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Growing Class Divide on Airplanes Represents the US’s Larger Divide

The indulgences the other first class passengers and I got came at the expense of everyone else flying that day… It felt too familiar.

I recently had the occasion to fly first class. As a poet and director of a small non-profit organization, this was a rare treat indeed. So why couldn’t I enjoy myself?

It started with the warm nuts.

I’d settled in with my free cocktail, having mastered the complicated mechanism for the little drink tray that comes out of the arm, suffering the disdain of my obviously well-practiced seat mate. The flight attendant called me by name in soothing, dulcet tones.

And then they arrived: a substantial bowl of warm, salted mixed nuts – the fancy selection, with no peanuts.

We hadn’t even taxied onto the runway. I felt bad for the other travelers and the sad little packet of roasted peanuts they’d get later in the flight, if they were lucky. Some airlines aren’t even giving those out anymore.

Then came the hot meal, more drinks, and the huge warm chocolate chip cookie – followed by a blanket, a pillow, and a warm washcloth.

It’s not that I begrudge first-class passengers their extras. But the excess, along with the rich chicken primavera, was giving me indigestion. The indulgences those seven other first-class passengers and I got came at the expense of everyone else flying that day. It felt too familiar.

It felt like America.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the income share of America’s wealthiest 1 percent has climbed steadily since the 1970s, reaching levels not seen since the days of Gatsby. Yet while the rich have gotten much, much richer, the rest of us are much less comfortable than we were even a few short decades ago.

I remember flying in the ’70s, as a teenager. We all got blankets and free meals and pillows. On a flight across the country to visit my grandmother, the flight attendants even got on the microphone to help us while away the time, offering a free bottle of wine to the first person to show them an American flag.

It’s not that the coach passengers – of the plane or of our economy – are less deserving. Worker productivity has actually gone up since the ’70s. But workers haven’t reaped the benefits.

Instead, virtually all of the added wealth has gone into the pockets of the prosperous few: corporate CEOs, hedge fund magnates, and “super managers,” whose lives are now staggeringly luxurious, on a scale the rest of us can’t even imagine. What’s a few warm nuts compared to $250 million yachts?

So how can we begin to reverse this trend?, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies, offers some excellent suggestions, like shoring up the estate tax so that millionaires and billionaires actually pay it, and adding a tax on Wall Street transactions. They’ve done the math: Even a tax of 0.01 percent per trade would raise billions for the folks in the economy class.

Then there’s the federal minimum wage, that tiny pack of roasted peanuts. At $7.25 per hour, or slightly more than $15,000 per year for a 40-hour workweek, the federal wage is 24 percent below where it was half a century ago. Raising that rate to even $12 per hour would benefit 35 million workers.

These are modest steps, like borrowing some almonds from first class so the nuts in coach can be a little more satisfying. But it’s a start. If the airline had tried that on my flight, maybe my foray into the lives of the 1 percent wouldn’t have left me so queasy.

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