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Opinion American Airlines’ cancellations are a window into why people are so upset with the economy

An American Airlines aircraft on the tarmac at Ezeiza International Airport (EZE) in Buenos Aires on Nov. 1, the day Argentina lifted restrictions to enter and exit the country from international airports. (Erica Canepa/Bloomberg)

While many on Twitter spent the past weekend calling for the firing of a Southwest Airlines pilot who allegedly broadcast the anti-Biden meme “Let’s go Brandon” over his plane’s speaker system, far fewer commented on the full-on consumer catastrophe unfolding at another carrier.

American Airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights beginning Friday, stranding passengers in cities across the United States. Would-be fliers reported missing funerals and vacations, not to mention running up unexpected hotel bills.

If we want to understand the frustrations roiling Americans, and the situation that’s likely causing both President Biden’s falling poll numbers and the sudden popularity of “Let’s go Brandon,” this American Airlines cancellation imbroglio is actually a good place to start. Elites’ response to it (and all the issues like it) is illuminating, too.

Americans, as I am forever fond of pointing out, view civic life through the role of consumer. We don’t encounter the government every day (or at least don’t believe we do), but we do shop and use in-person services almost constantly. And compared to the past, American consumption is getting both increasingly expensive and, well, decreasingly nice.

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Yes, inflation is on the rise; the consumer price index was at a 5.4 percent annualized rate in September, the highest reading since 2008. But so, too, is a form of price increase that gets less attention. Think of it as “pay the same or more, but receive less.” Planet Money recently dubbed the trend “skimpflation.”

Skimpflation is the hotel that no longer offers daily housekeeping, or the restaurant that subs a QR code for a paper menu. It’s also the bank that doesn’t employ enough phone operators, leaving you stuck on hold. Or it’s the airline, such as American, that can’t hire back workers fast enough post-covid slowdown, so a weather issue in a hub city throws the lives of thousands of people into chaos.

It seems more than possible that this combination of traditional inflation and skimpflation is enraging Americans and skewering their perceptions of how well the country’s economy is recovering from the pandemic. A poll conducted late last month by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found almost two-thirds of Americans deemed the economy poor, with a majority saying they believed Biden was not handling the matter well. Consumer confidence is falling — even as a majority of Americans say their own situation is good.

But instead of taking these concerns seriously, many who should know better are telling Americans they are wrong to be angry. All those rising prices, poorly stocked stores and shoddy service experiences? Just a temporary blip, a speed bump on the way back to normal.

Jason Furman, who headed the Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration, referred to supply chain shortages and inflation as “high class problems.” Biden press secretary Jen Psaki joked about “the tragedy of the treadmill undelivered.” Some in the media joined in: The Atlantic deemed American shoppers “a nightmare,” and more recently told them to “buy less junk.”

This is a mistake on many levels. First, people are hardly only complaining about a child’s delayed Christmas gift, a longer line at the McDonald’s drive-through or even a shortened vacation. The seemingly impossible-to-untangle global supply chain snafu is leading to shortages of drugs used to treat childhood cancer, even of antibiotics. The cost of both new and used cars is soaring — a big problem in the United States, where public transportation is often lacking. And increasing energy costs are going to begin hitting Americans not just when they fill up their gas tanks, but when they heat their houses this winter.

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Second, much of this is the result not of coronavirus shutdowns on their own, but of how long-standing economic issues have interacted with pandemic precautions. For instance, it’s not as if people in the know weren’t warning about the supply chain prior to last year. Or with the airlines, one reason they (and we) are in this mess is because they assumed furloughed employees would simply all come back when called. But as with restaurant workers tired of low pay and difficult working conditions, many had decided to do something else entirely.

Finally, even when the prigs have a point — yes, you really can wait a few months for a treadmill — it fails to engage with the reality of the United States. Americans are not exactly patient when we want something. We are the nation, after all, that gifted the world not just Black Friday but Black Friday fight videos. It’s just not politically smart to take on America’s rampant materialism, as deserving a target as it can sometimes seem. It’s much better instead to consider consumer woes seriously and work aggressively to fix them.