Bill Maher has a devastating short segment on the “post greed is good” world, as exemplified by the “sharing economy”. Trust me, just watch it, and then circulate it widely:
In a bit of synchronicity, the New York Times today had another important zeitgeist piece (hat tip Scott), Dinner and Deception, by Edward Frame, a grad student and recent captain at a Michelin three-star restaurant in New York City. It describes the artifice, stress, and tight control of workers required to achieve the illusion of effortless, flawless service. This is also an important piece to read in full, and hopefully this extract will encourage you to do so pronto:
Next to a doorway leading into the dining room, a sign in the kitchen summed up the job in the form of a commandment: “Make it nice.” Make it nice means you hold yourself accountable to every detail. It means everything in the restaurant must appear perfect — the position of the candle votives, the part in your hair. Everything matters.
Most of us internalized this mantra quickly. One of my first assignments as a food-runner was to polish glassware. I worked in a small alcove, connected to the dishwasher. Glass racks came out, I wiped away any watermarks or smudges, and then, just as I finished one rack, another appeared. This went on for hours, like some kind of Sisyphean fable revised for the hospitality industry. By hour two my fingers hurt and my back ached. But I couldn’t stop. The racks kept coming. Slowing down never occurred to me. There wasn’t time. I needed to make it nice. I wanted to make it nice…
When someone spoke about the “swan” in lineup, a metaphor for the ideal server, churning tirelessly beneath the surface while maintaining the impression of absolute poise to the casual observer, there was never a hint from management that, like us, they understood the psychological dividedness their favorite symbol suggested. But as captains or servers or sommeliers, our job wasn’t just serving food, it was playing a part, and we did it with a degree of self-conscious irony that our bosses seemed incapable of.
It’s striking to observe both how deeply the staff internalize the demands made of them. Again and again in businesses settings, to greater and lesser degree, employers are able to exploit deep-seated impulses to do one’s best for one’s tribe, for one’s family on behalf of mere enterprises. Intellectually, these workers know this relationship is transient, yet they invest emotionally anyhow.
I sampled only a few of the comments, which the Times has shut down already, and they were chock full of striking ones. For instance:
Several years ago I met a young woman while on a ski trip. She told me a remarkable story. It turns out she was a nanny for a super-rich family on the East Coast. She felt they were treating her like one of the family until one day she overheard the father talking to his son after dinner. It turns out that the staff often shared the leftovers from dinner once the family was finished eating. He told his son that if he wanted any more to eat, he should do so before “the rats” got to it. She quit at that point and moved to the West Coast. The family’s daughter was very desirous of the nanny’s cookies so when the daughter’s birthday came up a few months later the family requested a supply of the ex-nanny’s cookies. She agreed. They then sent out their private jet to pick up the cookies. Outrageous, and I am sure they managed a tax write off somehow for the flight, thereby causing the average taxpayer to subsidize the flight.
And this one:
When real community breaks down, as it has in America, what you have left is a world of predation targeting most people (useless college degrees, workplaces that treat their workers as disposable, predatory businesses) and a world of fake community for the very rich. They want to feel special, honored, and looked-up-to, and they are willing to pay top dollar for people from the world of prey to pretend that they care. The experience will, by virtue of its underlying logic, be hollow and dehumanizing for *both* the very rich and the actors they are implicitly hiring. This writer is perceptive and self-aware, though he only captures what is going on on one side of this equation. People need genuine community, and such community is impossible when we live in a world in which economic chasms and a culture of predatory capitalism obviously dehumanizes the preponderance of people and more subtly dehumanizes the very well off. This world comes about when economic and social systems make it so that a very small percentage of people come to control the preponderance of wealth and then leverage that to further come to dominate political and social life, typically without having actually done anything that truly merits their wealth or dominance. Implicitly terrified that they don’t deserve what they have gotten, they overcompensate and embrace their domination and an ideology of superstar superiority that pushes the rest of humanity into a social Darwinist nightmare.
In contrast were the readers who treated the author as spoiled and ungrateful for having a well-paid job. One reader compared high end dining to a fine art; another went so far as chastise Frame for being an opera singer who was contemptuous of his audience. Most people who have been involved in the performing arts (I’ve stage managed and produced theater, including a short professional gig) would find this comparison clueless and insulting. Performers, designers, makeup artists, all have degrees of freedom in their craft that are utterly absent in the regimentation of high end restaurant service. The big reason why pay in creative professions is a power curve (most people making no or little money and a few getting payoffs) is so many people are willing to do it for free or close to free because they find the process enjoyable and challenging.
Or is it that these commentors have unwittingly admitted that pretending to enjoy serving the rich is as difficult a role as, say, playing Tristan or Otello?