The Stupidity of United

So, this happened

And so, United unleashed a pretty good Twitter Storm worldwide. And they deserve it for simple stupidity.

Sure they overbook, and it’s understandable why they do. Sean Davis gave us a pretty good explanation of how it works. An empty seat is decidedly lost revenue, never to be recovered. Although JetBlue, the low-cost carrier doesn’t, never has, and say they never will.

Mollie Hemingway at The Federalist had a bit to say about it yesterday.

United has confirmed that they overbooked the flight and dragged a passenger off when they didn’t get enough volunteers. United had previously offered money — up to $800 — for passengers to voluntarily get off the flight. The passengers who needed to be seated were United employees who needed to get to another destination in order to work a flight there, apparently. But when $800 wasn’t enough to get volunteers, they chose to take a man seated on his flight with a ticket he paid for and remove him forcibly. Now they’re facing a social media backlash as a result.

People already are upset with how undignified air travel has become, even if it is relatively cheaper than air travel decades ago. United was also recently embroiled in a (frankly stupid) public relations problem for enforcing its employee dress code on girls who were flying on employee passes. Now this. Being dragged off a plane by brutish security guards for the crime of purchasing a ticket and taking your seat when the airline boarded is something that just doesn’t look good.

But why didn’t United just do the simple thing of understanding that the money it was offering was insufficient and needed to be raised? Laura Begley Broom just wrote in Forbes, “Why Delta Air Lines Paid Me $11,000 Not To Fly To Florida This Weekend.” She was caught up in the recent storm-caused travel delays. While Delta tried to take volunteers for lower amounts, she and her husband negotiated a better deal for their first flight delay. Then they did it again for a second delay. Then they negotiated an additional $1,000 per family member to cancel their trip altogether.

Each step of the way, according to Broom, Delta understood that giving this family nearly $4,000 cash money was cheaper than dealing with an untenably complicated situation.

United should have simply started offering more money. If $800 wasn’t enough, what about $1,000? If $1,000 wasn’t enough, how about $1,200? They were receiving real-time information about price setting and they weren’t responsive to it. Now they’ll suffer much more through negative public relations and earned bad media. A bit of knowledge of economics might have helped them.

She’s right, that’s a free market solution to the problem, at some point, some passenger would have decided that the price would have been sufficient for the inconvenience. Instead, they managed to look stupid (which undoubtedly whoever decided this is) to thousands of people all over the world, who will henceforth do their damnedest NOT to fly the once ‘friendly skies’. Yeah, I remember when it was a pleasant experience, but I’m old, the planes were 707s and Convair 880s. Seen one lately?

Instead, they forced the issue, removing a passenger for “for the crime of purchasing a ticket and taking your seat when the airline boarded”. It’s really hard to see how they could be this stupid, especially so that they could move some employees to work another flight, so probably not even a paying passenger.

Not the first time I’ve compared air travel in the United States to emigrant class in the old west, and I doubt it’ll be the last, you’ve also heard me refer to it as “cattle class”.

Why is this so stupid? One the passenger they removed surely has a bad taste in his mouth from the experience (likely a lawsuit pending as well). But the real cost of this is in the thousands of people who will try their best to avoid United at all costs, or even flying, which has become almost more of a hassle than the time saved is worth. That’s not all down to the airlines, the kabuki theatre of security bears a lot of blame as well. But the airlines get plenty of blame as well. Interestingly, last night I was listening to BBC Norfolk, a local station in Norwich, England. This was one of their lead stories. Real good job there, United.

UAL managed to save a few thousand bucks here at the cost of untold thousands, perhaps millions. And being held up as a horrible example, worldwide. That’s a cost of flouting the free market by a very stupid corporation. And they deserve every bit of it.

Hello, Amtrack.

And an update: United’s market cap has fallen $830 million, with a 3.7 percent drop in share price, according to MarketWatch.

Feeding the World, Disrupting the Markets, That’s America, Too

Norman Borlaug should be one of the American heroes of the world. Instead, many revile him. Why?

Borlaug’s life was one of extraordinary paradoxes: A child of the Iowa prairie during the Great Depression who grew up on a dirt-poor farm, attended a one-room school and flunked the university entrance exam but went on to become one of most renowned plant breeders in history – and went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for averting malnutrition, famine and the premature death of hundreds of millions.  (That was at a time when the award meant more than political correctness.)

Borlaug introduced several revolutionary innovations.  First, he and his colleagues laboriously crossbred thousands of wheat varieties from around the world to produce some new ones with resistance to rust, a destructive plant pest; this raised yields 20% to 40%.

Second, he crafted so-called dwarf wheat varieties, which were smaller than the old shoulder-high varieties that bent in the wind and touched the ground (thereby becoming unharvestable); the new waist or knee-high dwarfs stayed erect and held up huge loads of grain.  The yields were boosted even further.

Third, he devised an ingenious technique called “shuttle breeding”– growing two successive plantings each year, instead of the usual one, in different regions of Mexico.  The availability of two test generations of wheat each year cut by half the years required for breeding new varieties.  Moreover, because the two regions possessed distinctly different climatic conditions, the resulting new early-maturing, rust-resistant varieties were broadly adapted to many latitudes, altitudes and soil types.  This wide adaptability, which flew in the face of agricultural orthodoxy, proved invaluable, and Mexican wheat yields skyrocketed.

Similar successes followed when the Mexican wheat varieties were planted in Pakistan and India, but only after Borlaug convinced politicians in those countries to change national policies in order to provide both improved seeds and the large amounts of fertilizer needed for wheat cultivation.

In his professional life, Borlaug, who died in 2009 at the age of 95, struggled against prodigious obstacles, including what he called the “constant pessimism and scare-mongering” of critics and skeptics who predicted that in spite of his efforts, mass starvation was inevitable and hundreds of millions would perish in Africa and Asia.  His work resulted not only in the construction of high-yielding varieties of wheat but also in new agronomic and management practices that transformed the ability of Mexico, India, Pakistan, China, and parts of South America to feed their populations.

How successful were Borlaug’s efforts?  From 1950 to 1992, the world’s grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland — an extraordinary increase in yield per acre of more than 150 percent.   India is an excellent case in point.  In pre-Borlaug 1963, wheat grew there in sparse, irregular strands, was harvested by hand, and was susceptible to rust disease.  The maximum yield was 800 lb per acre.  By 1968, thanks to Borlaug’s varieties, the wheat grew densely packed, was resistant to rust, and the maximum yield had risen to 6000 lb per acre.

via Norman Borlaug: The Genius Behind The Green Revolution

Think about that for a while, Borlaug efforts saved the lives of nobody knows how many millions, who otherwise would have starved to death. The doomsayers who wrote about the population explosion in the sixties were (perhaps) correctly reading the trend lines. We were producing people we couldn’t feed. Until an Iowa farm boy came along.

And while they themselves don’t realize it, many in Europe, in those elites (for lack of a better term) and many who desire power for its own sake, would have rather those millions starved to death, than that a humble guy, and especially an American should find a way to feed them.

Yes it still goes on, Out here on the fruited plan, which 150 years ago was the Great Ameican Desert you used to be lucky to get 30-40 bushels of corn/acre, now 200 is average, using less water, less pesticide, less fuel, and not working the farmer to an early death.

The Biotechnology or BT, as it is referred to is exactly the same thing that plant breeders have always done, cross-pollinating plants, it’s just a much more elegant method, producing faster results.

And those results, are feeding the world, except where they are banned by narrow political interests, there poor people still starve.

Such is the way of man.

Ethics and Sausage Factories

A few days ago, S.M. Hutchens on The Touchstone Blog published an article dealing with Betsy DeVos and the Education Department in relationship to the teachers union from the perspective of Reinhold Niebuhr’s group v. personal ethics. Good and interesting thinking. Here’s some

[…] Unions depict themselves as combinations of the weak against the strong in the service of justice, for fair pay, decent working conditions, and respect their members otherwise would not enjoy—goals not unworthy in themselves. The concentration of power in the teachers’ unions, with the full collusion of a Democrat Party dominated by its left wing, however, has given rise to a set of conditions unfavorable to education, and to which sensible Americans are now calling a halt.

Reinhold Niebuhr, in Moral Man and Immoral Society, a book as penetrating and significant now as when published in 1932, analyzes the inferiority of group morality to that of individuals in terms of a focused, collective egoism that repels self-criticism and is constitutionally bereft of the spirit of contrition and amendment that only religion can bring—an egoism by nature irreformable and increasingly destructive of both itself and its society.

Applying Niebuhr’s analysis to the teachers’ unions one finds a group of mainly decent people, few of whom are manifestly vicious or selfish, with many dedicated to the work of educating children, but who are part of a malign collective.  For the individual teacher as a positive moral agent there is a heavy price to pay for union membership, for only to a point will society accept the union’s plea that it only seeks justice for its members, especially when it detects that in the exercise of its power it has become increasingly inimical to the interests of the students it professes to serve.

When, for example, the teachers’ unions, in the spirit of Governor Wallace, enrich politicians for standing in the way of voucher programs that have helped underprivileged children receive better educations than have been available to them in the inner-city government schools, and for which Mrs. DeVos is a fervent advocate–programs for which their parents are clamoring, ignored by their Democrat representatives who do not send their own children to these schools (the Clintons and Obamas being recent examples)—nowhere is the hypocrisy and selfishness of these unions, and the necessity of breaking them as a negative social element, more evident.

via Betsy DeVos and the Immoral Society – Mere Comments Do read it all, I think he makes a good case here.

But I think we need to widen it out some. Isn’t this true for any organization? I think we know it is. When we join together in a group, often the group becomes more important than the members. It’s true for unions (as described here), but isn’t it also true for business, civic groups, governments, and yes, even churches?

Isn’t this the root of the Reformation, which we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the start of later this year? Dr. Luther found the Catholic Church, composed mostly of good, caring, even Godly people, had become a corrupt organization putting itself above the people, and even above God, Himself.

Don’t we sometimes see this ourselves in our local organizations? Our local governments, our civic organizations, and yes, our churches. Almost everyone concerned (with exceptions, of course) wants to do a good, moral job. But for whatever reason, peer pressure, regulations, individual dislike, or many others, they put the organization ahead of their personal morality

Answers are few, nebulous, and temporary, I suspect. I think it is a just a fact of organizational behavior. Most of us want to do the right thing, but the right thing for whom, or for what organization? How do we deal with conflicting aims, all of which may be good.

For me, it is an argument for making anything we can, a small, lean organization, as close to those who are the ‘customers’ (used very loosely here) as possible. In other words, what we Americans call Federalism in government and what the Catholics call Subsidiarity.

It’s simply much easier to keep a neighborhood organization on track, all things being equal, than it is, for example, the United States government. It just tends to be more transparent, and if we can’t avoid seeing the sausage being made, we will likely know what is in the recipe, or go find another sausage factory.

Icons Receeding

As many of you know, I’ve worked all my life in the electrical/electronic industries, especially where they intersect. But my hobbies are also mostly in that area, especially radio communication. But much of that field is one of those that has been outsourced. One doesn’t really think of full-on engineers being amongst those who lose their jobs to immigrants, and in fact, they do, although somewhat rarely. What mostly happens is that their wages are suppressed unreasonably. The professional organization of those engineers is the Institute of if electrical and electronic engineers or IEEE. They say this,

IEEE USA says H-1B visas are a tool used to avoid paying U.S. wages. “For every visa used by Google to hire a talented non-American for $126,000, ten Americans are replaced by outsourcing companies paying their H-1B workers $65,000,” says the current IEEE USA president, writing with the past president and president-elect. The outsourcing companies, Infosys, Cognizant, Wipro, and Tata Consultancy in 2014 “used 21,695 visas, or more than 25 percent of all private-sector H-1B visas used that year. Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Uber, for comparison, used only 1,763 visas, or 2 percent,” they say.

There is a bit more at Slashdot, and some further links. This matters both because of the people, and the impact they have on the future, and because it is indicative of the damage that immigration can cause.


Speaking of the end of an era, International Crystal Manufacturing (ICM), a company that any of us who dealt with radio since 1950 has probably dealt with, have announced that they will go out of business around the end of May. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL, the association of American amateur radio operators) has the story. Sad, but I know from my experience that we have other (perhaps) better, and certainly cheaper ways of doing the things we used to do with crystals. Kind of the ‘buggy whip syndrome’, I’m afraid.


Our friend, the Unit, the other day in comments called this to our attention. It’s quite a story.

It was originally called “mistake out”, the invention of Bette Nesmith Graham, a Dallas secretary and a single mother raising a son* on her own. Graham used her own kitchen blender to mix up her first batch of liquid paper or white out, a substance used to cover up mistakes made on paper.

Background – Bette Nesmith Graham

Bette Nesmith Graham never intended to be an inventor; she wanted to be an artist. However, shortly after World War II ended, she found herself divorced with a small child to support. She learned shorthand and typing and found employment as an executive secretary. An efficient employee who took pride in her work, Graham sought a better way to correct typing errors. She remembered that artists painted over their mistakes on canvas, so why couldn’t typists paint over their mistakes?

Invention of Liquid Paper

Bette Nesmith Graham put some tempera waterbased paint, colored to match the stationery she used, in a bottle and took her watercolor brush to the office. She used this to correct her typing mistakes… her boss never noticed. Soon another secretary saw the new invention and asked for some of the correcting fluid. Graham found a green bottle at home, wrote “Mistake Out” on a label, and gave it to her friend. Soon all the secretaries in the building were asking for some, too.

Bette Nesmith Graham – The Mistake Out Company

In 1956, Bette Nesmith Graham started the Mistake Out Company (later renamed Liquid Paper) from her North Dallas home. She turned her kitchen into a laboratory, mixing up an improved product with her electric mixer. Graham’s son, Michael Nesmith (later of The Monkees fame), and his friends filled bottles for her customers. …

Keep reading at Thought Co. And as you do, if you’re like me, you’ll also wonder if people do things like that these days or simply go on welfare. Well, I’d bet Bette would do it all again. But, I suspect that Liquid Paper is another company that unless it diversified (I haven’t a clue) has suffered from progress, as well.


I like melons. I bet you do too!

Cardboard boxes did this sort of labeling in. Too bad.


And my vote for best video of the season.

And some companies just seem suicidal.

Swampcare v Obamacare

Well, Ryan’s healthcare plan is out. What is no surprise is that it is a statist, big government plan, not as bad as Obama’s but pretty bad all on its own.

Dan Mitchel wrote back in 2010

The only way to fix healthcare is to restore the free market. That means going back to a system where people pay out-of-pocket for most healthcare and use insurance to protect against genuine risk and catastrophic expenses. The time has come to reduce the size and scope of government. …Change Medicare into a system based on personal health accounts and shift all means-tested spending to the states. …the flat tax is ideal from a healthcare perspective since it gets rid of the healthcare exclusion in the tax code as part of a shift to a tax system with low rates and no double taxation.

This video, narrated by Julie Borowski for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, looks at the Obamacare/third-party payer issue.

via Our Healthcare Policy Problem Is Much Bigger than Obamacare

Yep, and for that matter, back in 2013, I wrote this,

Understand this, 404Care isn’t healthcare, it’s a chance to buy insurance, executed properly, in some alternate universe it might even have been useful. But here, where the sky is blue, it’s not. Why? Because with the limited number of plans available and the narrowness of providers, you’re screwed. You’re screwed, even if your identity doesn’t get stolen, which is likely as well.

Why? Because healthcare is properly defined as having a doctor and/or hospital take care of you when you are sick or injured. Depending on your choices, insurance is a valid way of paying for that (which is required, since Obamacare, before that doctors and hospitals were required to provide minimal, lifesaving care, free, if necessary.) 80 years ago, chickens and/or eggs worked, cash nearly always works, nearly anywhere. The way this is written, since I’m from Nebraska, if I go see Mt. Rushmore, and get food poisoning (because I’m too stupid to refrigerate my potato salad, say) I’d better be tough, cause I ain’t going to see a doctor in South Dakota, unless I have cash, of course.

What all the noise then and now is about is how to pay for it. Medical care in this country is very expensive. Mostly that is so because of bureaucracy, of the government, of the insurance companies, and of the healthcare industry (although to be fair, much of the industry’s bureaucracy is driven by the other two).

In 2010, John Goodman wrote,

Almost everyone believes there is an enormous amount of waste and inefficiency in health care. But why is that? In a normal market, wherever there is waste, entrepreneurs are likely to be in hot pursuit – figuring out ways to profit from its elimination by cost-reducing, quality-enhancing innovations. Why isn’t this happening in health care?

As it turns out, there is a lot of innovation here. But all too often, it’s the wrong kind.

There has been an enormous amount of innovation in the medical marketplace regarding the organization and financing of care. And wherever health insurers are paying the bills (almost 90 percent of the market) it has been of two forms: (1) helping the supply side of the market maximize against third-party reimbursement formulas, or (2) helping the third-party payers minimize what they pay out. Of course, these developments have only a tangential relationship to the quality of care patients receive or its efficient delivery.

The tiny sliver of the market (less than 10 percent) where patients pay out of pocket has also been teeming with entrepreneurial activity.  In this area, however, the entrepreneurs have been lowering cost and raising quality – what most of us wish would happen everywhere else. For example:

  • There are more than 1,000 walk-in clinics spread across the country today – posting transparent prices and delivering high-quality, low-cost services;
  • Whole businesses have been created to provide people with telephone and e-mail consultations because third-party payers wouldn’t pay for them;
  • Mail-order pharmaceuticals are a huge and growing market – one which emerged to offer price competition to consumers who buy their drugs out-of-pocket;
  • Wal-Mart didn’t introduce the $4-a-month package price for generic drugs in order to do a favor for Blue Cross. It is catering to customers who pay their own way;
  • Concierge doctors are also providing patients with innovative services – services that health insurers don’t cover.

Nothing has changed. Except that the GOP has taken ownership of Obamacare, well it might accidently be a little better, but not much. David Harsanyi says this.

First of all, the preferred free-market plan for health care policy should be no plan whatsoever. The idea that we need a federal, top-down strategy to manage a huge chunk of the economy is at the very heart of the problem. We don’t need a federal “plan” for health care any more than we need a federal plan for food or clothing. Yet, Republicans have allowed liberals to frame the entire health insurance debate in these anti-market terms.

So the American Health Care Act is obviously weak tea, falling far short of a promised free-market solution, much less a full “repeal” of Obamacare. It’s a half-measure that endeavors to fix Obamacare with small doses of deregulation while failing to repeal its core. It’s almost as if Republicans were trying to mollify their constituents and save Obamacare at the same time.

Donald Trump tweeted out something about a three-phase rollout, but the specifics of the other two parts have yet to be confirmed as of this writing. Perhaps the full proposal will reflect better on Republicans, although considering the noise moderate senators have been making and Trump’s own views on entitlement programs, it’s unlikely to meet conservative expectations. So what can be done?

In a piece highly critical of the planThe Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein, who’s done some of the most insightful writing on Obamacare, states: “the GOP will either be passing legislation that rests on the same philosophical premise as Obamacare, or will pass nothing at all, and thus keep Obamacare itself in place.” What if this is the choice?

We know the Democratic Party’s plan for health care: constrain markets to create monopolies that can be controlled by a federal regulatory regime (this is why liberals oppose markets expanding across state lines); and rather than worrying about access, choice, or cost, continue to incentivize the growth of the welfare state. When this situation becomes untenable, pass single-payer. What Democrats understand, but Republicans often don’t, is that you can reach your goals incrementally.

He asks this: “is something better than nothing?”

Perhaps, at the margins, but the basic problem is that the government has been driving healthcare fiscal policy since World War II, and the market distortions are continually getting worse. Swampcare isn’t going to help much, if at all

Castel Gandolfo and Economics

giardino_degli_specchi_castel_gandolfo_ii_20141006Interesting story here. Note that I’m not picking this as either pro or con Catholic. For me, today, it is purely an economic story and an example of why equality of income is such a bad idea.

Speaking of Francis, I was told by a priest here that the Holy Father has visited a handful of times but has never spent the night or greeted the staff, only stopping to consult the Jesuits in residence. That’s rather bad manners, I should think. It takes only a little magnanimity to imagine what a papal visit means to the staff here. They keep the place in pristine readiness all year round, eagerly awaiting the pope’s arrival, as their fathers’ fathers have done proudly for generations, and His Holiness won’t deign to stop by for the evening! I mean, he has an image to keep up, but isn’t this a bit snobbish? The poor people there have had to open the gardens and palace to tourists just to find something to do with the place and replace lost revenue.

Father also mentioned that he felt a bit sorry for the townspeople, because with the papal court no longer summering at the palace, the local economy is taking a hard hit. Usually, the entire Vatican is run from the palace from June to October, and the restaurants do good business with the influx of papal staff. No longer. “I guess the papal gardener is in a very enviable position!” “That’s right – it’s actually a hereditary position. Like many of these jobs, they’ve been in the same family for generations.”

These revelations added a layer: the merciless enforcement of mercy under Francis’s pontificate has more concrete ramifications in Rome for those who faithfully serve the papacy. It turns scores of talented people out of their jobs. From the great artists who wove the papal vestments and write the papal masses to the humble village family who has kept his garden for generations, there is a great cadre of people who give their lives in noble service to the Church.

via What ‘Humility’ Means for the Papal Staff |

Interesting isn’t it, that the Pope’s refusal to use Castel Gandolfo costs the neighborhood a goodly chunk of change. Of course, it’s pretty obvious when one thinks through it, and indeed, at least some of that money is likely spent in Rome instead.

But his grandstanding (at least that is what it looks like to me), showing off his humility, which to my mind doesn’t really match his statements, hurts those around him. Who’d a thunk it? Just about everybody with any common sense, which pretty much leaves out anyone who thinks virtue signaling a good thing.

Doesn’t make him any better or worse than anybody else, really. We all do things that hurt others although not all of us believe that hurting other people shows virtue (except maybe as a soldier).

What this really shows is that not thinking deeply enough about your actions has consequences. That’s why we call it ‘the law of unintended consequences’, after all.

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