Income Inequality’s Next Frontier: The Economy Class On Airplanes

Booking an Economy ticket for a recent flight, I had a choice between paying $25 extra for a window seat and a bunch of middle seats at the back of the plane.

Weeks later, in line at security check, the ticket screener told the woman in front of me that she couldn’t have a carry-on and would have to go back to the desk to check her bag. She had chosen a “Basic Economy” ticket, which didn’t permit carry-ons. “I’ve never heard of such a thing,” she said, flustered. But it was, as the screener indicated, right there in bold letters on her ticket.

In that moment both she and I were ruminating on the personal flaws our booking decisions had laid bare. I was self-indulgent to pay $25 to sit next to a fucking window, and she was careless to not have noticed the restrictions on the ticket she bought. But together we were more than that. We occupied two poles of a decision that travelers on large airlines are increasingly being forced to make: pay less and get less, or pay more for things that used to be included.

To compete with the no-frill budget airlines like Spirit, Frontier, and WOW that started to eat into their market share, United, Delta, and American Airlines have all unrolled a ‘Basic Economy’ option in the past year that costs about $30 less than flying Economy. Similar to the budget airline model, passengers flying Basic Economy trade a lower price for boarding last, the inability to choose their own seats, and on United, not being allowed a carry-on.

If this were the end of the story it would read as an adept response to the marketplace by the biggest three airlines in America. It would be a win for the many U.S. fliers who have proven to care about cost over all other variables. And it would be a win—or at least a save—for the companies that were starting to lose their business.

But it’s not the end of the story.

In exchange for the cheaper option, all three airlines raised the price of flying Economy.

“Airline executives will be very honest. They aren’t offering Basic Economy because they want people to buy Basic Economy. They are offering it because they want you to pay up the higher fare. That’s the whole purpose of the construct,” Samuel Engel told CBS News, who serves as a leading airline consultant for the management consulting firm ICF.

Fare isn’t the only thing you now have to pay extra for as an Economy flier. Airline executives at Delta, United, and American have also repackaged a significant number of window and aisle seats, as well as seats towards the front of the section, as “Preferred Seats” that cost even more money to book. The exact number and location of ‘Preferred Seats’ varies by flight and by airline: a Delta flight from New York City to Detroit shows sixteen Preferred Seats within a much larger Economy section—window and aisle seats that cost anywhere from $36 to $60 more. Meanwhile, a United flight from Newark to Los Angeles has 58 Preferred Seats—every window, aisle, and middle seat in the entire front half of the Economy section. The seats, which used to be free with your ticket, now range from $18-29 extra.


Seating map for an upcoming United flight from Newark to Los Angeles.

Other than in name, Preferred Seats haven’t been upgraded in any way. They don’t have more cushioning or more legroom than before. They simply aren’t the worst seats on the plane. They’re ‘Preferred’ because they’re better than sitting near the bathroom. Because you get off the plane a few minutes sooner than the last people to get off the plane. That’s what makes them cost money now.

The whiff of injustice might be about more than consumer value. What was likely a level-headed business decision by these companies almost feels like a retaliatory smack for having been forced to adjust to the market at all. Maybe that’s because of the history: large airlines have spent the past decade consolidating from nine to four, raising their prices as consumers’ alternatives shrunk. Recognizing this, WOW and Spirit came on the scene—and started to succeed at the large airlines’ expense. If you were the type of person who believes in the invisible hand, this would be your proof that it—not some trust-busting government—can solve consumer problems naturally. But, again, it wasn’t enough for the big airlines to merely win some of their customers back by better serving their needs with a cheaper option. They didn’t interpret the loss as a sign of where their natural limits lied. They instead used the bleak experience that most budget airline customers will confess to as leverage to force everyone who doesn’t want it, to pay more simply because they don’t want it. And, as an ancillary benefit, any customer who feels it’s unfair how much the airline is now charging them to sit in a not-bad seat in Economy is compelled to internalize the complaint as their own failing. Because, after all, there is a cheaper option.

Against a backdrop of growing income inequality, the flight parallel is poetic: like the Economy Class, the middle class is shriveling. A widening gulf of affordability is reflected in an airplane seating map. A few large companies continue to track profits as what used to be a baseline is harder for people to attain.

Yet it makes the intersection all too real: one more basic, decent thing is a little more out of reach than it used to be—a thing that’s being paid for, in the majority of cases, with money from a salary that’s increasingly struggling to afford other basic decent things.

Chick-fil-A While Gay?

I was on my way to a gay club with a few friends when we passed a Midtown Chick-fil-A. “Chick-fil-A!”, one of them, who is gay, exclaimed. “I know they hate gay people, but their chicken sandwiches are so good. It should be illegal how good they are.” This is where most queer people I know, including me, tend to come down on Chick-fil-A. Yes, their contributions, but –it’s so good. The rule is, you have to bring the contributions up. “I’m not a sloth living under a rock,” it communicates. “I know exactly where these people stand on me.” Once you get that part out of the way, you get to project ease and confidence, rather than self-doubt, as you admit that you like the chain. You get to be woke…and then you get to be the person that doesn’t take themselves too seriously.

I was seventeen the first time I ate Chick-fil-A, on my way home after visiting friends and family in Dallas for spring break. My friend Annie, who was always cool and always southern, had spoken nostalgically about her 6-piece chicken minis order with a side of honey butter. When my aunt asked if I wanted food on the way to the airport and I requested a place I imagined to be “Chick Filet,” the surprise in her voice told me that my Texas insider credit had just soared. This meant something to me, a California girl adorning cowboy boots who wished she was from the south.

I didn’t know about their millions in contributions to antigay groups at the time, but I doubt I would have brought it back to me if I had. I was still holding out hope that being bisexual—or worse, gay—was something that would fade away with my first step onto a college campus the following year, where I would finally have the opportunity to know boys after six years in an all-girls’ school. My fear, the way I saw it, would disappear when my situational chastity did.

It didn’t. Neither did my sexual orientation. And neither, it turns out, did my strong and enduring desire to eat Chick-fil-A.

The weird part of the craving is that I’ve maybe eaten Chick-fil-A five times in my life. I don’t particularly like fast food. Waffle House is just as notoriously southern but I never want to eat there. I might contemplate getting something from Popeye’s three times a year, which still serves chicken but manages not to bring up the notion of gayness. I debate if I should get something from Chick-fil-A every time I pass one.

“Maybe they’re donating to Focus on the Family for other reasons,” I’ll tell myself, “and they see their anti-gay stuff as a way way side thing of an otherwise lovely organization.” When that gets inevitably ruled out, it’s on to, “well I’m the one that’s affected here. If anyone gets to say it’s okay, it’s me.” A couple laps around the Concourse B food court at the Philadelphia Airport later, I’m wondering if they’re not really saying that marriage is just some obscure covenant that Paul liked to talk about and that’s the only reason they’re so finnicky about the thing. They just want to preserve their dear traditions from diffusion, like an overbearing Jewish mother who only wants her son to marry another Jew. Nothing personal.

I wonder why I so desperately need Chick-fil-A and me to fit together. I don’t find myself lamenting that the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Wildlife would find me unsuitable for employment. When my thoughts wander to Mike Pence, though, I suddenly live out our hypothetical interaction in vivid detail. The thing is—here’s the thing about me and Mike Pence—I bet he would really like me if he met me, even once he knew I wasn’t straight. Mike Pence would enjoy me. Right? Yeah. No, for sure. I can just tell. I would find a hidden something that we had in common and he would love it and we would develop this chummy inside joke and—imagine that for long enough, and you’re no longer someone who needs to be corrected in another person’s eyes. You’re the person who’s valuable enough to have changed their mind.

The same mental negotiation is even more tempting with Chick-fil-A, because no matter how outwardly gay you are, the only side of the company that you interact with as a customer is bound to give you a positive experience. It’s a core value at Chick-fil-A to be nice to everybody—something they like to repeat when they’re hit with criticism for their contributions. They’re nice to everybody, and whether or not you arrive draped in the rainbow flag, they’ll be nice to you, too. You’ll interact with someone friendly in a polo shirt who has guaranteed zero authority over where the company’s money is spent. You’ll open your box with the cute cursive handwriting. You’ll eat your chicken minis. And that’s about it. You could do this same pleasing routine every day for the rest of your content and probably overweight gay life, and never encounter a single person who ever treats you as less-than in your long stretch of roadside dining at the Ceder Parkway Plaza. And somehow, all that time, the same place that made your mornings happy ones will have been funneling millions towards shocking younger you into a different person.

How could that be? They liked you.

I just want to be a cute southern girl who eats chicken minis with a side of honey mustard and wears oversized sorority t-shirts. Or even better, a cute conscientious southern girl who refuses to eat chicken minis or even set eyes on those free honey mustard packets because of what that evil chain is doing to her beloved uncles and singular friend from high school who are just as worthy as she is, damnit!

Having to refrain from eating at a chain because of what it believes about you is like wanting to play Cher from Clueless but instead casting yourself as her earthy Aunt Susan, the one who always brings her “friend” to Thanksgiving. Aunt Susan isn’t really a character, she’s a punchline, but she’s the only option if we accept Chick-fil-A for what it really is rather than what we want it to be. You’re either breezy, cute, fun, lighthearted—not the type to think about things like corporate financial disclosures, and straight—not the type to have to, or you’re the flattened victim of an identity, the downer who has to bring it up when all the other characters are just trying to have a fun day.

“The Reasonables”

I was speaking to an investment banker who said he believes taxes on the one percent are way too high. We got to talking about how partisan gridlock defined much of Obama’s presidency.

“If it were me,” he told me, “I would say, ‘Hey, we’re all reasonable people. We’re going to sit down in this room and we’re not going to come out until we come up with something we can all agree to.’”

Forget the fact that Obama probably thought of that. Forget the fact that Mitch McConnell vowed that the GOP’s number-one priority was to make Obama a one-term president. “We’re all reasonable people” is the part of that exchange that still fascinates me. Nobody’s going to expect an investment banker to want to pay more in taxes. But what, in his resistance to doing so, made him so certain he was one of the reasonables?

In 1965, the average CEO’s pay was 20 times greater than what the average employee at their company took home. In 2016, it was 271 times greater.

Before 1980, the top one percent controlled 22% of America’s wealth. Today, they control almost 40%.

Since 1980, the average pretax income of the top tenth of Americans has doubled, that of the top one percent has more than tripled, and that of the top 0.001 percent has septupled—while the average pretax income of the bottom fifty percent has hardly budged.

In spite of all this, many members of the top one percent like the person I was speaking to are still insisting that their taxes are too high. Meanwhile, they’re funding candidates more—not less—than they used to, in part so they can tell them the same thing. In 1980, the top 0.01 percent of earners accounted for 15% of all campaign contributions. In 2012, that number was 41%.

With each passing year that one percenters do this, they grow, by definition, decreasingly reasonable. A top one percenter who insists their taxes are too high is—if you wanted to put it into numbers—three times crazier today than they would have been in 1980. In their defense, we as humans don’t walk through the world with the hypothetical decades-ago version of us as a yardstick for how well we’re doing. It’s the job of a politician to legislate with those facts and figures in mind.

Most elected Democrats don’t, though. You could chock it up to corruption from campaign contributions, and that’s obviously a big part. But I think there’s something else going on: something much more innocuous and possibly more powerful, too. Most politicians see themselves as reasonable. Reasonable politicians don’t antagonize any one group. They know enough corporate CEOs and investment bankers to understand that they aren’t Gordon Gekko caricatures, and don’t believe in villainizing them as if they were. They bring everyone to the table. They seek compromise.

Which brings us to the old school political reverence for compromise in the first place, to the shoe-leather belief in getting all stakeholders to the table and pounding something out that won’t be perfect, that won’t satisfy any single interest all the way, but it will exist. This is how we move forward, according to most presidential biographies and Parks and Rec episodes.

The problem with income inequality is, the large corporations and top 1% aren’t, as we covered, lightening their demands even as they a) control an increasing share of the wealth, and b) comprise a growing number of those stakeholders invited to the table. Meaning that while the compromise skillfully brokered by the savvy and studious politician who believes in that sort of thing will come out somewhere in the middle, with each passing year that the rich get richer and the middle class deteriorates, ‘the middle’ is less and less reasonable place for a solution to land.

So I think we see a riff : it’s only Democrats who stridently oppose big-money influence—like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—who take a stand for income inequality, and then the hundreds of others who without a doubt care, but don’t really make a splash on the issue. Who can blame them? Reasonable people round up other reasonable people and they sit down in a room to resolve the big problems of the day. Let’s say a decent number of those folks in the room—high earners, yes, but thoughtful ones, experienced ones, reasonable ones—take issue with a policy. A policy that strikes them as radical. Reasonable people take that into account. Of course they do.

But—and they’d never know this—to the vast majority of the population, to the ones that have been flailing under the status quo, what’s radical is this group of well-heeled problem-solvers refusing to address their problems properly, paired with their blind confidence that they already are. People are different, but who knows. Some might skip over the policies themselves and direct their anger towards this comically confident group. They might line up behind the first charismatic rich person who technically should belong to the group, but has been kicked out and scorned because has the guts, in their view, to tap into their escalating intuition that these people don’t care about them. Maybe they’ll discredit the news they report and spread their own version just to spite them. Doing unreasonable things—because if there’s a group of people running things that thinks they’re so reasonable and exclusively surrounds themselves with other people who also think they’re so reasonable, you gotta tell them that they aren’t, right? You should probably find a way to tell them that they aren’t. Something really big. Something that catches their attention.

The democratic party’s soul search

JFK didn’t randomly decide to land the first man on the moon. His announcement that we’d be the ones to do it by the end of the decade came on the heels of fifteen years of escalating competition with the Soviets. They were grilling us in the space race and this was how we were going to best them. Two years earlier, as a way of competing with the communistic vision of the future, Nixon co-hosted highly televised exhibitions with Khrushchev where they each showed off the latest and greatest home appliances their countries had invented. It was 1961 now and winds of rock and roll, sexual liberation, and civil rights were catapulting us out of the domestic centrifuge of growth and progress that had powered the previous decade, which was quickly starting to seem quaint. It was audacious, but only natural, that the moon would be our next frontier.

Ever since the day after the 2016 election, media commentators have been talking about how the Democratic Party needs to “do some soul searching”.  About how we need a bold new vision that inspires people to be a part of the party beyond just being anti-Trump. Like JFK’s call to land man on the moon, we need something big, something new, that galvanizes us and brings us together.

The conversation always manages to trail off before they reach the specifics, though. Two years in and it still lives in this esoteric, hypothetical lull. Concrete policies aren’t listed—not definitively, at least. It just needs to be something, the commentators conclude before moving on to the latest breaking Trump news.

The weird part of this conversation’s seemingly permanent hypothetical state is that you don’t have to look around very hard to see a bunch of distinct movements on the ground, or national conversations on the verge of movements. All of the following has started or grown significantly since Trump got elected: People are talking about single-payer healthcare a lot. A report just came out that climate change is escalating way faster than we thought it was—and conversations about a “Green New Deal” are the most excited people have been about solving climate change since An Inconvenient Truth came out. Tens of thousands of low-income workers have been marching about the fact that they live in poverty while working forty hours or more per week—they’re calling for a $15 minimum wage, and cities are starting to agree. We’re losing a record number of teachers because they’re paid so abysmally—posts about teachers having to cover their classroom supplies routinely go viral, and the nation watched as public school teachers protested about their wages and pensions in the conservative states of Kentucky and Oklahoma. Millennial college graduates are talking about how they’re straddled in student loan debt and can’t afford the basics of life; economists are talking about how this is going to drag our economy.

The only way to explain the fact that this conversation about the Democrats’ plan still goes nowhere, which is a conversation between professional politicians and media commentators who are trained to observe America, is that they don’t want the solutions these people are calling for to be the party’s platform. It’s not that they can’t think of any possibilities, it’s that they can’t think of any within the confines that bind them. Sure, they want a bold plan that invigorates and inspires voters—you’d better believe they’re coming up with one for 2020—just not this one. Of course they’re going to propose solutions that alleviate Americans’ suffering—just not the ones that are already drawing thousands of them out of their houses and into the streets.

What they have yet to realize is that movements have to be a natural outgrowth of the places that the times are driving people towards. You can’t observe where the masses are headed and be like, “nah—but how about some other thing instead?”

You can choose to lead a movement, or you can choose to resist it. What you can’t do is capture all of the energy of a group of people fighting for something without delivering on anything that gave them the energy in the first place.*

We’re barreling towards 2020 without a platform—not on purpose, but by accident, because we have a fallback. Forward movement isn’t the only human driver: fear of moving backwards can be, too. And it’s a lot easier to respond to the latest astonishing Trump thing than to come to terms with the fact that you’re holding your own people back.

*An example of the Democrats trying to capture the energy of a movement sans movement: when scores of media commentators and centrist Democrats said to Bernie, when he lost the primary, “you’re going to deliver your base to Hillary, right?!?!?!” They were of course saying this out of strategic necessity, but I want to point out the glaring error in their assumption that the leader of a movement can corral their followers like that: the reason Bernie had such an enthusiastic base in the first place was because of what he was offering that others weren’t. And the thought that he could inject that somewhere else that didn’t offer those things and conjure the same enthusiasm reveals how shallow the Democrats’ thinking on voters and platforms is.

Different types of lotteries

This is Colin Jost talking about the Amazon HQ2 announcement last week on SNL’s Weekend Update:

“By the way, only New Yorkers could complain about getting 25,000 new jobs. All the cities who lost out must be like, ‘shut up you whiney bitches’. New York basically won the lottery and we’re like, ‘oh, but the subways might be slightly more crowded.’ Meanwhile, people in West Virginia are like, ‘well? Back to the mines!’”

When he says, ‘New York basically won the lottery’, Jost is invoking the lottery we play in gas stations, the ones run by Mega Millions and Powerball. A bunch of people pay into a fund and a few lucky winners based on sheer chance get to keep it all.

People who play the gas station lottery are often scoffed at for wasting their money on something with such long odds. High-brow society says it’s a stupid bet. But the Powerball winner is funded by and only by the people who think it’s not a stupid bet—by other people trying to win the Powerball. It would be as if the Rio Olympics were only funded by people in Rio who wanted the Olympics to be there.

That’s not how the Olympics work, though: just look at Rio. In spite of the fact that Rio de Janeiro has some of the worst income inequality in the world, in spite of the fact that Brazil was entering the worst recession it had seen since the 1930s, and in spite of the clear evidence that the Olympics do not financially benefit their host countries, that they often, instead, bankrupt them, Rio threw down $13 billion to host the games.

What explains the government officials that continue to insist in spite of all evidence that the Olympics pay for themselves through tourism and temporary jobs? It’s the narrative they get. It’s the world stage glory. That’s what they’re really paying for. Like Powerball hopefuls paying for the narrative of ‘I just might be the winner’, these government officials are bidding for a feeling and a story.

Unlike the Powerball, though, the Olympic lottery would still go on whether or not the people paying for it thought that narrative was worth it.

If you’re the mayor of a city like New York, the narrative of ‘we’re emerging as the East Coast rival of Silicon Valley’ is valuable and exciting. Maybe enough to pay $3 billion for Amazon, even though you’re New York and you didn’t really need to. Your people don’t really give a damn about being the East Coast rival of Silicon Valley…but you do.

Colin Jost is right and he’s wrong at the same time. New York is one of the only cities in America that would complain about Amazon coming to town. We shouldn’t take from this that New Yorkers somehow suck and have a massive case of #firstworldproblems. It should instead be a sign that our lottery is askant. Cleveland could have used those jobs. Same with Nashville, Austin, and Denver, which are all desirable middle-sized cities where young talent would have been more than willing to locate. New York and DC got them, though, where the players say it was worth it even though the payers say otherwise.

There are different types of lotteries.

Democracy on purpose

True, participatory democracy should be about so much more than voting. We know this—but besides occasional rallies and letter-writing, few things come to mind. Maybe this has nothing to do with the options that are available to us and everything to do with how much or how little we’ve built deliberate cultures around the things we do.

Voting is an action, but Election Day is a culture. A culture that we do on purpose. The waiting in line at your local rec center or fire station or dance studio. The background noise of holes being punched through thick paper. The sticker. At home you turn on the network news ahead of time because you want to feel the anticipation before the results pour in and all of the national channels have special programming designed to make you feel like today is a big day. The culture is distinct—and it’s fun, too.

There are countless open slots in participatory democracy that we could build a culture around. There’s no culture around getting into an accidental political debate with friends or family, for instance, with the goal of arriving somewhere new together. Maybe it’s no wonder that we avoid these conversations even though they would strengthen our ability to communicate our own opinions and deepen our understanding of others’. There’s no shared playbook, and as a result, when the opportunities crop up, we feel unsafe.

We could make new rituals, new norms, an entirely new taxonomy designed to make these conversations productive and fun.

I was at an activist meeting the other day, and two activists sitting next to each other realized they had similar, interconnected ideas that they each wanted to share.

“You wanna stack?” one said to the other.

We could make stuff like that.

In praise of more noise

With anything you want to do in the world, there’s two things you need – and an awkward tension between them. On the one hand, you need domain knowledge. You need to know who came before you, you need to study the work of those in the field right now. You need heroes. You need influences.

On the other hand, you ought to have opinions about the work you see. Often, critical ones. If your intentions are genuine, if you’re not doing what you’re doing for connections or prestige or status – well, why the fuck would you get in the arena if you took a look around and thought that everything seemed just fine?

The Democratic Party seems to misinterpret criticism from progressives seeking office as a repudiation of membership on the team. You can hear it in the predictably chronic questions about “party unity” every time a Bernie Sanders-style candidate challenges a centrist incumbent. The reasoning behind the call for unity is that public in-fighting will weaken us in the general election against the Republicans. And with the scary state of affairs in our country right now, why would we ever take that risk?

I want to throw down the opposite idea: Public criticism is a virtue. Debate within a group—what some mislabel ‘in-fighting’—is a good sign. It means that our group is awake enough and diverse enough to still be alive.

My new professor at journalism school structured our first big lecture series around this James Carey quote:

“Republics require conversation, often cacophonous conversation, for they should be noisy places.”

There’s a really legendary book in 20th century American politics that often gets misinterpreted. It’s called The Vital Center and in it, the author—who was writing in 1949, during some fun Cold War/Red Scare times—told us that Democrats and Republicans need each other to balance America out and keep us from caving to global threats of socialism and totalitarianism. Those cold, capitalist Republicans need the Democrats to help them care about marginalized people, and we soft-hearted, spendthrift Dems need the Republicans to instill some discipline and national security. This tug-of-war, this counter-balance—is how we’ll protect democracy.

But—and here’s where the mass misinterpretation comes in—Schlessinger wasn’t arguing that we all become centrists and tone ourselves down. What he was saying was that all of the voices—right, left, further left, weird outspoken libertarian who thinks he has it all figured out, condescending Greenpeace activist— in clanging cacophony, in debate, and indeed, in public—that noise, aka, democracy, would be what saved us. No single way would ever be the way, no one ideology would ever save us. It was about the process itself—not the mythically perfectable ends it might promise to achieve. So to stabilize democracy—unlike any other form of government under the sun—we ironically had to embrace our lack of internal cohesion. We had to embrace bumping up against each other. Because doing so, and figuring how to mutually negotiate our way around it—was the entire point of this thing.

With that in mind, something worries me –

Newcomers to any field that seeks to serve the public are basically told to fall in line. So people with genuine intentions in politics or media tell themselves, okay – I’ll do it their way for the next 2, 4, 8 years until I get to this higher position. Then I’ll get to call all the shots. And by the time they make it there, they often find that they more or less have come to see things the same as those around them. Or, they realize that there’s another job, another election, another rung they need to climb before they can stand apart the way they’d like to stand apart. The cycle never ends, but democracies have been known to.

Democrats tell us that given the precarious state of our democracy, now really isn’t the time to be making more noise.

I say the opposite. Given the precarious state of our democracy, we need noise – more of it. In public. All together now.

The Masses are Dead, Organize Accordingly

“Who’s the leader of the modern civil rights movement?” my dad asked me over sushi.

“We had Martin Luther King Jr. Who’s your guys’ version of that?”

I told him that Shaun King was probably the closest. But even coming off of my lips, I knew it wasn’t true. The truth was that I followed Shaun King on Facebook, that I connected with his posts and looked forward to seeing them whenever they came up on my feed. He wasn’t the biggest influencer, he was my biggest influencer.

It drove the mainstream media crazy that there wasn’t a leader of Occupy Wall Street. They spent a lot of precious interview time covering the movement to democratize wealth and power by asking the many who called themselves co-organizers to pinpoint the key instigator, the—“yes, sure, you’re all leaders but who is the leader”.

What type of peasant would crowdsource their restaurant choices to a bunch of randos instead of consulting a Zagat? Why would you visit a YouTube channel that only has 110,000 followers when an Emmy-nominated show is playing on channel 7? Why would you even bother reading this blog when it’s the beginning of the month and the staff at the New York Times is kind enough to let you read any ten articles you want before the pay wall goes up?

The masses are dead, and they’re not coming back. The internet killed them. Down with it is the concept of singular leaders. Leaders don’t lead masses anymore—they lead pockets. All of us follow a bunch of different pockets. Our friends haven’t even heard of most of them.

We used to share a culture. Back when there were only 3 channels on TV, no network could afford to run a show that didn’t have mass appeal. Edges were liabilities, because your intended audience was everyone. So exceptional wasn’t the goal: adequate was. What you ended up with were sitcoms about so-called “average American families” that were crafted—intentionally—to be generic.

If you were trying to sell something, your best bet was to run ads during those generic shows—everyone would be watching. And how would you win over that heaping, faceless mass? Certainly not by being something weird or specific—something a small group would be fanatical about, but might not be for everyone. You needed to be something that would be for everyone! And how would you convey that? By being the biggest. By being chosen by authorities (“The makers of 25 automatic washers recommend Tide!”…“More doctors smoke Camel than any other cigarette.”)

We can start to see that the instructions we gave to journalists to “be neutral; fashion yourself as an authority; get placed on the biggest network” weren’t about some unyielding allegiance to impartiality. They were the foundations of the industrial business model. Offend too many people and lose the mass. Lose the mass and get scrubbed off the limited number of on-air channels.

In the post-industrial age, the riskiest thing you can do is to try to be for everyone. We’re living in an age of tribes: not just political tribes but those of bloggers, speakers, and creators who step up to share a message that means something to a relatively small and distinct group. There’s no limit on the number of YouTube channels we can follow, and someone with 5,000 true fans could have more influence than someone with 500,000 tepid ones…so no need to sand down your edges to try and be the voice of a movement. That isn’t a thing anymore. We’ll probably see through you if you try. We’re not trusting our new leaders because they’re “authorities” but because they’ve built a secret clubhouse and invited us in. “Neutrality” doesn’t grant them influence—emotional labor does.

News networks are responding to the death of the mass by becoming increasingly partisan. By increasingly stoking our anger at, and fear of, the other side. It’s not some ethereal moral mystery—it’s their attempt to fit into this new world of tribes while still maintaining a heaping mass of viewers enough to stay on primetime.

How far left or right you skew is a very narrow and flat view of what a tribe can be.

PS…

When traditional journalists warn us that the internet is sending us down a dangerous spiral into a post-truth world, they’re smushing two things together:

  • the more-recent concern of “how do we stop malicious actors from spreading lies to vast swaths of the population,”

        with

  • the steady dissolution of their perceived authority over news and the telling of it

And when establishment politicians warn us that ‘social media is polarizing us’ when the candidate they and all their colleagues recommended still loses, they’re smushing two things together:

  • the fact that that social media is polarizing us

       with

  •  the fact that nobody cares what the establishment recommends anymore

 

Subscribe here to get my weekly email newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday morning.

Funny Thing About Charity…

Walmart routinely tops the list of the world’s most generous companies. And for good reason. It donates 90 million pounds of fresh food per year to Feeding America. In 2015 alone, it pledged $100 million to advance economic mobility for retail workers. It gave out $47 million in grants to local fire departments, law enforcement agencies, schools, and rec centers in the communities where it operates.

The biggest group of food stamp recipients in the country is full-time employees at Walmart. We pay $6.2 billion in taxes every year to support them. In its notorious political spending to hold down the minimum wage and eliminate union protections, Walmart strives to prevent its workers from living a life in which its hunger alleviation partnership would be less necessary. In its notorious lobbying to slash corporate taxes, it funds both local fire departments and those who work to ensure those fire departments will continue to need it.

Last week, Amazon successfully bullied the Seattle City Council into cancelling a homelessness alleviation tax. The tax—which the Council had already passed unanimously—sought to fix something that the Amazon headquarters in large part created by pricing most residents out of the housing market and prompting a rampant homelessness problem within just a few years. In its original form, the tax charged $500-per-employee, per year, on corporations that made more than $20 million per year within the city. But when Amazon responded by halting construction on a building downtown, putting 7,000 jobs in immediate jeopardy, the council brought it down to $275-per-employee.

At that, Amazon resumed construction, but joined forces with the likes of Starbucks and Microsoft (also headquartered in Seattle) to sponsor a mass PR campaign against the tax.

Last Monday, the Council voted 7-2 to cancel the tax that all nine of them voted for just four weeks earlier.

This may not surprise you. But perhaps these two Jeff Bezos tweets will. Mary’s Place is a homeless shelter in Seattle:

He tweeted this next one last week, the day after he got the homelessness tax cancelled:

So what gives? Why do corporations insist that we’re “anti-business” to tax them more or demand they pay their workers a higher minimum wage, and then proceed to give away hundreds of millions of dollars to provide the exact services for the exact populations that their taxes and wage hikes were designed to address? Why do some wealthy people fund both hospital wings and lobbyists to free themselves from the requirement to help others afford the visit?

As progressives, we say that the root problem is greed. I think that’s an incomplete answer, and a little bit lazy. Donating millions of your own dollars to charity and public projects is, let’s face it—by-definition not greedy.

Consider instead this quote by Nietzsche:

 

When the democracy vanishes, and with it any kind of social contract, there is no use to feed the “useless/excluded” anymore. Therefore, the excluded disappear and the upper classes depend less than ever on the society. Already today, the members of the upper classes of the world are more close to each other than they are to the excluded of their own country.

We see this in our neighborhoods, where income segregation has increased 20% since 1990. We see it in the global rise in gated communities over just the past decade. In the national surge of private police forces.

Why would you pay into a safety net that you don’t need and can’t imagine needing? Why would you allow the government to siphon off even more of your earnings to support a flailing group of Americans that keeps growing in size as it shrinks in relevance to you?

That’s what charity is for.

The problem with charity is that it does nothing to address the inequalities in capitalism that make the giver’s charity so necessary in the first place. Clean water, feeding the hungry, getting the homeless back on their feet—charities that work on these issues are irreproachable. Wealthy individuals and large corporations that donate their millions here are irreproachable.

But requiring them and all their peers to pay the type of wages and taxes that would diminish the world’s need for their boundless charity, and indeed, would diminish their and their companies’ ability to be boundless in their charity?

Then, it’s war.

And that’s the difference.

I do well in red states

In 2nd grade, my teacher Mrs. Bahedry decided to conduct a poll. “Raise your hands,” she said—in the fall of 2000, an election year—“if your parents are voting for Al Gore.” A sea of hands went up. This was a private school in Bel Air, a notoriously wealthy—and, at least according to this sample, liberal—enclave. “Now raise your hands if they’re voting for Bush.” Only Julia Carroll and I raised our hands. Julia looked embarrassed. I was stoked. The same way I desperately wanted to break my arm or be on crutches or have to wear glasses—something happens to you, that’s out of your control, that makes you stand out and get special attention? What could be better?—I was elated to be part of this apparent minority that, apparently, carried some sort of meaning.

Mrs. Bahedry nodded as she contemplated Julia’s hand (which was practically buried in her armpit at this point) and mine (soaring in the sky): “Very interesting,” she said. She was taking it all in.

I sat down at the dinner table that night and told my parents the story of just how delightfully unique they were. But their facial expressions gave off more of an ‘a bomb just went off’ vibe. It wasn’t until years later that I understood why.

Mrs. Bahedry was peeking—and it clearly wasn’t because she didn’t intensely judge our parents no matter what.

Looking past the highly immoral methods of a second grade teacher, how many times in the past year have we each wanted to peek? Have we met a stranger who we liked and then, based on something in the way they talked or where we met them, thought, “Oh shit. What if they voted for so-and-so?”

I wonder if George Strait is for or against gay marriage. I get the creeping nervous feeling that he might be against it as I listen to Cowboys Like Us—which, for the record, is a delightful song that has nothing to do with politics, but the concern has arrived ready-made and I can only dismiss it by thinking, he’s probably for it. He’s been in the entertainment industry too long not to accept the LGBT community.

It’s as if I can only enjoy his work—which, as a reminder, is singing songs—if I can delude myself into believing that he has the same politics as I do.

Increasingly, when considering the people around us whose ideologies we do not know, we present ourselves with the following choice: to peek or not to peek? “Peeking” because we wonder if we want to know about the political views of, say, our favorite neighbor in the same spirit as we wonder if we should listen in on what’s said about us after we leave a room: risk learning something we don’t like? Or continue to live in a state of blissful ignorance? Just like right before we peek, the trademark emotion in this dilemma is nervousness: nervousness because we know, deep down, if they turn out to have politics we’re opposed to, we’re going to have a hard time liking that person as much as we thought we did. If they turn out to share ours, on the other hand, we’ll breathe a sigh of relief and like them even more.

Americans having different views from members of the opposite political party is nothing new. What is new is our fear that the people we know, like, and live near may indeed be members of that other party. As Bill Bishop writes in his book on the geographic clustering of like-minded America, in 1976, less than 25 percent of us lived in counties where the presidential election was a landslide. Meaning that 75 percent of us lived, went to school with, and played poker with people who were likely to have different beliefs than we did. Compare that to today. The statistic has flipped: 80 percent of Americans live in counties where either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton won in a landslide. Meaning that only 20 percent of us are living in places where we don’t expect the person we’re talking to in the grocery store line to have the same stance on abortion as we do. Only 20 percent of us are living in places where it wouldn’t be a potential piece of gossip that so-and-so voted for the other candidate.

One good example of ideological migration is a 1976 San Francisco County, where the Republican Gerald Ford got 44 percent of the vote. In 2004, George W. Bush got 15 percent of the vote. As Thomas Jackson of American Variety puts it and Bishop confirms in his data, “Republicans did not all die or convert; they cleared out”.

Ideological sorting, in other words, didn’t happen because neighbors influenced each other, but because they chose each other. It also coincides with a particular separate but interrelated trend: Americans are moving way more than they used to. More young people than ever are moving to cities where they didn’t grow up and more families are moving, too.

The changing job market, a growing emphasis on “lifestyle”, the skyrocketing cost of rent in major cities—the factors impelling us to move are rarely ideological on the surface. It’s not like a footloose liberal is looking up Multnomah County’s election stats before making the big leap…but well-known identity cues like “artsy”, “entrepreneurial”, “yuppie haven”, and “sanctuary city” leads them to conclude all the same that Portland, Oregon is a place where they’re bound to encounter plenty more of their own kind. A conservative doesn’t need to ask about politics to know what a town with a big Veteran’s Day parade and “strong hunting culture” connotes. We’re not using these gratingly cliché, horrifyingly simplified cues to define how we think about ourselves as individuals. We are, it turns out, using them pretty hardcore to define the type of place we think we would and wouldn’t be comfortable living.

My dad and I have an inside joke. “How many girls who went to private school in LA, do you think, want to live in Kentucky and Idaho?”

“I do well in red states,” I’ll say back with a smile.

But that’s not the whole story. The whole story is that I do well in liberal enclaves within red states.

I love Idaho, but my main vantage point is Sun Valley, Idaho, a tourist ski town heavily influenced by its coastal guests and the type of place where the bookstore sells “Blue Girl, Red State” bumper stickers. I live in Kentucky, but in Louisville, Kentucky, which is like if you stuck a half-pint Portland Oregon in the South. It allows me to wear cowboy boots unironically and drive a pickup truck and say to my overwhelmingly liberal, coastal friends, ‘hey, look at me: I live in Kentucky!’ (hey, look at me! I have glasses and a broken arm!) while ensconced in a thick ring of micro foam coffee shops and “No Human is Illegal” signs. I get to be simultaneously close to and far away from “the other”. I get to answer the dilemma, ‘to peek or not to peek’ by convincing myself that I already have, and that it’s all just fine with me.

Assuming we’re not going to inspire a conservative infiltration of Brooklyn anytime soon or undo 45 years’ worth of place-based preferences that most of us thought were incidental, what do we do?

I don’t know the answer, but I keep coming back to the image of me when someone I know professes a political opinion that I can’t stand: wringing my hands, trying to look like I’m listening but really I’m so stressed by what they’re saying that I’m not listening, switching back and forth between hoping they stop talking as soon as possible and hoping they keep talking long enough for me to develop a three point rebuttal plan.

No wonder we all moved so far away from one another. That person sucks. Nobody enjoys being that. Nobody enjoys receiving that.

Here’s a small shift we might try: as a game, the next time one of these conversations comes up, what if we didn’t allow ourselves to respond with our own opinion at all? With the stress off the table that comes with having to address a worldview to which we’re dramatically opposed, how would this change the questions we ask? How would this change the goals of the connection we seek to make?