The Good Guys, and the Excuses We Make For Ignoring Them

Permit me to indulge in a bit of idealism.

I spent the close of last night reading Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games — and I’ll explain. It’s a series of young adult books that, like Harry Potter and Ender’s Game, made the crossover and gained some popularity among the older and wiser set. In the series, a totalitarian government centered in the Rockies replaced the United States, after large swaths of the world were wiped away in an unexplained cataclysm. 75 years prior to the events of the first book, the remaining American “states” — organized into 13 “districts,” each specialized to produce one type of good — rebelled, but were violently put down by the central government (think Firefly). To remind the districts of their subservience, and the ease with which the Capitol could crush them at any moment, every year each District must submit two children to participate in a deadly free-for-all game of survival, televised (naturally) for the enjoyment of the Capitol. In the districts, families eke out a living on starvation rations, but if their “tributes” win the game, for a solid year, everyone in the district gets enough food to eat. Hence, “the Hunger Games.”

Big damn heroes.

Not to spoil anything — I mean, since there’re sequels, you probably figured this out anyways — but the main character survives book one. (Gasp!) As part of her victory, she’s treated to a tour of all 12 districts, culminating in a celebration in the Capitol, where names (and customs) are drawn from the worst stories of the excesses of ancient Rome. One excerpt:

All that I can think of is the emaciated bodies of the children on our kitchen table as my mother prescribes what the parents can’t give. More food. Now that we’re rich, she’ll send some home with them. But often in the old days, there was nothing to give and the child was past saving, anyway. And here in the Capitol they’re vomiting for the pleasure of filling their bellies again and again. Not from some illness of body or mind, not from spoiled food. It’s what everyone does at a party. Expected. Part of the fun.

At a cultural level, we know to recoil from the tragic juxtaposition between the life of the haves, and the death of the have-nots. How can anyone justify such decadence, when across the country, children starve to death? The same reaction and innate sense of justice pervade other fictional universes. Robin Hood is a thief, but we know he’s doing the right thing. Firefly‘s Mal Reynolds notes the contrast between Paradiso — where everyone dies young thanks to a futuristic, hyper-virulent black lung — and the opulent core worlds, where disease functionally ended years prior, and we’re instantly on his side. But our sense of justice seems to stop sometimes at the TV set, or at the covers of a book. Why?

Why don’t we have the same reaction in our own lives? We know we prefer a world where the rich-poor gap is much smaller than it actually is; and we know, too, that we underestimate the actual state of income disparity in this country (pdf). Almost everyone agrees that America is less equal than it should be, and that it’s getting worse. But we still entertain politicians who insist that under absolutely no circumstance should the rich carry a heavier burden in the course of restoring the country’s economic stability. Instead, it’s actually a mainstream position that hey, maybe the poor, those “lucky duckies,” should kick in a bit more?

We know this is wrong. Poll after poll shows support for a millionaire’s tax bracket. But we don’t stick by it. Maybe it’ll be different this time — maybe Obama will stick by his veto threat — but I’m no longer optimistic.

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12 comments

  1. Question: You live in one of the most unequal cities in the country and are part of the very class that holds most of the wealth. In your opinion, what lead to this inequality and how should your class solve it?

  2. We’ve talked about this before, but you love coming back to it for some unknown reason. Someone just destroyed you on it last time; I forgot the exact thrust of their point, but the general sentiment was what I’ve been saying all along, that the way cities are set up attracts the very rich and the very poor, while everyone else goes elsewhere-but-nearby.

    Also, I’m not upper class in New York. The average income in my zip code is something just under a million; in my law school apartment’s zip code, it’s just $15,000 under what I make. I’m middle class here.

  3. ” …the way cities are set up attracts the very rich and the very poor…I’m middle class.”

    ” …I’m middle class.”

    That in itself seems contradictory, but regardless, I disagree that this is a problem inherent in ALL cities and there are literally thousands of them that would contradict that claim. And regardless of THAT, you still haven’t explained how you fix it. Do you think an aggressively progressive tax system would be enough or would you propose something else?

  4. I was hoping you’d figure it out. I’m middle class relative to the city but not to the United States writ large.

  5. So cities attract the very rich and the very poor from elsewhere and everyone just stays in those rolls? No social mobility?

  6. Joel Kotkin seems to have been writing about you today:

    “Like many native New Yorkers, Bronstein sees Manhattan — the epicenter of the “luxury city” — as something of a “fantasy land,” inhabited by those who, despite living in Gotham’s historic core, are “not really New Yorkers.” Most Manhattanites, he notes, did not grow up in New York, and a majority live in single households. They largely either go to school, work in media or Wall Street, or make their livings servicing the rich.”

  7. Right. He’s not wrong. There’s social mobility here, but a lot of that comes in the form of people moving to the city to make it, and then making it, or moving away.

  8. So then why no middle class? Why aren’t people staying? This was not true 30 years ago.

  9. Too expensive, and too easy to get lower rent within a commutable distance while retaining a higher-paying job and prestige. Hence, Outer Boroughs.

    1. Blaming it on inflation and rising home prices is a bit simplistic. Joel Kotkin has a different notion.:

      “Ultimately, suggests Jonathan Bowles, president of the Center for an Urban Future, the future of New York’s middle class depends on reducing dependence on Wall Street. The city needs to focus on industries and niches outside finance, including education, health, design, high-tech services, media and smaller businesses, many of them owned by immigrants.

      Bowles suggests diversification needs to speed up particularly now that Wall Street, the very engine of the “luxury” economy, is sputtering. Such a change will require a new political climate. Voter engagement and political choice in New York have atrophied under the Medici-like Bloomberg, who has managed to pay off many interest groups with a combination of his own and the city’s money. Combined with a union-financed get-out-the-vote, the choices offered by the city’s once contentious politics have become increasingly constricted.”

  10. I’ve read the article, but it’s largely premised on over-reading the election in District 9. Remember, I do New York politics, almost for a living, and my friends who did voter protection/GotV found people not longing to vote Republican, unhappy with the Democrats, or with Bloomberg. They missed Anthony Weiner, and didn’t really know a lot about Weprin. He ran a shitty campaign, and doesn’t live in the district. That’s enough to kill any candidate, and explains the issues here.

    I actually think there’s a fair point in there, that the luxury city model — which should really explains only Manhattan and parts of Park Slope — doesn’t hold up with a weak Wall Street. But Wall Street doesn’t have to be dangerously opulent to sustain the model, as it has been for the past ten years. It just has to be functional, which could happen under a regulated environment the same way securities is still a profitable business, exceedingly so, post-Securities and Exchange Acts. The diversification he’s yearning for wouldn’t save Manhattan, it would entirely alter it, and have unforeseeable effects on the engines that drive the city’s uniqueness and cultural power. Not everyone has to have a job in Manhattan for the city to work — but they do have to have jobs. Maybe diversifying Manhattan’s industries from mostly finance to mostly finance and hi-tech would work… but beyond that, I don’t think the city wants or needs that change, nor do I think he’ll find voters who expect it does. To the extent that he concludes otherwise, it’s based on a myopic misunderstanding of Manhattan as some monstrosity that stands alone. Holistically, it’s part of a thriving regional economy, with plenty of places for the middle class.

    Maybe this is stream of consciousness, because I’m a little sick. But this is an interesting topic worth exploring more.

    1. I would remind you of what Jane Jacobs wrote on the subject:

      ““A metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle class people … greenhorns into competent citizens. Cities don’t lure the middle class, they create it.”

      When Kotkin refers to NYC he is refering to all five boroughs, not just Manhattan. It’s fairly clear that NYC as a whole is no longer providing the social mobility as well as a lot of other urban centers.

      It sounds like what you are saying is that you are okay with this. People move into NYC as a 20-something student, get a law degree or a job on Wall Street, make a bunch of money, start a family and move out to the burbs. That’s kind of a sad model given NYC’s history but there’s something more sinister there. Underneath these stories of middle class migration is a service economy that supports all of those people pursuing their dreams. 20% of the city’s inhabitants live in poverty.

      So I’m asking you again, given this great inequality in the city as a whole, what can liberal policies do to change this? What is your prescription?

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