Critics of McMansions are not hard to find but Thomas Frank takes the argument further: McMansions are behind a whole host of issues including sprawl and inequality.
Of course there was something different this time around. In the 2008 collapse, the real-estate bust wasn’t the result of some larger economic trend but the cause of it. Although we are accustomed to blaming it all on subprime loans, about half of the disaster was attributable to the less-well-known fiasco in Alt-A instruments which fed the McMansion market, the “liar’s loans” which were securitized and sold off stamped with a big Triple-A. The worst recession of our lifetimes, in other words, was in large part the result of our superiors’ longing to get themselves a piece of the grandiose.
That astounding reversal of the usual chain of cause and effect changed the way I thought about the McMansion. I once believed it would be amusing to track stylistic change in the tract-mansion form—how, say, the fake French simplicity of Newt Gingrich’s 1987 McMansion gave way to the complex multigabled fakery of Michele Bachmann’s 2007 McMansion, with maybe a stop in between to contemplate Ricky Bobby’s McMansion in “Talladega Nights.”
But what I discovered is that the form doesn’t really change. Yes, the houses get bigger every year, gables and gazebos come and go, but what is really striking about the McMansion is its vapid consistency as the decades pass…
This is not some absurdity at the fringe of our way of life. This is civilization’s very center, the only thing that really makes sense in “clusterfuck nation,” the tawdry telos at which all our economic policies aim. Everything we do seems designed to make this thing possible. Cities must sprawl to accommodate its bulk, eight-lane roads must be constructed, gasoline must be kept cheap, coal must be hauled in from Wyoming on mile-long trains. Middle-class taxes must be higher to make up for the deductions given to McMansion owners, lending standards must be diluted so more suckers can purchase them, banks must be propped up, bonuses must go out, stock prices must ascend. Every one of us must work ever longer hours so that this millionaire’s folly can remain viable, can be sold successfully to the next one on the list. This stupendous, staring banality is the final outcome for which we have sacrificed everything else.
This is a strong statement: we created and generally buy into a system whose goal is to grant a privileged few the ability to live in private McMansions in nice neighborhoods. The fulfillment of the American Dream at the turn of the 21st century involves living in a McMansion. It is not just about suburbs, 0wning a car, buying cheap goods at Walmart, and sending your kids to nice schools; it is about having the glitzy, architecturally-dubious but spacious home.
What I don’t see in Frank’s piece is how exactly the dots connect. The number of McMansions are still relatively limited due to their cost. Not all gated communities have McMansions. Not all suburbs are edge cities or vacuous tract neighborhoods like the ones highlighted in Suburban Nation. I’d like to see the data where half of the housing bubble of the late 2000s was due to loans for McMansions. In other words, this may be a populist argument today given the status of McMansions but the true story is likely more complicated.