May 20th, 2008

False "Profits"

False "Profits"

Tonight, I decided to leaf through the Primary Election info packet I received in the mail last week. I prefer not to cast a vote if I don't feel sufficiently knowledgeable about an issue, so I thought I'd see what was on the table. I mean, we learn all about our democracy in school, but opportunities to participate don't come along every day, so I try to give it a shot when I can summon the presence of mind.

You know how "The Simpsons" is famous for starting an episode with some random premise, and then going off on a tangent to flesh out the body of the plot with something almost completely unrelated? Well, that's where I am tonight. This isn't about democracy. This isn't about government. This is about corporate greed.

... Okay, so maybe I failed to draw much of a distinction there. Let me try again:

This isn't about the political process or the upcoming election. This is about rich people trying to preserve their "right" to become even richer, and using fancy wording to try to manipulate/mislead/warp public opinion in their favor.

What really set me off was Proposition 98 which, on its face, seeks to reform eminent domain (as does Proposition 99, but unlike 98, 99 has not drawn my ire as of yet). Now personally, I wasn't aware of any problems associated with eminent domain's use, but I'm always open to being educated about an issue with which I have limited familiarity. As I read further, however, I began to realize that a big part of the measure deals with eliminating rent control. And by the time I had read the Pro argument's supposed justification for this, I was ready to go to war. Allow me to share a relevant snippet of their wording:

"Proposition 98...prohibits forcing owners to rent their homes below fair market value."

If ever there was a case of a greedmongering capitalist wolf in crybaby kindergarten playground wah-wah-no-fair sheep's clothing, my friends, that was it.

During my college years, I was "lucky" enough to rent from landlords and agencies who seemed interested in providing housing for a reasonable return on their real estate investment, more than milking every last cent from a market artificially inflated by a subset of overly wealthy consumers. (I say "lucky" in quotes only because a few of those places were a bit ... interesting to live in, shall we say.)

But in California, I have mostly been a tenant of managed apartment complexes. Fortunately (in this case at least), I have bounced around from place to place so frequently in my 4.5 years here, I haven’t personally had to deal with inevitable lease-renewal rent increases as much as many people have (since loyalty at these places is rewarded with nothing more than increased rent). But I did get stung once, and very badly; and it was a large part of what precipitated my recent move back to Oakland. So I know what I’m talking about, both as an outside observer, and as a direct recipient of a steaming pile of bovine intestinal detritus.

I could go into a lot of gory, gratuitous detail, but I’ll save that for now. Let it suffice to say that there is nothing even remotely "fair" about the "market values" people are being charged out here these days (and in a lot of other highly developed areas as well, but we all know the SF area is one of the worst when it comes to housing costs).

I’m no economist, but it doesn’t take Alan Greenspan1 to see that these so-called "fair market values" are nothing more than blatant gouging, with prices artificially inflated by the presence of a relatively large proportion of extremely well-paid professionals who are willing to part with the cash these places are asking, in between their "I feel like eating cheap today" $20 budget lunches and monthly home theater system replacements. Such cases of spontaneous (and often young) wealth are what these property management people drool over.

The fact that these "fair market values" are completely out of touch and out of step with inflation, typical annual income increases, and any other reasonable measure of reality does not concern these people. The fact that anybody who doesn’t manage to hitch a ride on the wave of overpaid prosperity -- even degreed professionals with respectable incomes in "moderate-paying" fields -- is left behind, out in the cold, unable to afford decent housing without making significant sacrifices/adjustments, does not concern these people. The fact that this particular manifestation of capitalist greed is one of the major driving forces behind the perpetual widening of the gap between rich and poor does not concern these people.

All that concerns them is the almighty dollar, and how many of them they have lying around with which to wipe their billionaire shareholders' overprivileged sense-of-entitlement posteriors at the end of the quarter.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for people getting rich if things work out for them. Launch the latest hot social networking site and sell it to Google for $2 billion. Develop a new breed of sustainable yet practical energy production or transportation, and make a fortune selling countless tens of thousands of units. Land a recording contract and make it big. Win the lottery. Whatever. It's all good to me. But jacking prices up into the stratosphere for something as necessary and fundamental to survival as housing, all because you can get enough overpaid professionals to fill your building's units for the prices you’re asking, yet to hell with anybody who fell through the cracks in the great patio of wealth? Don't come to me with that attitude and expect me to acknowledge you as anything other than a regrettable blight on the face of civilized society. It’s classism at its worst, making a pathetic attempt at parading under some kind of "free market" banner. Let us all bow and worship the golden calf. Feel free to kneel upon the mangled remains of equality of opportunity if reality proves too uncomfortable for your fragile little illusion to rest its tired self upon.

As regrettable as it is, classism is a somewhat unavoidable consequence of capitalism. I believe government exists, among other purposes, to keep such inequities in check. The moment you begin disemboweling and castrating government's ability to perform this crucial function, you cross the line from classism to fascism. And there’s not much room for democracy in a fascist state, beyond a purely decorative role. Let’s not completely shatter my ... delusion? ... that we’re not quite there yet, okay? Please? Save that for next time at least.

Rent control exists for a reason. Many reasons, I’m sure. One reason is to serve as the consciences that landlords/rental agencies/corporations (especially the latter) often fail to have, and to ensure that responsible, hard-working people who don’t happen to be rich are still able to afford a decent place to live, without worrying about the degree to which their annual raise is going to be completely overshadowed by next year’s rent hike. Rent control rewards loyalty. It levels the playing field. It gives people a fair shot. And if it happens to shatter a rental agency’s dreams of gouging and profiteering, I don’t care. I think it’s a travesty that more municipalities don’t have rent control, especially in a place like the bay area. And now some of society’s white-collar aphids2 are crying about what little there is3, and trying to do away with it? It’s hard to imagine a more absurd rationale.

If you want to reform eminent domain and you wish to explain your cause with substantive arguments, be my guest. I’m all ears. But don’t masquerade as a crusader for freedom, hoping deceptive-yet-flowery language is going to somehow distract me from your transparent attempt at justifying institutionalized greed. I see it for what it is, and I am not going to be fooled.

  1. When I wrote this part, I quickly Googled "Alan Greenspan" to check on a few tidbits, and I initially mistyped his name as "Greedspan." Please note that I have NO hidden Freudian agenda in mentioning this. I just thought it was funny as hell.

  2. As irresistible as it may seem, my "aphids" reference was actually not a thinly veiled derogatory metaphor comparing greedy corporate types to lowly insects. Aphids have a pretty easy existence, as life in the wild goes. They are "farmed" by ants who want nothing more than the sugary by-product of their metabolic processes, and the ants protect them fiercely. So basically, all an aphid has to do to survive is eat and eliminate, aphid-style, while being protected by ants who are pretty much literally kissing its ass. (Okay, so maybe that was a metaphorical comparison with a certain degree of derogatory intent -- just with a bit more depth and thought behind it than it may have seemed on the surface.)

  3. For anybody who doesn't know: even with rent control, rental agencies are still granted considerable latitude (in my opinion, far too much) to gouge and artificially inflate prices. A friend was living in a shoddy building (basically trying to market as "quaint" and "vintage" what was actually just old and run-down) at Northpoint Apartments in San Francisco, where he was already being charged something outrageous on the order of $1600 per month for a one-bedroom apartment when he moved in several years ago. Thanks to rent control, although his rent increased each year, it did so at a fairly reasonable rate. But in the case of new tenants, the owners are perfectly free to charge whatever "fair market value" they desire. Last I heard, this was in the vicinity of at least $2200 for that same one-bedroom. Enough said.