Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Commodity Congress: Why Most People Don't Vote

Part 1: Red Dawn
Two days ago voters went to the polls and voted for a congress they're not even remotely happy with. Only 7% of the exit-poll voters were enthusiastic about new Republican leadership. Two thirds of the electorate believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Despite a 53% unfavorability rating for the GOP (the Democrats actually score better at 48% unfavorable) the GOP took control of both houses of Congress.

While the baseline mechanics of this have to do with elderly turnout and demographic collapse (turnout well below predictions for key Democratic constituencies) the broad shape of the election is still this: the people's selections were often the lesser of two evils rather than an enthusiastic adoption of The Brand (we can see this same dynamic played out in the GOP selections McCain and Romney in the past two presidential elections). How can Congress survive with such low approval ratings?

Part 2: Spirit Soars
It turns out the GOP isn't the only most-successful organization with the lowest approval cores! Where else do we see this? Here: The Most Hated US Airline Is Also the Most Profitable. Spirit Airlines has the largest volume of consumer complaints (by a skymile) and makes the most money.
From 2013
Spirit is so hated they actually launched a cheeky consumer quiz (for sky-miles) to find out what people hated and released a report: The State of Hate. Their findings were that people mostly complained about other airlines (which they say, as they released the request their failure to get the most hate means they're great)--but The Omnivore thinks customer complaints tell the real story (people who found the site were already probably Spirit customers).
Maybe Allegiant Scored The Most F-Bombs But Read This
Being the worst of the worst, it turns out, is good money. As Businessweek put it:
“Customer complaints generally have a loose but inverse negative correlation to return on invested capital,” Wolfe Research analyst Hunter Keay says, noting that well-liked JetBlue Airways (JBLU), Virgin America, and Southwest Airlines (LUV) lag financially. “The commitment to make the customer happy costs money.” Keay says the low-cost model rightly treats airfare as a utility. “There really does not need to be a service component attached to consuming airfare.”
The Commodity Congress
Where this comes together is here: If Americans see an electoral choice of candidates not as a premium service but rather as a utility--an undifferentiated commodity--then (a) it makes sense that they'll either vote for the lesser of two evils: Kind of like choosing Comcast over AT&T--The Omnivore has had both and trust The Omnivore, both sucked--but one sucked WAY worse (AT&T Uverse was the worst) or (b) not vote at all.

A "commodity choice" is the "I-Don't-Care" of long-distance carriers*. This perception, whatever the truth (and let The Omnivore tell you: it's more-true than you'd probably like to think), makes real interest in the election for large demographics (and, specifically, large Democratic demographics) seem like a bad investment in time and effort.

Why is this?

There are a few reasons why a potential voter might feel that their choice of representative is basically six of one or a half-dozen of another. It turns out that these also line up with the Airline industry.

Market Forces Are Universal
Spirit may see Greyhound Bus as more its competition than Delta--but the forces of market competition are not restrained by board-room PowerPoint. Everyone in the game has started charging more for extra luggage and seats have gotten smaller across the board. Spirit's success drives that change for the rich and the poor alike (just less so for the rich). The same thing applies to Congress: you can elect whatever bright-eyed and bushy-tailed representative you want--but when they get to Congress the intricate realities of American politics will dash their spirits on the Capitol steps like a tortoise dropped by an eagle. You've seen it happen. So has everyone who ever voted.

You Are Not The Target Demo
Rich people don't fly Spirit. Maybe Delta? Most of the big-name carriers have selected businessmen as their target demo. Once in a while you see a sub-carrier go after another non-value-demographic (this is a great article about Song Airlnes targeting women)--but while a lot of candidates brand themselves as serving minority interests (and, in majority-minority House districts, they certainly will) for the state-wide candidates most people have a pretty intuitive sense of who the Senators are "designed for." That, for minorities, usually isn't them. Senate campaigns cost millions and millions of dollars. Whatever the advertising, there's a reasonable expectation that the candidate isn't going to throw that cash-cow into the slaughterhouse.

Selection Options Are Obscure
Today most people shop by ticket-price. The big web-aggregators don't, for example, calculate luggage fees for you (they can't: it depends on what you plan to check), or tell you that Spirit will charge you 3 bucks for water (they advise you can drink out of the bathroom sink!). When you see the lowest price ticket on Kayak you have to do research to figure out what you might really wind up with. Most people don't even think about that--and then they get burnt.

For congressional candidates the situation is similar. Instead of there being a lack of clarity about what they'll do there's too much information and it's hugely conflicting. You can see the candidate's record--yeah--but what about what they're saying now? Can you trust anyone's ad? Probably not--it's all spin. In the end, looking at that ballot is probably about one or two specific issues the voter has a vague grip on and whichever team's jersey they're wearing.

Is it any wonder that the politically under-served aren't rushing to the polls?

Now, You Say That's Not True
Certainly the people who got the Medicare Expansion and went to the hospital or the dentist for the first time in their lives could say that the national choice of election did make a difference. No argument there--for them--but let's look at it another way: if you had to gamble on something like the ACA passing in 2008 how much would you have bet it'd go down? If you say "I'd bet the farm" you're an idiot: it almost didn't happen--and that was with a super majority.

Tell you what: when we get the time machine working, The Omnivore's gonna clean you out on closing Gitmo.

Uh-huh. That was a slam-dunk compared to the ACA. Given the small chances of any specific candidate making a real bright-line difference to most people, is it any wonder they're treated like a commodity utility by, well, most people?

And when, as we've seen, you run a commodity utility, customer service isn't a required part of the equation.

Thankfully, Spirit thinks bathrooms during the flight are pretty much necessary. Where's your congressperson on that?

* As you ought to know, in the great long-distance carrier wars, some companies registered I-Don't-Care and It-Doesn't-Matter as the names of their rip-off long distance services. When an apathetic consumer told the phone operator they didn't give a shit, they got taken for a ride. How this applies to I-Couldn't-Be-Arsed-To-Show-Up-And-Vote is left as an exercise to the reader.


  1. I agree, from my own anecdotal experience, that righties are more insular than lefties. I quite enjoy talking about issues, concepts, philosophies, and politics, even (or perhaps especially) when there is disagreement. However, when it comes to issue disagreement, I find that it is typically the independents, the righty-centrists, and the libertarians (the *real* libertarians, not the bullshit fake GOP libertarians who are actually nothing more than more extremist righies) with whom I can have these position/idea-exchanging dialogues. The strongly right seem to do everything they can to avoid discussing these disagreements. They tend to evade by ad-hominem attacks, evade by reverting to evasive humor, or evade by altogether avoidance. I have great difficulty getting them to "talk" with me even though I certainly attempt to leave an atmosphere of 'respect and safety to disagree'.

    Now, I know many lefties who revert to disgust and outrage rather than discussion. But I also know many more who, like me, are more than willing to talk through differences even understanding that agreement will not be reached. The willingness to open minds to "hear" other input, other information, seems disturbingly lacking on the right. This social and information 'cocoon' is definitely present. And it makes a pretty a sad statement about those who live in it so completely.

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