Monday, December 3, 2012

Inequality: It's Not Just For Income Anymore

I got the picture from these guys. I hope they don't mind.
Recently I was on campus at an ungodly hour when no one else was really there.  My morning companions:  three or four pretty unhealthy looking students, each having a pile of doughnuts with some coffee. 

I thought to myself "Yeah, it is really tough to be fit and healthy and not eat crap in 21st century North America."  And then I thought "And it's even harder to be fit and healthy and not eat crap if you're a student in 21st century North America.  I mean, with all the other shit they have to deal with, they're bombarded with opportunities to eat bad food.  No wonder kids are less fit and healthy overall."

But then I remembered: it's not like this for everyone.  Because student athletes are in better shape than ever.  Standards to play a sport in any competitive way have skyrocketed.  You have to kick/hit/throw that ball better faster smarter, start when you're a tot, and basically do nothing else.

Just like everything else these days, fitness is becoming winner-take-all.  There's no middle class of fitness.  Either you're an obsessed triathlete/star quarterback/whatever or you're spending the whole day doing stuff that basically requires sitting.  And have you heard?  Sitting is the new silent deadly killer.

But it's not just fitness.  The middle class of everything is disappearing.  In this post from 2011, I used the metaphor of women's shoes:  you shop for women's shoes these days, you can get four-inch stiletto heals -- the acme of crazy style and discomfort -- or you can get Tevas/Clarke's/whatever -- shoes that proclaim their practicality to the world:  I am comfortable, hear me roar!  What's wrong with a nice pair of well-made heels with a delicate but serviceable strap, huh?  Where's my middle class of shoes?

The most obvious application is financial:  as I put it before, these days you're either aiming for Jay Gatsby or you're on your parent's sofa drinking beer. 

But it's not just income.  Crazy inequality is everywhere now.  You can be New York or you can be Stockton.  Where are the Clevelands of yesteryear?   The average women wears a size 12-14.  The average model wears a 0 or 2.  The distance is ever greater.  If you're just graduating, you have to plan on making a fortune in order to pay back your student loans and get a decent apartment.

What is the deal? 

I'm sure there are many complex forces at work.  But I think we dangerously downplay the difficulties inherent in competition and meritocracy.

These sound like such great ideas, don't they?  Let people compete for the world's rewards.  Let the best person win.  If you can do something more cheaply and more efficiently than someone else you win; if you are willing to pay more you get the goods.

But unless you're in unusual circumstances, isn't increasing inequality of everything a natural result?  Just look at sports.  People start off with widely varying degrees of talent.  Then the more you can drop everything else and devote your attention to just your chosen sport, the better you'll be than the people around you.  The more people start to drop everything to become successful at something, the more everyone else has to drop everything to become successful at something.

This New Yorker story describes parents who drop everything, move across the country, so their kids can attend an intensive football camp -- when the kids are still like eight years old.  The coach who runs it charges up to a thousand dollars an hour for private lessons.  Obviously, if you now want to play football at any level, this is who you're competing against:  you, too, have to train like a lunatic.  Now the people at the top are going to be not just a bit ahead, but way ahead, of everyone else. 

The same kind of thing is happening in lots of domains.  If you want to go to a top university in the US, you have to work at nothing else all the time.  Your parents have to make sure you get into the right pre-school, for heaven's sake.  As long as other people want the goods, and as long as the goods go to the person who can best fulfill the criteria, you're going to have the problem that people who do nothing else are going to get the goods.

To prevent the wild escalation, to make things more equal, to even them out, to make it so lots of people can participate, that having a so-so job is a perfectly reasonable way to live your life:  that's going to require certain positive kinds of action, structures, institutions, rules, and so on. 

A middle class of anything is not the kind of thing that just thrives naturally.  Fostering one requires actual care and attention.  Bring back the middle classes of everything please!

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