‘Like getting cholera’

I’m home sick today (viral infection, perhaps?) and what better occasion to cobble together an update on this poor much-neglected blog?

Usually not a fan of McMegan or of her loony readership, but as a lifelong resident of Flyover Country, I appreciated her take this week on the high cost of living in places like NYC:

Many New Yorkers believe that they should be given some sort of income tax abatement because of the expense of living there…  Slightly less affluent New Yorkers frequently believe that landlords should be forced to offer them “reasonably sized” apartments at a modest fraction of their income, because after all, otherwise they couldn’t afford to live in New York.
Don’t think this is necessarily ideological–the fact is that in thirty-five years of New York, I’m not sure I heard anyone admit to being rich.  Even people with eight-digit wealth routinely refer to themselves as “middle class”.  As a friend used to mutter when he heard this, “middle of what?”
There’s a sort of irritating supposition in all of this that living in New York (or San Francisco, or Boston) is something that just happens to you, like getting cholera…
If coming to New York meant that you had to put four people in a three bedroom apartment that’s uncomfortably far from a subway line, instead of buying a nice little condo in Omaha, this does not mean that you are not “really” better off than your counterpart in Omaha; it means that you have chosen to consume your extra wealth in the form of “living in New York” rather than in the form of spacious real estate, cheap groceries, and an easy commute.

Also all too rare, I found myself nodding in agreement with many of the responses from her commentariat:

  • One should not, on the one hand, be “proud” to be a New Yorker because it’s the-best-damn-city-in-the-world-and-I-can’t-imagine-living-anywhere-else AND, on the other hand, expect me to commiserate with complaints about the cost of living.
  • These people don’t view NY or SF as a bad thing, like cholera. The irritating supposition is that they view it as a good thing that just happens to you, like being born to the nobility. And to which they are then entitled. It is the modern equivalent of, “I can’t afford to maintain the family manse.”
  • Our son, a junior on college, is majoring in Broadcast Journalism and Electronic Media, with an interest in going into television production as a career.  He keeps telling us that he has to move to New York when he graduates, because that’s where the jobs are.  And, of course, he’ll need a little parental financial support, because living in NYC is so darn expensive. Our response has been peals of laughter, followed by telling him that not only will we not pay for him to live in NYC, but the suggestion that he look at smaller markets to break into, and work his way up the food chain to NYC.
  • It’s the price you pay for being a member of Richard Florida’s “creative class,” which apparently will expel you if you don’t live in a place with a hip, urban vibe like Dupont Circle, Greenwich Village, Back Bay, etc.  The yokels in Omaha and the rubes in Mobile just have to understand that their pathetic lives would be even less worth living if we don’t make it possible for our creative young folks to live in close proximity to proper urban amenities and thus remain creative.

That New York sense of entitlement is cousin to the prevalent attitude among many Detroiters that the rest of the USA somehow owes them something.  The classic example is JoAnn Watson’s Quixotic campaign to get the federal government to bail out the city’s finances; you also see it a lot on DetroitYes.  Our city deserves ‘saving,’ so we have to stay there and save it, but also, everybody else ought to be chipping in too.  (For suburbanites, it’s not the city itself that should be bailed out but the ‘other Detroit,’ the Big 3 and their suppliers.)

For ambitious folks with an urbanist bent living in third- and fourth-tier cities, I suspect it is inevitable to feel at least a tiny hint of this hybrid emotion, a mixture of schadenfreude (one of my guilty pleasures), cynicism, and resentment.  It’s ambivalent, like the whole experience of finding yourself living in the Rust Belt (or prosperous but unglamorous places like Omaha or Fargo).   You even see it in the defensiveness Chicagoans are sometimes alleged to display toward New York.

I’m not sure it’s entirely unproductive, as it signals both an awareness of the world outside, and a reminder that location is not a magic bullet — every location has its trade offs. Properly channeled, it can result in an attitude of competitive can-do — a willingness to try to make the shit-hole you live in a better place for as long as you’re condemned to it, in whatever way you can.


7 responses to “‘Like getting cholera’

  1. I barely understand the parallel you’re trying to make well enough to argue against. Let me see if I understand, by rephrasing:

    “New Yorkers have a high cost of living, but it is balanced by the high value of the good called ‘living in New York’, so they shouldn’t complain about the cost. Similarly, Detroiters live in a city that’s been screwed over by public policy for 70 years, but they shouldn’t complain, because all this badness is balanced out by an affordable cost of living.”

    Really? I mean, I won’t argue that Detroit has been completely blameless over the years, but your argument seems to be straight out of Brooks Patterson’s playbook.

    • To be honest, Murph, i wasn’t especially concerned with developing a coherent argument of any kind when I wrote this post, more on getting my disjointed thoughts down. But yeah, basically I don’t sympathize with New Yorkers about the cost of living, and I don’t think Watson’s idea makes any sense. If that’s out of LBP’s playbook, I’m OK with that.

      • I agree with 50% of what you’re saying–that moving to NYC or Chicago and expecting housing prices to be in line with those of Alpena or Harrisburg, PA, is missing something about the value proposition of the various locations. I don’t disagree with you on that half–I was just challenging the parallel you were suggesting with Detroit.

        While I’m not familiar with Councilmember Watson’s version of the complaint, but I think a very good argument can be made that the Federal government shares some responsibility for the condition of Detroit, and can reasonably be asked to step in more strongly to help remedy it. Starting at the end of World War II with actions like the racial disparities baked into the GI Bill and the Federal subsidies to the auto manufacturers to move their operations to the suburbs, there’re a lot of clear, causal connections from Federal policy to the current realities of Detroit. Is it unreasonable to say that the Federal government ought to be proactive in undoing the harms of their past actions?

        (And, to be honest, I think that the Obama administration recognizes this and has been doing what they can to mitigate past and present harms–the auto bailout, the investment of the Federal agencies through the “Strong Communities, Strong Cities” program, the unprecedented level of support for the woodward light rail process.)

        Maybe I missed your point, and it sounds like you’re still developing it–I’ll see how it turns out. 😉

  2. I disagree with McArdle’s assertion that higher cost of living is the price of living in a big city. Over-regulation and restrictive zoning create severe shortages of housing in places like San Francisco. Also, there’s the fact that the U.S. doesn’t treat housing like a public good and thus doesn’t intervene much in the market. Cities are the engines of an advanced economy: more efficient, more environmentally sustainable,as well as more cultured (to summarize Florida’s point). Everyone who wants to live in a first-tier city should be (and in some European cities are) able to afford it, albeit without some of the luxuries (a yard, garage, five bedrooms) of the suburbs.

    • I see someone’s been reading Ed Glaeser or Ryan Avent. You are absolutely correct. Regulation & zoning IS the culprit. Unfortunately the young &/or poor who would stand to gain from relaxing height & density restrictions typically fail to recognize it, hence the only lobby for density is often the developer.

  3. When I read your reference to Ryan Avent in an earlier post, I knew my plagiarism would be called out. Also, I said the government doesn’t intervene in the housing market much, but of course it does. Rather I meant that it doesn’t intervene on the supply-side as much as other developed countries.

    I dislike McArdle’s article mostly because I take it personally. She derisively denies her son any help and fails to recognize that he may have real opportunity costs trying to start his career elsewhere that may have lasting effects. She’s invalidating the experience I had, when my parents facilitated my naive 18-year old self moving to Manhattan. I think that I benefited tremendously from the social connections I made and from the maturity required to manage life in a city. So really my disagreement is subjective.

    Finally, McArdle’s anti-urban bias is just another form of the snobbery she despises so much in urban elites. A touch of hypocrisy, no?

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