Ever since I was old enough to string words into sentences I have been amazed at how regularly people seem to ask the wrong questions. Throughout the Reagan years (bearing in mind that I was given a daily ration of the era's prevailing wisdom throughout) everyone in white, suburban America was up in arms about "welfare." No one bothered to define exactly what that meant, which was unimportant so long as we all properly understood it to mean theiving government bastards stealing white people's money to give it to the coloreds so they could buy cigarettes and crack and bouncing cars. The problem was explained to Young Ed thusly: welfare was too generous, comparing favorably with the salary one would earn if working full-time at minimum wage. Why, the argument went, would anyone work if sitting at home was worth an equal paycheck?
It was, one must admit, solid logic. Staying home or working 40 hours at Pizza Hut for the same money (or close enough) is a slam dunk decision from a rational choice perspective. Thus the argument carried the appearance of logic and truth. But eight year-old Ed had to spend a lot of time wondering why everyone thought "Is the gap between welfare and minimum wage work big enough to discourage loafing?" was a more appropriate question than "Why does working 40 hours a week at the prevailing wage provide people with a sub-poverty line income which can barely house and feed single individual, if that?" The problem was always that welfare was too generous; it had to come down. Never was the problem that the minimum wage, which was a stunning $3.15 in the early 1980s, was too low. The rational choice game for the welfare recipient wasn't to work and live a decent life or to lay around collecting pitiful checks to live in abject misery – it was between working and living in abject misery or not working and getting the same. Anyone interested in facts (and really, who was back then?) would note that not once in its 80-year history has the minimum wage, if earned 40 hours weekly, hit the Federal poverty line for a family. Not once. Really:
This is why I concluded at a very young age that adults are bizarre. Reaching adulthood has given me no reason to revise that. I see this kind of red herring-vs.-Occam's Razor questioning all the time, debates which are fierce but avoid more obvious solutions, problems, and questions entirely. For instance.
We're fat. By "we" I mean Americans, although the non-American readers should note that most of the industrialized world is doing yeoman's work to close the obesity gap lately. While I recognize that obesity can result from medical problems or genetics, there's also a whole lot of American obesity that results from shoving heathen portions of disgusting food into our faces and maintaining activity levels somewhere between that of the three-toed sloth and a rock. We're fat and it's a problem. We're lazy and it's a problem.
On account of our fatness the airline industry periodically threatens to start charging us more money if we are too fat to fit in one of their seats. On the surface this is logical. More weight on the plane means more fuel and, if we happen to take up another revenue-paying seat, fewer fare-payers on board. Again, though, I think this argument is a red herring set up to let us bloviate on Fairness and how Fatty should pay up. It misses a more obvious question that I prefer to ask when I fly (which is often): why are the seats so fucking small?
I'm not a large individual. I am usually described as lanky or, in the past, too thin. But at ~6'3", most of which is limb, I am forced to shoehorn myself into coach seats. Especially with the rapid movement of domestic routes to "regional jets" with small cabins, I commonly fly with my knees in my chin. I'm not really that big. There is nothing exceptional about my size. I barely fit myself in Delta's idea of a reasonable seat. What do people who are taller than 6'3" do? What do people who weigh 400 pounds do?
The larger (pun intended) problem, in my opinion, is never discussed: the overwhelming failure of airline deregulation. Having created only the illusion of savings (believe me, you've paid back all that money you "saved" on lower fares in airline bankruptcies, fuel surcharges, and pension bailouts) while doing absolutely nothing to introduce real competition on most routes (try to find a non-Delta flight to/from Atlanta. I dare you.) it has succeeded only in setting up a market in which airlines cut every possible corner to save a nickel. The Heritage Foundation says it has given us lower fares. I say it has given us six-across seating in MD-90s and airline customer service that rivals that of a Nigerian intercity bus line.
Of course we cannot expect airlines to provide seats that will comfortably sit any conceivable passenger; if you weigh 400 pounds the experience is still going to be uncomfortable even if the seats are a couple inches wider. But can the airlines really be surprised that their seats, which can barely accomodate people of unexceptional size (and even then cannot do so comfortably) pose problems with obese customers?
Was air travel palatial before deregulation? ("Ah, for the days when aviation was a gentleman's pursuit, back before any Joe Sweatsock could wedge himself behind a lunch tray and jet off to Raleigh-Durham.") I doubt it. The point is that where airlines once competed on amenities, service, and comfort, they now compete on the only basis that American businesses understand: out-cheaping one another. And we're supposed to be thrilled that we can fly AirTran on some winged tin shitbox for $180 while being charged for our baggage and asked to open our wallets by surly, overworked flight attendants who are too busy worrying about what happened to their benefits to care about passengers. Maybe I'm nuts, but asking why airlines are so strapped that they have to charge for the extra few ounces of fuel that a heavy passenger necessitates or why airline seats are apparently designed for small children makes more sense than having an argument about whether or not it's Right to charge fat people more.