Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Life in Suburbia: Land of Cliche

From my desk in my apartment in Cambridge, I see the green leaves of trees out the window and, when I step closer, winding streets with quirky shops and interesting people stretching out below them. From my desk in my old home in suburban Chicago, you see the same trees, but behind them is asphalt and McMansion and long twisting driveways.

No one here uses public transportation. The city does have a train station, but one gets the sense that its purpose is mostly decorative — train stations remind people of the imaginary small town life that suburbs attempt to imitate. To get out to your house, you instead drive down long stretches of drab gray highway, besotted by hideous billboards and lined with ugly office parks.

The weather is certainly nice. On most days, if you go for a walk it’s quite beautiful — as long as you keep your head pointed at the sky, where the bright green leaves interweave with the brilliant blue. But as soon as you look down there are SUVs driving the wealthy to their half-hidden palazzos — just enough visible to be bragging, just enough hidden to be private.

Whereas in Cambridge the ambitious try to fill their houses with books, in suburbia you go for art and interior decorating. The tasteless fill their houses with large marble staircases and glistening chandeliers; the more tasteful prefer bright white rooms accented with sculptures and pictures — specific enough not to be intellectual, but abstract enough to be art.

You came back here to raise a family, but you wouldn’t even consider sending them to public school. Why would you, when there’s a perfectly good private school just twenty minutes away? There the kids are white and wealthy. After all, how could they be anything else at these tuition prices? The school does give out scholarships, but only based on “merit”: “interviews, teacher recommendations, examination results and current school records”. The school is in the wealthiest zip code in America, surrounded by trees and houses, like everything else in suburbia.

The school is preparing for graduation. You see a slide show of those about to receive their diplomas, seen when they’re so young that the smiles leap off their faces. How could anything so precious be unhappy here, with everything in its right place? Afterwards the families mingle in the courtyards, surrounded by the gleaming metal of the newly-built extensions.

Not too far, another group of kids hides behind trees by the parking lot, protecting a cooler full of water balloons they use to pelt their fellow students as they try to reach their cars. One kid, his yellow country-club sweater tied around his neck, complimenting his finessed blond hair, hides behind a glass door, fear visible in his eyes as he looks at his newly-purchased convertible and prays it won’t get hit. (He bought it, the kids explain, to match his new girlfriend. Then they turn and pelt two girls walking by.)

Despite their brazen acts, the kids are quite afraid — afraid of getting caught. They hide at the sight of parents or teachers and they restrain themselves from hitting the head of school’s daughter. But they needn’t worry. Parents see right through the charade and laugh it off. Oh kids, oh kids and their water balloons. How delightful! they say to themselves as they scurry to their cars.

The kids were right to guard the parking lots; not only is suburbia unmanageable without a car, driving cars is a central part of the culture: what kind, at what age, and where to? The funny thing is that there simply aren’t that many places to go. There’s your house, and your friends, and the shops uptown or at the mall.

Not that there’s much difference between the two anymore. The malls have become open-air and the town centers have become so desiccated that they’re little different, just chain shops surrounded by fake walkways to other chain shops. The difference, I suppose, is that in town centers no one uses the walkways — why bother when you can drive?

While the kids enjoy their eating and shopping, the mothers get down to business at the grocery store, a menagerie of food and drink and color. Huge carts are filled and paid for and then passed off to low-wage Mexicans, who load them in your car as you drive out of the parking lot.

In between the malls and downtown, even the fakery disappears and the raw commercialism that pervades the suburb is left naked, assuming its default form of ugly highway signs and strip malls, all in an almost nausea inducing gray, stretching out in all directions, leaving little escape.

Not all the people of the suburbs are cold and vicious as their surroundings. For the most part, they’re “liberals”, the kind who are deeply affected by the plight of the homeless as they head back to their minivan. A small sign at the menagerie of a grocery store draws attention to the plight of the hungry. No, you don’t have to feed them; just feel bad: the sign advertises “national hunger awareness day” (sponsored, the web site says, “by many prominent organizations” — organizations like Macy’s, Southwest Airlines, and the Food Marketing Institute).

After all, this is the generation of the New Left. 25 miles south, Chicago was rocked by the ‘68 Democratic Convention, where kids charged the city while filmed by newscameras, before the Chicago police decided to start beating up on both. The suburbanites didn’t participate, of course, but they watched it on the news and felt sympathy for their brethren and invited the indicted Chicago 7 up to give a talk.

The war is now Iraq, not Vietnam, and the protest is more muted. A sculpture in the town center draws attention to our dead servicemen, while old ladies occasionally stage protests with large signs. Now the antiestablishment kids have become establishment parents, Mayor Daleys of their own households, full of tensions no less visible than those which engulfed Chicago.

Son one plays music too loud for son two who insists that right this minute he needs to play a video game. And when these fighting factions are supposed to come together, as in a graduation, the tensions boil over, parents screeching at kids who scream at each other, dragged down to the car where they argue about which windows to open and settings for the AC, until, realizing that they’re all stuck there together, tensions cool down somewhat. Still, it doesn’t seem like much fun for anyone.

At the graduation, everyone has a camera to immortalize this precious moment. They force everyone into straightening their rarely-worn suits and dresses and smiling in rarely-seen ways so that the camera can “capture the moment”, an instant of artifice, entirely yanked from time, its history completely erased so that the fake smiles may be preserved.

The graduation itself is a whole event of such artifice: the students are trained to walk down the aisles absurdly slowly (while the organist stretches Pomp and Circumstance far, far beyond the breaking point) so that every parent may get copious photos of them standing in the aisle. Once on stage they fake their love for teachers they hated only days ago, while dressed in fake costumes and standing in front of a fake set. The parents are given programs whose professional typography hides the normal disarray of school, makes them think this place is Professional.

Oh, the absurdity of it all: putting all that effort into making memories they won’t remember of good times they never had.

But I guess that’s suburbia — the fake coat of paint that lets you pretend your unhappy life is just as nice as everyone else’s, even if it easily flakes off.

You should follow me on twitter here.

June 16, 2006


“One kid, his yellow country-club sweater tied around his neck, complimenting his finessed blond hair, hides behind a glass door, fear visible in his eyes as he looks at his newly-purchased convertible and prays it won’t get hit.”

Please tell me you cringed at least a little bit while writing that. The title of your post is ironic.

You are going to see what you want to see.

posted by on June 17, 2006 #

I find this post quite cliche, but perhaps this was indeed the intent (to portray suburban life as one big cliche). First, the reason many people move to suburbs is that the public schools are good and that the higher house price is justified by not having to pay private school tuition. Second, don’t you think it’s rather, should I say, bigoted, to claim that there are no homes in suburbia full of books on the shelf? However, I’m willing to grant that the Chicago suburbs differ from the Bay Area suburbs I grew up in: people move to the Bay Area suburbs to see something, such as economic oppportunity and for ability to do intelectually stimulating work; people move from an urban area to place like Chicago suburbs to escape something — so you may have a point.

The point about car dependence and hence a car culture does remain, since that is pretty much a definition of what a suburb is.

posted by on June 17, 2006 #

“…establishment parents, Mayor Daleys of their own households, full of tensions no less visible than those which engulfed Chicago…”

It’s times like this that we remember that Aaron is 19 years old.

posted by Walt on June 17, 2006 #

Yes, Land of Cliche is appropriate indeed. A well-off, liberal jewish kid who despises blond people… never heard of that before.

posted by Walt on June 17, 2006 #

The funny thing is that I did indeed see that. Not sure why that means I despise blond people, though.

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 17, 2006 #

hm. what exactly are you talking about? I grew up in the city, and I can assure you, that while it is easier to walk somewhere to get an ice cream cone, city kids feel the same sense of “nothing much to do” no matter where they live. You still go to school, you go to your friends house, and you go to “shops.”

Regarding schools, you seem to be confused. People move to the suburbs because they have better public schools. People who live in Cambridge (or Manhattan, or San Francisco) send their kids to private school because the public schools suck.

You might want to re-examine the Land of Cliche you are currently living in. Cambridge, while a fun, interesting place for a moment, is the penultimate cliche’d “yuppie college town.” A city dominated and owned by the wealthiest university (or non profit of any kind) in the world. Everyone is working on their master’s degree and hates the suburbs with a passion. Indeed, each $700,000 condo-ized triple decker is filled with books, but you’ll notice everyone owns the same books. A few Steven Pinker volumes, the required “Manufacturing Consent”, “Wine for Dummies” in order to appear more cultured. Left over textbooks from law, medical, or engineering school. Dave Eggers, DeLilio, David Foster Wallace. People talk about the same boring crap: Population Explosion, Global Warming, Will my Web Site Make Me Rich and Also Cure The World’s Problems? Whilst they may be from different parts of the country and have different backgrounds, the aspirations and attitude of everyone living in Cambridge is at least as homogeneous, if not more so, than your typical american suburb.

posted by starkfist on June 17, 2006 #

What you’re really railing at here is the bourgeois middle class, an attack that has been voiced many times in the past. The reality is that if you asked any person in history or geography if they would choose that suburban lifestyle over any other, they would all say yes. This includes the life of kings or superstar athletes. If you want to be king, you have to play political games so intricate and with such deadly consequences- your painful death- that an office job with a suburban lifestyle sounds so much better. The same for superstar athletes and their grueling training schedule and uncertain occupational lifetimes.

What ends up coming out of this piece is a bunch of bile, for no good reason. A lot of people around the world today would view that suburban lifestyle as idyllic. (btw, a devastating summary of Cambridge by starkfist, much more interesting than the piece that spawned it.)

posted by Ajay on June 17, 2006 #

Ajay hits the nail on the had, I think (this, by the way, is the first anonymous poster, who pointed that people move to suburbs to attend good public schools and that it’s bigoted to argue that suburbanites never have books upon their shelves) - far too many people could only dream of a middle class, suburban lifestyle.

It’s ironic also that so much discourse is now aimed against the middle class, largely since most of the opponents of capitalism realize that it is the middle class that sustains the system. The upper classes (e.g.: those who can afford to own a house in Cambridge, Palo Alto or San Francisco [ monthly rent on many an appartment in San Francisco is higher than the monthly mortgage payment on my parents’ suburban home]) have, amongs them, a large contingent of those who are the most ardently opposed to capitalism (Howard Zinn, for instance, owns a house next to the movie star Matt Damon; not that, mind you, this discredits any of his work, which has merit even if you disagree with his politics).

posted by on June 18, 2006 #

I have to agree with Starkfist and Ajay. When I lived in upstate NY, the people who lived in the city sent their kids to private schools, while those out in the suburban towns ringing the city had their kids in public school. Why? Because the suburban schools were much better than the urban ones.

As for SUVs, I am not a fan. However, Americans ini general drive cars (not just trucks) that consume a lot of gas. When I was in Cambridge last year, I saw a lot of high-end German sedans. Having been in the market for a new car, I can guarantee you that none of the luxury cars currently marketed in the States could be classified as “frugal”. As a matter of fact, most of the Bostonians that I know seem as car addicted as any suburbanite.

posted by Chris on June 19, 2006 #

Unfortunately I don’t know enough people in Cambridge to discuss it as starkfist suggests, although I’d love to — it sounds really interesting. I’m shocked to hear so many people have Steven Pinker books; I thought that was restrained to the real monsters. I’d also be shocked if I ever saw anyone here with a copy of Manufacturing Consent. And I can’t say I’ve overheard anyone talk about population explosion.

In any event, I don’t think I was criticizing the suburbs for homogoneity. I was more concerned about fakeness. The people I’ve talked to about global warming here genuinely do seem to care about it, I get no sense that they’re pretending to so they can fit in (although perhaps I’m just not sensitive enough to this crowd).

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 19, 2006 #

Ajay: My standard for criticism is not “is there nothing worse?”, it’s “is there something better?”. The former strikes me as absurdly high.

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 19, 2006 #

I wasn’t attacking the middle class, I was attacking a middle class lifestyle, one I don’t believe to be entirely freely chosen (and thus one can’t criticize people for living it). The most recent anonymous poster may have a point about Palo Alto, but in Cambridge and San Francisco they have apartments and neighborhoods that allow much more variety in race and income than I saw in the suburbs.

The point about Zinn and Damon is completely absurd. Zinn lived next to Damon when Damon was growing up as a kid. Damon didn’t have a single acting job until he graduated from Cambridge’s public high school, so it’s a bit unfair to say Zinn lived next to a movie star.

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 19, 2006 #

William Upski Wimsatt has a thoughtful and relatively positive look at the suburban situation. It is a bit corny, but he’s from Chicagoland, too, so it may resonate.

Regarding the Cambridge crowd, I think you haven’t had enough exposure. SUVs are gauche, but the most vocal about global warming would buy a Porsche or Mercedes provided they had the funds to do so.

posted by starkfist on June 20, 2006 #

Aaron, my bad for not reading the Wikipedia entry. Nonetheless, the place where Zinn lives - Newton, MA — from the demographic data seems to be just as wealthy as Palo Alto and less diverse. Second, you seem to think that Chomsky and his theories are somehow an exotic field that few people are exposed to: I don’t know why you’d have this idea — he is after all, the most frequently cited scholar. While I can’t speak for other peoples’ universities, the university a person I tutored attended (major in a social science) recommended and assigned his political writing in multiple classes (as a computer science major, however, I’ve only had his linguistics work discussed in class, but his political works were mentioned as well in a brief bibliography of him in one class I took); in addition, the English teacher in my suburban public high school, after 911 recommended that students read Chomsky (writing out his name on the board and everything). So I’m sure in a college town everyone has at least heard of Chomsky’s political works and that it is certainly a theme of discussion at coctail parties and his books grace the shelf.

Lastly, middle class is not only defined by their earnings, but in part by their lifestyle (both working parents, owning their own house, owning two cars etc…). Why do you also claim that lifestyle isn’t freely choosen? Again, here’s an example: my own parents dropped everything (their jobs, their government pensions, their university posts) to move to suburban United States. We also saved towards a house, rather than rent an appartement in a city for the same mortgage (but without a down payment). How is that not choosing it? What about the families that moved from the cities to the suburbs when cars/commuter rails became a possibility (it is the availability of cars and freeway system, as well as of commuter trains earlier in the century [first commuter suburbs sprung up in the late ninenteenth, early twenthieth century] — not racist motivations — that led to the exodus of middle class families from the cities to the subrban)?

I think the anti-middle class attitude is why Bush has won this election (there are still many predominantly liberal suburbs, such as the one Aaron has described, but all of the fastest growing counties have been voting republican in the last two elections). Some historians (Paul Johnson is one of them) have also argued that fascism was able to ride on this middle class backlash — against what they saw as “sophisticated socialists” — to power in Italy.

posted by on June 20, 2006 #

I find it hard to believe that the fakeness of “putting all that effort into making memories they won’t remember of good times they never had” is confined to those living in the suburbs. Fakeness in Cambridge? Surely not!

Perhaps we’re acquainted with starkly different impressions of suburbia, but I’ve found that suburban dwellers are most times equally if not more “real” than the urban dwellers you seem to esteem. They are the 9-5ers and blue collar workers pushed to the edge of the city in order to afford a nice home. They are the ones that work out in the yard while the kids pedal up and down the sleepy street. They are the ones frequently hitching the boat and camper up to go enjoy their weekends with their family.

While I do not love all aspects of suburbia, I do admit it works (and works well) for some.

posted by Nicole on June 20, 2006 #

Aaron, while you think there may be better lifestyles, my point was that the suburban lifestyle is by far the one lifestyle that most people everywhere aspire to. It is far ahead of any possible second choice for the “most wanted” lifestyle.

As for your point about “fakeness” or hypocrisy, it takes a great deal of thought, insight, and discipline to live a life that is even moderately consistent. The point that starkfist and Nicole make is that you can find hypocrisy everywhere you look, as most people don’t have the time or inclination to do more than assemble a pastiche of popular positions. The people in the suburbs may be more blatant in their hypocrisy and the people in Cambridge may be more sophisticated in hiding theirs, but the fact remains that hypocrisy is an almost universal human condition, depending on how deep you want to dig. Given that, it would be better if you chose one particular hypocritical position that is particularly harmful and explored its causes and implications, rather than focusing on trivial examples like fake smiles for graduation pictures or kids throwing water balloons.

posted by Ajay on June 24, 2006 #

Anonymous: People have no doubt heard of Chomsky’s political works, but I’d be shocked to see his books on the shelf and he’s certainly not mentioned at parties. (I brought his name up once and the quick response was “that guy’s a complete lunatic — I heard him on the radio once” and the subject was quickly changed.) When I ask my Cambridge professor friends about him, they appear to know little more than the phrase “manufacturing consent”.

Nicole: I exempt the working class entirely from my comments. I am curious though where I can find good sources of fakeness in Cambridge.

Ajay: People aspire to the suburbs because they’re lied to about it.

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 25, 2006 #

Your working class adoration is pretty funny. Why is it you think they’re so great? Could you explain what you mean when you say people are lied to about the suburbs or that people don’t freely choose a middle-class lifestyle? I want to say that I don’t much care for the suburban lifestyle myself, and I was raised there just like you. But that’s because I have other preferences and I realize that most people have preferences- lots of space, comfortable surroundings, the patina of nature that you mention- which dovetail into the suburban lifestyle. I think that this lifestyle is very wasteful but I don’t want to stop people from doing what they want to do (say by using government regulation), and that’s the lifestyle most people want. I would rather try to inform people why it is wasteful and let them make the decision for themselves.

posted by Ajay on June 25, 2006 #

“I exempt the working class entirely from my comments.”

That’s problem with drawing a single conclusion and trying to apply it across an entire category of people — it rarely works. Though one thinks of suburbia as a vast wasteland of homogeneity, in reality, suburbia (across the US) is inhabited by people of many different cultural and financial backgrounds. In some places, suburbia is the retreat of the rich. In other places, it’s a destination where affordable housing is found.

“I am curious though where I can find good sources of fakeness in Cambridge.”

You’re kidding, right? I suppose no Cambridge family has ever smiled perfunctorily through graduation pictures.

posted by Nicole on June 26, 2006 #

Ajay: Working class adoration? What are you talking about? I was referring to the massive propaganda programs designed to convince people that the cities were dangerous and the suburbs were safe and healthy, when the opposite is now the case. I hope to write about this someday, but not now, so details will have to wait.

Nicole: When did I draw a conclusion or try to apply it across an entire category of people? I was writing about my first-hand experience in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago, which are predominantly upper-middle class and well-known as fairly well-off. I guess the fact that I sometimes referred to it as “suburbia” instead of “North Shore suburbs of Chicago” might have been a little confusing, but that’s what I meant.

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 26, 2006 #

Obviously, there is a discrepancy between your intent and how I interpreted it. While I realized you were writing about your personal experiences, I also felt (which may be incorrect obviously) you were attempting to draw broad conclusions about suburbia in general from that experience.

Regardless, I’m still not sure how you don’t see fakeness in Cambridge. Fakeness/hypocrisy is everywhere as Ajay much more eloquently notes (http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/suburbia#c16).

posted by Nicole on June 26, 2006 #


You are too young to be a pompous ass, but you are working on it. Do you even read this shit after you write it?

posted by David Watkins on June 26, 2006 #

Your working class adoration refers to statements like “I exempt the working class entirely from my comments” and “The real people who ought to be paid lots are the people doing the unfun but necessary grunt work that nobody really wants to work. But these are exactly the people that socialists propose to reward!” (presumably the second quote refers to the working class). According to the laws of supply and demand, there are people who work very hard and get paid very little (ditch-diggers) and there are people who work very hard and get paid a lot (professional athletes). All that matters is how in-demand their skills are. Perhaps you can explain why you adore the working class so much and why they deserve intervention to contravene this basic law?

posted by Ajay on July 7, 2006 #


Most of these paranoid lonely souls are convinced you are pointing at them. They don’t seem to understand the concept of perspective, nor do they have the fortitude to respect introspection.

Semper Fi,

Ron T.

posted by on July 11, 2006 #

There are fake people everywhere — certainly a lot in Cambridge. I have lived in many countries, and grew up with scientists, including Nobel Prize laureates — no difference — fakeness abounds.

The distinguising feature of typical suburbia compared to Cambridge, for example, is the average IQ. Less intellignet people are just less sophisticated in their fakeness. They buy Hummers versus Mercedes. They talk about soap operas versus new books, etc… Everyone has to find their type of community and then ignore the fakeness.

posted by john elliott on July 21, 2006 #


Standing on the outside in judgement is easy… easy to be glib, critical and arrogant. Regardless of which perspective one is advocating, it is still simply judgemental, critical arrogance. That’s why this post is such a cliché. Makes no difference. It’s bigotry and sterotyping from the “liberal” perspective.

I’m a father of two girls… ages 6 weeks and 2 years. We live in “suburbia”. Our kids will go to public school. We live a fairly modest life being one of the least affluent in our very affluent area (Main Line Philadelphia). From the outside I’m sure you would lump us into the vacuous, inane, blah, blah, blah group. You would probably think our life is boring. We’re not saving the world, we’re not wealthy and “putting on airs”, we’re middle class working people who are trying to have a life and raise two kids. Boring, nothing dramatic. I’d say we’re fairly average Americans… at least what I fantasize as being the big, quiet majority of us.

I think it is hard to be average. It’s much easier to be downtrodden, angry and righteous or, on the flip side of the same coin, wealthy, arrogant, obnoxious and obvlivious (which is how I read how you have portrayed your fictional “suburbia” and which George W. captures perfectly).

That’s my point. You are just the flip side of the same coin. You’re the angry, righteous voice speaking up for the downtrodden innocent. Very dramatic. Very artistic. Very “right”. You’re about being “right” rather than making a difference… any kind of difference.

It’s much harder to be average and work hard to raise two kids. It’s not flashy, it’s not Hollywood but it’s simple, real and we don’t need to be angry and judgemental because we have real lives. This is the rest of American. What about us in the middle as you and your brethren on the far right lob stereotypes back and forth. What about us?

posted by Eric M on July 22, 2006 #

Ajay: Failing to make a statement about someone is hardly adoration and saying that people who do X deserve Y says very little about the people who actually do X. Supply and demand isn’t a law of nature, it’s an artifact of our current economic system. Even if it was, what’s in supply and what’s in demand is constrained by law and politics. There are very few doctors in the US because protectionist programs make sure that only a couple people can become doctors and doctors can’t be imported from other countries. Thus the supply of doctors is constrained and we have to pay more for them. The same isn’t true for ditch-diggers, so the supply is very loose, and we get people from Mexico who will work very cheaply. One doesn’t need to be in love to see this is unfair.

posted by Aaron Swartz on July 28, 2006 #

Let’s look at your statements. It’s not that you failed to make a statement about the working class, as you describe it, it’s that you sweepingly exempt a whole group from relevant criticism, as Nicole stated, implying that they can do no wrong. Saying that people who do X deserve Y says everything about what you think of the people who do X and what you think their true value is.

Supply and demand is in fact a law of nature: animal predator-prey populations follow a boom-bust cycle as each population swells or diminishes, based on the supply or demand of the other. Attempting to constrain these cycles is an artifact of our current economic system, not the other way around.

You use two good examples of labor supply and demand, let’s look at those. I agree that the supply of doctors is artificially constrained but this is because of socialist programs that give them unprecedented power over who can practice. Breaking this system up, perhaps by allowing multiple independent licensing bodies, is the way to fix this, not by following the socialistic principles you espouse that caused the problem in the first place.

As for the supply of ditch-diggers, I agree with you that, in principle, illegal immigrants shouldn’t be allowed to come over and work illegally. However, it’s more complicated than that. Since practically anyone is physically capable of digging ditches, you can’t keep people out by saying they don’t have the requisite skills. And it’s practically impossible to keep Mexicans out as their country is much poorer and there is such a huge border to police. I would grant them some sort of intermediate status, similar to a guest worker program, where they have to be documented but are not allowed the full rights of citizens.

But these two examples don’t have much to do with the principle I was talking about because even if you shut all the Mexicans out and made medical licensing much more competitive, professionals like lawyers would make much more than ditch-diggers because their job is harder and their skills are more in demand. You fail to answer the basic question of why this should be subverted but bring up mostly irrelevant examples of labor supply with other constraints.

posted by Ajay on July 28, 2006 #

I’ll put aside rather boring discussions about ways to interpret a sentence that I wrote and whether observations in animal populations can be generalized to laws of human nature. Instead, I’ll attend to Ajay’s “basic question”: why I think ditch-diggers should be paid better.

Imagine, for a moment, that we start our economy over from a blank slate, erasing issues of pay, education, and parentage, and let people choose what professions they want to pursue. Given the choice, how many people do you think would say “I’d love to be a ditch-digger” versus “I’d love to be a doctor”. It seems fairly plain to me that there would be many future doctors and few future ditch-diggers. Being a doctor is noble, rewarding work and while no doubt digging ditches has its rewarding aspects, I just can’t imagine it being as popular.

In such a scenario, under Ajay’s laws of supply and demand, we’d have to pay the ditch diggers more to get enough people to take the job. But, of course, we don’t. And if you agree with me so far, the difference must lie in the things I subtracted at the beginning: education and parentage. The education of doctors is carefully constrained, both in who and how many receive the education. Thus they have the power to demand high pay. In a truly free market, these restrictions would disappear, many more people would become doctors (including many who would otherwise dig ditches), and the pay of ditch diggers would go up in relative comparison.

That this doesn’t happen tells you who’s in favor of socialistic anti-market schemes.

posted by Aaron Swartz on July 28, 2006 #

Wow, that was quick. Perhaps you should have thought about it some more because your thinking on this topic is characteristically sloppy. One of the reasons you have less doctors that ditch-diggers (too long a name, I’m calling them diggers from now on) is because it doesn’t matter what someone says “I’d love to do,” it matters how hard it is to do and how willing they are to put in the work. Going through the training to be a doctor is much harder than digging, therefore there would never be more doctors. Also, you don’t know much about being a doctor because listening to sick people complaining all day long is as tedious as digging. Doctors might try to assuage themselves by thinking they’re doing noble work and diggers might try to do the same by thinking they’re the salt of the earth, but the unpleasant nature of the work remains.

However, I agree with you that the supply of doctors is artificially constrained (on the other hand, your argument that in a free market there would be more doctors than diggers is ridiculous). But your argument appears to be that since that particular market is artificially constrained by socialistic principles rendering it so shitty, let’s apply those same socialist principles to all other markets?!!

And finally, you end on a glib note that doesn’t even make any sense. Who is it that your arguments “tell you” favor socialist schemes? I’ve argued against the artifial constraint of the supply of doctors since the beginning.

posted by Ajay on July 28, 2006 #

Ajay insists that all the people who want to be doctors would never make it through the training. He doesn’t provide any evidence for this and I doubt he could, since over 90% of medical students make it through the training fine. Of course, the exact details of the number are fairly meaningless because the curriculum is manipulated to ensure the right number of doctors comes out the other end, but certainly there appears to be little barrier to most people making it through school.

And, no doubt, being a doctor is not fun — all the doctors I know complain about it. But let’s do another thought experiment: imagine you presented them with the option to keep the same salary but spend their days digging ditches instead of being a doctor. Do you really think they’d take it? (This is the right comparison, since they don’t see how hard it actually is until after they’ve gone through medical school.)

posted by Aaron Swartz on July 31, 2006 #

As I’ve said before, whether it’s fun or not is completely beside the point. What matters is that a higher percentage of people would not be able to reach an adequate level of proficiency at being doctors than diggers. As for medical school, I talked to a medical student recently who told me that even for a desired and highly-paid specialty like radiology, the hard part is getting in. Once you’re in, the work is easy. Of course, this method is obvious if you examine the low selection rates for these schools and then the low attrition rates that Aaron notes. The medical profession controls how many people enter the profession by only letting a few people in the door, not by kicking people out once they’re in.

The fact that you choose to highlight a misleading statistic like this and continue to sidetrack the question about socialism into one about how fun different professions are shows that you have no arguments to make. You’re just making pedantic and misleading statements in the hope that people will be misled by them.

posted by Ajay on August 1, 2006 #

I think this ties in very well (or is atleast consistent) with Aaron’s piece about global warming. Suburbs are evil—they are the reason we have SUV’s, high gas consumption, green house gases and global warming. I have lived for 2 years in Hong Kong and for a little while in New York. Public transportation, high rise apartments with efficient heating/cooling, easy access to parks—what we need for our dwindling resources. The point is not that big city dwellers like cars as much as suburbanites. It’s that someone living in Manhattan can easily live without a car—while a suburbanite usually does not have a choice. She has to commute, pick kids from soccer practice and such…

posted by Jim on August 2, 2006 #

I think that life in USA is very very good. I have 22 years old and live in Poland (Warsaw). This is one of the worst countries on world. Children go to school with bad buses. All is 2X dearer. My country is goes down in more and more worse it will stand up. And you write out such foolishnesses.

I am sorry but I invite you to life in Poland.

posted by Aukcje on November 24, 2006 #

I’m also Polish, and colleague write this what it is even worse if oneself it lives from capital far. I propose exchange, we to convince can then how life looks in such country how my. In order to which can will to make in this Poland any more. I leaved to Germanys first where I worked by ten years and really I after return can live decently. I do not remember about work in country and the treatment by employers the workers, this in USA of problem the has not.

posted by Zdzislaw on December 3, 2006 #

I have lived in Poland for 25 years and to be honest there are not many things in this country worth being proud of … I understand people, who complain constantly and more and more people run away from the country in order to improve their existence, although things are not that wrong here … Probably this is the only solution for many of them, but it seems to me that if someone really wants to achieve something then he will find a cause that will make him stay in POLAND … I am 25 years old and I run my own - well flourishing - company. I am a manufacturer of period furniture that origin from historical furniture, and which tradition origins right from here, Gdansk Furniture is our style, the historical furniture also receive general recognition abroad. I understand people, who are lacking hope, self-confidence and are afraid of the future, but it seems to me that sometimes one ought to try and fight for one’s own future instead of complaining over it constantly …

posted by MebS on December 20, 2006 #

The Red Line is for decoration? Since when?

posted by on December 26, 2006 #

Look’s like North Shore’s wikipedia has listed you as a famous alumni. good going.

Regarding the article:

What you refer to is not a lifestyle—it’s not even a social class. It’s “North Shore Country Day School”. I put it in quotations to emphasize the fact that it’s your perception of the place of which you are writing.

Moreover, your attack seems like a cry of bitterness—your sentiments do not reflect any archetype or product of the social class around here or even of North Shore. They are the sentiments of an ostracized student venting on the web.

Granted, I will not argue certain points you make about the school, such as the farce that are the merit-based scholarships, or the mindless lifestyle of the North Shore aristocracy. What I will argue is the rest: I am not a proponent of the school, but let’s be realistic: “Oh, the absurdity of it all: putting all that effort into making memories they won’t remember of good times they never had.

But I guess that’s suburbia — the fake coat of paint that lets you pretend your unhappy life is just as nice as everyone else’s, even if it easily flakes off.”

The bitterness is suffocating me.

posted by North Shore Student on December 27, 2006 #

Look’s like North Shore’s wikipedia has listed you as a famous alumni. good going.

Regarding the article:

What you refer to is not a lifestyle—it’s not even a social class. It’s “North Shore Country Day School”. I put it in quotations to emphasize the fact that it’s your perception of the place of which you are writing.

Moreover, your attack seems like a cry of bitterness—your sentiments do not reflect any archetype or product of the social class around here or even of North Shore. They are the sentiments of an ostracized student venting on the web.

Granted, I will not argue certain points you make about the school, such as the farce that are the merit-based scholarships, or the mindless lifestyle of the North Shore aristocracy. What I will argue is the rest: I am not a proponent of the school, but let’s be realistic: “Oh, the absurdity of it all: putting all that effort into making memories they won’t remember of good times they never had.

But I guess that’s suburbia — the fake coat of paint that lets you pretend your unhappy life is just as nice as everyone else’s, even if it easily flakes off.”

The bitterness is suffocating me.

posted by North Shore Student on December 27, 2006 #

Look’s like North Shore’s wikipedia has listed you as a famous alumni. good going.

Regarding the article:

What you refer to is not a lifestyle—it’s not even a social class. It’s “North Shore Country Day School”. I put it in quotations to emphasize the fact that it’s your perception of the place of which you are writing.

Moreover, your attack seems like a cry of bitterness—your sentiments do not reflect any archetype or product of the social class around here or even of North Shore. They are the sentiments of an ostracized student venting on the web.

Granted, I will not argue certain points you make about the school, such as the farce that are the merit-based scholarships, or the mindless lifestyle of the North Shore aristocracy. What I will argue is the rest: I am not a proponent of the school, but let’s be realistic: “Oh, the absurdity of it all: putting all that effort into making memories they won’t remember of good times they never had.

But I guess that’s suburbia — the fake coat of paint that lets you pretend your unhappy life is just as nice as everyone else’s, even if it easily flakes off.”

The bitterness is suffocating me.

posted by North Shore Student on December 27, 2006 #

  1. Swartz’s original post was cliched- but so are many things that are true, just by frequent repetition. “George W. Bush is a bad president” is cliched, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. (Or false, for that matter.)

  2. People like “Eric M,” “Ajay,” and the fellow with the bit about Zinn and Damon miss the point. That most people prefer a Suburban existence is no argument for against it in relation to what is good. People like “Eric M,” who are “not saving the world,” “average,” and so on are “vacuous” and “inane” and “boring.”

Most people prefer to be that- fine. That doesn’t invalidate a critique of it. As far as I see it, and I think Swartz sees it the same way, one ought to try to move beyond just “getting by” and living one’s own ordinary life in the suburbs: one ought to try to make the most of human existence. Most people in suburbia aren’t doing that. There’s just not enough raw, diverse input, not enough genuine risk, for people to do that.

  1. Swartz, your defense of your post might be better served if focus on defending your thesis, as opposed to getting sidetracked on broader issues of class.

posted by on February 4, 2007 #

Seriously, do you like living in Suburbia? As if commuting to NWSL by car wasn’t bad enough already, now they’re charging money for the privilege! Have you had enough yet?

After spending my entire first year in a house out in the suburbs, it drove me crazy to have to get in my car in order to get anywhere. From where I lived, only a few things were actually within walking distance. Everything else, like movie theaters or decent bars or parks or shopping districts, could only be reached by car. I felt guilty driving to school. I didn’t want to pay the new parking fee. And getting home from social events in my car always required a ton of tedious planning (hi, officer!).

But there’s a better option: live downtown, where all the fun stuff is!

That’s right! I moved into an apartment near the Portland State campus downtown, rented a parking space, and began taking the Pioneer Express to school. I love it!

posted by kolczyki on February 12, 2007 #

Wow, attacking suburbia. That hasn’t been done before. I’d like to note that apparently you didn’t see the irony in attacking “suburbia”… this is in itself is a cliche since at least the 50’s. BTW, Cambridge is a hole filled with vain, spoiled, self-absorbed gentrifying yuppies who’d just assume push all minorities out.

posted by Your Superior on February 17, 2007 #

While Aaron’s generalizations are a bit off-base, he does point out some sad truths about modern life in America. But I think the glass if half full as opposed to being half empty. Yes it’s true that commercialism and fakery exist in the suburbs— but they are alive as well in the country and the city, too. On the other hand, good-hearted socially progressive and intellectual folks exist there, too.

posted by dudeasincool on May 10, 2007 #

Wow Aaron, I just discovered this blog and find that you completely miss the point. Your are the definition of a spoiled brat.

Have you seen the world? Have you seen what a sweat shop is like? It’s easy for you as MR. I made a few mil off Reddit to complain like this but all of the places you consider “genuine” such as Cambridge and San Francisco are just as fake if not more so than any suburb in America.

People care about things they can afford to care about. I’ve met plenty of people in major cities who only care about global warming because it’s a cool issue. It’s easy to say “Oh I live in a city and use public transit, I’m in favor of reducing gas consumption.” Great.

If you want your children to access a great education AND to live in a city, you have to have a lot of money so that you can afford extremely expensive real estate AND send your children to private school.

It’s lost-in-the-cloud liberals like you that are responsible for the shambles our education system is in right now. Many things need to be privatized so there’s a monetary incentive for our next generation to get the education they deserve.

posted by City Dweller on May 23, 2007 #


Interesting article, and the responses were lively. I have to say you can come across as arrogant and the debate did get sidetracked but I agree with your article and some of the comments you made defending your thesis were well put.

What lies at the centre of this debate is something I have personally been thinking about for a long time. The middle class seem satisfied with mediocrity. Getting by, 3 bedroom house, a few kids and an average managerial/professional job. Most people are happy with this. Or rather, think there is no other way to be. Or are just too damn scared to try anything else. For people like me and I assume Aaron, we hate this mediocrity, we want to genuinely contribute something, we do not want that average lifestyle, because for us, that is no life at all. It is, dare I say, an easy option.

Some people thrive on challenges, others dislike them. For me, I agree with Aaron because for me that lifestyle is EXACTLY what i do not want. Others may be happy with it. Within me, i feel those people have not lived. They think I am self-righteous and arrogant. I think they have been brainwashed.

The fundamental disagreement lies in our views of how we should live are life’s. I cannot tell people how to live their life’s. All I can do is offer what JS Mill said in “On Liberty” and offer verbal persuasion. That is where I think Aaron is coming from. In a similar way we may try and persuade someone to stop smoking.

posted by JN on July 19, 2007 #

In the future, I would recommend placing more emphasis on the effect this sort of thing has on the people within it (including yourself), and not just a view of what’s there.

Providing some emotional context (i.e. admitting that there is an intuitive or even irrational element to your view) makes it a lot easier to take for people that don’t already see it that way. You’ll be less likely to come off as arrogant, and it goes a long way to getting others to admit the irrational parts of their arguments, and a more reasonable dialogue comes out of that.

Without a little bit of uncertainty, people will read all sorts of things into your words. For instance, people commonly have the notion that having an economic or political conviction requires you to actively hate a certain group of people. Witness these comments, pointing at the American suburb and saying “this sucks” causes people to assume that you hate the inhabitants, think that you are superior, or wish to see them suffer for their sins.

None of the comments I’ve read have questioned the existence of such a place — we’ve all been, if not to the North Shore, then places that bear an eerie resemblance. Where there is not the same affluence, there is the aspiration. Suburbia is exactly a land of cliché: it’s a mass-produced illusion repeated ad nauseam throughout the US in startling uniformity. That’s what’s wrong with it. It isn’t the idea of the suburb (a middle ground between the town and the country)—it’s the modern implementation, the “automobile slum”—the fact that you can go anywhere and it’s exactly the same.

I think in this piece you miss a chance to define what it means to be in a place like this. Look at it one way, it’s depressing. Another, it’s comforting. It’s a Necker cube—and I think it’s important to help people (including yourself) see it as one. Two views of the same thing, and more importantly, lines on a page that can erased and redrawn.

posted by Nick on November 12, 2007 #

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