May 15th, 2017
You will notice that this post has a number before the title. In order to make it easier to find them, all posts will now have an identifying number reflecting the order in which they have been published. This is the 267th in the Wise Philanthropy blog series.
Rarely has it been so difficult for those of us who comment on philanthropy matters to catch our breath. After all, public policy issues that impact philanthropy, public trust and public well-being are unfolding at a whiplash pace. And, at the same time, philanthropy practice, grantmaking decisions, and support for those who deliver services need to go on regardless of the whirlwind. In this post, I will comment on the larger mandate that drives our field; I will return to our “practice” in subsequent posts.
The mounting numbers of incidents on airlines are, in many ways, a metaphor for our current state of national mental health. Riding on an airplane requires a lot of people to behave in predictable ways. Cooped up in a cabin, often for many hours, we are a transient community fully dependent on civility and mutual acceptance. There are rules and roles – and they have an impact on all of us. We all know that we must suspend our autonomy and some range of choices for the duration. Our very lives depend on it.
Objectively, we all know this. Why then the surge of behaviors that have created chaos in the air, on the ground, among passengers and among crew? What is going on?
The answers tell us a lot about larger issues that we all need to be addressing today:
1. When the profit motive encourages airlines to cram as many people as possible into seats with too little space, it depersonalizes and antagonizes – among both passengers and crew.
2. The divide between the haves [i.e. first class] and the have-nots [everyone else] is very evident. Especially on transcontinental and on international flights, the haves have mini-suites with beds, champagne, real dishes, restricted restrooms and more. Some airlines provide pajamas. These luxuries are visible to all including those who are cramped in the rear. [I am not trying to be superior – I admit to having been a frequent beneficiary of these luxuries]. But, as in society as a whole, the divide is more stark and more striking than ever before.
3. The nickel and dime-ing business model only builds resentment. An advertised price is only a base price as change fees, wait list fees, seating fees, baggage fees, and who knows what other fees, can radically increase the costs of any flight. Late night humorists have mocked these practices, but, that cannot mask the sense of resentment many travelers feel.
How is this a metaphor? If citizens feel that their options are limited, that their relative worth is diminished, that their part of the contract is being discounted by new costs beyond their control, the fragile compact that holds us together becomes unraveled. Fellow travelers are competitors for limited space; crew become representative of a heartless power structure that dehumanizes; our financial standing sits in more and more uncomfortable spaces. And privatization means that entire communities are no longer served by any public transportation.
What if the airlines were to go back to a time when they were public utilities and not merely money machines? It would lead to all sorts of changes when they have a responsibility to treat all with dignity and not impecunity. And, let us remember, that was possible because we had a government that believed that access to travel should be as universal as possible and the conditions surrounding them needed to be sensitive to the human experience, and subject to serious oversight.
Which, in turn, brings us to the current disastrous and tragic congressional proposal for a health care system guaranteed to bring financial ruin to and challenge the health care of millions. What cynicism! What misanthropy!
This is not the place to unpack or reiterate the many words already devoted to that evidently flawed plan. It is clear, though, that the authors, and half of congress, have bought into the same mentality that privatized the airline industry, no matter what the cost is to the public. Sure there are some short term advantages for a very few, but long term disadvantages to the most vulnerable and many others.
Objective analysts have concluded that a single payer option would work best for almost everyone, would reduce costs for most, and need not mandate the public health system so feared and maligned. But that isn’t going to happen very quickly in the United States in 2017. Which means that there needs to be an alternative system that starts with human needs and relative affordability. [Yes, we know that was the goal of the Affordability Care Act and that helped many millions. And, yes, we know that there were still some gaps that needed to be closed.] Any alternative system that starts with the premise of asking how little to cover rather than how to provide a rational, just, and accessible system for all is simply putting us all in that metaphoric closed container in the sky. Those who can afford the champagne in the front won’t feel too much of the pressure. The rest will wonder why it is so crowded and unfriendly back there.
A society is measured by how it cares for its most vulnerable, not by how low its taxes can go. Our current public transportation systems and our health care systems are a reflection of our values and priorities.
Which brings us to philanthropy advocacy. Yes, this is our time. This is the time when our independence, our ability to take risks, our commitment to those without a voice, our manifest compassion, and our understanding of systemic fixes matter. A lot.
We know that a society that perpetuates economic inequity, that punishes the vulnerable, that perpetuates, even institutionalizes, disenfranchisement, is fragile. Very fragile. We know that the anger and resentment and anomie and hopelessness that such disempowerment bring about can only lead to the unraveling of behavior in the public square and in private space. We know that there will be prices to pay, and lives to be lost.
No, we in philanthropy cannot solve these matters alone; they are too systemic and require inter-sector responses. But we can take the lead.
These are not normal times and the body politic and the public weal are very fragile. Our voices, our advocacy, and our passions are required, now more than ever before.