March 29, 2013 :: Late last week, I was driving my daughter to her play-based, shoe-optional, sugar-free preschool — a magical Arcadia where an actual chicken is free to roam and grow fat off Pirate’s Booty, and where the major areas of academic focus revolve around turn-taking, problem-solving and the life story of Rosa Parks — when I experienced a moment of self-doubt so paralyzing I almost had to pull over. The radio in my car was tuned to an NPR show, on which callers were debating the decision by the C.E.O. of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, to ban employees from working from home. I’d been thinking about Mayer since early that morning, having fallen down an Internet rabbit hole that plunged me deep into her art collection, her exclusive wardrobe and her estimated $300 million net worth. Specifically, I was thinking about the rather highhanded, Marie Antoinette-ish way in which she dismissed the need for extended maternity leave, as if it hadn’t occurred to her that building an en suite nursery for her newborn next to her office basically elided the need for it, since the baby could remain within a few feet of her all day long.
En route to the preschool, I was suddenly visited by an apocalyptic vision of the future: I saw my daughter as a frustrated former liberal-arts major stuck in a midlevel job at a company where, despite the easy availability of 3-D holographic telepresence software allowing people all over the globe to interface with one another from the comfort of their own brain implants, employees were now required to “live from work” and occasionally beam themselves home for some cursory family face time. Moreover, I saw that I alone was to blame for this dismal state of affairs, because I am a deluded throwback to carefree days, and in my attempt to raise a conscious, creative and socially and environmentally responsible child while lacking the means to also finance her conscious, creative and environmentally and socially responsible lifestyle forever, I’d accidentally gone and raised a hothouse serf. Oops.
As Facebook’s C.O.O., Sheryl Sandberg, writes in her new book, “Lean In,” a guide for helping women claw their way to the top of the corporate heap, “the media will report endlessly about women attacking other women, which distracts from the real issues.” And it’s true; there’s something about the is-she-or-isn’t-she-a-feminist way the Mayer debate has been framed (and even about the way Mayer herself has participated in it) that feels almost deliberately obtuse. Not that it’s surprising — pretty much every issue that concerns a woman is framed as a woman’s issue. But while Mayer is, in fact, a woman, her circumstances are so rarefied that she might as well be a unicorn. So it’s interesting that the discussions about whether she is a feminist, or whether she displays sufficient empathy for her fellow working mothers, persist even after she has made it amply clear that she never intended to become a standard-bearer for the plight of working women. Furthermore, as she told PBS, she does not consider herself a feminist because she lacks “the militant drive” and “the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that.” (Take that, ladies!)
As Lisa Miller wrote in her 2012 New York magazine profile of Mayer: “Since her earliest days at Google, and despite a canny performance of her own ‘girliness,’ Mayer has refused to make the Woman Question part of her public persona. She doesn’t want to talk at all about how being a woman — in tech, or at Google, or in upper management — makes her different from the guys in the room or deserving of any kind of special consideration. ‘I’m a geek,’ is what she always says.”
Which pretty much sums it up. Mayer doesn’t identify with working mothers or feminists not because she identifies with another sex or a different ideology, but because she puts herself in a different column altogether — and I don’t mean the geek column. As Miller puts it: “While American women may wish to see themselves, their maternal joys and their workplace dilemmas reflected in Mayer, it is not a sensible comparison for most. Mayer is a superstar.”
This seems to closer to the real issue, which is not feminism, or working mothers, or even Mayer or Yahoo in particular, but privilege and the choices it confers.
The United States is now among the most unequal countries in the world in terms of wealth distribution. In 2007, the concentration of wealth at the top reached levels not seen since 1928, and much of this is a result of C.E.O. compensation. Businessweek reported that the average C.E.O. made 42 times that of the average worker’s pay in 1980. According to an A.F.L.-C.I.O. study, a C.E.O. now makes a surreal 380 times more than the average worker. In the last 35 years, income for all but the highest earners has flattened as the costs of education and health care have soared. Paradoxically, according to some measures, Britain offers more opportunity for upward mobility than does the United States.
I encountered much of this information in a documentary called “Inequality for All,” which had its premiere earlier this year at Sundance and is being billed as “An Inconvenient Truth” for income inequality. (Full disclosure: The film, which will be released in September, was directed by my old friend Jacob Kornbluth and edited by my new friend and fellow preschool mom Kim Roberts.) The film stars Robert Reich, secretary of labor under Bill Clinton and now a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. It’s based on a class he teaches called Wealth and Poverty, which sets out to answer three questions: What is happening in terms of the distribution of wealth in this country? Why is it happening? And is it a problem?
Reich’s thesis is that some inequality is inevitable, even necessary, in a free-market system. But what makes an economy stable and prosperous is a strong, vibrant, growing middle class. In the three decades after World War II, a period that Reich calls “the great prosperity,” the G.I. Bill, the expansion of public universities and the rise of labor unions helped create the biggest, best-educated middle class in the world. Reich describes this as an example of a “virtuous circle” in which productivity grows, wages increase, workers buy more, companies hire more, tax revenues increase, government invests more, workers are better educated. On the flip side, when the middle class doesn’t share in the economic gains, it results over time in a downward vicious cycle: Wages stagnate, workers buy less, companies downsize, tax revenues decrease, government cuts programs, workers are less educated, unemployment rises, deficits grow. Since the crash that followed the deregulation of the financial markets, we have struggled to emerge from such a cycle.
At one point in the film, Reich points to a chart showing the stratospheric rise of the Dow at the beginning of the ’90s. “One of the big reasons that corporations were showing higher profits is that they were keeping pay down,” he says. “At the same time, corporate C.E.O.’s were starting to pay themselves large multiples of what the average worker was earning.” The film then cuts to a clip of Viacom’s C.E.O., Philippe Dauman, discussing a period of layoffs: “It was a difficult time, you knew that you were impacting people who would have a difficult time, many of them, in finding new jobs, but you had to do it for the organization to, in that day, look to survive.” In a corner of the screen, Dauman’s total compensation for 2010 fades in: $84.5 million.
It’s hard to find your bearings in the middle of a cataclysm. Do you fight or surrender? Beat ’em or join ’em? Is joining them even possible? If not for me, at least for my kids?
This is my daughter’s last year at her beloved free-to-be-you-and-me preschool, and for the past six months or so, I was consumed by the question of where she would go next. I went deep, touring schools of every possible description (public, private, progressive, academic, bilingual, charter and magnet) and swinging wildly from one type of school to another. (My husband, pragmatically, let himself be guided by the quality of the complimentary baked goods, if any, on offer.)
As diverse as these schools were, the one thing they had in common was that the values they espoused, while admirably democratic and humanistic, didn’t seem to me to jibe with the realities of late capitalism. And so I began to wonder: Are we feeding our children a bunch of dangerous illusions about fairness and hard work and level playing fields? Are ideals a luxury only the rich can afford? (Tuition certainly is.) As seduced as I was by the good intentions on display, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something not quite fair about all this — not fair to my daughter, I mean. What if the kid got it in her head that it was a good idea to go into public service, the helping professions, craftsmanship, scholarship or — God help her — the arts? Wouldn’t a greedier, more back-stabby style of early education be more valuable to the children of the shrinking middle class — one suited to the world they are actually living in? Because every time my daughter says, “I want to be a writer like Mommy,” I have to resist the urge to wash her mouth out with soap.
I’m reminded of the quote by John Adams: “I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history [and] naval architecture . . . in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry and porcelain.” For all intents and purposes, I guess I studied porcelain. The funny thing is that my parents came from a country (Peru) with a middle class so small that parents had to study business so that their children could study business. If I didn’t follow suit, it’s at least in part because I spent my childhood in the 1970s absorbing the nurturing message of a progressive pop culture that told me I could be anything I wanted, because this is America.
Looking back at the schools I toured for my daughter, which ranged from the luxuriously utopian to the grimly pragmatic, I find myself thinking about something Reich said in the movie. “When we see the contrast between the values we share and the realities we live in, that is the fundamental foundation for social change.”
It’s nice to think so. Until that happens, though, what should we tell kids? How should we raise them? I’m not sure, but in the meantime I’m open to ideas. Wilderness survival camp? Gladiator school? Krav Maga? Should I just start organizing “Lean In” circle playdates now? Or tiger-momming her straight into the trainee program at Goldman Sachs?
It’s not what I envisioned when I had her, but then this is not about me. Until it gets figured out, though — baby steps. Maybe I’ll ask my daughter’s preschool teachers to consider injecting a little social Darwinism into circle time. A little less Rosa Parks, a little more Scrooge McDuck.