False Consciousness

This fellow was a member of the landed gentry
This fellow was a member of the landed gentry

The Bay Area is an incredibly expensive place to live, and one of the main topics of conversation there is rent and where you’re thinking about moving to. One thing that struck me when visiting the Bay Area was how concerned people were about becoming gentrifiers. It was interesting to me, because people would freely talk about how poor people in the Mission District and Oakland are being priced out of their neighborhoods by newcomers, and say things that reeked of guilt, like, “We are the problem.”

And that’s definitely one way of thinking about it. But that is such a foreign notion to me. I don’t live in a world where upper-middle-class people victimize working class people. I live in a world where we are all at the mercy of vast, impersonal economic forces. Like, people don’t move to Oakland because they want to: it’s not that great to live somewhere full of crime, where you’re a minority amongst people you distrust and who distrust you–a place that is not particularly walkable and which everywhere exhibits signs of the grossest urban decay. People don’t move to Oakland because they’ve decided it’s a better environment than San Francisco–they go there because they’ve been priced out of San Francisco. What is true for poor Hispanic people in the Mission District is also true for graduate students or someone who works at a nonprofit or as a salesperson at a tech company. San Francisco is really, really expensive.

And, sure, now Oakland is also becoming fairly expensive, but what’re you going to do? The only places where a person can afford to move in the SF Bay Area are places that’ve historically been awful. And all the places that’ve been historically awful are places that’ve historically been filled with people of color. There’s not some mystical historically-white township full of affordable housing that people are refusing to move to because it’s not hip. Even places that people sneer at (Fremont! Milpitas! [which are both majority-Asian, by the way]) are not inexpensive.

Given that, all this guilt smacks of false consciousness. People have this sense that they are the movers and shakers and they are the decision-makers even though they’re just as much at the mercy of the system as everyone else. The system might have given them a few more privileges than everyone else, but it hasn’t given them any more power.

6 thoughts on “False Consciousness

  1. William

    The most basic fact of the situation is this: more people want to live in San Francisco than can possibly live there. Given this limitation, there is no escaping the need for a mechanism to resolve who will end up living there and who will not. Currently, the most commonly-used mechanism involves a massive auction, in which people bid for space in San Francisco. Those who do not end up in the city, therefore, are saying, “Well, I do still want to live in San Francisco, but if my friend Joe is willing to pay $1,000 per month in order to do it, then there are other things I’d rather do with that money.” In the end, the decision to live or not live in any city comes down to a very personal choice about where one’s priorities lie.

    It just seems strange to me to call this kind of system “impersonal.” The reason rent is high in San Francisco is that a lot of people want to live there. It’s true that I’m “subjected” to these forces, in the sense that I will have a hard time convincing millions of people that San Francisco is a horrible place to live, but the word “impersonal” implies a big, faceless menace that is controlling our lives. That’s not how I’d describe the fact of other people wanting things that I also want.

    In order to help someone quit worrying and learn to love the economic forces, I’d suggest thinking about what you would want if you were designing some kind of ideal mechanism to solve the fundamental problem (i.e. “not enough stuff to give everyone everything they want all the time”). I think you’ll find that for most people, most of the time, the auction system does a pretty good job of fulfilling what they think of as a “fair” way to allocate scarce stuff.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I think you’d find that, for most people, the auction system does a very poor job of allocating scarce resources, because people don’t begin with the same allocation of money with which to bid. Instead, some people have much more money and some people have much less. Thus, people who happen to have much more money get what they want, even if they want it much less than the people who have much less money.

      1. William

        What you say is certainly true. Other potential allocation rules might be: whoever is most capable of using violence gets the goods; whoever has the most political influence gets the goods; whoever is first to arrive gets the goods. I hope I’m not picking my examples in too egregiously biased a way, but these are all rules that have been and continue to be used in many different places and times throughout history.

        People’s natural endowments will influence the results of any system of allocation. But I don’t think that any of the rules I named above do an obviously better job of fulfilling your “goods should go to the person who most wants them” standard.

        Another way of putting it is that your critique amounts to saying that under the auction system, people have to operate within a budget, and everyone’s budget is different. But that is a feature of all or nearly all allocation mechanisms, not just this one.

        1. R. H. Kanakia

          I think you’re not being inventive enough. A queuing system does a better job of allocating goods to the person who wants them the most: all people have an equal initial allocation of time.

          In any case, I think you’re misunderstanding my point. I don’t particularly care to alter the way things are done under our current system: the current system works fine for me. This post was about how I didn’t think gentrification was a moral problem–it was the result of economic forces that are outside anyone’s control. All you’re doing is trying to explain those economic forces.

          1. William

            People have an equal allocation of time, but they do not have an equal ability to stand in line. Some people get bored easily, some people need to sleep more, some people have family members to take care of or other pressing concerns. In general, the benefits of a queuing system tend to go to people whose time is less valuable.

            I listened to an episode of This American Life a while back where a guy won a car in a contest which consisted of a bunch of people having to stand touching the car, for days, until there was only one person left. I’m sure the winner really did want the car, but I am also sure there were other factors at play.

            Look, I’m not totally confident that auctioning is better than queuing at giving goods to people who want them the most, you may be right about that. I just wanted to point out that it’s not trivially easy to determine who “wants something the most.”

            Okay, all that said, even though my responses have been off-topic, I did read your post and I agree with your basic point. Shut up about the guilt you feel for being gentrifiers, yuppies!

            1. R. H. Kanakia

              Nope. It’s definitely not easy. And problem with queuing is that it’s just inefficient. The time that people spend earning money to buy an apartment is time producing something. The time they spend waiting in line to be assigned an apartment is very unproductive.

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