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Jack Zaleski, Published February 04 2012

Zaleski: When big generates angst and anger

Some of the angst and anger among Americans comes from frustrations with bigness. That is, big institutions, big business, big government, big everything it seems. Consolidations, takeovers and amalgamations of all kinds change the way individuals relate to the social and economic forces that affect daily life. They feel powerless because, in effect, they are. Trying to talk to the big bank, big hospital or big airline can be infuriating, especially among people who knew what it was like to deal with the small community bank, the small local hospital, the regional airline.

Here are a couple of examples that might not be completely representative of the extent of the disconnection but surely will resonate with some of you.

Not long ago, Fargo-Moorhead had four good hospitals: St. John’s. St. Ansgar, Dakota and St. Luke’s. (Wonderful and appropriate names for hospitals, but that’s another discussion.)

The four hospitals were, for the most part, rooted locally. They provided excellent health care services and, more importantly, offered the health care consumer real choice. They were not so large that they were compelled to succumb to the impersonal efficiency that necessarily accompanies bigness.

Today Fargo-Moorhead counts two major hospitals, both of which are units of large regional health care companies. Sanford Medical Center and Essentia Health are very good at what they do, but their size and complexity work against their sincere efforts to be “patient centered.”

Air service? Not long ago, a North Dakotan, say, from Rugby, could drive to the Minot airport, buy a ticket on North Central Airlines and fly to, say, Aberdeen, S.D., on a speedy Convair 580 or a workhorse DC3. The service was good from nearly every city in the region. Ticket prices were reasonable. The iconic North Central goose logo was everywhere in the Upper Midwest.

Then came airline deregulation, which was supposed to be good for us. North Central became Republic Airlines, which was swallowed up by Northwest Airlines, which recently disappeared into the merger maw of Delta Airlines. During those years, the region’s smaller cities, once served well by North Central (and Northwest) began a decades-long struggle to hold or attract air service. Many of them lost the fight.

Yes, I know, both the health care and air travel economies are different than they were a generation ago. I understand that business priorities, once unregulated, are business priorities, not necessarily people or service priorities. I get it that change is inevitable in a competitive marketplace that can undervalue customers when customers have few or no alternatives.

It sounds so right, so sensible: deregulation, the economies of scale, change. But it’s not. It’s just not, and Americans sense it, even if they don’t analyze it every day.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.