Apple Ear Muffs

Dear Willow:

The same week that a weak jobs report landed, macroeconomic signs pointed to a stalling and even reversing recovery, and we’ve seen record numbers of COVID infections and hospitalizations, Apple announced the impending release of AirPods Max, a $549 set of noise-cancelling headphones.

I am going to call them the Apple Ear Muffs, because this is what they look like to me.

While the pandemic has affected everyone, it’s clear that the economic fallout is decidedly uneven. Wealthier households have driven the overall U.S. savings rate to record highs while,  simultaneously, we’re seeing food banks overwhelmed with demand. Millions are unemployed and over $5,000 behind on their rent.

I’ve been noticing these divergent phenomena in my home base of Charleston. Home sales are booming. Several record high sales prices for single properties in different parts of the region have been set. Despite a huge contraction in tourism, several new high-end hotels will open on the downtown peninsula early next year, anticipating a quick return of the kinds of people who can and will pay $400 (or more) per night for a hotel room.

Tourists will not be able to dine at Blossom, one of the first destination restaurants downtown, which announced it is shutting down after twenty-seven years, a COVID casualty. Two of Kathy’s and my last three New Year’s Eve dining choices (Trattoria Luca and Purlieu) are closed, unlikely to ever reopen. Dozens of other local restaurants are facing similar fates. Pre-pandemic, some restaurants couldn’t launch for lack of qualified servers and cooks. Now, we may not have a local restaurant industry as we emerge from the pandemic.

Parts of the community are suffering deeply, while others are looking at those $549 headphones.

Five bills plus for a pair of Apple Ear Muffs? That’s bonkers. I debated for weeks before I splurged on a set of Bose Q35s, which cost less than half the price of the Apple Ear Muffs, and still seemed like a significant indulgence when I bought them several years ago.

There’s no way that the Apple Ear Muffs can be so great that that kind of price is defensible. It’s an outrage! An outrage I tell you! I won’t stand for it, and I want a pair very much.

I am ashamed of this desire, and yet I cannot deny it. I don’t want to want them, and I do not like what it says about me that the 90-second promotional video – in which the camera caresses the Apple Ear Muffs, showcasing their sleek design, the ear cups created for comfort, the mesh top to gently cradle my head – works so well.

The Apple Ear Muffs look cool, and comfortable, and would seamlessly communicate with all of my other Apple products, of which there are many.

I will not be buying a pair of Apple Ear Muffs, because my desire for them does not outweigh the self-loathing that giving in to that desire would generate. I was raised as a sensible Midwestern boy, and sensible Midwestern boys do not spend exorbitant sums on items when they already own a perfectly good alternative.

But that I could (in theory, at least) afford to buy the Apple Ear Muffs because we are among those households whose savings rate has increased – no vacations, no eating out, etc. – says that I am on the “right” side of the pandemic divide.

But isn’t that the problem of our collective response in a nutshell, that a “right side” and a “wrong side” of the pandemic even exists, and that this divide is growing larger every day?

We’ve identified other areas – higher education, women’s employment, small businesses – where COVID has not been the cause of problems but an intensifier of previous, unaddressed structural inequities.

The $549 Apple Ear Muffs appear to be an example of the same phenomenon, writ small. Those with means see their power – including purchasing power – increase, as others lack access to basic necessities, with few prospects for relief either short- or long-term.

It is a consumer culture on steroids, and some of what is being consumed is our fellow citizens.

It just doesn’t seem sustainable to me.


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