[Venkatesh] Rao pegs the beginning of premium mediocrity’s ascent to the 2008 financial collapse, when cupcakes ruled the culinary landscape. The cupcake is a classic example: It’s a single-serve dessert on demand, minus the true indulgence of buying or making a whole cake to enjoy over time or share with family or friends. Cupcakes look great in photos, but as has been frequently noted in the past decade, many of them are not exactly delicious. I remain unconvinced that anyone ever took genuine pleasure in eating a dry, fist-size Crumbs Bake Shop cupcake topped with a mountain of hardened buttercream. […]

Crumbs Bake Shop expanded to 79 locations in the United States before it went out of business in 2014, but the value system that enabled it remains: A plethora of subpar options is the foundation of modern shopping. Most Millennials were too young to get a foothold in the economy before it fell out from under them, and now, confronted with the precariousness of working- and middle-class life in the decade after the Great Recession, the most many can do is playact modern success for as long as possible while hoping the real thing happens eventually.

All of the faux-Eames chairs the internet tried to sell me are props for this Kabuki theater: things you buy because they’re masquerading as more exceptional than they are. Some of these products are perfectly good at fulfilling their function, but they paper over a problem of class mobility that consumer choices can’t change. The market has looked upon the people it serves and said, “Let them eat cupcakes.”

Amanda Mull on class consumption.