It is the best of times; it is the best of times.
Deploying life in New York City today as a symbol of what he takes to be the improvement of almost everything everywhere, New York Times columnist David Brooks explains: “There has never been a time when there were so many interesting places to visit, shop and eat, when the rivers and the parks were so beautiful, when there were so many vibrant neighborhoods across all boroughs, with immigrants and hipsters and new businesses and experimental schools.”
This description is accurate if you’re David Brooks (or me, for that matter). It may be true for as many as half of the city’s 8.4 million inhabitants. But what Brooks appears not to know is that in recent decades, New York has become two cities: one for those who are doing just fine, and another for those who aren’t.
I’m guessing, for instance, that Brooks’s happy talk would be a rather hard sell to the more than one in five New Yorkers living below the poverty threshold. Ditto the nearly one in two (and rising) who get by on just 150 percent of that paltry figure. It would be a harder sell still to the 400,000 or so people living in the city’s dilapidated housing projects, to say nothing of the nearly 250,000 families on the housing authority’s waiting list. And my guess is that it would be the hardest sell of all to the 53,000 (and rising) people stuck in the city’s homeless shelters.
Reading Brooks puts one in mind of Henry Perowne, the protagonist of Ian McEwan’s 2005 novel Saturday, who lived in a world that offered “whole emporia dedicated to cheeses, ribbons, Shaker furniture,” “lozenges of scented soaps,” “supermarket cornucopias…warm clothes that weigh nothing, extended lifespans, wondrous machines.” It was from this vantage point that Perowne, like Brooks at the time, decided that invading Iraq was a pretty good idea.
Brooks isn’t selling any new invasions at the moment. He’s just telling naysayers like yours truly to take a chill pill, to relax and smell the latte. True, he finds it rather unseemly that rich folk buy their children fancy cars and send them on ski vacations: “Wealthy people have an obligation to try to follow a code of seemliness,” he advises, adding: “Strike a blow for social cohesion.” That such a blow might be better delivered in the form of, say, a decent minimum wage or paid sick leave doesn’t enter into Brooks’s calculations.