Tuesday, February 10, 2009

I Think "Frozen Hot Chocolate" Covers Everything

The NYT had an opinion piece on Friday on why the Obama administration's call for a $500K salary cap is bad.

Granted, New York is an expensive city. And granted that executives have an image to uphold as part of their responsibilities.

But more than one NYC expat I've run into here has said that getting by in Tampa is more difficult than in the Big Apple, and that the intangible costs of a place (property insurance, anyone?) are often not figured into the math when it comes to cost of living when the statisticians run that math. One in particular, a former executive assistant (to one of those CEOs by the way), tells me the costs are fairly equivalent (taking into account insurance, commute costs, groceries and ordinary consumables) and that salaries are at most half here what they are there, so the standard of living is consequently lower for the same professions - and has done so in some detail.

I, too, have lived and moved in some of the more exclusive and expensive areas, both in the US and the UK. The costs for some parts of the US, compared with the most often-cited examples of New York and San Francisco, are surprisingly high when one factors in things like insurance, lack of infrastructure and increased commute times and distances.

I've often said that Florida is a remarkably inexpensive place to live - as long as you never step outside your door; the moment you do, some meter starts running. Tickets to theatre and concerts here run the same prices I saw for shows on Geary Street and concerts at the Fillmore - only here the shows are at Ruth Eckerd Hall, the TBCPA, the Ford and Van Wezel (hardly nationally renowned venues), all of which are miles from most residential neighborhoods and none of which has reasonable access via public transit. Some years ago, for example, I paid $40 to see The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe on Broadway; I couldn't get nosebleed seats for that price at any of the venues in Tampa Bay. The attire for such events is unchanged, and prices for clothing are fairly constant. Home insurance is perhaps triple here what it is elsewhere, assuming you can get it. Groceries are nearly double what I was paying in SFO and have been since I arrived. None of these things seem to impact the cost of living calculations one sees in the various studies and articles.

The Times item does list some useful statistics for what it takes to live on Park Avenue these days. But that lifestyle has been viewed less than favorably for decades. The greatest critique I have seen of that is The Women (one of my favorite films if you haven't already guessed). The disconnect is skewered unsparingly:
Sylvia: "I consider myself a perfectly good wife, Nancy. I've sacrificed a lot for Howard Fowler - OOH, smoked oysters!"

This is from a 1939 film, based on a play about ten years older, so the critique is hardly new.

Yet somehow the Times seems to think that such a lifestyle is not only defensible but desirable:
The total costs here, which do not include a lot of things, like kennels for the dog when the family is away, summer camp, spas and other grooming for the human members of the family, donations to charity, and frozen hot chocolates at Serendipity, are $790,750, which would require about a $1.6-million salary to compensate for taxes. Give or take a few score thousand of dollars.

Does this money buy a chief executive stockholders might prize, a well-to-do man with a certain sureness of stride, something that might be lost if the executive were crowding onto the PATH train every morning at Journal Square, his newspaper splayed against the back of a stranger’s head?

They even qoute Candace Bushnell, of Sex and the City fame:
“People inherently understand that if they are going to get ahead in whatever corporate culture they are involved in, they need to take on the appurtenances of what defines that culture,” she said. “So if you are in a culture where spending a lot of money is a sign of success, it’s like the same thing that goes back to high school peer pressure. It’s about fitting in.”

That line says quite a bit: spending a lot of money is a sign of success. In an age when the entire nation is tightening its belts, and even the corporate giants are feeling the squeeze, the Times thinks success is still indicated by extravagance. From the recent actions of Wall Street, "success" is apparently defined as finding someone to buy your crippled enterprise before it declares bankruptcy: that's not exactly a ringing endorsement.

And the sheer decadence of some of the incidental expenses referenced - my favorite is the "frozen hot chocolates at Serendipity" - play right into the hands of those of us who think that the heady days of executive elitism are past due for their own correction.

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