It’s been nearly 17 years since the Onion ran its epic, “US Offers PlatinumPlus Preferred Citizenship.” It was biting at the time – and like many a good Onion satire, it’s only become more ironic.
Money buys influence, and always has – and thus as the wealth distribution becomes more unequal, influence becomes more unequal. The US Supreme Court, in cases such as Citizens United, has only made things worse by opening up more conduits through which money can buy influence.
Take two rather well-conceived TSA programs that allow travelers to escape long lines at US entry points and airport security. TSA’s Global Entry and PreCheck programs are available to just about everyone, subject to commonsense restrictions. If you undergo a background check, and satisfy TSA officials that you’re not a risk, you can cruise through airport security before the gate; and when returning from abroad, you can sail through US customs and immigration. It’s a win-win: TSA gets to focus its limited resources on catching bad guys, not wasting time and money harassing ordinary travelers; travelers save time and skip the extra hassles.
But Global Entry and PreCheck arent free – 5 year passes cost $100 and $85, respectively. That isnt a lot of money to frequent travelers, especially as a function of sky-high airfares; and it’s literally nothing to business travelers and-or carriers of pricey premium credit cards, who will have their fees paid for them. But to an ordinary American family that takes one vacation per year, it means shelling out $350-500, or waiting in line like everyone else.
Express toll lanes on highways are similarly efficient, in that they allow people who value their time more to buy a faster trip. We could apply the same logic to courts, the post office and DMV. And if you can pay a fee to get through airport security faster – why cant you pay to have the police or fire department respond more quickly to a distress call? (There’s evidence this is already happening, in effect – police respond faster to calls in more affluent neighborhoods.) Why not have a paid express lane at the ER of public hospitals?
Economics supports all of these measures because they make for a more efficient allocation of resources. But in the aggregate, they erode our civil society, because rich and poor cease to meaningfully share in the same public institutions. When it comes time to vote, they will naturally have different positions, because each has a radically different experience of government. And when it comes time to talk to one’s elected representatives, one must furthermore recognize that the same economic logic applies to political access. It is indeed economically efficient for politicians to listen to the highest bidders for their attention – because the person who is willing to pay most for a thing, ipso facto, values it most.
These programs – real and hypothetical – are all highly efficient uses of resources. And it’s a bit of a stretch to assert that our common experience of getting stuck in traffic, enduring the tedium of airport security, and waiting on line in DMV is what unites us as a people. But auctioning public services to the highest bidder – including face time with elected representatives – destroys our common experience of government, and as such undermines the basis we might have to agree on public policy. Within the same national boundaries, we see the emergence of two nations governed by two distinct governments: an affluent nation with a dutifully attentive government; and a second-class nation, with an indifferent one. PlatinumPlus citizenship for the few, and plain-vanilla citizenship for the rest.