The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business by Nelson D. Schwartz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book takes a quick contemporary look at the thorny age-old of issues of equality and fairness. The focus is on America, a nation ostensibly founded on enlightened principles of human equality and the rejection of a privileged aristocratic elite. That’s a wonderful ideal, except that we haven’t actually done that. We have an aristocracy, or at least a privileged class, but it’s not based on family history. It’s based on money, and it doesn’t really care about when or how that wealth was accumulated. If you have money to spend, you can buy privileges, which can be passed down, along with the wealth that bought them, from one generation to the next, so that what we end up with looks a whole lot like a hereditary aristocracy.
Is that fair? Should the wealthy elite enjoy privileges that commoners like the rest of us simply don’t have? Is it okay for them not just to cut in line but to ignore lines completely when boarding a plane, visiting a theme park, or going to a sporting event? Bear in mind that this means that the common folks being passed by will have to wait a bit longer and that their seats when they do arrive will be slightly more cramped.
The point this book seems to be trying to make is that there is something basically wrong with this. Personally, I think the issue is more complex than that. It seems as if the rich are being treated better than the poor. Except that’s not exactly what’s going on in these specific cases. The people jumping the line are buying something that those waiting their turn are not. You pay more, you get more. It’s not much different from buying anything else. You don’t expect to buy a Jaguar for the cost of a Kia, and you don’t feel cheated if you order a cup of coffee at a restaurant and it doesn’t come with a free stack of pancakes, a cheese omelet, and enough greasy fried animal bits to clog arteries the size of the Panama canal. The simple fact is that people with loads of money can buy more and better stuff than people who have less. (Whether or not it’s fair for some people to have a hugely disproportionate mountain of discretionary cash is another subject entirely, and one I’m not about to get into, at least not here and now except to say that I think we’re already far beyond the limit for how much wealth disparity is appropriate and sustainable.)
But getting back to this book, the author spends an inordinate amount of time and ink discussing professional sporting events and bringing up anecdotal examples of how team owners cater to the rich by building stadiums with private access, and special boxes with comfy seats and minibars or whatever. Not being a sports fan might color my opinion here, but I really don’t see much of a problem with this. The commoners waiting in line with basic tickets don’t expect and probably won’t miss perks like these. Sports are a form of entertainment. Seeing a game up close rather than from the nose bleed seats, or not at seeing it at all, is unlikely to affect a person’s life in any significant way. The same applies, to a somewhat lesser extent, to plane tickets. If you want to pay more for a larger seat with more leg room, you certainly may. It may not be fair that some people can afford these things and some cannot, but unless force is exercised to prevent it, that’s reality, which is not known for its adherence to human concepts of fairness. As long as there is less of something than there is demand for it, it’s going to be rationed disproportionately to those willing to pay.
It’s an entirely different situation when we look at essential services such as health care, education, fire prevention, and even law enforcement. Or at least I think it should be. Today, in America, those with money can and do spend it to get the best of all these things. A 4.0+ GPA kid still has to compete to get into an Ivy League college, so there’s a private company that can help them stand out and above all the other similarly privileged rich kids…for a cost. And there are companies that locate and obtain the best possible medical care for wealthy clients, who can also buy policies from high end insurance companies that will send out firefighters to protect their mansions from oncoming wildfires. And for those charged with a crime, well, that’s less likely for the rich to begin with, but it does happen, and if charged, the wealthy can often pay for a program that will drop the charges and even expunge the record. Even if convicted, the well-heeled can pay extra for a nicer prison with a private room. This last, I think, is where we unquestionably cross the line. To my mind, there are some things that money simply shouldn’t be allowed to buy.
The examples presented, and the arguments the author offers, lead to two conclusions — actually, three, but “It sure would be nice to be rich” is so blindingly obvious, no one needs to highlight the point. The less obvious conclusions are: 1) that the rich almost live in a different world than the rest of us, and 2) because of #1, real world problems are either not addressed or addressed poorly (no pun intended).
Looking at #1, consider the people who run the world. It’s not the poor. It’s not even the middle class, assuming that’s still a thing. Business leaders, politicians, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and others who can “make things happen” have one thing in common. Money. They either own it or they control it, which provides them with privileges that shelter them from the hardships and inconveniences of normal life. Even if they are not born into affluence, once they obtain it, their problems and priorities change. They can quickly lose touch with what passes for normal life in our society. Even if they still drive their own cars, they’re likely to pay extra to bypass traffic by using well maintained toll roads and HOV lanes (or for the super stinking rich, helicopters). With VIP access, they don’t wait in lines pretty much anywhere. Living in affluent neighborhoods, they never experience what it means not to have a good school for their kids, a local bank, a grocery store, or a nearby hospital. A lack of such things aren’t problems the rich and powerful have, so they aren’t problems they’re likely to think about. It seems ironic that the people best positioned to address societal problems cannot fully understand them.
Before I go on (and on and on), let me clarify that I don’t think all rich people are scum bags who don’t care about anyone else. The rich, on the whole, are not intrinsically scummier than the rest of us. In fact, many use their wealth and influence to try to make the world a better place. Some succeed to an extent. Entrepreneurs occasionally do, coincidentally, perhaps. Philanthropists try to intentionally, sometimes without even an ulterior motive. Every once in a while, even presidents and other politicians attempt to do something helpful. FDR is a good example. Although he suffered character-building hardships due to his polio, he was never poor, but he helped a great many people who were when he created the programs of the New Deal, despite constant pushback. Unfortunately, however, even when these folks do try to help, they often fail due to lack of support from their peers and the inability of the elite to either recognize or fully understand the problems average folks have.
Yeah, fine. Rich people don’t understand the problems of the poor. So what? It’s not their job to. They aren’t responsible for making the world a better place for anyone but themselves. That’s what capitalism is all about, right?
Well, yes and no, and although some may disagree about the responsibilities that common human decency imposes on us, there is a group of people whose job it is to make things better for everyone— politicians, but those with the greatest capacity for change, the ones at the federal legislative level, are members of the elite as well. They may not (all) enjoy personal wealth, but they are treated as elite, they have perks associated with their jobs, and they influence what problems the government chooses to address and how it spends its money to do so. And what problems might those be? Well, the ones they and their biggest political donors have, of course.
So, getting back to essential public services —police, fire fighting, schools, hospitals, roads, and things like that. All of these can pose real problems for a great many people if they fail to perform adequately. But for the wealthy elite, none of them are ever a problem because the rich can opt out. If their kids’ public school (for example) can’t afford field trips, or a sports program, or a band or an orchestra, those programs can be supplemented, either through donations, such as PTA fund raisers, or through additional costs for participation, which is all fine for well off parents in affluent communities. And if that still doesn’t satisfy, there are private prep schools.
I feel that this is fairly close to how some people, even politicians, often see issues like this. They don’t recognize how essential these services can be because the people they hang with have options. Don’t like the public schools? Send your kids to a private academy. Your neighborhood doesn’t have a hospital? Move to someplace that does. Roads jammed? Too many potholes? Use the toll roads or hire a helicopter taxi. And politicians, believing in the viability of these options, at least for “normal” people like themselves, make public policies accordingly, creating a kind of causal circle. Funding for public schools, for example, is fine and probably worthwhile in principle… unless it has to be paid for with higher taxes, which the wealthy would likely be required to share a large portion of, which would make it more difficult for them and other normal folks to pay tuition for their kids’ boarding schools. So, if the purpose of the legislation is to improve education, funding public schools won’t work. In fact, it’s probably counterproductive because, as everyone knows, a dollar spent on taxes is one that can’t be spent on investment in, for example, a corporation that runs private schools, which means fewer dividends and capital gains, which can be used to pay tuition at even better schools. And who cares anyway? Certainly not anyone worth knowing. Even among the not so rich there are those who claim that public services are inherently inferior. Private companies, the mantra goes, always do it better, as if this was a commandment of their capitalist religious faith despite all evidence to the contrary. The proposed legislation fails. Public schools deteriorate, which provides the wealthy with further reasons to send their own kids to private schools, which gives them additional cause to view public schools as even less worthy of support. And so on.
So how do we fix this? The author of this book offers some ideas at the end, including the need to recognize that we’ve let our public institutions deteriorate and that we should strive to create a more egalitarian society. It’s all kind of pie in the sky stuff rather than concrete solutions, which I’m not sure anyone can offer. I’m sure I can’t. If I were absolute ruler of the world, I might look at raising the minimum wage and tying automatic adjustments to it to the GDP, or something like that. Maybe I’d propose legislation requiring that nongovernmental providers of essential services such as health care, education, law enforcement/detention, and the like operate as non-profits. I haven’t really thought about this in great depth because I’m not ruler of the world, and I don’t want to be. When I was younger, I’d regularly sit at a cafeteria lunch table with a bunch of friends and discuss how to solve all of humanity’s problems. We never did, of course. We were probably wrong, for one thing, and no one would have listened to us anyway. We weren’t rich. It’s just as well. Being supreme leader sounds like a horrendously hard and thankless job. I’m glad it’s not mine. I’m content with being a strange little old man who reads too much and sometime writes rambling reviews and commentaries on books he finds interesting.
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