QUERYING

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:

minpov

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.

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11 Responses to “QUERYING”

  1. Daniel Says:

    What's good about Southwest Airlines: No First Class. Those smug suits have to sit in the same chairs as the unwashed masses.

  2. Virginia S. Wood, Psy.D. Says:

    I am old enough to remember pre-dereg flying. In fact, I am old enough to remember Eastern. It was a little dressier–no Joe Sixpack. I wore a little Jackie O. suit (of course, she was still Jackie K. then), complete with pillbox hat, pumps, and hose. The stews were attentive. It was hideously expensive, and still miserably uncomfortable. 40+ years later I still have the occasional trans-Atlantic-flight nightmare.

    The fact that you are flying in a "tin shit-box" doesn't change regardless of price or amenities.

  3. comrade x Says:

    Flying is such a pain in the ass that I don't bother anymore. Hell, if I had to go to Santiago, Chile, I would take my chances and drive there. Even that would be better than getting stuck in the middle seat between a sweaty fat guy and a mewling brat for 6 hours.
    Also, my Mom used to tell me and my brother when we were kids that we would all own flying cars when we were forty.
    What a rip- off.

  4. Desargues Says:

    One little problem here is that you are such an outlier, as they say. You have the height of a white corporate executive, yet (I conjecture) you probably earn just a little bit better than an exploited Mexican (I'm in the same position, so I'm allowed to complain). Really, at 6'4", you're way above your national average. While the rest of your points stand — and the insight about minimum wage is very true — it's a bit unfair to complain that for-profit companies only make seats big enough for an average male, which in America is about half a foot shorter than you. (And that only includes Whites and Blacks. Some minorities are even shorter, on average — about 5'7". Also, this leaves out female average height, which is clearly less.)

    As a foreigner who escaped the Commies in search of "freedom" in god's Shiny City on a Hill, I have come to see with dismay that Anglo-Saxon peoples* will bend over and spread their buttocks for the corporate shaft quite obediently once you're indoctrinated them enough with fairy tales about the free market, personal responsibility, equal chances, and whatever else passes for official propaganda in this plutocracy. Also, for some of the American masses, there's the god shit, to complete their lobotomization. They're now ready to take whatever abuses and indignity their overlords see fit to dish out at them, as long as it's packaged in the accepted mythology. Matt Taibbi sees that clearly.

    *In England, they wait like so many sheep for trains that are chronically late, yet nobody dares ask for an explanation of such incompetence. Plus, the British have a long tradition of training their underclasses to say, 'Oh, mustn't grumble,' no matter how much the ruling elites screw them over.

  5. jazzbumpa Says:

    Shorter Ed:
    If you get to frame the argument, you've gone a long way towards winning it.

  6. comrade x Says:

    Great link, Des. But Tolstoy once said, " If you cannot explain it to a peasant, then the fault is with you, not the peasant."
    Progressives have to compete with the televised brainwashing that fills the American mind from the moment of birth. But you have to get through to the masses and win them over or we will once again see them elect a reactionary who's agenda is to wipe out all of the gains the working class has made over the last century.
    You know, the best thing about a socialist revolution would be there wouldn't be some asshole trying to sell you something every moment of your life.

  7. Desargues Says:

    Dear Comrade X — feel free to expatiate at length on the prospects for a revolution here in America. As a detached observer with some previous exposure to proletarian paradises, I hasten to note that, in the Home of the Brave, revolutionary impetus is caught in a lethal dilemma. (1) Either the "people" will start it–but the oppressed in this country seem to have succumbed forever to false consciousness, whether in the form of allegiance to Baby Jebus or to Access Hollywood. (2) Or a politically enlightened elite (would that be us eggheads?) might spark the tinderbox by grabbing power somehow–but the corporate masters would kill them in no time, then parade their heads on spikes in public, posing as defenders of liberty. This is a recipe Machiavelli suggests for holding on to power in nominal republics, in Discourses on Livy.

    Is there a third avenue that I'm missing?

  8. Fat Charlie the Archangel Says:

    I've been bitching for years about airline deregulation, specifically this fact:

    Pre-deregulation, when smoking was still allowed on planes, the air quality in cabins was actually better. By federal law, airlines that allowed smoking were required to change air filters frequently, and re-circulated air was to be kept at a minimum. But with deregulation, no new laws covering air quality on planes were drafted, so any airline that banned smoking was also free to stop giving a shit about expensive air filters. As a result, sitting on a plane is now literally sitting in a nest of wafting germs.

    Why do we let businesses get away with this shit?

  9. Evan Sultanik Says:

    Where'd you get that number for the poverty line? According to [1] it should be around $11k for a single person household. Also, am I correct to assume that the minimum wage numbers were corrected to account for inflation? If so, a more elucidating graph might be to plot uncorrected minimum wage as a percentage of the historical poverty threshold.

    [1] http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/threshld/thresh08.html

  10. comrade x Says:

    D., I never said it would be easy.
    The classic revolution, with barricades and storming of palaces, has been made impossible by television and fast food. Maybe if Obama's or some future administration drops the economic ball in some spectacular fashion, but not likely.
    More feasible would be to use current crisises inherent in capitalism to advance more control of the economy by the producers, i.e. the workers. Again not through violence, which is suicidal ( the far right in this country is going to learn that lesson… again) but through strikes, elections, demonstrations, etc.
    I guess it would be easier to be nihilstic ( hell, that's encouraged) and say " fuck it". But capitalism has proven over and over again that it cannot solve the problems that threaten our species with extinction. Think I will have a go at something else, even if it is percieved as " uncool".