Monday, August 08, 2016

[Ann Arbor] Life in a Bubble

Ann Arbor, where I have lived in-and-around for roughly 2/3s of my life, is the bubbliest of bubbles. Honestly, people in Ann Arbor will gladly pontificate on the issues of the day, almost exclusive from a progressive/left as is the case with most bubbles, when in truth, no Ann Arborites -- including Yours Truly -- should pass any judgment on any real world issues because we just don't know. Our lives are nothing like theirs. Thanks to the cheaply available student loan money which has deeply enriched the University over the past couple of decades, we haven't felt a spot of economic distress in ages. That's right kids: here's some pay-later money to give the University of Michigan to prop up our bubble economy. When you graduate and can't find a job you'll have to leave town and move back in with your parents and be in debt for the next decade or so, but you can be proud that because of you the freshmen living in South Quad have a made-to-order sushi bar. Be sure to keep up on your Alumni Association dues.

The only people we are qualified to pass judgment on are folks in places like Madison WI, or Portland OR, or Austin TX. In other words, other bubble people. Yet, judging from my Facebook news feed, all my beloved friends would disagree. They love to share glib and shallow political posts all day long, and of course, always from stage left. Because bubbles are almost always on the left. I love my friends, but sometimes I'm tempted to start linking up posts from the DPRK News Service just to see what the reaction would be.

Here's a perfect example of a bubble controversy. There is a plot of land in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor -- about one square block -- called the Library Lot (because it's across the street from the library). For years there has been debate as to what to do with it and, Ann Arbor being Ann Arbor, it's gotten all tangled up with questions of social responsibility.

First some background. Despite being a wealthy bubble, Ann Arbor has a problem with the homeless. In the interest of social responsibility, Ann Arbor has constructed a homeless shelter on the edge of the downtown area. Naturally, it isn't just some repurposed warehouse or something, it's a high end homeless shelter, because the homeless deserve their fair share of bubble advantages, don't they? So naturally it attracts homeless from all around. Over the years, this has caused various "issues". There were times I recall back in the 80s where shopkeepers -- many of whom were hand-on-your-heart social activists -- ended up asking people not to give to panhandlers on the street because they were getting out of control. The city council passed complex ordinances which are regularly updated to strongly control when and where panhandling can occur so as to limit it severely but not violate state law which says you can't forbid panhandling.

So in the end we have this sort of compromise where there is a low level tension throughout downtown with the homeless. We want to help them because we are good people, but we don't really want them interfering with our bubble lives.

We do something similar with low-income housing (also called "section 8"). We have a couple of complexes around the city that are intended for low-income tenants. This is by design and by acts of city council and so forth. The supposition is that poor people deserve to live here too, and the hope is that by allowing them to do so they will have better lives than they could otherwise afford since most likely they'd end up in slum-ish sorts of places. It's a nice thought. I have to expect there are at least a handful of folks who have found their way out of poverty because they had options outside of ghetto life.

Like everything else in life there is a cost. Re-locating the poverty stricken to inside the bubble doesn't instantly change their habits. Areas around low-income housing complexes have elevated rates of violent crime, of which there is admittedly little in Ann Arbor. (By far the most common crime in Ann Arbor is larceny, mostly due to students being fairly lax about securing their laptops and such.) Perhaps more telling is that low income housing has a higher rate of police calls -- usually noise complaints over people having loud public domestic disputes at all hours, or over teeth rattling bass every time a car pulls in or out of the parking lot. The cost is in disruption of your peaceful life and loss of property value, and so low-income housing has gotten built in places which were not quite up to the upper-middle class standard of wider Ann Arbor in general -- near lower-middle class, and often senior, residents who aren't organized to fight city council find them as their neighbors. (They sure as hell aren't next door to any of the U of M doctors or professors.)

So back to the Library Lot. For years a group of involved citizens has tried to get the city to build a park on the library lot. Some of of their arguments are a little iffy, for instance they are argue that many cities benefit from a centralized park, citing New York City. Well, the library lot is about one square block -- Central Park it ain't. Still, who can argue against a park in the middle of town?

Lots of people. There is already a smallish little park right near the Library Lot and it is filled with homeless whiling away their days and causing a nuisance before they head back to their nice shelter for the evening. The library itself is dominated by vagrants sleeping in the chairs and smelling the place up. Why on earth would you encourage further chaos by adding more comfort for them Furthermore, money spent to build the park would reduce the subsidy money for low income housing.

So on the one hand we have folks wanting to increase the green quotient of downtown (it could use it) and encourage a sense of community. On the other hand, we have people who want to assure financing and availability of low-income housing. The unspoken corollaries are we have a group of folks trying to take funding away from low-income to use for a city park where they can sip their lattes and tell themselves how much they love trees, and another group who is using the support of low income housing as a justification for killing something that is going to mostly end up encouraging more homeless to settle in Ann Arbor. Such is the labyrinthine nature of bubble politics -- of making sure we indulge our better instincts as long as other people have to sacrifice. I'm sure these things are discussed with great sincerity across the organic vegetable counters at Whole Foods.

That may be too cynical, but my detachment allows it. You see, I make no apologies for loving my bubble. Everybody loves bubbles, but they only become moral liabilities if they become too large. For most people, their bubbles begin and end at their homes. Your home as a bubble has become more normal over time. As a child I recall it being perfectly natural and expected for a friend or acquaintance to ring your doorbell or call you on the pre-voicemail phone unannounced. Now I screen phone calls and would be mildly put out of someone knocked on my door without warning. That's bubblization. Few people have a problem with that.

If you get some money your neighborhood can be your next bubble. Living in a gated community, for example, is usually sneered at by the righteous. Even if it's not gated, your homeowners association or condo board will enforce rules that are not in place in the wider world to maintain the microculture of your neighborhood appropriately. The next step up is the bubble city or county, which requires a certain amount of macroeconomic insulation. As your bubble grows beyond your home, you get painted as having a sort of character flaw -- a snob, a 1%er, probably even a hateful racist at heart. You don't want people to think this, so you devote some of your wealth to building your bubble into an image of a good progressive community, while being careful not to push it to the point where your bubble bursts and the uglier world intrudes.

I have no idea if taking the homeless or poverty-stricken and transplanting them into rich enclaves is productive. I suspect it is for a small minority of them and whether it is worth the cost, again I don't know. Neither do you, although if you're from Ann Arbor you are certain that you do. To me, it's the social phenomena itself that is interesting. It's a clean example of the contradictions and conflicts we create so we can both claim to be good people but still serve ourselves. Robin Hanson makes reference (slightly tongue-in-cheek) to Homo Hypocritus, arguing that such behavior is deeply ingrainied in our make-up and is perhaps an evolutionary design so that we can forward personal interests while still maintaining strong social cohesion.

All that is probably true, but it's not such a bad thing. I don't see any problem living our lives trying to balance moral righteousness with self interest. Just because we do it in the most haphazard, inefficient, and delusional way imaginable, doesn't make it wrong. Bubbles are nice. If you get the chance to spend much your life in a bubble, as I do, I highly recommend it. But understand, the elevated quality of life should make your less secure in your opinions, not more.

A site called Wallet Hub (huh?) has named Ann Arbor the most educated city in the country. Meanwhile Travel+Leisure Magazine rates Ann Arbor the 10th rudest city in the country (even ruder than Detroit). I'll go out on limb and suggest these two findings may be related.