Life at № 42 by E.M. Coutinho
“… Opportunity hoarding does not result from the workings of a large machine but from the cumulative effect of individual choices and preferences. Taken in isolation, they may feel trivial: nudging your daughter into a better college with a legacy preference [giving applicants places on the basis of being related to alumni of the college]; helping the son of a professional contact to an internship; a single vote on a municipal council to retain low-density zoning restrictions. But, like many “micro-preferences”, to borrow a term from economist Thomas Schelling, they can have strong effects on overall culture and collective outcomes.
Over recent decades, institutions that once primarily served racist goals – legacy admissions to keep out Jewish students, zoning laws to keep out black families – have not been abandoned but have been softened, normalised and subtly re-purposed to help us sustain the upper-middle-class status. They remain, then, barriers to a more open, more genuinely competitive and fairer society. I won’t insult your intelligence by pretending there are no costs here. By definition, reducing opportunity hoarding will mean some losses for the upper middle class.”
Fantastic article in today’s Guardian. (Thanks, Makagutu!) It’s interesting to consider how much in our lives is passed on to us through mere familial circumstance. In my case I can see very clearly the absolutely direct impact of my childhood on my adulthood. All the little choices my family made back then (whether I agreed with them or not) paved the way for my place in the world. From tennis lessons, to visits to museums, to travel and (the gift of) books- it was all part of a strategy of success (as measured by bourgeois standards) that’s passed on from one generation to the next. And interestingly, as rebellious as I seemed to them, I ended up being and doing exactly what I was programmed to do. This reminds me of a line from Edouard Louis’ The End of Eddy:
“… She thought she had made mistakes, that without meaning to she had closed the door on a better future, on a life that was easier and more comfortable, one far from the factory and the constant stress (no: the constant state of anxiety) of making sure she didn’t mismanage the family budget – where a small misstep could mean no food on the table at the end of the month. She didn’t understand that her trajectory, what she would call her mistakes, fitted in perfectly with a whole set of logical mechanisms that were practically laid down in advance and non-negotiable.”
Side note: The author takes the important (and rare) step of separating out the American “middle class”. Nine out of 10 US adults describe themselves as middle class. That’s evidently not backed up by any serious analysis. An important chunk of Americans have less than US$1000 in savings (the same is true in Australia and the UK). Not making things any better is the matter of debt. Time reports the average US home has 16k in credit card debt. Those things don’t quite fit in with the British definition of middle class or the French definition of bourgeoisie.