Tuesday, 2 December 2014

A Fruit Loopy approach to inequality

Here's a story, told by the excellent Michael Lewis in a less than excellent piece.

"Jack Kenney’s assault on teenaged American inequality began at breakfast the first morning. The bell clanged early, and the kids all rolled out of their old stained bunk beds, scratched their fresh mosquito bites, and crawled to the dining hall. On each table were small boxes of cereal, enough for each kid to have one box, but not enough that everyone could have the brand of cereal he wanted. There were Fruit Loops and Cheerios, but also more than a few boxes of the deadly dark bran stuff consumed willingly only by old people suffering from constipation. On the second morning, when the breakfast bell clanged, a mad footrace ensued. Kids sprung from their bunks and shot from cabins in the New Hampshire woods to the dining hall. The winners got the Fruit Loops, the losers a laxative. By the third morning, it was clear that, in the race to the Fruit Loops, some kids had a natural advantage. They were bigger and faster; or their cabins were closer to the dining hall; or they just had that special knack some people have for getting whatever they want. Some kids would always get the Fruit Loops, and others would always get the laxative. Life was now officially unfair.

After that third breakfast, Kenney called an assembly on a hill overlooking a tennis court. He was unkempt and a bit odd; wisps of gray hair crossed his forehead and he looked as if he hadn’t bathed in a week. He was also kind and gentle and funny, and kids instantly sensed that he was worth listening to, and wanted to hear what he had to say. “You all live in important places surrounded by important people,” he’d begin. “When I’m in the big city, I never understand the faces of the people, especially the people who want to be successful. They look so worried! So unsatisfied!” Here his eyes closed shut and his hands became lobster claws, pinching and grasping the air in front of him. “In the city you see people grasping, grasping, grasping. Taking, taking, taking. And it must be so hard! To be always grasping-grasping, and taking-taking. But no matter how much they have, they never have enough. They’re still worried. About what they don’t have. They’re always empty.” Eyes closed, talking as much to himself as to us, he described the life of not-so-quiet desperation until every kid on the hill wondered what this had to do with the two-handed backhand. Then he opened his eyes and finished: “You have a choice. You don’t realize it, but you have a choice. You can be a giver or you can be a taker. You can get filled up or empty. You make that choice every day. You make that choice at breakfast when you rush to grab the cereal you want so others can’t have what they want.” And then he moved on to why no one should ever hit a two-handed backhand [it was a tennis camp]—while every kid on the hill squirmed and reddened and glanced at each other, wondering if everyone else realized what an asshole he’d been.

On the fourth morning, no one ate the Fruit Loops. Kids were thrusting the colorful boxes at each other and leaping on the constipation cereal like war heroes jumping on hand grenades. In a stroke, the texture of life in this tennis camp had changed, from a chapter out of Lord of the Flies to the feeling between the lines of Walden.

Does this story ring true to you? Someone has to eat the Fruit Loops. And someone will prefer the Cheerios. And someone will have forgotten the subtle aside in the pep talk after breakfast yesterday morning. And then what do the children do? Take turns? Share? Let the ones who haven't had any Fruit Loops have them for the rest of the week? Eat the third best cereal quickly while no one else is watching?

The point I'm making goes to a big point made in Lewis' article. OK, I get it, the rich need to change. But how? He writes "The grotesque inequality between the haves and the have-nots is seldom framed as a problem that the haves might privately help to resolve. Instead, it is a problem the have-nots must persuade their elected officials to do something about, presumably against the wishes of the haves." I'm pretty sympathetic to the idea that personal responsibility is a better avenue for improving society than state action, but it's not stupid to think that perhaps the solution to the cereals problem was a better set of rules. As Lewis also writes: "billionaires’ activist philanthropy ..., as any billionaire will tell you, ... is as much a story of frustration as of success. (Zuckerberg has discovered this in the Newark public schools.) The big surprise about money, in this age of grotesque and growing economic inequality, may be its limits." It's a bit easier to solve the cereal distribution problems.

Perhaps what happened in reality was that the children devised the rules themselves - and enforced them with the rough and ready physical justice regularly meted out in the good old days. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But I'm not convinced it tells us anything about how to deal with billionaires (or how to deal with being one).

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