The video in which police and airport security maul a 69-year-old United Airlines passenger is haunting in its casual brutality. Interpretations of the event’s meaning have bloomed like a bacterial culture, encompassing issues of corporate power, industry consolidation, race and the authority companies can wield against consumers.
Uniting many of these critiques is a sense of shock that a company can exert so much control — so much force — over one of its own customers. Somewhere along the way, the traditional compact between companies and consumers became horribly corrupted. How did it get this way?
We are told that this is the era of the empowered consumer: The savvy shopper has oodles of time to browse around, comparing prices among various retailers, perhaps consulting Yelp, Glassdoor or the Better Business Bureau. Better information means more competition, which means lower prices — all features, of course, of an open marketplace ostensibly presided over by a regulatory authority that, while distant, exists to protect our safety.
This vision is a lie.
Air travel is the most concentrated version of an essentially authoritarian experience that can be found throughout today’s economy. We live, work, shop and travel under a system of grossly asymmetric power relationships, in which consumers sign away most of their rights just by purchasing a ticket and companies deputize themselves to enforce contracts with hired goons.
It doesn’t help that the Trump administration is rapidly stripping away as many regulations as it can, promising to repeal two for every new one implemented — an ultra-wealthy administration’s attempt to formalize the plutocratic free-for-all that has followed decades of growing corporate power, defined by massive income inequality, regulatory capture, a revolving door between agencies and the industries they oversee, and steadily eroding consumer rights. The empowered consumer is a figment of our imagination.
Air travel is different from other sectors in degree but not in kind. In a few generations, it has gone from a Tomorrowland-style marvel, accompanied by luxury service, to a series of petty frustrations and humiliations. Airlines needlessly demean customers, who are gouged for fees to goose the margins of tottering industry monoliths.
This development is part of a larger socioeconomic phenomenon, what the scholar Michael Sandel calls the “skyboxification of American life.” Experiences that used to be standardized are being divided into tiers denoting various rights, access and costs. The result is to both pit consumers against one another and to extract more money out of better-heeled customers. Those who can pay for early boarding in first class are allowed to, while the rest of us can glare at them as we shuffle into our cramped seats in coach, from which we might be booted to make way for an airline employee or a preferred customer.
Survey the economic landscape and you’re likely to find similarly scrambled power relationships. During the foreclosure crisis, banks acted like arms of the state, with sheriffs becoming the banking industry’s eviction force. Health insurers dictate access to health care for millions while a small coterie of chief executives reaps huge payouts. The telecommunications industry has consolidated into a handful of industry behemoths that maintain regional monopolies. The result is a lack of competition and slow, pricey service. And soon, thanks to a law recently passed by Congress, our ISPs will have the rights to sell all of our browsing data to whomever they choose.
That points to a larger problem for today’s consumers: Increasingly we’re not just paying more for less; we are sacrificing our privacy rights in the process, as personal data has become a huge driver of the digital economy.
The social and cultural costs are harder to define but no less important. As Sandel explains: “At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools.” It also means wildly diverging expectations, as traditionally guaranteed rights become more contingent and benefits accrue to the wealthy.
This is why airports and airplanes can feel so tense, suffused with a shared feeling of deep resentment and anger. These places can seem, as some have joked in the wake of the United incident, like tinderboxes before some kind of political revolution.
Jacob Silverman is the author of “Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection.”