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.

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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