Thursday, March 29, 2012

On the L Train

The always crowded L train on a normal day.

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....


Leonard said...

There is no ´L¨ train at the foot of the volcano.

I retired and moved to a little village in Guatemala at age I´m 68 years old and still here. I knew that I wanted to live comfortably (inexpensive rent), eat fresh foods (open indigenous markets) and spend my remaining life, doing art, being of service (in modest ways) to others, living amongst ¨regular people¨ in a small village and having a maid (I hate cleaning but like to cook) and a twice-a-week gardener.

I knew I could live comfortably on my SS check (and a tiny/recession-depreciated monthly retirement check from a NY corporation where I had been president of their California division--quite the bomb when it was devalued to less than $200 monthly thanks to greedsters who still are running rampant on Wall Street/beyond).

Here we have no need of heating or cooling (a fan now and then) as it´s the ¨Land of Eternal Spring.¨ Propane Gas and Electric combined are about $150 monthly (I installed hot water and have a washer and dryer).

Of course, many in this village live on a tenth/less of what I do every month but there are advantages too. There are wealthy ¨Nationals¨ who live discreetly and seem to help others when emergency needs arise for cash (sickeness/death) and their are ¨foreigners¨ like me that add much to the economy by employing people and sometimes helping out a little...I don´t know everything about this underground economy (and don´t ask) but at least in this village there seems to be ¨support¨ of sorts with community services (schools, recreation, some basic health services and even a 1/2 time nutrisonist, Dr´s. without borders and even visiting denists come from time to time from Italy and fundamentalist norteamericano Christians providing a child food program which feeds 500 kids a day--most of whom are/remain Roman Catholic. We have a learning center, sewers, lights and water connections everywhere--this is a good place as opposed to others that have none of the above.

Even here prices are going up drastically. The monthly ¨remittances¨ from the U.S. (family working in the States) have dropped about 30% (the largest source of National income) and tourism has consistantly dropped year after year (people either can´t come because of financial set-backs in the U.S./Europe or are afraid to come because of drug/gang violance, which, btw, doesn´t usually impact visitors to any great degree as the locals kidnap one another -- even the kidnappers know that kidnapping U.S. Citzens causes great problems, the FBI arrives, REAL investigations take place and it´s just BAD for BUSINESS).

Gas is around $5.00 a gallon. Food prices, even in the indigneous markets, have doubled (transportation charges from the fincas to the markets). When I go to the dentist it is $20.00 for cleaning and another $20.00 to repair fillings. The top cardiologist in Guatemala City (really good/Harvard trained) was $50 for a recent visit which included tests and a through exam.

Most of my Americano friends live in lovely homes in Antigua and not in the villages. Most of them have solid finances, travel extensively and enjoy expensive restaurants and luxurous lifestyles (all at a fraction of big city America prices).

I think there seems to be a big influx of Americanos and others moving to Latin America to have a better standard of living...truly I believe that people like me, foreigners, in this environment are greatly advantaged in many ways and not least of all, MOST (but by no means all) try and give back to our ¨communities¨ too...I feel very little social resentment and people treat me with great respect (and I keep it that way by paying attention to the impact of my own behavior).

This living situation is not for everyone...this is a different culture and many can´t accept the ¨differences¨...differences that are many, double standards being one, in a society where everyone is wonderfully polite but usually resentful of ¨social differences¨ and each person learns from birth the importance of not only ¨survival¨ but ¨get what you can.¨

it's margaret said...

Doug --this post reminds me --of being provided 'company' housing and being able to shop at the 'company' store... and at the end of the month, owing still more to the 'company' despite having worked our lives away....

--but it's not just mining towns any more --the 'company' owns everything, every where...

JCF said...

Give me a job. Then give me a raise. Give me the right to get married (I'm still on the hook for finding Ms Right)!

And THEN I can uphold that precious American Dream that the GOP is always on about.

[Well, and let me off the hook for MOST of that student loan debt, that I can NEVER pay back in full.]

MarkBrunson said...

With JCF on the student loan thing.

But, basically, the reason this happens is because we allow it. You don't share in the produce, because the parasites who - we are told - "produce the jobs" actually do nothing but buy up the means of production and sit back to rake in the wealth of others' work.

I say it again - the wealthy (I'll even say "well-off" in the current economy) are parasites.