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Plutocracy in action: the FAA vs. National Parks

The jaw-dropping swiftness with which the Senate responded to this week's flight delays, which were predicted as a result of sequestration, provides a perfect example of plutocracy in action. When sequestration began to affect the quality of life for frequent travelers -- an affluent segment of our society -- the Senate did all it could to take the pain away. At The New Republic, Noam Scheiber takes the Senate Democrats to task for unfairly removing the burden of sequestration on just one part of the federal government:

Try to do something about senseless gun violence and youll see tumbleweeds blowing across the Senate floor. Try to make life a bit less stressful for the average business traveler and youll have no trouble finding backup. Since the sequester forced the FAA to furlough 10 percent of its air traffic controllers this week, leading to average flight delays of roughly an hour, pretty much every senator with a mileage-club departure lounge in her state (and even some without one) had rushed to undo the cuts.

He argues that democracy can't work when the powerful don't experience any of the suffering they have caused:

But theres an even more important principle at workwhich is that, once weve decided on spending cuts, the affluent must be made to understand that they lead to an increase in suffering. If theyre too insulated from the pain, theyll be too eager to support more cuts in the future. (And by too eager I mean an eagerness to cut more than is justified by any economic rationale. Im not suggesting that cuts per se are bad.) The logic here is similar to the moral logic of a military draft: The people who sit out the fighting shouldnt labor under the delusion that wars are relatively costless, or that the costs are far-removed from their daily lives. A democracy can only function if most of us have skin in the game.

Scheiber is right on the mark. The vast majority of our current elected representatives haven't served in the military, nor have most of their children (that fact led to the only good scene from Fahrenheit 9/11). Many of them don't send their children to public schools. It seems that one of the last places where our congresspeople do something "normal" is when they board a plane.Scheiber highlights the continued cuts to programs that don't serve primarily the affluent, such as Head Start and Meals on Wheels. I would add another to that list: the National Park system, which I believe is the single best manifestation of American democracy. As someone for whom the National Park system is a part of every summer, I have been following the various parks' announcements closely. Unfortunately, I had already planned our summer vacation before sequestration happened, and I'm hoping that Wyoming's parks will be open and serviced in the ways I remember them.But I worry especially for places like northwest Montana, whose summer tourism industry relies so heavily on the thousands of visitors to Glacier National Park -- one of the greatest places on earth. When Going-to-the-sun Road is closed, or its season shortened for a few weeks on each side, it can change a year in the black to a year in the red for middle-class small businesses in the region.In other words, when the federal government cuts budgets, it's not just government jobs that get cut. A business traveler in Washington, D.C., can wait a few hours at the airport and not lose his or her job. But restaurant owners in Kalispell or Jackson might not be able to wait a few weeks and keep theirs.At the beginning of sequestration, I wrote letters to my three elected congresspeople -- all Democrats -- asking about the effects on the National Parks. None of them wrote me back. I guess they do their hiking and camping -- if at all -- on private lands owned by their friends.

About the Author

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University, author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard.



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The reason we [Congress] gave the 10% types tax cuts was that they could travel to and fro, enjoying the 10% life style.. So we owe it to them not to delay their takeoff for an hour. Nothing spoils a tax free trip like sitting on those plasic seats for an hour or so in an un-paid for, subsidized airport. .

The Chicago Tribune published an editorial today on the sequestration cuts to the FAA. Headline: "The stunt pilots misread their gauges."

I thought that with the reduction in air traffic controllers, we should just ground all of the private jets and only clear commercial carriers. My husband said that would never happen.I would also like my legislators to support the national parks. Even though I'm on the other side of the country, I think places like Grand Teton NP are national treasures and I'm happy to support them with my tax dollars, even if I don't get to see those places again .

Oh, the national parks will survive, but probably not in such a way that will make you want to visit them. For decades, a certain element in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan has been agitating to commercialize Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. A grandiose plan to build an amusement park at the lakeshore's entrance was proposed. IIn an area of the country that is economically depressed even in good times, there are folks who are slavering over the idea of getting concessions to make dirt bike trails and big RV campsites lakeside. Now that the legislature is poised to declare wolves (and several other species) legitimate game for hunters, there'll be a special new draw. Throw a casino into the mix, and, hee yaw! you got yourself a destination that's going to make money for sure. But it won't be anyplace you'll want to visit.

Groups like the Sierra Club work to preserve the National Park system - I get action alerts from them that allow me to send my legislators messages on how I feel about relevant issues and bills, etc. A lot of other environmental organizations do the same.

Thank you for this thread. When I heard our federal legislators et al cryin' over delayed air flights, etc., I got out my little, itsy-bitsy violin and began playing "My heart bleeds for you, bleeds for you, bleeds for you..." And not a tear was shed!Either we ALL have skin in this game, or we solve the problem for ALL of us.No wimpin' out by our lawmakers.No, sirreee.

Negotiations in Washington:"Let's give Congress an alternative that's so dumb no one will take it.""We'll take it.""You got it. Ha ha ha.""Wait a minute. Our donors don't like part of it.""Neither do ours. OK, fix it.""Done!""Done. Now has anyone any idea what to do with that red line we drew in Syria?"An eager nation waits expectantly.

"At the beginning of sequestration, I wrote letters to my three elected congresspeople all Democrats asking about the effects on the National Parks. None of them wrote me back. I guess they do their hiking and camping if at all on private lands owned by their friends."Perhaps New York State members of Congress could go walking in Catskill Park, which is funded by NYState. No need to go to Montana.

He argues that democracy cant work when the powerful dont experience any of the suffering they have caused

Institute term limits so that many of these flabby and self-important politicians can go into the "real" world or at least the world where the impact of policies are most felt.Also, no offense to the lawyers and ivy league graduates on this blog, but diversify the representation so that it isn't just lawyers and well connected rich people who are able to access the levers of power.The house of representatives is supposed to represent "the people", the unwashed, unrefined people who used to be represented in the Catholic church (e.g. here comes everyone)

For anyone who doesn't the addresses of their members of Congress handy, here's the place to find them easily:

"Institute term limits so that many of these flabby and self-important politicians can go into the real world or at least the world where the impact of policies are most felt."You mean becoming lobbyists as they do already?

We have term limits in the Michigan Legislature. The power now rests in the hands of unelected aides de camp and bureaucrats. It's not a good idea.

Should the Catholic bishops make recommendations on issues such as this? To me it seems s o clear cut a case of injustice that perhaps they should speak up, either individually or as a group. I see that the new Archbishop of Canterbury is recommending that the English banks be broken up. Is that too specific a moral recommendation?I guess I'm asking this: how specific should our bishops' recommendations be? They came out strongly against segregation, and now they're speaking out on immigration. Should they take positions on some political matter that are *also* moral matters? Which ones? Where to draw the line(s)? Or should only individual bishops speak out for themselves, not the group? It seems to me that when the individual bishops have special expertise or knowledge that their opinions should be welcome. Same with other clergy persons.

For a long time, the Republican party platform looked like this: deficit cutting (so the donor class could be happy) combined with targeted give aways (agriculture being the largest, but others as well, so the working class in southern and mountain states could be happy). Then, deficit cutting took over in earnest, such that reps from states like Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona, Utah and South Dakota could or would no longer pull enough strings to protect THEM from the consequences of so-called deficit reduction. It must be a real shock to actually bear the policy consequences of the fire breathing crazies these states routinely send to Washington. I would say, the more consequences spread across the less than wealthy people who send these guys to Washington, the better. It's lack of consequences for insane political posturing and dishonesty about the federal subsidies all these states depend on, not absence of term limits, that has caused the current level of political dysfunction.

Ann Oliver, I would hold that the details of the sequester are too many and varied and too debatable for the bishops to take them one by one. But when they see an otherwise inert Congress bestir itself to hold the business traveler and the corporate jet owner harmless from a policy that is cutting into day care and seniors' meals on wheels, in addition to public national parks, the bishops certainly have examples to use while discussing the option for the poor if they wish to use them.And in reference to term limits, the once exemplary Florida Legislature had already begun to slip before we got term limits here. But the arrival of term limits has turned it into a laughable clown show of incompetence leavened by outright corruption. Some of the same old faces that were there when I used to up for the sessions are still there, reappearing now as senators, then as House members and then again as receptionists for lobbying firms since they theoretically are not allowed to lobby (tee-hee) during the interim years between races for various posts.

Barbara:What you say is true but there is more to it than that. The reality, not just in the US, but certainly in Canada is that there is insufficient dollars in the coffers to sustain the level of spending across the board that has historically occurred.The bottom line issue is that cutting is not popular and some constitutuent or other will feel the brunt of the burden. Where is the Solomon who will arise?As to Ann's point, ultimately the budget is a moral document insofar as it reflects our most important values. Thus, there needs to be sober reflection on our values. But this has to be done in truth. I have been to conferences in health care where the number being floated around the cost of health care by 2025 or something like that is that, at this rate, a full 70 percent of the total Ontario budget will be spent on health care. That is clearly unsustainable so the ministries are saying to all these services, you start thinking about how to reduce costs or we will. You can imagine the crisis this is causing among the bureaucrats and administrators because the guns are aimed at them (and it is only just that this occur). Yet it is these same bureaucrats and adminstrators who make decisions and asking them to commit administrative suicide is challenging to say the least.Secondly, the reality is also that there is massive waste and mismanagement in health, education, military, etc., etc. Everyone feeds at the trough so there needs to be some smart cutting and this needs to also begin with the aids, career bureacrats, etc. This can happen through attrition but many if not most of these positions are unnecessary and redundant.An aging populatation, increased burden on the public sector, are realities. Storm clouds are coming. We need to prepare and build our houses on solid rock or else the storms will destroy them.

Tom --I guess I was really just trying to ask: should the bishops speak out about moral principles affecting the middle class, and rich, for that matter? It seems to me that too adjust the sequester for the sake only of those who travel a lot (i.e., those with lots of money) is unfair to the not so well off, the middle middle class. I think it's time for the bishops to think about the shrinking of he middle class -- it is turning many people poor. Surely justice applies to them/us as well as to the poor. I fear, though, that the bishops are generally Republicans, and they, like so many Republicans, have not caught on to the gross injustices towards the middle class of the current American capitalist system. Those with jobs are working harder and producing more, but sharing in less of the rewards. That is unjust, and it's time for the clergy to speak out. No, not about specific solutions, but at least they should decry such injustice and remind those with excess funds that they *ought* to risk their funds and invest even though they don't like the risk involved. Otherwise they aren't entitled to profits.

George D --You seem to be blaming the bureaucrates and administrators for the current plight of the middle class. That makes you a dupe of the capitalists. But the main economic problem at the moment is the 7 TRILLION dollars in cash (at least that's the figure I remember) that the capitalists are NOT investing. They're sitting on it hoping it will hatch without their taking any risks. It seems to me that the small and medium sized and many large businesses do NOT have the cash to expand and hire more people. In other words, the producing businessmen are not the same subset as the capitalists who are momentarily extremely flush. The money of the captitalists quietly goes where -- to the Caymon Islands and Switzerland.The economic theorists need to figure out how to get the monied class to invest its cash in this sort of environment. And the rest of us need to start making the distinction between producing businessmen and money-flush capitalists. Sorry to sound like Karl Marx, but he did make a terribly great contribution to the science of economics -- he figured out how capitalism works, that capital is the engine of capitalism. The economists are all Marxists now in accepting that principle: money must be invested or complex economic systems cannot possibly work! I daresay that Keynes' early and explicit appreciation of that fact is what has earned him -- most unjustly -- the accusation of being anti-capitalism, even of being Communist-leaning. On the contrary, he was a capitalist through and through, but he understood that capital has to be put to work in bad times as well as good, so investing extra funds in a recession thus becomes a moral imperative as well as an economic one.

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