast a ballot. Fourteen states enforce lifetime voting bans on citizens with a felony conviction. Same-day, provisional, and absentee balloting rules are more stringent.
Additionally, MERS--the electronic clearinghouse for mortgage transactions created by the industry in 1993--is listed as the owner-of-record for millions of mortgages instead of the banks/servicing companies that actually hold the notes. MERS allowed the banks to process foreclosure and other mortgage-related activities without resorting to the traditional county-level recording system--and the attendant fees. MERS is the means by which mortgages were bundled into the aforementioned mortgage-backed securities instrumental in toppling the economy. A $26 billion settlement was reached between the federal government, states, and the mortgage industry in February to address "systemic and widespread mortgage fraud." Until all of the problem mortgages held by MERS can be sorted out, information in county recorders' offices throughout the country may not be reliable. Citizens armed with faulty information could mount challenges at the polls based on discrepancies between the industry's database and information on record locally--discrepancies that have already caused a number of erroneous foreclosures.
George W. Bush made "The Ownership Society" sound like a boon to every American, but it wasn't just policy: It was a cookbook for the subversion of this country's most basic laws regarding private property. The structure set up to facilitate the churning of mortgages deprives local government of much-needed revenue, robs citizens of transparency, and obscures critical information local elected officials and public servants need to deal effectively with the fallout from the continued economic crisis.
If you know someone who is homeless or who has been displaced by the economic downturn, please do everything in your power to get them legally registered, and make sure that they vote. Make sure you vote. The future of the country depends on it.