Omaha World Herald: Corporation vs. Incidental Consumer

May 4, 2017
In The News

The writer, of Lincoln, represents Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Our nation recently watched in horror as flight staff at a publicly traded airline, having failed to motivate volunteers with sufficient compensation, enlisted Chicago Aviation Police to forcibly remove one of the randomly selected passengers so they could seat one of their own employees instead.

After the bloodied but unbowed victim was dragged from the flight, airline and airport personnel claimed they acted out of concern that they would lose their jobs if they did not have him removed. The stated motive — later proven false — was that the flight was “oversold.”

Bizarrely, the airline CEO initially defended these actions. The corporation’s airline personnel could have offered more money to find volunteers, but they did not use that option. As a result, this airline-specific issue mushroomed into something far larger, as many Americans unleashed long-buried resentment against distant corporate structures that too often treat them as incidental “consumers.”

In technocratic bureaucracy, one size fits all. Management and optimization replace the art of human interaction. When entities grow too large and distant from the persons they are designed to serve, when technical procedures rule over prudential judgment, when process is improperly elevated to unyielding standard, persons are not only treated like cattle by airlines, but individuals — in this Age of Information — sense that they no longer matter.

When you treat people as abstractions, it is easier to push them around, like data points on a spreadsheet. The broken-nosed, busted-teeth and concussed passenger could only mutter: “Just kill me, just kill me.” One man’s last defense against Leviathan.

What he experienced on that airplane struck such a visceral chord. Indignity has its limits — even beyond the limits of a big money corporate public affairs team to manage.

Last year, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Similar debates are raging in France, Italy and Germany about whether more power should be consolidated in massive and detached, centralized and technocratic bureaucratic institutions.

Many people are demanding decentralized alternatives that better harmonize the needs of particular persons in their particular places with the shared goals of security, immigration stabilization, environmental stewardship and economic well-being.

Economic development without a soul robs us of our ability to fully prosper. Regular people wonder if they have a place at the table anymore. Home-team advantage goes to the ruling class of Big Business, Big Data and Big Government — a type of transactional aristocracy disconnected from the deeper needs of persons.

Indicting large corporate and governing structures is not the point here. Certain development that comes with large scale has been positive, as goods, services and ideas now freely travel at speeds unheard of only a generation ago. Worldwide poverty has declined significantly, as underdeveloped nations use their comparative advantage on cost to lift themselves to a higher economic standing.

Moreover, the creative disruption that accompanies technological innovation has yielded powerful tools of communication, medicine and commerce, as well as “the sharing economy.”

However, a thriving marketplace needs to work for larger swaths of America, including in Nebraska, which remain distant from power centers. And profit-driven technocracy won’t get us there. Economics is more than math, efficiency and management; it is the art of living.

After much embarrassment, the airline settled with the passenger and instituted important reforms. Maybe this belated gesture signals a better ticket moving forward. However, unless a new vision emerges of the proper relationship between governing economic and political systems and the persons they serve, we will likely continue to be told, “Stay in your consumerist seat — unless we deign, yet again, to violently rip you from it.”

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