If you think I’m harping too much on Robert Acosta’s recent home vandalism conviction, please think again. As I described in my previous post, I have a personal connection of sorts to him because he was one of the recruiting officers when I applied for sworn employment with the San Diego Police Department, and I can’t imagine that I would have given much thought to his case had I never met him, but none of this means that his case isn’t very much worth discussing in detail as an object lesson. Americans ignore cases like his at our peril. In case you think otherwise, let me lay it out bluntly:

What happened to Robert Acosta could happen to you.

Don’t kid yourself for a New York minute. Acosta is a man of better character and steadier temperament than you or I. Maybe I’m wrong about my readership, but don’t count on it; I know almost for a fact that I’m right about myself in this case, and I’m not the only police applicant whose self-esteem took a hit during the application process. If you’re puffing up your chest right now, annoyed that I have the nerve to tell you that you are of poorer character than a recently convicted felon, you’re probably exactly whom I have in mind when I suggest that we’re losers, and you’re probably an excellent candidate for a felony conviction on account of your own hubris.

Did Robert and Monique Acosta suffer from hubris? I’d say so. This does not, however, mean that Robert Acosta was a bad cop. Not at all. As I mentioned, I had the gut feeling that he had probably misspent his youth to some extent, and I allowed my florid imagination to fill in what were frankly huge gaps in the histories of these cops for whom I was filling in the gaps of my own life in the hope of joining their ranks. In Acosta’s case, these gaps would be better described as a blank canvas from the applicants’ perspective. His colleague Vernon Kindred had admitted to a history of aggressive driving, but for Acosta himself, as well as the other four recruiters, we could only guess.

I should make clear that by the time I met Acosta, he seemed to have reformed himself, if he even needed reform in the first place. He played more aggressive and sly mind games than some of his colleagues did, among them, walking all over the grass that the applicants had been warned not to set foot on, and he seemed to have a vaguely rebellious streak, but I saw no evidence that he didn’t have his professional and personal shit together. Because he was one of our recruiters, we applicants trusted him with some of our darkest secrets, and although I don’t know what all he did with our information, I have no reason to believe that he ever betrayed our confidences. I cannot say the same about some of my personal friends, including close ones.

More broadly speaking, one doesn’t get the assignments that Acosta got by being a layabout or a wreck. First, he successfully completed an application process quite similar to the one that I only started. A lot of applicants, even fairly good ones, get screened out during the application process, wash out at the academy, or are fired during probation. Acosta made it through.

One has to figure that the brass doesn’t promote just anyone to recruiting positions, which are high-profile and have the potential to make or break an academy class. There are political considerations in making promotions, but as Norm Stamper has pointed out, there are good and bad ways to play departmental politics, and good commanders know the difference. There may be some cronyism, but this seems to be less of a problem for the SDPD than for many agencies. For the life of me I can’t figure out what anyone saw in Lt. Salgado to make him responsible for appointing authority interviews, but maybe I was missing something. None of his subordinates were headslappers. They all seemed entirely competent for their positions, even if they were a bit off in some interpersonal sense or other. The recruiting unit was clearly not where the brass exiled the department’s fuck-ups. It was no internal Siberia, no night watch in the South Bronx.

Neither, I assume, was the aviation unit, which was Acosta’s last assignment. There’s usually a surplus of applicants for aerial patrol jobs, so the brass can be picky about who gets to fly the choppers. Like the recruiting unit, aviation isn’t an assignment that a cop gets by going through the motions. If you sullenly do your time on the force like a prisoner or a military conscript, you’ll stay on the ground.

If Acosta wasn’t the cream of the crop, he was close. As I said, I met the guy and had the time to get a fairly detailed first impression of him. He seemed a bit distractible and impish, but in no way did he seem to be a jackass or a loose cannon. The image that comes to mind for a felon is usually some combination of druggie, thug, or unemployable dirtbag grifter. At the extremes, a felon might be Bernie Madoff or Dennis Rader. Believe me, Robert Acosta was none of those things.

And yet he got into that awful mess with his house.

Rookie cops used to get a bit of shopworn advice about the three major stumbling blocks that they had to avoid: bills, booze and broads. Acosta hit two out of three. He almost certainly wouldn’t have gotten into the trouble he did if he had stayed single. Neither, I imagine, would his wife, Monique, have gotten into such hot water had she not been married or romantically involved.

Marriage is supposed to edify spouses, but in the Acostas’ case, it tore them down. That’s the unfortunate reality of marriage for many couples. All too often it leads to folies-a-deux in which the spouses feed negatively off one another; sheltered from many of the outside influences that would check their bad impulses if they were single, they descend into madness, each a millstone around the other’s neck. A six-bedroom house for a family of three on the order of sixty miles from the husband’s police job is a reasonable example of madness. So is laying waste to that house after having put hundreds of thousands of dollars, and probably substantial sweat equity, into sprucing it up. But that’s what the Acostas did. They probably fed one another’s resentment of their credit union to an extent that third parties never would have done. It takes some powerful resentment to build a castle, then lay waste to it.

That’s what the neighbors called the Acosta residence. “The castle.” That, albeit usually subconsciously, is also how we Americans think of our houses. As a matter of common law, a man’s house is his castle, but we take it a step further stateside. We don’t consider our houses castles as a matter of the rights of Englishmen, but more as a matter of the prerogatives of aristocrats. Our goal isn’t to be proud, independent yeomen who relate to our fellow men as equals, showing no fear or favor on account of their station in life. Our goal is to show off our superiority by having bigger and fancier things than our neighbors: houses, cars, boats, toys. This is a less polished but equally crass version of the mores that compelled cash-strapped English lords to rush headlong towards bankruptcy in order to maintain their estates, and to marry the daughters of American industrialists for cash flow. The Acostas were living in a sort of Downton Abbey of the Inland Empire.

Hey, at least they weren’t going about it in Barstow.

Accuse me of sounding paranoid if you like, but they were conditioned for it. We all are. Americans are aggressively brainwashed by the media to want more material things than we would ever want left to our own devices. Desperate labor officials from the government encourage this in the hope of not having an even larger horde of the unemployed at loose ends, pondering God only knows what in the way of political agitation or unrest. Everyone involved in the housing and automotive sectors encourages this as a means of professional survival, because otherwise we’d be satisfied with the amount of house and car we have and they’d need to find a new line of work, or non-work. Con artists take advantage of this situation in order to hawk their fraudulent wares, such as house-flipping in Modesto. I shit you not, only a few months ago I heard some asshat on the radio extolling exactly that as the newest opportunity that you don’t want to pass up, so call right now. Publishers and broadcasters appeal to crass materialism, and increase it by making it the ambient solution from which the masses receive their culture by osmosis; Hence, Home and Garden TV. This sort of crap is cheaper to produce than anything thoughtful, and a lot more conducive to product placement.

Our overlords don’t want us to define ourselves by anything but our material possessions. The main exception to this is religious and pop psychology hucksters who want us to define ourselves by our neuroses, and then buy their self-help materials. Otherwise, the powers-that-be, especially those in the housing, automotive and advertising sectors, don’t want us to define ourselves by our lines of work or our hobbies or our independently cultivated interests.

The Acostas spent a shitload of money on housing and cars. Obviously, they should have known better, and they should be accorded some free agency in the matter and assigned some of the blame, but we’re idiots if we think that their spendthrift behavior had nothing to do with their having been conditioned to spend in that fashion. What the hell else can be expected in a nation that has been saturated with propaganda encouraging citizens to define themselves as “consumers?” If we encourage crassness and desperate acquisitiveness as a society, how on earth can we be surprised when our countrymen become crass and desperately acquisitive?

Our national economy seems to be predicated on grand frauds. What other conclusion can be drawn when housing starts and auto sales are promoted as the most important measures of economic health? What other conclusion can be drawn when it is a goal of official policy to maintain prolonged growth rates that would be cancerous in any living thing? A lot has been written about these aspects of our economy, and I won’t add to it right now, but I will say that this is an issue that fully deserves to be beaten like a dead horse. It needs to be drilled into our national head the way that hubristic avarice has been since at least the dawn of the television age.

One aspect of our materialism that has gotten less attention is the appalling hypocrisy of our avarice. This applies to our relationship to sex and drugs, too. Come to think of it, hypocrisy can be a pretty important building block for hubris, maybe even the keystone. That’s an inappropriate analogy for something so destructive, but I’ll stick with it. We live crass lives devoted to robbing and defrauding others, then use the criminal courts to lash out at others for theft and fraud, secure in the knowledge that we will never be prosecuted for our own misdeeds. We assume that some other class of scapegoat will take the fall. It’s a real pisser, then, when we find out that we’re the scapegoat for a change.

It’s textbook hubris. A major goal of American statecraft is to maintain the delicate balance needed to keep the whole dirty enterprise politically palatable. Setting up a fraud so that a critical mass of the electorate benefits from it, as has generally been done with the housing market, is a very prudent course of action for those running the fraud. Over the last few years, however, the money needed to keep that Ponzi scheme in motion has started to run out, and the powers-that-be are now threatened by a potential critical mass of pissed-off underwater and dispossessed homeowners. Owning up to the fact that the whole enterprise was a fraud would take more humility and honesty than most politicians will feel in their lifetimes. That’s exactly what it was: a pump-and-dump fraud orchestrated on behalf of the building trades, realtors (who frankly have a terrible ethical reputation, and for very good reasons), and older homeowners against the young and whoever was unlucky (or misled) enough to buy in at the tail end of the bull market. Honest people who had anything to do with the recent housing bubble, whether as pundits, realtors, or buyers, are rare birds. If you’re looking for people who bought into the hype for legitimate reasons, you might as well look for pieces of the True Cross.

A critical mass of the electorate bought into the marketing bullshit about rising housing prices, and then the contraption sputtered to a halt because it was at heart nothing more than an unsustainable money sink. What we need now is something like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission combined with a debt jubilee. Instead, we get scapegoats. No one who is a party to the sale of a million-dollar house in Murrieta to a San Diego cop and a real estate saleswoman is in it in order to be honest and industrious. That’s basically just another case of everyone in the deal trying to scam everyone else, which is a good summary of American real estate in general.

The cop and his wife shouldn’t be the only ones on the hook. Either everyone should be on the hook, or no one should be. I lean towards the latter, partly because it’s better to pray for mercy than for justice, but more because there’s no way to hold everyone accountable for all the fraud that went into the real estate bubble, especially in places like the Inland Empire.

It’s time to call bullshit on everyone involved. Murrieta isn’t La Jolla. You could build a replica of the Palace of Versailles in Murrieta and it would still be in a crappy location. Besides, if you can afford to build the repilca, you can afford to travel to the original, where you’ll be a short and quite pleasant train ride away from Paris. No matter what the Acostas, their lenders or their appraisers were thinking, the castle never had that Beverly Hills glamor. The reason was simple: it wasn’t in Beverly Hills. Location is crucial in real estate. The moment any slack opens up in nearby markets where people actually want to live—meaning the coast, canyons near the coast, the nicer inner city neighborhoods, and the alpine getaways—resale values in places like Murrieta drop. The main function of the Inland Empire is to absorb overflow from the coastal valleys and canyons where everyone wants to live. It’s a rare bird who truly wants to live in Rancho Cucamonga or Hemet. Today, there’s a lot less overflow to absorb than there was a few years ago.

Foreclosing on the Acostas probably wasn’t as advantageous to their lender as it was made out to be. It’s a very small, mostly foolish segment of the market that is interested in spending a million dollars on a house in Murrieta. The wealthy very much want to live elsewhere, and they very much do exactly that. The middling and poor are stuck at lower price points unless they and their lenders are utterly feckless. The credit union might have had opportunity costs in letting the Acostas squat, but don’t count on it. There isn’t a feeding frenzy of qualified buyers waiting to snap up Murrieta real estate; if a realtor suggests otherwise, you’re being bullshitted. Also, when deadbeat borrowers are foreclosed on and their houses are left vacant while their banks wait for nonexistent buyers, no one is there to mow the grass or call the cops on prolwers and vandals. Or to be the cops on prowlers and vandals.

Or to be their own vandals. If you show some forbearance to delinquent borrowers, they’ll be less likely to lay waste to their house. They like the place, after all. They consider it home, partly because that’s the conditioned response, but mainly because it’s where they’ve come to live and they know their way around the place. They’ll see more value in leaving the house intact than in gutting it for scrap copper. A hardscrabble circuit-riding hustler from San Bernardino probably has a different view, and he probably knows a scrap metal dealer who agrees with him.

The banks clearly know all of this, but they’re too greedy and vindictive to care.

Greed and vindictiveness are as American as apple pie and giant flags at car dealerships. It’ll take a spiritual awakening to change this, and not at all the sort of spritual awakening that is usually demanded by the clergy. The main things that Americans can do in the meantime are, first, to live in truth, in the hope of making the world a better place and providing an edifying example to their peers and, second, to heed the Acostas as an object lesson.

That includes those of you who are involved in romantic relationships in which one partner commits disability fraud in order to spoil both parties with trips to high-end resorts in Arizona, Florida and the Caribbean, while the other party turns a blind eye. I won’t name names at this time, but I will name offenses. If the stories are true, it would be a good idea to run like the wind, and a very good idea to make the sleazeball put a stop to it immediately. If the stories are true, woman, you’re playing with fire.

I’m dead serious. It has been painful for me to learn that Robert Acosta, a man I only ever knew to be a good cop, destroyed his career and upended his life in a brief episode of rage fueled by avarice and some unforseeable medical problems. I hope to never have a friend follow his example.

Trust me. It could happen to you.

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