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The Progressive Economics Forum

Back of the Line Buddy

Posted below is my column from today’s Globe & Mail regarding this nefarious practice of providing “priority lanes” for higher-income customers — even (in the case of airport security screening) for a PUBLIC service that we all pay the same for!  And if you wonder why you get so pissed off when the high-flyer jumps the queue, watch this hilarious video of a Capuchin monkey freaking out at obviously unfair behaviour in a feeding experiment.  I believe this gutteral reaction against inequality is likely an evolutionary adaptation, consistent with the theories of social anthropologists that learning to cooperate actually aided human survival.

Here’s the column:

As summer drew to a close, I took my kids for our annual pilgrimage to Toronto’s CNE midway.  It was a gorgeous sunny Saturday: the smell of corn dogs in the air, the crowd diverse and gritty.

Then came a shocker.  The midway company now has special entrances at each ride for people who pay an extra $20 per person per day (above the cost of the rides).  They can then bypass the line-ups for their favourite attractions.

Say what?  Surely standing in line for a roller-coaster is a supreme expression of democracy – not to mention a chance to catch your breath between rides.

 I didn’t see anyone actually use a “priority” entrance that day.  That may reflect the humble status of the typical midway-goer: for most families, going to the CNE is already a significant expense, and they’d balk at the premium.  The better-heeled families who wouldn’t blink at $20 extra were mostly off at their Muskoka cottages anyway.

Nevertheless, I find this new practice disturbing.  It reflects an increasingly omnipresent trend in our class-divided society: premium check-in lines at hotels, preferred guest counters at car rental agencies, VIP treatment for gold card holders at cultural events.

It is reasonable that people can choose to pay more for a higher quality product: paying more to eat at a nice restaurant, paying more for business class legroom on a plane, and so on.

But being able to bump your way to the front of a line-up that everyone uses is something different, and much more offensive.  Firstly, it directly undermines the experience of the people at the back of the line (since the more people who cut in front, the longer is our own wait).  That’s not the case when a rich person goes to a classy restaurant.

Second, the act of seeing someone jump the queue triggers a natural (and I would suggest legitimate) sense of outrage.  Someone saying “my time is more important than yours,” is really saying “my life is more important than yours.”

The practice that really infuriates me is the privileged treatment that first-class air travellers now receive at major airports when they pass through security.  The cost of airport security (a public service) is covered by a uniform tax (currently $7.48 per one-way domestic flight) paid to Ottawa when you purchase an air ticket.  Every passenger (economy to super-elite) pays the same fee.  So why on earth do first-class passengers get privileged access to a public service we all pay for?

The federal agency that handles airport security told me it’s not their business what order travellers are served in: those decisions are made by the airports.  That’s bizarre – like a hospital saying it doesn’t care who gets treated first, that decision is made by the attendant staffing the parking lot.

As for the airports, they get slush money from airlines to let high flyers jump the queue.  But the cost of this policy is shifted to other travellers, who now must wait even longer in an annoying line-up every time an elite traveller darts in front.  One airport spokesperson told me that other travellers are unaffected, since business class travellers have a separate checkpoint.  If you believe that, then you will also believe that the creation of a parallel private health care system would have no impact on those who can’t afford to use it.  In practice, the security line-ups are managed so that mere mortals do use the priority lane … but only when it’s empty.  That’s exactly how it would work in health care, too.

The tiered treatment of airline travellers by our own public security service reflects the same mindless pandering to class privilege that is infecting our whole culture.  So I propose a modest act of collective civil disobedience.  Everyone should go through the first-class line-up at the security gate.  And if some fat-cat glares at you for interrupting his privileged access to an important public service, stand up tall and say this: “I am a first-class Canadian.  My time is worth just as much as yours.  I paid just as much as you did.  Please, sir, step to the back of the line.”

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Comments

Comment from Judy Torrance
Time: September 10, 2012, 11:51 am

Really appreciated the column, Jim.

Comment from fubar
Time: September 15, 2012, 3:54 pm

Jim

Good article. There was another article similar to this (Esquire maybe?) recently. I agree with your sentiment.

While I have no problem with people with money buying what they want (there is a price point for almost everything), paying to cut in front of another person is just socially repugnant. After all, my car maybe a Honda xxx, and someone with money may have a Mercedes xxx, but they really do the same thing – get me from A to B. So what if it has gold inlay (or whatever), that is just aesthetics. But someone butting inline (for almost everything) speaks to classism. Not a society I want for Canada.

Comment from Ross
Time: September 24, 2012, 4:00 pm

Do you really not have a problem with people paying for high-end goods and services as long as it doesn’t interfere with the plebs, or are you more making an argument of convenience?

That is to say, it’s easier to argue on line-skipping because it’s so explicitly, in-your-face unequal, but if we take that line of reasoning can we not see that these are all connected? Yes, there is an evolutionary element to inequality; even lobsters suffer when they’re at the bottom of the food-chain. But the opposite is true as well. The vast majority of social beings love being at the top just as much as they hate being at the bottom, and that drive toward domination is insatiable. Inequality has to be recognized in all its forms to really be addressed.

From a practical point of view, and also if one has any hope of getting into the glossy pages of the Globe, it’s safe to say ‘people can buy status, that’s okay, you just shouldn’t be able to negatively impact the outcomes of those with less.’ But I feel from a first-principles point of view, the ability for an individual to buy a mansion and fill the garage with an assortment of cars while there are still homeless people is the same problem as buying your way to the front of the line; there are only more transactions involved which obfuscate the process.

I am, of course, talking to the ideal, and by no means do I live according to my radical egalitarian principles, as I am a weak and wretched suburbanite. I just mean from a purely theoretical viewpoint one either tolerates inequality or opposes it in all its myriad forms.

Comment from Angella MacEwen
Time: September 25, 2012, 12:34 pm

Thank-you for this. Airlines used to board pre-boards before the Elite, Super Elite, et al, but now the Super Elite crowd gets to board before those who need extra time or help getting on. There is even a distinction between classes at boarding, with one side of a flimsy plastic separator being reserved for the “Elite”. On my last flight a father with three young children was struggling to carry car seats and diaper bags during pre-boarding, and inadvertently entered via the wrong side of the flimsy plastic separator (there was no one in either line). The gatekeeper got quite agitated and shooed the poor man around to the other side of the divider before he would take his boarding passes. This infuriated me, as the only purpose of the gatekeeper’s actions were to ensure that everyone “knew their place”. Having just read this column, I remembered the Capuchin monkey, and made a comment to the gatekeeper. It fell on deaf ears, likely, but it made me feel better.

Comment from cnp
Time: September 26, 2012, 8:44 am

Wouldnt a more apt description of this be the SWE temp workers and future CAW members compared to the current CAW membership at the D3 plants?

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