The Week: April 9 -16, 2017

United Airlines and the Myth of Local Competence

The forcible removal of a paying, seated passenger from a United Airlines flight about to depart Chicago O’Hare this week resulted in apologies of varying tone and increasing intensity from the company’s CEO, as well as implausible calls for a boycott of the airline from such usually stalwart defenders of revanchist capitalism as the Wall Street Journal.

But most of the outrage was wholly misdirected in at least two respects.  The flight in question was actually operated by Republic Airlines, a regional contractor of United using the bigger airline’s name under the commonplace aviation practice known as codesharing.  So while United took the rap – fairly enough, as its name was on the fuselage – none of the personnel manning the flight or the gate were United employees, and the wrath and handwringing over the horrible conditions we endure to experience the miracle of modern aviation (what Louis CK reminded us is “a chair in the sky!”) would have been better directed at Republic and its so-far anonymous CEO.

Moreover, the individuals who actually performed the clumsily brutal removal of the passenger – several idiots, as revealed by viral passenger videos, dressed unprofessionally in blue jeans – were not in the employ of any airline, but were officers of the Chicago Aviation Department.  We’re told the officers in question have been placed on leave and that the City of Chicago is conducting an investigation, but my guess is that we will never hear of said investigation again.

One of the perennial claims of American conservatives is that the Federal government is too big and too powerful, and that many of the functions and responsibilities that it has accreted over the generations should be returned, post-haste, to state and local government. The underlying notion here is that we’re not so much a nation as a loose confederation of regional tribes, each with its idiosyncratic needs and desires that no cloistered bureaucrat in Washington could ever understand, much less competently address.

But the proposition that greater administrative competence resides at the state and local levels is constantly refuted by incidents like the United blunder, or the Flint, Michigan water crisis, or the resignation this week of the governor of Alabama (where three of the last six governors have been convicted of crimes), or Chris Christie’s Bridge-gate imbroglio, each just an example of the lax standards and casual corruption that are the natural outcome of working with people just like yourself in a fiefdom where you make your own rules.

The Federal bureaucracy grew not, as the right would have us believe, out of a liberal conspiracy to accrete power in a supra-national government, but out of the raw necessity to establish and enforce civic standards that states and localities were too often willing to ignore, from minority rights to clean water to safe infrastructure to the conditions under which people work.  The United Airlines incident reminds us that while all politics is local, local authority is not always politic.

Mike Pence on Sanibel Island

Mike Pence, Vice President of the United States, took a week-long vacation this last week on Sanibel Island, Florida, where my wife and I spend our winters.  It made big news here.  Sanibel is a laid-back little place, a far cry in glitz (none) and average net worth (modest) from Palm Beach and Mar-a-lago, just as Pence is, in his repressed Midwestern way, a far cry from Trump.  Why he picked Sanibel (as opposed to such preppy garden spots as Boca Grande or Useppa, which reportedly crawls with former CIA) I’ll never know, but the entire causeway onto the island had to be shut down to allow his motorcade to cross during a week when roads were already congested with Easter Week tourist traffic. Your Federal tax dollars at work.

Pence’s presence on Sanibel begs the bigger question of why a guy who is, as the saying goes, a heartbeat away from the Presidency, and who’s been at his new job for less than three months, needs a week-long vacation in the first place. Sure, Congress is in recess, but doesn’t he have more pressing things to do than work on his tan, like plot regime changes with the Pentagon or at least have lunch with Gorsuch to see if he’s had any new thoughts about Roe v. Wade during his first week on the Supreme Court? Okay, maybe he was taking an online course in Aramaic while longing by the pool, but I doubt it.

Pence brought his wife and stayed in a home on the eastern end of the island, close to the causeway, I surmised, to allow for a quick getaway in case of an attack by the North Koreans or a summons from Jared Kushner (who would never be caught dead on Sanibel).  They had dinner one night at Timbers, a popular but unassuming seafood place with faux Tiki décor and a nice selection of raw oysters.  The Pences came late (nine o’clock is called “Sanibel midnight” here) and dined alone, just the two of them, after the Secret Service took over most of the place.  I can report this authoritatively because my wife’s trainer works there.

There was a regular “Pence Watch” email blast from the local online paper. There were Pence sightings all over the island, most of them apocryphal. He reportedly strolled up to one startled citizen who was fishing off the beach and asked how they were biting.  He was seen ordering a Painkiller at the bar at Doc Ford’s.  He was spotted frolicking with bottle-nosed dolphins in Pine Island Sound.  (Okay, that last one is what they call an “alternative fact.”)

Finally he left this last Friday, tying up the causeway again, and we all breathed a sigh of relief.  ‘Way too much excitement.  Now he’s in South Korea, which I’m sure will have a much better idea of what to do with him.

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