Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Screwed as workers, pampered as customers

December 13, 2016General

The piazza at Marzamemi, a fishing town in Sicily


A friend of mine is convinced that the entire world is built for the extreme rich. I would argue, instead, that they get an obscene share of the wealth, but that they don’t benefit from it as much as they’d like, or he believes.

The tech world has eliminated many of our jobs, but in doing so has provided aspects of luxury living for the vast rest of us. We can afford limos on demand, even if the chauffeurs can’t make a living wage. We can afford TVs the size of a wall with a thousand channels. It used to cost a lot of money to build up a huge music collection and wire a house with stereo. Now it takes just a few hundred dollars to hitch every room to a Sonos system. For a $10 monthly streaming subscription, we get all the music we could ever want.

Here, the rich people have a point to make. The quality of that streamed music, they might say, isn’t really that great. If you had a decent stereo, you’d practically hear the space between the bits.

True, but that makes my point. The person streaming the Four Tops on Spotify, as I am at this moment, thinks the quality is just fine. So the rich person, as if to justify his money, spends thousands of dollars for a top-end stereo. And yes, the quality is higher. But the difference is subtle. A ton of money for a small improvement. If you look at it that way, the rich are getting ripped off. 

I think about the 11-day trip my wife and I took to Italy in late October. We had what most people in my town would consider a fairly economical vacation, at least for our graying generation. It cost about $6,000 for the two of us, maybe a tad more. From a class perspective, we traveled mid-bourgeois. We paid an extra $100 each way for Economy Plus, rented the cheapest little car (and paid for insurance, which I don’t do in America). In Sicily, we stayed in hotels for less than $100 a night, and also spent less than $100 for the best dinners we could find, with wine.

Now what if we had loads of money and were willing to spend $50,000 for that week, would our experience have been superior? I’m trying to imagine. Maybe instead of hanging out on the Piazza in Siracusa, we’d have spent an afternoon on a yacht. Our hotel room would have been bigger, and with a view (we had only a skylight) and maybe we’d have champagne or prosecco on ice.

But at some point, we’d walk down to that Piazza, where the kids are playing football on the smooth stone, and the baroque Catholic cathedral sits like an intruder atop the sturdiest imaginable Greek temple to Diana. (It was built around 500 BC, and it looks to me as though those massive Ionic columns will still be standing for centuries after the church has crumbled.)

The money they spend is on the edge of the experience. Maybe they find better restaurants to eat at. (We didn't find the food as special as we'd expected.)  I’m sure they'd spend more on wine. But we had some very nice bottles for between $10 and $20 in restaurants. You could have convinced me that a couple of them were $100+.

My point isn’t that the middle class is winning in this economy. And the trends, from politics to automation, are not good for many of us who have to work for a living. But the same companies that are screwing us as workers are busy pampering us as customers.


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