The Ironic Ridiculousness Of Other People’s Peer Groups

Who else but their peers would serve as their peer group? This is true of the rich and poor alike, even though their peer groups are very different. But that’s what pushes people forward, to try harder, to do more. It’s not necessarily a good thing, and can easily spin out of control. But that’s as true for the street kid attracted by the gold fenders in some dealer’s mouth as the wealthy matron attracted by some diamond tiara on her opera pal’s carefully colored and coiffed hair.

When people from one peer group explain the absurdity of the things that matter to other peer groups, the characterizations turn goofy, and while occasionally amusing, usually insulting. It’s reminiscent in some way of Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual of the Nacirema,” but for the deliberate denigration of motives.

The idea of meritocracy has long been used by the rich for self-justification. Now it is becoming fuel for their self-pity.

Poor little rich folks. How dare the most privileged complain about their First World Problems.

This is not to say that successful people are immune to life’s difficulties and strains. But there is no moral equivalence between the stress of a senior executive staying up late to polish a presentation for a client and the stress of a retail worker unsure if she will get the shift she needs to make rent.

Is “moral equivalence” the test? Perhaps the senior executive spent decades getting to his lofty position? Perhaps the retail worker will get there one day too, but isn’t there yet? Perhaps the senior executive was once a retail worker who enjoyed the combination of good fortune and hard work that put him in his late night quandary, and perhaps the retail worker hopes to get that role in Aaron Sorkin’s next bastardization of literature and become a star, with all the riches that come with it.

That’s the problem with arguing over cartoon characters. They’re whatever you choose to make them, but they’re just cartoons, and any fool can ridicule his own cartoon character.

The problems of the affluent are not systemic. They are self-inflicted. Well-heeled Americans have persuaded themselves that the stakes are high in every race in life. Especially when it comes to their children, the good is never good enough. Their children must have the best: the best preschools, the best high schools and the best colleges.

Why aim at the children? It’s not as if there was just a scandal involving rich and famous parents gaming the system to get their kids into college or anything. But what parent does want the best for her child? Isn’t that the same rationale for parents risking lives to come to the United States from southern countries? No doubt these, too, aren’t “moral equivalences,” but that’s only because anyone who climbs atop Morality Mountain does so wrap themselves in righteousness at the expense of reason. The motives are to help their children. The details relate to their ability to do so and the expectations of their peer groups.

Affluent parents devote extraordinary resources — money, time, string-pulling, to getting their kids into College A, which is infinitesimally better on some measures than College B. The first 18 years in the lives of the children of these parents have become an expensive, extended college preparation course.

How ridiculous of affluent parents. But they’re nothing compared to slightly less affluent parents, who can’t buy a building so they urge their children to study hard, to go to school every single day, to do their homework, to behave well in class and respect education. These things don’t require money, and yet they aren’t necessarily virtues shared by all parents. Aren’t these the things any parent should do if they want their child to succeed, but can’t indulge in string-pulling like the affluent? Why not?

Having carefully built his strawman of the crazy rich Asian affluent, Brookings Institute deep thinker Richard Reeves offers the affluent, a group undefined by subject to fiscal drift throughout his op-ed, his unsolicited advice.

I have some better — and cheaper — ideas to improve the lives of the rich. If you are spending thousands of dollars and thousands of hours cultivating your children to get them into the most selective institutions: Just stop. Your kids will be just fine attending a good public university. And everyone’s life will be more relaxed in the meantime.

If you are a professional working yourself sick in order to make a big salary: Just stop. Nobody is forcing you to work such long hours. Maybe you will only be rich, as opposed to superrich. But you’ll be O.K.

If you are a homeowner with a huge mortgage that you took on in order to live in the very best neighborhood: Just stop. There is no law that says you have to live in the most expensive ZIP code you can afford.

His advice, despite being shallowly framed, isn’t necessarily wrong. Peer group competition can easily explode out of control, and things that seem outrageously important turn out, in retrospect, to be insignificant. Looking back, one may well wonder, “what was I thinking?”

Because, you see, nobody is making you do these stressful, expensive things. It is not a trap. It is a choice.

This is true but wrong. We can choose not to do the things that bring financial success, or help our children to succeed,or provide a house with far more space than any human being could possibly need or a car that drives five times faster than the speed limit. But somebody is making people do these things. Their peer group. They can, of course, walk away from their peers and instead use others as their measure of success and self-worth, or who wins the game of life, but that too isn’t real since one can’t win by joining a peer group down the ladder.

Then again, in the peer group of think tank folks, who fancy themselves scholars, writing books and getting op-eds that will change nothing and no one is their preferred means of prominence. Peer groups can be very goofy, but we all have them and they compel us to seek prominence in their own ways, even if they look ridiculous from the outside.

24 thoughts on “The Ironic Ridiculousness Of Other People’s Peer Groups

    1. Howl

      Oh no – the singularity! Was bound to happen sooner or later. Who knows what will happen next? Head for the shelters, everyone! Dave, did you ever think you and I would be responsible for The Apocalypse?

      1. Guitardave

        Well, at least I’m only half the blame…and thank god the Apocalypse cycle has been whittled down. It’s only a week of guilt and shame till the next one comes along. I think i recall some bonehead on YT singing about it…

        1. Howl

          Dave, once again, thanks for your music.
          What separates a bonehead from a prophet?
          Since we’re sharing the blame, I take some comfort that I’ll be in good company.

  1. JMK

    If you’re killing yourself inventing even more esoteric areas of sociology in the name of publish or perish, just stop. There’s no law that says you have to have tenure.

    Am I doing it right?

    1. SHG Post author

      His kid didn’t get into a decent pre-school and is now looking at community college. The shame must be overwhelming.

  2. Sacho

    Mr Reeves’s point falls flat once you consider that the “stress of a retail worker unsure if she will get the shift she needs to make rent” is also often “self-inflicted”, and the lives the poorest people in the US live are immensely lavish and rich compared to much of the rest of the world. Retail workers aren’t fighting disease and starvation to survive every day, but Mr Reeves has arbitrarily decided that somewhere between them and “senior executives”(as if you could compare human lives so linearly) is where the maxima of human happiness lies.

    We are social animals, and our goal has never been to simply survive until the next day. Our drive for betterment is what allows enough slack in society to have condescending pricks moralize from atop a pile of dung, instead of enduring the “stress of a retail worker”. You can tell rich people to relax and take it easy without being so misguidedly smug and self-righteous. Is it a pre-requisite to be extremely self-absorbed to be a NYT writer?

    1. SHG Post author

      As my grandfather told me, “rich or poor, it’s good to have money.” Having money means different things to different people, as it should.

      1. L. Phillips

        Or, in my line of work, “rich or poor, it is good to have someone expendable around to keep others from stealing your money” or your house, or your country.

          1. L. Phillips

            A little bit of projection there? I’m quite happy with my pensions. Besides, if the grandkids start going hungry you can sell the Healey. Some guy named Manos seems to like buying them.

            1. SHG Post author

              Could I have been more flagrant about it. Fucking right I’m jealous, and I’m being buried in the Healey, hater.

            2. L. Phillips

              Admiral, you made my whole morning. Off to build guns with a smile on my face and a song in my heart.

  3. SamS

    Perhaps I’m being naive or simplistic, but a lot of people are happy with their jobs, professions and lives. I think Mr. Reeves is telling us more about himself than about the human condition.

    1. SHG Post author

      Even if people are fairly miserable about their lives, I’m not sure too many would quit their job, give away their savings and possessions, and join the merry downtrodden.

  4. Rendall

    “Just stop. Nobody is forcing you to work such long hours.”

    As a naturally lazy, easily-distracted soul who nevertheless has some degree of ambition, I have learnt through hard-won experience to never, ever listen to this siren call.

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