Friday, January 22, 2010

A Non-Delirious New York

Recovery should not mean a return to the excess that betrayed so many.

Midway through the first intoxications of borrowed money that does not exist, and the red-hot bearings of presses that roll to correct such inconsistencies, lies a wonderland in which human nature can become a subsidiary of the making and spending of money. Not steadily and honorably in furtherance of well being, charity, and art, but at the speed of summer lightning and for its own sake.

When pay-out exceeds pay-in, balance is maintained only by the weight of illusion—as in real-estate bubbles, or welfare states in which benefits vastly exceed contributions. Within such failing systems one finds nevertheless highly visible concentrations of wealth, like lumps in tapioca, that persist in setting a tone that has long gone flat.

Take Manhattan, but first take the Hamptons, where symptoms are readily apprehended, just as the pulse at the wrist is a telltale of the heart. Mere multimillionaires cannot afford anymore to go where within living memory actual people made a living from the farms, clam beds, and sword-fishing grounds. Now the potato fields are covered with houses that look like the headquarters of Martian expeditionary forces, ice-cream factories, vacuum cleaners on stilts, the Seagram building on its side, or shingled New England cottages monstrously swollen into something you might see after eating a magic mushroom. In simple and quiet towns that once deferred to the majesty of the ocean, the streets are now clogged with a kabuki theater of Range Rovers and $35,000 handbags.

In Manhattan the knock-the-wind-out-of-you rich used to be a relatively silent freak of nature who could easily be ignored, but of late they are so electrically omnipresent, jumping out of every flat screen and magazine, that they indelibly color the life of the city. Having multiplied like Gucci-clad yeast, they have become objects of impossible envy.

You cannot ignore them as you sit in your $2,000 a month 7 x 10 "efficiency," eating your $5 street pretzel. Or when private schools—where scholarships are reserved for peasants who subsist on $300,000 or less, and where if you haven't been admitted by the time you're an embryo you're toast—have become like the class redoubts of Czarist Russia.

Or when Mayor Michael Bloomberg spends a hundred million of his own money, $175 per vote, to crown himself like Napoleon, perhaps forgoing the purchase of the presidency because at that rate he would have to fork over $22 billion. What if he had spent comparably to his predecessors—Fiorello La Guardia, or even Jimmy Walker, whose corruption when compared to Mr. Bloomberg's well-established honesty seems nonetheless like the innocence of a fawn? (It is possible that he would not have won on his own merits.)

Ostentation has always been a hallmark of mankind, and part of the price of freedom and power in ascendant nations. But the day the baubles shine most brilliantly is the day when the civilization, distracted from what made it, begins to go down the drain. This is not an argument for restricting economic liberties, but rather a lamentation of circumstance and a condemnation of taste. The right may envy by competition and the left by expropriation, but the objects of such envy are not worthy of its ruinous influences, and the city is at its best when the fury of acquisitiveness is least.

Now that New York may be exiting yet another of many eras of irrational exuberance, it presents an opportunity in the midst of defeat, for when it is quiet it is far more lovely and profound than when it is delirious. For a long, clear moment, September 11 blew the dross away and the real city appeared. When such things arrive, as they always have and always will—whether in the form of conquest, riots, depression, epidemics, or war—they and their aftermath should be the cause of reflection.

Whenever New York has endured a blow, its real strengths have emerged. If it is now on the verge of a long-term diminution of wealth, or at least a roughly attained sobriety, all the suffering should not be for nothing. Recovery should mean not just a return to the fascination with excess that betrayed so many. For one, excess is too limited a thing to be genuinely satisfying. Grab the first billionaire you see (it should be easy) and he will tell you that stuff simply doesn't do the trick.

This is why New York has for too long been a city in which even the rich are poor. To the contrary, it should be a place in which even the poor are rich. How to accomplish this is a riddle to which public policy often proves inadequate and is anyway just a distant follower of forces of history that assert themselves as far beyond its control as the weather. As the waves of history sweep through the present what they leave will depend in large part upon how they are perceived and how each individual acts upon his perceptions, which law and regulation follow more than they shape.

How things will turn out is anyone's guess, but it would be nice if, as in the quiet during and after a snow storm, Manhattan would reappear to be appreciated in tranquility; if cops, firemen, nurses, and teachers did not have to live in New Jersey; if students, waitress-actresses, waiter-painters, and dish-washer-writers did not have to board nine to a room or like beagles in their parents' condominia; if the traffic on Park Avenue were sufficiently sparse that you could hear insects in the flower beds; if to balance the frenetic getting and spending, the qualities of reserve and equanimity would retake their once honored places; if celebrity were to be ignored, media switched off, and the stories of ordinary men and women assume their deserved precedence; and if for everyone, like health returning after a long illness, a life of one's own would emerge from an era tragically addicted to quantity and speed.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Delirious! A fabulous song!

10:45 PM  

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