An Excess of Excess

I love watching the shows on HGTV, like the various varieties of the “House Hunters” franchise, and especially “House Hunters International”. It’s like taking an insider’s real estate tour of all these exotic and interesting locales, from Sweden to Vietnam to Fiji and everywhere in between. Nepal! Croatia! New Zealand! Ghana! How else would the average American know how much it costs to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Reykjavik? I admire all these expats, uprooting their lives (sometimes with children in tow) to move halfway around the world.  Their experiences also make me a little jealous, although I couldn’t imagine doing it myself. I envy their braveness most of all.

I also enjoy the design shows, like “Love It or List It” and “Property Brothers”. There used to be a great reality competition show on the network called “Design Star,” along the lines of “Project Runway” but featuring home styling rather than fashion, where the winners would get their own shows on HGTV. Most of the competitors ostensibly made a living decorating the homes of other people for actual money. I found it impressive that all these folks had enough confidence in their own creative aesthetic to turn doing what they love into an actual career, even if their “talent” was not always readily apparent while under the pressure of a competitive reality show. But what I really wondered about was, where does all the money come from? The designers themselves were certainly accustomed to having healthy budgets with which to purchase quirky antiques and pillows and doodads for others, but it’s really the customers who have so much disposable income that they could afford to pay someone else to buy all those quirky antiques and pillows and doodads on their behalf.

My friend Liz is a really talented designer. She’s particularly clever when it comes to creating place-settings and party favors for special occasions, but her decorating skills extend to her home, which is lovely and so distinctively her own.  (Needless to say, she’s a big fan of HGTV, too.)  But unfortunately Liz’s situation is considerably different from that of the “Design Star” competitors and decorators and craftspeople featured on the HGTV design shows because she hasn’t had the wherewithal to start her own design firm. The business of real life means that she needs a 9-to-5 gig and then a second job on weekends just to make ends meet. She can’t afford to do what she loves for a living, to be able to exercise her talents and create environments where people can feel comfortably themselves.  What would it take? A rich husband? A supportive (wealthy) family? Incredible luck? When I think about what I’d do if I won the lottery (which I often do), I always include Liz in my plans. Maybe I’d contribute some equity as a silent partner or perhaps just a “loan” so she could start a decorating and/or party-planning business of her own. (I would also give my ex-husband money for a house downpayment, cover my niece’s college tuition, fund “Kickstarter” campaigns that strike my fancy, and volunteer at multiple locations – God’s Love We Deliver and Habitat for Humanity, to name a few – as well as giving Post Pets Rescue basically a blank check to get whatever supplies they need whenever they need them. Believe me, I’ve got it all planned out! Now all that needs to happen is that I actually win. A minor inconvenience.)

As much as I enjoy the subject matter and envy the people I see on HGTV, many of these shows also make me angry because they highlight something that makes me a little insane. So much excess! So much superfluousness ! (If that is even a word.) Who needs all this STUFF?  The natural beauty of the world is certainly worth the price of admission (as displayed in a show like “Island Hunters”, where people literally spend MILLIONS on undeveloped islands that they intend to “build to suit”), but do humans really need such opulence in our man-made structures? I find needless and extravagant ornamentation almost sickening. Royal residences I’ve visited as a tourist (Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, to name a few) have had that same effect on me. I walked around them open-mouthed and awestruck but then the stomach churning would begin. These buildings are the embodiment of the wealthy and privileged looking down from their bejeweled towers to lord it over the unwashed masses:  “We have everything, and you will never.”  History has always been this way. Look at the Vatican, for Christ’s sake! (Literally!!) Jesus Christ famously tore up a temple to toss the money men out and also said it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven, and yet the Vatican is, unapologetically (at least until Pope Francis came along), one of the wealthiest institutions on earth.

Income disparity is a hot-button topic these days. At the most basic of levels, as I understand it, this is the history of what has happened in our world in the past number of decades: After World War II, the developed world underwent an equalization previously unseen in modern history. The middle class was born: Not noble or wealthy by birth, but neither were they lowly or poor. Generations of Americans and Europeans got used to having their own little piece of the pie, to quote the theme song from the classic TV sitcom “The Jeffersons”. George and Weezie Jefferson were the epitome of the “movin’ on up” of the 1950’s, ‘60s and ‘70s that even crossed racial and ethnic lines. Suddenly there was a black and Hispanic middle class, too. Upward mobility was available to all. The GI Bill enabled education and home buying on an unprecedented scale.

But in recent years – since the recessions and regressions of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s and certainly continuing into the 21st century – the middle class is shrinking. A very small percentage moved “up” and became the ostentatiously (and perhaps unsustainably?) nouveau riche (dot-commers and i-bankers, primarily), but the greater percentage sank “down” – living beyond their means, getting barely cost-of-living raises, experiencing widespread layoffs and forced retirements (especially for folks over the age of 50) and an obscenely low minimum wage, with labor unions weakening and dying and no longer able to adequately protect the interests of all of their members. And to add insult to injury, the government asks what’s left of the middle class to bear a heavier tax burden than the wealthy who could more easily afford it. It’s no accident that rich people are where they are: They do everything in their power to keep all their money for themselves, and because they have the power (which they purchase from our politicians), they force the poor and middle class to foot the bills for the public services that only the poor and middle class require. It’s untenable. Something has to give.

In Long Beach (NY) now, there’s an infuriating dispute about wealthy real estate developers (we’re talking worth billions) converting a 6‑acre parcel of beachfront property (locally known as the “Superblock” because of its size and prime location) into a massive apartment complex. The developers are threatening to walk away if they don’t get millions in tax breaks. (John Bendo, Op-Ed: “Who are the politicians really representing?” Long Beach Herald, 6/16/15). Multimillionaires want to avoid paying taxes for over 20 years in a community where, even though residential taxes are among the highest in Nassau County, the City can’t even manage to meet its own budget year after year. Instead of the City of Long Beach dangling the Superblock as a carrot to developers who might be able to do something beneficial for all of the residents of Long Beach rather than just those who can afford the price tag for an apartment with pristine ocean views, it’s become a stick with which to beat the existing community. Not only will it block existing access and sight lines, increase traffic and energy consumption and burden to the breaking point an already-stressed water and sanitation system, but they also want to avoid having to pay their fair share for it? I am horrified. But what control do residents like me have? The deal has been done and no amount of protesting voices will be able to stop it. We feel powerless to prevent this debacle, just as American voters feel powerless to do anything about income inequality despite politicians blathering about it incessantly.

I don’t have any answers, just frustrations and questions. But I guess the more we engage in intelligent dialogue about it, the more we can try to shame the rich into paying their fair share. After all, a multi-millionaire who gives away even half of his or her money will STILL be a multimillionaire. How much do we really need for a little piece of the pie?

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