It seems the “under construction” list on the Portland Food Map is dwindling. That strikes some as a worrying sign. And this amid other disturbing portents — the imminent inversion of bond-yield rates, the Mattis resignation, RBG’s lung-nodes, the (almost unprecedented) downtick in both life expectancy and birth rates, a bear market in the era of no pensions.
The most telling of these may be the rate inversion — an event that literally makes short-term thinking more profitable than long for even the most cautious investor term (and neither very profitable at all). It is the rate-table that people like us deserve. Cheap credit got some people very rich (and monopolistic), and when the bubble in corporate debt pops this year, the rest of us are gonna pay.
How bad will this be for Portland’s restaurants, long suspected of a bubble of their own? It might not be so bad. Transnational billionaires — who control our government, our data, and our fate — are driving these trends that could reduce our savings, freedom, and lifespan. But meanwhile their power and omnipotence intensifies our longing to live well, like they do. Restaurant meals offer the most tangible taste of luxurious life as well as a shallow and safe dip into multiculturalism. And attractive plating makes for an effective advertisement for self on Instagram, with no need for expensive clothing or plastic surgery.
The most restaurant-friendly solution to current economic constraints is to join the demographic decline and not have (so expensive, so time consuming) children. Didn’t Philip Larkin say, “eat out as often as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself”? As a bonus, no kids means nothing “forcing you to stay together” with a partner. Thus you can permanently extend your Tinder/Bumble habit (lucrative for the bar and café scene). Once called “hook-up” apps, they are now platforms for the futile search for a soul mate, offering endless opportunities to scrutinize and be scrutinized over craft cocktails or local beer. Is this someone I would like to surveil and harangue for the rest of my life? First date, maybe. Third date, no. Meanwhile you gave some new brewery $50.
If loneliness and reproductive collapse work for restaurants in one way, the resulting anomie contributes to an anti-democracy that may help restaurants in another. If there is a central theme to the rise of authoritarianism it is that every aggrieved party believes a billionaire is behind their opponents, manipulating the system. They are usually right. Thus the existing wealth disparities drive authoritarianism in spirit. And authoritarianism in practice centers on the use of political power to get spectacularly rich.
It is the Chinese who had the foresight to close the circle — developing the ingenious practice of forcing anti-government activists to take luxury vacations, known as bei lüyou (“getting touristed”), where they are wined and dined by the state, with their guards serving as concierges. The technique is especially effective in softening popular internet critics, who often mix a genuine political critique with a taste for celebrity.
Here at home we have an analogous system of “junkets” for journalists, leaders of non-profits, new congresspeople and supreme court justices (including RBG, she loves them!). They work too. Scalia died on one such junket, full of super-rich food (wild-duck I think) and good wine. That is why the super-rich people knew they deserved to keep his seat — they are the ones who opened it up.
Sure, the café and bar scene gave rise to modern democracy, as Habermas observed. But that was then, and the decline of democracy need not diminish our taste for eating out. In the unpredictable times ahead, would we really give up our next fix of trendy drink or cuisine? Unlikely. Our taste for well-being will not go easily. Already environmental activists have dropped gloomy calls to sacrifice in favor of an upbeat sounding “Green New Deal” filled with incentives and promises of new wealth. Their preferred form of “protest” is to sing an upbeat song.
And why not? It worked for Moana — she sang, saved the earth, got famous and made a ton of cash. And truly, as Moana said, the call isn’t out there at all, it's inside us! No matter how much we look for external signs of what next year holds — for the economy, for democracy — when it comes to our city’s precious food scene, we will heed the internal call to feed the empty soul. We will keep ordering craft beer and small plates and putting them inside us, even if we must do it on tight credit.