Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Vampires of the Gilded Age

Financial gurus advise never spending more than a quarter of your income on housing, so as to have plenty of cash left over for food, heat, transportation and other niceties. But if you live in certain parts of the country (D.C., New York, San Francisco) that little bromide has always been a joke. Not for nothing does NYC actually have a political party called "The Rent is Too Damned High."

Since the financial meltdown and collapse of the housing market and record foreclosures, we have become a nation of renters. And Wall Street has become a cabal of landlords, buying up all those distressed properties they had a big hand in distressing, and then leasing them out to the same middle class refugees who once owned them. There's a new housing bubble. But instead of giving out subprime liar loans to unqualified buyers and thus inflating home prices, the banks and the wealthy investor class are snatching up housing inventory with scads of easy money provided through the Fed's quantitative easing welfare program/continued bailout of Wall Street.

And so where does that leave the poor, who were always renters? Pretty much in high-rent hell. Even vermin-infested slum properties are desirable these days, prime fodder for a new breed of urban renewalists and gentrification entrepreneurs and landlord investors. And when your landlord is Wall Street and you're late with the rent, they cut you no slack. They're evicting tenants as fast as they're sucking up their last dime as security deposits.

From the New York Times:
“We are in the midst of the worst rental affordability crisis that this country has known,” Shaun Donovan, the secretary of housing and urban development, said at a conference here (New York) on Monday.
And the less income a household has, the harder the sting. “These are the people with the fewest financial resources,” said Sheila Crowley, the president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a research and advocacy group based in Washington. “These are the people in danger of becoming homeless.”
The problem is national, and particularly acute among the working poor. The number of renters with very low incomes — less than 30 percent of the local median income, or about $19,000 nationally — surged by 3 million to 11.8 million between 2001 and 2011, according to a report released Monday by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard. But the number of affordable rentals available to those households held steady at about 7 million. And by 2011, about 2.6 million of those rentals were occupied by higher-income households.
As a result, the share of renters paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing jumped to 50 percent in 2010 from 38 percent in 2000. For renters with incomes of less than $15,000 a year, 83 percent pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent.
During the soon-to-blessedly-end Bloomberg era, the division of the city into the haves and have-nots proceeded at breakneck speed. An example is the Hudson Yards Project, in which low income people were kicked out of their apartments through eminent domain in order to make room for green spaces and nice views for the rich.

The Times may be running a Pulitzer-worthy series of stories on extreme poverty and homelessness, but record wealth inequality is in no way impeding their business-as-usual shilling of lifestyles of the rich and famous. The editorial board just warned public workers and newly-elected Bill De Blasio that they'll have to face reality and stifle their expectations of a more egalitarian Big Apple. The Gray Lady suggests municipal workers contribute more to their own medical costs, but says nary a word about taxing the rich. In the midst of their holiday noblesse-obliging, the vampire elites are still pushing austerity on the masses while sucking up more for themselves.

 Sardonicky contributor Nan Socolow (who used to work in New York real estate) sent along this piece about River House, yet another residential tower for billionaires. The article fondly reminisces about the gilded age of the robber barons, and how it is making a comeback at long last. Property is getting so tight that even rich people are getting squeezed --- a historic luxury bar for wealthy boozehounds in the district is being closed to make room for one more plutocratic apartment. Nan writes in her scathing published comment:
The venerable New York real estate firm, Brown, Harris, Stevens (est. 1873) is offering the River House "residence" for sale at 130 Million Dollars. This egregiously grotesque price for an apartment - no matter the 'mod cons" and 82' swimming pool, right next to the East River (FDR) Drive - beggars comprehension!
This property needs a real go-getter pistol of a broker - someone like Leona Mindy Roberts before she became Mrs."just wild about Harry" Helmsley, and crowned herself Queen of the Helmsley Palace (Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France). It will be interesting to see who has $130,000,000 walking around money to pay for this offering with its ineradicahble clangour of traffic noise and pall of air pollution. How good it is to see that hubris, chutzpah, and gall are alive and well in Manhattan's real estate market!
For the average billionaire, I suspect that $130 million is spare change, well in keeping with the gurus' advice to spend no more than a quarter of one's income on housing. If you're a Walton or a Koch, it's tantamount to throwing a nickel into a Salvation Army bell-ringers cup for Christmas. Not that these types would ever part with one plug nickel to ease the pain of the lesser people.

On that theme, be sure to read (or better yet, avoid)  scribe-to-the-plutocrats David Brooks's latest effort, a review of economist-to-the-plutocrats Tyler Cowen's latest book. Nobody can agitate for sadism in a more sensible-sounding philosophical manner than Our Mr. Brooks. His last two paragraphs are a veritable ode to Ebenezer Scrooge before his nightmare conversion:
Economizers. The bottom 85 percent is likely to be made up of people with less marketable workplace skills. Some of these people may struggle financially but not socially or intellectually. That is, they may not make much running a food truck, but they can lead rich lives, using the free bounty of the Internet. They could use a class of advisers on how to preserve rich lives on a small income.
Weavers. Many of the people who struggle economically will lack the self-motivation to build rich inner lives for themselves. Many are already dropping out of the labor force in record numbers and drifting into disorganized, disaffected lifestyles. Public and private institutions are going to hire more people to fight this social disintegration. There will be jobs for people who combat the dangerous inegalitarian tendencies of this new world.
My response: (he admits he never reads the comments because of his sensitive feelings)
So now David Brooks is shilling for the Koch Brothers.
Tyler Cowen, author of the book that he's salivating over, runs the libertarian think tank known as the Mercatus Center. Founded and funded by the Koch Family to the tune of almost $30 million, it's been called "Ground Zero for deregulation policy in Washington."
The Kochs' sole aim is extraction -- despoiling the planet as they relentlessly steal from every man, woman and child living on it. They're among just 250 individuals who have more money than the total annual living expenses of almost half the world -- three billion people. Or put another way, the richest 5% own about two-thirds of the $15 trillion gained since the recession.
So all this recent talk of wealth disparity and rising progressivism must be making them nervous. From the Kochs' vault to Cowen's brain to Brooks's Rx pad comes this cheery prescription:
It's a servant economy, stupid. And if you won't toil for the rich at subsistence wages, then you're a lazy low-life. And if you find yourself relegated to the margins through your own fault, there are plenty of your fellow citizens desperate enough to persuade you to get with the Brave New World program. Private for-profit prisons beckon those who can't embrace the joy of poverty and find fulfillment in licking the same boots that won't stop kicking them in the teeth.
It must be hard out there for a columnist needing new ways of preaching Social Darwinism week after stultifying week.


Rose in SE Michigan said...

Alas, Karen, it's too late. I succumbed to temptation and read Bobo's latest. But then -- there you were, at the top of the comments section, like a perfect sorbet (lime, if you care to know) to cleanse away the nauseous blather of this pandering prick. I wish I could have 'recommended' you logarithmically.

Thank you for speaking truth to power and for persevering when too many of us are discouraged, depressed and demoralized.

Jay - Ottawa said...

There are two journalists who call themselves David Brooks. One tosses contaminated red meat to the readers of the NY Times, as Karen just explained; the other tosses spicy red meat to readers of the independent lefty Mexican publication, La Jornada.

You don’t have to remember irregular verb tenses learned in Spanish 101 to do a comparison. Just copy the Spanish column into Google Translate and in a flash you’ll have a rough translation of what SeƱor David Brooks is peddling south of the border in a regular column of his called “American Curios.”

Because I know only two and a half of you out there will bother to look at the Mexican Brooks, let me summarize what this internationally acclaimed journalist is telling Mexico about America. From his column of 2 December, first, he reminds you how natural yet unexpected was the revolutionary action of blacks in the sixties with their sit-ins at southern lunch counters. The unrest back then led to a revolution.

Then he jumps to today in describing, in detail across many sectors of the population, the widespread unrest in America at this moment, as if to suggest strongly that another revolution is brewing. No kidding.

From a microbiology course of long ago I recall one day the lab tech showed us a strange phenomenon. Certain microbes turn on a dime depending on the light source. We looked through our scopes, turned on a lamp to the left and all those microbes scurried toward it. Before they ran off the end of the specimen plate we turned on a lamp to the right. With the precision of a marching band they did a 180. The class began to break out in laughter and wonderment.

I'm not saying that Brooks is a microbe. Just that Brooks thinks and writes so much better under the Mexican sun.


Fred Drumlevitch said...

And there's one more aspect of the dearth of affordable housing that you didn't mention, Karen, but which gets to the heart of how this society views and treats people. And it adds the cruelest insult to injury, and injury to insult.

In many places, poverty and associated homelessness are treated by authorities as prima facie grounds to remove children from their parents and place them in foster care, sometimes temporarily, which is bad enough, but sometimes extending to permanent loss of parental custody.


I think it was Barney Frank who said decades ago "Republicans' belief in the sanctity of life begins at conception and ends at birth!"

Nowadays, that's more true than ever about the Republicans, but with their support for military spending yet austerity elsewhere, and insufficient taxation, the Democrats have often become complicit, their protestations notwithstanding. When it comes to federal appropriations, Ron Barber, the Democratic Congressman for my district (note my phrasing, I will not say my Congressman) is always gung-ho for military spending, which inevitably leads to the shortchanging of support programs for the poor.

Oh, and he didn't spend Thanksgiving doing the admittedly often-hypocritical photo-op of serving food to the poor at the Salvation Army, but rather, he spent it toadying up to military voters by serving food to soldiers at the local Air Force base!



In the pre-Thanksgiving press release, he did not fail to note that "Media are welcome to cover the event, but they must contact Lt. Sarah Ruckriegle at 520-228-3406 by 1 p.m. Wednesday for admission to Davis-Monthan." At least some mass media did cover his appearance, so "mission accomplished"!

Zee said...


I know that you've remarked previously on the differences between David-Brooks-north-of-the-border and David-Brooks-south-of-the-border, but this is truly hilarious:


Reading Brooks in La Jornada, one would think that the U.S. is teetering on the brink of the revolution on multiple fronts, from immigration reform activists to fast-food/big-box-store strikers to
the Rolling Jubilee Initiative to those resisting the privatization of American education. I could practically smell the burning barricades at major intersections throughout Albuquerque.

And for Brooks to quote Howard Zinn as having been correct about something, well, I'm stunned.

I wonder if Brooks' bosses at the New York Times are aware of Brooks' duplicitous twin who lives somewhere south of the Rio Grande?

Returning to the topic of Brooks-of-the-north's most recent column, well, it's a pretty dystopian future that he seems to be praising whilst “reviewing” Tyler Cowen's book “Average is Over.” (Though it's not really much of a critique of the book; deep in the back of my mind, I can't help but wonder if Brooks is attempting to be satirical in his “analysis” as to who will comprise the lucky 15% who succeed in Cowen's “future.”)

If Cowen—and, perhaps, Brooks—can accept a future in which 85% of the populace struggles financially, with only the Internet left to them as a source of “enrichment” of their lives, well, they are both intellectually, morally and spiritually bankrupt.

To me, the whole point of human technological advancement should be to free ever larger segments of society from the drudgery of mindless subsistence labor, to enjoy more intellectual and artistic pursuits. Yes, even the “average,” who just happen to comprise the majority of us, anyway—and always will, unless we begin tampering with genetics. (Something that I am terrified that we will try to do, sooner or later, and at our own peril.)

In the Brave New World envisioned by Cowen and Brooks, the goal of technological advancement appears to be to reduce the remaining 85% to serving (for peanuts) the every whim of the 15% who, themselves, seem to tend “The Machines” only for their own benefit.

What a strange and selfish future they seem to be pining for.

v said...

I hope South of the Border Brooks is right - that the middle and lower middle class is finally getting it - that we have to unite and speak up before it is too late. I get so discouraged by the lack of interest in politics. I long for the 60's where it was cool to be informed and to speak up against injustice sanctioned by the government. Will those days return? Or were they a blip on the screen? Is it the fate of mankind to have an oligarchic class and the rest of humanity exist simply exist to serve them?

I see so much injustice but so much apathy as well. I don't mean to be a downer - but I long to know of these pockets of people who are actually waking up. I thought I found several groups through the blogpsphere before the last election - only to watch so many of them cave to Obama as the Lesser of Two Evils.

James F Traynor said...

Seeing as how Brooks don't read comments on his Times pieces, maybe Brooks doesn't write or even read his Mexican columns, just cashes the checks. Maybe he's got a ghost writer named Pancho (as in Villa) who has a vivid imagination and a taste for tequila.