Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Do you suppose we're likely to hear much in the general election campaign about the growing part of America that's been left out of the economy?


One of the reasons I was sorry that John Edwards proved to be such a blah presidential candidate is that I would have liked to hear more about what follows from his diagnosis of "Two Americas."

Under the Bush regime, of course, it has been considered somewhere between un-American and heretical to talk about class divides in the country. "Class warfare!" the priestly defenders of higher-class privilege have shouted every time anyone attempts to point out how systematically non-higher-class Americans have been excluded from, well, everything. Why, the country went through what was proclaimed to be an economic boom from which we were simply excluded, and because we had been officially declared economic nonpersons, no one in authority seemed to notice or care. I doubt very much that anyone even mentioned it to the president, for fear of disrupting his beauty sleep.

Maybe one reason Edwards's "Two Americas" theme didn't resonate is that most of us know that there are, at minimum, three Americas. Obviously there are clusters at the top and the bottom of the economic ladder. By and large they know who they are, and what their prospects are -- although it appears that the people in those upper strata are feeling the pinch along with the rest of us, if not in quite the same way as the rest of us, if we go by this tear-jerking tale of woe among the upper crust from Sunday's NYT, which seems to me too delicious to excerpt:

It's Not So Easy Being Less Rich

NANCY CHEMTOB, a divorce lawyer in Manhattan, has found that her days have become crammed seeing clients, all worried about how an economic downturn will affect their marriages.

They seem to have nothing to fret about: their net worths range from $5 million to $1 billion. A blip in the markets shouldn't send their chateau-size Park Avenue co-ops to foreclosure or exile them to Payless Shoes.

But Ms. Chemtob's clients are concerned all the same, she said, because their incomes have shrunk, say, to $2 million a year from $8 million, and they know that their 2008 bonus checks are likely to be much less impressive.

One of her clients recently confessed that his net worth had decreased to $8 million from more than $20 million, and he thinks that his wife will leave him. He has hidden their fall in fortune by taking on debt to pay for her extravagant clothes and vacations.

"I literally had to sit there and tell him that he had to tell his wife that she had to stop spending," she said. "He was actually scared she would leave him because their financial situation changed so drastically."

The wealthy don't generally speak publicly about their finances, in good times or bad. It's in poor taste, for one, and their employers could fire them for talking even a little. But people who provide services to the wealthy -- lawyers, art advisers, personal trainers and hairstylists -- say they are getting an earful about their clients' financial anxieties.

Interviews with the people who actually see the bank statements, like divorce lawyers and lenders, say their clients are definitely living on less than they did a year ago, regardless of how expansive the definition of "less" may be. Hairstylists and private jet rental companies say the wealthy are cutting back on luxuries like $350 highlights and $10,000-an-hour jet rentals. Even nutritionists and personal trainers notice a problem. The wealthy are eating more and gaining weight because of the stress.

These financial problems -- if they can be called that -- will hardly elicit tears from the rest of us. But in those gilded living rooms, there is a quiet nervousness about keeping up appearances.

"Even if they're not in danger of not paying their mortgage, there's still a psychological change," said Chris Del Gatto, chief executive of Circa, which has watched its business jump by 50 percent in the last year as wealthy clients sell their spare diamonds and Rolexes. "The economy is an issue even for people who don't need the money."

THEIR spouses could leave them when they discover that their net worth has collapsed to eight figures from nine. Friends and business associates could avoid them as they pass their lunchtime tables at Barney's or the Four Seasons. And these snubs could trickle down to their children.

"They fear their kids won't get invited to the right birthday parties," said Michele Kleier, an Upper East Side-based real estate broker. "If they have to give up things that are invisible, they're O.K. as long as they don't have give up things visible to the outside world."

So New York's very wealthy are addressing their distress in discreet and often awkward ways. They try to move their $165 sessions with personal trainers to a time slot that they know is already taken. They agree to tour multimillion-dollar apartments and then say the spaces don't match their specifications. They apply for a line of credit before art auctions, supposedly to buy a painting or a sculpture, but use that borrowed money to pay other debts.

"Most people won't go to their banker and say: ‘You know I'm in desperate trouble. I need funds,' " said Andy Augenblick, president of Emigrant Bank Fine Art Finance, which allows clients to borrow against art collections worth more than $2 million. Mr. Augenblick said that the number of requests for these types of loans is five times higher than a year ago. He said that while these borrowers claim that they don't need the money, their latest financial statements show that their net worth has withered in the past year.

Other wealthy clients are cutting luxuries that they think their friends and relatives won't notice, according to Mr. Del Gatto of Circa. At Circa's midtown offices, he said, the seven consultation rooms have been busy with customers selling their precious gems. Some older couples, he said, are selling estate jewelry to help support their children who have lost Wall Street jobs. Bankers are paring down their collections of Patek Philippe watches. Wives from Greenwich and Scarsdale are selling 2-carat to 35-carat single-stone diamond rings. One recent client explained to Mr. Del Gatto that she was selling $2 million in diamonds she rarely wore, because her friends wouldn't notice that they were gone.

"She said, ‘If I sold my Bentley or my important art, they would notice,' " he said. "That we hear, in differing examples, every day."

Art consultants find that the very wealthy are more receptive to parting with their precious works. Cassie Rosenthal, an owner of the Chelsea gallery Goff & Rosenthal, said that since the subprime crisis hit in the fall, and especially since the new year, some collectors are willing to sell pieces that were off limits in the past. She said that when the deals close quickly, they're happy.

"Most people will just sort of say: ‘Will you sell this for me? When you can get me payment?' " Ms. Rosenthal said. "It's more about the urgency of getting paid."

Justin Sullivan, managing director of Regent Jet, which leases private airplanes, said most clients in real estate and on Wall Street are switching to chartered jets over private jets, and cutting their flight budgets by about 25 percent. One New York real estate developer cut his budget to less than $250,000 a year from $1.5 million a year.

"A year ago, he would have only flown Gulfstreams," Mr. Sullivan said. "Now it's moving to the point where he's flying Beech jets and Learjets."

Some wealthy New Yorkers are even cutting back on relatively smaller things. At J Sisters, a midtown Manhattan salon where celebrities like Naomi Campbell and Gwyneth Paltrow mingle with Wall Street clients, stylists and colorists say they hear about money worries all day. On a spring afternoon, a half-dozen hairstylists to the very wealthy talked about how customers are stretching their $350 highlights and $150 haircuts to every eight weeks instead of six weeks. Some women are cutting out highlights entirely, saying they would "rather be brunettes."

Jean-François Pilon, a stylist at J Sisters, has seen many women come less frequently and tip less generously. During the subprime crisis last summer, and the collapse of Bear Stearns last March, he said, many clients tried to stretch out their visits. He interprets these changes in behavior as signs that they need to watch their spending.

"You pick up on it very quickly," he said. "People don't beg."

The drop in wealth has also exposed other personal problems, like bad marriages. Money -- which bought jewelry or extravagant vacations -- helped smooth over many of these difficulties, said Kenneth Mueller, a psychotherapist in the East Village who works with many Wall Street bankers and real estate developers. Now, he said, his clients "catastrophize" smaller bonuses or shriveling stock portfolios. "You have to remind them that there's something that has always been there," he said. "All the money helped mask the anxiety."

The very wealthy can't hide anything from their nutritionists and personal trainers, because they see the weight gain. Heather Bauer, a dietitian who works with many Wall Street executives who pay $600 to $800 a month for her services, says her clients have been eating and drinking more in the last six months. She sees results of this indulging each time they step on a scale, and in their journals that record what they've eaten.

One Wall Street executive, Ms. Bauer said, snacks on nuts in her office all day to manage the stress of potentially losing her position, while another confesses to inhaling four bowls of cereal at 10 p.m. Even their sex lives are suffering, Ms. Bauer said, because of the stress or because the weight gain makes them feel unattractive.

Her clients blame the economy for their out-of-control waistlines.

"The number one concern that they have is the state of the financial market," she said. "There definitely is a correlation between the stock market and weight gain."

Clay Burwell, a personal trainer to many Wall Street executives, said that his clients were also feeling the toll. A year of eating more, drinking more and working longer hours has started to hurt their health.

"They come into the gym with a dark storm cloud over their head," he said. "They look like hell."

The third America consists of all the rest of us in between. What Edwards was tapping into is that more and more of us in the wide middle feel closer to the bottom group than to the top. And the reality of the Bush regime's aggressive promotion of the rich and super-rich is that people higher and higher up on the economic ladder have found themselves looking down rather than up.

When we try to imagine a future America, one of the baseline terrors is online access, and it's hard to see what's going to happen to make that less of a separator between the economic Americas. And this isn't a worry just for the traditional poor. I now have excellent onlne access at work and pretty good access at home, because my digital-cable-TV-and-broadband package is my one luxury. I have an okay-paying job, but with no raises in recent memory and no prospects -- the best I can hope is to hold onto that job. And if at some point I decide to try to "retire," I know that one thing I won't have any hope of affording is my cable-broadband package.

Maybe that's what made me so sensitive to this report from our friend Martin at Boztopia. Well, that and the fact that Time Warner Cable is my cable company:

Metered Broadband Won't Bridge the Digital Divide

The big news in tech circles today is that Time Warner is beginning its trial of metered broadband pricing in Beaumont, Texas. As you might expect, it’s a combination of absurdly high prices and very low caps–the lowest tier of service is 768kps, capped out at 5 gigabytes per month, at $30 (before state and local taxes, I assume). Even a cursory browsing of the Internet’s many options for video (both downloaded and streaming) could get you hitting your limit without realizing it.

It’s that kind of visionary forward thinking that has Time Warner spinning off said unprofitable cable unit in the first place. But there’s a larger issue at work–the fact that all the pricing schemes in the world are no substitute for building networks strong enough to handle the massive amounts of rich content available to users today, and that many users are being locked out of access to that content in the first place.

As I wrote back in January when news of the experiment broke, there is a massive gap in access between those who regularly use the Internet, and those who do not–or cannot. This June 1 Chicago Tribune article beautifully illustrates how people who don’t have regular Internet access–usually the poor, more often than not Black or Latino, too often women–can be almost completely barred from participating in our modern society:

Two years ago, Smith’s daughter gave her a used computer with the hope it would improve her life. High-speed Internet service is available in the West Woodlawn neighborhood where Smith, 53, has lived for 15 years. But the computer sits idle because Smith, a security guard, can’t afford the charges that can add from $20 to $33 or more to monthly phone bills. Increased costs of rent, food and utility bills have made it harder for her to get by, she said. As she sat on the steps of a two-flat where she lives near 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, she spoke almost wistfully of what life might be like if she could cross the digital divide. “I feel like I’m missing out on something,” Smith said. “I could pay my bills online, I could shop online, I could even send out resumes to find a better-paying job.”

It’s amazing to think that the kind of uses we have for the Web–that we take for granted every time we log on to our blogs, Web sites, social networks, and the like–are inaccessible to people right here in this country, allegedly the wealthiest and most developed nation on Earth. To paraphrase Walt Mossberg’s infamous questioning of FCC chairman and telecom hack Kevin Martin, “How could you let this happen?”As Drew Clark chronicles here, it’s going to take more than even measuring broadband availability to address the problem. We have to commit to the idea of the Internet as a public good, accessible to all of us through a variety of ways. This means everything from supporting buildouts of municipal Wi-fi connections and hotspots to ensuring that incumbent telecom and cable networks don’t avoid their responsibility to reach every part of a community when introducing new services–not simply building out to the richest neighborhoods and “redlining” the rest.

Investing in the public infrastructure of the Internet is going to be costly–there’s no denying that. But when you consider the costs of all the lost jobs, innovation, productivity, and new ideas that come from locking out thousands of people simply due to location or price, that cost is far higher. And all the attempts to (in Wire parlance) “juke the stats” through metered broadband caps, content blocking, and other unsavory practices won’t change that.


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At 6:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

no! hehe

At 7:52 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

This would be my guess too, Michelle. I would love to be wrong, though.


At 12:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by the author.


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