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.”
- Flaherty’s Legacy: Ideological, reckless and just plain lucky (March 20th, 2014)
- IWD 2014: The “girl effect” reduces inequality, but Canada can’t coast on that much longer (March 7th, 2014)
- The labour share and income inequality (February 26th, 2014)
- Why the Minimum Wage Debate Isn’t Going to Go Away (February 21st, 2014)
- Income Splitting Déjà Vu (February 15th, 2014)