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Think Again: Homeless Hotspots? Reality Bites

SOURCE: AP/Jack Plunkett

Melvin Hughes, who was hired by BBH Labs to provide and promote a mobile 4G Wi-Fi service during SXSW, holds the T-shirt he was given by the marketing agency in Austin, Texas, on March 13, 2012.

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Addendum added March 16, 2012.

American novelist Philip Roth complains that the “real world” has grown so berserk that fiction has no hope of keeping up and remaining credible at the same time. I was perhaps not the only person to recall his complaint upon reading that BBH Labs—the innovation unit of the international marketing agency BBH—hired homeless people to walk around this year’s South by Southwest technology conference carrying mobile Wi-Fi devices, offering Internet access in exchange for donations.

The “Homeless Hotspots” project paid its walking advertisements just $20 a day and encouraged them to beg for more. “We saw it as a means to raise awareness by giving homeless people a way to engage with mainstream society and talk to people,” said Saneel Radia, the director of innovation at BBH Labs who oversaw the project. “The hot spot is a way for them to tell their story.” One is tempted to credit Radia’s motives, were it not for the small matter of the actual pay. Twenty bucks a day is not a sign of respect in a city where lattes run six bucks.

It’s a pity nobody thought of doing this at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as reported by The New Yorker in its March 5 edition.: “Jamie Dimon, running shoes in hand, near the espresso stand by the Global Leadership Fellows Program, in the late afternoon,” and “Fareed Zakaria, happily besieged, in the Industry Partners Lounge, just before lunch” might have found it amusing, as well as convenient. Then again, all those “[c]entral bankers, industrial chiefs, hedge-fund titans, gloomy forecasters, astrophysicists, monks, rabbis, tech wizards, museum curators, university presidents, financial bloggers, [and] virtuous heirs” and Mick Jagger might have enjoyed having their awareness raised as well—though I suppose homeless folk are a great deal more difficult to come by in Davos than in Austin, and might have pushed the price up higher than just a Jackson.

Then again, it doesn’t sound like money would have been a problem:

A basic W.E.F. membership is fifty-five thousand dollars, and for a member to come to Davos costs an extra twenty-seven thousand. The Forum has a hundred so-called Strategic Partners—corporate members who pay dues of more than half a million dollars a year—and two hundred and fifty Industry Partners, who pay more than a quarter of a million.

Heck, they could give the homeless a thousand bucks and term it a rounding error.

Nor am I up on the various homeless populations in the locations for conferences I read about recently in New York Magazine such as:

… Renaissance Weekend, for a largely political crowd; Allen & Co.’s Sun Valley retreat, for media machers … PopTech, FOO Camp, the Clinton Global Initiative, Solve for X (Google’s conference for ‘moonshot thinking’). And beyond the higher-profile events, a lengthening tail of gatherings you’ve never heard of like the Feast, Do Lectures, the 99% Conference, and Techonomy.

As author Benjamin Wallace notes, all of these conferences promise pretty much the same deal: “a velvet rope to keep out the attitudinally unwashed, serendipitous interaction, quirky content, and at least the illusion of egalitarian elbow-rubbing.”

But come to think of it, the homeless might turn out to be a kind of buzzkill. In his book, The Social Animal (which I actually read, so it’s OK that I am borrowing a quote from Wallace-Wells’ New York piece), David Brooks describes Davos as “rings of interesting and insecure people desperately seeking entry into the realm of the placid and self-satisfied.”

What makes the phenomena of all of these conferences significant—rather than just annoying—is the manner in which they mimic the global economy. We are not talking about the “1 percent” here—where a mere $350,000 or so will get you in its bottom rungs. We are talking about the 1 percent of the 1 percent (of the 1 percent, if we’re speaking globally). These people with multimillion-dollar annual incomes have managed to divorce themselves from any geographic location or indeed any particular nation. They keep their money in the Cayman Islands. They avoid local taxes by having more residences than most families have bicycles and national taxes.

And at least in the United States, they fund politicians who pass laws that allow them to take their pay in capital gains and other forms of low-taxed or no-taxed compensation available only to the super-rich. As New Yorker contributor James B. Stewart notes:

In 2008, the most recent year available, [the 400 highest-earning taxpayers in the United States] had an average adjusted gross income of two hundred and seventy million dollars each. Thirty of them paid less than ten per cent in federal taxes, and a hundred and one paid between ten and fifteen per cent. On average, the group paid 18.1 per cent.

That’s why I’m grateful to the folks at BBH Labs. The whole point of these conferences is to reaffirm your specialness—while at the same time ensure that there’s nothing really so wrong with being so rich, so privileged, so advantageously placed in the pecking order of humankind because, hey, everybody here is just like you. But you’ve actually just arranged your lives so that the “real world” in which most people must struggle to feed, clothe, and educate themselves and their families has disappeared from your vision. And funnily enough, it’s their hard work that makes all that jetsetting possible.

Now that the media have finally begun reporting critically on these conferences, rather than merely cheerleading for them (in the hopes of being invited back), perhaps we’ll start seeing panels on the topic. It might even inspire a whole new area of inquiry. Call it “The Real World.”

* Addendum: Emma Cookson, chairman of BBH, wrote to inform me that I was confused about the payment amounts offered to the homeless people BBH Labs equipped with hotspots in Austin. They were paid $20 as part of an upfront cash stipend and the rest was paid by money order to each participant through the shelter. The total amount, in the area of $50, was at least equal to minimum wage. Those who wish to donate to the shelters serving these people can do so at homelesshotspots.org.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His newest book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, to be published in April. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.

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