Our growing class divide

The well-dressed traveler ran like a bull charging a red cape into an open area in front of the waiting lines at Amsterdam’s United International check-in. “Excuse me – there’s a queue,” I commented from the front of the line. “But I’m Global Services,” he proclaimed haughtily, shocked at my objection. Thankfully, a United Airlines agent asked the “gentleman” to step to the end of the preferred travelers line.

It occurred to me then that international airline travel is a good analogy for what’s happening in the U.S. economy as we shed middle class jobs. You’ve either been born to the right parents, secured a good career and are living the life of the preferred traveler or you are stuck in the very back rows – unable to afford any preferential treatment. The gap between the two lifestyles is growing with our inequality measures the worst among the developed world and matching that of our roaring ’20s. (Watch this video to get a sense of how much more unequal U.S. wealth is than what you likely assume.)

The perks for higher classes extend far beyond faster check-in lines. First class international travelers often enter through different doors, kicking off an experience that makes airline travel a pleasure. Business class travelers get seats that flatten, enabling a good night’s rest. Premium travelers get enough legroom to make a trip bearable. Bathrooms and even airline staff segregate, with each team serving one class of service. The more you spend, the more they dote. Food quality goes downhill from first to coach (more appropriately called the cattle car).

Similarly, economic opportunity also goes downhill across the classes in the U.S. The upper classes have better health care and schools; and their kids are increasingly more likely to land good jobs compared with peers with less lucky birthrights. The experience of the lower classes in today’s job-starved economy – especially those lacking educational credentials – is like flying coach – with less legroom each year and no opportunities for upgrades. Those in the middle work harder each year to avoid moving to the back of the plane.

Meanwhile our politicians increasingly serve the upper classes. In my former home state of Wisconsin, the non-resident Koch brothers – who “pay” first=class contributions – have more influence in the state legislature than the Wisconsin voter.

The growing U.S. class inequality and its implications is creating a mockery that “all men are created equal.” Inequality starts in the United States from the moment the sperm hits the egg. In Norway, by contrast, I observed how universal health care and top-notch childcare and early childhood education leveled the playing field and even enabled all immigrants to acclimate to the Norwegian cultural norms.

Many of the privileged are thankful. Their generosity reflects the joy of the upgraded flyer who worked to earn some status and is overjoyed with the welcomed upgrade to an easier flight. Others presume superiority based on false assumptions, like our traveler in Amsterdam. Beyond the family-of-origin impact on earnings, wealth is increasingly driven by stock market returns that have more to do with Ben Bernanke than value-generation. Indeed, financial returns to U.S. business leaders’ efforts have been declining for decades – but not C-Suite earnings.

We airline travelers pass one another entering the plane, but otherwise our experiences are distinct. And yet we are economically interdependent as travelers. Economy needs first class travelers who make their tickets more affordable. First class needs economy to create enough demand for airlines to schedule frequent daily flights, which is important to business travelers.

These interdependencies exist on the ground as well in America. And yet, we live in different places with the upper classes able to escape most visual signs that the American experiment is failing around them. Blind to our interdependencies, the wealthy GOP acts as if only their needs matter. How else can you explain why we reduced Head Start and food stamps and shortchanged badly needed infrastructure and Federal R&D investments while preserving unfair tax breaks for hedge fund managers who are not job creators? The far left is similarly single-minded, believing any tax or entitlement is a good one, whatever the impact on the national debt.

The causes of our growing income disparity are many and their relative weight uncertain. But the consequences are clear. A nation or its economy cannot thrive without a vibrant middle class and fluid movement across the income distribution within and between generations.

The solution? We can start by leaving classes to the airlines and taking them out of our political system. We must replace the “more money-more political influence” system that is veering the plane we ride in together far off course. Objective redistricting of voting districts is the first leg of a long flight back home.

Kay Plantes is an MIT-trained economist, business strategy consultant, columnist and author. Business model innovation, strategic leadership and smart economic policies are her professional passions. She was an economic advisor for former Wisconsin Gov. Lee Dreyfus.

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