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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Dear Landlord: How Obama’s new lease with America could benefit from Bob Dylan

Dear landlord,

Please don't put a price on my soul.
My burden is heavy,
My dreams are beyond control.

Who exactly is the enigmatic ‘landlord’ to whom this downtrodden tenant is pleading for spiritual respect and financial relief? If you're not quite sure, don't think twice. It turns out the mystery of his (or her?) identity has been a focal point of speculation among Dylan fans for years.

Self-styled (and far more disgruntled) ‘Dylanologist,’ Al Weberman, argues that the song was inspired by the parasitic relationship between Dylan and his longstanding manager, Albert Grossman, which by 1967 had turned completely toxic.

Others suggest Dylan wrote the song about his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, under whose roof he lived shortly after arriving in Greenwich Village in the winter of 1961. And still some maintain the ‘landlord’ is a metaphor for God.

This third school of thought may not been as over-reaching an analogy as one might expect. A careful listen to the John Wesley Harding song cycle from Dylan's masterful 1967 album certainly suggests the seeds of Dylan’s ‘search’ were beginning to surface a full decade before the full-blown ‘spiritual conversion’ in the late 1970s.

Few, however, think the ‘landlord’ is literal. And frankly, it’s hard to fault them. In the iconography of Dylan, little often is.

There is, however, a parallel here worth pursuing. And as with many parallels, the connection revolves around the intersection of two seemingly disparate eras.

Just as the halcyon days of the “Summer of Love” were starting to turn turbulent in 1967, so, too, is our nation today faced with similar uncertainty. And as we turn to the figure at the center of that current downward spiral, we look not to Dylan, but rather to Barack Obama, whose self-appointed role as the pied piper of American politics does share one striking similarity with our fair Bob—he’s getting increasingly harder to pin down.

In three short weeks, Obama has became the de facto head of the banking system, executive in charge of the automobile industry, and now, thanks to the passage of the $50 billion Homeowner Affordability and Stability plan last Wednesday, landlord to close to nine million Americans.

Interestingly, President Obama opted not to invite the expected litany of lackeys to join him at the table last week in Mesa, Arizona, when he unfurled his solution to our nation’s housing crisis. Considering the lukewarm reception his $787 Economic Stimulus Package got from Wall Street, Obama’s unceremonious announcement was no doubt intentional.

Chances are House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid won’t be rolling out the welcome mat when the president returns home, either. This ill-conceived and woefully underfunded plan stinks to high heaven, and neither Pelosi nor Reed want the crap Obama is going to take for it tracked all around their new House.

It's no secret Obama’s solution to the mortgage crisis will likely tack on an additional $200 billion to the $75 billion the president allocated to his mortgage relief plan. But Obama had to do something. We have to shore up housing prices, stabilize neighborhoods and slow a downward spiral that has “unraveled homeownership, the middle class and the American Dream itself.” To that end, the Obama plan will provide relief to millions of Americas.

At the cornerstone of the Homeowner Affordability and Stability plan resides a $75 billion program to subsidize loan modifications that will reduce a family’s monthly payment to as little as 31 percent of their gross monthly income. To incentivize lenders to lower these monthly payments, the government will do two things. First, they will pay the lenders $1,000 for every modified loan, more if the borrower stays current on their payments. Additionally, if the lender gets the monthly payments down to 38 percent of the borrower’s monthly income, the government will match, dollar for dollar, additional reductions to bring the payment to the targeted 31 percent of monthly income.

And while this plan is a valiant attempt to solve the right problem, the problem is being solved for the wrong people.

House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio certainly thinks so.

In the days leading up to the signing of the plan, Boehner asked a very insightful, albeit incendiary question: "Does the plan compensate banks for the bad mortgages they should never have made in the first place?" The answer, of course, is a resounding, “No,” as is evidenced in the $1,000 ‘incentive’ the lenders will receive to refinance the toxic loans.

But it was Boehner’s second question that truly hit the mark: "Will individuals who misrepresented their income or assets on their original mortgage application be eligible to get taxpayer-funded assistance?" Right now it seems Barack Obama, the man who to promised to deliver the maligned middle class from their current financial morass, can’t be bothered with the annoying question of how to align honesty with home ownership.

To his credit, Obama’s plan does address the nagging concern of accountability—something that was conveniently swept under the rug when the banks and automakers were handed their bailout bonanzas. But in his haste to assuage those Americans who got in over their heads, Obama has betrayed the first rule of feudalism—a system to which he seems determined to allow our country to revert—and that rule is this: A landlord should never give the tenants the upper hand.

Perhaps Obama should have borrowed a page from Dylan—always keep them guessing.

Because once you let them in, you just might be the one who ends up out on your ass…

Dear landlord,
Please don't dismiss my case.
I'm not about to argue,
I'm not about to move to no other place.
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