The Airplane Economic Model

I’ve never been completely satisfied with terms like wealthy, rich, middle class, poor or working class. They seem to be amorphous and ill defined to me, and mostly just get politicized for various purposes. It is hard to define groups based on income numbers because of variations in cost of living or other factors such as help from sources like family or the government so I keep looking for other ways to think about it. I used to consider middle class to mean that you can afford to take your kids to Disneyland, but I wanted a better mental model and a better way to think about inequality in particular. I have been trying out an idea based on using airplane travel classes as the template. It’s a work in progress. 

There’s a complex and wide range of possible fare classes but for the purposes of this post I am going to focus on only three: Economy, Premium Economy, and First Class. It’s not a perfect analogy and not meant to directly correspond to specific people. You may personally identify with a description below which is different from the type of airplane tickets you usually purchase. The point is an average or 35,000 ft view if you will.

First Class people board first and often get a free drink sitting in their comfortable seat with lots of room, while the rest of the passengers are still slugging their way down the aisles looking for overhead bin space. These are the people with no real worries about money. They may obsess about it but no one needs to feel sorry for them or have concerns about whether they will be able to pay for their kids’ fancy private school. They can afford to have people do most or all of the work around the house, and they probably have more than one home. They are up in the front of the plane, they have their own flight attendant and bathroom. They feel safe being somewhat insulated from the masses behind them and have the money to spend their way out of most problems.

Premium Economy people still have some legroom and space to breathe. They are not in any real financial trouble, they care about prices when they buy a car, but not really at the grocery store and they probably shop at a fancy co-op or something instead of Safeway or at least that’s what they tell their friends. They may go to Costco because it’s cheaper but also because they have plenty of space in their second freezer to store all that stuff and you never know what you might need. They love the places they visited in Europe and enjoy recommending them to their friends. They might fly first class sometimes as a splurge, but mostly they are happy to be ahead of the people behind them.

Economy people have the money to fly when they need to but they aren’t going to waste their money on spots up closer to the front. There’s a wide range of people in this class so it is hard to make a clear definition except in contrast to the others but in general they aren’t in serious financial trouble even though they do experience some stress about money.  There’s such a thing as basic economy after all. We let you on the plane but you don’t get to pick your seat or even have space for an overhead bag.

With these definitions, I might prefer an economic system which didn’t have these classes. Perhaps we should all just be Premium Economy people because regular economy seems to get worse all the time and everyone could use a little more space. We’d have a better world if everyone was closer together and the profits from all the work people do were shared more equally. 

That would be a big improvement over what we have now but it isn’t always clear how we might get there and systems which try to enforce strict equality might end up being worse in the end. It may be the direction to move in but it’s not the main worry I have right now. What concerns me more these days isn’t really the differences between first class and economy. Some people have it a lot better than others but at least all of them are on the same plane. They will all either arrive and on time or they won’t. 

They all have a shared common interest in a group outcome. That’s important. 

I am a lot more worried about the fact that we have two groups of people who aren’t on the plane at all. 

There’s a Super Wealthy class of wealthy people who don’t even have to bother with any of this. They travel through an alternate system with private planes, private security, and private yachts. They don’t have homes, they have compounds. They are essentially outside the reach of any specific government and have too much influence over many of them. They drive the culture and we are all supposed to look up to them or trust them to build a better future for us when the life they experience is nothing like ours. I am not against people being rewarded for their accomplishments, but we aren’t better served by having super empowered individuals defining our future, no matter what they say they care about.

The other people not on the plane are the Left Behind class. They are left out of the system entirely and unable to buy a ticket. Maybe they actually did fly once but mostly their life involves way too much struggle to be able to consider such luxuries. Even if they work hard, the situation they find themselves in is often precarious or devoid of good opportunities. Some people on the plane tend to blame or shame them or want to build a wall to keep them out. Most people just hope that someone else solves the problem but they aren’t that willing to give up their seat.

When we think about how to make the economy better, we can talk about whether the people in the first class and premium economy cabins should pay more taxes. Personally I think they should. Should we provide more services to improve the quality of life back in economy? I also think yes. We can and should always be trying to improve things. But I still feel like the real failures in the economy are represented by both of the groups of people who aren’t on the plane. We need more seats and private jets are an inefficient way to get there.

We can tolerate a world where everyone isn’t equal, but we should not allow any person to have extreme amounts of power and influence or any other person to be so poor and forgotten.






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