$400 Shoes

$400 shoes exist because there are people who will pay $400 for shoes. These people exist because people think about relative, not actual, cost when spending, and the relative cost of $400 shoes to a millionaire is nothing. Millionaires exist because modern economies pay people not in direct proportion to their effort, but the value of their efforts, which is why 4 hours working on a computer can get you more than four hours in a lumberyard. People are paid by value and not effort because those who control money don't want to give it up. Having received something, we are inclined to think we deserve it, since why else would we get it? But this childish mode of thinking is sublimated, rephrased and rehashed until people say they've "earned" it. They want to believe the money they receive is theirs by moral right, by virtue of their labor, because otherwise they would have to acknowledge their greed. And if they earned this money, they deserve to spend it. In fact, they HAVE to spend it, because it's definitely greedy to just own a lot of unspent money. So they look for really cool stuff to buy because everyone wants cool stuff, and they give to charities because it makes them feel better, and they genuinely want to help but don't know how, all they know is how to do the job they do. They went to a good school and worked hard and maybe got looked down when they were younger, or maybe they've grown up in a world where money isn't a problem, isn't even really mentioned much because it's a given, and either way they assume, because they've always had money or worked hard to get it, that people without a lot of money are somehow shooting themselves in the foot, or lazy, and don't deserve or, oops, haven't earned a better lifestyle. And anyway they're pretty busy at their jobs, where they do good things every day, like surgery and counseling and suing corrupt companies, and they want a good lifestyle for their kids, they don't want them to be sad or feel deprived or live in a bad neighborhood, so they move to an area where everyone has a different job that is really the same, and where they buy things that help the economy grow, and maybe invest in a friend's small start-up because they've got some leg room, and a few years later get a more expensive hybrid or electric car, and of course everyone remodels after a decade or so, and they're so busy with internal politics at the college, or writing a book that will change the world and they really don't want to think about money it stresses them out. So there are $400 shoes because focused, distracted, selfish, selfless, ignorant smart people buy them every day, and always have, and probably always will.

The first sentence underlined contains a rather dense cluster of assumptions linking it to the second. To persuade you that a less incendiary form of the sentiment is valid, let's take the football player and the miner. Who works harder? The football player has had to perform at the top of his game for years, sometimes sacrificing quality of intellectual education to work out, learn the playbook, and at practices and games has to do a great deal of work, exercising by weight, tackle, sprint, and jog. The miner has to move and chip away with heavy tools large quantities of rock, rarely lifting too far beyond his strength, but doing more repetitions than the football player by a dramatic margin. The football player retires early in his lifespan, the miner much later, with a less generous pension. In fact, this seems to be the characteristic distinction between “upper” and “lower” class work, high intensity with low repetition, low intensity with high repetition. The former is more valued, as manifest in the emphasis on speed over endurance sports, and this interest is in part a function of learned attention span. But setting aside what this says about culture, or how this culture came about, or what its end might be, the miner and the player work equally hard in different ways, suffer the world of work for what should not be, but is, unequal pay. This pay determines the standard of living to which they accustom themselves, the quality of entertainment, food, and living/sleeping conditions, as well as time spent at work.

Take the CEO and the McDonald's worker. Both work long hours, the worker performing repeated, somewhat detailed motions in various combinations and paces, while the CEO deals with a great deal of qualitative and quantitative information, studying and analyzing it while in a chair, or discussing its meanings in a room with other people, all seated. CEO's get paid a lot. And they have high stress jobs, student loans, and sacrificed years of their life studying. And their companies provide goods/services everyone wants, or at least goods everyone has been trained to want after years of exposure to advertising.

(It's always hard to convince people of "being trained to like." I genuinely like Lamborghini's man, and I hardly ever see advertisements for them, so you can't blame ads for that. Watch me: The omnipresence of mid-level quality car commercials reinforces the idea that these cars are part of the middle class, desirable the way grocery store food is desirable. But the absence of other kinds of cars suggests their value in the same way that the rarity of certain kinds of jewels increases their price. Besides, what is intrinsically desirable about a car? The ability to go where you want, when you want to, at your chosen pace, with friends and without strangers. What is the intrinsic value of a fancier car? Setting aside gas mileage, which could be good in other cars, and the quality of the seating, which could be improved in normal cars by customer demand, it is the appearance of the exterior, the shape and color of the shell, maybe the sound of the engine, the rate of acceleration. Yet the pleasure in these things is not a facet of human nature. To someone living without cars the appearance of a Ferrari world make no more or less of an impression than the appearance of a Honda civic. Nor is it intrinsically more pleasurable to drive a fancier car, which looks mostly the same on the inside. What about Top Gear, you say, or other similar shows? These are also advertisements. I'm surprised people don't notice this when watching the show. Sometimes the car commercials are more visually pleasing than the following show segments. And what a vapid show, entire seasons of episodes devoted to the minutiae that distinguish this high speed leather seated air conditioned piece of European rubber metal art from another one. Ah, the grip on the steering wheel gives one a much greater sense of control while going at 80 mph. Quite frankly I'm not surprised it started out as a British show and only later became more popular on Netflix in America. Obsession with the trappings of aristocracy seems quite un-American, undemocratic, whether with cars or elite French cuisine. What about Gatsby, you say? That particular rendition of the American dream does not fetishize the qualities of material luxuries so much as the capacity to enjoy them with impunity. The American Dream is to be free of money by having so much of it.)

Once upon a time, pink was for boys and blue was for girls. Once upon a time ankles were a fixation of erotica. Let's assume by now you're convinced that desire for certain things is the unintended/conscious result of ads and prices and pop culture. Now you might say, hey man, you can tell me all you want how this is a temporary/enforced thing, but I just want to enjoy what I enjoy. It's a material world. I'd say that's fine, but you're not getting much out of life. Anhedonia aside, wealth and its perks become mundane very quickly. Desires like these, the greeks well knew, are bottomless. The Christians too called love of money the root of all evil, because that love is for a shadow that you can't catch, the pursuit of which will consume you. And other evils are similarly hollow. They are not hollow because they are evil, they are called evil and sin and addiction and folly because it's a convenient, accurate nomenclature for behaviors that don't live up to their hype, that even in the short run are insufficient compared to the harder, higher pleasures. Just ask the couch potato and the athlete.

New, related topic:

I get nervous when people throw around terms like deserve and earn as though they are equivalent. I don't really think it's possible for one person to deserve more or less than another, though they can certainly earn it. Often in colloquial speech the two are conflated, but why? Can we really say human worth, which our praise of equality/justice implies we acquire at birth, is accumulated as work is performed? This would mean, over time, a person can deserve a better life than another, not just earn more money than another, a practice that leads to a better material life. Freud said the "cornerstones of our humanness" are work and love, so it seems that everyone deserves the chance to work and love, and if a person rejects either that is their choice. We could then say they have earned the repercussions, as someone who throws a vase earns the resulting smashed glass, though they don't deserve to be hurt by it. What if this glass-thrower had committed a violent crime? What if a hard worker commits a crime? What if a lazy person commits a crime? Justice, I think, means earned justice, means that the punishment suits the crime, deters recidivism. Setting aside arguments about the efficacy of imprisonment as a deterrent (for the moment), let us assume there are systems that impose justice on a person when they crime. The crime would be countered and the person discouraged from criming again, and they would have earned that response by their actions. But I still think it would be wrong to say they deserve the punishment. A human soul doesn't deserve pain, it earns it-that is, the response to doing something wrong in he justice system should be as natural as the broken glass that follows a thrown vase. What the soul deserves seems made clear when we compare people from different walks of life who commit the same crime. Justice demands the punishment be based on the crime, not the person, yet some seem to think the lifestyle makes one person "deserve" punishment more, instead of sticking to what an act alone earns them. If this intuition comes from judging a book by its cover, we're in the wrong. But what if what we're really doing is condemning lifestyles, as the puritans did those among them who disagreed with doctrine or outsiders who tried living too close. As you can see from the example, I don't hold with this type of condemnation. Either something is a crime or it's not, and nobody has any business using the punishment fitted to crime A to enforce their distaste for lifestyle X. If they want to make aspects of lifestyle X criminal, good luck with the petition and the legislature, but remember that everybody has their version of "It's simply criminal!"

So let's take again the hard worker and the lazy worker. If “lazy worker” is not a contradiction, and some work is genuinely not work, not effortful, but this laziness is not a crime, then no one can deserve less than another even if they can earn more than another, and anyone who works should make a wage that gives them the material life all people deserve…ah, here's the problem, you say. I'll grant you the rest but people can only deserve Work and Love, they can't deserve a certain Material Lifestyle. I would argue, however, that beneath a certain material level, Work and Love are seriously impeded, along with the implicit promise of America's Declaration of Independence, which states that people have a right to (read deserve) life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Somehow I think it's unreasonable to expect people to pursue happiness, a complex topic which engages philosophers to this day, when their jobs do not provide sufficiently healthy food for their children. In these circumstances, the hard or even lazy worker is not pursuing happiness, but stability. But perhaps these hard circumstances makes the truly important things in life clearer, hastening the pursuit of happiness. In that case, there ought to be a law, a low maximum wage, to help people become happier. Does this conflict with liberty (though not with deserving, since we've already separated earnings from deservings)? Liberty seems to mean the ability to do what one wants unrestricted by external forces. We can't bend nature to our will, but institutions, composed of us, we can. So we make police to keep the strong and weak from being unequal, enabling the weak to be as free as the strong. We tax to provide services everyone should have. Etc. Of course in each case, a certain group gives up liberty (the strong, the rich) to ensure all people receive what they deserve. So liberty becomes a question of balance. And a totally separate argument. But to return to justice and deserving:

Rhetoric that deals with deserving seems to be interested more in vengeance than justice, more in the subspecies of pleasure that siblings enjoy when they tattle on each other. This rhetoric takes the form of “lock them up and throw away the key,” or “I hope you choke on [thing]” regardless of data about recidivism, and what crime earns is conflated with what one who crimes deserves. An older parallel, the Christian distinction between the sin and sinner, is often given lip service but rarely implemented as policy. Yet in a family, we can see with less clouded judgment what different kinds of punishment accomplish. After catching a child in deception, parents could take away time with friends or with electronics, or some recreational activity, etc. The best choice is probably the one related to the deception. Having a blanket punishment for all negative behaviors seems non-optimal, possibly counter-productive, yet our justice system reflects none of the flexibility and curiosity that characterizes the same field in microcosm.           

The implicit topic of this paper is the intrinsic injustice of wealth inequality--not the problem of the widening gap but the problem of the gap. I’m sure very few people genuinely begrudge the rich their riches, (most would “rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor”) but most are perplexed, even in themselves, by the apathy that stifles transformative generosity, generosity that sacrifices for the good of others. People are constantly calling for philanthropy, but so rarely for estate taxes (an excellent example of people receiving much more than they deserve or have earned) or other rules that maintain the social contract, in which the powerful are made to shrink a bit to make room for everybody. We have been here before. At the turn of the last century Teddy Roosevelt championed trust busting and opposed certain forms of corporate power. Yes, it’s exciting to read about multibillion dollar mergers, to compare the net worth of the richest people on the planet, but those who enjoy the finer things in life enjoy the privilege because the people are content with the difference. America at its best was never a land of kings.