In these post-crash times, as governments switch from stimulus to cutbacks, North America and Europe are resigning themselves to a long stretch of bad economic times.
Unemployment and underemployment, public servant and union bashing and doors closed to the young are hallmarks of this dismal time.
For a few, though — bad times for the many create golden opportunities. Not everyone is hurt by the low wages that accompany high unemployment, or the prospect of a long spell of flat or falling (especially in the U.S.) real estate prices.
While low taxes for the well-heeled do next to nothing to spur economic growth, they do help make life sweet for the haves.
Two types of people who have money — we’re not talking about the super-rich — and who are adapting well among today’s fauna, can be called the peacocks and the buzzards.
The peacocks are a lot richer than the buzzards, but both of these feathered species have found places to sun themselves. Peacocks are those with high incomes — think of partners in corporate law firms — and are typically in their fifties. They’ve spent a ton of money sending their kids to private schools where they learn to network with others of their class. (The education is optional, but high grades are guaranteed even for the mediocre and the lazy, to complement the tuition.)
Even when the peacocks are still groaning under the weight of the bills to dispatch their offspring to Ivy League universities where grade inflation is a la mode, they’ve reached the stage where they want something big for themselves. They’re old enough to hunger for something permanent, a monument to their personal achievement. Flashy cars are no longer enough.
By the time they’re in their 50s, even the wealthy experience shuddering glimpses of their own mortality.
Through the ages, the monument chosen by the rich and the powerful to commemorate themselves has been the grand house, or more accurately the personal mausoleum.
The pharaohs of Egypt oversaw the building of the pyramids where they would be entombed. In them, they planned to luxuriate with their belongings in the next, and eternal life.
Later members of ruling classes had castles and mansions constructed to accord them a measure of immortality.
Today’s peacocks are the latest to display their brilliant tail feathers as they seek the permanency that goes with the grand dwelling. To this end, they purchase large abodes even after their descendants have flown the coop. Just as often, they oversee vast makeovers of their existing homes in fashionable districts.
In these super-renos, everything is torn out of the shell of the existing house, including staircases and walls. Rooms are enlarged, shrunk or jettisoned. Huge new island strewn kitchens are created for the peacocks, as are enormous bathrooms. What people do in these lavish Water Closets, I don’t want to know. Home design and paint specialists are brought in to advise. Temperature controlled wine cellars are installed. Typically, the existing stock of furniture is replaced with the latest designer pieces to go with the renewed edifice.
One man I know of mounted a large Rembrandtesque oil portrait of one of his ancestors along a soaring staircase. He has taken to calling himself William Peter the fifth.
While renoing, the peacocks rent another fashionable house for six or eight months.
Peacocks preen for other peacocks.
Not surprisingly, the peacocks, who are far from being billionaires, are ferociously opposed to any suggestion that they ought to pay higher taxes or should compensate those in their direct or indirect employ more handsomely. Bus drivers, garbage collectors, nurses and teachers are all over paid as far as they are concerned.
Then there are the buzzards, far less elegant than the peacocks, but with a shrewd eye for their own advantage nonetheless. To date, the buzzards have been more common in the United States than in Canada, as a consequence of the shattered housing market in so many American regions. But they are on their game in Canada as well, and the dim outlook for many real estate markets in this country bodes well for these sturdy carrion-eaters.
Buzzards migrate where housing markets have crashed and foreclosures are common. Among their favourite feeding grounds are California, Ohio, Michigan and Florida. Buzzards pick up fairly new homes for as little as 20 per cent of their pre-crash prices in America’s foreclosure capitals.
The expelled former owners and their families have gone who knows where. The buzzards settle where jobs are scarce, pay is low, crime rates are high, biker gangs thrive and parents often turn up with their kids to partake in the offerings at pre-school breakfast programs.
Buzzards hire cheap help to do up their houses and tend their lawns. At the local Wal Mart and second hand stores, they pick up furnishings and appliances at depression prices.
Buzzards are at work in a string of industrial cities in Southern Ontario, from Windsor and St. Catharines, to Welland, Brantford and Hamilton.
Peacocks and buzzards have clawed out spaces for themselves in our Darwinian world.