Saturday, March 30, 2024

"Snow Days, French Fries and the End of Small Respites and Little Luxuries

Stream of consciousness done right.

From Discourse magazine, March

Being pro-market doesn’t mean always treating efficiency as a supreme value

Back in fall of 2022, New York City announced that it would swap snow days for “remote learning” days. It’s not clear if that policy is ironclad, but when a big storm hit the city in early February and closed schools, city officials announced a remote learning day (which didn’t go very well).

That was originally going to be the news hook for this piece. But then at the end of February Wendy’s, the fast food chain, announced (and then semi-reversed) its intention to test “dynamic pricing” at its restaurants.

The discourse over dynamic pricing got into attitudes about corporations and markets, and arguments over consumer advocacy versus mere complaining. (Are you against happy hour too? What about weekly supermarket sales? That’s dynamic pricing too!) I’m not completely convinced. This is where the temperamental conservative in me outweighs the philosophical one. “Sales” in retail stores are as old as supermarkets. Happy hours are fun. Besides, both are based on the idea that the price is sometimes, under some circumstances, discounted. That is subtly different from the inverse: that the price will sometimes—in potentially unpredictable ways or times—go up. Admittedly, we accept this with airfares and hotels and concert tickets. But to bring food into it crosses a line in the mind, if not in philosophy.

But this isn’t about dynamic pricing. That’s just one example of what feels like a trend. No more snow days. No more certainty in fast food prices. General inflation. “Extra-economy” airplane seats without even carry-on bags included. The Square kiosk asking you to tip 22% at a counter-service establishment. Paid vacation turning into “unlimited paid time off”—which corporate managers have almost certainly determined results in fewer total days taken off, because when everything is promised, nothing in particular is. Plastic bags at the supermarket being taxed or banned. $16 burgers served without fries. Fewer and fewer little perks, respites, luxuries. Every little bit of value, every last little treat, being squeezed out.

These might seem like small matters—no more than inconveniences, or perhaps the small costs we pay for the vast benefits of globalization and economic dynamism. They might even represent an increase in choices and options. But for many people, they upend a sense that everyday life is secure. The idea that you can’t even rely on the price of a burger to be the price of a burger captures a feeling of deterioration and precarity in America.

This makes me think, because everything does, of urbanism and housing politics. I very much support new housing and zoning reform. That’s the main topic I write about. People who, unlike me, like the American land-use status quo—lots of driving, mostly single-family houses, a certain privacy and distance—often react with what looks to me like paranoia or anger at the idea of even permitting any other option.

For example, proposals, like the one that passed in Alexandria, Virginia last year, to allow small multifamily buildings in single-family zones, generate intense backlash. (They want to pack us like sardines.) Or people will react badly to someone on Twitter sharing a selfie happily biking in the rain as if it’s an attempt to personally shame them. (Well, I like not getting wet when I run errands, which is why I drive my car.) Sometimes this passes over into conspiracy theory of the very-online variety: 15-minute cities are about imprisoning us in high-rises and making us eat the bugs. I’ve seen this suspicion about lab-grown meat and products like Impossible and Beyond Meat. Sure, first they let you choose it. Then they force you to use it. Didn’t the telescreens in “1984” start as consumer items? (They actually did.) You can only take these things so seriously.

But back to housing....


He's just getting started.