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Gentrification of the Sea

Photograph Source: Getallinfo – CC BY-SA 3.0

We typically think of urban neighborhoods when we think of gentrification — places where modest-income families 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 fishing aficionados alike, a leading marine industry trade journal reports, have begun “expressing concern about the growing income disparity in the United States.”

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, worries that his pastime is getting too pricey — and wonders when bass anglers just aren’t going to pay “$9 for a 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 market dynamics that sooner or later distort every sector of an economy that’s growing wildly more unequal. The more wealth tilts toward the top, research shows, the more companies tilt their businesses to serving that top.

In relatively equal societies, Columbia University’s Moshe Adler points out, companies have “little to gain from selling only to the rich.” But that all changes when wealth begins to concentrate. Businesses can suddenly charge more for their wares — and not worry if the less affluent can’t afford the freight.

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 Forbes has just detailed in a look at the latest in superyacht security.

Deep pockets have realized that people of modest 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 up seven.

Anxious yacht owners, in response, are outfitting their boats with high-tech military-style hardware.

One new “non-lethal anti-piracy device” emits pain-inducing sound beams. Should that sound fail to dissuade, the yachting crowd can turn on a “cloak system” from Global Ocean Security Technologies. The “GOST cloak” can 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 a besieged 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.

More articles by:

Sam Pizzigati writes on inequality for the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest book is The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970 (Seven Stories Press). 

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