Check Your Suburban Privilege

Perhaps I’m being petty, but I’m convinced that there is a distinctive ethos endemic to the suburban American northeast which might be called the suburban entitlement mentality. (I’m sure it ranges beyond that, but that’s the version I know best. I didn’t encounter it when I lived in the midwest–though I encountered other unsavory things.) I’m not a Kantian, but there are days when I think that some of the essential elements of Kant’s moral philosophy–action from the motive of duty, universalizability–were formulated in (over)reaction to a version of the mentality I have in mind.

Here is a picture perfect exemplification of it, from a message board about urban and suburban life in Essex County, New Jersey. The respondent is answering the question, “What’s the best way to get from Montclair, New Jersey to New York City?” Here is the answer:

I always parked at Watchung Ave. without a permit and never got a ticket. I’ve done the same at South Orange too, without any issues. The closest station to you would by Bay st, but it’s small. You might want to go a little bit farther down to Bloomfield station. It has a lot more parking available, but it’s in a sketchy area. Don’t know how I would feel about being there after dark. It takes me about 45 mins from Watchung, so I’d say 40 mins or less from Bloomfield. Also, DeCamp runs 2 buses through Montclair I believe. One goes from Montclair through Bloomfield, Nutley, Belleville, Lyndhurst, etc. The other goes from West Orange, through Montclair, then through Bloomfield and Clifton to Rt. 3 I believe. You should call them and ask about that service.

Step back a bit to understand the thought process involved. The idea is that you have a practical problem to solve. In solving it, the only thing that matters is your own convenience. Yes, there is a permit system in place, but that doesn’t apply to you. Why not? Because it’s inconvenient. Not only do you ignore it (wherever you go), you tell others to ignore it (something Kant hadn’t counted on). The only constraint on ignoring it is efficacy: if you try it at Bay Street, it might not work, because the lot is small, and everyone else is doing what you’re doing (that’s what Kant was counting on, at least conceptually). The other constraint on ignoring the permit system is the possibility of getting caught violating it, but the chances of that are small. Why? Because in this universe, the police have better things to do than to go after permit violators. They should be going after real criminals, i.e., the kind that victimize law-abiding and respectable permit violators.

300px-Bloomfield_Station.JPG (300×225)

Can’t you just see the sketchiness? 

What kind are those? We need to read between the lines here, but once we do, the answer becomes plain: the black kind, that’s what kind.  That’s what the word “sketchy” means as applied to Bloomfield station. (That’s why we need a sketchy word to describe an essentially innocuous place.) Bloomfield station is sketchier than the other stations because it’s blacker than them. You can tell this by two things: (a) it’s more proximate to Newark, which is a Black City par excellence, and (b) unlike the other stations, Bloomfield is surrounded by high-rise apartment buildings (zoned out elsewhere), which is Black Housing par excellence. Blackness equals crime, crime equals sketchiness, and sketchiness equals “don’t go there unless you absolutely have to.”

Finally: You want to know how the buses work? Don’t bother to exert yourself to take a look online via your latest model smartphone. No. Call someone at DeCamp bus company–someone who spends his or her day answering call after call from people too lazy to look online for easily available information–and have them spoon feed the information directly into your brain.

Once you understand suburban entitlement mentality, stories like this come more easily into focus:

JERUSALEM — The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday abruptly shelved a pilot project that prohibited Palestinians from riding home to the West Bank on the same buses as Israelis headed to Jewish settlements.

….

Representatives for the settlers had complained that the buses were overcrowded and unpleasant, in addition to the concerns about security. Mordhay Yogev, a legislator from the Jewish Home party, was quoted in Haaretz at the time as saying that the situation was “unreasonable” and that “the buses are filled with Arabs.”

“I wouldn’t want my daughter to ride them,” he said, adding that girls and women had complained of being sexually harassed by male Arab passengers.

On Wednesday, Mr. Yogev said that those who opposed the plan for separate lines “are unfamiliar with the reality, and their statements are tinged with hypocrisy, lies and irresponsibility.”

No, the two situations aren’t exactly parallel. But I think they share something significant in common.

Postscript, May 23, 2015: This is just too perfect a postscript to ignore, on New Jersey’s ban on self-service gas pumping. Some background:

RAMSEY, N.J. — Perhaps no state in the nation is as defined by cars and car culture as quintessentially suburban New Jersey. The first drive-in movie theater, the sprawl of malls and highways — “What exit?” — and a very famous traffic jam.

But there is one thing New Jersey drivers don’t do that is second nature to drivers almost everywhere else: Pump their own gas.

And please don’t ask them to.

New Jersey has banned self-service gas stations for nearly 70 years…

It remains banned, and every legislative effort to instate it has failed, despite the fact that doing so would (arguably, at least slightly) drive down the price of gas and “ease the pain of increasing the gas tax, which many lawmakers believe New Jersey will have to do to fix its roads and bridges.” As New Jersey Magazine put it in an article in January: New Jersey’s roads “suck” because of the state’s “dense population centers, aging infrastructure and … failing transportation fund.” But don’t expect New Jerseyans to lift a finger, so to speak, to help resolve the problem that they themselves have created.

Here’s a sample of what my neighbors and fellow “citizens” regard as arguments against self-serve gas:

“In New Jersey, we grew up with it,” the Senate president, Stephen M. Sweeney, said. “People have gotten used to it. We like it.”

New Jersey residents spend an inordinate amount of time in their cars, and therefore, in gas stations. Having an attendant pump their gas, they say, makes New Jersey feel special.

We also grew up with pothole laden, axle-destroying roads; bad or non-existent signage; rude, incompetent drivers; high insurance premiums; and a high accident rate. Should we get used to all of that, too?

Here’s another gem:

“It’s like a little highlight of the day to have that convenience,” Nicole Mills, 39, said as an attendant filled up her Nissan sedan at an Exxon on Route 17 in this Bergen County suburb.

Never mind that many stations will still have full service islands for people physically disabled by their trips to the hair salon. Apparently, the preservation of Nicole Mills’s hair means that no one in the state should have self-serve gas, and that any gains that might accrue to the transportation fund have to be sacrificed to the requirements of coiffure preservation.

Here’s a classic ploy–package special pleading with considerations of “safety,” and you can get just about anything you want, regardless of why you really want it:

Nina Conn, filling up her BMW S.U.V., called it an issue of safety, to have an attendant on duty at night. And also, she said, “you don’t get your hands dirty — you don’t get that smell in your car.”

“When you’re used to a luxury and people want to take it away, you start thinking about what you take for granted,” Ms. Conn, 54, added. “Once you let go of something that we consider a luxury, you’ll never get it back.”

Never mind that there will be an attendant on duty anyway. What I find amusing about this comment is what the world looks like if you adopt Ms. Conn’s factual premise for a moment: According to her, self-serve gas means no attendants, and full serve gas means an attendant who is there for your “security.” It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Nina Conn that in a world of self-serve gas as she imagines it, attendants hitherto exposed to insecurity would now become entirely secure. After all, if she would be made secure against, say, robbers by their presence, they would be made secure against the same robbers by their absence. Doesn’t that figure into the calculation? No, it doesn’t: the “attendants” are just there to “attend” to one’s needs, be it the pumping of one’s gas, or the saving of one’s ass.

Don’t assume from the preceding sample that the problem is somehow confined to middle aged women with diva complexes, or even confined to people against self-serve gas.

For years, the lobby of small gas station owners worried they would be crushed by big oil companies, which then owned most stations, and could afford to install the modern pumps and canopies self-service demanded.

“They would have been 10 or 15 cents a gallon less than mine, so they would have buried me,” said Sal Risalvato, who opened a station in Paramus in the late 1970s, and is now the executive director of the New Jersey Gasoline, C-Store, Automotive Association.

Now, most stations are owned by independent operators. And owners, he said, have to block off pumps because they cannot afford to hire enough attendants.

But in the meantime, public sentiment has changed. “Not only have people become spoiled,” Mr. Risalvato said, “it’s become part of our culture.”

There’s a man of principle for you: when the situation changes, he has a new principle. Or rather, he has one and the same principle throughout: no matter what happens, no matter what he has to say or do, he’ll land on his feet, even if, in doing so, he lands directly on your spine. In 1979, he’ll come out against self-serve gas, on principle, because self-serve gas would have put him out of business. In 2015, he’ll come out in favor of it, on principle, because it keeps his people in business. Virtually every north Jersey suburb has a statue in its “town square” in honor of that famous Italian American explorer, Christopher Columbus. Maybe while we’re at it, we should give honorary status to that other famous Italian explorer, Nick Machiavelli, since he perfectly expresses the ethos that Columbus shares in common with the reigning ethos of our state (“our culture”).

A last quotation from an economist, because they always know where the action is:

But Robert Scott III, a professor of economics at Monmouth University who wrote a 2007 analysis of the self-service bans, found the savings would be negligible — three or four cents. And self-service did not save drivers much time at the pump: It took just 15 seconds longer to fill up at New Jersey stations than in neighboring Pennsylvania.

Furthermore, said Mr. Scott, a transplant to New Jersey from the Midwest, “there’s just something great about slipping the credit card outside the car window, not having to get out.”

Here’s my response to Professor Scott.

  1. I think that gas station owners have the moral right, and should have the freedom, to offer self-serve gas. If people want full serve more than they want self-serve, let the free market sort that one out. It’s not as though self-serve gas arrangements were somehow so morally unconscionable that they must, in the name of human welfare, be banned outright.
  2. Every existing economic analysis of self-serve gas in New Jersey is of necessity based on mere hypotheses about what would happen if it were legalized. Empirically speaking, there’s no better way to test those hypotheses than to legalize self-serve and see what actually happens.
  3. As for how “great” it is not to get out, I beg to disagree: I think there’s something even greater about inducing New Jerseyans to get out of their cars, slip the credit card into the card reader, and pump their own gas. Even if self-serve only saves us three or four cents on the dollar, and 15 seconds at the pump, the potential ding or dent it might produce in the entitlement mentality that rules the people of this state would make it completely worthwhile.

Postscript, May 29, 2015: More of the same attitude on a closely-related topic, this time from a spot-on article in The New York Times, “New Jersey Faces a Transportation Crisis, With No Clear Solution.” Actually, the most obvious solution to the crisis would be to raise the gas tax and approve a fare hike for New Jersey Transit, so that those who use the transportation infrastructure pay the costs of that use. But that simple proposition seems outrageous to many New Jersey residents. A sample of the thinking involved:

Here at one of the busiest rail hubs in the state, the exasperation was evident, in interviews with people headed home, and in the pointed testimony of commuters who turned out last week for a public hearing on the proposed fare increase.

Marianne Sailer, of Wood-Ridge, who works as a property manager in Manhattan, said she could not afford higher fares because she had not received a raise in three years.

“Any increase would be devastating to my family,” Ms. Sailer told officials. “The service does not warrant an increase — filthy cars, constantly late.”

I haven’t received a raise in three years, either, but I don’t see what that has to do with the cost of the infrastructure I use to get to work. I happen to work in the same neighborhood that Ms. Sailer lives in: Lodi and Wood-Ridge are neighboring towns, and I know Wood-Ridge well. I’ve also been riding New Jersey Transit for the last twenty-five years. Contrary to her claims, the trains are neither “filthy” nor “constantly late.” They’re moderately clean, mostly comfortable, and usually on time (cf. driving into Manhattan via any bridge or tunnel approach). Supposing that they were filthy or late, however, wouldn’t that suggest that they might be underfunded, and might need a fare hike to pay their costs? When they’re late, the reason usually has to do with being held up by Amtrak, which (by law) has priority to New Jersey Transit trains on all New Jersey railroads. But that, in turn, suggests that we need to invest more in our infrastructure so that both Amtrak and NJT have ample rail space and can run on time. Why the outrage at the over-polite suggestion that reality makes its demands, and that those demands require a rational response?

At the deepest level, however, I want to ask: isn’t it unseemly for a middle class property manager living in an ordinary suburban neighborhood to complain that a 9% fare hike on infrastructure that she uses, that’s already subsidized, and that desperately needs investment, would be “devastating” to her family–as though a 9% fare hike were a house fire, earthquake, or military occupation? Isn’t the state of the State’s infrastructure devastating to all of us? And doesn’t a sense of responsibility suggest that we–the middle class taxpayers of this State–take responsibility for it instead of whining for federal handouts and placing the blame elsewhere?

But that’s suburban entitlement mentality for you. You won’t find anyone complaining that an upgrade from flip-top to Smartphone would devastate their family, but a 9% fare hike, or an increased gas tax to pay for infrastructure that virtually everyone uses–well, that’s beyond the pale.

2 thoughts on “Check Your Suburban Privilege

  1. Pingback: Postcards from Abu Dis (2): Pedagogy Under Occupation | Policy of Truth

  2. Pingback: Hummus Summit in Paterson (2) | Policy of Truth

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