subsidence

The first time I remember hearing the word subsidence – though I’m sure I must have heard it before – was in the movie Schindler’s List. The scene is a Nazi camp in winter; a barrack is being built. A young Jewish engineer, Diana Reiter (played by Elina Löwensohn), strides up to Kommandant Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes) and tells him, “the entire foundation has to be torn down and repoured. If not, there will be at least a subsidence at the southern end of the barracks. Subsidence, and then collapse.”

If you’ve seen the movie, you know what Goeth does about this: he turns to a subordinate, Oberscharführer Hujar (played by Norbert Weisser), and tells him to shoot her. She protests that she’s only doing her job, but Goeth insists that she be shot right then and there. Hujar pushes her onto her knees on the snow and pulls out his gun. “It will take more than that,” she says. “I’m sure you’re right,” Goeth says as Hujar fires into her skull. As Goeth walks away, he says, “Take it down, repour it, rebuild it, like she said.”

What is a subsidence? It’s not a fault in the materials or the structural design in and of itself. It’s that the ground beneath the structure will fail to support it. However solidly made your foundation is, if the ground it’s on gives way, the building will tilt and may eventually collapse. 

In a way, Schindler’s List documents a subsidence: the German war effort relied on massive industrial production, but that production needed people and materials; when willing people were less available and available people were less willing, the base started to give way. Oskar Schindler, factory owner, contracted to supply the German army with munitions, but he – and those who worked for him – undermined it by making the materials just slightly substandard, so guns jammed. Historians of World War II will tell you that numerous such subsidences of willing participants and suitable supplies were important factors in the collapse of Hitler’s plans.

I’m going to suggest that we’re facing a kind of subsidence in our own times too. I’ll get to that in a moment.

Most subsidences are more plain and literal, if often insidious. I can go for a walk on Bright Street, not too far from where I live in Toronto, and see houses leaning back from the street, as the soil has compressed unevenly beneath them. They’re still standing, but it does make things a little iffier (and harder to furnish) for the residents. Visitors to Pisa have the subsidence of an alluvial (sedimental) soil to thank for the special picturesqueness of its famous tower, but they have the assiduous (and subsidized) efforts of more recent engineers to thank for arresting the tilt so that the tower is still leaning and not now strewn across the ground.

Subsidence comes, of course, from subside; that in turn comes from Latin – the verb subsido, which is sub ‘under’ plus sido ‘I sit’ (or ‘I sink’). Related words are many, including sediment, insidious, assiduous, subsidize, and resident. The causes of subsidence are many, too: natural ones, such as earthquake, dissolution of limestone, or thawing of permafrost (the causes of which may not be quite so natural); less natural ones, such as buildings compressing a soft soil, literal undermining – mines being dug under areas, or, more recently, fracking – or depletion of groundwater: draining of the aquifer for various human purposes, resulting in a desiccation and depression of the ground. Sometimes sinkholes appear spontaneously; other times, the ground seems normal until you try to put a house on it.

More figurative subsidences can also occur in many ways and places. Any time something such as noise or desire or hunger subsides, you could, I suppose, call it a subsidence, but the term does carry an image of the subsidence of underlying ground through compression, undermining, or depletion.

So consider, for a detailed example, the economic trends of the past four decades. We have had a recession or two; we suppose we have avoided a depression, though we have had something specially catastrophic in the pandemic. But overall the usual measures of economies have been trending upward, and the people who have the gold and make the rules have been gaining more gold and making more rules for others and fewer for themselves. The economic structures seem sound. But their foundation may be having a subsidence. 

I’ll explain. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the top 10 percent have seen about a 40% increase in income since 1980; the bottom 10 percent have had about a 6.3% increase in income, and those at the median about a 9% increase. Different demographic groups have done differently well – women have seen a larger increase, mainly reflecting the fact that they used to be horrifyingly underpaid (just over 60% of what men made) and are now only indecently underpaid (just over 80% of what men make), but men at the median and in the bottom 10% have actually seen a decrease in income (by 3% and almost 8%, respectively). And the minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, is just over 75% of what it was 40 years ago.

All of that may or may not look like a subsidence. But what about if you try to put a house on it? In 1980, the median house price was about 2.7 times the median annual income; in 2020, it was almost 4.5 times. And that’s a nationwide figure for the US – specific markets (in the US and in other countries such as Canada and the UK) have seen much greater increases in house price. In Toronto, for instance, prices of houses – and condominiums – have approximately doubled in the past 10 years and quadrupled in the past 20. (Those leaning townhouses on Bright Street, which were worth about $250,000 each in 2000, are now going for well over a million dollars – when someone wants to sell one.) Incomes in these markets have not kept pace, unless you’re among the very few. So the pressure of the cost of a house on an income is more likely to be too much to bear.

Some other things have also pulled away from median incomes. University and college tuitions have increased at about twice the rate of incomes – which means that if in 1980 you could pay for a year of university by working all summer, you’d need to work at least two summers for it now.

Does this all amount to a subsidence? Consider one more bit of the metaphor: often a subsidence is due to the groundwater being piped up out of the ground. Now consider that housing prices are higher due in no small part to the activities of those higher up on the income scale (buying to rent out, or sometimes just to park money); tuition prices are higher largely due to government support drying up, since governments have less tax income thanks largely to decreasing tax rates on the top earners and corporations; and low and median wages are stagnant because those higher up have found ways to keep more for themselves while paying relatively less to most employees. Not trickle-down but pipe-up. 

And consider that people at low and medium income levels are what the economy is built on, as they produce goods and services and generate profits, pay tuitions, pay rents, and eventually (it is hoped) buy houses. But they just can’t support that like they used to. They need something: not a subsidy, you understand, but a return of what has been drained away.

So we may not be in a Great Depression or a Great Recession, but the numbers suggest we’re well into the Great Subsidence. And a subsidence won’t go away if you ignore it. And it won’t help to shoot the messenger, so to speak.

Now, if you’re making comfortable money, you may feel that you’re safe as houses. But how safe are houses, really, if what they’re relying on is less and less up to supporting them?

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