Monday, February 5, 2007

The Equality Issue

i don’t particularly care about fashion. i like nice clothes and i keep current trends and styles in my peripheral vision, but the fashion world itself interests me very little. actually, that’s not entirely true. i do find it fascinating how a relatively small group of people manage to set styles and then change them, which results in other people suddenly deciding that perfectly good articles of clothing are no longer wearable. this phenomenon is especially interesting since these new styles often seem to be terribly unflattering on the majority of people who wear them. the fashion industry as a self-sustaining entity is very interesting.

what i don’t care about are models. it’s a fairly silly idea that high-fashion models represent the ultimate form of female beauty. it is especially silly when you realize that fashion is dominated by women and gay men. if you were to ask the average straight man to describe their ideal female body, you would probably get something closer to a playboy centerfold than a runway model. i once read an article in some fashion magazine about how the ideal body type for models continues to change and evolve. the accompanying pictures showed how at one point models where tall, skinny and had large breasts. a few years later they were tall, incredibly skinny and had no breasts. lo and behold, several years after that they were tall, incredibly skinny and had breasts again. there is a reason that the fashion industry makes for such fertile ground for satire.

all that being said, why am i so interested by all this talk of banning super-skinny models from runways and fashion magazines?

the short answer is easy. i don’t like the idea of government stepping in and telling us how to live our lives. the more paternalistic government and society become, the more like children we will become. behavior has consequences, and when you prohibit people from a certain behavior you also shield them from the consequences. since consequences, and not only laws, play a large role in shaping social behavior, paternalism may very well have ruinous effects in the long run.

that’s the short answer, but there is something else that has been bothering me about the skinny model issue. there is a certain logical inconsistency. i don’t know how many people suffer from eating disorders or how many people die from being too skinny each year, but i am willing to bet that it’s not more than the number of people who suffer from obesity and who die from being too heavy. yet, what would happen if any government or fashion industry organization decided on an outright ban of models who exceeded a certain weight? there would be cries of “bloody murder!”

why is it ok to pick on the super-skinny, but not the obese?

there’s more than one answer to that question, and i don’t want to go into all of them. this post isn’t about that. this post is about the fact that super skinny supermodels have the ability to remind us all of our own weight problems. seeing someone who is really skinny causes a certain type of anxiety that seeing an overweight person doesn’t. as the saying goes: you can never be too skinny or too rich. super skinny models remind us of this, and so do the super rich.

with the rise of populist ideas, there has been a lot of talk about equality. in fact, it seems the richer and more advanced we get, the more the claims of inequality seem to multiply. i’ve been to a few places in the world where people cannot imagine the level of material prosperity that even the poorest americans enjoy– excluding perhaps the homeless. yet, far from being thankful, there is strong notion among some that the american economy, and the free market economy in general, is fundamentally exploitive.

i offer a more personal example of this phenomenon. i live in new york, where the supposed housing slump seems to have skipped us. for the last ten years the price of a one bedroom apartment seems to have been hovering just outside of my grasp. as a result, whenever i see a new condo building going up, a certain feeling of angst begins to take hold of me. on an unconscious level – ok, sometimes it’s not so unconscious- i resent the fact that some other guy is going to buy an apartment in this building and be living the life that i covet. i can see him standing by the window and enjoying the view. i imagine him entertaining friends with a meal cooked in his kitchen full of shiny new restaurant quality appliances. damnit, that’s my kitchen and those are my views! i realize these are ridiculous feelings, but they are there nonetheless.

as someone who one day wants to buy a condo in new york, i ought to be wishing that a new development pops up on every corner and empty lot in the city. it’s basic economic sense: the more units at any given level of demand, the lower the price will tend to be. unfortunately, in a world of unlimited wants and limited resources, basic economic sense often takes a back seat to psychological defense mechanisms. so, instead of focusing on the future opportunities that a new building represents, part of me can’t help but dwell on my present inability to afford one of the apartments.

somewhere in the tenets of economic populism there is a faulty argument that says if you take money from the rich, either through increased taxation or lowered compensation, you are giving money to everyone else. the problem with this argument is that it gives the false impression of the modern free-market system as a zero-sum game where wealth is only transferred and never created. we all know this is false. if the transfer of money was a one-sided deal, then we would hardly ever spend money at all. every time you go to the supermarket you prove the nature of the free-market economy. when you spend four dollars for a gallon of milk you are simultaneously creating wealth for yourself in the form of time, money and effort not spent on buying and maintaining a dairy cow.

so, why does economic populism still carry such amazing sway? i propose that
the answer lies in the afore-mentioned psychological defense mechanisms and in the nature of human evolution. we evolved at a time before the market economy and before the idea of creating wealth. our prehistoric ancestors really did live in a zero-sum world. before we learned agriculture or animal husbandry, we survived on fixed resources. so, one person’s feast indeed came at the price of another’s famine. as a result, we still tend to judge ourselves not by a fixed assessment of what our own needs and wants are, but rather by comparison to what everybody else has.

it makes perfect sense by evolutionary standards. we may well be living at a much higher material standard than people in previous generations or in other countries, but we’re not competing against them. we’re competing against our neighbors. an entire neighborhood can have very nice houses, but only one guy can have the nicest house on the block. we tend to see the success of others as a threat to our own status. it’s caveman thinking and if we start making policy according to those standards the results will be ruinous.

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