"Costly self-abnegation"

Tiny homes (Mikayla Whitmore/Las Vegas Sun via AP)

One of the ironies of the 21st century is that many people are too poor to be Woke.  Some would if they could afford it.  With nearly 85% of voters registered Democratic, San Francisco is arguably one of the bluest cities in America.  But only a few people can afford to live there.  “The California Association of Realtors (CAR) released its most recent Housing Affordability Index this week and estimated that only 12 percent of San Francisco households could afford a median-priced single family home in the city at the end of 2017, the worst rating in the state.”


San Francisco is losing more residents than any other city in the US, so many in fact there’s a shortage of U-Hauls leaving town. “It costs $US2,000 to rent a truck from San Jose to Las Vegas – but only costs $US100 the other way around, according to local news reporter Michelle Robertson from SFGate.”

Having experienced at first hand the deleterious effect of gentrification, poor people elsewhere are redoubling their efforts to turn back the tide of trendy socialism.  Some activists now regard the upscale, socially enlightened demographic with the same trepidation as the  plague.  “A coalition of scorched-earth young activists from the surrounding neighborhood — the heart of Mexican-American L.A. — who have rejected the old, peaceful forms of resistance (discussion, dialogue, policy proposals) … [have] decided” to go all out against gentrification. They’ve decided “that the only sensible response is to attack and hopefully frighten off the sorts of art galleries, craft breweries and single-origin coffee shops that tend to pave the way for more powerful invaders: the real estate agents, developers and bankers whose arrival typically mark a neighborhood’s point of no return.”

In their desire to be sensitive the socially aware are making an effort to fit in so that gentrification no means posh but the willingness to pay more for less.  Recently the NYT described the rise of the $3,500 a month San Francisco dormitory. “‘I was looking for more meaning,” said one.  “The idea of sharing a bathroom was initially alarming, but the pictures of the house looked nice and Ms. Shiver wanted to meet new friends. For $2,200 a month, she now rents a Starcity room with a queen-size bed, a bedside table and a chair.”  If it is squalor at premium prices, it is of the expensive and voluntary sort.


Of course this may perplex the actual poor who actually want to live in better houses.  Will Staley writing in the NYT magazine explores the strange tensions which arise when the affluent have differences of opinion with the locals on the virtues of poverty.  Through a process he describes as “costly abnegation”, the rich are willing to pay through the nose for the privilege of being miserable.  Or at least obtaining the de luxe and politically correct version of misery.  “Last winter, midway through my hourlong commute into Midtown Manhattan — having traversed part of Queens and all of chic north Brooklyn — I found myself reading about how a dish called a “chopped cheese,” a sort of cheese steak made with hamburger meat, had been gentrified. Once a specialty of uptown bodegas, the sandwich had caught the attention of novelty-seeking foodies: Whole Foods was selling them for twice what they cost in the Bronx, where they went for $4 and still do.”

Staley argues this search for the experience of deprivaation has managed to make a mockery of poverty itself.  Living poor — at skyhigh rates — has become like a fashion trend. “In 2016, BuzzFeed published an article … on the ‘tiny house’ phenomenon — a vogue for … a tremendous number of tedious affectations …  design fetishism, ostentatious minimalism, costly self-abnegation. … [including] two other lifestyle trends: ‘raw water’ (unfiltered drinking water, often collected from the natural environment) and “#vanlife” (living in a van, but on Instagram).”


“Those who collect their drinking water, Jones writes, have ‘adopted a hardship that poor people suffer, and stripped it of its association with poverty.'”  ‘Adopted’ is the operative word.  What robs those voluntarily living in squalor of the real experience of poverty is they have a choice about living broke.  But people who simply haven’t withdrawn money from the ATM don’t get the full flavor of desperation any more than those merely holding their breath under water can experience the panic the truly drowning feel from not being able rise to the surface.

Perhaps Fitzgerald’s observation about the rich, formerly reserved for the gilded few, now applies to millions of people in America who hanker for material simplicity. “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft, where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.”  Difficult to understand but there you have it.

Fitzgerald might have added the rich, unlike the genuinely poor the rich had the time to be outraged over statues,  muse over what it would be like to eat human flesh,  or stay up nights fretting over the existence of Charles Murray.  They do this because they can and because they choose to.

Still one has to be careful not to offend the genuinely destitute, such as those who are crossing the frontier from Venezuela into Columbia to escape the socialist paradise. If they and the Woke should every cross paths, Alternet in an article that reads like parody but is written in dead earnest, offers 20 tips on how not to be a gentrifier.  “Gentrification is the word of the day. As the wealthiest in this country flock to major metropolitan centers like San Francisco and New York, and the rest get pushed out into the margins, many people are asking, ‘Am I a gentrifier? Is it bad? Should I care?'” Having answered in the affirmative the article proceeds to dispense advice. The first four give a flavor of the rest:


1.Smile and say hi to your neighbors when you see them, even if they seem scary or don’t say hi back;

2. Recognize all the people outside of your door as your neighbors, even if they look different from you and live under different circumstances.

3. Change the way you perceive neighbors by changing the language you use to describe them.

4. Really think before you call the police.

In some ways the longing of affluent youth for spiritual rebirth through simplicity has ample historical precedent. Every society in upheaval has had them.  The Russian “Narodnik intelligentsia“, for example, “left the cities for the villages, ‘going to the people’ in an attempt to teach the peasantry their moral imperative to revolt. They found almost no support.” Lenin could barely contain his contempt for their “vapid banalities or naïveties”, though that did not stop him from using that very same vapidity from enlisting them in his cynical cause.  Eventually the idealists found the rural simplicity and they longed for — in the Gulag.

The ultimate beneficiaries of today’s youthful idealism are probably going to be real estate developers and landlords who will take the Woke to the cleaners.  They may get something out of it too, though doubtless at top dollar.

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The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. This book reveals the forces driving the reinvention of our lives and our economy. As the full impact of digital technologies is felt, we will realize immense bounty but also experience wrenching change. Professions of all kinds – from lawyers to truck drivers – will be forever upended. Companies will be forced to transform or die. Recent economic indicators reflect this shift: fewer people are working, and wages are falling even as productivity and profits soar. Drawing on years of research and up-to-the-minute trends, MIT’s Brynjolfsson and McAfee identify the best strategies for survival and a new path to prosperity.


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