How Lunch Meat Ruined America

David Brooks has caught no end of flak for what may be one of the most idiot paragraphs to ever appear in the New York Times*:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

So mindnumbingly bad was this paragraph that it immediately spawned ridicule. This was one of my personal favs:

I get Brooks’ point, as I’m sure you do too, even if he made it as poorly as possible. There is a world for the cognoscenti, comprised of names and foods, the knowledge of what fork to use for what course at a dinner party, that the riff-raff know nothing about. While Brooks’ presents this trope as if he actually hobnobs with people who only have a high school diploma, and that they’re all poor, dumb schmucks, because how could any anyone without a graduate degree be anything else, it’s an article of faith that the downtrodden are, well, downtrodden.

But the rest of Brooks’ column needs to be vetted as well. It’s not all about lunch meats or taking your BFF to Taco Bell, where the uneducated feel at home.

Brooks presents the case that the upper 20% of American wealth is engaged in a conspiracy to keep the bottom 80% down. Ah, privilege, unearned and unwarranted, seized at the expense of the deserving groundlings. He pretends not to blame the parents of privilege from using their privileged position to pass their privilege to their children. After all, what kind of parent doesn’t devote themselves to their progeny? But it’s how this is accomplished that Brooks claims is the culprit.

It’s when we turn to the next task — excluding other people’s children from the same opportunities — that things become morally dicey. Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution recently published a book called “Dream Hoarders” detailing some of the structural ways the well educated rig the system.

The most important is residential zoning restrictions. Well-educated people tend to live in places like Portland, New York and San Francisco that have housing and construction rules that keep the poor and less educated away from places with good schools and good job opportunities.

So nice homes in good neighborhoods should have projects between their manicured lawns? Why won’t some magical person build low-income housing on Sutton Place? Why should people, just because they’ve accumulated wealth, be able to enjoy the benefits of their wealth? This is where privilege kicks in again, as the wealthy don’t deserve their wealth, but were just lucky and privileged.

That may well be true, so some greater or lesser extent, that the wealthy are lucky. It may also be true that they worked harder than others. It is almost invariably true that they did both. But so what?

Reeves’s second structural barrier is the college admissions game. Educated parents live in neighborhoods with the best teachers, they top off their local public school budgets and they benefit from legacy admissions rules, from admissions criteria that reward kids who grow up with lots of enriching travel and from unpaid internships that lead to jobs.

It’s no wonder that 70 percent of the students in the nation’s 200 most competitive schools come from the top quarter of the income distribution. With their admissions criteria, America’s elite colleges sit atop gigantic mountains of privilege, and then with their scholarship policies they salve their consciences by offering teeny step ladders for everybody else.

It’s as if the invisible hand plopped good teachers in good neighborhoods just to screw with the poor people. Except it was no invisible hand. People who valued education chose to spend their money on education. They imparted to their offspring the value of education. Their kids went to school, behave well, learned, and succeeded. How horrifying! How unfair!

Brooks pulls the old correlation proves causation trick by his 70% stat. America’s elite colleges desperately seek the minority, the poor, the disadvantaged, because they, like Brooks, believe that unicorns can prance on rainbows and Utopia is just one need-based scholarship away. But they can’t find these kids. Did Harvard force students in a lousy inner city school to do lousy? Did Yale force parents to impart no love of education? Would these students be just like the wealthy if they lived in a one-bedroom with six kids on the Upper West side instead of Fort Washington?

But even worse than these mystical structural barriers are the social barriers that keep the poor in their place.

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

The American dream had once been work hard, study hard, make something of yourself so you could aspire to join the upper crust. Someone who wanted to climb the social ladder didn’t obsess about “humiliation and exclusion” blame the cruel world for not winning the lottery. You did something about it. There was no guarantee that everyone would accomplish their goal to achieve success, but whining about the unfairness of it all was surely not going to get you wherever you wanted to be.

By definition, everyone can’t be in the top 20%. Similarly, everyone can’t go to Harvard or Yale, although the ability to whine and claim intersectionality is likely to aid your application. And in America, people who possess wealth are allowed to spend their money on the things that matter to them: education, nice homes, their children. It’s not fair? They don’t deserve what they have any more than you do? Then do something useful to change it. Ridiculing obscure fancy lunch meat isn’t going to make anyone’s future brighter.

*This, of course, is an impossible metric, there being far too many choices to seriously proclaim a winner.

49 comments on “How Lunch Meat Ruined America

  1. Brian Cowles

    The next paragraph after the idiot paragraph (the last one cited here) is nearly as bad as the idiot paragraph. One could replace “American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are)” with just about anything else, such as “Trekkie culture”, or “academic culture”, or “prison culture”. In-groups have their own traditions? My God, who would have known?

    Anyone who is serious about joining an in-group – any in-group – is going to put in the time and effort needed to learn the cultural signifiers for that in-group. Only an idiot or someone completely unconcerned with entering the in-group could consider this to be any sort of insurmountable barrier to entry.

    1. SHG Post author

      Your rational understanding of the problem stands in direct conflict with the social justice version of acceptance. The in-group to which you aspire is the problem because it’s the in-group, which by definition excludes the out-group. Inclusiveness is the inherent virtue; exclusiveness the inherent evil.

      The problem, of course, is that by homogenizing the in-group with the out-group, there is no longer any in-group to which you aspire to join. Equality lifts some, reduces others and leaves us all with nothing to aspire to.

  2. Billy Bob

    You can visit Harvard and Yale, but you cannot go there,… unless you’re in the top 20%, or the bottom 20%.
    No room for the middle 60%, the backbone of the nation, the once and famous “middle class”–now vanishing at warp speed. Pretty soon, the upper 50% will own all the real estate, stocks and bonds. The bottom half will own nothing,,,, the downtrodden, the great unwashed, those trapped in the proverbial neverending cycle of poverty.

    At that point, the next “revolution” begins. What about nice cars, boats, airplanes and ski vacations to Lake Tahoe? You forgot to mention those perks of privilege. Yea, it’s a great country. You too can become a millionaire,… if you hit the lottery?!? A very expensive dream and a bad habit for the downtrodden. Those students “granted admission” to the most elite schools should hand over their seats to those prospective applicants who can truly benefit from those elitist educational opportunities. That brilliant idea was first flown by a Princeton U. sociology prawf exactly fifty years ago.

    1. B. McLeod

      I never tried to visit Yale. I visited Harvard once, and found that their main library was open to the public, and had very fine brass and marble bathrooms, nicer than most people’s homes. The library used by their law students was not open to the public, so I did not see what it was like inside, but I have always imagined that the bathrooms there must have been even more elegant. As you mention, it was not very affordable. Harvard had a notion (expressed in some correspondence they sent) as to how many mortgages my parents should be able to place on the family home in order to send me to Harvard. My parents, however, did not share that notion, and were rather planning on me taking care of college on my own. Due to the inadequacy of my piggy bank and my meager savings from jobs in restaurants and metal shops, I ended up attending a reasonably good state-supported school (which we had in those days) followed by a state-supported law school (which things also still existed at the time). Both had only very ordinary toilet facilities with tile floors and painted metal stalls, but I somehow managed to make it work. Nobody has even asked to see either of my degrees in decades, and few of my colleagues are aware of the limited circumstances of my years in school, or the ordinary bathrooms I was then forced to use. Of course, bathrooms were also far less political in those days, and it would not have occurred to me to demand subsidized entry to Harvard in order to not be traumatized by having to use bathrooms that branded me as a student of lower socioeconomic status. We did not understand micro-aggressions and triggers in those days, and I don’t think I even realized how unfairly put upon I truly was at that time.

      1. Billy Bob

        We were rejected by Yale, same class as Mr. Sen. Amba$$ador John Kerry. And we told him so to his face when meeting him in person! He laughed; honestly, he did. Kerry is much better in person than on camera for some strange reason, honestly! We like him even if we don’t care for his “politics”. If it wasn’t for Teresa, he would be a v. sick puppy, lost in a Lost World. (If Bill Clinton did not have Shillary, he would have been down for the count as well, trust it. A terrible misogynist and a chronic liar, yes he is.) Oh hi, Chris Christy, fat boy from the great State of Nu Joysey.

        Fast Forward: Comes the time when we take a left turn in the road and wind up living and doing busyness in the City of New Haven. You know what’s coming next: The university is an idyllic “island of serenity” surrounded by a city which is a virtual ghetto, and a cesspool of corruption and municipal incompetence. How can this be? Same thing in Cambridge, although we did not stick around that godawful place for more than one year. Enough is enough!

        Finally, Yale has terrific students from all over the country and the world. The faculty is mostly exceptional. The administration sucks big time; you herd it hear first. Not too much luv lost between me and Yale. They can kiss my a$$ in Macy’s window.
        P.S., One of my best friends went from Yale to Jail. Yes, it happens, but that is a topic for another day. Also, Morningside Heights was no great neighborhood in my day, and U. of PA in Philly is also surrounded by the biggest ghetto this side of Chicago. Yea, we know U. of Chicago too, a great midwestern university on the par of any Ivy League school. Northwestern, anyone? Oh hi, Stanford out there on the Left Coast! You too, Berkeley?

  3. Mike G.

    As you alluded to in your essay, some of the so called barriers are self inflicted because people are scared to try new things or maybe they are like me and think that a lot of it is just pretentious bullshit.

    I think the upper crust have a thing for status symbols that show everyone around them, hey look at me; I can afford to throw money around on frivolous crap.

    1. DaveL

      What, you mean you don’t yearn to pay three times as much for a sandwich called “Tomato” because it’s written in Italian?

    2. SHG Post author

      Scared is one reason. Other people have other reasons, including they just don’t care. One person’s critically important status symbol is another’s pretentious bullshit, and that happens for the rich and poor alike. The rich can afford every type of Air Jordans Nike can make, but that’s not going to impress the nice folks at the club.

  4. Richard Kopf

    SHG,

    Of all the columnists for the Times, Brooks is the best writer and best thinker. I even enjoyed the piece about which you write. You are correct to say, however, that even excellent writers like brother Brooks need mean-ass editors.

    When I read the “lunch” discussion yesterday it struck a dissonant chord with me as it evidently did with you and others. I am not sure why because I understood where he was going. But it was awkward.

    By the way, I am sure you remember using the word “awkward” when describing another writer, much less talented than Brooks. Since then that writer has learned a lot about writing from you.

    If the Times won’t give you a column, perhaps the paper should hire you to edit the columnists. I would pay money to be a mouse in the corner in order to observe the editorial give and take between you and Krugman or Greenhouse or Blow, etc. Making writers sad (or enraged) sometimes make them better.

    All the best.

    RGK

    1. SHG Post author

      There aren’t enough tissues in the world for the New York Times to allow someone to make their top properties cry. Had this merely been an “awkward” paragraph by brother Brooks, we could all have our fun ridiculing it and move on. But this goes to a shockingly different perspective, whether socialist or social justice, that will taint my reading of his column in the future. No matter what he writes, I now know that lurking below the surface is the heart of a SJW.

      1. Richard Kopf

        SHG,

        One doesn’t have to be a Bernie or an SJW to be concerned with the widening divide between the haves and have-nots. Incidentally, I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence, although oddly I believe it. Probably senility.

        All the best.

        RGK

        1. SHG Post author

          At the risk of going a bit orthogonal, there’s no doubt that the divide is a serious problem and one likely to grow significantly worse in the next decade, as robots and AI eliminate entire categories of what used to be basic middle-class occupations. The question remains whether the resolution of the divide will be found in serious and sober thought that faces hard and politically incorrect reality, or a belief system based on facile delusion.

          Anyone who seriously hopes to fix the divide should reject any belief system that takes hard questions off the table because they are politically unpalatable.

        2. Brian Cowles

          Judge,

          No, that’s just maturity. Remembering that people you disagree with can make good points is a good thing. This country needs more of it from those with power.

          1. Richard Kopf

            Brian,

            Thanks, but it is the “remembering” part that I have trouble apparently because recent memory is the first to go. All the best.

            Rich Kopf

  5. Noxx

    “American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class”

    “Now”?

    Did Brooks just stumble upon the concept of economic caste systems? Where is this fantasy world that existed before “now”, in which in which the kids playing stoopball on the block felt right at home mixing into a private school dinner?

    Idiocy.

    1. SHG Post author

      I remember well my first invitation to a formal dinner party. What to do with all the forks, knives and spoons? Which bread plate was mine? Which wine glass? I grew up eating Swanson TV dinners. So I learned, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have fond memories of turkey with that cobbler.

      null

      1. Mike G.

        Damn, that looks good.

        I always tell someone who complains about another having more: don’t begrudge someone their success, emulate it. Try harder. The only one holding you back is yourself.

        1. SHG Post author

          I loved tuna casserole. It was the best thing my mother made, with Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup and Durkee fried onion rings on top for crunch. Delicious!

          1. REvers

            Being made to eat tuna casserole is why I don’t like tuna to this day. Erf. It’s probably why I don’t like cream of ‘shroom soup, too.

            My cat likes tuna, though, but not as much as she likes trout.

        2. JAV

          Coastal elites and your French-sounding “casseroles”. In fly-over country, we’re happy to call it hotdish. A good humble American name.

      2. Jim Tyre

        OMG, SHG, so friggin’ racist. Proudly, that Swanson’s dinner declares that it’s mostly WHITE meat.

        SMH.

      3. wilbur

        Even though my mother did a creditable job cooking, it was still a treat to tie into a Swanson’s (or Banquet if the funds were scarce) Fried Chicken Dinner.

        I hold with James Brown: Uhhh!

  6. kushiro

    I know this is not the point, but I hope Mr Brooks never watches the Sopranos. Imagine his reaction if he saw Tony Soprano go to the fridge, unwrap some paper, and shove a bunch of culturally elitist gourmet cold meat into his mouth.

  7. David Meyer-Lindenberg

    I read the column, too, and I found the sandwich graf unobjectionable – at least compared to the way Brooks treats zoning, a government check on economic mobility, and people investing their own wealth in their own children as if these were the same sort of problem. He may have faithfully summarized Reeves’ book. He may not have. Don’t care to say, not having read it.

    Personally, I’m with Brooks’ friend. I didn’t recognize any of those fancy food-words either, except for “Pomodoro.” This happens all the time when I participate in that “enriching travel” Brooks deplores, and my MO has always been to just ask. Because why wouldn’t you ask?

    I suppose it’s possible Brooks is just projecting his own insecurities here, or that he straightforwardly thinks little of non-college-educated people. But if he’s right about how fancy lunch-meat names make people with high-school degrees feel, then as you say, The Paragraph is far from the most concerning part of the op-ed.

  8. JAV

    With SHG’s permission, I would suggest Chris Arnade’s Twitter feed for a clear, and generally complementary take on Brooks’ article.

  9. Clay S Conrad

    Almost all private East Coast colleges cost the same. Between tuition, room and board, they all range from a low of just under 60K, to a high of just over 70K. Add in books, transportation, and other expenses and that’s the price, whether you’re looking at the highly ranked or the relatively mediocre. In fact, some of the Ivy League schools are cheaper than the less coveted.

    My daughter is starting at NYU in the fall, but only thanks to the fact that we’ve contributed generously to a college fund for her since before she was in elementary school. It’s a little higher than average, because of its location – should be in the mid seventies with expenses per year. We’re researched a ton of schools in that part of the country – and the prices all fall within a relatively narrow band.

    My wife and I are both professionals, but without the college fund, there is no way we’d be able to commit $300K + for her to get a four year degree. Nor would most of my peers so far as I am aware.

    1. SHG Post author

      I trust you feel better getting this out. I’m here for you, bro, though my youngest graduated a year ago, but I have no clue what this has to do with the post or why most people here aren’t aware of what college costs.

      1. Clay S Conrad

        The dollar amounts involved put the rest of the discussion into context.

        Moreover, the fact that the elite schools sometimes cost less than the mediocre private schools shows that it is not just “elite” schools that are out of the league of the average American.

  10. Frank Miceli

    Not having read Brooks’ column I don’t know if turns on the thesis that the upper 20% in income manages to keep the bottom 80% continually down, but if so then he hasn’t factored in income mobility.

    There is abundant evidence that people move up and down among the income quintiles with some regularity,

    Professor Mark Rank of Washington University highlights a number of studies finding a significant amount of income mobility in the US. The empirical evidence showing that Americans move up and down the income distribution during their lifetimes “casts serious doubt on the notion of a rigid class structure in the United States based upon income.”

    For example, Rank and his co-author Thomas Hirschl of Cornell followed a cohort of American adults ages 25 to 60 over a 44-year period to see what percentage of them reached various levels of the income distribution during their working lives.

    It turns out that 12% of the population will find themselves in the top 1% of the income distribution for at least one year. What’s more, 39% of Americans will spend at least a year in the top 5% of the income distribution, 56% will find themselves in the top 10%, and a whopping 73% will spend at least a year in the top 20% of the income distribution.

    Much more comprehensive analysis is readily available, including caveats, but income mobility is a fact that must not be ignored.

    1. SHG Post author

      If you can’t be bothered to read so you have a clue what the post is about, don’t bother to comment, Frank. From now on, your off-topic comments will be trashed.

      1. Billy Bob

        Go easy on Frank. BB submits off-topic comments all the time, and you post them without a hello or a goodbye. Ha. In fact, there are a couple of rambling ones above by me.
        And what about Barleycorn? He wins the prize for rambling, off-topic comments. For how many years now? We’re warming up to Frank, after a rocky start. He does due diligence research, with stats and numbers. That’s what we like about Frank.

        1. SHG Post author

          And in your own peculiar way, you expose the difference between you, JB and Frank. His stats will suck in the intellectually challenged who lack the capacity to appreciate what’s irrelevant and misleading. It’s the appearance of diligence without the substance. That’s what makes people stupider. Not you, Bill, but other people.

  11. JohnFornaro

    This is a good article. There are some aspects of the author’s thinking that could be improved.

    Greenfield: “Why should people, just because they’ve accumulated wealth, be able to enjoy the benefits of their wealth?”

    Wrong question.

    Why do the wealthy insist on tax breaks for them but not for the poor?

    Greenfield: “It’s as if the invisible hand plopped good teachers in good neighborhoods just to screw with the poor people.”

    It’s as if the invisible post modernist hand destroyed the poor family structures with womb based entitlements causing the good teachers to avoid the inevitable disruptive classroom behavior.

    We cannot fix our education system without addressing the multi-generational aspects of its functional disruption. Jefferson thought that government should educate the people and then the people would be enabled to create good government.

    The GOP absconds this role, and the other side has taken education to be molded into its paradigm.

    Greenfield: “Would these students be just like the wealthy if they lived in a one-bedroom with six kids on the Upper West side instead of Fort Washington?”

    Maybe the question should ask why a woman has two teats and a sow has twelve? Or how male cat’s mating behavior is commesurate with its cognitive intelligence and singleminded focus on reproduction?

    Humans have a learned ability to control their animal urges.

    Greenfield: “Ridiculing obscure fancy lunch meat isn’t going to make anyone’s future brighter.”

    True.

    If ya wanna be like me, grow up on wonder bread and baloney. Worse things have happened.

    We aren’t really what we eat. We’re what we learn.

  12. Ray Lee

    At the considerable risk of being perceived as veering off topic (yet again), as well as admittedly too long, one theme I see as running through the Brooks’ column, the post and the comments (not exclusively the thread of Judge Kopf’s first comment but primarily), is concern for social mobility – including the growth of economic disparity, its effects and what (if anything) to do about it.

    While Brooks presents a more moderate version of Reeves and Reeves a more moderate version of SJWs more broadly, they still focus on concerned people using the power of government to impose an external solution for individuals in order to address problems perceived as systematic as opposed to individualistic. This (at least arguably notwithstanding my personal skepticism) involves potential pluses but unarguably also involves potential negatives, especially when everyone must abide by what some (i.e., the majority) think (or feel) to be good solutions even when other individuals think it harmful. Better that the individual (and families) and voluntary groupings (extended families, neighborhoods, churches, boys/girls clubs, scouts, little league, PALs, etc., so long as voluntary) are free to pursue the Great American Dream as they see fit.

    I’ve long thought the best post on this site involved a father buying a suit for his son. Obviously not because of the suit itself but because it illustrated the concept of a parents love and responsibility being fulfilled and life lessons being taught. The son goes on in life and is responsible for his own successes and failures but does so armed with the many life lessons (the purchase of the suit being merely illustrative) that will make success easier and more likely. Government imposed solutions will never replace or replicate that familial influence and its efforts to take over that responsibility undermines the likelihood of individuals taking it on.

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