The less bad

All this business about the one percent has set off some serious thinking about the virtues and problems of social inequality. Good thing. The subject could do with a little soul-searching.

Let’s begin with what the pope thinks.

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” Pope Francis I wrote in a recent papal statement. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”

According to The New York Times columnist Gail Collins, one of my main guides in matters of the spirit, billionaire Ken Langone was disgruntled by the pontiff’s message. When Langone told Cardinal Timothy Dolan “that a rich benefactor to a rebuilding project at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York might hesitate to cough up his promised million-dollar donation because of the pope’s attitude,” Dolan assured Langone that while the pope loves the poor, “he also loves rich people.”

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I myself have nothing against rich people. In fact, some of my best friends are rich people. Though I agree with the new New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio’s denunciation of the rich and the poor as two separate cities, I also share the previous — and very rich — mayor Michael Bloomberg’s view that a bunch of semi-resident billionaires can be very useful to a big city’s tax base. (Or an upstate county’s, for that matter.)

For hundreds of years, the New York metropolitan area has been the main source of immigrants to the Hudson Valley. Though some of these people have been dirt-poor and others filthy-rich, by local standards they seem these days to have more assets and make way more money than most locals do. For instance, you can’t buy much of a residence for a million dollars in New York City these days, and to many New Yorkers Ulster County second-home prices seem like a bargain; brokers tell me many Manhattanites pay cash.

Data from the local real-estate market provides confirmation of the continuing — indeed, accelerating — vigor of its top end. In the first three weeks of this January, the Ulster County MLS reported that 37 residential properties changed hands. Of those, the prices of seven topped a half-million dollars each and two were around the million-dollar mark (the indicated MLS selling prices were $520,000, $589,000, $660,000, $665,000, $865,000, $974,000 and $1,111,000).

Gross revenues from last year’s 75 half-million-dollar-plus properties were $59 million (the median price was $629,000). The gross the previous year from the 40 such properties was $28 million (with a median price of $585,000).

In 2013, twelve million-dollar MLS-listed residential properties changed hands at a median price of $1.332 million, as compared to five the previous year at a median price of $1.182 million. We’ve now got one in 2014.

Downstate, upstate

“New York’s private-sector labor market continues to enjoy robust growth and was much stronger coming out of the recovery than that of the nation as a whole,” said the state FY 2015 budget’s economic and revenue outlook released last week. “Tourism continues to be a key source of strength, supporting leisure and hospitality’s ongoing role as a leading sector. An accelerating national economy will continue to increase demand for New York’s large business-service sector. The real-estate sector continues to be strong, particularly in New York City, supporting strong growth in construction jobs in 2014. Private-sector job growth of 1.5 percent is projected for 2014, representing a fourth consecutive year of above-average growth.”

In the Friday, Jan. 24 New York Post, conservative columnist E.J. McMahon gave the same data a more skeptical spin. “During the twelve months ending in December, New York’s private-employment base grew one and a half percent, markedly slower than the nation’s two percent rate. Measuring from the pre-recession peak at the end of 2007, compared to the national average, New York lost many fewer jobs during the recession and recovered more quickly to peak employment status. But the Empire State’s overall job-growth pace since [Andrew] Cuomo took office has fallen below average. There’s a striking regional differential in the numbers.

“Boosted by jobs in tourism, entertainment and health care, New York City remains a bright spot. Even its high unemployment rate can be read as a positive, since it stems from more people entering the workforce. But north of the city, the picture gets gloomier.”

McMahon is correct. By my reckoning, the portion of the New York metropolitan area in New York State added 320,900 jobs in the economic recovery from 2010 through 2013. The rest of the state added 11,700 — something on the order of one-third of one per cent. Some recovery.

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me is the title of a novel written by Richard Farina, one of the great characters of the 1960s era who died before his 30th birthday in a California motorcycle accident. The sardonic title, in which the less bad becomes the new good, fits the present tenor of the Great Recession. The trend in Ulster County may finally be a wobbly upward, but there’s a painfully long way to go before the recovery from the recessionary low point can be called complete.

Let’s see. The state Labor Department’s non-seasonally-adjusted data indicated last week that on a December-to-December basis the number of jobs in Ulster County increased in 2013 for the second time in the past decade. It went up 200 jobs. In December 2006 the non-agricultural labor force in Ulster County was 64,800. Last month it was 61,200.

At this past year’s anemic rate of increase, Ulster County will have as many jobs in December 2031 as it had in December 2006. Think it might be a good idea to pick up the pace a bit? 

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