The Death of American Equality

Obligatory Hibiki reference

I. I was recently chatting with a friend who lived for some time in Japan. I asked them what they liked best about her experience, and received a surprising answer–not the cartoons or the music, the fabulous city of Tokyo or the tasty food, neither the ancient culture nor the attractive people (though I am sure they appreciated all of these things)–but the equality.

In Japan, they said, there is much more of a sense of community harmony, of everyone being in the same boat. There is much less explicit class consciousness and people are more willing to help each other out. It’s not uncommon to see little old ladies out sweeping the street in front of their houses to keep their neighborhoods looking nice.

Remember when getting your daily nutritional needs met was considered a good thing?

II. In Where Have all the Fast-Food Playgrounds Gone, Lawrence writes:

On a Saturday afternoon at a McDonald’s in Brooklyn… The Playplace, during what should be prime Saturday afternoon birthday party hours, is empty and locked. … this McDonald’s looks like it stopped trying to attract kids in 1995. …

Today, these standard modular play structures — padded floors, platforms, polyurethane foam piping, a single plastic slide — are probably considered boring after age 9. At another McDonald’s, on Brooklyn’s Rockaway Beach, the indoor playground has been removed and replaced by more seating. At a Chuck E. Cheese’s near Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, a place where playgrounds are admittedly secondary to a casino of kids’ games, the usually standard play area is gone, too. …

According to Technomic, a food-service research and consulting firm, families with kids going to McDonald’s fell from 18.6 percent in 2011 to 14.6 percent in 2014.

Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, thinks that we’re unlikely to see fast-food restaurants focusing on playgrounds again anytime soon. “I’m not sure that they’re becoming a thing of the past, but we clearly don’t see growth in the opportunity for restaurants,” Tristano says. “Brands like Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s, who have indoor play places — we’re not necessarily seeing them expanding and, in some cases, when stores are being rebuilt, they’re no longer including these play places.”

There are multiple reasons for this shift, including people having fewer kids and more kids opting to play video games at home rather than head to the playground, but one of the biggest is classism.

Back when we were kids, McDonald’s was simply seen as a tasty, affordable restaurant that catered to families with small children. I’m almost certain I attended birthday parties there.

McDonald’s still offers birthday parties, but today the idea seems… declasse. Not that the kids wouldn’t enjoy it– kids today have about the same opinion of McDonald’s as I did–but their parents would disapprove. On parenting forums you often hear moms proudly proclaim that the dreaded “fast food” has never passed her offspring’s lips. Fast food is roundly excoriated as unhealthy crap, unsuitable for children–even though a Happy Meal is probably better for you than an organic, cruelty-free Whole Foods cupcake.

"I'd rather have humans do back-breaking labor in the tropical sun to grow, harvest, and refine sugar can than steal an egg from a chicken!"
Not actually a health food.

III. The folks over at Modern Mom.com have some recommendations for “Healthy Halloween Candy Alternatives,” like:

Snack bars – Some snack bars taste so good they can be confused for candy. KIND bars, made with all natural ingredients, are not only healthy but also available in indulgently delicious flavors like KIND Dark Chocolate Nuts & Sea Salt, Dark Chocolate Cinnamon Pecan and Healthy Grains Bars in flavors like Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate and Vanilla Blueberry (which are also gluten-free!).

Guess what. If it tastes like candy and is covered in chocolate, it’s candy.

Fruit covered in caramel/chocolate – Freeze bananas and drizzle with a tad of melted dark chocolate or cover apples in homemade, low-sugar caramel.

Again, chocolate is chocolate. It doesn’t stop being chocolate just because you throw a banana at it.

Natural fruit snacks/wraps – Trader Joe’s Organic Fruit Wraps are a perfect example of a flavorsome snack that is good for you and your kids. These wraps are 100% fruit and low in sugar.

Do you know what chemical makes fruit taste so good? Fructose. Fructose is sugar; (-ose is a suffix meaning “sugar.”) Your body metabolizes it into glucose just as easily as it metabolizes table sugar (sucrose) into glucose. These are not low in sugar; they are low in sucrose. You are not fooling your body with this verbal trickery.

Fresh fruit – Always the perfect, healthy treat to offer.

Oh, sure, because you want to be that parent. The one with the apples on Halloween. Why not hand out toothbrushes while you’re at it?

Pumpkin and yogurt parfait – Kids love parfaits, so simply layer fat-free vanilla yogurt with canned pumpkin mixed with pumpkin pie spice and a teaspoon of brown sugar. Top with a few chocolate chip morsels.

“Fat free” yogurt has as much sugar as ice cream, and this thing has a spoonful of added sugar. Guys, sugary yogurt topped with sugar doesn’t stop being sugary just because you mash in some pumpkin. (Even if you’re trying to avoid “fat” for some reason, most candy doesn’t have much fat in it.)

And don’t get me started on the notion that “kids love parfaits.” Maybe your kids love parfaits. Mine prefer foie gras topped with Cheerios.

I’m not saying you should feed your kids a bunch of candy. I’m saying don’t be classist about what is and isn’t healthy. It’s not healthy just because it comes from Whole Foods, and it isn’t unhealthy just because it comes from McDonald’s. (For goodness’s sakes, they serve salads.)

The folks who make their kids sugar-drenched organic parfaits in order to keep them away from the dreaded M&Ms in their Halloween bucket are the same folks who denigrate fast food.

This isn’t my picture and I don’t know where it came from, but wow that could totally be me and my friends.

IV. I have a certain fondness for old-fashioned playgrounds. Modern ones have their advantages (plastic slides won’t burn your legs,) but they feel incomplete without see-saws or merry-go-rounds. When it came to McDonald’s, I loved that guy with the giant hamburger head you could climb inside (mostly I tried to figure out ways to get through the bars and get on top of it.)

To tell the truth, I am not that fond of McDonald’s food–I mostly like them for their playground. In the midst of winter, I am thankful to have a warm, dry place where my kids can play and we can all get something to eat. We once celebrated and appreciated such places, just as we once celebrated the manufacturing jobs that once allowed Americans to enjoy the greatest economic boom the world has ever seen.

Today the middle class is shrinking and the working class is destined to be poor than its parents. Global poverty has plummeted, but American wealth inequality has been steadily increasing since the 70s. (Coincidentally, average wages have been stagnant ever since the beginning of mass, low-wage immigration from 3rd world countries.) And politics has become more divisive and dived as we’ve turned into a nation of snobs, turning up our noses at people once considered brothers.

V. The article on disappearing fast-food playgrounds speaks positively of efforts to pass playground-cleaning regulations:

Dr. Erin Carr-Jordan, a playground sanitation vigilante and, more formally, the founder of Kids Play Safe, a research organization “committed to protecting the health, safety and well-being of children,” was banned from eight Phoenix-area McDonald’s in 2011 presumably for swabbing play areas for germs. A cross-country journey during which she tested the playgrounds of six national chains in both high and low socioeconomic, rural, and urban areas turned into a crusade. …

Surprisingly, there are no state or federal regulations for playground cleanliness or maintenance, and they’re not regulated in many counties and cities. Carr-Jordan has been working to change that, successfully doing so in her home state of Arizona. Kids Play Safe recently partnered with Chuck E. Cheese’s to, according to a press release, “collaborate on common goals to provide a safe healthy play environment for kids.” Chuck E. Cheese’s is the first major brand to work with Kids Play Safe, which could be a small step forward to improving the reputation of restaurant playgrounds.

Just look at this family, all dressed up and having a fun time

I am extremely sympathetic to the desire for clean playgrounds. Nothing ruins a lovely afternoon like vomiting all evening. But legal regulations aren’t going to get you there. Faced with a choice between risking fines if their minimum wage barely-English-speaking employees incorrectly clean the playground or just not having a playground, restaurants will opt to go without.

I propose an alternative solution: return to the simpler playgrounds of my youth. Free-standing structures exposed to the wind, rain, and sun do not harbor germs in the same way as humid, enclosed tubes and pits. The older playgrounds were probably cheaper, as well, and had more personality.

Finally, I’d like to note that I am not really trying to shill for fast food, but examining a change in the way society approaches food marketed to middle and lower-class people.

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14 thoughts on “The Death of American Equality

  1. When I stopped at the McDonald’s in the Navajo area near Monument Valley, I was so grateful they had a playground. In general, McD’s are a lifesaver on long car trips, because they’re dependable (and have salads) and are clean. The toys were pretty great when my kids were younger, too.
    I think you’re right that it’s classism, but it’s connected to the average American kid being low-income, too- parenthood in general is becoming déclassé

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    • Parenthood is indeed declasse.
      We recently attended a kid’s birthday party at a local indoor fun-place, the sort where you have to pay an entry fee so it’s more expensive than McDonald’s, and even here I noticed that the parents were fairly low-class (and obviously the racial % has changed, too, in the past 60 years). I do not mean this as a slight against them, only an observation: parenting has become a low-class occupation.

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      • It’s funny, I had the identical thought under identical circumstances a few weeks ago- I drove into the outer decaying suburbs of our nearest decaying postindustrial city to go to a trampoline place inside a converted warehouse for a birthday party, and it just struck me how American parenting outside of Park Slope-style yuppie enclaves (and to a fair degree even there) is basically a proletarianizing experience.

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    • >parenthood in general is becoming déclassé

      It’s a more complicated (and interesting) than that, imho. (1) Parents want to raise their kids among neighbors who are similar to them, and as good as them or better wrt pro-social traits. (2) But American law has de facto made it illegal to exclude dissimilar/anti-social members from communities on any grounds other than price; & thus de facto bans lower-class communities. (3) Parents bid up rival goods (like real estate prices and college tuition) for their children, and the resulting price-spiral is sustainable because it creates the exclusionary barrier that the law forbids/taxes. (4) So being a parent (and especially a parent at a young age, or of many children…) and providing all the features of a “normal” lifestyle from two generations ago is quite expensive.

      The end result is that people who are eager to give their kids the lifestyle they had growing up, or better, need to wait forever until they can “afford to have kids”, while those who just have kids (and let the cards fall where they may) may need to abandon many of the markers of their social class.

      So while immigrants and welfare queens do have disproportionately many children, the phenomenon that families who are above-replacement fertility are “déclassées” may have a broader demographic base.

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  2. I found the japs to be much more friendly then stereotypes would have you believe but have seen that cleaning up in front of apartment complexs in a few places. A local jeweler is from… Bosnia? And he sweeps the sidewalk in front of his shop often. Intresting to watch him. Dressed extremely well, ever villagent about any sort of derbies in front of his shop, standing out front no matter how hot or cold, smiling ad chatting with those who walk by.

    Can’t recall seeing that within the usa in many a year before he moved in

    Also good call on the food/ classist thing

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  3. I have a slightly modified hypothesis for you to try on.

    The classism isn’t the reason people avoid McDonald’s. McDonald’s used to be of an acceptable class, as you mention.

    No, the reason people avoid McDonald’s is because low class (read: diverse, welfare, low impulse control, colorful) people started going to McDonald’s. Ol’ Mickey offering various healthy options has been a long, slow, rearguard action to claw out as much of the retreating middle-class income as possible in the meanwhile.

    The classism you so rightly point out in ‘health consciousness’ is instead an unconscious adaptive reflex that allows these people the discrimination that comes with class consciousness without risking the recrimination of racism, either from others or themselves.

    To test my theory, step foot in Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Tell me how many welfare recipients you see.

    Now try the same with Wal-Mart. Or any fast food restaurant.

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  4. This is related to my personal bête noire; the Eternal Homeless Person. There is no reason a healthy community shouldn’t have public places where its members can go and sit at tables or benches and read, or meet with friends, or whatever else; but when you refuse to punish/expel people with psychiatric disorders, or who otherwise fail to abide by community norms, they colonize any public space that would be desirable for such a purpose. (Exactly how bad the problem is differs from city to city, but anywhere where people will buy a drink they don’t want to sit at a table inside on a nice day is experiencing this problem.)

    The same logic extends to affordable/welcoming restaurants and cafes. If they will sell you something for practically nothing, or don’t mind if you come in without buying anything, they are going to attract vagrants and weirdos as well.

    Part of this is related to the dynamics of signaling. Nothing bad would happen to me if someone assumed I was poor – maybe it would be embarrassing, idk? I would probably feel virtuous and frugal. This is possible because I’m neither poor nor close to poor. So the only thing that irks me about eating at McDonalds with a bunch of poor people is how loud they are, the fights, etc. Hard to read!

    But if I were actually working-class there would be a serious risk people who barely know me would associate me with those loud, quarrelsome, EBT-wielding poor people. If that’s their situation, I can hardly begrudge them their chobani parfaits. In fact, I’m happy they feel they can signal their social class so efficiently!

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  5. So, I have no issues with fast food in general (and my big regret having young children with where we live is the lack of drive thru options, so, yeah, I fail at being a snob…) But McDonald’s specifically has the distinction of being the source of all but one or two of the food poisoning incidents in my life… (One of those two may, in fact, have been McDonald’s disguised by Disney marketing…) Then again, I’m inconsistent… I still prefer McDonald’s breakfast if I’m on the road, certainly if I don’t have time to sit down.

    Anyhow, the funny thing I’ve noticed around here (less expensive inner suburb a few towns over from crazy exclusive towns) is that the best way to connect with middle class parents is to go to the free activities that happen in the middle of the day. I think the signalling is that we might not have scrimped to buy a house in Weston, but we only need one income to live in this town… When I go to the indoor play space in a slightly more expensive area, the only awkward thing in the middle of the day is that I’m often the only adult who isn’t a nanny… Weekends are a different story.

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  6. Equality (at least of people identifying with one another) and, for that matter, socialism are only possible in ethnically and racially homogeneous societies. Even religious differences strain social cohesion. A multiethnic society must be unequal, and it can only be held together by brute force.

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  7. I really like the insightful view on McDonalds. I haven’t eaten in one in a decade? Not because I’m too good. They’re food sucks and there’s too many Dindus which I avoid like the plague. If it’s fresh they do have a tasty cheeseburger.

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