The Bootstraps BS

It’s hard to comprehend that the United States has such insane economic inequality with very little happening to change it. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has a net worth of over $100 billion while countless others are trying to scrape by in debt or homelessness. The contrast between a handful of people with tens of billions of dollars and everyone else couldn’t be starker. And yet, it continues to get worse—without a lot of collective action or governmental change. What the hell?

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the disparity and callousness, and it seems clear that it has a lot to do with the ol’ bootstraps myth. You know, the idea that every American can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they choose to do so, and rise to great wealth and social standing. A handful of people have a net worth of billions of dollars because they’re the smartest and hardest-working. The homeless man shooting up on the streets of San Francisco is there because he hasn’t pulled himself up by the bootstraps. He made bad choices or is lazy or isn’t taking advantage of his opportunities.

So the myth goes. And so class divides persist and worsen. A particular person’s situation is deemed the inevitable outcome of how hard they’re trying. Stark inequality throughout the whole country is shrugged at as the resulting separation between the people who tried hard and the people who didn’t.

A widely referenced 2009 Pew survey suggested that a majority of Americans think this way. 71% to 21%, those surveyed said that “personal attributes, like hard work and drive, are more important to economic mobility than external conditions.” If you’re financially successful, you’re an all-American bootstrapper. If you’re struggling, you’re an outcast from the American social contract and you’ve only got yourself to blame.

If economic and social standing are the outcomes of personal character, why would anyone think much of it or work to change it? That’s just the way it is. If you think someday that could be me with billions if I work hard enough!, you probably want things to stay as they are. I’m gonna be in the top income bracket one day, so don’t tax it too much. And don’t give people a *handout* or a leg up who aren’t trying as hard as I am.

But, of course, none of this is really how it works. Wealth in the United States is not some perfectly laissez-faire, unbiased, meritocratic system–where those who have the most worked the hardest and those who are destitute are there because of their lack of effort. Some of the people who are absurdly wealthy just goof around all day. They coast as their fortune–often starting as a sizable inheritance–grows. Meanwhile, millions of middle class and poor Americans hardly have time to rest—working long hours or trying to live out of their car or on the street. America’s inequality, and the particular people who are rich and poor, are not simply the outcomes of effort.

The disparities start at birth, then later continue in second, third, and twentieth chances for some while oppression and shaming for others. Consider how bootstrapping is linked to race and sex. White men with a huge advantage of inheritance and a foot in the door from their white, male buddies are proclaimed to have gotten to the top by virtuousness and industriousness.

While “welfare queens,” “ungrateful” black and brown people, and “reckless” single moms are believed to have every opportunity and support they could need, yet fail to rise up the ladder. They’re accused of not trying, and considered a terrible burden on society. Sometimes a black CEO, or a single mom hustling through night classes, get spotlit as the good, bootstrapping individuals that other black people and women should aspire to be like. The bootstraps bullshit is fully weaponized by loading it with racism and sexism.

The harsh, simple truth is that the majority of us are going to go through costly personal tragedies and uncontrollable struggles to make ends meet. It’s not easy to afford all your material needs all of the time, or to live through the traumas you can’t do anything to prevent.

When you’re knocked down, it’s difficult to recover in America. The United States doesn’t have anything close to a foundational system of social services that other countries do, which ensure that whatever you aspire to and whatever kind of luck you encounter in life, you’ll still have your basic needs provided for. Things like universal healthcare with virtually zero patient cost. Elder care. Child care. Housing. Robust maternity and paternity leave. And more.

In Texas, a 38-year-old teacher, Heather Holland, recently died of complications from the flu when she couldn’t afford the $116 copay for a prescription. Some internet assholes very unhelpfully chimed in to say that she should have had a rainy day fund to cover something like that. That’s some classic bootstrap shaming.

I’ve mentioned before that close to half of Americans couldn’t cover an emergency $400 expense if they needed to. It’s not just Heather Holland and her supposed moral failings. Many unexpected expenses are a lot more than $116 or $400. Cancer treatments can cost tens of thousands of dollars per month. Who’s got a rainy day fund for that? There is no perfect lifestyle and financial plan to prevent everything and afford everything.

While Jeff Bezos sits on billions, hundreds of Amazon employees are in the supplemental nutrition assistance program (formerly known as food stamps). These sad realities say a lot more about the way wealth is immorally distributed than whether or not individual people are trying hard enough to make it.

But our inequality-generating system is rarely challenged in public. The bootstraps myth obscures the crazy head-starts given to some, stifling structural prejudices against others, and the dire need for a strong social support system. People in debt or poverty or failing health are told you need to do better or you failed, so figure out how to get out of it.

That’s really the best this country can do? That’s all we owe to each other?

Everyone deserves to have their basic needs taken care of. Everyone should be supported through misfortune. Not because people are trying hard enough, but because we’re all human beings who want to enjoy life in the face of universal challenges.

This Week in Upgrades: December 26

Hello, hello. Did you have a good holiday weekend? How is the Monday after so far? I wish the United States had a Boxing Day equivalent. I’d imagine a lot of Americans would like to have December 25th and 26th off. Maybe someday?

Here are some of the interesting things that popped up on the Internet this week:

Is winter getting the best of you? Scandinavians are good at winter. Maybe try what they do?

Researchers may have figured out what makes a Stradivarius instrument sound so good.

It’s been out for a little while, but I just saw this bad lip reading song for Empire Strikes Back and couldn’t stop laughing.

Are you working for the weekend? Economics has shaped the way that we think about time.

Parents, kids, everyone else–we’re all still trying to figure out how much screen time is healthy.

Is Children of Men the piece of pop culture that helps us understand our moment in history?

I think I’ve recommended Adam Curtis’ documentary, Century of the Self, before. His newest, Hypernormalisationis also definitely worth watching.

Relatedly, the winners and losers of globalization help explain recent politics. There’s a reason I keep coming back to the common good.

Did some scientists just discover a fully effective ebola vaccine?

We’re aware that trees are important for the air we breathe, but the life of trees is a lot more complex than many of us know.

Stunning photos of an uncontacted Amazonian tribe. Our planet is still full of surprises.

Ever heard of anapestic tetrameter? I hadn’t. It’s one of the reasons Dr. Seuss books resonate with children so much.

Have a wonderful, safe New Year celebration!

 

 

This Week in Upgrades: December 12

Hello, friend. I hope you’re doing well. Things are crazy out there. It can be an achievement just to keep your head on straight and make it through the day. If you’re suffering–your health, a layoff, family trauma–you’re not alone. America is failing the bad-break test. It’s a mess. But I’m confident we can find the way forward. I hope you think so too.

All kinds of interesting things you might have missed this week…

Vehicle collisions aren’t really a laughing matter, but this video of minor fender-benders from Montreal’s first snowfall of the year is pretty amusing. The music is the icing on the cake.

If you’re eating nuts on a regular basis, you’re doing some good things for your health. Hopefully the chocolate-covered almonds I’ve been snacking on count.

Amazon has a crazy new concept for a grocery store. Would you shop there?

Did you watch Season 1 of Westworld? What’d you think? Here’s what many would like to see in Season 2.

Manmade climate change is heating up the planet, and many species can’t migrate fast enough to survive.

Our pollinator friends, bees, are one of the species we really can’t allow to go extinct. And just look at the great things honey can be used for.

It’s pretty obvious we need to do a lot more to minimize how much warmer the Earth gets. The good news is that reducing carbon emissions does not ruin the economy. We can fix the financial and social precarity millions of people are in and heal the planet at the same time.

Did you see this feather-covered dinosaur tail in amber? We still have so much to learn about the past.

Have a fantastic week!

This Week in Upgrades: July 25

Oh, hello! Here we are at the start of another week. How are you doing? Rested? Eager? Ready to keep the world new?

We’re in the midst of a fire-pocalypse in the LA area. Wildfires are common in California, but the Sand fire in Santa Clarita is uncommonly dire. Looks like the end of the world when the smoke-obscured sun glows an ominous red-orange, and ash is snowing down on you. Very unsettling.

What else happened this week?

Amazon is looking to use lampposts as part of their drone delivery network. Maybe drones are better than pooping pigeons?

We learned more about how wild birds and humans team up to get honey. Wonderful things happen when we work with nature instead of trying to subdue it.

Here’s everything you’d want to know about campfires. Just keep them contained, OK?

When we’re at ease, humans gravitate toward equality. In stress, hierarchy. Very interesting.

Do you remember what it was like to be small and the world seemed full of magic? We’re learning more about how kids understand fantasy, reality, and pretending.

Here’s Tesla’s “Masterplan Part Two”. Ambitious, but encouraging for society if they can make it happen. “The first time, possibly ever, that a green product with significant environmental credentials has been the thing everybody wanted.”

In the midst of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, members of the media try to explain why the media is failing us. This American presidential election has been a wild and depressing ride. Hopefully, a lot of beneficial change–media included–emerges out of the ashes.

Have a great week!

 

This Week in Upgrades: February 8

Good Monday to you! I hope you’re well. Here in Southern California we’re set to break record high temperatures. I wasn’t prepared for 90° weather and fire warnings in February. Are you having unseasonal weather? I don’t think this is the way things are supposed to be.

Did you watch the Super Bowl? What did you think about the game and the rest of the spectacle? Plenty to talk about: the Broncos’ incredible defenseblatant product plugging, and the implications of Beyonce’s performance.

I’d imagine many fans are already starting to think about the next NFL season. Here’s how we might be watching games in augmented reality in the future. Is that awesome or overwhelming?

The New Hampshire primary is tomorrow, and I’ll keep reminding everyone to vote until we all have. Things are just starting to get good.

Lots of interesting human things in the last week. Here are just some of them:

Do you use cologne, perfume, body spray, or other body products with a scent? Fragrance may be making us really sick.

Are paper books immortal? Amazon will open at least 300 actual bookstores.

Google is providing free gigabit Internet to public housing in Kansas City. Well done.

I love the National Parks, and I’m happy whenever others go. But nature is not for Yelp-ing.

I am not a wine person, but I admire people like Madeline Puckette who are de-snobbing the craft.

Your moment of heartfelt silliness: James Corden carpool karaoke with Chris Martin.

You’ve probably heard of circadian rhythm. But do you know how it works and how to find your daily flow?

Are you familiar with the genre “competence porn?” From The Martian to Sherlock Holmes, we love the power of rational problem-solving.

One of the more important aging discoveries ever.” Will we see therapies for people based on this research in the near future?

The sooner we can move beyond racial stereotypes and outright racism the better. Really like BuzzFeed‘s “I’m…, but I’m not…” videos. Recently, “I’m Native, but I’m not…” and “I’m Black, but I’m not…”

The trailer for Netflix’s Cooked, based on Michael Pollan’s book. Looking forward to watching this.

Have a great week!

This Week in Upgrades: December 5

RIP to the understatement. Welcome to death by Internet hyperbole.”

Amazon is serious about Prime Air.

What does loneliness do to our bodies?

The health benefits of running are not hard to achieve.

The stress of holidays with family is an expectations-versus-reality problem.

Are “ultra-safe” playgrounds stunting children’s growth?

Why are end-of-year lists so popular?

The United States has an unsustainable meat addiction.

The rise of self-driving cars will likely bring an end to car ownership. I’m OK with that.

MTV wants to call the generation after Millennials Founders. No pressure. (Also, does MTV still carry that kind of cultural weight?)

“The baby market is essentially a commodity market.” Having a baby makes you susceptible to a whole new consumerist trap.

This bandage will glow green if the wound is infected.

This Week in Upgrades: November 7

Young Girl with Tablet
KasparsGrinvalds/Bigstock.com

More and more parents are giving kids devices to keep them busy. “If children are sitting by themselves glued to digital candy, we simply don’t know what the consequences are for their early social development.”

And it’s not just the little ones. A new report says teens spend 9 hours in front of screens everyday. Whoa.

If you’re using Snapchat, have you actually read its new terms of service?

Old is new: Amazon now has at least one physical bookstore.

Bread used to be delicious and good for you. What happened?

Mark Bittman, genius food-writer, has left the New York Times to help people cook more plant-based meals at home.

It’s a bigger problem than most of us realize. How can we all stop wasting food?

Guys are being major creeps on Instagram. We’re better than that, gents.

Every generation is rebelling against the previous generation. Millennials got a raw deal.

This Week in Upgrades: October 31

PhotoMiner/Bigstock.com

Happy Halloween!

Great short video: What makes people happy? :

I personally wouldn’t be mad to see bills and coins disappear. Will Sweden be the first cashless country?

Amazon has already been working with the FAA to fly packages to your home, and now Wal-Mart wants in on drone delivery.

ICYMI: According to the World Health Organization, bacon and other cured meats can probably cause cancer. Let’s take a moment and consider this rationally.

Speaking of things that can be delicious but not great for your health: The changing landscape of fast food.

REI is closing all of its stores during Black Friday and encouraging people to get outside. Brilliant. Will other retailers start doing the same?

Ever put together IKEA furniture? How they design their iconic instruction manuals.

We keep learning more about what stress does to us. How it makes you sick.