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Let’s Talk About United Airlines

By now you most certainly have seen the video of the passenger who was roughly dragged off a United flight to Louisville, KY. You may have weighed in on the series of non-statements leading to a too-much-too-little-too-late apology from United’s otherwise commendable CEO Oscar Munoz. You may have also made a “Sean Spicer drinking Pepsi” joke. It’s been that sort of week, and it’s only Wednesday.

Flying is hard enough without being bullied by the people you count on to keep you alive because they’ve made a mistake. The passenger who was forcibly taken from the plane was Asian, a fact which was not lost on the many Chinese social media users who now fully believe that he was specifically targeted for removal. And worse still, some media outlets chose to jump into the buzz by publishing a story revealing troubling incidents in the passenger’s past. A rally called Victim Shaming Is Trash: Shame The Courier-Journal Protest is planned for today in Louisville at noon.

It really is all such a shame. But what’s an airline to do?

Economist and author Tyler Cowen ticks through some stochastic sounding solutions, discussing game theory, randomization, auctions, and algorithms. It’s heady stuff, and emblematic of the technical difficulties of running a highly-regulated business that has to reconcile a fixed supply with stiff (and emotional) demand. It’s a fascinating post, though I fully admit, well outside my wheelhouse:

One problem with using money to buy people out of queues is that it encourages more upfront queuing to begin with, and that involves negative externalities for passengers as a whole. In any model of stochastic demand and fixed capacity in the short run, demand will sometimes be too high, and I don’t know of many retail markets that rely on price alone to ration quantity. Given that reality, I am not sure why everyone is insisting the airlines should do things this way.

Me neither. He thinks out loud through possible scenarios like this one:

Maybe United should allow for a secondary market for the doctor to stay on the plane by buying flying rights from some other passenger, one who wouldn’t take the United offer but who might take the doctor’s better offer. That idea is worth consideration, though arranging the contract could be tricky unless the passengers belong to a common system with pre-arranged arbitration in place (Facebook could run it? PayPal?) With tickets this kind of resale works smoothly through StubHub and the like.

See? Technical stuff that is interesting to think about, sort of. Until, of course, a video of a bloody, disoriented paying customer staggering around a plane goes public. And then you realize that no system will make sense if there aren’t trained and empowered people around to manage the messy side of humans traveling together in a pressurized tin can in the sky. Munoz is going to need a different kind of action plan for that.

Fortune’s own Alan Murray made this very point this morning in his must-read newsletter, CEO Daily:

Nevertheless, it has become an inescapable reality of business leadership today. As Dov Seidman told the CEOs who attended the Fortune Global Forum in Rome last December, moral judgment declines with distance – we’re most passionate about things closest to us – but distance has disappeared in today’s world. As a result, an event like Monday’s rough “re-accomodation” is instantly at hand to everyone, everywhere. That puts a big burden on CEOs like Munoz; they have to take moral responsibility for countless acts over which they have little control.

And Cowen draws a similar conclusion, in his own way. “The international loss of reputation here is significant, and it damages the United States as a whole, not just United as a brand name. In essence, individual companies under-invest in perceptions of fairness, and reliance on ‘truly random’ algorithms can make this worse rather than better.”

Would an overinvestment in empathy increase “perceptions of fairness”? If the challenge of modern leadership means decreasing the real and emotional distance between ourselves and the people over whom we hold sway, then finding a way to run an efficient business while seeing each other as human might just be the ticket. But give that in-cabin arbitration thing a look, too. Couldn’t hurt.

On Point

President Trump asked for ideas for the border wall. Why not build this instead?We live in magical times for people with troll-like tendencies. After President Trump asked for design ideas for the now infamous barrier to keep undocumented immigrants from crossing from Mexico into the U.S., he expected things that looked like walls. Some wall-like designs were submitted. Other people chose a more symbolic approach, like a massive trench filled with nuclear waste. But one U.S.-Mexico design collective suggested a new, shared territory called Otra Nation, that would allow people and trade to flow freely across the border. They even have a sustainable energy plan!Time

Sean Spicer falsely claims that Adolph Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons
Well, you know the rest. His remarks were nearly incomprehensible and he’s still apologizing. But his mistake begs a bigger question – why do people persist in bringing up Hitler? It’s not just Spicer: The BBC cites a long list of recent  Nazi comparisons popping up in political discussions at the highest levels, including President Trump himself.  “The answer, according to America’s Anti-Defamation League (ADL), is simply that it is the ‘most available historical event illustrating right versus wrong.’” But the comparisons trivialize the Holocaust and, in every case, are logically incorrect. The real answer is desperation. “Most of the time, people call others ‘Nazis’ because they think it will grab the attention of the audience,” says a researcher from the English Speaking Union, an educational charity that promotes clear communication and critical thinking and probably needs more funding. “This is a big mistake, because any attention they do get will be drawn to the use of that word, rather than to the nitty gritty of the topic at hand.” Interesting.
BBC

Women are disproportionately likely to be the victims of violence at work
Karen Elaine Smith, a special education teacher in San Bernadino, CA, was killed in her classroom by her estranged husband on Monday morning. It is the 220th school shooting since 2013. But the tragedy also highlights an overlooked but alarming reality: If women die at work, they are most likely to be murdered, usually at the hand of a current or former intimate partner. In 2014, 19% of women who died at work were murdered, as compared to 8% of men. For women who are being targeted by a violent former partner, workplaces are open and accessible, making them sitting ducks. ThinkProgress notes that 40% of mass shooters were targeting a former partner, and many had histories of domestic violence.
ThinkProgress

Fighting hate in schools has become a community-wide issue
After a “hate hotline” was set up by the Massachusetts attorney general, a steady stream of complaints from schools sent ripples of alarm throughout previously untroubled communities. What’s the right response when a student circulates a video of themselves with a rifle, saying “nigger” repeatedly and declaring “kill ‘em all?” Or when pro-klan threats show up as graffiti in a high school bathroom? These and similar problems have been dogging school officials since the 2016 election. “There is speech that may be ugly, that may be hateful, that may be harmful, but that may nevertheless be protected in certain instances,” says the attorney general. But it’s tricky. One teacher was suspended for calling a college to withdraw a recommendation after one incident. But schools must figure out how to balance punishing and educating the students. “They’re going to be among us, and if they haven’t learned something, then they’re just angrier people when they come out than when they went in,” says one administrator.
NPR

In some ways, Bobby Kennedy is still fighting poverty in Mississippi
Bobby Kennedy had already buried his brother John by the time he finally made it down to Mississippi, some fifty years ago this week. He was there doing work for a Senate subcommittee on War on Poverty programs, he’d been moved by testimony from young Marian Wright, then a NAACP lawyer. What he learned about the deep poverty plaguing the Mississippi Delta shocked him and the country. And yet, says author and journalist Ellen B. Meacham, in the three counties he visited, 50% of kids under 18 are still in poverty, and one in three people run out of food each month. But, she explains, with good data, like the kind Kennedy insisted upon, better outcomes are possible. She ticks through many programs that are working well, though at risk of losing funding and traction. And she cites a report co-produced by Marian Wright Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund with helping make sure that poor families don’t disappear in an era of a shrinking social safety net.  Click through for her analysis, and here for “Unequal Lives: The State of Black Women and Families in the Rural South.”
New York Times

The Woke Leader

When your president attacks you on social media and tries to destroys your life
I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not Trump, which is part of what makes this story so fascinating. In Latin America, it’s much more likely that a random citizen will be able to speak to a senior elected official on platforms like Twitter, passionately discussing politics or asking for a quick fix, like for a pothole or basic red tape. But something about the snarky critiques from Crudo Ecuador, an anonymous Facebook profile that mocked Ecuadorian politics, rubbed President Rafael Correa the wrong way. The Crudo account was born after a controversial 2013 Ecuadorian law made media organizations responsible for any libelous comments found on their sites. Impossible to enforce, they shut down their comment sections, then the preferred home for political mud-slinging. So Crudo, a soft-spoken thirty-something father in real life, stepped up his commenting and meme game on Facebook, earning some 300,000 followers. Soon, the most powerful guy in Ecuador was gunning for him. This story was originally reported by Silvia Vinas of Radio Ambulante, where you can hear a Spanish language version.
Reply All Podcast

A Seattle Seahawk takes the stage as an activist
Michael Bennett, a defensive end who just signed a $31.5 million contract extension, is using his fame and platform to lead some difficult and necessary conversations about race and civil rights. He recently showed up at Washington, D.C.’s, Busboys and Poets restaurant where he participated in a a standing-room-only discussion moderated by Dave Zirin of The Nation, and Noura Erakat, a Palestinian-American human rights attorney and professor. He talked about Palestinian rights and his support for Colin Kaepernick, as well as the militarization of the NFL and the roles that athletes can play in system change. And it got emotional. “To love the people, you have to be able to die for the people. And I don’t mean dying physically, but dying spiritually. Changing your whole mindset of who you used to be and what you thought was important. Now that your eyes are open, it just changes you,” he said.
The Undefeated

Harlem long-forgotten, now remembered
Alice Neel relocated from bohemian Greenwich Village to Harlem in 1938, a move that might have put her growing career as an artist and tastemaker in jeopardy. Instead, she became an important chronicler of a renaissance that would shape the world. Her work is featured in a new exhibit curated by New Yorker and Pulitzer Prize winning critic Hilton Als, but this wonderful profile helps to explain both who she was and how she worked. She called herself a “collector of souls” and her portraiture reflected a deep curiousity about the world that was both intimate and compassionate. “For Neel herself, everyone was equal in all their idiosyncrasies and racial differences,” Als told The Atlantic. “Everyone was a member of her club. She painted people no matter what their color, creed, or social standing, and this is what makes her oeuvre so unique.” Enjoy.
The Atlantic

Quote

My ambition is to have this wonderful gift produce practical results for the future of commercial flying and for the women who may want to fly tomorrow’s planes.
—Emma Lazarus