Friday, August 1, 2014

Subway Values

Referring to break-dancing teenagers, sermonizing preachers, and homeless beggars, Louis Proyect writes
There’s probably nobody more opposed to being a captive audience on the subways than me. I have been riding NYC subways since they cost 15 cents a ride. When they were this cheap, they lacked air conditioning and were as noisy as hell, but you could at least be assured that you would never be forced to watch a musical performance, begged for spare change, or listen to a sermon.
And then follows a several thousand word essay about how efforts to stop this behavior is unjustified. Specifically, he is against the broken window theory or the tactics of the street crimes unit. Those efforts, initiated by past and present police commissioner William Bratton, ruthlessly pursue petty crime (e.g., break dancing on the subway) because it deters more serious crime. These efforts have evolved into the much maligned stop & frisk policy. Mayor DeBlasio campaigned on ending that, but has so far reneged on that promise.

Mr. Proyect opposes any variant of stop & frisk for three reasons:

  • It targets Blacks and Latinos, and therefore is racist.
  • Beyond this, the police are racist and target Blacks and Latinos just because they enjoy it. There are numerous incidents where people have been killed, most recently the imbecilic gentle giant, Eric Garner, who died in a choke-hold for illegally selling cigarettes.
  • Because of the decline in manufacturing jobs, there are no opportunities for young vagabonds other than to be beggars, hustlers and thieves.
For all that, Mr. Proyect doesn't claim that stop & frisk fails. It does work. The subway is a much more civilized experience now than it was 20 years ago. Today most subway fellow passengers are like Mr. Proyect or me--they are possessed of bourgeois values.

That is not a racial statement. I don't ride the subway as much as Mr. Proyect (maybe once a month or so). Most of my subway riding begins and ends in Queens, specifically Jackson Heights and Long Island City. I am frequently the only Caucasian male in the car--my companions are Chinese, Filipino, Colombian, Dominican, South Asian, and God knows who else. They speak different languages, eat different food, and sometimes smell funny. But they are all civilized people, and none of them are routinely rousted by the cops.

So what are the bourgeois values that make for a good subway rider? It's actually a simple concept--a person with bourgeois values has a positive net worth. That means they save and invest at least a small fraction of their income. People who invest in their children have bourgeois values. People who don't run up huge credit card debts have bourgeois values. People who take care of their apartment have bourgeois values.

I don't know where Mr. Proyect lives, but for the sake of illustration let's suppose he lives in a rent-controlled apartment. Now I'm against rent control as much as the next Republican, but that's not the issue. Our assumption is that Mr. Proyect plays by the rules as they exist, has lived in his apartment for a long time, and accordingly pays rent substantially below the market rate.

I will argue that he has an equity stake in his apartment. It's not the same as if he actually owned it as a condo, but the fact that the landlord can neither evict him nor substantially raise the rent is worth money. It's likely worth as much as my tenured professorship. Mr. Proyect (in our imagination) has acquired that stake by being diligent about paying his rent and following all the rules.

Predictably, he behaves in a way that preserves his investment. For example, I doubt he would pee in the elevator. Nor would he spray graffiti over the mailboxes in the foyer. He expects his fellow tenants to behave similarly--if they didn't the value of his investment would decline dramatically. Mr. Proyect, because he has positive net worth, is possessed of bourgeois values. I'll posit that the most anti-social thing he ever did on the subway was to turn on his laptop.

Yet in the housing projects (at least by reputation--I've never been there myself) some residents do pee in the elevator, and spray the whole place with graffiti. Unlike Mr. Proyect or my fellow subway riders, these people do not have bourgeois values. They have no equity stake, and hence no positive net worth. If you are willing to piss in your own bed, then how respectful will you be of public conveyances, e.g., the subway?

It is not a racial thing. I spent a year living in Kampala, and my Ugandan neighbors most definitely exhibited bourgeois values. Cleanliness was a national pastime. On the other hand, plenty of Whites can't cut it--see this article about Owsley County, KY. But New York is the richest city in the world precisely because the vast majority of its residents are civilized.

Some years back I attended a conference in D.C., and stayed in a hotel in Alexandria. My daily commute took me past a small park surrounded by many apartment buildings. It was the neighborhood park for thousands of people. But the residents were completely deprived of its use by the few dozen homeless men who used the place as their campground. The community's sympathy for the homeless had gotten the better of them, and hence they no longer had a community park.

So it is with Mr. Proyect and his vagabonds. He feels sorry for them, and thus is willing to overlook their brigandage. Perhaps he's right to feel sorry, but depriving the millions of civilized citizens the proper use of the subway they pay for is not the solution. So I'm down with the cops--it is their job to let civilized people (the vast majority of New Yorkers) live in a civilized world. The vagabonds need to be rousted out. Thank goodness Mr. DeBlasio understands that.

Unfortunately, the uncivilized minority are disproportionately Black and Latino. Now that's just a fact. It's an unhappy fact, and it clearly inspires racism, but stating facts is not in and of itself racist. One can argue why this is true, but it is true.

So--to quote the musical--are "they depraved because they're deprived"? Mr. Proyect thinks so--it's the lack of manufacturing jobs that's led to the decline of bourgeois values. Never mind that my co-riders from Queens remain civilized despite the same lack. Why can't the vagabonds be held to the same standard?

Still, while I'll let the cops (mostly) off the hook, there is much to blame on city government. They prohibit lots of honest professions that hurt nobody. Why, for example, are poor people not allowed to use their own cars as cabs? (The only reason is to protect the medallion owners.) Why is it illegal to sell food on the street without a license from the utterly obnoxious and useless Department of Health? (The only reason is to protect incumbent restaurateurs.) Why is it illegal to braid hair without a beautician's license? (So to protect the cartel.) Why is it illegal to open a daycare center without a special permit? (Because the teachers' unions want ALL the money.) For that matter, why is it illegal to sell individual cigarettes on the street? (Because crooked politicians want tax dollars from poor people.)

So there is no doubt that New York's government destroys economic opportunity and deprives poor people of a chance to earn an honest living. Economic liberty (which New York sorely lacks) makes people richer.

But I don't think poverty causes people to be uncivilized. Were that true, my Kampala neighbors would be the most uncivilized of all, as they were clearly not. People with bourgeois values retain that mindset in even the most desperate circumstances.

Mr. Proyect's vagabonds may deserve our sympathy. But they don't deserve the subway.

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