The story of United Airlines and the Shameful Assault on a Paying Customer has been more thoroughly covered than almost anything
this week (congrats, Beloved Leader Trump, on a widespread distraction from your latest screwup). We’ve had lessons from the airlines
in free market delights before, but this is an even more direct and clear example of why the corporate approach is a bad idea for public education.
|And that is how you run a No Excuses airline
Note that the United screwup is even worse than is generally reported. Though folks have blamed this on an overbooking of the flight, but actually, the airline wanted to bump four paying customers so that they could fly four of their own employees to Louisville.
This means they absolutely had the option of saying, “We need these employees in Louisville? Well, the seats on the plane are already filled with paying customers, so obviously we’ll have to solve this internal transportation problem some other way.” But no. They had a clear choice to make between the interests of the company and the care of the customers, and they picked the company. Well, not exactly “picked,” because there was no decision so much as an auto-default to choosing in the corporate concerns, a default so strong and obvious to them, that they clearly didn’t even reflect on how this should look.
And why should they? Sure, it would be shabby treatment for four customers, but the airlines barely bump one customer out of a thousand, and when you’re operating at large scale, the smooth wheels of corporate operation can afford to grind up a tiny number of customers. And the selection process carefully selects those customers for lousy treatment who are the least valuable customers to the company.
That’s just part of a larger picture. Airlines have also been quietly deserting many cities and providing fewer choices, because the corporate goal, of course, is not to serve everybody, but to serve the people who are worth serving, the people who fit your business model, the people who can bring you the kind of return you want on your investment. As New York Magazine notes:
For decades, airlines have been cancelling low-volume routes, reducing service quality, raising prices, merging to achieve economies of scale, declaring bankruptcy, and sucking up billions in public subsidies, and the industry still teeters on the brink of insolvency.
The bloodied face of the passenger– well, former passenger– is the corporate mindset written in its hugest, starkest form. Customers are there to meet the needs of the corporation, not vice versa. At Deadspin, Albert Berneko argues for the human over the corporate. He quotes the tweeted response of two United staffers– the man wouldn’t deplane. What else were they supposed to do? The answer, of course, is almost anything except summon police to drag him off the plane:
Like any other corporation, its precise reason for existing is to interpose cold, absolute machine reasoning in between the humans who created it and the humans whose money and/or labor the former want; if it had humane or conciliatory answers—ones responsive to or even cognizant of any prerogative short of maximizing its own moneymaking efficiency—to questions like “What should United Airlines do when it f**** up?” it would be a malfunctioning corporation.
If you don’t yet see the parallels between the airline industry and the burgeoning charter school industry, here’s another excerpt from Eric Levitz’s NY Mag piece:
But thanks in no small part to lax antitrust enforcement by President Reagan and his successors, deregulation ultimately turned a public quasi-monopoly into a private one. Or, as Phillip Longman and Lina Khan put it in a 2012 essay for Washington Monthly, Carter’s reforms shifted “control of the airline industry from experts answerable to the public to corporate boardrooms and Wall Street.” [my emphasis]
Now, I don’t accept for a second that our public school system is a monopoly, and the trajectory from public good to private corporate interest is different, but the end result is the same– a corporate concern that must put corporate interests ahead of individual human interests.
Airlines desert unprofitable cities. Charter schools ignore unprofitable communities. Airlines push out customers who get in their way. Charter schools do the same. And neither feel a mandate to make sure that every citizen is well-served. Both ultimately are more concerned about keeping the corporate machine running smoothly than about what must be done to the cogs and wheels to keep that smoothness gliding on without interruption.
Also important to note– the rise of airline “unregulated competition” has resulted in a business that is dominated by four (very mutually supportive) companies. The Free Market does not like competition, and it never has. It likes sorting out winners and losers, and it likes giving winners the kind of market control that Free Market acolytes abhor in governments.
Is it possible that corporations can avoid being soulless and human-hostile? Sure, it’s possible. But a corporation must by its very nature put its own financial success and corporate control high on the list of priorities. Is it possible that a government-run institution can become stiff and dry and soul-crushing in its own special way? Sure. But public schools are built around a simple goal, a promise to every single student in the country, and to every citizen of the country itself, to do right by every single student. But as Derek Thompson wrote in the Atlantic:
Companies in concentrated industries, like the airlines, have legal cover to break the most basic promise to consumers without legally breaking their contracts.
Corporate privatization has in its very dna the strands that lead us to some poor, bloodied man being carried off a plane on a stretcher. Privatizing schools leads us toward that path, demanding compliance and dealing only with those whom it deems worthy of being allowed to serve the corporation. There are places for the corporate approach in our society, but the schoolhouse is not one of them.