Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Classless No More

One of the things I loved about the USA when I was young was that we were a classless society. As I got older I was more realistic; I celebrated that we were much less of a class-based society than others around the world.
But in our new Gilded Age we are losing even the appearance of classlessness.
Today I saw a cartoon by one of my favorite cartoonists, Jen Sorenson, that illustrates the new class-stratification. Not long ago Thanksgiving was an almost universal holiday. Only those who filled the essential jobs in our society—police, nurse, firemen—worked on that day. Now of course, with Black Friday starting ever earlier, more and more of the working class are being required to work as if this holiday were just another day of the week. Sorensen writes, “Like so many aspects of American life, holidays have become two-tiered.” 

Lots of people will be flying this Thanksgiving weekend and have a front-row seat, if you will, to the increasingly class-tiered airlines. I don’t fly often, but last summer I went to see family. I bought my ticket four months in advance and was surprised at how limited the seat choices were. When I was waiting to board my first flight I learned the reason: the airlines are now selling access to aisle seats, selling the right to board early to get first-crack at the overhead bins, etc. As the gate attendant called off the boarding zones I realized I was in the “brown” group, one of the pitiful povs who boarded last (nod to SouthPark).
Frank Bruni wrote about these changes in our society in a recent New York Times op-ed entitled “The Extra Legroom Society,” describing the new, tiered systems at amusement parks:
Six Flags…offers some half-dozen gradations of access and coddling, from a high-priced position near the front of every line to a much less expensive ticket and much longer waits. There are levels — regular, gold, platinum… [Six Flags] has something called The Flash Pass, named for the superhero. A regular version of it costs at least $50 on top of general admission, but for at least $80, you get faster access to rides, and for $110, you get that plus the ability to go around on a ride twice in a row. Your second spin pre-empts some eager, nearby aspirant’s first.
I personally find this appalling. I went to Six Flags a lot as a teen-ager and a part of the experience was that everyone was equal; everyone had to wait their turn. This stratification isn’t just for amusement parks, it’s increasingly present in other areas, Bruni writes:
Broadway theaters have premium seating, which is so expensive that a high roller can often get the best real estate at the last minute. It’s as if scalping has come out of the closet, louder and prouder in an age of unapologetic elitism. Luxury boxes now take up more space in stadiums than ever; elsewhere in some ballparks, the differences between sections involve not just better views but finer food and a more solicitous staff.
Obamacare has tiers: the plans are called bronze, silver, and gold. Instead of universal health care, we got a continuation of the current system of excellent coverage for the rich and poor coverage for the poor. The bronze plans cover only 60% of medical expenses, after a large deductible. That means poor people will still be racking up large bills even with health insurance (there is a cap on annual expenses, but even if it’s $6000-10,000 that’s still a lot of money if you’re poor). 
I’m self-employed and have been buying health insurance on the open market for years. The way I could afford it was to have a “catastrophic” policy with a deductible of $5000, and 20% of bills up to a certain limit. Ten years ago I was hospitalized for a couple of days. I actually ended up cancelling my health insurance for a couple of years because I couldn’t afford to pay back $7500 and spend $200 a month for insurance.
Some years ago I was on a nonprofit board that was considering a major fundraising drive. I pleaded with the other members not to structure the donations like so many nonprofits do, with “angel” and “benefactor” and “patron” as designations for the people who give a lot of money, and “friend” or “sponsor” (if they even get that) for the people who can only give a little. I asked, “Do you remember the story where Jesus commented on the gift of a poor widow? He said, ‘she has given more than all the others, because this was all she had.’ A person who gives $50 might be making more of a sacrifice than the person who gives $50,000.” The other members, who were all at least upper-class, looked at me oddly; I don’t think they had ever given this system a second’s thought. We didn’t end up doing the drive so I can’t say whether my idea would have made any difference.
Education is another area in which we are seeing the emergence of major class differences. Of course there have long been private schools for the wealthy, but the trend away from public schools seems to be accelerating. I am a big supporter of public schools because I think a democracy needs a classless society. Public schools mean the wealthy and the poor are mixing socially, and are receiving the same education.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the lack of a class structure in this country in Democracy in America (published in 1835), and how this contributed to the success of our democratic experiment. He compared the U.S. to his native France, which was still struggling to establish a stable democracy while fighting the legacy of aristocratic rule. He celebrated Americans’ love of equality and the lack of traditions (class and religion) that weighed European nations down.
Political scientists have what’s called a “GINI coefficient” that measures how unequal a society is. According to some research, one of the consequences of having a highly unequal society is there is less support for democracy. You can see a graph at the Wikipedia page that shows the U.S. is one of the most unequal societies among developed nations.
Perhaps the poor kids who are watching the rich kids get preferential treatment at the amusement park and the adults who are jammed in the rear of the aircraft will start getting angry. When the Occupy Wall Street movement talked about the 1%, for many people that was just an abstraction. But watching a rich kid ride twice after you’ve waited an hour in line will bring that abstraction to life. Then maybe the anger, once it’s widespread enough, will result in some greatly needed changes to our society.

Here’s the Bible quote, from Mark 12:41-44:
41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

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