“Our world is flat, and it wants fulfillment.” So says the preternaturally perceptive author of Up In The Valley, and he is right. We have accidentally stepped through the looking-glass into a world where the value of labor has become almost zero. I’m not just talking about the fact that it’s no longer possible to live a middle-class dream by sacrificing your life to the River Rouge or Lordstown plants; I’m referring to all of the “professions” as well. The average urgent-care physician earns $211,000 a year, which sounds outstanding. Except you have all those loans to repay, and you repay them with post-tax money, so in reality you bring home seven grand a month. A fortune by the standards of the temp laborers and contract hires endlessly peregrinating between WeWorks, but it won’t buy you a decent lifestyle on the coasts.
Maybe not even in Ohio. This is the house in which Bark and I lived for part of our childhoods. My father ran a food brokerage. My mother didn’t work. We had new cars every two years plus an MG in the garage. Dad was just starting to buy Armani suits. Could our imaginary urgent-care doctor buy this house and send two kids to Catholic school, the way my father did? Quickly running the numbers… probably not. Now, if our doctor was married to another doctor, it would be possible. If you had $422k of income a year, you could repay your loans, cover the $2,900 mortgage and the $860 property tax, pay $44k of tuition a year for Columbus Academy, maybe lease a couple of Lexus SUVs, and pray every night that neither one of you stumbles for even a moment. You could work flat-out and save almost nothing so you could live in an Ohio suburb, in a house that, as I recall, contained and probably still supports a solid half-ton’s worth of carpenter-ant biomass at any given time.
This kind of permanently panicky situation, uncomfortable though it might seem, is an unattainable dream for most of us. The Atlantic just published a pretty decent piece by a 57-year-old writer-turned-Amazon-driver. One day he woke up and poof! he’d fallen out of the economy. His wife is a lawyer, but they are still struggling.
It could be worse. You could find human feces outside your front door every twelve days or so. How much would you pay to live in that situation? Don’t bother to guess, I’ll tell you the answer: More than you can afford, pal.
San Francisco, the place where America’s future is designed, has a poop problem. More than seven thousand homeless people are defecating in public on a constant basis. The city is aware of, and tracking, more than 130,000 incidents of street shit. Which means that the actual amount of waste beneath your shoes must be a considerable multiple of that. The last time I was in Portland I encountered human waste on three separate occasions, one of which involved a full-to-bursting 7-Eleven “Big Gulp” cup. I didn’t report any of it. I assume that SanFran is the same. So we are probably talking about over a million deuces dropped in front of some immensely valuable real estate. The Forbes article notes, rather dryly,
Avoid the address 786 Minna Street, as it ranked sixth all-time with nearly 300 events since 2008.
Following a hunch, I brought 786 Minna Street up on Zillow. It’s a condo building. The minimum recorded rent there in the past five years was $3,900 a month — more than our imaginary doctor couple pays to live in my childhood home. The current available rents start at $6,900. The most “affordable” sale there recently? $1.1 million. The Zillow value of the upper apartments? $1.965 million.
So let’s put this in perspective. 300 events of public defecation since 2008 means one every twelve days. About once every other week. There will be human waste in front of your home. Which cost you two million dollars. There will be nothing you can do about it. You will have paid an astronomical sum of money, engaged in a bidding war even, to live in shit. Donald Trump pointed this out; the Brahmins of the New Yorker explained that he was probably a toilet fetishist and that it’s perfectly normal for cities to be covered in human waste. In fact, it’s a mark of how advanced San Francisco is.
There’s a term for this brave new existence, this country where doctors can’t afford homes and capital rules over labor with an iron fist and public defecation is considered to be the very most modern and admirable thing. The term is “Clown World”, and I have to admit that I like it. So much of today’s political discussion, economic stratification, and deliberate cultural suicide seems fit only for a clown world. Unfortunately for me, the term is too dangerous to use. Apparently Clowns Are The Next Racist Symbol, and since a public accusation of racist leanings in 2019 is tantamount to a conviction for racist leanings, and since expressing racism is now a felony, you can rest assured that you will never see the term “Clown World” used here.
What interests me about today’s definitely-not-Clownish-world is that it seems purpose-built to produce permanent economic and social stratification. If you have capital, you are safe; if you bought a row of apartment homes in San Francisco back in 1980 or if you happened to get stock options at Microsoft or if your father worked for Goldman Sachs. The value of your capital is increasing at an exhilarating rate. It would be very difficult for you to fall out of the #Blessed set. You don’t need to worry about being replaced, either, because every possible entrance to your social class has been carefully manipulated to make sure that some hillbilly from West Virginia who happens to be genetically identical to you and therefore capable of equal performance — well, that guy is being force-fed opioids and his Harvard application had been put under a pile of protected-class entrants with 1050 SATs who will never, ever, pose a problem for you. So you’re good.
The people on the other end of the spectrum, the street-shitting homeless and the undocumented healthcare recipients and the tough guys driving unmuffled ’98 Civics right past the LAPD headquarters? They’ve adapted to the system and it works for them. They can flash-mob a BART or drop trou in front of your $1.965 million residence, secure in the knowledge that it’s more hassle to arrest them than it’s worth. Most of them receive some sort of government assistance which incentivizes their behavior.
Think of these two groups, the angel investors and the public defecators, as a pair of jaws crushing the middle class. Only the poor strivers and wannabes like me and Bark and most of my readers really need to worry about the future. We’re the only ones who need to find work in an increasingly fallow ground of professional career opportunities, the only ones who need to squeeze out a mortgage payment in a real estate market inflated to insanity by Chinese money and NINJA loans, the unhappy few who are neither too big to fail nor too poor to sue. We pay most of the taxes, do most of the value-added work, suffer the most from capricious behavior on the part of lawmakers and warmongers. At some point in the next fifty years, we (or our progeny) will have to make a choice. Do we fall into the favelas or do we scheme our way into the Illuminati? I’m told that climate change will make the question moot, that we will all suffer ecological consequences long before the economic tragedies arrive in irresistible force. I’m not so sure. I suspect that if you want a vision of the future, the near future at least, you can just imagine a 57-year-old author delivering Amazon packages. Forever.