New “Price on Carbon” Clashes With Venerable Tradition
Should carbon cost money? This, the defining political and scientific question of the Anthropocene, was finally answered in August when Congress passed the There’s No Such Thing As A Free Carbon Bill by a narrow majority.
TNSTAAFC, which takes official effect in a few hours, is already being hailed as the last great legislative achievement of the Obama administration. The euphoria of the nation’s climate-concerned shows no sign of waning.
But for the custodians of one great American tradition, there is little reason to celebrate tomorrow’s ‘price on carbon.’
When trading starts at 9am, jewelers caught giving away diamonds—as their families have done for centuries—face draconian fines.
The new laws give America’s lovebirds fewer than twelve hours to get that free engagement ring they’ve been coveting. For married couples it’s the last chance to smooth over domestic turbulence at no cost with a peace offering of diamond earrings or blinged-out cuff-links.
But for the old shteyngeber—or diamond-giver—families who once fled persecution for a new life in America, this could be the end of a lifestyle.
Tonight, though, the mood is festive. On New York’s Diamond and Jewelry Way, a block of 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, spontaneous revelry has broken out among the hordes of shteyn-suchers queuing for their shiny handouts.
We might be the last Americans who’ll ever receive the attractive trinkets without paying a cent, and we’re determined to make the most of it.
Crude diamond-men are constructed in the street, diamond-fights break out, and everyone wishes the diamantaires ‘mazl tov’ as they adjust to the new order.
At first it’s just the kids. Then the other patrons join in the fun. Soon even the oldest of old-school jewelers are hurling fistfuls of the worthless gems at one another, each hoping to knock the fedora from a rival’s head with a well-aimed bolus. I duck too late and get caught in the crossfire, to general hilarity. The rocks I don’t inhale find their way down my shirt. All I can do is laugh at myself, abandon journalistic objectivity and return fire.
For Shlomo Perlman and his staff the new law means coming to terms with foreign concepts like profit, interest, lines of credit and security alarms.
“Money has simply never been part of our culture,” says the soft-spoken 78-year-old, a successful diamond-giver whose parents fled occupied Poland “with the rags on their back” and as many of the valueless rocks as they could fit in their hands and elsewhere.
Since then his family’s establishments have been handing out mesmeric shvimers and majestic mame-sitzers to any New Yorker who walked in the door, rich or poor. His father was a natural geber and before long was running a chain of charities citywide; the family even opened a diamond kitchen for homeless Brooklyn residents.
Now Mr Perlman fears he’ll be the last of his line.
Not to worry, though—extra NYPD officers will be patrolling 47th street tomorrow to help people like the Perlmans calculate change, wish everyone mazl und brokhe, and gently remind them to nem di gelt: charge for their wares.
The locals know it’s too late to fight the federal impost on the chemical element, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
As early as May, a delegation of learned and well-read community spokesmen—Rabbis Schulman, Lerner and Buchman—was working the halls of power to plead for a cultural exemption to the carbon charge. But hope faded as one congressman after another waved their concerns aside, insisting the law would have no effect on their traditional way of life.
A final appeal failed last month when the sponsor of the bill herself—Senator Barbara Boxer [Democrat, pro-science]—granted the rabbis an audience.
“Ms Boxer looks me in the eye and explains that carbon is an invisible black [sic] gas, greasy to the touch, which causes asthma in children,” recalls Dr Lerner, the most bookish of the three. “She made a big deal of the idea that the children are the youth of America—something our faith also teaches us.
“Lovely lady, very elegant, but I’ve eaten more intelligent bagels [than Sen. Boxer]. I don’t think Babs ever did get her head around what carbon could possibly have to do with diamonds.”
But the community’s misgivings were well-founded, said a growing number of scientists, who believed diamonds were, indeed, made of a sort of solidified or condensed carbon.
No-one has ever seen carbon emissions turn to stone in a laboratory (the science, I’m told, is a bit more complex than that). Nonetheless, the bottom line for the nation’s shteyngebers is stark: the new climate package might as well be called There’s No Such Thing As A Free Diamond.
The freshly-delivered cash registers are still causing frowns and head-scratching up and down 47th. Commerce is an alien notion in this largely Yiddish-speaking neighborhood.
“Percentage—consignment—on memo—gesheft—schatsn—C.O.D.—we don’t even have words for these in our language,” complains Abner Beimbaum, 90, a living legend of the diamond district.
The jewel-house patriarch had to be repeatedly assured by a grandson he couldn’t “catch a [computer] virus” from his shiny new till.
Mr Beimbaum says he fully understands why a carbon price is so important to some people (three of his children are Professors of Climatology at top-50 universities, and a granddaughter just earned her PhD in Climate Justice). He only wishes the climate community had spoken to the one group of experts who might have warned them about the ubiquity and versatility of carbon: the organic chemists.
“The fragmentation of scientific expertise into a patchwork of fiefdoms with mutually unintelligible dialects is no less regrettable for being an inevitable consequence of the explosion in modern human knowledge,” adds Mr Beimbaum, who apologizes for rambling.
The price will be rolled out gently, starting at a few cents per carat of carbon in most States. But with scientists suggesting that some diamonds could contain up to 100% carbon, the question on many lips tonight is: will regular Americans really be willing to pay a dollar or more for a single gem?
Others argue that it isn’t even about the amounts involved. They fear the transaction itself will be enough to suck the romance out of one of the last truly innocent American institutions.
Antonella ‘Toni’ Gasparo, 27, is waiting on the sidewalk while her fiance picks out the perfect specimen for her. (Even in stilettos, I realize, she stands ankle-deep in a rising drift of diamonds.)
How would she feel, I ask, if she found out he’d paid for it?
She reacts with instinctive distaste. “What am I, a f___ing whore? This body [is]n’t for sale,” she says, clarifying by gesturing in the direction of her own body.
Toni’s girlfriends, from the same New Jersey neighborhood, share her disgust—if not her erudition. From what I can make out, the consensus involves “kicking” the “ass” of the relevant paramour, betrothed or spouse to “the kerb” for thinking he could “even” get away with “even” making such a crass gesture.
Unless the industry—and make no mistake, there will be an industry tomorrow—can somehow normalize the idea of these scintillating baubles as tangibly valuable, the results of my street-side focus group don’t bode well for the future of the diamond in America.
The average American would be hard-pressed to point to the key constituent of a diamond on the periodic table (for those playing at home, it’s element six). But he or she can still recall giving a fistful of the dazzling tchotchkes to a childhood crush, or opening a third-grade Valentine’s card only to wind up covered in poorly-glued diamond glitter.
America’s love affair with the diamond began, ironically, with that most British arbiter of cool, codename: 007. Many of the early Bond films take the abundant, freely-available substance as a leitmotif—from Money Can’t Buy Me Diamonds and The Best Things in Life are Free all the way to Diamondballs the Size of Your Fist—evoking the free-love, anti-corporate vibe of the times.
But times change. In a nation where every animal, mineral and vegetable commodity seems to have its own peak body, it’s now up to the American Diamond Council to respond, adapt and (with luck) survive in a climate-savvy, pay-per-diamond age.
And the Council is pulling out all the stops. With cross-media campaigns like Diamonds are Expensive and Diamonds are For Adults, it desperately hopes to rebrand the mineral as a premium item—something to be exchanged by couples and friends only on special occasions, like weekends or date night.
Will such messages convince Toni and her Jersey-girl coterie to accept a ‘price on ice’? Time will tell.
Doors shut at midnight and the revelers slowly disperse. I have to wade knee-deep to my taxi, grumbling as I aquaerobicize my way through a refractive sea of shimmering bling. While I don’t envy the municipal workers responsible for shoveling up this diamantine debris by dawn, there’s no denying that the dance of light and colors is surprisingly pretty right now.
I’ve never really been a sucker for the beauty of everyday objects.
But I guess it’s been a sentimental night. This is the end of an era.
—Staff reporters D. Harb, S. Glass