We typically think urban neighborhoods when we think gentrification. We think places where modest-income families have thrived for generations suddenly becoming no-go zones for all but the affluent.
The waters around us have always seemed a place of escape from all this displacement, a more democratic space where the rich can stake no claim. The wealthy, after all, can’t displace someone fishing on a lake or sailing off the coast. Or can they? People who work and play around our waters are starting to worry.
Local boat dealers and bass fishing aficionados alike, reports one leading marine industry trade journal, are all now “expressing concern about the growing income disparity in the United States.” That journal, Soundings Trade Only, is even highlighting stats that show America’s top 1 percent holding more wealth than “the bottom 90 percent of the population combined.”
What has boat dealers so concerned? The middle-class families they’ve counted on for decades are feeling too squeezed to buy their boats — or even continue boating.
“Boating has now priced out the middle-class buyer,” one retailer opined to a Soundings Trade Only survey. “Only the near rich/very rich can boat.”
Mark Jeffreys, a high school finance teacher who hosts a popular bass fishing webcast, sees a bubble close to bursting. His pastime is getting too pricey, and he wonders when bass anglers are “going to get to the point where they’re not going to pay $9 for crankbait.”
Not everyone around water is worrying. The companies that build boats, Jeffreys notes, seem to “have been able to do very well.” They’re making fewer boats but clearing “a tremendous amount” on the boats they do make.
In effect, the marine industry is experiencing the same marketplace dynamics that sooner or later start distorting every sector of an economy growing significantly more unequal. Analysts like Cornell University economist Robert Frank and Columbia University’s Moshe Adler have been exploring these dynamics for some time now. The more wealth tilts toward the top, their research shows, the more companies tilt their businesses to serving that top.
In a relatively equal society with little difference in income between the rich and everyone else, Adler points out, companies have “little to gain from selling only to the rich.” But that all changes when wealth begins to concentrate heavily at an economy’s summit. Businesses can suddenly charge more for their wares — and not worry if their less affluent customers can’t afford the freight. They start loading their products, Robert Frank relates, with luxury extras that only the rich can easily afford.
What impact have these sorts of dynamics had on boating? Potential boat buyers, one dealer has complained to Soundings Trade Only, are finding prices climbing 5 to 7 percent every year.
“Boating,” the dealer laments, “has now priced out the middle-class buyer.”
The rich, to be sure, don’t yet totally rule the waves. But they appear to be busily fortifying those stretches of the seas where they park their vessels, as Jim Dobson has just detailed in a Forbes feature on superyacht security. Deep pockets have realized, Dobson explains, that people of little means may not take well to people of ample means, “cocktails in hand,” floating “massive amounts of wealth” into their harbors.
In 2019’s first quarter alone, the International Maritime Bureau reports, unwelcome guests boarded some 27 vessels and shot at seven. Anxious yacht owners, in response, are outfitting their boats with the latest in high-tech military-style hardware.
One “non-lethal anti-piracy device” climbing up on yacht-owner wish lists emits pain-inducing sound beams designed to drive away the unwelcome. Even more sophisticated superyacht “drone detection and defeat systems” can spot all incoming drones within a 20-kilometer radius and then set up electronic “exclusion zones” that can stretch for over 500 meters around each outfitted vessel.
Any drone that ventures into one of these exclusion zones will lose its control signal and either have to immediately land — not a good idea on the water — or return to its operator.
Should all else fail, the yachting crowd can turn on a “cloak system” from Global Ocean Security Technologies. The “GOST cloak” will fill the area surrounding any yacht with an “impenetrable cloud of smoke” that “reduces visibility to less than one foot.” The resulting confusion, the theory goes, will give nearby authorities the time they need to come to the yacht’s rescue.
But who will rescue the boating middle class? Maybe we need an “anti-cloak,” a device that can blow away all the obfuscations the rich pump into our national political discourse, the mystifications that blind us to the snarly impact of grand concentrations of private wealth on land and sea.
Or maybe we just need to roll up our sleeves and organize for a more equal future.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest book: The Case for a Maximum Wage. Among his other books on maldistributed income and wealth: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.