The decade that made it impossible to hide from reality
10 years ago I moved to LA. Cash for Clunkers had just ended. Nobody I knew from high school or college had a “real” job. I’d found a way to hustle, finding and selling rare vinyl records online, making something like 35k/yr. I was, and felt, absurdly lucky. All I knew was recession.
I could pay $1200 rent and got to travel around the country on cheap Southwest flights and buy records in the strangest corners of the US. I had no clue what a career looked like - I just wanted to pay off my student loans. With some internet skills and a hustle, life went on and wasn’t too expensive, and there was plenty of space to live.
I spent much of 2008-11 going to hard hit places. Iron Triangle Richmond. South Central. Kansas City and Detroit. I bought records from addicts living in warehouses. I went to garage sales and then read about shootings the next day on the same corner. And yet each time I faced this reality I went home with a crazy story to tell, and filed away the experience in the probably not-so-smart decisions I made in my early 20s bucket. I’d drive home, turn off the latest Planet Money episode about the financial crisis, and keep working.
If you could afford it, and it didn’t take as much then, you could pay to put problems elsewhere, out of sight out of mind. I rented a tiny bungalow in San Pedro for $1200/mo. My neighbors were old longshoremen working 6hrs/wk and laid off Boeing employees. Nothing fancy, but also completely insulated from the harsh reality that so many faced. That was my bubble. Out of sight, out of mind.
Out of sight, out of mind stopped being possible this decade.
It happened gradually at first, but the exponential growth hit hardest most recently. Consider these five trends of the 2010s:
Online activism = the issues of the day are in your face daily on Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Increasing housing costs = your friends pack up and leave town
Homelessness = no vacant space means homelessness visible everywhere, no longer hidden
Pandemics = others’ health impacts your own
Climate change = fires and floods in your backyard are caused by emissions across borders
I don’t roam around tough neighborhoods looking for records anymore, but I feel way more connected on a daily basis to the stark reality of inequality and struggle in America. I roll past tent encampments every day, everywhere in Oakland. The front page of the NY Times is more often about domestic poverty and healthcare inequity than foreign wars. I hide indoors with HEPA filters during wildfire season and social distance during the pandemic and think about people who are unable to do either. You can’t open your phone or walk outside without facing down (or working to ignore) your own privilege on a daily basis.
The out of sight, out of mind bubble has burst.
This is a good thing. It’s chaotic while we’re in the midst of it, but I’m confident it will be good in the long run, similar to how the 1960s upended a broken status quo. But it is a contentious, radical change. Particularly for California.
Through suburbs and exurbs, for over 50 years California has been selling the vision of a life away from “city problems”, building walls and gates as “protection”. Your parents bought the right to put problems out of sight, out of mind with rent or a mortgage. California sold racial and economic segregation. Pay your way into the school district funded by high property values. This is the model I know I grew up with, even in Albany and Berkeley, which have no physical walls or gates.
This backfired dramatically in the past decade. NIMBYs effectively segregated their own kids to other states as rent spiked. Tents started to line freeway onramps. Wildfires erupted. Pandemics became impossible to contain with 3 generations living in one house. You couldn’t look around, or maybe more importantly look at your phone, without being forced to confront problems that had always been there, but were getting worse. Most California natives I know went very quickly from “we’re the best state ever and the only debate is NorCal vs SoCal” to “Holy crap this place is messed up” in just a few years.
These problems have been growing at a linear rate for decades. The 1970s books on California’s housing and water crises read like they were written yesterday. The shock stems from the way they’ve suddenly burst into inescapable view.
California isn’t unique, but it is first and most extreme, as we often are to so many things good and bad. I’m confident that similar shocks are coming to other states over the next decade. We’re already exporting our housing crisis. 2020 was the first year of massive drought-induced wildfires in Oregon and Colorado.
What should we do about it?
Every one of the problems we face today grew for years before we became shocked by it. Ask Bill Gates about pandemics or ask Matthew Desmond about evictions. The problems and risks themselves have grown in mostly linear ways. 123,000 people in California were homeless in 2010. 151,000 were homeless in 2019. That’s not exponential growth. COVID spread exponentially, but the risk of a global pandemic probably grew in a linear relationship to global travel and habitat extinction. People have sounded the alarm on housing affordability in California for decades. Problems and risks grow linearly, but our collective awareness of them spike in what feels like a sudden shock.
Shocks widen the gap between winners and losers. In a linear transition, people have time to adapt, but in a shock, people with access to liquidity rake in the gains at the expense of those without any buffer. Studies show that homelessness is driven most by sudden rent shocks, not by monotonically rising rents. Outsized returns (and losses) are created by shocks to the system.
One way of dealing with shocks is to attempt to smooth them over. This tends to be expensive and come only after the shock has occurred — think 2020 Federal Reserve volatility suppression or the CARES Act. A pandemic hits in the midst of a 30+ year housing affordability crisis, and we scramble to provide some assistance to smooth over a few months rent. We try to “flatten the curve” of the shock to the best of our political will. At best, this approach makes a small dent in a big problem - people can stay in their homes for a few more months during a pandemic. At worst, our attempt to flatten the curve and suppress volatility is counter-productive (see: rent control).
We know that a better way to handle shocks is to make everyone aware of what’s coming, and help them adapt well in advance. In 2014 we should have warned every single Californian where rents were headed, warned every housing developer where construction costs were going, and get people building. We might have run a program to help people find opportunities outside of California, knowing that there was no way we’d be able to build fast enough to keep everyone housed. We might have mocked up visualizations of dozens of RVs lining Gilman Street in Berkeley, and told residents, “This is where things are headed unless we build housing”. The storm is coming, and we’re here to get everyone to safety before it hits.
That’s what Bill Gates tried to do with pandemics for years, unfortunately without enough support. It’s why we have huge industries built around economic and consumer spending data - it would be destabilizing if every jobs report or interest rate change was a 20% surprise from expectations. It’s why organizations have budgets. Civic life is somewhat uniquely reactionary, because political will is only built after the problem is recognized by a majority (and even then it’s still hard to create).
To that end, I think the past decade of demolishing “out of sight, out of mind” in civic life is a huge step forward. When problems are more visible, more discussed in public, we reduce the surprise we’ll face down the road, and increase the probability that we’ll collectively do something about it. We are going to be so ridiculously prepared for the next pandemic. I know that sounds nuts to say right now, in December 2020, but I’m confident that it’s true. We will talk about 2020 for our whole lives.
Facing these problems every day is tiring. Everything always feels broken and people are constantly arguing about it. But that’s the steady state of the world, and you learn how to participate while not letting it rattle you. It’s individually stressful, but collectively healthy, because we’re talking about the important things earlier, before the shock hits. Consider how much discussion there’s already been about rent/mortgage forbearance and preventing evictions. In 2008 we only had conversations like this well after the shock of the financial crisis. We are doing better even as it all feels worse than ever.
Apathy and burnout are the new risks
We’re doing better at living in reality (well, maybe not some people). We’re less and less likely to be shocked.
But there’s a new challenge - how do we stay exposed to reality, to prevent shocks, while maintaining energy to take action? It’s harder for people today to volunteer or take action, because they’re already burned out on the problem by constant exposure. Contrast this with 10 years ago when you might have lived in your bubble, and then ventured out of it to work on an important societal problem, knowing that you’d come back home and put it out of sight, out of mind. Boundaries are falling, often as they should.
I think apathy and burnout are much larger challenges online than disinformation or even hate speech. If you read and listen to President Obama, he is waging a war on apathy. His presidency was defined by a growing awareness of a deeply unequal America, combined with growing frustration with government and a disintegration of community. Just this year, it took an unprecedented effort from millions of people, companies, platforms and celebrities, just to get people to vote.
As more of us live in our shared reality every day, we are no longer shocked. We’re more prepared for the road ahead, but less energized to act. We run a new risk of burning out and moving to the middle of nowhere to work remotely and escape. Of pretending our lifestyle choices are about our own individual choices, rather than about avoiding a shared reality we’d rather ignore. I know I’ve made a few choices like that in my past.
Peace is a hot New York Subway station
You know how a NYC subway station smells on a hot summer night? It’s hot, humid and objectively awful. I love it. I miss it when I haven’t been to New York in too long. Taking the subway means being face to face with people from all over the city. It means facing down the mess that is the MTA. No matter who you think you are, you’re another sardine on the platform waiting for a train, with the best and worst of New York on full display. Old dude with the print newspaper folding it all up in your business. Mixtapes blaring out of headphones so loud you can hear the lyrics. Do you even live in New York if you don’t ride the train?
2021 will tempt us to escape and hide when we return to reality and see it in its broken state. For those with means to do so, especially who work on the internet, it will continue to be tempting to escape to the corners of the world where “out of sight, out of mind” is temporarily still a bit more possible. All our crises, from city budgets to housing and evictions will play out as if we’re living in a novel that we already know the end of. We won’t be shocked.
The question is if we can keep riding the train, wherever we live, and learn to love being part of reality every day like “a real fukin New Yorker” and do something about it.