'My Super Sweet 16' and Everything That's Wrong with America

Have you seen this show? It's like a great big warning sign about the level that inequality has reached in America today.

The show reveals super-rich kids as they put on 16th birthday parties of gargantuan proportions. At the same time, the show also reveals many of the dangerous and worrisome trends in society more broadly, trends that might even make Leona Helmsley roll over in her newly dug grave. Here are the top four scary things we can learn from watching MTV's "My Super Sweet 16":

1. At lot of people have WAY TOO MUCH

In one episode, the birthday boy spends $250,000 on jewelry. In another, the birthday girl gets an $800 manicure with real diamond inlays. In another episode, the birthday girl spends $5,000 on her dress. Mind you, here are people spending hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars on 16th birthday parties in a nation where over 37 million families live in abject poverty on less than $20,000 a year. Worldwide, there are more than 2.8 billion people who live on less than $2 per day.

Think about this for a second. There have been 46 episodes of "My Super Sweet 16". Let's assume the average spent per party is $500,000. That's $23 million spent on 46 sixteen-year-olds. That same money, distributed in the world's poorest communities, could double the standard of living for over 31,000 people for one year. Hmm... But I guess these sixteen-year-olds really need such extravagant parties, not to mention the expensive luxury cars that each kid inevitably gets as a "surprise" gift at the end of each episode.

In the United States today, the rich are richer than they've ever been and while many of the rest of us are struggling just to get by. Bear in mind, as foreclosures have risen rapidly in the United States, luxury yacht sales have also skyrocketed.

2. A lot of people REALLY have WAY TOO MUCH

I know I already made this point, but it's important. The top 1% of Americans control 19% of the wealth. And they're not necessarily putting that extra money into creating new business investments that kick start jobs in poor communities. They're spending it on yachts and private islands and other obscene luxury items, which the rest of us then watch on MTV and E! News and the Wall Street Journal, feeling jealous and inadequate. In an era where inequality has never been worse and the planet can't continue to stand for such lavish excess, the glorification of wealth leaves many of us wanting to be rich, too, instead of wanting to tax the hell out of the super-rich who've made their money largely on the backs of poor and middle class workers.

But we can't criticize the super-rich if we're too busy wanting to be rich ourselves.

3. Everyone wants to be famous

I'm struck that the Super Sweet 16 birthday parties seem mostly about creating for the spoiled brats the sense that, at least for a moment, they're famous. Inevitably, in each episode, there's the scene where the birthday boy or girl arrives at the party destination in a stretch limousine or horse-drawn carriage or something, friends lining the street screaming --- not necessarily out of adoration but probably to be the one adoring-seeming-enough to get on camera. The birthday brat steps out of the car. The fans go wild. Just like being at the Oscars, or being president maybe.

Except, of course, these sixteen-year-old rich kids didn't do anything to earn fame. They bought it. But the fact is that it's enough, at least for one night --- that these kids and their parents are willing to spend what in some cases amounts to more than the annual gross domestic product for a small island nation, says something about the nature of fame and celebrity today. When we elect millionaires because they buy their way into office, when our most talked about celebrities are best known for infrared videos and DUIs as opposed to... oh, I don't know, maybe talent... we should start to worry we've become a deeply shallow country where who we are and how much we have matters more than what we do --- where buying fame becomes equivalent to earning fame if no one pays attention to the difference.

4. And by the way, a lot of people have WAY TOO MUCH

It bears repeating. We can't have an honest conversation about how to address poverty and inequality in the United States until we confront wealth and the reality that wealth, directly and indirectly, causes poverty. Directly, those with money are often getting more of it because others underneath them are getting less ( e.g., the Walton family which profits from the low-wage sales clerks and sweatshop workers behind Wal-Mart). Indirectly, those with lots of money inflate the costs of things the rest of us need --- like gentrifying affordable neighborhoods into luxury enclaves --- or drive down the quality of services the rest of us rely on by privatizing their own part --- like putting their kids in elite private schools instead of public education.

The problem is that the rest of us --- those struggling to make ends meet, with shaky health care or no insurance at all, with mounting credit card debt and college tuition, facing a pile of economic worries that only seems to be getting bigger --- don't seem to think the solution lies in holding the super-rich accountable through taxes and other regulations. Instead, we each take a sort of individual salvation approach, as though the economy is a deepening hole so the only solution is to find your own ladder. But there are only so many ladders. And those at the top tend to be operating big digging cranes that make the hole worse. Couldn't we instead embrace solutions that improve the economic situation of all of us --- including taxes on super-rich individuals and businesses that help fund public education and universal health care and the things we need as a society if everyone is to succeed?

I usually watch "My Super Sweet 16" at the gym. I'm generally paying more attention to the show than my abs, though inevitably several moments per episode I double over in discomfort, which is kind of like a sit up. My hope is that when the rest of America watches this show, we collectively double over --- and redouble our efforts to create a just economy that works for everyone.

Sally Kohn is the director of the Movement Vision Project, working with grassroots community-led organizations across the United States to identify our shared, long-term vision for the future.

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