Monthly Archives: May 2018

United Airlines Does Something Right

People familiar with my professional history of conflict with the airlines may find it surprising that I would come to the defense of the CEO of United Airlines in its latest dustup. But here I go.

Oscar Munoz, the UAL CEO, was verbally challenged by a person described as an “activist investor” at its recent annual shareholders meeting because the airline, following the Parkland Florida high school massacre, ended its discount program for members of the National Rifle Association. The “investor’s” objections were reported by, among others, inc.com at https://bit.ly/2s4fQ1h and Bloomberg at https://bloom.bg/2s8mnaw.  the story line being that some/many UAL employees were equally unhappy with Munoz’ statement that the NRA decision was made for “personal” reasons, namely, that a child of a United pilot had been killed in the Parkland shooting.

That decision was latched onto by the objector who was in fact not just a “lawyer with” the National Center for Public Policy Research but was in fact NCPPR’s General Counsel. His employer is a “conservative think tank” in Washington parlance, a tax-free organization, contributions to which are tax-deductible, despite its mission statement of

communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.

 The NCPPR was set up in 1982:

to provide the conservative movement with a versatile and energetic organization capable of responding quickly and decisively to fast-breaking issues. Today, we continue to fill this critical niche through a top-flight research and communications operation driven by results and the bottom line. In the 1980s, The National Center helped change public opinion through vocal national campaigns aimed at supporting Reagan administration initiatives concerning the USSR, arms control, Central America and human rights. [emphasis added]

https://nationalcenter.org/about/

Before going further, I note for the record that I am one of those very liberal people that recognizes that the true and authentic conservative point of view regarding economics, the role of government and similar things is a responsible, if usually erroneous, alternative to the views of liberals who think like I do. Many intelligent and thoughtful people share some or all of the conservative philosophy and make rational arguments in support of that viewpoint. The sitting president and most of his enablers in the White House and Congress do not satisfy that definition, but that is for another day.

Now that my bona fides are declared, I return to the matter at hand. I understand the point of view that the primary job of a private business is to produce profits from its activities as a reward to risk-taking shareholders that have provided it with capital through stock purchases. But producing profits for shareholders is not, I suggest, the only function of private businesses which, broadly speaking, enjoy the benefits of public services, the protections of laws designed to prevent larger firms from conspiring against them, etc. They are permitted, sometimes subject to regulation, to consume vast amounts of public space, to exploit resources belonging to the entire nation and generally benefit from government support of their franchise. While there is tension about the amount and nature of regulation, there is, in short, a public dimension to the business of private enterprise that must be accounted for in any rational view of the role of corporations in American life.

So, what was the beef with United’s making a policy decision regarding how it would manage the discount component of its business? According to the reports, the NCPPR attorney said:

“I suppose you are ignoring the fact that the NRA had nothing to do with what happened in Parkland …. But, hey, congratulations on your virtue signaling. What exactly did investors get out of that?”

At least two observations are warranted.

First, the asserted “fact” that the NRA had “nothing to do with what happened at Parkland” assumes away the issue of responsibility for Parkland as if the truth of the matter were handed down on stone tablets. In reality, of course, a good case exists, and has been made repeatedly, that the gun culture promoted by the NRA and NRA’s success in preventing even the study of gun impact issues are elements in a direct line to the events at Parkland and the other mass shootings before and since. The NCPPR should save its smug presumptuousness for something else. The known facts about gun violence do not support their protestations of innocence.

Second, there is, of course, a potentially legitimate debate about whether private business corporations should ever do or say anything related to “political” issues. At least two points are relevant here.

One is that there is an inherent inconsistency between “keep businesses out of politics” and the “the free market rules and corporations should be able to do whatever they want, including risking the ire of customers and stockholders when they believe the public or their private interest warrants it.” Those positions are inconsistent.

Second, there is another fundamental structural inconsistency and incoherence in the “conservative” position that private business should stay out of politics. Many private businesses are perfectly fine being in politics as long as no one knows what they are doing, as in their role in funding SuperPacs under the aegis of the Supreme Court’s opinion in the Citizen’s United case. And when “conservative values” are at stake, as they allegedly are when NFL players kneel during the National Anthem, the Grand Ole Party is right there to tell those businesses to actively support the “conservative” position by punishing those players. Or else. So much for keeping businesses out of politics.

The inc.com article says that, based on emails received, the employees are against the NRA discount decision by 4 to 1, one retiree is quoted as saying that the “[A]irlines are very leftist.” That will come as a great shock to the airline managements that spend so much time and treasure in Washington railing against any form of regulation designed to protect consumers from deceptive price advertising. That is a subject for another day also, but the notion that the airlines are part of a left-wing political cabal is laughable. I will now laugh.  Then I’ll cry at the staggering ignorance that pervades our political life and public discourse.

A trend now clearly exists toward corporate responsibility and, whether the NRA and its enablers approve or not, the practice is likely to have staying power over the long term. See, for example, “8 Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Trends To Look For In 2018,” by Susan McPherson in Forbes, https://bit.ly/2GKeFJ7. Even some Republican businessmen who supported Trump in the past are now threatening to pull donations if the DACA program is not extended. https://politi.co/2klgIui

The NRA is, once again, on the wrong side of history on the issue of businesses in politics. UAL’s CEO Munoz has some good company and should … dare I end with this … stick to his guns.

Most important Book You’re Not Going to Read This Year

I have just finished reading Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America, edited by Cass Sunstein. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard University where he founded its Program on Behavioral Economics. He is the author of, among many others, Impeachment, A Citizen’s Guide, which you are also not going to read, but should.

The contributors of the essays in this stunning book are mostly distinguished law professors from Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Columbia, NYU and Duke. These people know whereof they speak.

And speak they do, sometimes a bit turgidly as law professors are wont to do, but also brilliantly and incisively addressing the sources of risk that the United States could lose its hold on democracy. It’s important to understand that this is not an anti-Trump screed, although, as you might expect, Trump’s conduct as president figures prominently in many of the essays. The reason is that his behavior is in the classical line of actions taken by political strong men who have undermined democracy in their countries. It’s also important to remember the United States has some blood on its own hands from past episodes of authoritarian behavior induced by crises such as the attack on Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

The threats to American democratic institutions, free press, elections and other features of a free and open society in which we have grown up are real and immediate. While some of the essays are guardedly optimistic about the resiliency of our Constitution and institutions to resist the imposition of an authoritarian regime, you will find cold comfort in most of the essays. They are, along with other recent works like Elaine May’s Fortress America – How We Embraced Fear & Abandoned Democracy, compelling, history- and fact-based accounts of how democracy can fail, and may actually be failing, under the relentless pressures of an autocratic president supported by a single-party Congress. These are conditions not contemplated by the Founding Fathers whose Constitution, as brilliant as it is, may lack sufficient safeguards against one-party rule that does not respect the values on which that document was based.

If you are serious about understanding what is happening in American politics today, this book is a must-read.

To give you a taste, the chapter entitled “Constitutional Rot” observes that “These four horsemen — polarization, loss of trust, economic inequality, and policy disaster — mutually reinforce each other.” Further, “In an oligarchical system, regardless of its formal legal characteristics, a relative small number of backers effective decide who stays in power.”

In the chapter entitled “Beyond Elections: Foreign Interference with American Democracy,” Samantha Power discusses how non-mediated social media opened the door to Russian influence in U.S. elections. The chapter “Paradoxes of the Deep State” addresses little-known history of the so-called “Deep State” with surprising observations about the “leaks” in the Trump administration. Then, the chapter “How We Lost Constitutional Democracy” sets out grave and chilling warnings about the erosion of democratic norms and the limits of the Constitution as an obstacle to the destruction of democracy as we know it.

As I said earlier, this book is serious stuff and not an easy read. Yet the issues analyzed in it are critical to a deep understanding of what is happening and the extent to which we can “count on the Constitution” as a defense against loss of freedom and democratic process.

When you are finished being frightened to death, I continue to urge everyone to read On Tyranny-Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder, a measly 126 pages. Finally, if you want to dig deeply into some of the mysteries of the behaviors of voters whose conduct you consider self-defeating and borderline insane. I commend to you two tomes that I guarantee will open your eyes to ideas you never dreamed of: Thinking, Fast & Slow, by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, and Behave – the Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert Sapolsky [skip the details on endocrinology, unless you really dig that sort of stuff].

To conclude, for now, I believe the following to be more likely true than not:

1. Trump’s election was unlawfully procured through interference by, and his collusion with one or more foreign powers; the more he fumes and fulminates against this idea, the more likely it seems to be true;

2. Trump has violated Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution by failing to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed;”

3. Trump has violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution, Article I, Section 9;

4. Trump is guilty of obstruction of justice, which qualifies as a “high crime” or “misdemeanor” under the Constitution, Article 2, Section 4, and, in the specific circumstances, is guilty of treason as well;

5. Trump and members of his family and officials appointed by him, along with Republican members of Congress, have engaged in a conspiracy to conceal evidence of crimes by them and others and to prevent the full investigation and prosecution of such crimes by appropriate government authorities.

I also believe the following truths are now indisputable:

1. Democratic norms are under active siege by a president who neither understands nor cares about such norms;

2. While the prospect of indictment of the president as a result of Special Prosecutor Mueller’s investigation is highly appealing, there is little chance that such a move is going to occur soon and it will, in any case, provoke a lengthy constitutional crisis that will end up in the Supreme Court and therefore not afford a near-term solution to the governance crisis that confronts the nation;

3. The most immediate and most important defense against the oligarchical theocracy, or the theocratic oligarchy, if you prefer, that the president, vice president and Republican Congress want to establish, and to some degree have already established, is for the Democratic Party to take control of Congress in the 2018 elections;

4. Democratic control of both houses of Congress would immediately create an insurmountable bulwark against further destruction of democracy by the administration and lay the framework for removal and prosecution of the Trump gang and its enablers;

5. Trump’s sycophantic supporters are preparing to defend him with aggressive voter turnout and contributions of huge amounts of money. Nonetheless, Democrats must overwhelm them at the polls if we are to turn the tide against the fascist practices of this administration. If we fail, we will face two more years of entrenchment, destruction of the independence of the judiciary and undermining of the free press. The loss of those two elements of the Constitution’s system of checks and balances will make it very difficult, perhaps impossible, to turn back the tide. It’s 2018 or nothing.

6. Every American should view this situation as a grave threat to their well-being and the well-being of their families present and future. It is time for the Democratic Party leadership to start leading politically and for the personal ambitions and agendas of the old guard to yield the floor to the generations that will have the most to lose if the foundations of democracy are not restored. Remember that those who fail to heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.

7. It is time for a game plan that does not repeat the same mistakes that led to the disastrous defeat in 2016. The Republicans know the same things we know about what happened. They have a keen understanding of their political base and how to stimulate it to action on behalf of their agenda. Trump’s base is uninterested in the truth about him or his policies; they have created their own truths in which they choose to believe and nothing is going to change most of them. It is therefore absolutely essential that every potential Democratic vote be cast in every district. There have been a few interim wins in replacement contests, but these are no laurels on which to rest. Democrats cannot afford to give up any seat that is potentially winnable. It’s now or never.