The always crowded Bedford Avenue stop on the L train where one young man fell on the tracks and was killed by a train in a drunken brawl not too long ago. The other man has since been found and arrested.
As I was pressed against a door on a crowded L train going into Manhattan one morning recently, a young well dressed couple within inches of me began discussing their rent, how to pay it this month, if they could get away with paying just part of it, what groceries they could do without to make the rent. They certainly did not look the part of poor struggling tenants. They looked like low level office professionals of some kind, maybe hipsters on the weekends. They were both on their way to work with their ID badges on. And yet they were talking about doing without to make the rent.
There are so many things wrong with this picture, I thought. Why should anyone who's employed have to worry about paying the rent? Why should 2 employed people worry about paying rent? Why are they, and all the rest of us, pressed together like cattle on the way to a slaughterhouse on a train that runs unreliably at best?
The L train is crowded because the former industrial areas it passes through have been rapidly developed as residential neighborhoods to accommodate the throngs of people driven off Manhattan by the sky high rents all over the island. There was no corresponding expansion of utilities and services for this expanded population. At the very moment when ridership on the subway is at an all time high with growing demand, funds are being cut resulting in service cutbacks, thus densely packed trains and dangerously over-crowded subway platforms at all hours. Deaths from falls on the tracks are up this year.
Michael and I pay a low rent for this neighborhood. Our landlady very much wants to keep us and has no plans to raise our rent anytime soon. And yet, we both hold our breath at the end of every month. We're not really all that different from the couple on the train. Both of us are employed professionals. We are both very much middle class. And yet, there are weeks when I am cashless and Michael does without. Our rent is the least of our problems. I carry a big student loan debt whose monthly bill is now about equal to my rent payment and about to exceed it (Michael's younger sister and her husband across the hall carry even bigger student loan debts, and work 2 full time jobs just to pay the bills). We both carry credit card debt since we have to use those to make up for the occasional lack of cash. We are both living from paycheck to paycheck.
Something is so very wrong with this picture.
We've both had all kinds of problems with banks, credit card companies, and health insurance companies over the years making our lives ever so much harder at just the wrong moment. Just when we think we've caught up, they move the goal posts. Just when we're having a rough time and we'd like a little help, they raise our monthly payments, sometimes tripling them.
And things aren't much better in dear old Dallas where the cost of living there is rapidly catching up with New York. You can still get more there for your rent money, but not much more. On top of that, there are lower wages, and the costs of owning a car which is not quite so necessary in New York as it is in Texas. So, it all comes out the same in the end.
It feels like we, that couple on the L train, Michael's sister and her husband, and lots and lots of other people are being punished. For what? We've always worked hard and were honest. I would imagine the same is true for the couple on the train, and for most people I see in a day. So why does everything feel so damn punitive these days?
And yet I hear the professional moral scolds and read the pundits like David Brooks and Ross Douthat among others bang on and on about how overindulged and spoiled we all are. Ha! That means a lot coming from guys making 6 and 7 figure salaries just to opinionate in public, who are regulars on the Washington dinner party circuit, who I'm sure would never pass up a bonus or royalty check just to help out some poor sap somewhere, let alone for anything like "the common good."
It seems to me that the main agenda of all of our rulers, political, economic, cultural, and religious is to stay in power and to cover their asses.
Thomas Frank recently wrote an op-ed in which he expressed astonishment that just about everyone responsible for two major debacles over the past 10 years kept their jobs. All the pundits who were cheerleaders for the Iraq invasion, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and Thomas Friedman among others, are all still employed, all still considered "authorities," despite their active involvement in a debacle that cost thousands of lives of both Iraqis and Americans, and effectively broke the national treasury. All of those executives and professionals on Wall Street who inflated all the bubbles, who kept the pot boiling, who defrauded millions of people around the world are still employed and doing better than ever. The financial pundits on CNBC and in the papers who did their part to keep the bubble inflating are also still employed.
I would go even further. The ideology that has dominated public debate in this country for more than thirty years, and enabled both of these debacles is stronger than ever with ever more extreme and rabid adherents practically frothing at the mouth in red faced spittle flecked rage on the tee vee every night. The supremacist regime that created all of these disasters is set to take power again, and this time it is likely that they will make their reign permanent.
Those enthusiastic enforcers of conventional morality in the service of established power, the evangelical and Roman Catholic churches, have lost none of their enthusiasm or power despite scandal and criminality, and despite rapidly growing public alienation from religion in general. Catholic hierarchs and mega-church autocrats are eager to provide moral camouflage for the ambitions of the already rich and powerful to confiscate the remaining assets of the middle class and poor. Marx may well be vindicated in his claim that the priest is the landlord's best friend.
Workers today in Spain are starting a general strike as their government decrees drastic cuts to worker rights, using the current economic crisis as an opportunity to roll back 4 decades of progress since the death of Franco. Sound familiar? It should. The same thing is playing out in state governments here and will soon reach the federal level.
I'd love to see a general strike here, but I despair of that ever happening. Our country is too large, too heterogeneous, and too conflicted. Our rulers are so much more expert at divide et impera than their European counterparts, and we have so many more social and cultural fissures in which to drive wedges than Europe.
And so I ask those old socialist questions:
Whose economy is it? I produce, why don't I share?
Professional moral scolds and the religious right always fret over the state of marriage these days. I've got an idea which will preserve the institution better than recriminalizing homosexuality or stoning adulterers.
Give everyone a raise.
Give people more money to take home. Give them paid parental leave when they have children. Make people feel more secure and safe about keeping a home and a family with national health insurance, student loan debt forgiveness, and public education.
Give people a raise.
More marriages end over money (usually the lack of it) than for any other reason; 57% of all divorces are over money.
Here's a post by economist Duncan Black on his blog Eschaton that is worth quoting in full:
For the past couple of decades we've all (by "we" I man all the Very Serious People in the chattering classes) bought into the fantasy that all we need to do is pursue Conservative Means to achieve Liberal Ends and everything will be awesome. First of all, those conservative means usually don't work (I won't say never, but that discussion is too great for the margin of this blog post). But more importantly, the point of such "compromises" was to actually pass some legislation that might achieve stuff, and was premised on the idea that there were people in both political parties who want to make life better for poor people by improving educational opportunities a bit and maybe help a few more people get decent health insurance. Whether those people in the Republican party ever really existed or if they just mugged for the cameras and the Villagers I don't know, but they don't exist anymore. Right now we have one political party that is very up front about and proud of their desire to mug everyone in the non-millionaire club, steal all their money, and give it to rich people. It's time for the other political party to recognize that the era of dumb compromises is over, and if they'd actually come up with a way to help people, instead of a plan to set up a program to provide the incentives to blahblahblahblahblahblah....