Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The healing power of international flight.

It seems that very little has been written about the healing powers of international flight. I can hear the comments now: “You must be crazy!” But allow me to explain.

I clearly remember one time when I had to take four international flights, in a relatively short period of time, each around ten hours long,. On each the number of people requiring pre-boarding assistance was disproportionately large. Numerous people arrived in wheelchairs, many carried canes and had pronounced limps. Some even carried written statements from physicians. Yet upon landing the limps disappeared and wheelchairs were unnecessary. In fact many of them headed for the luggage ramps at a pace exceeding my own.

On one flight one woman loudly demanded an upgrade due to a severe back condition. She could barely walk or move and it almost appeared as if she needed a stretcher just to board the plane. But unfortunately for her no upgrade was possible—every seat was filled. On the plane she tried again but again she failed. Twenty minutes later she was moving around like an acrobat. She could squat to get things from under the seat and stretch to reach the overhead bins. It was a miracle that took place right before my eyes. Move over Moses and make room for Boeing!

But these “healings” are rather odd.I noticed that the number of passengers requiring healing rises dramatically in Economy Class. Those needing such special services in Business Class are minimal while the cramped seating in Economy Class overflows with the halt and the lame. The numbers of such passengers also rises with the length of the flight. A short flight of an hour or so rarely has many such passengers while international overnight flights are packed to overflowing with the afflicted.

Now either people with back and leg problems take international flights in disproportionate numbers or something else is going on. And, as you no doubt have guessed by now, I doubt whether flight itself possesses healing properties.

What is going on is very simple to understand. When it comes to international flights the airlines try to assist people with problems by giving them sought-after preferred seating. This incentive causes people to exaggerate the problems they experience or manufacture them entirely. These exaggerations are proportional to the benefits received. So short flights rarely are packed with people needing preferred seating while long flights have an endless supply.

The healings that appear to take place are quite understandable. The “handicap” the passenger experiences is no longer beneficial once the flight is over so mass healings are common. Passengers who limped aboard at death’s doors are swinging carry-on luggage wildly to move others out of the way when it comes time to disembark.

One acquaintance even admitted the scam used by her mother. She carries a doctor’s letter saying she suffers from severe claustrophobia. After the ticket is firmly booked in Economy she produces the letter and frequently finds herself upgraded as a result. There is no claustrophobia but no airline wants to be seen as being heartless.

People respond to incentives and when being sick, or unemployed, or homeless is financially rewarded the number of sick, unemployed and homeless will increase. This fact is universal in nature and is the bane of the welfare state.

When welfare reform reduces the length of time one can stay on the dole as unemployed the number of recipients who “can’t” find a job suddenly drops. I have seen this first hand. One city where I lived had its own welfare which required the recipient to have gone for two job interviews per week to continue receiving aid. The recipients being smarter than the welfare bureaucrats knew exactly what to do.

They would walk around and ask for jobs at businesses NOT seeking employees. When told no job was available they would pull out the form from welfare and ask the person to sign it for them saying they sought out a job but couldn’t find one. At most this would take a hour or two and usually in a few minutes they succeeded to meet this minimal requirement and their benefits were extended once again.

The great failure of state charity — though in politically correct terminology this is now called “entitlements” — is that it can’t adequately police the recipients. Since it financially rewards “unwanted” conditions the numbers of people who suffer said conditions, or pretend to suffer them, increases proportionate to the generosity of benefits received. Private charities, as the book “What Makes Charity Work?” shows, once succeeded in actually helping people because they tended to monitor the actual needs of recipients. But as they adopted the “entitlement” view and stopped monitoring the number of bogus recipients increased.

One food program for the “homeless” and “poor” that I know of will feed anyone who walks in the door—even those carrying briefcases and wearing business suits. Bill Gates could eat there if he wanted. A friend of mine worked for the charity on premises and said that local businessmen did actually stop in and take advantage of the “free food” for the needy. And though they were obviously needy the charity didn’t seem to mind. If anything they used this to their benefit. It allowed them to show they feed more and more people each year and that the justification for their existence was confirmed. They used it for fund raising purposes and since they had a Left-wing “social justice” tint they used the growing numbers of “hungry” to condemn capitalism as sentencing countless people to starvation.

The great danger of public aid is that it creates incentives to increase the problems addressed. And when such aid has been reformed, limiting access in some way, the numbers of “needy” recipients declines. Those with “bad backs” suddenly find they can actually work. Those who “can’t” find a job suddenly find a job. It appears that removing the incentives to have “problems” directly reduces the numbers inflicted with problems..

My four flights certainly drove home this point. And it taught me that government aid is a potent tool for increasing social ills. Such programs, even at their best, always distort human behaviour. And the more generous the benefits the greater the level of distortion.

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