“You got a mortgage without meeting with anyone in person,” my brother-in-law, Harvey, asked, incredulously. “From a bank you’ve never been to?”
It was the end of the 20th Century. I was buying my first property, an exhausted two-flat building on Kansas Street. I’d found a low-interest rate mortgage with HSBC by paging through the San Francisco Chronicle’s real estate section. The deal had been done virtually; over telephone, facsimile, and email.
Harvey, born in 1941, came from a generation in which important transactions were sealed with a handshake. You knew your banker – doctor, mechanic, pharmacist – and they knew you, at least enough to ask about your family, job, and how they could help you with your particular problem. If you needed a loan, you walked into a marbled institution and sat at a desk across from someone dressed in a suit, an array of cupped pens unshackled from their now ubiquitous chains. During the savings and loan heyday of the 1970s you might enjoy complimentary cookies and coffee on your way out.
This was not a perfect world. It often created unpleasantly asymmetric power dynamics, especially for non-male, non-white, individuals. Getting the right outcome depended on the banker’s skills and sympathies. At its best, though, it grounded important transactions, gave them weight, dependability; made them human. A “consumer” was a client, someone deserving of respect, who at least had the perception of being seen and heard.
Now we consumers are a commodity.
My wife, Debbie, and I recently refinanced our mortgage with our existing lender, Quicken Loans. We have an excellent payment record, one that’d merit a complimentary toaster or at least a desk calendar back in the day. Originally Rock Financial Mortgage, the company was co-founded in 1985 by Dan Gilbert. Ironically, in the context of this essay, Debbie attended kindergarten through high school with Gilbert in a Detroit suburb.
As its name suggests, Quicken’s business model is to extract necessary financial data – as demanded by law, risk managers, and investors – from its commodities as fast and efficiently as possible. The required information consists of endless signatures on irritatingly obtuse forms and opaque “disclosures;” is deeply personal – exactly how much money you earn, and have in the bank – and, especially for the unorganized (i.e., most of us), can be challenging to compile.
Quicken mines the necessary data from its commodities by relentlessly vacuuming up bank statements, credit reports, releases, and the like in a manner not so different from a poorly anesthetized colonoscopy. Any protest – that an item is unneeded or doesn’t exist – and many simple questions are waved away like so much dust in the air.
Each of the more than half-dozen Quicken employees I spoke with on my way through the paperwork spanking machine presented similarly. Talking to them invoked a feeling of being smothered by an exquisitely soft pillow, the kind that prompts the thought, “I can’t breathe! But the thread count on this pillowcase is fantastic!” The vibe isn’t relentlessly sunny Disney, nor friendly efficient In-N-Out Burger, but more akin to a faux-compassionate, poorly educated, attendant at a mental institution, a hand always at your elbow in a quietly threatening way. If Quicken could legally offer – better yet forcibly inject – tranquilizers to help ease paperwork pains or privacy discomfort, I’m quite sure it would.
For commodities, rather than clients, details aren’t as important as checked boxes and completed forms. Quicken misspelled my name in loan documents, misunderstood where our property was located, demanded duplicative income statements, secretly investigated Debbie’s employment status after we’d submitted multiple pay stubs, took weeks to process a particular item, followed by hurried demands for the next document, and threatened to decline financing entirely unless I produced a cable bill. This all happened over email, text, and cellphone, a thousand tiny pinpricks delivered at the quick push of a send button.
Home mortgages are hardly the only sphere in which “relationships” are made in the cloud. Our world is evolving ever-further away from one in which the family doctor made house visits, the neighborhood pharmacist specially compounded grandma’s medicine, or the kids could walk to the corner ice cream store to buy a cone on credit. Independent bookstores, like Christopher’s, family-owned grocery stores, such as The Good Life, and friendly mortgage brokers and realtors linger on, mostly due to their owner’s fierce commitment to community.
Harvey died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis a few years after our conversation about mortgages. If he were still alive, my guess is that he’d be impressed by the great refi outcome I’d secured. But he might wonder at what cost, to social cohesion, human connection, dignity, even democracy. I know I do. Next time, rather than opt for the quick – through Quicken, Amazon, or another soulless vendor – I’m going to choose the slow. I may not save as much, but there are more valuable things than money.