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25 March 2011

Necessity Creep

The key to living within one's means, especially in these times of austerity, risk, competition, precarity and casualization, is the ability and willingness to classify possible expenditures as luxuries or necessities, with a bias for regarding things as luxuries, and being aggressive about enforcing that line in the sand. The most formidable enemy of thrift is the tendency for luxuries to become necessities. What exactly is the economic or technological history behind something like indoor plumbing becoming an economic necessity? Is it a necessity because life requires it or because policy requires it? To the serious student of economic minimalism it may appear to be a conspiracy against the cheapskates, although there are of course questions of whether urban living can be safe or hygienic without everyone having indoor plumbing, and hence a water bill to pad the "baseline" cost of living. While it is always debatable what are the raw necessities of life (or as Thoreau put it, the grossest of groceries) it's plainly obvious that many product categories have migrated in the direction of the 'necessity' end of the spectrum. These include utility hookups, refrigerators, telephone service (if nothing else, so you have a phone number to put on your résumé), Internet access (because many job openings are announced only online, or even only take applications online), non-casual clothing (again, often a pre-requisite for earning a living). Perhaps the most egregious example of a perverse necessity is cars, in places not well served by mass transit.

In America, and it would seem in all 'first world' countries, it is becoming obvious that the going rate for labor at most skill levels simply won't cover the cost of living in such countries, which is to say, the cost of necessities. If for some reason we must insist on not practicing protectionism, subsidy, or some other Sin against the Iron Laws of Economics, surely we must be duty-bound at least to facilitate what can only be called cheap living, with an emphasis on cheap housing. While I reject the free market ideology, at least those who are principled and reasonably consistent in the market fundamentalism favor radical zoning deregulation, so that truly cheap housing arrangements (say living in someone's garage, or having a lot of roommates) are at very least not illegal. I'm not convinced that there is any guarantee (or even market-equilibrium-seeking tendency) that the cost of necessity procurement will automagically make itself commensurate with the market value of labor, which is one of the many reasons I'm an anagorist, but housing has some potential to relieve some of the pressures that cause hardship, and is one form of economic deregulation I think actually has merit. The existence in the world of cheap labor, without the existence locally of dirt cheap housing and cheap necessities in general, is a death trap, a treadmill of superhuman speed, and a deliberate act of cruelty on the part of anyone who speaks in defense of, for example, minimum square footage requirements.

As for those semi-necessities referred to in the first paragraph, there is a need for a platform for sharing and cataloguing strategies for living without the semi-necessities. There is an art and science of cheap living, and it merits serious, sophisticated and collaborative study.

In memoriam

Today is the 100-year anniversary of the catastrophic fire at New York's Triangle Shirtwaist factory, in which 146 fatialities resulted from the fact that the workers were locked inside. That was before my time, but I am old enough to remember the rhetoric surrounding the Berlin Wall, to the effect that free countries don't fortify their borders for the purpose of keeping people in. The point? There is nothing democratic about business. People under lock and key are not free people. The idea that employment is a "contract" between "free individuals" is a lie; one that can only serve the interests of the privileged.

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