May 2008


I’ve never actually had a picture bring tears to my eyes before.

A Burmese child asked for more food during aid delivery in Dedaya, Myanmar. New York Times.

I’ve been doing a lot of academic reading lately in a relatively new area: mobilities. It comes out of sociology, with side branches in geography, communications, and planning, and it’s basically the social theory approach to transportation. The two main areas of work have been on automobility (about how our society is so inextricably tied with the auto that we can’t talk about the labor market, housing, economic development, or nearly anything else without cars being involved somewhere) and aeromobility (similarly, the way that long-distance and international transportation depend heavily on air transportation and airports). Aeromobility in particular looks at the way people are sorted as they pass through airports, especially through security screening procedures but also through sitting in first class/coach class, using the Admiral’s Club or equivalent, and even by choosing the airport in the first place (e.g., Ryanair and EasyJet ‘s practice of using secondary airports).

So this story in Chicago has caught my interest. Midway Airport has instituted a system that Denver and Salt Lake have been trying out, where passengers self-sort themselves into security lines based on their familiarity with procedures and thus with their speed. The three lines are coded according to the same symbols as ski runs: green circles for beginners, blue squares for the middle level, and black diamonds for the experts. As an earlier story noted, the familiarity of Midwesterners with ski run symbology is a dubious assumption, but the slow-medium-fast idea is pretty simple.

According to the article, the assumptions about who is slow, medium, and fast are also simple: “Workers helped steer flip-flop-wearing vacationers one way, and briefcase-toting business travelers the other. Moms and dads hauling the accouterments of parenthood—strollers, diaper bags and car seats—were funneled in yet another direction.” Now, it apparently is possible to switch lanes if you feel you’re more (or less) expert than TSA eyes designate you, but there are still some strong assumptions being made here. It reminds me of the pre-9/11 days when I went to meet my long-distance sweetie at the airport; every time I carried my backpack with me, I got the wipe-down treatment checking for drugs/explosives; no backpack, no extra check.

Of course, the self-identification may be problematic: the Tribune’s poll says nearly 70% of people consider themselves to be in the “expert” category, and 72% plan to use the black diamond lanes. (This is why I’d go for the blue square, myself; I’ve certainly traveled enough to know what I’m doing, but taking out the laptop and the liquids, taking off the jacket and shoes, and then reassembling myself at the other end takes an embarrassingly long time even when I’m careful to do things like send the backpack through before the laptop so I can pop the computer back in as soon as it comes through).

But it’s such a prime example of Foucault’s argument that modern society is more and more about disciplining (and sorting) ourselves, becoming docile bodies within the system. It’s also a great illustration of all of this mobilities literature that I’ve been reading, right here in the real world; so much for the ivory tower! In particular, it demonstrates how identity is becoming tied up with speed, and how the “kinetic elite” (as Rem Koolhas has termed them) are moving ever faster and more smoothly while those of us who are not visibly elite (e.g., with children, wearing flip-flops, not carrying a briefcase) are slowed down in our travels.

Besides, as one commenter on the Tribune’s website pointed out, we’re all going to sit at the same gate and wait anyway!

So there’s this big debate going on between the Democratic candidates right now about a “gas tax holiday” for the summer. On the one side, we have John McCain and Hillary Clinton and others arguing that for the sake of American families, who are paying much more for gas and food and other basic necessities than they were a year ago, we should drop eighteen cents off the price of gas. (In other words, the amount that gas prices have gone up in the past, I don’t know, two months.) On the other side, we have Barack Obama and others arguing that this is pointless, a short-term solution that’s only trying to win votes and not trying to make anything better in the long run. There’s no guarantee that the oil companies won’t raise prices because they can, and thus the gain from the tax holiday will be negative. And then an instant eighteen-cent hike will make Labor Day really fun!

What no one seems to be talking about (although it’s starting to appear in today’s papers; here’s one example) is what happens to that money the federal government collects from the gas tax. In the U.S., that money goes into the Highway Trust Fund, which funds road, transit, and pedestrian projects. The Buffalo News estimates that this proposed “tax holiday” would take almost $10 billion out of the Highway Trust Fund, which is already almost $5 billion in the hole for projects that Congress has already approved (mostly new construction, not maintenance). The gas tax is one of the few taxes in this country which has a pretty clear line of sight from how it’s collected to how it’s spent. So it’s also pretty easy to say that the $30 each of us on average would save over the summer is $30 per person that’s not being spent on filling potholes, installing sidewalks, or, I don’t know, fixing bridges. ‘Cause it’s not like road maintenance is a problem anywhere in this country.