Standing in Line as a Civic Duty

John Edwards has spoken frequently of the "Two Americas" so what I'm about to say isn't totally original. His focus has been on how much the "haves" have and how little the rest of us don't.

I want to focus on what the haves have that the rest of us don't.

In prior gilded ages what the rich had was opulence. There was the big estate, the servants, the jewels and antiques and the like. The rich had a private space where they lived and also a bit of a private space where they socialized - social and golf clubs most often.

In this gilded age they have all of this as well, but they have distorted social policy so that they get publicly subsidized benefits open only to them. I'll cite two examples I've come across recently.

The first has to do with transportation. As roads have gotten more clogged using a private limo to take you here and there has become time consuming. The rich may be isolated with their bars and media centers in the car, but they are still rubbing shoulders, so to speak, with the yahoo in the next lane. The result has been a rise in a parallel transport system open only to the rich. The first stage was the rise in private jets. For a long time this was a small phenomena so it was not much of a concern, but now there are many and they are impacting overall air traffic. The fees paid for a private jet to use the air transport infrastructure (radar, markers, communications, traffic controllers) does not cover the capital or running costs so they are getting a benefit that we are paying for.

Next there has been a rise in the idea of privatizing roads or lanes and charging a fee for use. This is not the same as everyone paying a toll, this is like first class travel, you pay a toll so you don't have to share the road with everyone else. Once again the public pays for private gain. The express roads will have to be less busy or they won't provide a benefit which means everyone else gets crowed in to the existing infrastructure.

The final step, at least around here, has to do with the rich going to their summer homes for the weekend. The local roads can't be expanded to accommodate express lanes, there isn't enough land. So a fleet of private helicopters has emerged which ferry the wealthy over the heads of everyone else. Not only does this impose the kind of burdens seen with private jets, but helicopters fly at low altitude and subject everyone in their path to unnecessary noise and pollution.

Case two has to do with medical care. There have always been society doctors and private clinics, but what is new is two tier medicine in the same practice. There is a recent NY Times article about this trend among dermatologists. Those who are paying for cosmetic surgery (the rich) get a private, posh, waiting room with the attention of the doctor. Those whose care is being paid by insurance (especially Medicare) get a spartan waiting room and a consultation with a physician's assistant. The doctor only shows up long enough to make collecting his fee legal. This is especially egregious because the insurance patient is probably suffering some some serious problem like skin cancer, while the other patient is using public resources (the doctor's time and expertise) for vanity.

So we are seeing a society where the rich don't move in the same space as the rest of us. They don't have to bear the same burdens that we do. They don't have to stand in line, in other words. If they don't get stuck in traffic why should they be concerned with the conditions of the roads? If they don't have to wait to see the doctor why should they be concerned about an overstretched medical system?

About the only task that everyone is required to do is to show up for jury duty, but the chances of being called are slim and the number of reasons why you can be excused are large. Thus even this one civic duty is hardly ever a responsibility.

Not only does having their own space insulate the rich from the rest of us, it sends a message to everyone else that you can buy your way out of your responsibilities with money. In other words citizenship is for suckers. We got beyond paying people to serve in the army for you, perhaps it is time to bring back universal service.

If you are going to benefit from living in your country you should put in two years of public service. This doesn't have to be military service, it could even use your skills. A lawyer might be able to fulfill the requirement working for legal aid, or a laborer might work on a CCC type project. It's the commitment and the associating with everyone else that is what is important.

We aren't willing to put a moral price on wasteful behavior, but maybe its' time. The helicopter to the Hamptons is using up valuable petroleum resources for the benefit of a handful of people. It's time to get away from the "I can afford it" mindset and say that the world can't. Some sorts of behavior are just too wasteful, selfish and anti-social. How these get determined and who determines them is a separate issue. Morality and fairness as principles need to be accepted first.

Moral: Democracy isn't free, you have to pay for it.

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Copyright © 2008 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.