COVID-19 attacks indiscriminately: Young or old, rich or poor, it seems like everyone is vulnerable to the virus. But New York Times economics writer Nelson Schwartz says increasing economic inequality in the U.S. means that, as a group, the country's wealthiest one percent are likely to fare better during the pandemic than everyone else.
"One of the most striking aspects of the emergency of coronavirus is the inability to get tested," he notes. But Schwartz says that concierge doctors — primary care physicians who charge several thousands of dollars a month for access to care — have been able provide their patients with COVID-19 tests that might otherwise be impossible to obtain.
"One concierge doctor I spoke to rounded up viral swabs ahead of time," Schwartz says. "He was able to arrange testing for his clients when others couldn't get tests."
In addition to having better access to COVID-19 tests, Schwartz notes that the rich are more likely to have flexible private transportation services and second homes — which can ease the burden of "social distancing" to avoid the virus.
"People say we're all in it together. But to me, the pandemic has exposed these class differences," he says.
Schwartz's new book, The Velvet Rope Economy, examines how new services spare the super rich from the hassles of everyday life, including getting stuck in traffic, standing in line or waiting on hold. He notes that the ramifications of our stratified society run deep.
"I think the result is less sympathy, less empathy and a sort of a harder-edge society," Schwartz says. "There's a lot of anger among people who are not benefiting from these kind of privileges. ... There isn't a feeling that we're in it together. ... Instead it's each man for himself."
On how concierge doctors provide expedited access to specialty care
I write about a concierge doctor in San Francisco named Jordan Shlain, and he has relationships with many, many doctors, ... one of whom is a doctor named Ethan Weiss, who's a cardiologist — a very experienced and skilled specialist who his specialty is preventing second heart attacks. [Dr. Weiss] normally has a waiting list of six months to get an appointment with him. But if you're a patient of Dr. Shlain's, you can get an appointment with Dr. Weiss in a matter of days or weeks. That ability to get connected with specialists really struck me as something very surprising. ... The ability to get appointments with specialists in a hurry, that can really be a matter of life and death.
On the counseling service IvyWise, which helps wealthy kids get into elite colleges
IvyWise employs former Ivy League admissions officers, and they can provide what economists call "asymmetric information," namely, they can say, "the dean of admissions is really interested in Southeast Asia. We think you should do an internship or a summer travel to Cambodia and write your essay on that. That will appeal to the dean of admissions." Or if there's an athlete applying for school, they'll say, "Cornell needs a goalie. Columbia doesn't. Apply to Cornell." And that kind of asymmetric information is very, very valuable. Then they do the normal kind of stuff, which is sort of advising on essays, advising on what schools to, talking about course loads, that kind of thing. But what struck me was the information quality and the idea that they employ all these former Ivy League admissions officers who can really give you the idea of being in the room where it happens. ...
IvyWise admissions counselors make much more than they would working in college admissions offices, and they can charge as little as $350 for a starting fee, up to $250,000. It really varies quite a bit who you see at the firm. If you see the firm's founder, Kat Cohen, she charges a minimum of $100,000 for each family. And families will go to IvyWise beginning very early on in the process, like several years out. So they'll work with them for years, sort of hewing their course schedule and sort of shaping their admissions effort just years in advance.
On private services available to make air travel more comfortable
The most striking example to me was in LA, where there's a terminal-within-a-terminal and it's called the private suite, and for about $3,000 or $4000 a pop, you can have a separate entrance to the airport. Forget a separate entrance for the line, for the plane. You have a separate entrance for the airport. You wait in a separate waiting area where you could have canapés and relax and there's no hassles or long lines. And when it's time, they take you directly to the plane. That's at LAX.
At other airports, if you're an elite frequent flyer, you have a separate entrance to the terminal, you have a separate line, you board the plane separately. You really don't come into contact with ordinary fliers. And I think that kind of explains why flying can be such an assaultive experience, because for the normal passenger, that's what it is. Whereas for the elite who make up the bulk of revenues, it's an exercise in convenience. ...
On how the wealthy can avoid traffic by taking helicopters to the airport or to the Hamptons
In Manhattan, there's something called Blade, which is a helicopter service which can jump over the traffic in 15 minutes and deposit you right by your flight. Blade is pretty popular [going to] JFK or to Newark [airports], and they even have a kind of a Sinatra era ring-a-ding-ding bar with drinks, and you can have a drink before boarding your helicopter flight. You could take it to the Hamptons if you're not going so far afield. You'll get to [JFK in] 15 minutes instead of two hours ... in rush hour. ... That will run you about $195 per person to go from the west side to JFK or Newark.
On how cruises use a tiered system
This has changed quite a bit, and this is one of the things that really made me want to write the book, because people would say to me, "Wasn't it always this way?" It's true that a century ago you had the Titanic, where you had very defined class lines or little more than a century ago and you had gates between classes and all that. That's all true. However, mid-century and beyond, things got much more egalitarian. ... If you remember, The Love Boat, people had different sized rooms, but they all mixed together in the dining rooms, in the common areas. And that's how it was on board ship. That began to change about 20 years ago.
And now you have sort of a ship-within-a-ship. ... And they have different dining rooms and different areas of the ship where other passengers can't go. Again, it seemed like a metaphor for our society. It's interesting the psychology of it. The cruise ships are very, very sophisticated in terms of understanding the psychology of passengers, how far to go with the velvet rope and when to not push it too far.
But for instance, on Royal Caribbean, you have two restaurants — Windjammer and Coastal Kitchen — and they're next to each other. But Coastal Kitchen is reserved for [higher paying] guests and has frosted glass windows. But to get to get to Windjammer, you have to walk by Coastal Kitchen. So you kind of see what you can't enjoy. I would have thought that creates resentment or creates sort of like you're gonna have a Russian revolution on board one of these ships. But no, what it does, they say, is create a marker in the passengers mind and they say, "Next time I want to trade up, I want to have a Coastal Kitchen."
On how some businesses succeed because they are more equitable
The most profitable airline of all time is Southwest, and Southwest doesn't have classes. And I think Southwest shows you can have a more egalitarian vision and still succeed beyond all measure. Delta and American wish they were as profitable as Southwest. So Southwest has done it. I look at sports; I look at the Green Bay Packers, which is fan-owned, so that makes it a little easier. ... In Green Bay, they've tried to make the fan experience rewarding for the ordinary fan. And they've kept some of the best seats as regular boxes and just not try to make it such a stratified, tiered experience. I write about a golf course called Bandon Dunes in Oregon, which is just a great, great course. But the owner charges prices that he feels make it within reach of ordinary golfers.
Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in today for Terry Gross. One of the things you hear as we contend with the coronavirus pandemic is that we're all in this together because the virus attacks young and old, rich and poor. It doesn't know or respect wealth and privilege. Our guest today, New York Times economics writer Nelson Schwartz, has a new book which reminds us that while we may be all in this together, we're not all in the same boat. His book focuses on an outgrowth of the nation's increasing economic inequality, which, he says, is having profound impacts on our social and political relationships.
The problem is what he calls the velvet rope economy - new services available to the super-rich which spare them many of the hassles of everyday life and often any contact with ordinary people. Increasingly, the wealthiest 1% can avoid ever getting caught in traffic, standing in line or waiting on hold. There are helicopters to whisk them from Manhattan to regional airports and VIP services to make sure they avoid crowds at airports or amusement parks. Schwartz writes that the privileges of wealth go far beyond convenience. They have big advantages in securing the best medical care and education for their children as well.
I'm working from home these days, and I spoke to Schwartz, who's at his home in New York. His new book is "The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business." Nelson Schwartz, welcome to FRESH AIR.
NELSON SCHWARTZ: Great to be here.
DAVIES: So this book has amazing stuff that I didn't know is available to the super-rich. A lot of it involves enhanced recreation experiences, and a lot of it involves hassle-free transportation. Let's take air travel, you know? Everybody knows there's the chore of getting to the airport, standing in security lines, walking between terminals, waiting at crowded gates. What services are available if you have the money to avoid all this?
SCHWARTZ: Well, basically, you can avoid ever having to wait in line when you're flying. The most sort of striking example to me was in LA, where there's a terminal within a terminal. And it's called the private suite, and for about three or $4,000 a pop, you can have a separate entrance to the airport. Forget a separate entrance, you know, for the line for the plane. You have a separate entrance for the airport. You wait in, you know, a separate waiting area, where you can have canapes and relax, and there's no hassles or long lines. And when it's time, they take you directly to the plane.
That's - again, that's at LAX. At other airports, I mean, if you're an elite frequent flier, you have a separate entrance to the terminal. You have a separate line. You board the plane separately. You really don't come into contact with ordinary flyers. And I think that kind of explains why flying can be such an assault of experience because, you know, for the normal passenger, that's what it is, whereas for the elite who make up the bulk of revenues, it's, you know, an exercise in convenience.
DAVIES: Right. And the private suite at the Los Angeles airport, you said three to $4,000. Is that per flight?
SCHWARTZ: Yes, yes. And it costs something like that to join, but it costs that per flight. And that might sound like a lot, but for Hollywood studios, it's much cheaper than booking a private jet for a flight. So for them, it's a bargain.
DAVIES: And if you have to go from one place to another or - to get to the plane, you're not walking through these long corridors, right?
SCHWARTZ: No. One of the most interesting sort of features for elite flyers is if you're a super-elite frequent flyer on Delta, like a member of Delta 360 - that's their frequent flyer club - there's something called surprise and delight. So if you have a tight connection, a Porsche will meet you and take you on the runway from airplane to airplane and deposit you right at your, you know, departing flight. And you can't book it in advance.
And what's interesting psychologically - this sort of creates a tremendous bond between the passenger and the airline. I mean, it's kind of like with animals. Intermittent reinforcement is how zoos train animals to do different tricks. This really, you know, creates a tremendous loyalty because you never know if you're going to get it. But if you land and there's a Porsche waiting for you, you feel this immense gratitude towards Delta.
DAVIES: Right. And the rest of us have that little anxiety. Oh, my God. My flight leaves at 7:17. Am I going to get there? Can I grab a sandwich? None of that for these folks.
SCHWARTZ: And we're running through the terminal while the elite frequent flyer is cruising around in a Porsche.
DAVIES: Now, driving to the airport can be a problem in a big city like Manhattan. There are alternatives - right? - if you need to get to JFK in a hurry.
SCHWARTZ: Yes. In Manhattan, there's something called BLADE, which is a helicopter service which can jump over the traffic in 15 minutes and get you - again, deposit you right by your flight. BLADE's, you know, popular at JFK or to Newark. And they even have a kind of a Sinatra-era, ring-a-ding-ding bar with drinks, and you can have a drink before boarding your helicopter flight. You could take it to the Hamptons if you're not going so far afield. But yeah, you'll get to 15 minutes instead of two hours to JFK in rush hour.
DAVIES: Right. And what is that going to run me?
SCHWARTZ: That'll run you about 195 per person to go from the west side to JFK or Newark.
DAVIES: Cruise lines, you write, used to be pretty egalitarian. I mean, there were different charges for the more exclusive cabins that were larger and had better views. But once you got the cabin, pretty much everybody had the run of the ship, could at least have access to everywhere. This has changed. What's it like now?
SCHWARTZ: Yeah, this has changed quite a bit. And this is one of the things that really made me want to write the book because people would say to me, wasn't it always this way? And, you know, it's true that a century ago, you had the Titanic, where you had very defined class lines - or a little more than a century ago. And you had gates between classes and all that. That's all true.
However, at mid-century and beyond, things got much more egalitarian. I'm dating myself a little bit, but if you remember "The Love Boat," people had different-sized rooms. But they all mixed together in the dining rooms, in the common areas. And that's how it was on board ship. That began - that's begun to change about 20 years ago. And now you have sort of a ship within a ship on Norwegian called The Haven, and you have Suite Class on Royal Caribbean. And these are - and they have, you know, different dining rooms and different areas of the ship where other passengers can't go. And again, it seemed like a metaphor for our society.
And, you know, their - it's interesting, the psychology of it. The cruise ships are very, very sophisticated in terms of understanding the psychology of passengers and how far to go with the velvet rope and when to not push it too far. But, for instance, on Royal Caribbean, you have two restaurants - Windjammer and Coastal Kitchen - and they're next to each other. But Coastal Kitchen is reserved for Suite guests and has frosted glass windows. But to get to Windjammer, you have to walk by Coastal Kitchen, so you kind of see what you can't enjoy.
And I would've thought that creates resentment or creates sort of like a - you're going to have a Russian Revolution on board one of these ships, but no. What it does, they say, is create a marker in passengers' minds. And they say, next time, I want to trade up. I want to have a Coastal Kitchen. What they don't do is have sort of sections of the same restaurant reserved for Suites guests. That, they say, would piss people off. So that's sort of how they arrange it. But it has really changed in that you have this demarcation on board ship that you didn't have years ago.
DAVIES: Yeah. This struck me as an interesting aspect of this whole industry. When you're thinking about how to market your high-end service, I mean, I guess you want to think a little bit about whether the separation produces resentment or it's an aspirational thing. Is this true in all of these services - that they have to think about what...
DAVIES: ...How social norms fit with it? Yeah.
SCHWARTZ: Yeah, yeah. I mean, they're - well, they're - they think about it in terms of envy. They're - in sort of the social sciences, there's a theory of benign envy versus malignant envy. And benign envy is when you walk by that Coastal Kitchen and you say, you know, I can't go there now, but I want to go next time. That's benign envy. Malignant envy is when you resent the person in the other part of the restaurant who's getting faster service. And they really want to avoid that malignant envy.
I think, you know, we've had situations where - in flying, where things have tipped the scale towards malignant envy. I mean, I don't know if you remember when that doctor was dragged off the plane because they needed the seat. And, you know, if he had been an elite frequent flyer, he wouldn't have been dragged off, you know? And I think that - you know, there's studies showing that when you have business class adjacent to coach, you create more possibilities for air rage. And I think the airlines have kind of run into this more. The cruise ships, I think, have done a better job in terms of managing expectations.
DAVIES: There are more incidents of anger, fights, disturbances where the high-end passengers and coach are together?
SCHWARTZ: Yes, yes. And you have the - and the research showed you had outbursts occurring both among the elite passengers and among coach, so it's not restricted to one group or the other.
DAVIES: You remind us in the book, this isn't just about inequality. It's about, you know, our perceptions of each other and our empathy and whether the wealthy are just out of touch, don't know what the rest of us go through. And you tell an anecdote about a guy who was pitching a business that would connect people with money to empty seats on private jets. So they wouldn't have the expense of having their own private jet, but they could get the advantages of flying on a private jet. And part of it was that, you know, you could fly out of little airports. You wouldn't have to go to big metropolitan airports. And he was pitching this to an investor who just didn't get it. Would you tell us that story and the point it makes to you, to us?
SCHWARTZ: There is an entrepreneur in San Francisco named Rudd Davis, and he had the idea of matching seats on private planes that weren't being used with travelers. And basically, the flights would leave from smaller airports like Palo Alto and go to Santa Monica rather than San Francisco to LAX. And you would avoid the huge, you know, traffic and lines and congestion that are associated with those big airports. And it would cost maybe 375 each way versus 120 for a flight from San Francisco to LAX - so a little more expensive but not crazy like you'd expect. And it seemed like, you know, a huge time-saver for very busy people in Silicon Valley.
And he went to pitch one of those very busy people in Silicon Valley, a very well-known entrepreneur named Vinod Khosla. And he went through this pitch. He talked about the smaller airports. He talked about the unused space on private planes. I mean, it seemed like a great idea. And Vinod Khosla just wasn't getting it, and he didn't understand what he was doing wrong. And at the end of these - at the end of the pitch, he approached one of the - Vinod Khosla's associates. And he said, what happened? You know, I thought I was really on. You know, I thought I was really making all my points. And they said, you don't understand. Vinod Khosla hasn't waited in traffic in five or 10 years. He takes a helicopter everywhere.
Now, just that kind of detachment spoke to me about the way the elites are just living on a different planet in many cases and can avoid the congestion that the rest of us face. And I thought to myself, again, in writing this book, well, what does that do in terms of public policy? I mean, it sort of removes a big incentive to address some of these issues if the people who matter in sort of business and campaign donations and in public policy - if they're not facing these obstacles the rest of us are facing, what does that do to the discussion of public policy?
DAVIES: Right - like, for example, the need for infrastructure improvements. If you're never in traffic, it doesn't maybe feel quite the same.
DAVIES: Nelson Schwartz reports on economics for The New York Times. His new book is "The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business." We'll take a break here and talk some more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with New York Times economics reporter Nelson Schwartz. He has a new book about the special services now available to the super-rich and their impact on our social and political relationships. The book is called "The Velvet Rope Economy."
You know, the privileges that you write about in the book involve, you know, more convenience or better entertainment for the super-rich. But a lot of this involves matters of life or death, including health care. Give us an example of what's behind the velvet rope for the wealthy when it comes to getting better medical care.
SCHWARTZ: I write about concierge medicine, and I write about a concierge doctor in San Francisco named Jordan Shlain. And he has relationships with many, many doctors across the country as well as in San Francisco, one of whom is a doctor named Ethan Weiss, who's a cardiologist, a very experienced and skilled specialist who - his specialty is preventing second heart attacks. And he normally has a waiting list of six months to get an appointment with him, but if you're a patient of Dr. Shlain's, you can get an appointment with Dr. Weiss in a matter of days or weeks.
And just that ability to get connected with specialists really struck me as something very surprising. I mean, some of the things you get with concierge medicine practice, I don't know if they're necessarily worth it. I mean, you get their cellphone number. You get quarterly reports with lots of charts and numbers and all that kind of thing. But the ability to get appointments with specialists in a hurry, that can really be a matter of life and death.
DAVIES: Right. And what would it cost you to get Dr. Shlain's services?
SCHWARTZ: Dr. Shlain could be $5,000 a month versus - you know, a regular concierge practice might be $5,000 a year. So it's quite a bit more. He's also begun to take on, like, corporate practices. So, like, a hedge fund will hire him for much more than that for their employees.
DAVIES: You also write about another company called Private Health Management, which is interesting. They're not direct providers of care - right? - but they can be really helpful in a critical situation.
SCHWARTZ: Yeah. They're very interesting in that - basically, it's run by a guy named Leslie Michelson. He's not a doctor, but he employs, you know, health care professionals. And they're for people with significant medical issues who will come to them. Let's say, God forbid, you have a cancer diagnosis. They will work up the diagnosis from the get-go and sort of research who are the national specialists in that form of cancer, sort of put you in touch with them. If there's a clinical trial you need to be in, they'll get you in a clinical trial. And they're - now, they say they're not jumping the line in terms of clinical trials, which is true. You can't do that. But there's no, you know, nationwide database for clinical trials. There's no Google that you can find it. It's a voluminous, time-consuming effort. But they'll find you that clinical trial. And, again, that can be the difference between life and death in terms of a cancer diagnosis.
And I talked to a guy who's a producer at CNN. They - you know, who basically was written off and, you know, was facing, you know, a terminal diagnosis. And they found a doctor in Los Angeles who was able to save him, and he's alive today. And, you know, again, it can be $80,000 for a six-month course of care for someone. But, you know, what's the price of saving your life with a cancer diagnosis?
DAVIES: Right. And that $80,000 is not for the care itself. It's for the advice, finding - scouring the country and finding the best treatment and the best people.
SCHWARTZ: Yes. Exactly.
DAVIES: You also write about the wealthy and their advantages in getting their kids into good schools. I mean, this is - it's not shocking to hear that this happens. But you write about a company called IvyWise - Ivy as in Ivy League. What does this outfit provide?
SCHWARTZ: IvyWise provides college counseling. But they are - now, you've had, for years - even since I was a kid 30 years ago, you had college counselors. But they have about as much in common with the normal college counselors as Jordan Shlain does with, you know, a normal concierge doc. IvyWise employs former Ivy League admissions officers, and they can provide what economists call asymmetric information. Namely, they can say, you know, the dean of admissions is really interested in Southeast Asia. We think you should do an internship or a summer travel to Cambodia and write your essay on that. That'll appeal to the dean of admissions. Or if there's an athlete applying for school, they'll say, you know, Cornell needs a goalie. Columbia doesn't. Apply to Cornell. And that kind of asymmetric information is very, very valuable.
And then they do the normal kind of stuff, which is sort of advising on essays, advising on what schools to apply to, talking about course loads - that kind of thing. But what struck me was just the information quality and the idea that they employ all these former Ivy League admissions officers who can really give you sort of an idea of, you know, being in the room where it happens, to use the "Hamilton" line.
DAVIES: Yeah. I never heard of a revolving door for college admissions officers. I mean, do they pay more than college admissions officers get doing their jobs? And what does it cost you to hire IvyWise?
SCHWARTZ: Yes. Basically, IvyWise admissions counselors make much more than they would working at college admissions offices, and they can charge as little as 1,350 for a starting fee up to $150,000. It really varies quite a bit who you see at the firm. If you see the firm's founder, Kat Cohen, she charges a minimum of $100,000 for each family. So - and families will go to IvyWise beginning very early on in the process - like, several years out. So they'll work with them for years sort of hewing their course schedule, sort of shaping their admissions effort just years in advance.
DAVIES: Wow - advising you on, like, whether you should be in the chess club or run track and that kind of thing?
SCHWARTZ: Yes. Yes, and what - and again, sort of thinking about what colleges you want and what that college is interested in.
DAVIES: Nelson Schwartz reports on economics for The New York Times. His new book is "The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business." He'll talk more about the impact of privileges for the rich and how they might affect the economic recovery after a short break. Also, book critic Maureen Corrigan has some recommendations for reading that might help us cope with the stress of the pandemic. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON'S "FEEL THE SWAY")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with New York Times economics reporter Nelson Schwartz. He has a new book about special services for the superrich in our economy which spare them standing in lines or wading through crowds or competing with the less privileged for the best medical care or education for their children. His book is "The Velvet Rope Economy."
We've talked a good bit about the advantages that the rich get. Let's talk about the impact of this on the rest of us. You write about a community in New Albany, Ohio, where a lot of wealthy folks had chosen to settle and how, essentially, the public school system developed velvet rope distinctions. What happened?
SCHWARTZ: Basically, a proposal to raise school taxes failed, and the district had to make some decisions about what to do and to - you know, how to raise money to make up for the shortfall from not being able to raise school taxes. And one thing they did was to impose pay-to-play fees on school sports. So all of a sudden, you know, you would be paying several hundred dollars a semester for your kids to participate in different sports.
And this was, you know, again, for rich people in New Albany, it wasn't that big of a deal; for middle-class and working-class people, it was. And sports was - to me, was one of those things that was a great equalizer and where kids from different backgrounds would meet on a team and kids from poorer backgrounds could get a scholarship. And all of a sudden. Sports were off limits if you couldn't pay.
DAVIES: And you write that these private fees to supplement the educational experience has spread far beyond there, even to New York City.
SCHWARTZ: Yes. You know, you're seeing more pay-to-play fees in sports in different places, and you're also seeing them in other place - you hear about it in sports because sports are dear to the heart of a lot of Americans. But there are, essentially, pay-to-play fees for things like band and other extracurriculars. And these are things that, you know, used to just come with school but now are sort of counted as extras and, again, you know, exclude people who can't pay.
DAVIES: Now, there's a lot of services in the area of entertainment and recreation, particularly in sports events. How has the growth of economic inequality affected the way the wealthy attend sports events, get into stadiums?
SCHWARTZ: Sports are a kind of petri dish for the velvet rope economy. It's really become incredibly tiered and stratified over the years. I mean, you've - you know, you may have always had slightly higher prices for a box closer to the field than, you know, in the - than in the bleachers. But it's really gotten very extreme. And as new stadiums are built, there are more and more - more and more space is devoted just to boxes for the elite.
DAVIES: Right. And the cost of getting some of these spaces, particularly in new stadiums, is interesting because the tickets themselves are, of course, quite expensive, but then in new stadiums in particular, just to get access to buy the ticket, you have to buy something called a personal seat license. You want to explain what that is and what it might cost?
SCHWARTZ: Yes. You know, a personal seat license comes with your ticket, you know, with your seat, and it entitles you to that seat, but it's on top of the season ticket price. And it can be tens of thousands of dollars for the best seats. And it was only invented, you know, about 50 years ago as sort of a way of, quote, "rewarding" season ticket holders. And it's taken on a life of its own where the owners, when they build a new stadium, they layer in these personal seat licenses. And, you know, for new stadiums in Dallas and San Francisco, you're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars for a group of personal seat licenses.
DAVIES: Right. That's a one-time fee, and then you get the privilege of paying hundreds of dollars per ticket after that.
SCHWARTZ: Exactly. Exactly.
DAVIES: But you get great seats and amazing food and separate entrances. And one of the things that I always love about going to a ballpark, especially a new park, is walking all the way through the park and getting a look at the game from the different angles. That's not so easy in these new stadiums, is it?
SCHWARTZ: You know, that's sort of the opposite of what this sort of new velvet ropes stadium is about. I mean, I went as a kid with my grandfather, went to Yankee Stadium. You all would go in through, you know, an entrance with everybody else - people sitting in all parts of the field, people from all kinds of backgrounds. And you'd go through this huge hallway, and then you'd kind of filter through to different areas. And, you know - but basically, the food options were hot dogs or nachos, that kind of thing. In the new Yankee Stadium, you have legends section, which is - which I paid $700 for two seats, you know, on the...
DAVIES: As a reporting exercise, right? (Laughter).
SCHWARTZ: Yes. Yes. But, you know, I'm not allowed to accept comps for something like that. So I - as part of the reporting for the book, I paid for it out of my own pocket. And, you know, it's a totally different experience. You know, you're kind of waved through like you're old friends, you know, with the security guards. And then you enter this food hall, which has food from gourmet New York restaurants. And they have hot dogs and other kind of stadium food, but they also have, you know, like, lobster tails and crabs legs and steak. And you name it, they have it.
And, you know, you're totally cut off from the rest of the stadium and from other fans. And, you know, you take your seat; people aren't really watching the game. They're looking at their phones or making deals. And then, you know, when you're sitting in your seat, you know, you can walk down to the field and try to get an autograph or talk to a player. But if you're farther back, you can't do that. There's what the fans call a moat that separates the rest of the stadium from the legends section. Again, that seems like a metaphor for what happens in sports and the way it's become so stratified that ordinary fans can't even go down and get an autograph anymore.
DAVIES: You write at the end of the book about some businesses that have succeeded by taking down the velvet rope and treating people more equitably. Tell us something encouraging (laughter).
SCHWARTZ: Yeah. I mean, the most profitable airline of all time is Southwest, and Southwest doesn't have classes. And I think Southwest shows you can have a more egalitarian vision and still succeed beyond, you know, all measure. I mean, you know, Delta and American wish they were as profitable as Southwest. So Southwest has done it. I look in sports - I look at the Green Bay Packers, which is fan-owned, so that makes it a little easier. But they redid their stadium a few years ago. And they have luxury boxes. I mean, it's not socialism. It's not Bernie Sanders' idea of football. But in Green Bay, they've sort of tried to make the fan experience rewarding for the ordinary fan, and they've kept some of the best seats as regular boxes and just not try to make it such a stratified, tiered experience.
And then I write about a golf course called Bandon Dunes in Oregon, which is just a great, great course. But the owner charges prices that he feels make it within reach of ordinary golfers, and so not as elite as sort of the Masters or something like that.
DAVIES: Nelson Schwartz reports on economics for The New York Times. His new book is "The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business." We will continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with New York Times economics reporter Nelson Schwartz. He has a new book about the special services now available to the superrich and their impact on our social and political relationships. His book is called "The Velvet Rope Economy."
Let's talk about what we as a nation and an economy are going through right now. Have these heightened distinctions for the superrich affected the experience of the pandemic?
SCHWARTZ: Yes. Basically, you know, one of the most striking aspects of the emergency of coronavirus is the inability to get tested. Enter concierge doctors. One concierge doctor I spoke to rounded up viral swabs ahead of time. He had the foresight to do that. He was able to arrange testing for his clients when others couldn't get tests.
Leslie Michelson of Private Health, who we talked about earlier, he has been able to connect clients for tests. I mean, he emphasized that it was only clients who met the CDC guidelines. They weren't jumping the line. But the bottom line is these concierge folks can get you tested when other people can't get tests or are waiting hours or days for tests, which is really something. Then they've done other things, like they've been able to get oxygen concentrators for people with underlying conditions and to - you know, to head off a COVID - you know, COVID situation. So they've been very active.
DAVIES: And it's not bad to have a second home to retreat to if you need that for social isolation.
SCHWARTZ: Yes. I mean, in - I'm on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and Park Avenue is a ghost town. And the parking lot where I go to, half the cars are gone. Many, many people have gone to the Hamptons, gone to Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, to the point where local authorities in these places are asking New Yorkers or people from the cities to stay home because they can't handle a deluge of COVID cases.
DAVIES: And then there's things like Internet access, right? I mean, the poor - never more important to be able to connect with your teachers and your friends, and not everybody has that.
SCHWARTZ: Right. I mean, school is now done via Zoom or Google Hangout, and high-speed Internet connections are everything for kids. And, you know, many, many kids don't have that. Many families don't have that. And again, I think, you know, people say we're all in it together, but to me, this - the pandemic has exposed these class differences. And I think in the future, I think it may help concierge medicine. People may say, you know, I want a concierge doctor if something like this happens.
DAVIES: When we see all of these services that spare the wealthy the inconveniences of everyday life and, in some respects, kind of distance them from the experiences of ordinary people, what do you think the impact is on all of us, on the kind of society we have?
SCHWARTZ: I think it's twofold. I think the rich and even members of the upper-middle class become more disconnected and really don't understand or relate to how ordinary Americans live, and I think the result is less sympathy, less empathy and sort of a harder-edged society. And I think the other side of the coin is that there's a lot of anger among people who are not benefiting from these kind of privileges, who don't have the kind of convenience of skipping the line.
And I think you see that anger in politics. I mean, whether it's Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders or other politicians, you see that free-floating anger out there and that - I think this kind of stratification contributes to that, where people have less in common with one another. And there isn't a feeling that we're all in it together, and instead it's each man for himself. I think that leaves people feeling more angry and disconnected.
DAVIES: You know, I have to say, you're in New York; you didn't flee. What's your daily experience like?
SCHWARTZ: Basically, my wife and I and two young daughters, age 6 and 3, are confined to a two-bedroom apartment. And I think the hardest thing has been - there's a park a couple of blocks from our house that has playgrounds, and I would take them there in the afternoon after school - after, you know, virtual school on the computer and - to stretch their legs and run around and scoot around on scooters. And the - last week, they closed the park. So I think that's been really hard. Central Park is still open, but that's a - we're at 69th and 1st, so that's a bigger walk for us to Central Park.
I mean, it's hard, I think, for people who are cooped up. But part of me feels sort of proud to be staying in New York City. I'm not going anywhere. I'm not fleeing the ship when things are tough.
DAVIES: In one of your earlier answers, we could hear an ambulance in the background. As a New Yorker, is this a more common experience...
DAVIES: ...These days, hearing ambulances?
SCHWARTZ: Yes. Yes. I mean, in all honesty, I live near Weill Cornell Hospital, so you do hear ambulances a lot. But we are hearing them quite a bit. And I mean, you don't know, obviously, is this coronavirus? But with each one you hear, that's what you think.
DAVIES: Let's talk a little about the economy. It's obviously undergoing a huge shock. Is there any historical comparison that is meaningful here? Is this anything like the Great Depression?
SCHWARTZ: This is unprecedented in terms of the speed at which unemployment has risen - 17 million people have filed for unemployment insurance. That's going to go to 20 million this month. Unemployment's going to go to 15% - just the speed at which so many people have been put out of work. I mean, the Depression - in the Great Depression, unemployment was higher; it reached 25%. I don't know that it's going to go this high, but the idea that you could go from 3.5% percent to 15% in two months is pretty incredible.
DAVIES: Does that say something about the kind of economy we have - that these jobs are so tenuous and easily destroyed?
SCHWARTZ: Well, I mean, what it says is we're a service economy and these jobs are in services. And you know, there was a time when the economy was more built around goods producing, around manufacturing. But that's not the case anymore. We're a service economy. And things like leisure and hospitality, restaurants, hotels, gaming - things like that form a large part of our economy today. And it's - they're very vulnerable to shock, and that's what we're experiencing right now.
And not to sound so clinical about it, the interesting thing will be how long it takes for those industries to get back on their feet. No one really knows that at this point. Everybody's kind of guessing that. But I have a feeling it's going to take a little bit of time before all the restaurants and smaller establishments get up and going. And that's going to take time to get people back in the workforce.
DAVIES: Right. And you've talked to a lot of economists. When these restrictions are lifted, what do they say about what kind of economy we're going to find? How many of these jobs are even going to exist?
SCHWARTZ: You know, there's different theories. There's a V-shaped recovery, which is sort of what it sounds like - a V - like, if things bounce back quickly, versus a U-shaped recovery. Most economists foresee a U-shaped recovery in that things will not bounce back so quickly. It's going to take time for restaurants to reopen. You know, some things will reopen more quickly, like stores or movie theaters. But you know, I think - you know, you talk about small business; you talk about small restaurants - how many of them are going to have the resources to reopen?
Plus, I don't think the all-clear is going - I mean, a lot of this depends on what happens medically in health - you know, in terms of a public health perspective with the virus. But it's not clear if the all-clear is going to sound instantaneously. So I think there's a lot of economic pain.
DAVIES: Right. And you know, I know no one wants to worry about the measures to help people. You know, the importance now of saving lives and preserving people's economic well-being. But this is a huge amount of money. What will be the impact on this on the federal deficit and the economy?
SCHWARTZ: Well, the federal deficit is going to, you know, be blown out hugely and the national debt as well. The thing is, if you don't do this, there's not going to be much of an economy left to kind of bounce back. I mean, the programs seem to be helpful. I've talked to small businesses who say that there's this PPP program where small businesses can get loans. You know, whatever logjams occur in sort of administering it, the small businesses I've talked to say it is helpful and it is enabling them to keep some workers on the payroll and to keep afloat enough so that they can reopen in May or June or when things go back to normal. So yes, it's - yes, it explodes the deficit; it explodes the national debt. On the other hand, you know, we have - we don't have much choice if we want to have an economy to come back to.
DAVIES: Well, Nelson Schwartz, thanks so much for speaking with us.
DAVIES: Nelson Schwartz reports on economics for The New York Times. His new book is "The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business."
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan says books are essential cargo when you're coping with stress. She has some recommendations for reading during the pandemic. This is FRESH AIR.
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