The viral video of United Airlines summoning the police to drag a bloodied passenger from a plane was yet another example of a corporation behaving badly—along with, among others, Volkswagen adding software to its diesel cars in order to cheat emissions tests and Wells Fargo creating millions of bogus accounts its customers never requested. Such incidents fuel rising anger at corporate elites.
It’s true that corporate and other elites often fail to measure up, but this isn’t the whole story. Dragging a passenger off a plane is particularly egregious, but air travel in the United States is often a lousy experience even in normal times. Why? America is a price-dominant culture. We love to find the cheapest price and the best deal, often regardless of the consequences. Passengers who care only about cost—and I’m as guilty as anyone—have turned air travel into a commodity product about as glamorous as taking the bus.
For instance, American Airlines’ Number One customer complaint was about too-little leg room. So the company decided to do something about it, in 2000 implementing a program called “More Room Throughout Coach” in 2000. This gave every passenger on the plane more leg room, at the cost of forgoing the revenue from the two rows of seats that were removed for the extra space. Just four years later, American reversed course and put the seats back in, turning its planes back into flying sardine cans. It turned out passengers weren’t actually willing to pay more for the increased leg room. They went with the cheapest fare instead.
This dynamic permeates much of American society. And it shapes American politics, too. Why is much of America’s infrastructure in poor shape? We don’t want to pay the taxes, tolls, or fees necessary to fix it—an attitude reinforced by the recognition that a growing portion of government revenue goes toward covering underfunded pension obligations for public-sector union members or gets wasted on unproductive subsidies.
American politicians understand this. That’s why they frequently promise voters something for nothing, or free stuff with other people’s money. Republicans promise to “eliminate fraud and waste” or to increase government revenues somehow by slashing taxes, or through some other cost-free method. Democrats say that they are going to tax “the rich,” such as when New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio said that he would give all New Yorkers free pre-K education, funded by a special surtax on high-income households (i.e., somebody else).
European social democracies offer extensive government services and generously funded safety-net programs. But these come with high taxes for the average citizen. Few American politicians are willing to advocate explicitly for that. They keep promising citizens a free lunch. And why not? It seems to be what we want to hear: there’s some magic elixir that can transmute lead into gold.
The populists are right that corporate, governmental, and cultural elites have too often let America down, and even sometimes acted disgracefully. But that doesn’t mean that the man on the street is off the hook. Just because someone else is guilty doesn’t mean that we’re all innocent. If populism takes a high view of the ordinary citizen, then it should also recognize the importance of these citizens’ decisions in shaping the world we live in.
Those who complain, often justifiably, about politicians, corporations, and the media need to apply the same standards and scrutiny to their own behavior. We all have to recognize the role we’ve played in creating the problems facing us. There’s no doubt that government policies and corporate behavior need to improve. But if we want better customer service from big companies, better infrastructure, and better communities, then part of the solution has to include us paying for it.
It’s true that for many Americans, money has been tight. Not everyone can afford to pay more for necessities. But flying rarely falls into that category. And most of us could pick at least a few areas where we’re willing to pay more to get something better. Until we start demanding better and being willing to pay for better, we’re not likely to get anything better. Meantime, we fly the not-so-friendly skies.
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