Thin Slices of Humiliation: Airlines, Net Neutrality, Healthcare, and the Age of Trump
Last week, I got to LAX early for a flight to Maui on Hawaiian Air. It’s been decades since I flew Hawaiian Air. So, I had no status and was assigned to Group Four. After the specials, I watched while the relatively few Group Ones and then the large Group Two cohort lined up to board. I had to move as the long queue formed right through where I had been standing since the first notice. The Group Threes crowded around the entryway. As always, I edged up toward the ropes to be at the head of my group, hoping in that way to preserve any possibility of getting space in an overhead bin. I needn’t have worried. It was a big plane, and there was plenty of room. Besides, a whole boy’s school was in Group Five.
As I chewed over my morning ration of humiliation, I thought about our culture of privilege, the status ladder finely graded with many rungs, each perk like a translucent slice of truffle: so thin you can see through it — but you want it anyway, any and all goodness that may come to you.
And I realized that this system — widely replicated on all airlines, and even, at times, reflecting the growing separation between haves and have-nots: the private airborne stateroom on Saudi Air in contrast with the cattle car in the back — is built into our society to a profound degree.
And then it struck me that this is how it will be in the world after Net Neutrality as well. Instead of an Internet with all packets delivered democratically, fast and slow lanes will be established, and even likely multiple shades of lane speed, and our beautiful, free, and open network will become a carefully designed toll road controlled by arbitrary owners (principally Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast in the United States), eager to maximize the monetization of their assets.
And I wouldn’t bet on competition coming to the aid of the common man. By now, only fools haven’t figured out that sharing the benefits of collusion and oligopoly is much more profitable than actual competition. Only myopic economics professors still teach about a perfectly competitive market, a place like Brigadoon or Never Never Land, a place where different rules apply. No. All the airlines board first class passengers first, clogging up the front of the plane so they can wave their oversize derrieres around getting comfortable while everyone else waits. And then avert their eyes as the angry hoi polloi stream past. No matter that there’s a mathematically correct way to schedule boarding for quickest load time. It’s not the collective good here that’s being addressed. Never mind the summed suffering of the multitudes so that a few, who may or may not have earned their advantage, can enjoy their slightly — or at times hugely — better circumstances.
The dealers of these benefits have to make the low end crappy to prod the people into the middle or higher so as to bill them more. Used to get a pillow? Now, you can rent a pillow — if you can afford it. Why all the Group Twos? Because they have been prodded upward by the desire not to be at the very bottom, but can’t afford the top.
This is how a non-Net Neutrality world will look. The slow lane will be crappy. The middle will be more expensive than what people get today. And the top will be state-of-the art. Instantaneous movie downloads. Rapid connections.
Just like our tattered healthcare system. While the Swiss, Swedish, Dutch, and Danish have better average overall health, there is some high end in the United States as good or better than any of them. And the agonizing masses below can’t even afford to die with dignity.
And little hope of anything improving anytime soon. Trump and his awful minions, enablers, and hangers-on are in ascent, put there by us, if I have to take some responsibility for our hapless fellow citizens, bamboozled and hypnotized by these snake charmers, who seem to have learned their tricks from their brethren, Putin and his Russian oligarchs.
You can only have better if someone else has worse. It’s no wonder that the United States scores low on measures of happiness. Everyone is always looking over their shoulder, regardless of which rung of the ladder they occupy. The system is its own discipline. Even those best off can’t enjoy it for fear of losing what they’ve got.
How did we come to this?