The Economics of Sin
HOW THE UNDERWORLD DEALS WITH RECESSION IN MIDDLE AMERICA.
The world crawls outside the doors of Better Days on Red River Street in Austin, Texas. Night heat settles over the town like a mean blanket, there’s plenty to drink inside the service industry-friendly joint, but little in the way of customers to come inside and have a Lone Star tall boy. People just aren’t out; they’re not spending money – most don’t have the cash to spare. As A Tribe Called Quest sails over the speakers, a few people sip their drinks, quietly canoodling in shadowy corners, but there’s still a bartender looking to make his car note with every buck dropped in the tip jar. And as the night wears on, 2 a.m. closing time seems further away.
The current economics of America is an alleyway knife fight. Even a shot of Jameson isn’t serving as the medicine we need, and for many out there, spending the rest of the night vomiting from too much of a good time is probably easier than the shit they’re going through when they have rent due every thirty days. A crackhead stomps past the open door, howling at God above, but despite the silence, it seemed that even God was annoyed about the current economic shit show. Some of the geniuses over on TikTok have coined the term “The Silent Depression”, an era stacked with the bullshit of high inflation, rising costs of living, along with a whole lot of people who are not mentally well. There was a lie given to Gen X and Millennials that college would set them free. That because their parents worked with their hands, they wouldn’t have to, and that their ideas would change the world. The problem is there’s been a left turn in the job market. If you’re a white-collar worker, chances are you know someone recently laid off or cannot find a job, no matter how many applications are thrown to the fire of Recruiter Hades. If you’re considered “highly skilled”, being unemployed is a miserable enterprise. Competition is gnarly; the interviewing process feels like a battle of wills, and then there’s a cut in salaries. If you do get a job, it is an emotional slog to get across the finish line.
Trump is running for president again, and unfortunately, so is Biden. Housing is unaffordable. Republicans are burning books. And most people can’t get their local congressman to give a fuck about anything other than getting a corporate handout – on both sides. There are no more Dollar Menus, but instead, “Value Menus”. Taco Bell ain’t cheap and a double cheeseburger at McDonalds isn’t what you can scrape together from the change cup in the whip. The earth is only getting warmer, and people seem to sincerely care about who Taylor Swift is banging? How do people cope? What’s the cost of feeling human when so much feels stripped away?
It turns out the people peddling the sin we use to escape life are also struggling to pay their house notes. When two bags of groceries set you back seventy dollars, who has the dough to drop it at the bar or throw it at a writhing body wearing pleaser heels?
The Scent of Skin and the Crack of a Cold One
The unemployment rate isn’t like it was in the 1930s. People aren’t in bread lines, and every city in America hasn’t devolved into this hellscape of Gotham City. But people are broke. We’re not at 25% unemployment, but only at 3.8%, and those employed are working harder and for longer hours – only to get by. But for that 3.8% unemployed, the ripples of grossness reverberate hard. 401Ks are tapped, there’s a staggering TRILLION in credit card debt (don’t even ask about mine), while affordable housing is so far out of reach for just about everyone. And who even has medical insurance at this point? I’ve had a broken back molar in my mouth for two years. Saving for a rainy day is as possible as Noah coming to flood the earth.
Preston Fox, a local bartender in North Austin, feels the sting of the way people spend, or don’t, nightly. He’s been in the game for almost two decades and has seen the rise and fall of when people could jingle a little pocket change. Cash is used less. People are swiping with credit more than ever and for some bartenders, the tips aren’t as big as they once were. “People can’t afford shit. Working-class people are squeezed, man. It’s not just that we’re not getting tipped less, people aren’t out. After COVID, they came out, and now that that’s settled, we’re broke. Why spend sixty bucks in the bar when you can buy two bottles at the store and drink at home?” But that’s the rub; it works that way for some things, but can benefit from capitalism run amok in other ways: at the local butcher, a ribeye is $18, but to go over to Texas Roadhouse and sit at the bar, you can get a steak with three sides and a tip for $32, so at that point, it’s a cost-benefit analysis. But all things have their snares regarding how we’re spending and what’s expected. Fox continued, “People will spend if they have it. But they’re complaining about drink and food prices. They’re aware of inflation but think it doesn’t apply to the bar. A bar seems like the only place people expect something for free, that they demand to be hooked up.”
Far less full-time work is available for skilled workers, which isn’t just for the white-collar. Even the journeyman carpenters and the bricklayers with the expensive skills are struggling, too. The white-collar workers are stuck because they can’t switch careers that quickly – who’s jumping on teaching someone in their 40s with two decades of programming experience how to lay tile? Because of this, contract gigs are plentiful because they save money, costs, and risk for the company. The workers are on edge because they’re left wondering how stable these contracts are and if they’ll be back on the grind soon? And as artificial intelligence keeps changing how our world works, from ordering at McDonalds (the fast food giant invested billions with IBM to create an AI-driven drive thru system that’s currently in progress) to studios trying to write scripts with AI, there’s an unease within the workforce that’s made people left with hard choices.
Writer and continual hustler Kelby Losack has had to dip his toes back into illegal worlds he’d long thought he’d escaped. He became a skilled journeyman carpenter creating beautiful pieces for the homes of some of Houston’s elite. Problem is, contractors aren’t splurging for those custom cabinets and sitting rooms these days and when rent is due, landlords want their cut. “It’s bullshit out here. Everyone’s mad. There’s not one hustle right now. It’s a mix of legit, freelance, and selling shit and hiding it as a legit business. I sold Robitussin as lean. It’s Houston. That’s what the chumps get. If you don’t know, you don’t know.” Like Preston, the bartender, Losack agrees about price, “People are haggling over bullshit. If you owe me $20 from two years ago, I want it. People are buying less. It’s not the want but the ability. They’re trying to get thirty dollars of product for ten. In a lot of situations, people are willing to rob. Not just haggling. If they see you doing certain shit, they’re like, who are you gonna tell? You gotta watch who you’re dealing with. It’s a constant Mexican standoff. It’s everyone trying to get over one another. The level of desperation of everything, you can feel it. People are coming right out. It’s like, brocodes and secrecy are out the window. No hiding anything.”
Losack wasn’t too excited about the future, about what he’s had to do since legit work has dried up. “The dad side of me didn’t want to ever get back into this world. There’s this discrepancy of being careful as possible, it’s giving 100% to the hustle. I feel like on one hand, there’s petty business, you can send someone to jail. The vibe of the keep is amped up, you don’t see any smiling cops no more. There are no more friendly cops. As a dad, I have to be very tuned into who I’m dealing with, what’s going on, everywhere because I don’t want to be the one in a cell. But, I do keep a strap on me.” Losack was candid about where he’s at with life right now, about how every time a bill is due, he’s gotta find a way down in the Houston, Texas area to keep the lights on, one hustle at a time. “I’m not a nihilist, but I’m not an optimist. I know shit is gonna pop off. It’s like going through the crucible. I’ve heard it as a vibe shift, I’m like, I’d like that vibe to shift for me. We’re in a time where it’s feast or famine, and the famine is incredibly heavy. It’s the way systems are at. The odds are so high, and the chips are so stacked for everything to be total shit. You may be able to make like you never have, so why not shoot for the stars? There’s nothing else. People romanticize the struggling artist thing. When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from? It’s hard.”
Not all Economic dogs go to Heaven
This whole Silent Depression thing doesn’t feel like an idea cooked up on social media, but instead, it has claws digging into all of us. How does someone shopping for dinner at Dollar Tree rationalize not wanting to smash the window of a Tesla parked outside of the luxury apartment complex, knowing that the American Dream with its promises of stability and a white picket fence aren’t within grasp? Holding onto idealism is hard but rational if you cite the Harry S. Truman quote, “It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it’s a depression when you lose yours.”
If we’re not experiencing the Great Depression in real-time, then what’s happening? Middle-class people need to thrive. In the last year, three banks failed. The Fed has been pushing a slow recovery to combat the inflation all around by issuing a rate hike that pushed interest rates up a quarter point back in July. Historically, recessions can last a few months to a few years, but straight up – why is America so broke? A few years back, we were booming. We’re barely an economic ghost of what was in years prior. The effects of the pandemic are lingering. There are still predatory business minds looking to make a dollar out of workers doubling their efforts. That’s confirmed. While unemployment is still considered low, there have still been layoffs, and those highly skilled workers are still applying and cruising LinkedIn every day, looking for any small connection to get ahead. Prognosticators are still split on whether we avoided a recession or whether we’re doing our best to play “just the tip.”There’s no hard and fast rule on an actual recession. The closest thing to one is regarded as two consecutive quarters of contracting gross domestic product as a recession.
By making it harder for companies to borrow money, many had to slash the budget and basically fuck a whole bunch of workers, so that’s real cool. There’s been progress in tampering inflation, but it’s above the Fed’s 2% long-term goal. June’s personal consumption expenditures price index—excluding food and energy prices, the Fed’s preferred inflation measure—was up 4.1%. S&P 500 companies will likely report a 5.2% earnings decline for the second quarter, the largest drop since the pandemic shutdowns. Energy sector earnings have been wimpy, down 51.4% based on year-over-year comparisons. This is some bleak capitalism hell shit, we know.
The Economics of Sin
Speaking under anonymity, a stripper explained how it feels to work for the clubs right now, about how the expectations of the “gentlemen’s club” have shifted. Her hustle has been perfected around those, and only those, who have money to spend. “Last month, I worked seven shifts and I made $4,500. Are other girls making that? No. I’ve been a dancer for 10 years. I know how to sell. I only work with bachelor parties, I only go to men traveling, they have the money to spend. People that are well off are the ones surviving. It costs over $800 to go to VIP for half an hour. If I can get into one VIP during my shift, I’m doing well. If I can’t get VIP, I’m fucked.”
But not all things work as planned. “The people who live in Austin are not spending money. Those who live in town are just drinking beer and not tipping. One Friday recently, I left at 1:30 because it was so bad. That’s a money night. Everyone locally is struggling. The cost of living is so high, and they’re not making money. I’ve had some shifts where it’s so easy they (out-of-town visitors) wanted to throw their money. One guy had a wad of cash, and the other had a credit card. That night, I made $1800. Some girls are great at entertaining a party and lap dancing. Those people will spend. Lap dances are $20, and some charge $30-40, which is against the rules. If I go to VIP, I’ll dance for 30 minutes.”
She continued explaining how she sees money to be made, “The reason I get to go into the VIP is because I can talk to anyone. I am myself 100%. I’m a social person. I make a good connection; they want to give me their money because it’s genuine. If I had to shake my ass and make it a party, I’d make zero dollars. I spend my time building connections.
I avoid everyday people. They can’t afford me. Those people aren’t spending. They’ll come in with $100; once they spend that, they’re gone. We see five coming in and sitting at the tip rail and not spending money. Guys are trying to get something for free. They’re getting entertainment and a show for free. Locals do not have it right now. The locals do not have money. Bachelor parties and businessmen are the money.”
While this piece has leaned heavily on Texas, citing both Austin and Houston, Texas has had an economic boom in recent years, spurring continual growth decade over decade. Speaking with an anonymous dealer out of Chicago, he was blunt about how the business is going for him. Slinging cocaine is his main source of income. People drink hard. They need the pick me up. And as anyone who hangs in a bar knows, there’s always someone looking to sell a $50 bag at every turn – it’s just how well they hide the product for sale. “The money in someone’s pocket is always the nature of the beast. The people have it to spend, they’ll spend it in big deals. They buy in bulk, but they’ll want to negotiate it. The lower people on the lower spectrum, they’re willing to spend their money after rent, they’re spending to cope with making under 100K, which is nothing in this town. What even is making six figures in a major city? I think that your average person is getting more fucked up on a regular basis. Especially more than the last five years. There’s more gloom. I’m guilty of that myself.” But, even though he’s selling blow to drunk party people, he’s still got a few side hustles like waiting tables to keep legit money in his pocket. “If this odd economy taught us anything it’s that you need to know how to do a few small things to make a living, once the turbulence hits, you don’t have to rely on a full-time gig. We need to have irons in the fire. The economy is fucked. Hustling is important.”
Only Some Care if it’s Your Birthday
Speaking with Rosemary Rue, she gave an account of what it’s like working in the darkest corners of Chicago – being an escort. “Obviously, this isn’t my name, but I named myself that because it’s cleansing and healing. I did a little soft conjure with it. It’s protective. I liked it.” Rue has multiple ways to make a buck – none of which she wanted to talk about due to people finding out who she is locally. She’ll be the first to tell you she’s not the girl in the back pages of a magazine, but still made her bones selling her body. Asking how she got involved in the business, Rue was candid. “I was a straight-up hooker. I was a motherfucking renegade hooker. I would post ads online about my body. I described what I offered and how to contact. I fucked.” When asked if the economy affected her like the others I’d spoken with, Rue wasted no time getting into the gutter of what the business was like, especially when people still have carnal needs but maybe not the money to support desire. “I got fewer calls when rent was due. When people got paid, you’d see more activity. I was getting way more in spring, but as soon as summer started, everything was based on when they had cash. People would ask about rates and wanted to bargain more than ever before. Clients are always trying to get more out of the experience, more services, and more time.”
For a moment, as she walked, she was quiet for a second. I heard Chicago through my AirPods, the city which is my hometown. What came out next felt like it was drawn up from the emotional well, that hiding behind the moniker gave her freedom to talk about something most people didn’t know she did. “I had someone reach out to me for a service that was eighty, and we agreed on fifty and after, he robbed me.” She paused, collected, and continued. “I was broke. I couldn’t argue. I was lucky to get out alive. And this guy took my fifty, but I at least got five dollars out of it. The money issue has definitely led to more violence. Safety was my concern, that’s why I stepped out. You’re not making enough money right now. I can’t make the money I made doing two to three a week. I quit because it’s so unsafe thanks to desperation. I still need the money very much, but I can’t. I can’t even make it worth it. There’s a subreddit where girls are complaining. At the height of it, I was homeless, I was living in a hotel. Other girls had it was cushier than me, and they lost apartments. It’s bad out here.”