American microclimates of exclusivity  NOV 12 2013

Writing in the Times, Frank Bruni notes the increasing tendency in the US to provide various levels of service for money.

Much has been made of commercial flights these days, with all those divisions between first class and coach. For various supplements or with various deals, you can get a few more inches of legroom or, shy of that, a prime aisle seat. You can get to board earlier or later, and thus hoard or miss out on the overhead bins. Will it be long before there's a ranked queue for the bathroom? I'm not even sure I'm kidding.

It's not that pecking orders or badges of affluence are anything new. Our homes, cars, clubs and clothes have long been advertisements of our economic clout, used and perceived that way.

But lately, the places and ways in which Americans are economically segregated and stratified have multiplied, with microclimates of exclusivity popping up everywhere. The plane mirrors the sports arena, the theater, the gym. Is it any wonder that class tensions simmer? In a country of rising income inequality and an economy that's moved from manufacturing to services, one thing we definitely make in abundance is distinctions.

Reminds me of Tom Junod's piece in Esquire about waiting in line as an expression of American democracy.

Apparently, an Englishman named Leonard Sim took his family to Disneyland a few years ago, and his vacation was ruined by waiting in line. He invented something called the Flash Pass, and then sold it to an English company called Lo-Q -- as in "Low Queue" -- which contracted it to Whitewater. So now, when you go to Whitewater and many other American amusement parks, you pay for parking ($15, at Whitewater), and then for admission ($37.50, for any human being over 48 inches tall), and finally for a locker ($16), and then, once you're inside, you can pay an extra $30 for a "standard" Flash Pass or $40 for the "gold." And then you can cut the lines.

It sounds like an innovative answer to the problem that everybody faces at an amusement park, and one perfectly in keeping with the approaches currently in place at airports and even on some crowded American highways -- perfectly in keeping with the two-tiering of America. You can pay for one level of access, or you can pay for another. If you have the means, you can even pay for freedom. There's only one problem: Cutting the line is cheating, and everyone knows it. Children know it most acutely, know it in their bones, and so when they've been waiting on a line for a half-hour and a family sporting yellow plastic Flash Passes on their wrists walks up and steps in front of them, they can't help asking why that family has been permitted the privilege of perpetrating what looks like an obvious injustice. And then you have to explain not just that they paid for it but that you haven't paid enough -- that the $100 or so that you've ponied up was just enough to teach your children that they are second- or third-class citizens.

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