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How Airline Execs and Politicians Have Made Flying Even More Miserable

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Justin Elliott reports in ProPublica:

Three years ago, the Obama administration unleashed its might on behalf of beleaguered American air travelers, filing suit to block a mega-merger between American Airlines and US Airways. The Justice Department laid out a case that went well beyond one merger.

“Increasing consolidation among large airlines has hurt passengers,” the lawsuit said. “The major airlines have copied each other in raising fares, imposing new fees on travelers, reducing or eliminating service on a number of city pairs, and downgrading amenities.”

The Obama administration itself had helped create that reality by approving two previous mergers in the industry, which had seen nine major players shrink to five in a decade. In the lawsuit, the government was effectively admitting it had been wrong. It was now making a stand.

Then a mere three months later, the government stunned observers by backing down.

It announced a settlement that allowed American and US Airways to form the world’s largest airline in exchange for modest concessions that fell far short of addressing the concerns outlined in the lawsuit.

The Justice Department’s abrupt reversal came after the airlines tapped former Obama administration officials and other well-connected Democrats to launch an intense lobbying campaign, the full extent of which has never been reported.

They used their pull in the administration, including at the White House, and with a high-level friend at the Justice Department, going over the heads of staff prosecutors. And just days after the suit was announced, the airlines turned to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first White House chief of staff, to help push back against the Justice Department.

Some lawyers and officials who worked on the American-US Airways case now say they were “appalled” by the decision to settle, as one put it.

“It was a gross miscarriage of justice that that case was dropped and an outrage and an example of how our system should not work,” said Tom Horne, the former state attorney general of Arizona, one of seven states that were co-plaintiffs with the federal government.

As a candidate in 2007, President Obama pledged to “reinvigorate antitrust enforcement,” calling that the “American way to make capitalism work for consumers.” Hillary Clinton has recently made similar promises.

But the reversal in the American-US Airways case was part of what antitrust observers see as a string of disappointing decisions by the Obama administration.

“I hoped they would be much more aggressive and much more concerned about increasing concentration and ongoing predatory conduct,” said Thomas Horton, a former Justice Department antitrust attorney now at University of South Dakota law school. “Too often they really took the business side.”

Obama’s antitrust enforcers have been somewhat more aggressive than the Bush administration in challenging mergers. But that has come in the face of a record-breakingwave of often audacious deals. Nor has the Obama administration brought any major cases challenging companies that abuse their monopoly power. It approved three major airline mergers, for example, leaving four companies in control of more than 80 percent of the market.

In the American-US Airways case, Emanuel emerged as one of the deal’s biggest champions. He was in regular contact with the CEOs and lobbyists for both airlines.

“The combination of American Airlines and US Airways creates a better network than either carrier could build on its own,” Emanuel wrote in an October 2013 letter to the Justice Department that other mayors signed onto. “American’s substantial operations throughout the central United States provide critical coverage where US Airways is underdeveloped.”

The letter was an uncanny echo of the airlines’ arguments – for good reason: It was actually written by an American Airlines lobbyist, emails obtained by ProPublica show.

The day after sending the missive, as government lawyers were racing to prepare for trial, Emanuel lunched with the CEOs of American and US Airways at a suite in the St. Regis hotel in Washington. The next stop on his schedule: the White House, for meetings with President Obama and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. Later that day, Emanuel met with Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, whose agency also had a hand in reviewing the merger. (The White House and Department of Transportation declined to comment on the meetings.)

Meanwhile, the airlines dispatched another valuable asset: An adviser on the deal, Jim Millstein, was both a former high-level Obama administration official at Treasury and a friend of Deputy Attorney General James Cole, the No. 2 at the Justice Department.

Millstein said Cole told him that the government was open to settling the case – a position at odds with the Justice Department’s public stance. The two spoke about the case on social occasions, such as “after finishing a round of golf,” Millstein said in an interview.

The five meetings and phone calls between Millstein and Cole – all within two months in late 2013 – shocked Justice Department staff attorneys who worked on the case, with one describing them as a sign of “raw pressure and political influence.” Cole declined to comment in detail, but said in a statement that “nothing inappropriate occurred.”

As Millstein and Emanuel pressed the administration, the airlines spent $13 million on a phalanx of super-lobbyists, including Heather and Tony Podesta, to marshal support in Washington, records show. Another Democratic lobbyist, Hilary Rosen, also reached out to the White House.

There’s no direct evidence that the lobbying worked. The Justice Department denies the pressure affected its decision-making and the White House said it was not involved. “DOJ enforcement decisions are made independently,” a White House spokesperson said in a statement. “The White House does not play a role in those decisions.”

But the abrupt move to settle was met with a backlash among the team building the case, according to interviews with four lawyers and officials who worked on the case. . .

Continue reading.

Things have gone badly wrong.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 September 2017 at 4:57 pm

The story behind the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner”

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Full disclosure: Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics, is like me an alumnus of St. John’s College in Annapolis MD.

Meg Fairfax Fielding posts on Facebook:

To everyone sharing the video about the national anthem, please be aware that there are numerous inaccuracies in it. Actually, most of the main facts are flat out wrong.

1. It was the War of 1812, not the Revolutionary War — there were 15 states, not 13 colonies.

2. There was no ultimatum to Baltimore, nor to the U.S., as this fellow describes it.

3. Key negotiated for the release of one man, Dr. Beanes. There was no brig full of U.S. prisoners.

4. It’s Fort McHenry, not “Henry.” The fort was named after James McHenry, a physician who was one of the foreign-born signers of the Constitution, who had assisted Generals Washington and Lafayette during the American Revolution, and who had served as Secretary of War to Presidents Washington and Adams.

5. Fort McHenry was a military institution, a fort defending Baltimore Harbor. It was not a refuge for women and children.

6. The nation would not have reverted to British rule had Fort McHenry fallen.

7. There were 50 ships, not hundreds. Most of them were rafts with guns on them. Baltimore Harbor is an arm of Chesapeake Bay; Fort McHenry is not on the ocean.

8. The battle started in daylight.

9. Bogus quote: George Washington never said “What sets the American Christian apart from all other people in this world is he will die on his feet before he will live on his knees.” Tough words. Spanish Civil War. Not George Washington. I particularly hate it when people make up stuff to put in the mouths of great men. Washington left his diaries and considerably more — we don’t have to make up inspiring stuff, and when we do, we get it wrong.

10. The battle was not over the flag; the British were trying to take Baltimore, one of America’s great ports. At this point, they rather needed to since the Baltimore militia had stunned and stopped the ground troops east of the city. There’s enough American bravery and pluck in this part of the story to merit no exaggerations.

11. To the best of our knowledge, the British did not specifically target the flag.

12. There were about 28 American casualties. Bodies of the dead were not used to hold up the flag pole — a 42 by 30 foot flag has to be on a well-anchored pole, not held up by a few dead bodies stacked around it.

And note that the lyrics explicitly celebrate the “free” (i.e., not slaves), and includes the lines:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

25 September 2017 at 12:30 pm

Posted in Daily life

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Workers Have Finally Caught Up to 1974

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Kevin Drum has a good post. From the post:

. . . This is what makes the whole “economic anxiety” interpretation of the 2016 election so peculiar. In 1992, workers had been getting stiffed for over a decade, and winning a campaign by appealing to this hardship made sense.

But in 2016? Wages have bounced around a bit, but basically workers have been making steady gains for over two decades. In particular, between 2012 and 2016 wages rose a healthy 1.35 percent per year—one of the country’s best 4-year periods since the late 60s—and the unemployment rate dropped more than three points. It’s easy to argue—and I do!—that worker gains should have been even higher, but it’s hard to argue that ordinary workers have been in such dire straits that they were willing to vote for anyone who promised to look out for them.

At the same time,  . . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 September 2017 at 3:33 pm

We have landed!

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Living in a bare apartment, but now have internet (more important than furniture). Molly survived the trip with some discomfort and seems to be somewhat stiff for now, having had low mobility for a week.

Long list of things to do and get, starting with shower curtains. No shower curtains = no shower before shave, and it turns out to make a highly noticeable difference: tougher stubble, despite pre-shave stubble wash with MR GLO and a good lather from the D.R. Harris Lavender shave stick, thanks to Wee Scot. I used a new blade in the Baby Smooth, and although I got a fine result—totally smooth with no nicks—there was noticeably more cutting resistance.

Still, a smooth shave is nothing to sneeze at, and a splash of Alt-Innsbruck made me eager to explore the new environs. And to buy a shower curtain.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 September 2017 at 8:05 am

Posted in Daily life, Shaving

The Theory and Practice of Civic Engagement, by Eric Liu

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James Fallows writes in the Atlantic:

If you happen to be in Redlands, California, on Thursday evening, September 21, I suggest you go by the headquarters of the tech company Esri to hear a talk by my friend Eric Liu, on the practical possibilities for civic engagement in our politically troubled age.

If you don’t happen to be in Redlands, I recommend getting Eric’s book, You Are More Powerful Than You Think. It addresses a central question of this politically troubled age: what, exactly, citizens who are unhappy with national politics can do, other than write a check or await the next chance to vote.

This is a question I wrestled with immediately after last year’s election, in this Atlantic article, and in a commencement speech a few months later. But Eric, author of several previous books about the theory and practice of citizenship (including The Gardens of Democracy and A Chinaman’s Chance) and head of the Citizen University network, based in Seattle, has devoted his useful and enlightening new book to just this topic, in the age of Trump. He described some of its principles in a NYT interview with David Bornstein a few months ago. Essentially his topic is how to bridge the gap between thinking, “something should be done,” and actually taking steps to doing that something, on your own and with others. This also is the ongoing theme of Citizen University, which emphasizes that citizenship is a job in addition to being a status.

I’ll leave the details, of which there are many, to Eric — on the podium in Redlands or in the pages of his book. The high-concept part of his argument flows from these three axioms:

  • Power creates monopolies, and is winner-take-all. → You must change the game.
  • Power creates a story of why it’s legitimate. → You must change the story.
  • Power is assumed to be finite and zero-sum. → You must change the equation.

He goes on, in practical terms, to illustrate what these mean. The political question of this era (as discussed here) is how the resilient qualities of American civic society match up against the challenges presented by the lurches of Donald Trump. Can the judiciary adhere to pre-2017 standards? How will the Congress fare in its ongoing search for a soul? Will states and cities maintain their policies on the environment, on standards of justice, on treatment of refugees and immigrants? And how, fundamentally, can citizens play a more active and powerful role in the affairs of their nation? These and others are central struggles of our time. And Eric Liu’s book is part of the effort to push the outcome in a positive direction.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 September 2017 at 7:33 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Politics

The sex-offender panic is destroying lives

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Radley Balko reports in the Washington Post:

The video below tells the story of Shawna, an Oklahoma woman who is still in mandatory treatment because 15 years ago, when she was 19, she had sex with a boy who was 14. Over at the Marshall Project, David Feige has more about the unlikely people swept up in the sex-offender panic for offenses most of us wouldn’t associate with a typical sexual predator. Take the case of Adrian:

Adrian was a junior at North Dakota State majoring in business management, when he travelled to Miami for spring break. There, he met a girl at an 18-and-over club. They flirted and danced, then walked to the beach where they had sex. They spent about five days together, hanging out on and off and occasionally hooking up.

Adrian returned to college after the trip and all seemed well, until seven months later when he got a call from a detective with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. As it turns out, the girl had used a fake ID to get into the club. She was actually 15 years old at the time. Her mom filed a complaint when she found out what had happened.

Asked to return to Miami to answer some questions, Adrian took a bus back to Florida. He explained to the detective that everything was consensual, and that he’d assumed the girl must have been 18 or older since she was in the club. Officers recorded his statement, thanked him for his co-operation, handcuffed him and placed him under arrest. Unable to post the $40,000 bond set by a judge, Adrian remained in jail for nearly eight months. It was the first and only time he’d ever been arrested.

In Florida, as in most other states, the fact that the girl was a willing participant was not a defense. Having admitted to the affair and facing some twenty years in prison, Adrian had no choice but to plead guilty to four counts of lewd and lascivious battery of a person under 16. That guilty plea guaranteed he’d spend the rest of his life listed on Florida’s sex offender registry . . .

Five years after his guilty plea, Adrian had been rejected from more jobs than he could count. Unable to find housing that complied with a Miami ordinance that prevents registrants from living within 2,500 feet of any public or private school, daycare center or playground, Adrian was was forced into homelessness. He slept in a car parked in a lot — one of the few places sex offenders are actually allowed to reside. His college career was over, as was any hope he ever harbored of having a productive life. Then, two years ago, almost a decade after his conviction, Adrian failed to properly register his whereabouts with the police. As a result, he was sentenced to three years in prison.

Yes, we should discourage 19-year-olds from having sex with 14-year-olds, and 21-year-olds from having sex with 15-year-olds. But these people aren’t predators. They aren’t pedophiles. They showed poor judgment and had non-coercive sex with partners who were physically mature. (Yes, the law says any sex with a minor is de facto coercive.) Perhaps we should punish them, but we shouldn’t seek to utterly destroy them. And in Adrian’s case, the lack of intent makes what happened to him all the more unjust. It’s all the worse when you consider how little evidence there is that these laws do anything to protect society from actual predators.

Meanwhile, the Washington state Supreme Court has just upheld a state law allowing prosecutors to charge minors who send nude photos of themselves to other people …. as child pornographers. If convicted, that means mandatory prison time and a lifetime on the sex-offender list. . .

Continue reading.

The video to which he refers:

Written by LeisureGuy

21 September 2017 at 8:37 am

A Tennessee man could remain in prison for years, even though a judge and prosecutor have dismissed the charges against him

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Radley Balko describes a Kafkaesque quirk of the American criminal “justice” system:

From the Tennessean, here’s a crazy story about a man who looks to be doomed to years in prison, despite the fact that the charges that put him there have been dropped. You can thank the state’s parole board.

A judge and prosecutor dismissed the criminal allegations against John Leon Smith, but in the eyes of the Tennessee Board of Parole he’s still guilty.

The man will remain in prison until next year at least — maybe until 2026 …

… Smith served about half of a 40-year prison sentence for a violent armed robbery and threatening to kill workers at a Nashville restaurant in 1992. Smith fired several shots, which wounded one worker, and as he fled from police, fired shots at officers, according to appeals court records.

“I was drinking and drugging and it cost me my life,” he said. “I threw it away in 30 minutes.”

He was released on parole in October 2013, according to state records.

Seventeen months later he was arrested on two felonies, alleging possession of marijuana and a weapon, court records show. At the time, Smith lived at a North Nashville home with two other people.

Because of his criminal history, Smith wasn’t supposed to have guns.

Court records and transcripts say undercover police intercepted a UPS package with nearly 8 pounds of marijuana inside and delivered it to the home, where Smith answered the door. About 30 minutes later, another man arrived and tried to leave with the package before he was arrested, according to a transcript of one detective’s testimony.

Officers later found a handgun in furniture in Smith’s bedroom and three rifles and a shotgun in a separate closet, records say.

A Nashville judge dismissed the gun charge two weeks later after hearing testimony from the homeowner that Smith did not know the guns were in the home and the handgun belonged to someone else, according to a court transcript.

In March 2016, a year after Smith’s arrest, prosecutors dismissed the other charge against Smith — the drug crime — after the man who claimed the package of pot pleaded guilty, court records show.

“Your case is dismissed,” a judge told Smith, according to the transcript. “That’s the end of that, so, for you.”

The problem: Smith’s arrest was a violation of his parole. Such violations can send him back to prison. It doesn’t matter that the charges were dropped. And the ultimate arbiter of whether Smith violated his parole isn’t the judge or prosecutor, but the Tennessee Board of Parole. And that group of seven people, all appointed by the governor, has decided to keep Smith in prison. Bizarrely, the Tennessee legislature has even passed a law that should apply to cases like Smith’s. But the parole board decided, unilaterally, that the law isn’t retroactive.

This isn’t the first time the Tennessee Board of Parole has come under criticism. Here’s an op-ed, also in the Tennessean, from May:

In 1978, Lawrence McKinney was sentenced to 100 years in prison for crimes he didn’t commit.

He could have expected to serve every bit of it, if not for the work of Memphis attorney Lorna McClusky and the Innocence Project, among others.

He was released after serving 31 years and given $75.

Mr. McKinney didn’t commit the crime and pled not guilty to it. He maintained his innocence and turned down offers for a plea bargain.

Yet, after 31 years of wrongful incarceration, the Tennessee Board of Parole has the gall to want us to believe that it was Mr. McKinney’s release that was the mistake.

Media reports described a Board of Parole hearing to discuss McKinney’s case, after he had been released, that had the feel of a trial. McKinney was grilled about his conviction, which, again, had already been vacated and charges dismissed.

One board member seemed to reject conclusive DNA evidence. To add insult to injury, the same board member flat-out declared that McKinney committed the rape in 1977.

“[W]hen you look at the record in its entirety…what is clear and convincing to me is that Mr. McKinney did commit…the crime of rape in 1977,” he said.

What’s more, arguably this kind of alternative reality seems to be par for the course for the leadership of the Board of Parole.

When recently asked about another case of Robert Polk — a prisoner wrongfully held in prison for two years partly because the Board of Parole did not hold a timely hearing — the leader of the board reportedly said that the wrongful incarceration had nothing to do with the board or his leadership.

As noted, the board considers clemency and exoneration petitions in addition to parole. Exonerees must be declared innocent by the governor in order to be compensated, and most governors won’t exonerate without the board’s recommendation. Tennessee has exonerated just two people since 2000, and only one received compensation.

Members of the parole board are appointed to six-year terms and make around $100,000 per year. It isn’t made up of judges or retired judges. The appointees are largely political. Last year, for example, Gov. Bill Haslam appointed two new members to the board. Both are best knownfor being related to prominent state Republicans. One, Zane Duncan, is a former lobbyist for a Kentucky railroad company … and son of a GOP congressman.  The other, Roberta Kustoff, is a former tax attorney and wife of Rep. David Kustoff (R-Tenn.).

The makeup of the rest of the board is just as puzzling. The current chairman, Richard Montgomery,  is a former state legislator with no criminal justice background. Gary Faulcon is a 25-year police officer. Tim Gobble is a former cop, Secret Service agent and chief deputy of a sheriff’s department. Finally, Barrett Rich is a former state trooper and three-term Republican in the state legislature. Gay Gregson is at least from outside of law enforcement. She worked for more than 20 years in special education and has won community service awards in West Tennessee. She was also an outspoken supporter of Haslam during his campaign.

These are the people who decide the fate of Tennessee prisoners up for parole — and who advise the governor on clemency, pardons and exonerations. They’re mostly former cops and former politicians. There are no psychiatrists or social workers. There are no criminal justice academics, experts in prisoner rehabilitation, or — God forbid — defense attorneys.  According to the board’s annual report for fiscal year 2015-2016, it considered a whopping 16,338 parole hearings that year. Among its “accomplishments” for that year, the board notes that it …

  • “Planned the 13th annual Tennessee Season to Remember event honoring homicide victims, in cooperation with other state criminal justice agencies.”
  • “Honored 12 members of the [Board of Parole] staff with awards for reaching milestones in state service.”
  • “Planted eleven trees in cities across the state to honor victims of crime, and honored victim advocates for their work.”

There’s nothing wrong with honoring victims of crime, of course. But there are also no “accomplishments” listed as prominently to suggest that the parole board puts an equal value on redemption, rehabilitation or reentry. . .

Continue reading.

Words fail me.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 September 2017 at 8:30 am

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