Some furniture is of higher quality than other furniture, and we can measure the average level of quality among a group of people, as well as the variance or inequality among them. A good society will produce a high average and a low level of inequality, while a bad society will produce a low average and a high level of inequality.
I first got the impression of how bad life is in liberal / leftist hives like Brooklyn from listening to the Red Scare podcast, which unlike others of the socialist-y type, provides honest commentary on daily life in Brooklyn, where all of these people live. Everyone else either hypes up or humblebrags about how awesome it is, or at worst keeps quiet about it. The ladies from Red Scare are about the only ones who paint a warts-and-all picture of the place, like their refrain that guys in Brooklyn can't keep it up.
One aspect they've commented on several times, that really jumped out at me, was how little stuff they have, and hinting at how crappy what they do have is. They were not complaining about lacking a shitload of pointless junk, they were saying how much of the necessities they did not have, and how unsuitable what did have was. Furniture, kitchen appliances and utensils, (quality) clothing, and so on. They may have expensive internet-related devices, but that is only a portal into the virtual world, while back in the material world they live amidst sparse piles of cheap crud.
"Why don't they just buy decent stuff from a Goodwill?" I thought. Here in flyover country, you can walk into any thrift store and find hardwood furniture, Corning Ware cooking dishes, and 100% wool coats in winter (one of their complaints during the cold snap earlier this year). Then it occurred to me that they must not have such a great selection where they live.
On a hunch, I browsed the furniture section of the Brooklyn Craigslist, and it was indeed littered with crappy trendoid stuff -- made from fiberboard, poorly constructed in a slave labor colony (or you assemble it yourself), but given a bland minimal-modern styling to distract from how crappy it is materially, and allow you to rationalize paying so much for so little.
To find a good comparison in flyover country, I looked for cities that had all four of the recurring brands from the Brooklyn Craigslist. Otherwise, their greater numbers in Brooklyn may simply reflect their greater local availability, compared to a city without a physical store nearby. Chicago matched, but I decided to go with the only other Midwestern / Rust Belt city that matched -- Minneapolis. It is held in greater contempt by the coastal elites, and it lies in a state that more-or-less voted for Trump in 2016 (he was only held off by a 3rd-party conservative spoiler, McMullin).
I searched the "furniture" section in "for sale," exploring several related themes: brands that are overpriced yuppie crap, brands that are made to higher quality, materials that are of higher quality, and construction techniques that indicate higher quality.
Here are the number of listings for each of the search terms, where all are out of a total of 3000 listings. The search was done on the night of April 3, and these will fluctuate somewhat, but the differences are stark enough.
|Design Within Reach||150||18|
All of the crappy yuppie brands are more common in Brooklyn than Minneapolis. IKEA makes up nearly one-fourth of all listings in Brooklyn!
If anything, this comparison understates the difference because Minneapolis is way more IKEA-friendly than other Rust Belt cities that have had an IKEA nearby for 10 years or more (enough time for their stuff to find its way into the second-hand market). Cincinnati has only 152 listings, and Detroit has only 177. Perhaps this is due to the high concentration of Scandinavians in Minneapolis, showing ethnic pride for a Swedish company (misplaced pride, since the actual manufacturing is done in slave labor colonies).
Is this just a greater fixation on brands in Brooklyn, regardless of what kind of stuff they make? No: they have fewer listings for brands that are made in a first-world country, using hardwood instead of fiberboard, assembled by trained workers rather than your own dumb ass, and owned as staples of the golden age of the middle class, before it was hollowed out by neoliberalism.
This does not reflect young trendoids living in Brooklyn, and traditional old farts living in Minneapolis. The median age in Brooklyn is actually slightly older -- 33 vs. 32 for Minneapolis. Young people in the Midwest just have greater immunity to becoming fashion victims -- and those who do succumb are likely to transplant themselves to poser magnets like Brooklyn anyway. (Felix, Matt, and Amber: move back here.)
Aside from specific brands, how about materials that are superior to others? You might not know (or care) who made it, but you can still tell what it's made of. Solid wood, leather, wool, copper and its alloy brass are all much more common in Minneapolis. The cheap yuppie crap that predominates in Brooklyn is more likely to be made of fiberboard, "vegan leather" / synthetic ultra-"suede," synthetic rug fibers, and stainless steel.
As for the techniques used to turn these raw materials into usable parts and whole items, some are more labor-intensive, require greater skill, look more attractive, and make the item more stable and resistant to wear-and-tear. These skilled techniques are all more common in the furniture of Minneapolis.
We can tell the lack of skilled techniques is not just due to the minimalist styling of striver Brooklynite furniture, because dovetailed joints are not visible from the outside and are not florid ornaments even when the drawers are open. Quarter-sawing the lumber happens before any rough shaping, joinery, carving, or other styling takes place, and is totally compatible with minimal styling (as in the Arts & Crafts and Mission styles that heavily used it). The rudimentary nature of the construction of trendoid crap is just another symptom of its poorly made quality.
So, furniture in Minneapolis is higher-quality, on average. What about the inequality? We've already seen that there's a lot more low-quality stuff in Brooklyn than in Minneapolis, but is there also more really high-quality stuff? This is harder to measure, because at the very top, the sample size is expected to be small (and it is). But my overall impression from browsing both sites is that the most desirable stuff is more common in Brooklyn -- although still rare there. As just one example, "Heywood Wakefield" has 11 listings in Minneapolis, but nearly twice as many in Brooklyn (19). Further investigation could look into Old World antiques and the like.
Brooklyn is both more top-heavy and bottom-heavy than Minneapolis, with less of a stable middle. This means a bit more upward mobility but far more downward mobility, constant precariousness, and status anxiety.
And this is not only a reflection of the inequality in wealth or income, which is greater in Brooklyn. If it were, the low end of Brooklyn would have the same kind of stuff that the low end of Minneapolis did -- there would just be more people in that low end in Brooklyn.
But it gets worse than that, since Brooklyn is also more subject to never-ending waves of transplants, turning it into a rootless striver colony, whereas Minneapolis has a greater social and cultural rootedness. Sure, it attracts newcomers from elsewhere in the state, or perhaps from the Midwest, but not from all over -- and they tend to stay put once they get there.
That's why Brooklyn not only suffers from a surfeit of cheap crap -- it's cheap crap that was only made within the past 10-20 years, since that's the deepest that anyone's roots go there. With greater rootedness in Midwestern cities, it's common to find stuff from far earlier, which was better made. And that generalizes to all of material culture (housewares, clothing, tools, cars, etc.).
Rootlessness is another aspect of status-striving, which also produces inequality. When more and more people are competing to be at the top, it not only produces greater inequality, as high-risk / high-reward means some win big but most lose big. It also attracts more and more outsiders to join in the competition where all the action is, leading to rootlessness.
Anyone who had Ethan Allen furniture in Brooklyn -- a holdover from the egalitarian Midcentury -- got gentrified out of the area by neoliberal striver transplants years ago. Today, each wave of transplants only has crappy IKEA stuff to pass on to the next wave.
So, if it seems like the would-be vanguard of the political party realignment are desperate, deprived, and rootless -- it's because they are. They cannot be allowed to be in the driver's seat, as the end of the Reagan era gives way to a new era where the Democrats are the dominant party.
As proven in 2016, the coastal elites need the large population states in the Rust Belt in order to win, and these folks are more normal than their counterparts on the coasts. Most importantly, they are more opposed to turning all of life into a hyper-competitive status contest, which produces a few more big winners but a lot more big losers. As more people warm up to the label of "socialism," the Midwesterners will have to insist on that resulting in egalitarianism a la the New Deal, rather than just providing a soft landing for the downwardly mobile super-strivers on the coasts.
Nobody made them move to Brooklyn, and they deserve no special padded landing when they fail to make it into the big leagues there. All they deserve is moving back to wherever they actually come from, where they'll enjoy a higher standard-of-living on average, and with less inequality among their community. Then we can work on collective action and solidarity. But first, we have to eradicate the impulse toward status-striving, which is individualist and antithetical to solidarity.
Pointing out how much better their material lives will be back in their home towns, delivered in a disarming ironic tone, could be the first step toward winding down the status-striving arms race.
On a policy level, if we ever get something like universal basic income or a raise in the minimum wage, it should absolutely not take into account the local cost-of-living -- these over-priced, over-populated coastal shitholes need to be depopulated, and see their excess population redistributed back to less-competitive and less-populous places. Just as there is no right for foreigners to live in America, there is no right for co-national outsiders to live within a city as transplants. Egalitarianism requires less mobility and churning, not more.