Monday, February 09, 2009

A Brooklyn View

(Editor's Note: I polished this up a little tonight because my sentence about foreclosure in East New York was misleading and I decided the ending was a bit stupid. Hopefully you'll find it improved. -N.)

No, this isn't another excuse to wax poetic about the Franklin Avenue shuttle, colorful brownstones, or the myriad joys of elevated trains. In fact, the photo above doesn't pertain to what follows at all. I just wanted an image of Brooklyn, and this shot I took from the Franklin and Fulton platform seemed as good as any.

Rather, I want to offer a "Brooklyn view" (insofar as a transplanted kid is entitled to claim knowledge of such a thing) in contrast to the view from Manhattan promulgated in Allen Salkin's NYT article on Friday, "You Try Living on 500K in This Town." Salkin's piece, a look at the spending habits of those executives who would find their salaries curtailed if the current stimulus plan passes, is careful enough--who wants to be an apologist for the poor, put-upon super-rich, after all?--but its tone nonetheless reveals a naivete about what life looks like in much of New York City. The case Salkin makes, with helpful quotes from a pair of socialite-friendly authors, is twofold. His first point is that a salary reduction to $500,000 per year would be a massive disruption to the way of life these individuals know. He writes:

“As hard as it is to believe, bankers who are living on the Upper East Side making $2 or $3 million a year have set up a life for themselves in which they are also at zero at the end of the year with credit cards and mortgage bills that are inescapable,” said Holly Peterson, the author of an Upper East Side novel of manners, “The Manny,” and the daughter of Peter G. Peterson, a founder of the equity firm the Blackstone Group. “Five hundred thousand dollars means taking their kids out of private school and selling their home in a fire sale.”

Salkin's emphasis is the disruption, and his case, though implied, seems to be that whether or not their lifestyle is ludicrous, such a massive set of changes would be difficult for anyone. He's right, of course. His second point, in which he slides sidelong into an ever-so-delicate defense of the lifestyle, is that the psyche of the successful executive depends on an ability to keep up with the Joneses (or the Rockefellers). As he puts it:

"Does this money buy a chief executive stockholders might prize, a well-to-do man with a certain sureness of stride, something that might be lost if the executive were crowding onto the PATH train every morning at Journal Square, his newspaper splayed against the back of a stranger’s head?"

He goes on:

The man would certainly not feel like himself on that train, said Candace Bushnell the author of “Sex and the City” and other books chronicling New York social mores.

“People inherently understand that if they are going to get ahead in whatever corporate culture they are involved in, they need to take on the appurtenances of what defines that culture,” she said. “So if you are in a culture where spending a lot of money is a sign of success, it’s like the same thing that goes back to high school peer pressure. It’s about fitting in.”

Again, I think he (and Ms. Bushnell) are right. The problem I have with this article isn't really that it's wrong, or even wrong-headed. My gripe is that it suggests that these conditions are remarkable, when they have been and continue to be a part of the daily lives of millions of New Yorkers, and particularly Brooklynites (a nod to our fellows in the Bronx, who have it even harder, statistically speaking).

On the first point, disruption. Many of the schools I work with in Brooklyn have "mobility rates" above 50%, meaning that over half of the students at the school spend part of their year elsewhere. Over 400 home in East New York were in foreclosure proceedings in October 2006, and rates across the borough remain high. Disruption can also be found in crime rates, unwanted pregnancies (as I learned from my lady, the cheapest birth control in Brooklyn is $350 up front for six months--no wonder people forgo it), lower life expectancies, job turnover (we'll get to this in a moment) and higher rates of disease. I'm not linking--this is basic stuff.

On the second point, the damage to an executive psyche: I'd like to launch into a tirade about the elitism of those who eschew public transit and their unbearable haughtiness, but the point Salkin is making is that this is all relative, and it's a valid point--if you're used to drinking nectar, clean water may well taste dreadful. But if trampled pride and damaged masculinity is the order of the day, what can be said of the modern American post-industrial service economy? A bailout means a $500,000 yearly salary for those Salkin discusses, but we know full well it means almost nothing at all for the former Circuit City manager. Long hours, no benefits, no job security, multiple jobs with humiliating outfits and regulations, everything else Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about in Nickel and Dimed, or that Richard Sennett wrote on in The Corrosion of Character: the bottom line for those living at or under Brooklyn's median income of $41,406 a year isn't pretty, and it is rarely a source of pride. If alienation and misery are to be found on the crowded subway, at least the executives won't be alone.

The irony, of course, is that working-class disruptions and their psychological toll aren't news--they've been around since well before the current crisis, part of the trends of de-industrialization and stagnating real wages that began at the end of the 1960s. The news is that Wall Street executives, if forced to live on a half-million a year, might get a taste of how the other half lives, not the conditions, but the insecurity and its effect on self-esteem and self-worth.

I don't wish that on anyone, and I'm sure those who've ducked from job to job while scraping and scratching to stay afloat would say the same. But when this crisis passes us by and our shaken, wounded executives are back in their limos, I hope they wear and bear the scars of disruption with thoughtfulness, because there will remain an enormous number of New Yorkers facing it down every day. If Obama and the Dems are serious about building a better social safety net, they should have as allies these newly-knowledgeable survivors.

Which is to say, once the view from Manhattan returns to normal (if the UES can really be called normal), please remember what the view from Brooklyn looked like.


  1. Nice article, I think the Times has a very elitist side to it, and the Style pages is definitely one place where it comes out. A lot of times, after reading the first two paragraphs, I just stop---I know what is coming, a statement that somehow, rich is better. By the way, what is the street that you are photographing?

  2. You raise a good point, Nick. As I see it, the bottom line is that these people are in a very literal sense not worth as much as they, and many others, thought they were. It's not really their fault that everyone (or at least a lot of people with a lot of money) thought they created more value than they actually did, but there will certainly be an adjustment period as their compensation falls back into line with the worth of what they produce. I guess that's pretty much what you were saying.

    But what I've been trying to lead up to is this: what do you think will happen to New York if you cap those salaries? I'm not an expert, but it seems to me that the public and private sectors rely heavily on the trickle-down effects from the uber-rich.


  3. For the first poster, the street in the photo is Lefferts Place, between Fulton and Atlantic, looking west from the shuttle platform.

    For Seth, I didn't address that point (certainly a big one) because I don't really know how. The part of the NYT article that I didn't quote lists the ways those millions get spent, and every one of those ways employs people and pays salaries. If the UES isn't rolling in dough, a whole lot of service employees, from tutors to dog-walkers to waitstaff, are going to be S.O.L. You'd be able to explain the ins and outs of how this works better than I could if you had the data.

    Slate ran an article on Monday that I agreed with for the most part, criticizing the current populist war on bankers and pointing out that the guy (or gal, though I think something like 2% of finance CEOs are female) who turns Citi or AIG around is worth a lot more than half a million to the taxpayers and everybody else.

    It probably does make some economic sense to bail out execs and their executive salaries (though I assume there are some you could let fall down--this is where I reach the limits of my knowledge), even if it seems perverse to reward poor performance. It also frustrates people's sense of fairness to no end, which I think could be alleviated somewhat if the package was part of a wide safety-net bill (Krugman had a riff awhile back on the reasons universal health care made economic sense in the current economic climate, so maybe it could work). Of course, Boehner and co. are hell-bent on killing such things, so who knows what will happen?