Farhad Manjoo says that airline travel sucks and Silicon Valley has made it even worse:

Travel search engines rank airlines based on price rather than friendliness or quality of service. Online check-in, airport kiosks and apps allow airlines to serve customers with fewer and fewer workers. What we are witnessing is the basest, ugliest form of tech-abetted, bottom-seeking capitalism — one concerned with prices and profits above all else, with little regard for quality of service, for friendliness, or even for the dignity of customers.

....What keeps deteriorating are comfort and quality of service for low-end passengers (i.e., most people). Legroom keeps shrinking. Airlines keep tacking on separate fees for amenities we used to consider part of the flight. And customers keep going along with it.

Consumers have shown that they’re willing to put up with an awful lot, including lack of legroom, lack of amenities, mediocre or worse customer service, dirty airplanes and more to save money,” Mr. Harteveldt said. “And the airline industry has evolved to meet that desire” for cheap fares

I'll give Silicon Valley a pass on this. The flying public has demonstrated conclusively that it cares about only one thing: price. Airlines do their best to charge high prices when they can—usually for late bookings or on routes where they have a monopoly—but most of the time they can't. So they've done everything they can to lower their prices. It's either that or die.

Nor is it just airlines. Manjoo complains that the whole system of buying an airline ticket is "mercilessly transactional" thanks to tech, but that's a broad trend. Even the tech companies he celebrates, like Uber and Airbnb, are pretty damn transactional. They aren't quite up there with airlines, but their single biggest selling point is that they're cheaper than taxis and hotels. (You think Uber is popular because it's faster and more convenient? It is. But if price weren't its paramount feature, Uber wouldn't continue to lose billions of dollars subsidizing fares.)

I've long thought that one of the problems with air travel is the lack of a credible signaling system. If, say, American Airlines was 10 percent more expensive than other carriers, it might be able to make that stick if it truly offered better service. But how do you convince customers of this? You'd have to realign the entire company around service and then spend 20 years building up a reputation. There's no other way. But who's willing to risk the life and death of a huge corporation (probably death, let's be honest) on a 20-year experiment?

So flying sucks because we, the customers, have made it clear that we don't care. We love to gripe, but we just flatly aren't willing to pay more for a better experience. Certain individuals (i.e., the 10 percent of the population over six feet tall) are willing to pay for legroom. Some are willing to pay more for extra baggage. Some are willing to pay more for a window seat. But most of us aren't. If the ticket price on We Care Airlines is $10 more, we click the link for Suck It Up Airlines. We did the same thing before the web too. As usual, the fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.

With "involuntary deplanings" in the news, Nate Silver points us to some data that's oddly intriguing. Here's how often passengers are kicked off flights on the Big Four airlines in the United States. It comes via the Department of Transportation's latest monthly report:

Delta overbooks at a higher rate than any other airline. However, it uses an innovative Coasian auction system during check-in to persuade passengers on overbooked flights to give up their seats for cash payouts. As a result, it has by far the lowest rate of forcing people off of flights even when they don't want to go.

By contrast, Southwest—which has been taunting United over the Dr. Dao incident—has an average rate of overbooking, but apparently a pretty crappy system for handling overbooked flights. This gives them highest rate of forced deplanings.

United, ironically, isn't bad on this score. Their overbooking rate is about average, and their "involuntary deplanings" rate is quite low. Depending on how you feel about things, Delta would probably be your first choice on the overbooking front, but United is a solid second.

Like it or not, about 40,000 people a year are kicked off planes against their will. Some of them were standby passengers who knew this might happen. Some weren't. Given those numbers, the interesting thing isn't that United had to remove one of these folks by force. The interesting thing is that apparently it's never happened before.1

1It hasn't happened while cell phones were recording the whole thing, anyway.

UPDATE: The original version of the chart in this post was an epic fail. I transcribed the numbers wrong, then corrected them, then had to recover from an Excel failure, and then didn't notice that the recovery didn't quite work. Then I used the wrong units for the y-axis. Plus the sun was in my eyes.

Anyway, it's fixed now. And the good news is that the corrected numbers don't really change the story. But at least now they're correct.

Sean Spicer put his foot in it today over Syria. You can google the details if you want, but basically he used the words Hitler and gas in the same sentence, and you just know that's not going to end well.

Instead, let's turn to the next generation of Trumps:

Eric Trump has said he is "sure" his sister Ivanka used her influence over their father to encourage the US president to launch military action against Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

...."A lot of times people will say yes just because you happen to be the boss," he explained at the Trump Turnberry golf resort in Ayrshire. “I think the beautiful thing about family is you play on a little bit of a different dynamic and once in a while you can pull them aside and say: ‘No disrespect but you might want to think about this or maybe you crossed the line here.’

“I think it gives you a sounding board who is a little bit more unconventional than the 37 people that might happen to be standing round a table at that one time who just want to appease.

I'm sure Trump's staff will be delighted to hear themselves described this way.

And I'm pretty sure Eric is wrong anyway. First off, my guess is that virtually everyone in and out of the West Wing was in favor of bombing Syria. Hell, even most Democrats were in favor of bombing Syria. I very much doubt that Ivanka's deep maternal instincts ("Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence") made her a unique moral influence in this case.

Second, those 37 people Eric talks about aren't "appeasing" his dad. They're mostly very clever, very experienced people who are manipulating his dad. They do this because that's what people in the West Wing always do, and they have an easier time of it than most because Donald Trump is so childishly easy to manipulate. We all saw Hillary Clinton do it in the debates, practically sending up semaphore flags as she baited him, and you could tell that even Trump understood what she was doing. But he responded exactly as she wanted him to anyway. It was pretty astonishing to watch. Too bad about that whole James Comey thing.

Lunchtime Photo

This is United flight 1134 on approach to John Wayne Airport in beautiful Santa Ana, California. No passengers were harmed in the making of this photograph.

The folks at Webster's might be unhappy about this, but WTF seems like a lock for Word-of-the-Year honors in 2017. Today, the Trump administration is apparently promising regime change in Syria and hoping that Vladimir Putin will help them:

Before departing Italy — where he met with “like-minded” allies in the Group of Seven major advanced economies and diplomats from largely Muslim nations — [Rex] Tillerson told reporters that the United States is aiming for a negotiated end to six years of conflict in Syria and wants Russia's help in ushering Assad out of office....Claiming that Assad's rule “is coming to an end,” Tillerson previewed his message to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

....In a sign of escalating tensions — even before Tillerson exited his plane in Moscow — Putin told a news conference the Kremlin has “information” that provocateurs are planning to plant chemical substances in suburban Damascus and blame it on Syrian authorities. He gave no further details on the stunning claim.

Um....

Does anyone here know how to play this game? A week ago Donald Trump didn't give two fucks whether Assad stayed in power. He had somehow missed the news of Assad's brutality over the past six years, and cared only about ISIS. Now he's suddenly figured out that Assad is a monster and is promising regime change. Sure, he's "aiming" for a negotiated settlement, but that's pretty plainly not in the cards since Assad, after six brutal years of civil war, is finally on the verge of winning.

And Putin, informed of all this, responds with a Trumplike conspiracy theory about false-flag operations. These are not the words of a man who plans to back down. I've read reports that Putin is privately enraged at Assad, and that may be, but there's really not much room for doubt about the positions of both Assad and Putin here. Neither one has the slightest intention of abruptly giving up and allowing American-sponsored rebels to take over in Damascus.

So what happens next? Putin or one of his functionaries will tell Tillerson to bugger off, and there will be no negotiations. Does Trump start bombing Damascus? That would be stupid and wouldn't work anyway. Does he send a huge American ground force? There's zero chance of public or congressional approval for that. Does he just back down? Trump seems temperamentally incapable of this.

And yet, the US government is now officially committed to regime change in Syria even though it wasn't last week. In fairness, so was Obama. But Obama was always clear that this was merely aspirational. Trump hasn't said one way or another, and he's avoiding the press, which would like to hear a little more about his new foreign policy. The problem, it appears, is that Trump doesn't know what his foreign policy is. He doesn't know what to do about ISIS. He doesn't know what to do about Afghanistan. He doesn't know what to do about China. He doesn't know what to do about Syria. He doesn't know what to do about North Korea. He only knows how to send tweets into the atmosphere about how all these folks better watch out because there's a new sheriff in town. But there's nothing more. Trump has taken strategic ambiguity to whole new levels.

Personally, I guess I'm rooting for the meaningless Twitter rants to continue. It's better than the alternative.

Somebody please tell me this is a joke. It's a joke, right? Ha ha ha.

The most important story of the past 24 hours—by a mile—is the guy who was dragged off an overbooked United flight yesterday by a security team. The details are still a little sketchy, but the YouTube video is awesome and the guy has an actual scratch on his face. The Chicago PD officer who dragged off the passenger has been suspended, and United's president has apologized. Luckily for social media, he apologized in kind of a ham-handed way that gave the incident a whole new cycle of snark on Twitter. So far President Trump hasn't weighed in, but give him time. He might get bored and decide later today to nationalize UAL.

In the meantime, Felix Salmon wants us to believe that this hasn't hurt United's stock price. Hah! What a corporate shill he is. Behold the chart below:

That's about $1 billion in market cap right there. This is the power of Twitter and Facebook, my friends.

On the bright side for UAL, this will probably last only a day or so, sort of like Donald Trump's random taunts at companies he doesn't like. Tomorrow some other airline will do something outrageous and we'll all vow never to fly them ever again. I'm pretty sure most of us have vowed never to fly every airline at some point or another, but since they all suck we don't have much choice, do we? And they all overbook. And they all ferry their crews around on their own planes. And they all call security if a passenger won't follow crew orders. This particular passenger just fought back a little more intensely than most. And people with cell phones were around.

Bad luck for United. Really, it could have happened to any of the fine holding companies that control the surly skies of America these days.

Today brings a couple of pieces of tentative good news for Obamacare. First there's this:

The Trump administration says it is willing to continue paying subsidies to health insurance companies under the Affordable Care Act even though House Republicans say the payments are illegal because Congress never authorized them....The Affordable Care Act requires insurers to reduce deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs for certain low-income consumers. The “cost-sharing” subsidies, which total $7 billion a year, compensate insurers for these discounts.

....House Republicans sued the Obama administration, saying that the spending — in the absence of an appropriations law — was unconstitutional. A Federal District Court judge agreed and ordered a halt to the payments, but suspended her order to allow the government to appeal.

This is a huge deal. CSR payments are critical for insurance companies, and the Trump administration could have decided to stop defending the law and let House Republicans kill the payments by default. That could still happen, but it sounds like it won't happen this year, at least. This was the single biggest bit of uncertainty facing insurance companies this year, and this announcement should ease a lot of their short-term concerns.

So with this temporarily out of the way, how does the overall Obamacare market look? According to Standard & Poors, profit levels for insurers are still too low, but they're improving and the market seems to be in pretty good shape:

The U.S. ACA individual market shows signs of improvement, as most insurers' 2016 results were better than 2015 results....2016 results and the market enrollment so far in 2017 show that the ACA individual market is not in a "death spiral."

....We believe the continued pricing correction and network design changes, along with regulatory fine-tuning of ACA rules, will result in closer to break-even underwriting results, on average, for the individual market this year....As insurers continue to adjust their products and pricing, we expect some premium rate increase in 2018 as well. If it remains business as usual, we expect 2018 premiums to increase at a far lower clip than in 2017.

S&P's biggest worry is Congress futzing around with things: "Every time something new (and potentially disruptive) is thrown into the works, it impedes the individual market's path to stability."

Two things are pretty clear. First, contrary to what folks like Donald Trump and Paul Ryan say, the Obamacare market is not on the verge of collapse. It's working pretty well and is likely to get better in the future. But second, Trump and Ryan certainly have the power to put Obamacare on the verge of collapse if that's what they want to do. Now we just have to wait to find out what they want to do.

Health Update

No news is good news, and I've had no news for the past couple of months. My M-protein level remains stable, which means the multiple myeloma is under control for the time being. I saw my oncologist today, and he seemed pretty happy with all my other levels too.

But here's an odd thing. One of the bad side effects of chemotherapy is that it compromises your immune system. I was told early on that the key blood test to keep track of was the absolute level of neutrophils. My first doctor thought that anything under 2000 was dangerous, and put me on a weird diet that I later found out was ridiculous. That's because another doctor told me that, really, anything over 1500 was fine. Later, yet another doctor told me that 1000 marked the danger zone. This month, I was at about 1100, so I asked my oncologist if this was a problem. He said no, everything was OK as long as it stayed above 500.

I'm beginning to think I'm the butt of a very long-winded practical joke. Eventually I'll get down to 550, and some yet newer doctor will tell me not to worry unless it gets below the square root of pi. In the meantime, don't sneeze on me, OK?1

1Not that I'd want you to sneeze on me anyway. This is just some added incentive.

How much was race a factor in the 2016 election? It's pretty obvious that Donald Trump explicitly appealed to racial sentiment more than any Republican presidential candidate in recent memory, but did it work? Did he pick up more votes from resentful, disaffected whites than any other GOP nominee would have?

At first blush, the answer seems to be no. Compared to Mitt Romney, Trump got a smaller share of the white vote and a bigger share of the black and Hispanic vote. That doesn't support the idea that 2016 represented some kind of huge white backlash.

But there are other ways of looking at this. Here's one from Phil Klinkner, a political science professor at Hamilton College. It's taken from the latest release of the American National Election Survey:

This chart is pretty simple: it shows how much correlation there is between a person's level of racial resentment and who they supported for president. In 2000, racial resentment was a weak predictor of who you voted for. In 2016 it was a strong predictor.

But this just adds to the haze. There are two reasonable ways of looking at this:

  1. Racial resentment has been a steadily better predictor of voting behavior for 16 years, with only a slight blip away from the trendline in 2012. Trump just happened to be the nominee in 2016, when it was bound to go up to its present level regardless.
  2. The trendline does inflect modestly upward in 2016. This might be because Obama bent it down a bit in 2012, or it might be because Trump bent it up in 2016.

Klinkner thinks race played a big role in the election. There's no question this is true, but did it play a bigger than expected role? The two major parties have been splitting further apart by race for years, with Republicans becoming the party of whites and Democrats the party of non-whites. This means that to survive with an ever growing white base, Republicans have to cater to white resentment more and more. Likewise, Democrats have to cater to black and Hispanic interests more and more. This is a cycle with positive feedback, so it's only likely to get worse.

Racial attitudes certainly played a bigger role in this election than in the past. But did Trump himself accelerate this partisan trend, or was he merely the beneficiary of it? That still seems like an open question to me.