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.”