Unforgiving Progress: An Early Requiem for a Community

We’re really close to the sun here. Not in a metaphorical way or anything. You’re not about to get hit with some Icarus parallel. Like, literally—relatively—the sun is close. That’s why, especially in the winter, days are that perfect kind of weather where you don’t even notice weather and nights give you hallucinations of Leif Erickson shoving sno-cones in your face and whatnot. It also makes the morning bright AF. On cloudless mornings (and most right now are) you’ve got to mentally prepare yourself for solar beatdown. Having the complexion of a roll of unused toilet paper, it’s dangerous out there for me.

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My face, whiter than toilet paper.

Day 1 of the weekend. I told fifth-grader Yang Hua (English name Tom) that I’d meet him outside his house at 8:30 in the morning and we’d hang around his village. Stupid—that’s how I felt about that promise at 8:00 a.m. Two years ago at that time I’d have just hit stage 4 of the sleep cycle. Wouldn’t get a crack at the world until noon. I remember in college this one kid wanted to meet up for a group project at 8:30 am on Sunday. I think I must have said something like, “You’re a sick fuck, you know that?” before we kicked him out of the group. But anyways, I’m older now and I’ve created responsibilities for myself. It’s one thing to stand up an 8:30 am class, it’s another to stand up an 11-year-old kid.

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Sanzhuang Village

I got up, slunk into the brightness, and walked down the mountain to Yang Hua’s house. He lives in the first mini-cluster-village of the big-big village of WenXing (When-Shing for you foreign devils). As such, he’s attended school at SanZhuang—where I teach—since first grade because, even though he lives in WenXing, SanZhuang’s elementary school is 10 times closer to his house than the WenXing iteration. I thought that was a nice, strikingly un-bureaucratic arrangement for Yang Hua. I walked down through SanZhuang on my way. I passed a bunch of my students and this old farmer who seems to pop up everywhere in my life. Whenever I walk past, he announces to someone—or no one if someone is not there—that “It’s Mr. Loeb, the American teacher, Mr. Loeb is coming down the hill!” And laughs merrily. It’s kind of weird. I can’t tell if he likes me or he’s doing some Paul Revere type shit.

Yang Hua is waiting in front of his little village. I’m immediately washed with a pang of relief-guilt. Really happy I didn’t let myself doze. I suppose I have grown up. The way these things work: Clusters of houses, almost quite literally right on top of each other and then vast expanses of cropland before another cluster of houses quite literally on top of each other. It might make personal-space-loving Americans scratch their heads—and it took me a while to make sense of it. “But… but… where’s your backyard.” I might ask. “This is all our backyard.” Accompanied by a sweeping of the arms. Not even a single “Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again,” sign. How barbaric. Gives me the creeps, it does.

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WenXing scenery

Yang Hua and I meet up with another one of my kids—Gao ZhiBin (who I creatively named Zeben, in honor of a TFC teacher I kind of knew). And then two 11-year-olds and me walked across the entirety of the big-big village of WenXing in the infinite brightness. We village-hopped, if you will. Remember, all of these clusters are separated by big plots of rice, wheat, and tobacco. Throughout the walk—which took a few hours—we ran into pretty much all of my WenXing students. About 10-12 come to SanZhuang each year. WenXing’s own school only has grades 1-4. So, its students—like students from other surrounding rural villages—come to SanZhuang for 5th and 6th grade. WenXing is small and, like most rural Chinese villages, getting smaller.

Quick modern history/rural economics lesson: WenXing is and has always been an agricultural village. There isn’t much in the way of concrete documentation, but from what I hear from locals, it was kind of what you picture when you think about rural China back in the day—and probably a little worse, given its mountain-hugging location. Up until the 70’s, poverty was the rule, the concept of “our” was law, and life was a grind. Most people will tell you that it’s been getting better since the mid-70s. A slow, upward trajectory that has been nothing, mostly, but good. Education got better, students stayed in the system longer, a new road sprung up every few years. Most people over the age of 30 probably have four, five, six brothers and sisters. But rarely, if ever, do they have more than two kids of their own. Even though the one-child policy does not apply to farmers or minorities, economics do. The advantages of having six children have been erased by incipient prosperity.

But, now it’s clear that the prosperity curve is starting to press up against the limits of reality. Alas, an hours-long agricultural community cannot sustain economic growth forever in its own little organic semi-vacuum. To be sure, this is also the case for cities, countries, and, sorry, planets. There are essentially no #millenials here. People aged 18-30 are almost invariably working in cities, living not amongst rice terraces and family, but in tiny little cupboards in cities like LiJiang or DaLi, with 10 other young people—and, mind you, making 10 times what they’d be making if they weren’t. This is demographic engineering. Whether policy or not, like the one-child law, it seems to be the logical course of economics meets life. After all, subsistence-or-close-to-it farmers do next-to-nothing for the proliferation of societal cash-money. Move those people to the city, pay them 10 times more (still very little), make them consumers, and convert the inefficient land that they used to farm and live on to Big-Agri-Central and shit like amusement parks (and way down the line perhaps 1,000 times pricier second homes for the grandkids of the people who left the village). Show me a “developed” nation where that story hasn’t played out. I dare you.

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Students messing around in the stream

But, not today. Each village-cluster (nine in total) is still sufficiently full of life. Every time we cross a field and enter a new village it’s kind of like entering a new country. People—especially old people—speak of the villages like that. I remember one guy warning me in my first days to “never trust a person from (the village right across the street)” as though the cobblestones represented some sort of irreconcilable moralistic divide. There is a dominant last name in each village, too. This makes sense. These are generally places people move out of. Outsiders with weird names like Loeb, rarely settle down here.

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We cross into the central village—the wealthiest of the nine. The village committee building is here. There are also three small convenience stores, shelves stocked haphazardly, cash stored in a creaky drawer—all bills tossed in with each other, ancient-looking men sitting outside on stools sucking the life out of cigarette bongs (and, sadly, themselves), and a brand of friendliness that doesn’t exist in places with garbage and traffic lights.

I buy the kids some lukewarm “iced” tea and they lead me up a side-alley to Zhang LiPin’s house. They pound on his door and scream his name. This is actually how people coordinate rendezvouses! I always thought Charles Schulz was full of shit when he wrote about this kind of stuff. Moments later an irritated old-woman-voice echoes from the other side of the door. “He’s not here. He’s ‘being an honored guest.’” The kids shrug and we keep walking. “Being an honored guest,” a phrase that carries with it that unnecessarily inherent formality that a lot of Chinese phrases do, is always hilarious in this context. First of all, because everyone is friends around here, people are always going over to other people’s houses for events—from funerals to weddings to liver-destructions. So, this is a super common reason for someone being unavailable. But, the word/phrase is used interchangeably for kids and adults. The idea of an 11-year-old, let alone a four-year-old “being an honored guest” cracks me up.

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Alleyway in WenXing

Zhang LiPin wasn’t home, so we walked to the next cluster. We called on another kid, Yang JianWei, who was home. His dad, shirtless and roundbellied, scrambled to receive us. He frantically looked for a teacup, and when he couldn’t find one, emptied, washed, and refilled his own tea-bottle and offered it to me. He ran into the courtyard and grabbed a few sticks of milky-ice (cream) from the freezer and handed them to the boys. The spontaneous acts of hospitality, incredible. We stayed for a moment—not long enough for my tea to cool—and walked back toward Yang Hua’s house. We would eat lunch there.

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Gao ZhiBin, Yang Hua, me

On the way back we stopped at the school to play basketball with a couple more of my students. The hoops were droopy and the ball flat. The school is only a few rooms—a real community operation. There are 43 students in total, grades K-4. My school’s own Principal, Mr. Yang, who happens to be from this very village-cluster of WenXing, said there were well over a hundred kids here 20 years ago, when his son—who know lives in the city of NuJiang—was a student here. One of the kids laments his fate as a fellow-townsman of Principal Yang. “He’s my principal seven days a week instead of five!”

We retrace past the little haphazard shops and the same ancient dudes loving on the steel cigarette bongs and the fields, fields, fields. Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin playfully attack each other with fallen branches. I notice Yang Hua’s shirt is too small for him. Gao ZhiBin’s, too. They don’t notice, though.

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We get back to their village around two. The way back always feels shorter. On the way there, you never know where the end is. There’s an “uncle” sitting on a stool by the table. Always stools here, of course. I guess there’s a thrill in eating whilst trying not to injure yourself, or something. The uncle smokes a cigarette and nod-smiles at us. Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin mess around with my camera for a few minutes, before a pack of tired looking middle-aged women enters the gate and sits down at the table. I look up, confused.

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Food, literally, on food

“It’s the busy season,” Yang Hua informs. “They’re helping us with our crops, so we’re having them over for lunch.” The honored guests smile and nod and continue jabbering in deep, deep dialect, far beyond my comprehension. Yang Hua’s dad comes out with a few trays of freshly picked, freshly cooked, freshly fresh dishes—the only kind there are here. Pig’s stomach, milky potatoes, corn and green beans, leek soup, whole little fishes, and that thing that starts with an r and ends with an e. He greets me and offers a Dali beer and a Yunnan cigarette. I take the beer. He tacitly impugns my nicotine-free “masculinity.”

I eat gleefully, say thank you, and walk back up the mountain in the brightness. “Come visit us anytime, anytime.” The boys say. “See you on Monday,” I tell the students—more sullenly reminding myself than them.

It’s funny whenever I do this. I feel deeply nostalgic for something I never had. I feel like I’m vicariously experiencing a lost life—one spent on private property, one spent in cars, one spent with phones and distance—a decade on. Life has been good for me, to be sure. But, it was never like this. For some reason this is how I’ve always pictured “society”—close-knit, name-knowing, honored-guest-being, continuously, endlessly hospitable… neighborly. With a fuck-ton of corner shops. As many corner shops as corners.

And this place will probably be “running its course” by the next time Halley’s comet comes through. And I wonder why that has to be. Are the concepts of prosperity (the money kind) and simplicity, neighborliness, tradition, and community really so diametrically opposed?

It’s hard to argue that they aren’t.

Why does it always seem like we can only choose one or the other? Truthfully, this sense of community is something we’re always hungering for in theory—country, religion etc.. And I suppose when you think about it in that sense, the concept of community is OK until you consider its insidious exclusivity—an apparently fundamental characteristic to its existence. But, practically speaking, real, physical communities seem to be perhaps the greatest victim, among many, many positives, of prosperity. I would never argue that Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin are better off staying put—my alleged purpose here pretty much represents the inverse of that notion. Surely, in most ways, they aren’t better off. But, remember from time to time, that progress and wealth are not no-strings-attached plusses. There are some things you’re gonna have to lose first.

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Hesitate at the Crossroads

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A Chinese proverb goes like this: 彷徨歧途 (panghuang qitu), “Hesitate at the Crossroads.” It’s not a command or an instruction. It’s just a thing someone might do.

I’ve said this before: I live at-on-in a crossroad. The thing about these so-called crossroads though, in the big social, future sense, is that they don’t really exist. Why? Because, if you are at them you have come from somewhere else, and likely been consistently faced with them—various intersections, again and again and again. After a while you stop noticing. There is no singular crossroad, as we like to imagine it, just an endless series inevitably bypassed again and again and again. The crossroad I currently live at is the evaporating past and its foregone future. But, I reiterate: the crossroad has become a useless metaphor. It’s been replaced by a highway—the Highway of Time.

The funny thing about time, though, as I’ve come to find, is that it isn’t what we think it is. It’s got very little to do with ticks & tocks, waxes & wanes, and wrinkles & gravity. We can make it go. And this is our paradoxical obsession: to make time go as fast and as slow as we possibly can. To tame it. We want everything immediately, yet we want our time to move as slowly as possible—in short, to last.

Here—where I am right now—in this little, rapidly transforming county in the middle of this rapidly transforming country, at this supposed developmental crossroads, I see the desire to outwit, jump over, redefine, and move ahead of time on hyper-drive. It’s moving so fast, that you can literally see it. You can literally see the passage of time. What does it look like: wheelbarrows, shovels, straw hats, dust, rocks, cardboard boxes, burning trash, assembly lines, cranes. You can hear it too, of course. Slow time sounds like crickets under the moon, a plodding, ticking hand. But, time, when it moves this fast, is deafening: Cracks and hammers, shouts and drills, horns, turbines, whirrs. The louder, the faster. It does not plod away like the persistently predictable second hand. It doesn’t tick. It roars.

But, it didn’t always.

Why did we invent time? I suppose to challenge ourselves. Time is a measure of our own abilities. We are so obviously, viscerally constrained by it, that the only thing we can do is play against it. This has, I guess, emerged as the defining goal of people: to—realizing that we can’t stop time—go faster than it.

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And this, of course, is where the whirring turbines and crunching factories come in. Or in my life—the wheelbarrows full of rocks and the endless young men setting bricks on concrete, concrete on bricks, bricks on concrete. Because, some time ago, it became very clear that the only thing standing between the present of—shall we say, China, but really of anywhere—and the future, was, is time. Because, if time hadn’t existed—if we didn’t need to pass by noon to get from morning to midnight—the future, of course, would already be here. No, we’ve got to bring the future to us. Too bad. Funny, how that goes.

So, what you get is the largest, dustiest, loudest, fastest passage of time in human history. How do you measure time? It turns out not with clocks. You put together all of the time-busting methods and you decide how good they are, how good they have been, how good they will be: 0%, 2%, 5%, 10%, 15%, 20%!!!, 14%, 12%, 9%, 6%… and that’s how time moves. The faster we move, the better. Our success, our worth, our everything, judged on speed.

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It’s important, vital, crucial to make it go Fast, because once it’s gone, you can’t get it back. Wait what? That’s not right! It’s the other way around! We should make it go slow, precisely because we can’t get it back. Sorry, no time to think about time.

And what about the hands that turn the clock? Millions, billions! of hands smashing and crushing and huffing, sliding, tumbling across the numbers as they fall and rise and fall again? They are there, speeding on the Highway of Time, incapable of stopping at, now utterly oblivious to, the crossroads. And they—the crossroads, the moments of hesitation—don’t exist, like the space between line and asymptote; they have become so insignificant that their value can only be zero.

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But the faster we move, the worse, because it gets harder and harder and harder to go faster, faster, Faster. But we can’t help ourselves; the desire to beat time becomes so powerful. We have forgotten whatever the goal is, and whatever it was has been replaced by that desire, to continue to set the pace ahead.

But.

A tragic—or perhaps encouraging—fact emerges. We can’t ever beat it. We can only beat it for a while. Because, it never ends. It renews itself over and over. The future, by its very nature, will never arrive. And we’ve tricked ourselves into believing we could make time tick to our tock.

And only by realizing it, only by realizing time’s steadfast power, can we make it powerless. Only by hesitating at the crossroads, can we even make the crossroads exist. Otherwise, we’re just racing to lose.

No. Wait. Look left, right, look back. Then go forward, if you please.

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The Menu Costs of Progress (featuring Taylor Swift)

Something keeps me holding onto nothing…

-Taylor Swift

If you’ve taken a base-level economics course, you know the term “menu cost.” A menu cost is the cost that a business incurs upon encountering a new economic environment, a new status quo. The term has an explicitly literal derivation: When the price of fish changes, restaurants are forced to print new menus to reflect the new cost of salmon and tuna. Ever seen “market price?” That exists because some prices fluctuate so much that it’s not even worth communicating them to customers in any way that isn’t verbal. Any time the economy experiences inflation, a restaurant—like any other business—has to change all of its prices. That takes time and money. And effort. Inasmuch, companies don’t always respond immediately to supply and demand shifts with price changes. But in the long run, they always will.

Let’s talk about Taylor Swift.

A few nights ago, I was sitting in a hostel bed in the middle of a wall-shaking Kunming thunderstorm. Below me, a 20-something dude was snoring. I’d like to point out here that people who snore in hostels should be incarcerated for a minimum of 5 years. At the very least, they ought to be charged triple for a bed. I couldn’t sleep. The thunderstorm was a non-issue. It was the snorer that stood between me and my slumber, and he was absolutely relentless. I watched the hours tick away: 12, 1, 1:30. After a while I gave up and decided to overpower him with the eardrum-tickling stylings of Taylor Swift. I received her full anthology from my 31-year-old ex-accountant Chinese roommate at Summer Institute last year. He was her self-proclaimed “biggest fan,” a phrase that he imparted in such a way that implied he learned it in a book called Contemporary English. Since my library contains little outside the realm of edgy rap, I figured Taylor was my only shot at sleep. I slid to her page and hit shuffle.

I’d never ventured beyond the classics: Love Story, 22, You Belong with Me etc., so most of the library was brand-new. I realized a few things very quickly. Every single Taylor Swift song sounds exactly the same. Sure, it’s a mind-bogglingly awesome sound, but each track is a regurgitation of the one before it. I would be remiss if I said that this wasn’t the way most artists, especially the ones on the radio, operate. Have you ever heard, “Hey, you gotta check out Keisha’s new stuff. She totally reinvented her sound.”

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Most importantly, though, the deeper I got into albums like Red, Speak Now, and Fearless, I realized that the message was always a variation on a few themes: They mostly centered on the boy-girl thing. Shy girl wants popular boy (You Belong with Me, Speak Now), sleazy boy does girl wrong (Dear John, Mean, Girl at Home), girl is attracted to bad boy (Treacherous, Red, The Way I Loved You, Trouble), boy and girl classically fall in love (Stay, Stay, Stay, Love Story, Everything has Changed). Yeah, the snorer was relentless. Each song is subtly framed in the context of an idyllic small town (Taylor is constantly stung by the loneliness of big cities), a fairytale experience (princes on princes) and the generally generic, “timeless” concepts of love and marriage. Whiteness is also assumed, if you watch her videos. But, that’s not exactly where I’m going.

As I began to lose myself in the wonderworld that is the Taylor Swift anthological experience, something else came to me. These concepts are dated. The concepts of expected chivalry, happily ever after marriage, happily ever after marriage between guy and girl, monogamous romances starting in high school, and white knights feel more than a bit bygone. Yet, Taylor sings about them without the slightest hint of nostalgia. Could it be that the country’s biggest pop star is out of touch?

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With Taylor Swift as my jungle guide, I started to understand why some people resist change. No, that’s not it. People don’t resist change, they cling to tradition. Change and tradition both have favorable associations. Naturally, conservatives decry liberals for destroying tradition while the left condemns the right for defying change. Here’s the thing, though: tradition is easy. We know it. The longer we’ve lived with it, we actually begin to believe it, unequivocally. It’s cozy. It’s very easy to make and absorb a record about boy meets girl and such and such. There are millennia of precedent. After all, Taylor Swift’s most famous track is a Shakespearian drama adapted for ball gowns and pebble throwers. Love Story doesn’t force us to think or remove us from our comfort zone. It’s just really nice. Throw the same song on the radio and mix up the pronouns a little bit, and lots of people simply won’t be able to handle it. The phrase, “I just want to enjoy the music” comes to mind.

The idea stems from detachment. People who live in the shrinking world that unfolds in Taylor Swift’s music are perfectly content. Tinkering with it would be unthinkable. There’s a good thing going on, why should it be broken? In this way, people aren’t always too hateful for change, but rather they are too lazy to rewire tradition. They fail to recognize its marginal utility. The idea is that breaking with tradition will mess everything up, in no small part because there is (by definition) no precedent for change. This, I can assure you, is a conversation that has directly preceded each and every forward progression in human history.

 

The thing is, we know what Taylor Swift’s idyllic small town looks like. We don’t know what that town looks like with fluid gender roles, less monogamy, and fewer churches. I’m aware that those three are unrelated, but they are the future. As such, they haven’t entirely moved in yet. They are unknown. We are afraid to face that unknown but are also too lazy to create it.

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This isn’t a knock on Taylor Swift. She’s singing about her own experience. It’s a knock on a society that takes that experience as the experience. It’s a knock on a society that believes there is a connection between that experience and real-life human values. The most elementary, yet apparently enigmatic phrase in the American Constitution is: “…that from that equality they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.” I view that as a hierarchy: The latter two are contingent on life (I’m not looking to get into a metaphysical discussion). Next comes liberty. Once those two are settled, the right to pursue happiness is next in line. These are our inalienable values. I see three. To me, that means, after life and liberty, happiness comes before all else.

I’m not saying take TSwift off the radio. I don’t want to hear Pharrell’s “Happy” all day long either and I also don’t believe her subject matter is obsolete. I’m just saying that it’s about time we adjust the menu costs in our society: those small changes we continuously choose to resist. It doesn’t matter if you are “weirded out” by the way people choose to live their lives. Can you imagine the things that bothered people 200 years ago? It doesn’t matter that you “like the way it is.” It doesn’t matter if you want to hear the music without thinking about the words. Because, even the stuff that Taylor Swift talks about, vanilla as it is, would have shocked listeners were it being blasted through a phonograph.

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There is a reason restaurants don’t engrave their menus in gold. There’s a reason convenience stores don’t buy elaborate neon signs to advertise the price of a pack of Trident. If they did that, they’d have to overhaul their entire business model every time Janet Yellen opened her mouth. Prices change. A lot. It’s not easy to change your prices. You’ve got to research, you’ve got to implement, and you’ve got to print new menus. But, if you’re too set in your ways or too unmotivated to change them, you’re in trouble. And not Taylor Swift’s kind of trouble.

Menus and price tags are visible everyday representations of the wellbeing and status of an economy. They inform our reality and as such our behavior. TV dramas, radio singles, every day discussions, and simply thoughts do that for the wellbeing and status of society. They inform our reality and as such our behavior. Some questions: Why do we have absolutely no problem adjusting for changes in the cost of things in the name of economic growth, yet when the concern is human progress, it takes so long? Why is supply and demand a greater impetus for change than real feelings and ideas, real impediments to happiness experienced by real people? What if McDonalds still charged a dime for a Big Mac? How long could it deny the reality that a patty now costs X, a bun now costs Y, the price of lettuce has jumped all the way to Z, and X+Y+Z equals a lot more than ten cents? How long could McDonalds honestly do that, to avoid inconvenience, until it either changed its price or disappeared? It’s pretty simple math, right? They’d do it immediately. I mentioned above that life + liberty + happiness = 3. If we’re operating at < 3, we need an adjustment. If you have to let some of your traditions, your thoughts, and your assumed convictions go so that other people can gain the third, or even the second part of that equation, you do it. You keep doing it.

Inequality: Trickle Down Economics and Classroom 6-2

A few months ago, I began implementing a money system in my sixth grade class. I did this principally because I was a fledgling (read: awful) teacher and my students went absolutely bonkers each time I set foot in the classroom. It was as if the very sight of me awakened their collective deepest, darkest fantasies of how to break someone. So, I elected to unleash on them a system where they were tangibly rewarded for doing good things and tangibly rewarded less for doing bad things. In short, I figured I’d buy them off. Underlying my desperate measure, though, was a passive economic and psychological curiosity. I wasn’t so much interested in how my kids would respond to shifted incentives, but more what they would do once they had cash in their hands. The result of my accidental experiment in a tiny sixth grade classroom in the middle of the middle of nowhere (not a typo) held deep illuminative power for me and hopefully anyone who reads this. My point, as you will see, is that inequality is the fault of the system, not the citizens fortunate or unfortunate enough to be a product of the system.

 

Naturally, I scaled the rewards. Students could buy things like ping-pong balls, pens, chocolate, or stickers for under $10. On the other hand, big-ticket items like basketball jerseys, dinner with me, or the opportunity to shave my head, could be priced as high as $250. For those, they would need the better part of an entire semester’s worth of savings. Of course, there were mid-range items like American post cards, foreign coins, and the privilege to choose a song before class, that were much more feasibly attainable. Note: I valued the “shave Mr. Luo’s head” prize at what I imagined was a comfortably-out-of-reach but not altogether absurd rate of $250. Next year, I’ll be doubling that figure.

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Students earned money through three predominant paths:

 

1). Behavior: students received $1 for a day with no warnings. As I teach them four times each week, I added another dollar if they went a full week without any warnings. So, one could earn $5 from behavior per week. A semester has 20 school weeks, which meant $100 was the ceiling for income related to behavior. I should say that, if a student received one warning, he effectively lost $2 for that week; $1 for the day and $1 for failing to go a full five days warning-free. If he repeated this same pattern every single week, he would lose out on $40.

 

2). Test scores: students received varying degrees of money based on actual score, improvement from previous test, and whether or not a score placed in the top 3 of the class. This domain didn’t only favor high-performing students, because improvement was weighted higher than raw score. Needless to say, though, it was highly unlikely that a student would improve each and every time he tested. For the top score in the class, when weighing factors of improvement and raw score, a student could earn around $20. There were five tests during the year, meaning the ceiling here was also around $100. It’s worth noting, that if you scored below 75%, unless you improved, you wouldn’t get anything. So, as far as class money was concerned, the tests were high stakes affairs. If you were a student who never passed a test and alternated between small score increases and decreases, you might earn $10 for the year. The gap was spacious.

 

3). Participation: students received money (usually in $1 increments) for correctly answering a specified question. Not every answer could yield a cash reward, but most could. This domain was the wildcard. Students could theoretically answer a question each class. Throw in some extra tough questions worth $5-$10, and a student could bank over $100 from actively participating.

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Upon reading the above information, you can probably guess what type of student stood to benefit in this system: well-behaved, high-scoring, active participators. If a student fit each of those descriptions he or (usually) she could be a veritable fat cat in the fiscal universe of class 6-2. For the (usually) boys or girls that could be described as disruptive, test-incapable, and—surprise, surprise—unable to actively, or at least, productively participate, they’d be getting by on a monthly piece of chocolate or the privilege to get a drink of water during class time.

 

In a nutshell, inequality was inherently vast.

 

Now, let’s get to the good stuff.

 

I’ll break down 6-2 like this: There are 5 or 6 students that would fit the bill for ultra-rich. They are all (save for one) highly motivated girls that too aren’t keen on giving their teachers headaches and take great pride in having the right answer, whether it be on a test or in the classroom. On the flip side, there are 7 or 8 that would qualify for the lower quartile. These are exclusively (save for one) boys that are at least two years behind their classmates. They generally have very little self-control and score below 50 on each test. As a result of all these characteristics, they like to make paper airplanes and flick pretty girls in the back of the head as an alternative to studying. The rest of the 21 students would fall into varying levels of the middle class. These students, as a rule, were neither exceptional nor struggled in all three categories. They may have been, for example, great test takers that acted out in class or shy hard workers that hesitated to raise their hand. There were certainly some upper middle classers, who were decidedly close to cracking the top echelon. On the lower end, students flirted with the disastrous prospect of falling into the bottom 7 or 8. If that were to happen, at this level of schooling, it would be a heartbreakingly cavernous hole to climb out of.

 

My system was predicated on a simple fact: students were going to buy things. I printed a rather sizable amount of money before the semester, and was ardently determined not to print more. I knew what I had should be enough.

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It took a few weeks for students to gauge how things were going to shake out. I doubt any of them actually calculated their earning probabilities, but if one was receiving $15 at the end of the week as opposed to $3, they could easily extrapolate—on intuition alone—where their purchasing power lay. During this time, students didn’t buy much of anything. They were trying to make sense this newfangled, slightly mysterious system. After the first student, a quiet, bespectacled boy named Andy came in to buy a ping-pong ball for $5—with no catch to be found—there was a spending rush. Students could hardly believe what they were seeing. I went to town to buy more chocolate.

 

 

 

Here’s where it starts to fall apart:

 

 

After students realized where they stood, they adjusted their buying patterns. This reaction was almost inherent. Sixth graders the world over have very little purchasing power in real life terms. They were learning on the fly. I don’t know exactly what happened next—if a pact was made or if it was just a collective savvy—but the girls at the top essentially altogether stopped coming to the shop in my room. I suppose one can only buy so many chocolate soccer balls and packs of gum, before one simply does not need any more of those things. They were saving their money for bigger and better things.

 

As the semester carried on, a very clear picture began to emerge. The students at the top were accumulating more and more and letting go of very little. The students at the bottom basically spent their money the day they got it. Even the mid-range items fell out of their reach. The wide range of students in the middle had diverse spending patterns. A few of them were saving for the big-ticket items, but generally they saved a little and spent the rest. It was, pretty much, in a word: wow.

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Because the system was such that the high level performers so vastly out-earned the lower end, every time the bottom quartile spent money, a massive percentage of it went into the folders of the top few. The same can be said for the middle portion of students, but the percentage was less severe. The problem was that the top-level kids weren’t spending their money. They were making the most and spending the least, proportionally. Another important fact to note: The prices were scaled so that students had to save for an entire semester to buy the big things. Therefore, when they did finally unload their riches onto our classroom society, it would be too late for anyone else to use them with any consequence. There was no carry over. At the end of the semester, the students were gone and the money was dead. So, holding money, at such severe degrees, only served to stall the whole system. But, of course, the students doing the saving had every right to do that.

 

Now, you may be able to see where I’m going and you’re probably asking this question: How do the spending and saving patterns of the top level kids have any effect on the lower level kids? First, in this system the two probably should not have been related. I should have planned for various scenarios and printed a ton of money. But I didn’t, and the supply couldn’t expand.

 

Toward the end of the semester, I noticed the stacks of money in my bank getting considerably shorter. It got to the point where I had to go print more just to be able to give out money for rewards. However, the process repeated. All the money spent by the lower and middle level students simply ended up at the top. And the top wasn’t putting nearly enough money back in. I could print money forever, and the same thing would happen. In an exasperated outburst I finally told my students, “Look, this only works if you spend your money. I can’t keep making more money. If you don’t spend it, I’m not going to give anymore out.” So, the kids in the middle and bottom spent what little they had while the ones at the top stopped in to buy a few small items and retained the lion’s share of their money. And, of course, the majority of what was spent went back into their hands. Then I stopped giving out money.

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At that point, everyone was a loser. The students at the bottom had nothing. The students in the middle were pretty much broke. The ones at the tippy-top had money, but couldn’t make any more of it, because there was no one else feeding the system. I lost too, of course, because my students had their incentive system taken away. The ultra-rich had a choice: they could either keep their money and see if I would somehow crack and print a bunch more or they could spend a bunch of it and cash in on the big ticket items. They all had enough money to buy at least one large prize. They chose the latter, thankfully. But, sadly, it was already June and there was little time left for further accumulation.

 

 

I was inspired to write about my classroom from a Politico article a friend shared with me called The Pitchforks are Coming by Nick Hanauer. The piece sought to debunk trickle-down economics by proving that rich people can’t make money if the middle and lower classes don’t have any money to spend. While I was reading it, a “holy shit” light bulb went off in my head. Hanauer was describing my classroom as though he’d been in it.

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There are obviously differences between a 36-student classroom economy and a large-scale global machine. There were no taxes, no inheritances, no creation of wealth, no mortgages, vital sustenance, or car leases. But, there are many fundamental similarities. The crucial caveat is that the supply was not infinite. In the end, one had to spend money for others to make money. The students that made the least money spent their money quickly, the students in the middle saved and spent (they were the model of the whole system), while the students at the top, though probably spending at a similar clip (in actual physical dollar terms) as the students at the bottom, proportionally sat on the greater sums. It’s easy to see how, given the above information, their accounts would continue to expand while the others contracted: The money always went back to them, because the system was so prodigiously in their favor.

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In the United States we are supposed to have systems in place to check this kind of thing: marginal tax brackets, estate taxes, minimum wages, unemployment benefits, the list goes on and on. But, those checks are failing miserably. Not only does money not trickle down (because a “trickle” shouldn’t be acceptable in the first place), it trickles up. The inequality gap only gets bigger and bigger over time. More and more people slip from the edge of the middle class into poverty. Less and less people make the forward jump. The reason, as I have said over and over, is simple: the system is too slanted. Jamie Dimon can make tens of millions of dollars a year while the guy that mops his floor may make $40,000. At least my system was designed to motivate students to behave, participate, and improve. Our system barely even does that anymore. But, that’s a discussion for another time.

 

The most telling thing about my classroom was that the students with the most money lost out when they hoarded everything. In a capitalist system, making money is explicitly tied to spending money. If no one is spending, no one is earning. Saving is crucial, yes, but only when necessary, and only when it’s done in anticipation of creating wealth down the road. There is a point where the inequality gap gets so large, that it is no longer possible for the economy to budge. Historically, the greatest instances of American economic growth are almost always in concert with the lowest levels of inequality. United we get richer, divided we stagnate.

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The fatal flaw of my system was that the students controlling the largest sums were not compelled to spend it, until the very end. The fatal flaw of our American system is that the checks in place to force the ultra-rich to bequeath some of their fortune to the masses are ineffective and riddled with convenient loopholes.

 

In the end, though, my top-performing sixth grade students came to the realization that not only was using their money good for everyone else, it was good for them. Maybe the best and brightest minds in America can come to that realization someday too.