How the 1% lives?
Yesterday on on WNYC (the local public radio station), I heard a report by Andrea Bernstein on “Super-Commuters.” These are people – a growing group, she says – who commute into the city by plane to work every week. Her main example was a man who lives in Florida and works in New York City. The tone of the story was light and bemused: “How are YOU getting to work this morning?” asked the host, introducing the piece in the tone you would use to read a storybook to children. And I suppose there is a legitimate New Yorkers-do-the-darndest-things angle to chuckle over. But to me the piece was most notable for what it left out: there was hardly any discussion of the price of this lifestyle, economic, social, or environmental. That commuting this way is possible only for certain people with certain kinds of jobs went without saying. “You probably know someone who commutes like this,” Bernstein insists. I wouldn’t say that’s true of everyone who lives in the WNYC listening area, but I take it as an indication of who WNYC listeners are presumed to be (and whom they are presumed to know).
The money-is-no-object viewpoint was annoying but not surprising. And if the families in question say it’s worth the time apart, I’ll take them at their word. I was taken aback, however, by the piece’s total avoidance of the question of the environment, and the impact thereon of a weekly air commute. I will very likely never be in a position to fly to and from work. I don’t think I’d accept the cost to my family of such a commute even if I had the option. But I’m fairly certain I couldn’t justify the environmental impact, the outsized use of resources, even if I could afford it. And yet Bernstein’s piece did not even gesture toward this cost. The number of miles flown were referenced as a fun fact (one man has flown the distance to the moon and back!) or an additional perk (families can use the frequent-flier miles to take trips), but not an environmental worry.
This seemed like a particularly glaring omission because I had Richard Miller’s Commonweal article on the threat of climate change still vivid in my mind. (Have you read it yet?) The WNYC story also reminded me of another magazine article I read last week, one that covered the territory of “crazy things wealthy New Yorkers do to make their lives easier, because they can,” but also raised some serious questions about how the privileges of the very rich can affect us all. It was James B. Stewart’s article “Tax Me if You Can” in the March 19 New Yorker, a study of how people who work and live in New York at least part-time manage to avoid paying taxes here. Commuting enters the picture in this story, too – quoting from the online abstract: “The problem is especially acute for cities like New York, which are geographically close to nearby lower-tax jurisdictions. People who want to avoid both New York State and New York City income taxes are permitted to own a residence and work in the city and the state but must maintain a primary residence outside the state.” The story focuses on people who, if they spent a few more days in the city each year, would be paying a lot of money in taxes to New York. They are also people who can afford to pay a lot of money in taxes to New York. And, most significantly, they are people who can afford to go to the trouble not to pay that money while enjoying the benefits of more-or-less living in New York. The account of how someone like Martha Stewart establishes that she is not a New York resident, despite owning two homes in the state, is comedy of the absurd with an instructive edge.