A level playing field matters

By Caitlin Kelly

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The United States Capitol. Policies and laws enacted here affect everyone, rarely equally.

There’s an expression I hear a lot in the U.S. — to put your thumb on the scale — i.e. to tilt a result in your favor.

I  live near New York City, in a county rife with stunning wealth, (and the not-so-wealthy!) so we have a front-row seat to this constant jockeying for power.

I believe in its opposite — the level playing field.

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If you own, and can afford to use and maintain a vehicle, you’ve got a huge advantage over those who can’t, certainly in places with little to no public transit

As some of us watch the Olympics this week, fair competition is front and center.

The Muslim-American fencer Ibithaj Muhammad I just blogged about got to Rio thanks to a playing field, (in this case, piste!), leveled by the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a 15-year-old non-profit in New York City founded by a former bronze medalist who is African-American. The program has worked with 4,000 lower-income children, offering them opportunities to learn this elegant, historic and fantastic sport, and one all too often seen as impossibly elitist.

Then there’s this. From an explainer in The Economist:

A World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report into Russian doping by a Canadian lawyer, Richard McLaren, was published only on July 18th—18 days before the opening ceremony. Furthermore, the contents of Mr McLaren’s report were appalling. Beginning in 2011 the Russian ministry of sport set up a comprehensive programme to circumvent anti-doping laws. It reported false negatives to WADA, created a steroid cocktail to boost performance (the name it was given, “Duchess”, is worthy of Ian Fleming), worked with the FSB, the state security service, to evade independent testing, and tampered with drugs tests while hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The world is, for many of us, a highly competitive place. The more ambitious you are — socially, financially, professionally — the greasier the pole.

Then there’s this moat-building drawbridge-lifting bullshit that, seriously, sets my hair on fire, reported in The New York Times most recent edition of Education Life, an occasional special section that looks at American higher education.

Harvard, already hell to get into, also has private on-campus clubs so exclusive that people weep on their doorsteps when refused admission.

 

Because what’s the point of privilege — unless you guard it ferociously?

 

The Fly is one of six remaining all-male final clubs. They are, if not the hub, the apex of social life at Harvard — upscale surrogates for those classic centers of college merriment, sororities and fraternities…

Entree can feel like belonging, rejection like a scarlet F…

But to many students on the outside, the clubs are laden with a legacy of upper-crust snobbishness. As the writer Kenneth Auchincloss referred to them in a 1958 dispatch in The Harvard Crimson: Final clubs are gathering places of the “St. Grottlesex crop,” an amalgamation of the names of several elite East Coast boarding schools, who “look to the Clubs as centers for privacy and ‘good-fellowship,’ cut off from the hectic University by their locked front doors, their aura of secrecy, and a generally shared feeling of superiority.”

…The elaborate courtship of the desirable can begin with an engraved invitation slipped under a dorm room door to “punch” — a selection process that continues with a series of outings and culminates in a black-tie dinner feting the few who make it through.

My husband Jose works part-time as a photo editor at abcnews.com, owned by Disney; this week they handed out brand-new backpacks, asking employees to fill them with donated school supplies.

We don’t have kids, so the whole back-to-school routine is something we don’t do. We had a blast running around Staples, and discovered that it cost $50 to buy everything on the list.

That’s still a significant sum in our family — and an impossibly high one for a family with a lower income and/or multiple children to shop for.

We hope the recipient enjoys it!

Here’s a sobering piece from The Atlantic:

In dealing with the persistence of intergenerational wealth, the changes that would be most effective are also the most sweeping: Taking private money out of political campaigns would give more of a voice to people who’d benefit from stronger social policies. Bolstering housing-voucher programs would let poorer families move into better neighborhoods. Increasing taxes at the uppermost end of the income spectrum would redistribute perpetuated wealth. Finding ways to get lower- and middle-income workers to put more money into savings would help them improve their lots.

So, the lesson from this report: Take whatever extreme, politically unfeasible changes everyone thought were necessary to increase economic mobility and make them more extreme and more unfeasible—that might be enough.

For refugees, fleeing Syria, it’s a hunger for basic dignity, as Mohammed Ali, 26, told Cnet:

“I just want beginning,” he says. “I just want to be at level zero, because here we are before level zero…I feel nothing change. Like, I was in Syria a number and here I am still a number. I have to be a person.”

10 thoughts on “A level playing field matters

  1. And isn’t that a perfect example of what a powerhouse corporation like DISNEY – net worth $169.3 Billion, one of the world’s largest and most profitable companies – would ask of its employees. Disney donates the backpack (empty) and asks employees to fill it to the tune of $50.

    I find that rather scandalous.

    “Fill it yourself,” I’d say.

    And while you’re at it, why not lower your entrance fees, merch costs, movie ticket prices, etc. etc. so that kids from modest incomes can afford to go to the multiple theme parks, movies, stores, etc.

    Here in France, the entrance fee to DISNEYLAND PARIS is exorbitant. But the kids of my companion know that I categorically refuse to fork out one Euro that will fleece the pockets of Monolithic Corporations That Control Almost Everything.

    Here’s another reason to tell DISNEY to go blow: widespread use of child labor.

    The following is an excerpt from an article in The Guardian newspaper in the UK:

    “Disney toys are being made in a factory in China that uses child labour and forces staff to do three times the amount of overtime allowed by law, according to an investigation. One worker reportedly killed herself after being repeatedly shouted at by bosses. Others cited worries over poisonous chemicals. Disney has now launched its own investigation. It is claimed some of the 6,000 employees have to work an extra 120 hours every month to meet demand from western shops for the latest toys.”

    It always amazes me how Americans are in such thrall to their Corporations.

      1. 🙂

        Thanks. He has three anchor clients and is doing very well — there seems to be a much higher demand for photo editors now than writers. So one of is busy!

  2. this is all so incredibly true, and when people ask why some succeed in life and others don’t, quite often it’s important to look back at the starting line.

  3. It certainly puts things into perspective when you hear the stories of refugees. That last quote is heartbreaking.

    This American Life has made a couple of radio shows (July 29 and August 5) covering refugee camps in Greece. I’ve been listening and feeling so torn that I can’t do much in the way of practical help, aside from sending financial donations.

  4. One of my favorite in-class activities in my Social Problems class was “Modified Monopoly.” Monopoly is a game most students are familiar with and the rules are based on the American myths that there is a level playing field (same rules for all, everyone starts out with the same amount of $) and the winners deserve to win because they are the best at playing the game.

    I challenged students’ beliefs in those myths by introducing very different rules to the game that looked, in every other way, the same.

    First, I randomly divided the class into sets of 6 students. Then I handed each group of 6 a game box with 6 sealed envelopes that they were to each pick. Inside the envelop was their race and social class (upper, middle, lower). The amount of money they started with/went past “Go,” properties they were allowed to purchase, privileges they could or couldn’t have when rolling doubles or for getting out of jail or for obeying the penalties/rewards of the Chance/Community Chest cards, and if they could buy hotels or not were different depending on race and social class.

    For example (and to reflect more of the inequality in our society), if the lower-class black landed in jail s/he could not use a “Get out of jail free” card and had to roll only double sixes to get out and continue to play. Only the upper-class white player could be the banker.

    At first, students laughed at the rules and thought it was going to be fun. After only one or two rounds, frustrations began. The upper-class blacks and whites tried giving breaks to other players who were losing fast. The other players (the ones being offered the “charity” and the middle-class players) got angry–for different reasons, then the upper-class players got miffed that their “kindness” was rejected. Other times, upper-class players almost instantly began “lording” their superiority over the other players. And, remember, these were randomly selected envelopes!

    When we tallied up the totals at the end, we never had any surprises in who had the most money and property (even in the short time they played).

    I never had to let the game continue for more than 3 or 4 rounds. They got the picture quickly and memorably. I spent the rest of the class time discussing race and class inequality in America. I emphasized that IF there is true equality of opportunity (level playing field) at the beginning of the game, then any differences in outcome at the end of the game are perfectly fine. But how can we feel good about differences at the end of the game when we know we could have predicted them because those differences were in place from the start?

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