The New America: Wealth Equals Worth?


My two months serving a church in Mexico are at an end. We’re in the process of traveling back to Seattle from San Miguel de Allende. Actually, we’re in the midst of six-hour layover in the Houston Airport.

Traveling today can be pretty awful. You reach the end of one long line only to move to the next one. You make your way through airports that may be the only thriving shopping malls in America, thanks to having a captive audience. You try to figure out if today is a day to remove your belt or your shoes or disrobe in some other way. Unless of course you pay for the “upgrades,” which entitle you to shorter lines, larger seats, and comfortable waiting areas.

With roughly 2,000 other travelers, we snaked along in the Border Control line here in the Houston airport waiting for one of the two open Customs and Border Control stations (two out of 40, Linda counted them), which is why we missed a flight and have a long layover.

As we wound back-and-forth through the intestine-like coils, a video ran overhead monitors about “The Golden Age of Travel.” The key to entering this new golden age is “The Global Entry Pass Program” of the U.S. Government. “Expedited travel” is what you get by paying a fee and becoming a member. It is no doubt worth it.

And yet . . . The Globe Entry Pass Program is but one manifestation of what is everywhere in America today: systems and schemes for special access, special privileges, and special attention. While that has probably always been true to some extent, now it is both more brazen, pervasive, and corrosive. On today’s first flight we were given a stern warning to not occupy exit rows seats that are unoccupied as “you haven’t paid for that upgrade.”

And I would add one other word to describe the pervasive pay for privilege system: “un-American.”

America, at least in aspiration, was a nation that celebrated what composer Aaron Copeland called “The Common Man.” We were a people against aristocracies of birth, wealth, title, or class. Yes, we failed in so many ways: slavery and segregation, the treatment of American Indians and denying women the vote. Many would say these failures proved those aspirations hollow. Such aspirations were compromised, but not hollow.

Moreover, we had institutions that supported and embodied these aspirations: public education (even public universities at low cost), national and public parks open to all without fees, a public library system that was the envy of the world, civic holidays and common rituals shared by people of all sorts and conditions.

While the work of artist Norman Rockwell will be dismissed by some as sentimental, Rockwell did pay tribute to the American of the common man, the same vision for which Copeland composed his “Fanfare of the Common Man.” The painting above is titled, “Freedom of Speech.” (When Rockwell took on segregation in his art, magazines like The Saturday Evening Post stopped carrying him.)

So the fact that the U.S. government now creates “membership” programs such as “The Global Entry Pass” for those who can or will pay, strikes at a very basic American ideal, “That all men (sic) are created equal.” A nation of and for the common man.

What’s pervasive in America now is quite different. It is a culture of fees (often hidden) and upgrades that attach charges to getting the first, the best, or the most exclusive. And it is a culture of an ostentatious display of wealth. Increasingly, we have bought the easy lie: wealth equals worth.

This puts a dagger in the heart of a society which aspires to honor the dignity of each person regardless of wealth, influence, race, religion, or birth. Instead of more nearly and widely realizing these aspirations, America has in the last 50 years gone in an opposite, but very old, direction: the more you have the more you get.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. I feel the pain 2 of 40 welcoming stations open – missed flights – sounds like France wher the strike du jour can really mess up one’s day. Global Entry is worth it but it takes more than $ . One need apply and be interviewed . Does this increase security as a trade for convenience- I do not know .
    You can pay for GE and spend time in the “process” or spend time in line . It’s a fair trade not anti -egalitarian unlike so many other oppressions by your government and buracracies for which we pay and get nothing !

  2. I like that phrase about “a culture of fees.” One reason for this outcome is all the supposedly “free” products such as the internet, and the corresponding need to sneak in some fees. Maybe the term is Fee Speech?

  3. As “Lame Duck” mentions, the first question is what you get, for what we pay. These expedited passes first have to satisfy the security requirement – if we’re giving away air travel security, for a paid convenience, then it’s a bad deal.

    Assuming it’s at worst a wash, then either we all pay for your pass, or you pay for your own. The American ideal – a promise honored in the breech from the first day, if you for example consider the conditions around Shay’s Rebellion – does not guarantee you access to everything anyone enjoys. The position you were in as an air traveler is already a privilege you enjoy only at some considerable expense.

    There are some real problems here that we need to wrestle with – income inequality, maybe opportunity hoarding to the extent that’s real, cost of education … Fees for government services isn’t one of them.

    America or any other country will be populated by equals as a function of society and economics. If we can regain the egalitarian society of the post WWII period, it will be primarily because jobs pay good money, and not just some jobs.

  4. it seems to be a matter of priorities. Each person values their time and their needs and wants. This comes in monitory or non monitory forms. If two people want the same thing, it is a matter of what they are willing to give up, money or time. Whether you have money or time is up to you and how others value your time. People often want things they do not need and they have a choice in what to give up to attain them.

  5. I always appreciate you insight, Tony. Most (all?) “commercial” airports in the US are PUBLIC. There should be NO special lines for anybody. We’re all citizens at the public airport. At a basic level, nobody is above anyone else. Sure, some folks are more capable than others (naturally) and they may decide to make a purchase at the airport mall… or order a nice meal… things that other folks maybe cannot afford. That’s fine. Success (financially) is good. But when it comes to the basics… like TSA (a government agency)… one line for all. Then… once you get to the gate, the PRIVATE airlines can do their thing — whatever it is. You pay for THAT.


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