Romantics and Pragmatists - Chapter 1 (cont.) - What Do You Have That We Don't? (Excerpt)


Brooklyn                                                                                                             Lea Winkler

I need food and shelter to survive. In order to obtain both, I need to do something in order to pay for the food and shelter or I need to receive them through some sort of transfer system (e.g., the government). I think it is fair to say that people around the world need and want food and shelter to survive. 

Many people are not satisfied with merely food and shelter. They want more. They claim that you cannot be happy without a car, a TV or a smartphone. They argue that something like health insurance is critical in order to secure your livelihood. 

The amount that we (perceive to) need (and can afford) differs greatly between cultures between cultures. As do the sacrifices we are willing to make for the possession of these additional tangible and intangible benefits

Americans want a lot more than basic food and shelter. If you live in social housing in New York City and conscientiously line up for free food at churches, you will have less than $1,000 in costs per month (not incl. health care). This is not an option for the Euro-American middle class. Even musicians, writers and others in the arts reject social housing (aka “the projects”) for the most part, while lining up for food is unthinkable. Obviously, if they do not take advantage of this affordable alternative,  professionals in any field do not even think about it.

What is even more interesting about the young professional class, however, is that affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods is also not particularly attractive. This may have to do with the importance attached to your address in New York, which acts as a kind of status symbol for your net worth (which can’t be judged by outsiders). In the early teens (2010-2015), you saw very few professionals in neighborhoods such as Bedford-Stuyvesant, East Bushwick (not East Williamsburg) and Crown Heights. You saw artists, musicians, writers, alcoholics, etc., who enjoyed the relative affordability of rents in a range of $1,100 to $1,700 (depending on size, location and start of lease), but very few professionals who took advantage of the low rents (to save money) or the prices for three story homes of $300,000 to $600,000 until 2014. Outside of New York you see a similar development in places like Portland, Maine, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, etc. In Portland (Maine), for example, people in the arts and professionals want to live as close to the downtown waterfront as possible. Home buyers prefer 9 room houses to one- or two-bedroom apartments (even if they don’t plan to have children). In the LA area, they want to live in a good school district rather than Santa Ana.

All these artists and professionals want to live in the best possible neighborhood. Often, they succeed. But it comes at a cost. They have to work substantially more than someone who makes the opposite decision. If we view this as a metaphor for a culture as a whole, then one of the major differences between Russia and America becomes clear: we do not need as much as Americans or we are unwilling to sacrifice our time/life to obtain more.

Like Americans, we generally have food and shelter. We also have cars, TVs and smartphones, but we aren’t willing to work 60-70 hours a week to have a house or apartment in the best neighborhood, to have the latest TV, smartphone or car. The sacrifice is simply too great.
What is this sacrifice exactly?....

Yuri Smirnov
May 2015 

Further reading

Smirnov, Yuri. How a Russian Sees America. Feb. 2015
Smirnov, Yuri. Chapter 1 (excerpt): A Russian's View of America: What Do You Have That We Don't? Mar. 2015
Smirnov, Yuri. Chapter 6 (excerpt): How a Russia Sees America: Are We Really That Different? - Security. Mar. 2015
Smirnov, Yuri: Chapter 2 (excerpt): A Russian's View of America: What's The Point of Living? Apr. 2015

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