Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/30/2011

So 99’ers – you can’t get something for nothing

He's not the problem

He's not the problem

Increasingly I’ve been amazed at the way most middle class Americans (never, I tell my students, say “never” or “most”—so I should say “some” or “many”) gladly, happily, unthinkingly participate in the economic system that gives the top 1% of the population such an enormous slice of the money pie.

And then they complain about it.

Or occupy city parks and become a political movement about it.

Middle class Americans (I’m hardly middle class except that there are so many people below me on the income and resources ladder) get themselves hooked up to one airline as opposed to all the others so they can participate in that airline’s “frequent flyer” program. I know—I do it, too. USAirways is my choice because it flies from Dallas to the cities in California I’m most likely to visit. It’s not just brand loyalty—there’s an actual fiduciary benefit from flying the same airline as often as you can.

Middle class Americans (and here I somewhat part company with the middle class because I have no credit cards—when I die my sister will not have to figure out a way to pay off my consumerist debt), I assume, choose their credit cards at least partly on the basis of the “rewards” program of the various banks’ credit programs. You spend money—that is, you charge on the credit card you received from your chosen bank—and you get money back, or you get “frequent flyer” miles on your favorite airline or you get expensive gifts that you otherwise probably wouldn’t buy for yourself.

Middle class Americans participate in other “rewards” programs. “I tell you the truth; they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:2, KJV).

It’s probably not true that the people occupying city parks participate in many “rewards” programs. They are—at least to some extent, I’d guess—of that class of people who can’t participate in “rewards” programs. For various reasons. Mostly because they are barely participating in the economy through no fault of their own.

So here is my point (I also tell my students not to point out their “point” or announce their “conclusion” is about to end their essay).

I’m not an economist, and I’m also a bit limited in the “critical thinking” realm. But it seems logical, absolutely logical, that every time you use “frequent flyer” miles you increase the price of the tickets you buy in order to get the free ones.

In other words, you scramble to buy a plane ticket that will add to your “frequent flyer” miles (most likely paid for with a credit card that will give you “rewards” for your purchase), and you take great pleasure in the fact that you’re getting something for nothing.

No, you’re getting something you’ve purchased with your freedom of thought and your economic autonomy. “Brand loyalty” is a scientific- or sociological-sounding name for “bribery” and or “servility.”

“Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?” (Matthew 7:9, KJV).

My drug of choice

My drug of choice

So don’t complain to me that Kenneth I. Chenault, CEO of American Express, the company that’s giving you 10,000 frequent flyer miles free for using their credit card, is earning $17,440,000 this year (1) and you’re earning only $74, 440. You’re giving his company its billions by your “brand loyalty” (by using your credit card instead of buying only the plane tickets you can actually afford—or need). That is to say, you “owe your soul to the company store.”

Of course, there’s one huge difference between Tennessee Ernie Ford’s mine worker and us middle class Americans. The mine worker is trapped in an economic system over which he (apparently) has no choice. And he is not—except with his one fist of iron and the other of steel—helping to subjugate the people below him to even less economic autonomy than he has (oh, give me a break—let me work out my argument; you can play along here with a guy who admits—because it’s true—to having limited critical thinking ability).

Every time we accept “frequent flyer” miles, we are participating in the economic system that keeps the poorest of us poor.

Believe it or not, there are people in this country who cannot get a credit card from which to receive “rewards” because they don’t have enough income to qualify. Hard to believe for anyone who might be reading this. I don’t have one for a couple of reasons; the explanation I cling to is that my particular brain structure makes it very difficult for me to concentrate long enough to remember to make payments (thank God for automatic bill payment in the day of the Internet—another invention of Kenneth I. Chenault’s company and others like it).

But those of you who do have credit cards raise the price of everything you purchase with them by participating in their “frequent flyer” and “rewards” programs. Kenneth I. Chenault has not, you better believe it, arranged to give you anything for nothing. So you’re simply participating in this round-robin that keeps the capitalist/consumerist society humming.

Not so fast. That airline ticket you have so easily charged on Kenneth I. Chenault’s card costs more (much more, I would guess) than it would if all of those “reward” programs were not giving you the illusion of getting something for nothing.

John 12:8

John 12:8

And surely you can guess what that does for the people on the rungs of the economic ladder below you. It makes them pay full price (and then some) to buy a plane ticket to get to Peoria, IL, from Dallas when they are desperate to get there because their mother has died. And, since they are going to buy only that one ticket this year, they will never get to use any “frequent flyer” miles. And they are not going to get any sweet rebates on the credit card they couldn’t use because they don’t have one because they can’t afford it.

Our middle class perks are part of the economic system that institutionalizes poverty in this country. So don’t, please don’t, complain to me about Kenneth L. Chenault’s salary unless and until you are willing to ponder the fact that we are all eager and willing participants in this economic/social system that will—as long as we are slaves to it—insure that “the poor always ye have with you” (John 12:8, KJV). Stop your kvetching.
______________ (1) “America’s Highest Paid Chief Executives.” Forbes. March 25, 2011. Web. 30 October 2011.

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