Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A Conspiracy

I have ambivalent thoughts about the concentration of affluent, well-educated people in places like New York City.

Consider that rich libertarians periodically talk about assembling a fleet of ships or something out in the lawless ocean where they won't be taxed or subjected to onerous regulations or whatever.  Of course in reality I don't think their anti-government ideals would survive for long (particularly if they drift near Somalia—but in some ways much more predictable problems like sexual assault would almost certainly rob them of their illusions very quickly).  But the proposal is annoying partly because it contains a grain of truth:  rich people probably would be better off if they could renounce their obligations to society and segregate themselves off into a precious little enclave of fuckery.

But if it's annoying when libertarians propose to do it, it's all the more annoying when rich people actually do it.  And that's basically the path that a lot of smart and/or rich people take:  exclusive college, exclusive grad school (if any), rich suburb or rich urban neighborhood.  They are essentially living the libertarian dream without enduring the opprobrium they would earn if they built a fleet of stateless ships.

And the effects are pretty serious, I think.  A lot of areas of the country suffer permanent brain drain.  The people with the most intelligence, ambition, self-control, and earning potential tend to move away.  Most of the people who are left behind are perfectly good people, but their communities are poorer for the migration.  In extreme cases, you end up with devastated urban areas blighted by crime, drugs, HIV, and no jobs.  Roughly the same thing happens in rural areas.  The people with the resources to struggle against those problems (or provide the tax base to address them) have left.

But on the other hand, most urban areas east of the Mississippi are desperately poor.  New York City, for example, which is far from the poorest of the bunch, is almost unbelievably impoverished.  It is vastly poorer than a western city like Seattle.  (The median household income in New York City is $52,737 and the poverty rate is 20.6%.  The median household income in Seattle is $67,365 and the poverty rate is 14%.  Bear in mind that this understates the level of poverty in New York relative to Seattle because the cost of living is so much higher.)  [Edited to add:  The per capita income disparity is actually even worse.  The per capita income in Seattle is $44,167, while the per capita income in New York is $32,459.  The pay is much better in Seattle than in New York, and yet the cost of living there is lower.]  When rich people live and work in big eastern cities, their taxes help fund the public services that poor people rely on.  If you ride the bus or the subway in New York, or you visit the public library or the park, you will see a lot of poor people whose lives are dramatically improved by the public services that are paid through New York's hefty taxes.  Gentrification is a mixed blessing, but we are far from the point at which New York will be a detestable little shitpool of rich people congratulating each other.  That will probably never happen (or, to put it a different way, it is already happening, but those pieces of shit are being taxed to death to help poor people, so it's okay).

Far worse, I think, are the rich suburbs where poor people truly are excluded, and the (often surprisingly high) taxes go to re-seeding the greens on the golf course or whatever.

But still there is an element of...  wouldn't it be better if people didn't flood the big cities and leave so many poor people stranded in places like Detroit and Kentucky?  I don't know.  My hope is that as people are priced out of the ridiculous cities (New York, Boston, San Francisco, DC), they will start to congregate in the more down-on-their-luck cities (Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland, St. Louis, Detroit) and contribute to their revival.  The other hope, of course, is that the Republican Party will continue to run its self-destructive course and the Democrats will be able to use progressive federal taxation to address social problems (in effect, taking the money back out of the wealthy enclaves and sending it back to the poor areas that have been left behind).  But I'm not terribly enthusiastic.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel like this is a complicated issue. Taxing people and using wreath to fund social programs is pretty simple. Most of the variance in peoples wealth and income across countries and across times is explained by society and their governmental / regulatory regimes. So you’ve got a strong moral as well as practical case for taxing up to that point (or less if that produces better outcomes).

But asking someone to live out their life somewhere they don’t want to be, doing things that don’t let them fulfill their potential, surrounded by things which aren’t their primary interests seems a bridge to far. Something about respecting people as people makes this seem wrong.

To put the tension in another way, if it’s OK for immigrants from Gambia and Moldova to come to New York in search of a better life why isn’t it OK for people from the Charlotte or Detroit to do the same?

1:30 PM  
Blogger Zed said...

Yeah, I find it deeply implausible that leaving would-be Brooklyn hipsters stranded in eastern Kentucky makes utilitarian sense. I suspect that you find the thought appealing mostly because you find hipsters repugnant and would like them to suffer.

1:49 PM  
Blogger James said...

Oh sure, freedom is good. But do you apply the same analysis to someone who moves to a suburb so as to buy a bigger house, pay lower taxes, and enjoy free parking? Do we really have to view these kinds of decisions purely through the lens of personal freedom rather than social well-being? Would it be okay to use public policy to discourage the growth of wealthy, hyper-segregated suburbs?

It's true that I hate hipsters but I hate rich people even more. (Obviously rich hipsters will be first against the wall.) People have always moved from rural areas to urban areas, and I don't think it would make sense to prohibit it or anything like that. But I also don't think it makes sense to engage in the kind of hyper-segregation that our society has tended to embrace.

Partly I think it's only emerged here because of the poor design of our society. I suspect there is a lot less socioeconomic segregation in the great social democracies, and I imagine it has to do with their tax policy and their overall high level of social development. (I have heard that even the "bad neighborhoods" in the Netherlands are far less dangerous than the bad neighborhoods in the United States.)

But yeah, I mean, I think there is a sense in which it is praiseworthy not to segregate yourself. So I would go beyond incentives and say that it's a morally good thing when people choose to stay and try to improve local conditions rather than fleeing to the suburbs. People should do what makes them happy, but there should be a thumb on the scale pushing them to do what is right. But definitely I see these locational decisions as a social problem and I favor policy solutions, in this post I'm more just exploring my personal feelings about the phenomenon.

11:21 PM  

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