Eight Miles High

Overnighted in the land of taciturn blonds and backlit June skies, Tallinn. En route from Astana to visit friends for the night before returning to Chicago. Flight from Tallinn to Munich was delayed. Given my First Class ticket (provided by a 3rd party), I was at the front of plane and privy to the Ostland conversation that ensued between the Estonian ground crew and their ‘betters’ (Germans–Lufthansa) that ensued. There was a baggage inventory issue that created the delay. The Lufthansa crew was little amused by the matter and the Estonian’s laissez faire attitude regarding it. Sharp words were exchanged between the offspring resulting from the First ‘Rights’ taken by Prussian manor owners of Baltic girls in previous centuries and the Germans of today piloting the Lufthansa Airbus, hinting at ongoing history continuing to play out in the present.

I arrived late to Munich, en route for my transfer Chicago, thus no chance of implementing my original plan to take the poorest person I could find (suggested by my dear friend, and humanist, Dirk) in the terminal to the First Class lounge. The idea was to kill two birds with one stone: first, provide an indigent person with the best food and libations they will ever have while second, offending the usual First Class lounge patrons with my preferred choice of company.

A uniformed driver who spirited me away in a new stretch Mercedes luxury limousine to my connecting flight met when I arrived to transfer at the plane door. I bypassed all usual customs and security and was quickly yet courteously moved through VIP checkpoints to make my connecting flight in Munich to Chicago. All are obsequiousness at every turn.  Mr. Sommers can do no wrong!

I boarded my connecting flight to Chicago at Munich.  I have a stewardess who attends to only 3 persons, of whom I am one.  The space that would accommodate 18 in cattle class, where I typically fly. I am in the same clothes I left in 6 days ago given the Turkish Airlines lost my luggage last week from Istanbul to Astana. Yet, I am treated as a veritable aristocrat. They have asked me shop on board. I have told them I hate shopping whether in the air or on the ground. All laugh. Socially, I can do no wrong. I am charming! Handsome! A veritable Cary Grant at 40,000 feet!

Drinks follow. The wines & ports are among the best I have ever enjoyed. This followed by caviar and superb vodka. I am showing no restraint in this matter, yet they indulge rather than display judgment at my lack of Protestant restraint. The more I drink, the more polite they become. Asking with ever more gentleness if they can refill my glass. As the alcohol sets in my curiosity leads me to wonder where the boundaries lay? An official at a British carrier has proposed the ‘need’ to meet the inflation of expectations of the new ‘power elite’ with a new first-class service that would deliver all ‘amenities,’ including, literally, being fellated. What’s next? Eight-mile high snuff parties to amuse the perpetually jaded and bored?

The First-Class travelers I meet exceed all my prejudices for them. To a person they are insipid. We are all endowed (or not) with gifts of one sort or another, but why do these people who so clearly lack any gifts get so richly rewarded? If this treatment were applied as some compensatory treatment for being dull, I might tender support, but given so few enjoy it, it seems more a lottery rather than justice for nature’s short changing them. One presumes these people are like the scions of Gilded Age industrialists who warned against the creation of an idle idiot class. They are neither ‘job creators’ in the parlance of today’s GOP, or job destroyers. They are instead like contemporaries of the late Spanish Hapsburgs, but presumably without title.

Business Class Travel, however, as I had on my inbound flight, is another animal altogether. The passengers are at least dynamic personalities in the main. Conversation snaps. They range from George Babbitt types who might invite you out for a night of whoring, as one construction tycoon did with me in broken English; with the assurance “we would be safe given his bodyguard is a very dangerous man,” to more reflective intellects. As one Yale PhD in mathematics now in finance told me, “I got 4 kids: I only do this bullshit for the money. Let’s talk about history or philosophy, I hate finance.” They are either producers (or wealth destroyers) of one sort or another, as opposed to the First-Class Hapsburg traveler.

Back on the ground and at home, I see people laboring hard for ever smaller rewards. “Times are tough” they are told. “We simply can’t afford medical benefits, pensions, and cost of living raises anymore.” “We can’t starve the job creators, less matters get even worse.” Yet, in the air, one can see how “tough” the job creators, job destroyers, and idlers really have it….

For Dirk, Kairi, Samuel, and Elli. Sorry to leave to again…

JEFFREY SOMMERS is an associate professor of political economy & public in Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and visiting faculty at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga.  He publishes regularly in outlets such as CounterPunch and the Guardian, and routinely appears as an expert guest in global news programs, most recently on Peter Lavelle’s CrossTalk.  He can be reached at: Jeffrey.sommers@fulbrightmail.org

Jeffrey Sommers is Professor of Political Economy & Public Policy in the Department of African &African Diaspora Studies and a Senior Fellow, Institute of World Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His book on the Baltics (with Charles Woolfson), is The Contradictions of Austerity: The Socio-economic Costs of the Neoliberal Baltic Model.