My Email From United’s CEO

At 1:37:54 a.m. this morning, I got an email from United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz.  1:37 a.m.?  Geez, Mr. Munoz is one hardworking dude!

united-airlinesMr. Munoz sent me the email to apologize for the disturbing recent incident in which a ticketed passenger was dragged from a United flight leaving O’Hare in order to allow a United employee to take his seat.  Mr. Munoz says the treatment of the passenger broke United’s promise to not only “make sure you reach your destination safely and on time, but also that you will be treated with the highest level of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect.”  That’s a bit of an understatement, Mr. Munoz!  Something that doesn’t square with the “deepest sense of dignity and respect” would be, say, getting wedged into a seat next to a smelly, morbidly obese guy wearing a tank top who intrudes into your personal space.  Being left bloodied and semiconscious as you’re dragged from your seat doesn’t even square with the lowest level of service or the shallowest sense of dignity and respect.

But let’s not quibble about words.  Mr. Munoz thinks the incident happened because United’s “corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values” and “[o]ur procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right.”  He wants the incident to be a turning point for the company, so he’s changing United’s policies.  So now, United will “no longer ask law enforcement to remove customers from a flight and customers will not be required to give up their seat once on board – except in matters of safety or security.”   That seems like a pretty basic, but certainly appropriate, step.  United also will offer up to $10,000 to entice passengers to voluntarily rebook, and will implement a “new ‘no-questions-asked’ $1,500 reimbursement policy” for “permanently lost bags.”

Finally, Mr. Munoz wants me to know that United Airlines intends to live up to “higher expectations in the way we embody social responsibility and civic leadership everywhere we operate.”  The goal, he says, “should be nothing less than to make you truly proud to say, ‘I fly United.'”

I’m not sure I’ve ever said that I was “proud” to fly any airline — or for that matter to own any particular brand of car, or to engage in any commercial transaction with a large company.  I found the United incident unsettling, but it wasn’t going to keep me from flying United.  Let’s face it, we’ve all seen weird incidents in which overzealous people have overreacted and made really bad choices, and when the United incident occurred I figured that United employees would, if anything, overcompensate in the opposite direction and do everything they could to try to fix the company’s PR nightmare.

Mr. Munoz’s early morning email suggests that that effort is still underway.

As Browns Fans Contemplate Another First Round Pick . . . .

the-scream

If you didn’t know that he lived in Europe in the 19th century, you’d probably swear that Edvard Munch was a Cleveland Browns fan.

Why?  Because The Scream perfectly captures, better than anything else I’ve seen, the unique combination of horror, fear, disgust, and profound dread that grips Cleveland Browns fans as they contemplate the team making another first-round pick in the NFL draft.  Indeed, Munch even painted the disturbing, roiling sky behind the angst-ridden screamer in the Browns’ familiar orange colors.

If you’re a Browns fan, knowing that the NFL draft is only a few hours away and that the Cleveland franchise has the first choice to boot, you feel almost compelled to cup your face in your hands, let your eyes open wide, and howl out to the waiting world the deep anxiety and disquiet that you feel as you consider prior drafts and contemplate the likes of Gerard Warren, Tim Couch, Brady Quinn, Kellen Winslow . . . and Johnny Manziel.

In fact, any fan of another NFL team would think of the ludicrous choice of “Johnny Football” and feel a perverse sense of comfort.  After all, how could this year’s pick possibly be any more wrong-headed and disastrous than that?  But this is the Cleveland Browns, remember.  With the Browns, all things bad are possible.

Go ahead, Browns Backers!  Tip back your head and wail for all you’re worth.  The NFL draft is here.

The Elephant Tranquilizer Tipping Point

It seems like America has been debating what to do about our drug problem for years.

drug-powder-skullWe’ve always had the contingent that urges no tolerance and vigorous enforcement of criminal laws, with swift and sure punishment of offenders.  We’ve got people who argue that some drugs really aren’t that dangerous, and that people who are addicted to other drugs really aren’t evil, they are just dealing with a kind of physical and mental sickness and deserve treatment, not prison.  And we’ve got people who argue that filling prisons with drug offenders doesn’t make sense from a pure economic standpoint in the current era of limited governmental resources.

But most of this debate centers on the people who are users.  What about the people who are profiting — the distributors and pushers and dealers, the people who import the drug and prepare it for sale on street corners?

The introduction of another new substance into our ongoing drug problem is just one more piece of evidence that those people are truly evil.  The new substance is called carfentanil, and it is a form of elephant tranquilizer that is toxic and deadly to humans.  Drug dealers are mixing carfentanil with heroin and selling it, producing a wave of overdose deaths across the country — including Ohio.  The substance is so deadly that even an amount equivalent in size to a few grains of salt can be a killer.

How can you defend someone who intentionally and consciously puts elephant tranquilizer into a drug, knowing that the addition dramatically increases the chance of death when the drug is consumed by human users?  How can you do anything except conclude that the person who takes that step is a monster, who deserves to be hunted down, prosecuted, and imprisoned for destroying people’s lives?

The Zen Master Passes On

Robert M. Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:  An Inquiry Into Values, died on Monday at age 88.  It is sad news for those of us for whom Pirsig’s book — an intriguing combination of travel writing, novelized autobiography, rumination about various facets of modern society, and study of motorcycle mechanics — was an important, shaping rite of passage when we first read it.

pic0904-pirsig002I was introduced to Zen by Uncle Mack, who told me that I absolutely needed to read this book.  (To provide some context, he also told me at about the same time that I needed to read Watership Down, which told the tale of rabbits in southern England who had their own language and liked to silflay under the moon.)  Because I am a dutiful nephew, I of course read Zen, and it forcefully struck an inner nerve.

The arc of the book, which tells the rambling story of a man struggling with mental illness who takes his son on a long motorcycle trip and along the way realizes that he and his son will always deal with those issues, was interesting, but what really got me were Pirsig’s miniature lectures, which he called chautauquas, that were interspersed throughout the book.  The lectures reflected a way of looking at and thinking about the world that really had an impact on me.  One concept in particular — that “quality” is a kind of independent characteristic that can be recognized by people intuitively, without training, and should always be the ultimate goal of whatever you are doing, whether it is writing, living, or repairing a motorcycle — has been hugely influential and is a concept that I have returned to again and again.

I wasn’t the only person touched by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  It was a kind of phenomenon in the ’70s, and according to the New York Times obituary linked above it has been cited as a personally influential book by the likes of basketball player and coach Phil Jackson, Star Trek star William Shatner, and others.  It was Pirsig’s first book, and he later recounted that it was rejected by 121 publishing houses before William Morrow finally put it in print.  Pirsig’s persistence was rewarded when Zen sold a million copies in its first year — many, no doubt, due to the insistence of friendly uncles — and sold millions more in the years since.

I will always be grateful to Robert M. Pirsig for writing this book.

A Giant Insurance Company With An Army

With Tax Day now behind us, it’s worth looking, again, at where our tax dollars come from and also how our tax dollars are spent.  The Brown Bear helpfully sent me an article reporting on the Taxpayer Receipt prepared by a nonpartisan group called the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.  While the original article is behind the Wall Street Journal website paywall, a Fox Business reprint of the article’s text is available on-line.

ss-recipientThe Taxpayer Receipt shows how every $100 in federal taxes was spent in 2016 — and, to give a sense of the trend lines, how that same $100 was spent in 2011, too.  The result supports the conclusion memorably expressed by the line I’ve used as the headline for this piece:  the United States has become a “giant insurance company with an army.”

Why?  Because half of all federal spending goes to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and health programs, and that number is growing, with Social Security spending up 17% since 2011, Medicare up 15.1%, and Medicaid up 25.4%.  Social Security gets by far the biggest piece of the federal spending pie, receiving $23.61 of every $100 in tax dollars.  Medicare places second, with $15.26.

And what about that army?  National defense comes in third, with $15.24 of every $100 in taxes paid.  That amount dropped 22.3% from 2011 to 2016, incidentally.

On the spending side, the lesson from these numbers is clear:  we’ve become an enormous social welfare state, with benefits continuing to expand.  As the percentage increases from 2011 to 2016 indicate, the growing spending on such programs is crowding out our ability to fund other programs, like transportation infrastructure, federal parks, space exploration, and every other federal initiative you can name.  And the increased spending isn’t helping the nagging problem of Social Security solvency, either.  The program is underfunded by at least 20 percent, and under current projections the Social Security Trust Fund (not exactly an accurate moniker) will run out of money in 17 years.

Oh, and here’s another interesting data point — fully $6.25 of every $100 in tax revenue goes to pay interest on the national debt.  That number is growing, too.

On the tax generation side, the individual income tax provided 47% of the $100, with payroll taxes producing 34%, corporate income taxes 9%, and customs duties and excise taxes another 9%.

Now, get back to work!

Birthday Beercake

At work today some of my colleagues surprised me with a birthday beercake — locals brews configured to form a kind of layer cake, with a special sour beer as a quasi-candle on top.

What a thoughtful and artistic gesture!  They insisted, however, that I leave their creation in my office for a few days, so all visitors can enjoy it.  I wonder how the nightly cleaning crew will react to the new addition to my desktop art?

Our Changing Skyline

For years now, the skyline of downtown Columbus has stayed pretty much the same.  For decades, it’s been the Nationwide complex of buildings to the north, the courthouse and municipal buildings to the south, and the cluster of high-rises surrounding Capitol Square and the LeVeque Tower in the middle.

All of that is now changing, and rapidly.  As I mentioned recently, there are construction cranes all over the downtown area.  Every day I walk past a construction site at the corner of Rich and Third Street that is taking the place of what used to be a grassy expanse adjacent to Columbus Commons that was home to kickball games and exercise groups.  Soon it is going to be the location of a 12-story mixed use building with retail on the ground floor, a few stories of office space, and residential units.  There are similar multi-story, “mixed use” buildings under construction up and down High Street, filling in most of the surface parking lots that have been an eyesore on Columbus’ main north-south street and helping to bridge the “skyline gap” between the taller buildings in downtown Columbus.  And the city is abuzz about the recent announcement of a 35-story skyscraper to be built next to the North Market — an addition that will really change the look of the skyline.

Columbus isn’t Manhattan, where the construction of a 35-story building wouldn’t merit much attention.  Here in the heartland, a 35-story building is a pretty big deal.

But, to my mind, the North Market high-rise announcement, and the other construction projects aren’t the biggest sign of how things are changing in downtown Columbus.  Instead, the most compelling indicator is the money that has been poured into refurbishing the crumbling, crappy Long Street garage, where I used to park my car until the structure was condemned by the city.  Amazingly, a new owner purchased the building and has been working on it for months, giving it a spiffy blue metal and glass facelift and adding a car wash option for parkers.  You know your downtown area is heading in the right direction when developers are willing to put money into a derelict parking garage in the expectation that the conversion of surface lots into buildings, and the influx of workers and new downtown residents, will make a better parking garage a profitable enterprise.

What’s going on in downtown Columbus is pretty amazing, and we’re going to be seeing the results of the changes every day as we drive, and walk, and bike, into work.