April 30, 2013

I Believe This Is What They Call "The Dominant Ideology"

From the New York Times: Who Says New York Is Not Affordable?

Regular readers may know that I have something of a love-hate relationship with New York—only without the love part. (And even regular readers haven't seen all the rants saved in my drafts folder that I deemed too vituperative!) I hate the inequality. I hate the pollution. I hate the selfishness. I hate the sense of entitlement. And most of all, I hate the cognitive dissonance that allows so many New Yorkers to live unequal, polluting, selfish, entitled lives, and still think they are the most liberal and cosmopolitan and amazing city in the world.

And this article pretty much encompasses all of those things.
New Yorkers assume that we live in the most expensive city in the country, and cost-of-living indexes tend to back up that assertion. But those measures are built around the typical American’s shopping habits, which don’t really apply to the typical New Yorker... Once you account for these different preferences, it turns out that living in New York is actually a relative bargain for the wealthy.
Oh, well, thank GOODNESS, Marcy! (N.B. The author of this article is named Catherine, not Marcy. Marcy is meant to be the stereotypical name of a rich New Yorker. I don't know if that's accurate because I can't afford to hang out within six blocks of a rich New Yorker.)

Sorry, I'm being told that for "rich New Yorker," I should be saying "average New Yorker."

Anyway, the first section of this article, as you have doubtless gathered, boils down to: thanks to market forces, your quinoa and caviar are actually cheaper in New York than if you were living somewhere else. So bully for you.

It then continues:
Of course, not everything that wealthy New Yorkers spend money on is cheaper here. Housing, after all, is absurdly expensive, even for the rich.
Yes, WOE IS THEM!, in those $27 million penthouses they're forced to buy! It's positively ghastly. Or so you might think. Actually, though, the next section of the article goes on to explain precisely why the outrageous rents are a good thing. See, "baked into" that high rent—literally!—is access to New York's fabulous amenities:
Those higher rents all but ensure that tenants will appreciate an amazing bakery or a fancy shoe store — and that retailers will have to lower prices to compete for their business... 
Professional-class workers who like to moan about the cost of living in New York — and I’m including myself in this group — don’t realize how spoiled we are by both variety and competitive pricing. Truthfully, things seem more expensive here because there’s just way more high-end stuff around to tempt us... We see a sensible shoe with a $480 price tag or an oatmeal cookie for $4 and sometimes don’t register that these are luxury versions of normal items available from Payless or Entenmann’s. The problem, in part, is that people tend to anchor their own expectations for what they should buy based on what their neighbors are buying, not what some abstract, median American buys.
I mean, good grief, I get exhausted just thinking about all the heady ideological rationalizing going on here:

1. Spending money is okay because it allows you spend more money. (i.e. It's okay that you pay $2,500 a month to live in Manhattan, because that gives you the privilege of spending $500 on a sock and $700 on a pizza.)

2. You might feel like you don't have enough money, but really you should be thankful at how many great opportunities you have to spend that money. (i.e. There, there. Eat some quinoa and caviar. You'll feel better.)

3. The problem isn't that THE ENTIRE ECONOMIC SYSTEM IN THIS CITY IS CRIMINALLY AWFUL, it's that the rest of the country doesn't spend enough money on the finer things in life. (i.e. Who are these poor dolts who enjoy Entemann's?)

Anyway, FINALLY, after 800 words telling us how thankful we should be for our high rents, we get to the "ominous flipside" of New York's demonstrable swellness: while all the grocery stores are falling all over themselves to get you the best deal on organic quinoa, a household living at or below the poverty line ends up having to pay up to 20% more for normal food staples. Plus they don't get federal assistance, half the time, because so many New York businesses pay them wages that are above the federal threshold for qualifying. (I mean, we're not MONSTERS. We won't pay you a living wage, but we certainly won't pay you minimum wage.) No, unfortunately for the poor,
it is impossible to unbundle apartments from all the perks that help drive up costs.
But we're still sure they're perks, right?

According to the article, the end result of all this is that the poor end up having to leave the city—which would be fine, except that they still have to come back into the city every day to cater to the rich people who are incapable of cooking a single fucking meal for themselves, or cleaning their own bathroom, or walking their own dog, or whatever. Indeed, commuting times in New York, according to the article, are now the longest of any metro area in the country. And sure, some of those commuters are equally rich people taking the train in from Connecticut—but basically, the gist is, the poor have to travel further so that the rich can have nice restaurants.

Now, don't get me wrong. The article does try to muster some genuine outrage about all this, in its last two or three paragraphs. But at the same time it also reassures us that "what's happening in New York is just part of a national shift." Um, well, maybe, but also: are you kidding me? You just spent the first 800 words talking about how atypical New York's economic situation is (Hello, hi! We were there at the beginning of the article too!), and now you want us to believe that the situation here is really no worse than... Chicago? San Francisco? What is the right comparison here, actually?

Again, to be fair to the article, it doesn't say that the national trend it identifies in diverging incomes is "inevitable." In fact, it offers a clear "third option," citing Houston as an example, where the local government deregulates the housing market to encourage the building of more (and more affordable) homes. Boffo. Except that earlier, the article already told us that such a third option was impossible for New York, because there's no more space to build anything.

So what's the solution for NEW YORK, New York journalist, writing in flagship New York publication? How do we escape the seemingly inevitable national trend here? Could it be, maybe, taking some real social responsibility, beyond voting Obama and driving your Prius and donating to Movember? Could it be demanding robust rent control, and raising the minimum wage to a living one, and, I don't know, considering the livelihood of the people around you as at least equally important to that great bakery on the corner?

Or should we just keep pretending that this city is great and call it a day?

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