Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

[URBAN NOTE] A note on "Almost Rich"

I didn't expect John Scalzi to link to and comment on the Toronto Life photo essay "Almost Rich". Toronto Life is a good magazine, don't get me wrong, a glossy monthly concentrating on events and trends in the Toronto area that has won multiple national awards since its 1966 founding, but it's such a Toronto-centered publication that I couldn't imagine its appeal to non-Torontonians (at very most, non-Canadians).

I was wrong. Scalzi's post, "Not Being Able to Scrape By With $200k Is Usually Your Own Fault", picks up on the theme of the 1% popularized by the Occupy movement, and runs with it, angrily.

Gawker, that great engine of social egalitarianism, points us to an article in Toronto Life about the Canadian 1% and how they try to get by in Toronto, Canada’s largest city. The implication is that even with $196,000, which is the income line for the 1% in that far northern country (and that’s Canadian dollars, mind you!), it’s sometimes difficult to make ends meet in that nation’s largest city.

Then you read the article, which does things like complaining that after you subtract “wardrobe refreshes” and “the cost of sushi, pad thai and butter chicken” ordered in three nights a week because of being too tired to cook, $10,400 a month doesn’t go very far, and then drops this bomb:

Then there’s the stuff that fills our houses—the calibre of which is the subject of intense, unspoken competition among my peers and neighbours. During my entire childhood, spent in a comfortable lower-upper-middle-class neighbourhood of Montreal, I am quite sure that my mother did not waste a single moment worrying about replacing her laminate kitchen counters with granite or marble. There was no such thing as a $1,000 Bugaboo stroller, or anything like it. You could host a casual weekend party without spending a fortune on artisanal cheeses. Living the good life simply wasn’t the full-time, across-the-retail-spectrum pursuit it has now become.

Aaaaaaand that’s then I want to start pressing the “It’s time for the goddamned revolution” button. By the time we get to the breakdowns of the monthly expenses of the seven 1% households profiled for the article, which features line items like $800 a month on wine and $1200 for the vacation house on the lake, I’m vaguely surprised Toronto isn’t on fire. The only people I feel any sort of commonality with are the immigrant family, who pack their own lunches for work and aside from the hair salon line item seem to have some perspective on their cash. The retired couple who invested well and are living off the proceeds also gets a pass, because, hey, that’s the goal, right? Otherwise: Purification by flame.

The problem here is that once again we’re confronted with the interesting paradox of “the 1%,” which is that the incomes of within the 1% are surprisingly heterogeneous. It’s a category that encompasses both people with six-figure annual incomes and people making nine-figure annual incomes; likewise, it’s people with seven-figure net worths and people with eleven-figure net worths. The 99% of the 1% do not have helipads and supermodels and dormitories or libraries named after them at their elite school alma maters; they have mortgages and expenses and their kids’ educations will be a non-trivial percentage of their total net worth. So if you’re on the bottom rung of society’s topmost ladder, you’re going to feel you have more in common with the middle class than with the stinkin’ rich, because as a practical matter you do.

But that doesn’t mean you’re middle class, or that your problems are middle class problems; it also means that when you complain about how hard it is to make ends meet and yet you’ve got the lake cottage and you spend $1,000 a month on clothes, the people who really are middle and lower class are going to look at you like, would you please just shut up, you arrogant rich bastard, before I put you and your whole family up against a wall. This is especially true when, as is the case of the Toronto Life article, the heart of the “problem” is that apparently it’s harder today than ever before to maintain and display the overt social cues of your petit bourgeois status.

This article may have managed to enter the global mythology of the 1%. That's fine, but--as pointed out by many commenters--it also speaks directly to specifically Torontonian concerns: the higher cost of living in Toronto as compared to the rest of Canada, the comparison-shopping originating from profound insecurity that's practically a Toronto trademark (Toronto to other world cities, households to other households). Torontonians want to have it all, and Torontonians want to think that they can realistically aspire to it, perhaps especially the petit bourgeois Torontonians who form the core demographic of Toronto Life's readership.

(Then again, wanting to have it all, and wanting to think that it's realistic to aspire to having it all, are pretty universal desires among human beings outside Toronto, too. Right?)
Tags: economics, globalization, toronto, urban note
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