Art in the Time of Shrinking Paychecks: Giggles Amid the Blooming Slum

Don't shoot me in the face.
Whatever, just working on my comedy routine. satanoid / Foter

I headed to The New York Times’s article on Emma Koenig, “Wash That Blog Out With Soap,” expecting to wade through the details of transforming a small digital project into wider success.

What stood out instead was this paragraph, one of several that showed the piece more an observation on economic realities than artistic evolutions:

In New York City, from 1970 to 2010 (the most recent year for which data are available), the median rent rose by 75 percent, while the median income remained stagnant (after adjusting for inflation). Further, in 2010, 54 percent of New Yorkers spent over 30 percent of their income on rent, compared with only 28.5 percent of New Yorkers in 1970.

Costs up, incomes down. Got it. If you want to understand why, this other NYT piece will give you an idea. Here are a few points from the article:

Starting in the late 1970s, the middle class began to weaken. Although productivity continued to grow and the economy continued to expand, wages began flattening in the 1970s because new technologies — container ships, satellite communications, eventually computers and the Internet — started to undermine any American job that could be automated or done more cheaply abroad. The same technologies bestowed ever larger rewards on people who could use them to innovate and solve problems. Some were product entrepreneurs; a growing number were financial entrepreneurs. The pay of graduates of prestigious colleges and M.B.A. programs — the “talent” who reached the pinnacles of power in executive suites and on Wall Street — soared. …

… Starting in the late 1970s, and with increasing fervor over the next three decades, government … deregulated and privatized. It cut spending on infrastructure as a percentage of the national economy and shifted more of the costs of public higher education to families. It shredded safety nets. (Only 27 percent of the unemployed are covered by unemployment insurance.) And it allowed companies to bust unions and threaten employees who tried to organize. Fewer than 8 percent of private-sector workers are unionized.

More generally, it stood by as big American companies became global companies with no more loyalty to the United States than a GPS satellite. Meanwhile, the top income tax rate was halved to 35 percent and many of the nation’s richest were allowed to treat their income as capital gains subject to no more than 15 percent tax. Inheritance taxes that affected only the topmost 1.5 percent of earners were sliced. Yet at the same time sales and payroll taxes — both taking a bigger chunk out of modest paychecks — were increased.

Most telling of all, Washington deregulated Wall Street while insuring it against major losses. In so doing, it allowed finance — which until then had been the servant of American industry — to become its master, demanding short-term profits over long-term growth and raking in an ever larger portion of the nation’s profits. By 2007, financial companies accounted for over 40 percent of American corporate profits and almost as great a percentage of pay, up from 10 percent during the Great Prosperity.

To enhance those grafs, especially the last one, I’d add the 1999 changes (gutting of?) to the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated “banks that did risky investing from those that did basic lending.” Would re-restricting banks fix them? This op-ed says so.

But I digress and am traveling well out of any semblance of expertise. My simpler point: what song do we need from our artists? Lighthearted recounting of surface struggles? Or a deeper engagement with the fact that our society is changing in structural ways that are pushing more and more people into, or further into, poverty? Both? I can’t accurately characterize Koenig’s work because I haven’t closely read her blog. It seems funny. Congrats to her for her success, a state of achievement that she questions simply and provocatively in the article:

In such a culture, Ms. Koenig said, you wonder what it means to be successful. “Is it making money?” she asked. “Is it tons of hits and fans? Is it making work I like or surviving for that week?”

I don’t know. Depends. But this seems more certain: if the conditions for generating Koenig’s success, however defined, were indeed as described in the article, revolutionaries, not artists, will be the ones telling our stories in the future.

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