Local & State Voices

Losing sight of what matters in America

This week my daughter had to phone Live Nation about some concert tickets. As she worked her way through endless voice-mail menus and critiqued the different “on hold” songs, I told her a story about the olden days.

Before you were born, I said, when you called places people answered. Lacking voice mail menus, companies hired people whose job was to answer the phone and deal with your problem.

It reminded me of what I’ve come to consider the Golden Age of Air Travel. Remember in the 1970s and ’80s? You had leg room, pillows, meals and usually a vacant seat next to you. The stewardesses were all smiles and service. Ticket agents were cheerful. And with government regulation, airlines were profitable.

Compare that to today’s scenes, such as JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater’s behavior Monday. After an unpleasant passenger encounter – who hurled the first curse is under dispute – he swore at the passenger, opened the inflatable slide, grabbed a beer and slid off the job.

And in recent days I’ve written about the new greenway along Charlotte’s Little Sugar Creek. Not a few people have told me how they hate to see the “waste” of public money on things like the greenway’s stone bridges (actually, that stone is inexpensive molded concrete), public art and the rockwork clock tower (clock donated by the Rotary Club). It’s as if people here are so unused to places that celebrate the public that they think it’s wastefully lavish for a public park to hold anything nicer than cinder-block buildings and utilitarian metal bridges.

You’re probably wondering how these things – voice mail and airline travel and parks – are related. To my eye, they all illustrate something about America today: Americans have stopped believing that value is something everyone deserves.

We’ve stopped valuing workers. The country apparently no longer believes people who work hard deserve wages that pay them enough to afford the rent or a modest mortgage, or deserve a pension to keep them from penury in retirement. We’ve stopped expecting those things from employers – or at least they’ve stopped providing them. We’ve even stopped valuing public schools, stopped expecting them to have mowed lawns and drinking fountains that work.

What we value, instead, is cheapness. Rock-bottom prices. Low taxes. So we get tomatoes that taste like crunchy sponges, but at least we don’t pay a lot for them. Instead of percale bedsheets made in the USA we buy sheets made in countries most people couldn’t find on a map, with seams that dissolve within weeks. We buy food with no taste, clothes that unravel and appliances we have to junk after five years. Our public schools have knee-high crabgrass. People get hacked off if our public parks look better than pesticide factories. But at least they don’t cost us too much.

Obviously some large and unavoidable factors have shaped these changes. Technological advances play a big role. Why pay people to answer phones when a website costs so little?

And globalization means U.S. workers, who used to expect some job security, health insurance and pensions, now compete with Chinese factories paying wages a tenth of ours.

I don’t want to become a crotchety old-timer. Back in the era when even the phone company would answer your calls, a lot of things weren’t so great. Women and blacks faced daunting obstacles getting decent jobs. Airfares were steep, schedules inconvenient. Not all change is bad.

But what worries me more than change itself is the changed attitude.

Today, wealthy people are getting wealthier. They fly first-class, buy custom suits and their assistants battle voice-mail hell. They get enviable pensions. They don’t need nice parks or public schools; their country clubs and private schools boast handsome buildings and manicured grounds.

But why have so many other people given up on the idea that the larger community – all of us – deserve sound government services and jobs you can live on? When did we stop believing we deserve pretty parks, well-kept schools, decent pay, job benefits and a pension when we retire – and that it’s OK to pay for those things, because we value them?

Instead, it seems as if people today are filled with venom, for the government and for their neighbors. They’re blaming the jobless, blaming people who’ve lost homes, blaming immigrant kids for what their parents did.

I think it’s fear: After decades of stagnant wages followed by waves of layoffs, people sense the American middle class is about to founder. When that happens, they’ll either be rich enough to join the First Class crowd or dumped in with the losers in coach. And like insecure adolescents, we insult the losers that we fear we might, deep down, already be.

Mary Newsom is an associate editor at the Observer, mnewsom@charlotteobserver.com or P.O. Box 30308, Charlotte, NC 28230-0308.