Friday 21 Oct 2016

The Upper Tier
David Simmonds

If you take the train from Union Station, in Toronto, from time to time, as I do, you probably find it annoying to hear them announce, if you can hear it at all, “Via Business Class passengers may board at any time after they have finished their free drinks and snacks in the lounge. All other passengers just stand there and wait in line until we feel like calling you.” Welcome to the world of two-tiered service; a world that’s going to see more and more marketing directed at the upper tier.

Numerical evidence abounds.

The statistics are everywhere. For example, spending by the wealthiest five percent, of Americans, has gone up 35 percent over the past decade, compared to just 10 percent for the rest of us. Our friends in the world of luxury goods and services have noticed.

As the New York “Times” recently put it, “Whether they are selling fancy cookware, natural cheeses or single malt Scotch, purveyors of goods for the wealthy are competing more and offering new products. Downscale items like canned meat or tobacco aren’t drawing as many new entrants into the market.” As if to bear out this prophecy, just the other day Maple Leaf Foods, makers of wieners, bologna and salami, announced a new line of artisanal foods, Canadian whisky and apple bacon, Atlantic coarse salt prosciutto and Ontario inspired cherry wood smoked ham, aimed unabashedly at upper income customers.

There are decisions to be made when marketing to the wealthy. Take the Norwegian Cruise Line. As reported by the “Times,” a liner carries 4,200 passengers; but only 275 of them can enjoy a special “Haven” section that offers concierge and butler services, as well as a private pool, sundeck and restaurant. At first, the company offered a programme that let regular passengers buy their way into the Haven. Then it deliberately stopped doing so. Why, well, according to the former chief executive of Norwegian, the elite class passenger “wants to be surrounded by people with similar characteristics.” What characteristics might those be? Is it a winning smile, a firm handshake, a fondness for crokinole? No, it’s obviously an easy familiarity with money. You don’t want to find yourself sitting by the pool in the Haven next to some Homer Simpson schmuck, just because he won the poker game last week and has some surplus cash.

The upper class seeks constant confirmation of its importance.

Another cruise company executive says that big money clients “are looking for constant validation they are a higher value customer.” That constant validation presumably means the constant flow of privileges not afforded the ordinary customer. This is hardly a pursuit of the egalitarian spirit.

If the upper tier doesn’t want to associate with the lower tier, what happens when and if they meet one another? Unbelievably, people have actually studied this phenomenon. According to Mark Kingwell, writing in the “Globe and Mail,” a professor DeCelles, from the University of Toronto, studied air rage and conclude that when airlines sold tickets at different class levels, air rage incidents were nearly four times as likely as when there was uniform pricing. In fact, air rage was more common among the upper tier than the lower tier.

I don’t know exactly what constitutes air rage, but I assume it includes the incident when the daughter of a Korean Air executive had the plane turned back because her macadamia nuts did not come in a dish. Grumbling about the cold camembert and crackers may not quite make the grade, although it sure stokes the resentment of those passengers offered nothing to eat.

A tiered service subsidizes lower tiers.

I realize there are arguments in favour of tiered service. What’s the harm in allowing extra benefits to those willing to pay for them? The premium price subsidizes the ordinary traveller; so, tiered service is really a grand exercise in democracy to make ordinary service affordable to more people.

I find it hard to disagree with Thomas Sander, a specialist in civic engagement at Harvard University, who says, according to the “Times,” says “We are doing a much worse job of living out the egalitarian dream that has been our hallmark.” Maybe it’s because we’re not encouraged to dream about equality any more; instead, the invitation is to dream of joining the five percenters. That’s a zero-sum game: only five percent of all of us can belong to the club. Those in the club already aren’t anxious to give up their places; if you make it in, you increase the chances that I won’t.

What of Wellington, Ontario, should we be trying harder to cater to elite level travellers, even if that means elbowing out the ordinary riff raff? I’m going to answer that rhetorical question with an emphatic “no.” In fact, I think that Wellington’s greatest asset is its egalitarian ways. If I were Wellington’s director of tourism, I would be subsidizing those regular community dinners held at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, holding them through the summer months and marketing them to tourists. Sit down and introduce yourself to your neighbour, whoever he or she may be. The egalitarian spirit lives on here.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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