Barack Obama: Dreaming of the 50 Square Metre Apartment

One of the great Chinese novels is Dreaming of Red Mansions, written by Tsao Hsueh-Chin and Kao Ngo.  Although from a prominent family, Tsao lead a life in poverty and died at the age of 28.  Dreaming of Red Mansions was natural.  The “mansions” speak for themselves; in Old China red is the colour of prosperity, which is why Chinese women frequently married in red (before they were taken in by our odd custom of marrying in white, the Chinese colour of mourning.)  For an impovrished Tsao, red mansions were a dream, but the result was an excellent piece of literature.

Another country that became enamoured with red was Russia, which became the Soviet Union for most of the twentieth century.  After spending time in China, I was able to do some in first the Soviet Union and then Russia after the country broke up.  I’ve put together a little video below of what Moscow looked like in December 1992, not so long after the transition.

One thing that always struck me as vastly different about Moscow was the endless procession (evident in the video) of high rise apartment buildings.  Interspersed with the various office building and repeating themselves to the edge of town (as is evident in the closing part of the video,) that’s just about all one saw.  Most of these apartments were either “two room” or “three room” (excluding the kitchen and the bathroom) dwellings with a total living space of around 40-50 square metres (that’s 430-530 square feet for the metrically challenged; I’ll use 50 square metres for simplicity’s sake.)

The Soviet system of allocating these apartments–and until its end they were allocated–was on this wise: every Soviet citizen was allocated 9 square metres (97 square feet) of living space, so the apartment they were eligible for was based on the size of their family unit.  For example, if they did live in a 50 square metre apartment, they would have to have a six member family unit before some of them could be put on a list to obtain another apartment, which explains why these apartment units frequently had multigenerational families in them.  (One wonders how much influence this state of affairs has had on the Soviet/Russian birth rate, but I digress.)

If we take seriously the objectives and the words of those in the Obama administration, having these as the ordinary housing would be a dream come true.

To begin with, it would eliminate the central cause of the current depression: the subprime mortgage fiasco, with the domino effect through the financial system that went with it.  Without private ownership, there are no mortgages and thus no crashes stemming from them, which is one reason why socialism is attractive to some.  Beyond that, the Soviets were always behind in constructing these high rises, which meant there was a perpetual housing shortage and considerable waiting periods for apartments.  This eliminates another present problem: the glut in the housing market, which is depressing prices and forcing many mortgages “underwater.”

Beyond that, there is simply no way that the Obama Administration’s desires to reduce carbon emissions will become reality unless Americans are herded out of their low-density housing and placed into these units.  This would enable mass transit to be practical and squeeze out the private car; high density development is very conducive to support of mass transit, as any New Yorker knows.  It would also shrink the physical size of the city, which would get to another dream of American environmentalists: to return as much of this country as possible to a pristine state without human habitation.  So this speaks to the whole “cap and trade” business currently facing the Senate.

I’m sure that many on the left are livid at the thought of yet another comparison between the Obama Administration and the Soviet Union.  But it’s worth remembering that, between the end of World War II and the 1960’s, the disparity between the Soviet Union and Western Europe (which Obama and the left really do want to emulate) wasn’t so great.  That’s why the Marshall Plan was instituted; communism looked awfully attractive to many Europeans, as evidenced by the large Communist parties in places such as Italy and France.  The differences between the way Western Europe and the Soviet Union handled their social contract were real, but both had common ancestors and common motivation.

But housing isn’t the only thing that the Obama Administration is casting an (albeit unconsciously) admiring eye towards.  Health care was of course a state monopoly during the old Soviet Union.  But there was one advantage: if you needed more (or faster) than the system was willing to give, you could bribe the medical professionals to get it with little fear of being caught.  You can be sure that, in these United States, a government centred health care programme will include a vast bureaucracy (with technological weapons the Soviets could only dream of) to prevent this.  We’ll see the spectacle of many doctors and nurses sent to already overcrowded prisons in a country with a high rate of incarceration who will only be furnishing the care their oaths bound them to do.

So I think a man of the world like Barack Obama–unfettered in many ways by American political conventions–is dreaming of the 50 square metre apartment.  The biggest problem he faces is that, for Soviets coming out of ramshackle peasant huts, the 50 square metre apartment was a vast improvement (like mill villages in the textile industry.)  For Americans, things are different.  To get where he really wants to go will require living standards to go in reverse, and that’s really tricky in a country with representative (sort of) government.

But those dreams are for you…

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