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Titanic Income Inequality: Outraged at the Cruise Ship Caste System

Norwegian Escape

Income inequality, the civil rights issue of our day, has finally hit us where it hurts.

It represents a degree of economic and social stratification unseen in America since the days of Teddy Roosevelt, J. P. Morgan and the rigidly separated classes on the Titanic a century ago.

— Nelson D. Schwartz, reporting for The New York Times, April 23, 2016

Mr. Schwartz speaks, of course, of the shameful inequities visited upon the masses aboard the vessels of several well-known cruise lines. The New York Times, ever the champion of the little guy, brings this outrage to our eyes like a latter-day muckraker unveiling the horrors of early 20th-century immigrant wage-slavery in unsanitary Chicago meatpacking plants.

Dubbing our day “the Age of Privilege,” The Grey Lady harkens back to the deep societal divisions illustrated by the iron gates that separated passengers on the ill-fated Titanic -- a ship whose maiden voyage cost more than 1,500 lives, but whose namesake ultimately earned millions for Leonardo Di Caprio and Celine Dion, so one might consider it a net gain.

Today, the upper crust finds seclusion on the upper decks of even more massive cruise ships that embark with 4,200 passengers on board, just 275 of which revel in ultimate sea-going glory. For their premium fare, the elite enjoy…well…premium fare, and white-glove service. It’s “the right crowd and no crowding” as my favorite parody of all time declared (National Lampoon, RMS Tyrannic). Private swimming pools, secluded dining areas, attentive service, access to express elevators and front rows at shows — all of these exclusive benefits rain upon the rapaciously wealthy by dint of their elevated social status — and tickets that cost three-to-10 times what others on board pay.

High above, at the very cusp of heaven -- we are led to believe -- the one-percent dine upon unpronounceable delicacies arrayed on starched ivory linens, as they're attended by obsequious butlers and pretentious chefs de cuisine.

Meanwhile, down in steerage, the proletariat queue for chow like cattle in the chute at the abattoir. The hoi polloi endure countless minutes of tedium in order to hungrily clutch at the merely unlimited shrimp buffet, and a scant 23 dozen choices of appetizer, entree, salad, beverage and dessert.

Picture the poor galley slave as he returns to his tight quarters lacking even the rudimentary comforts of modern civilization. No balcony! And if you can believe it, he often has to apply his own sunscreen, and even stoop to correct the angle of his own errant sandal.

However, the real outrage, according to the Times, is that cruise lines now have detailed data on customer preferences, enabling them to deliver even more personalized service to their platinum clientele.

That doesn’t sound outrageous, you say? Wait, it’s coming.

The real, real outrage is that all of this cuddling and catering to the panjandrums of privilege makes some of the commoners envious. Not only that, but some of the cruise-line executives like it that way, because “a little envy can be good for the bottom line.”

Thank goodness some of the enlightened among us realize that all of this talk of pay-for-value smacks of anti-Americanism.

“We are living much more cloistered lives in terms of class,” said Thomas Sander, who directs a project on civic engagement at the Kennedy School at Harvard. “We are doing a much worse job of living out the egalitarian dream that has been our hallmark.”

With all due respect to the aforementioned egalitarian Harvard academic, allow me to dispose of all of this commu-nincompoopism with a few simple self-evident truths that may have escaped the notice of the diligent, unbiased Times reporter.

1) Aspiration to a better life inspires creativity and hard work, which benefit not only the aspirant, but society in general.

2) It’s only "envy" if class divisions are enforced by government, religion, or other powerful institutions, preventing people from pursuing their dreams. Economic mobility means that today’s steerage passenger is tomorrow’s first-class ticket-holder (and perhaps vice versa). Envy gives way to aspiration, which inspires risk and hard work, and that often spurs accomplishment and reward.

3) Premium-fare customers reduce costs, and increase value, for the rest of us, just as the first rich fool to pay $50,000 for a big screen TV helped to finance mass production of the nearly identical, but probably better, $500 version in your living room.

4) High-dollar customers provide employment, higher wages and higher gratuities for people currently at the lower end of the economic scale -- butlers, maids and such. Ask a waiter on the cloistered upper deck whether he wishes the wealthy would stay home.

5) Premium clientele boost profits, and thus increase value and dividends to shareholders, who, in turn, spend or invest the surplus, perpetuating the virtuous cycle.

6) The American dream is not egalitarianism, it is liberty to pursue happiness on the basis of merit, without institutionally imposed limits.

When the New York Times sees a cruise passenger swiping his gold card to access the starlight lounge, he cries “Unfair!”

Actual Americans, who witness the same, say, “Someday, I’ll be there.”

And so, in fact, many of us will.

Bon Voyage.