Maybe I listen to too much public radio. Earlier this week, I heard Tony Sheridan, the president of the Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce, complain to Tom Ashbrook about Amazon’s sales practices. The Seattle-based online giant has an unfair advantage over property tax-paying “brick and mortar stores,” he said.
“We have to have a level playing field here,” Sheridan said. “We believe in competition, but we have to have regulations that allow us a level playing field.”
Just a few hours later, I heard Boston Taxi Drivers Association spokesperson Donna Blythe-Shaw complain about Uber, the smart-phone driven, everyman livery service that is supplanting cabs across the country. Uber is essentially unregulated, Shaw groused; “it’s not a level playing field.”
I’m always amused to note pleas for the proverbially planar playing field, which my jaded ears hear as “not tilted enough in our favor.” Laying the spirit level across the metaphorical ballfield is inevitably the first resort of embattled status quo-niks feeling the hot, musky breath of change on the backs of their necks.
Unbeloved public schools seek a level playing field with their more successful charter school competitors; cable TV companies lobby for taxes on their satellite TV competitors, and even Big Oil whines about its Chinese competitors, all in the name of fair play.
Each of our past three presidents has called for flattening the pitch when pushing their baroque agendas of restrictive tariffs and sweetheart subsidies on behalf of the bedraggled American worker. “Our workers are the most productive on earth,” Barack Obama said in his 2012 State of the Union speech, “and if the playing field is level, I promise you: America will always win.”
How come writer Dan Okrent can solve the New York Times Saturday crossword in 13 minutes, when it takes me between 30 minutes and forever, depending on who is counting. Is it possible he’s smarter than I? Naah. Let’s level the playing field. From now on, Okrent can solve the puzzle in “reformed Egyptian” (the original language of the Book of Mormon) and I’ll stick to English. Now that’s what I call a fair fight!
As for the uber-stressed cabbies, the last time I checked, the taxi business was a government-protected oligopoly dominated by ruthless fleet owners bent on euchring the driver, the consumer, and the tax authorities, in that order. A Globe Spotlight investigation exposed business conditions at Boston Cab, the city’s largest fleet, replete with details of payoffs and bribes. “This is like a Third World country,’’ one cab driver told the Globe. “You need to give them money. That’s how they do business.’’
A level playing field, indeed.
And yes, when I think of a bedrock commitment to fairness and equity, my mind turns instantly to the US Chamber of Commerce. Let’s see. It opposed the Affordable Care Act; it opposes minimum wage hikes; it opposed the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Levelling — no. Meaningless chin music pleading for a “level playing field” — yes.
I don’t hold myself out as a historian, but when thousands of Irish immigrants arrived in our fair city around the turn of the past century, I don’t believe they encountered a “level playing field.” Like almost every immigrant group before and since, they were met by overt discrimination and de facto economic enslavement that “welcomed” newcomers to our country.
They made do. This has never been the country of the level playing field, and I doubt it ever will be. But at least there’s a playing field, and yes, sometimes you have to run uphill.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.