What’s the Matter With Potato Salad?

A story about the increasingly arbitrary divvying up of winners and losers in modern society…


I loathed potato salad as a kid. My parents never made it, it was the province of school picnics and potlucks. Starchy, drowning in mayonnaise, warming as it sat, it was a gloppy, sad affair. Later on, we made peace. Any food prepared in mass quantities for strangers and consumed at leisure will stray from its origins. I learned a few tricks, cooking the potatoes with mint, pickle juice to cut the mayo, minced green onion, and eaten cold on a hot day, as a side, potato salad is just right. I confess after that I haven’t thought much about potato salad since then.

I was confused, then, the other day, to read sarcastic tweets, “Facebook buys potato salad for $1b,” “potato salad to IPO.” As it goes with these things, I looked askance and let them percolate, waiting for more information to fill in. Turns out some guy Kickstarted a bowl of potato salad, raising at last count $38,941. I got the tweets then, in the context of the astronomical cash tossed around at seemingly worthless ventures, like the million dollars for the smartphone app, “Yo.”

“Good for him,” I thought. It seemed others disagreed. A mini-wave of revulsion cascaded across my twitter feed. It is absurd, on the face of it, to ask money to make potato salad, but he was only asking for $10. It’s the kind of simple, but well-executed, and thought out statement that makes for the best kind of modern art. If Banksy had done it, we’d have all cheered. But somehow it failed, not in raising money, though in the scheme of things, $20k isn’t much for art, but in the discourse it sparked. People reacting said things like, to paraphrase, “good joke, but he’d better put the money toward feeding the hungry.”

Some people lamented the state of the world, pointing to the potato salad as the problem. Of course it’s not the potato salad itself that’s really wrong.

Would donating that amount of money to feeding the hungry be a good for society? Yes, undoubtably. We need all the charity we can get. Should he donate the money? No. Why aren’t we demanding Kickstarter donate their fees? Turning this into a small act of charity lets us off far too easy. What is potato salad but Facebook writ small?

Potato salad is a service, Kickstarter the platform. The product is entertainment, and the customers the donors. This takes place on the internet, where it’s kicks up content we all consume. The potato salad guy is an entrepreneur, who had the right, not necessarily original, idea at the right time. The money he made is his as much as the money Zuckerberg got, as much as the person who gets the winning Powerball ticket.

The residual distaste comes out for potato salad because people are a lot better at seeing things for what they are at the human scale. Consider our difficulties comprehending the strangeness of physics at the quantum scale, or the forces that operate in the vastness of the universe. A $20k farce is easier to comprehend and react to than a $2b one.

We live in a system unique in human history*, where people are required to fight in the marketplace for their basic subsistence. Following the shocks of the two world wars success was somewhat more correlated with hard work, and innovation, and with the power of unions, basic social guarantees following the Great Depression, and a broader acceptance of government involvement, a larger safety net supported society. In the past thirty years, luck of birth and accidents in life have, more and more, determined success, and the basic bulwarks against poverty and ruin have been systematically undermined and devalued, while people continue, against the evidence, to believe in the American Dream, and to maintain the illusion that charity can take the place of a combined social effort, which at its core, is what government represents.

The problem isn’t potato salad, or the people donating to it. The people donating to potato salad in one way are fulfilling their capitalist destinies, voting for winners with their dollars. They are also, at the same time, protesting the increasingly arbitrary distribution of winners and losers in our society. The people complaining about potato salad should be using it as an example of a larger flawed system. Donating the proceeds to charity are the height of ignoring the problem, since they’re expecting potato salad to be good (like I was) when, in the circumstances, it cannot be, and not venturing to change that.