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September 14, 2009

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Mr. Talton wrote:

"In the case of the airlines, they get away with it because of concentration, "fortress hubs" such as the one I was forced to fly into, and no competition on nearby city pairs from high-speed rail. As with the other "screw you" sectors, they are enabled by the government, through big subsidies -- overt and hidden, protection from anti-trust enforcement and weak customer protections."

I presume you're talking about Charlotte/Douglas International Airport where, at last count, U.S. Airways occupies 72 of 85 gates and accounts for 90 percent of passenger traffic.

There is no doubt a great deal of truth to what you've written. That said, it must be admitted that even in more competitive U.S. markets, all of the airlines (or nearly all) seem to be in a race to squeeze maximum profits by such cost-cutting measures as smaller (and more numerous) seats, smaller meals or none at all, or charging for food/drinks; also increasing fees for baggage and other changes and charges which decrease the quality of air travel for the average passenger (those booked for standard class travel).

Part of this is the result of increased fuel costs, but part is simply the very competition you refer to: in this case, the competition of companies eager to please shareholders. We've heard this argument about "competitiveness" before in the context of the globalization of manufacturing, and outsourcing of non-manufacturing sectors from data entry and management, to telephone call centers for company public relations, to computer science (a systems analyst with a PhD from india can be had for $5,000 and submit his work via the Internet).

Anti-trust enforcement is weak, true, but informal arrangements in which competing companies watch what their competitors do and follow suit, as well as casual understandings amongst industry leaders (of the kind which, if they constitute illegal collusion, are very difficult to detect, much less build a case against) are not generally subject to anti-trust enforcement.

Unless the government is willing to set standards and prices, there is little that can be done once companies decide to do this, especially in industries where start-up costs are very large and where new entrants face serious positioning problems (who is going to build the new airport gates to accomodate them and why will the newbies get them?); and besides, this leaves unresolved the issue of shareholder motivated cost-cutting and profits, which remains the same even for new companies except perhaps in an initial phase where market share is to be stolen by pretending (for a while) to be the airline that cares.

Competition from high-speed rail lays the government open to charges of using public subsidies to undermine so-called private enterprise. The fact that it should be undermined if it can't do as good a job as public competition, goes unremarked.

Why the government fails to do any of this in an era of increasingly expensive elections which are privately financed by the very corporate interests subject to regulation, is a mystery only to naive liberals. There was a time when 40 percent of the American workforce was unionized and had vigorous progressive leadership, and their dues and values offered a strong counterbalance to the interests of the owner class: primarily corporations and wealthy individuals. Today, just 7.5 percent of the private U.S. workforce is unionized. Do the math. Money makes the world go 'round, and you have to pay to play.

The problem is much greater than many suspect, because it isn't the general congressional member who counts in the end, it's the members and chairmen of the relevant congressional committees, and to a lesser extent party leadership. So, wealthy interests have a concentrated, leveraged method of making their political investments count. It doesn't matter if 70 members of a progressive caucus support X legislation if that legislation won't be heard or will be diced and julienne fried before leaving committee for a vote.

Here's Glenn Greenwald's take on the mechanism the right uses to confuse many Americans:

http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2009/09/14/resentment/index.html

It's obvious that Obama is not our El Cid. He will not lead us into battle so much as call us extremists for the sake of a false equivalency. He's disappointing but the real failure is national. Somehow, right-wing extremism was mainstreamed in this country while "liberalism" became a pariah term. It's strange on one level because the country as a whole is culturally liberal. We're quite comfortable with Internet porn, interracial dating, alternative lifestyles, racy movies, and government help. But at the same time, we're convinced someone is gaming the system and is getting away with stuff. Who might that be? The American right knows: it's the Other. This explanation has infected our collective consciousness without much if any understanding of the process.

Perhaps this is the price we pay for having won the Culture War, that on some level, we must account for our libertinism. Instead of living with the ambiguity of freedom, we look for the familiar comfort of tribal identity markers. Voting Republican is one of those markers. It's like the id telling the superego that it's been naughty but that black people are worse.

In my conversations with people, all of whom are relatively sophisticated, there's this undercurrent of self-corrective blame. Even if we call it "society", we really know something is wrong and needs to be punished. We've had it too easy and now it's payback time. We've taxed the rich too much, overregulated, let environmental wackos worry about silly things like whales, and suffered political correctness to the point where we can't call a spade a spade. It's our default folk wisdom. It's not questioned because to do so would upset the tenuous agreement we forged with common-sense types like Bill O'Reilly.

Obama treads into this swamp with the ease and bonhomie of a self-effacing comedian. He will be our friend and not challenge our beliefs. Rather, he will validate our view of reality by not disputing the blamers. He will, if we're lucky, become our horse whisperer. But the right has other ideas, and they're dramatically redemptive. Someone must die.

Before the merge with US Airways, America West had grown to be a great airline. With a few notable exceptions, they had good prices, acceptable on-time percentages, treated their employees well and appreciated their customers.

After the merge, U.S. Airways brought their dismal customer service record along with the rest of their worst practices with them. The gate agents were often openly hostile to customers.

Initially, I didn't care for Southwest Airlines, because the boarding process use to be something on the order of a cattle call. However, since it's now possible to get a boarding number 24 hours ahead of flight time, it's quite a civilized process.

The fares at Southwest are reasonable, they don't charge for the first two checked bags and are almost always on time. The management style at Southwest filters its way down to the ticket agent and the flight attendants: you get corny jokes and they genuinely seem glad to have your business.

No, I'm not a Southwest employee.

"Soleri" wrote:

"Somehow, right-wing extremism was mainstreamed in this country while "liberalism" became a pariah term."

Did all those folks simply wake up one morning and decide to become right-wing? No.

Take a look at your list of local news/talk radio stations and figure out how many of them are progressive and how many are right-wing. Phoenix has a single (on-again, off-again) progressive station. All the rest are filling the airwaves with neo-conservative blather 24/7/365.

How many individuals listen to neo-con talk radio as opposed to progressive talk radio? How often are neo-con messages repeated, as opposed to progressive messages? Even fence-sitters, hearing right-wing propaganda in a 10-1 or 20-1 ratio to progressive messages, can be forgiven for being conditioned toward right-wing delusionary arguments.

If the individuals who listen to talk radio then take their opinions to the Internet (blog comments, letters to the editor, news story comments) or to telephone lines (calls to politicians) in the same ratio, guess who gets out-shouted in a 10-1 or 20-1 ratio?

Now look at newspapers of record, especially in high-population areas (and this is likely a monopoly market in most cities), and see how many lean right or right-of center, and how many lean left or left-of-center. Guess what? The right is getting its message out in more markets, more often.

None of this is surprising: it takes large amounts of money to own a radio station -- much less a network of them-- and to syndicate programming. It takes large amounts of money to own a newspaper -- much less a chain of them. The wealthy have class interests which are better served by the cut taxes and services rhetoric of the right, than by the fair-and-progressive taxation and fund public services rhetoric of progressives.

Until liberals realize that money makes the world go around, understand the value of propaganda and agitation, take steps to properly fund their information services and media, organize themselves, and consistently take aggressive action against the lies of the right, they're going to get steamrollered.

P.S. Mass media (e.g., radio and newspapers) generally operate on an advertiser-driven revenue model. Advertisers are generally corporations, and their owners are generally wealthy individuals, as are many of their executives.

The media companies that make the bulk of their own revenues from advertising are interested in maximizing that revenue. That means attracting readers with demographics that provide the most disposable income, in order to attract advertisers seeking to appeal to those demographics.

Progressive messages appeal more to the dispossessed, and to working-class and lower-middle class listeners, than to listeners with more disposable income. Also note that minorities are more likely to fall into the former category than the latter.

Media owners and boards of directors, who hire the administrators who in turn hire editors and journalists or other staff, and who already have individual class interests of the sort alluded to above, are also influenced by the desire to maximize profits by appealing to the kind of consumer demographics which lead to more lucrative advertising contracts. If you don't think that all of this influences media content, you're naive.

It isn't a question, either, of appealing to advertisers targeting markets for luxury goods: it's simply a question of targeting those with the most disposable consumer income (income left over after the basics such as rent, energy, etc. are taken care of).

I have in front of me a marketing tool published by a company called New Strategist, from their "Who's Buying Series". This one deals with restaurants and carry-outs. (This is what I have to hand.) Here's a brief excerpt from the introductory summary:

"The most affluent households spend much more than average at restaurants and carry-outs. In 2004, households with incomes of $100,000 or more spent more than twice the average at restaurants and carry-outs. The $100,000 plus income group accounts for 27 percent of household spending on eating out -- more than double their 13 percent share of households. These affluent households control 31 percent of spending on full-service restaurant dinners and 36 percent of spending on restaurant food while traveling."

Together with other households making significantly more than the median household income, the share rises considerably. These are the consumers which advertisers typically target.

P.P.S. Real median household income in 2004 (current dollars) was $44,389. The consumer categories in Who's Buying don't match the cut-off point perfectly, but in the same year, households in the $40,000 or less income group accounted for only 25 percent of consumer spending on restaurants and carry-outs.

There are progressives with disposable income. Sadly, they tend to support NPR (Nice Polite Republicans) instead of unabashed liberal media. They have this silly idea that NPR is unbiased.

Do you really think ADM is trying to sell tractors to the viewers of PBS? Or do they want to influence the content?

Yes, there are progressives with disposable income. There are some liberal multi-millionaires, too. The issue, however, is the class interests of well-off individuals in the general case, not in the exceptional case.

Do most rich folks want to hear about why their incomes need to be cropped by high progressive taxes for the sake of "the deserving"? Do they want to hear depressing (but factual) stories about exploited workers? Do they want to support high-paying American jobs and strong unions even if it means the value of their stock goes down, because company profits decline, because labor costs have gone up, because the company is no longer paying some Vietnamese starvation wages to make up-market sports shoes, or some similarly situated Haitians to assemble in sweatshop conditions the cartoon jammies worn by their two year old?

Or do they want to be assured that high taxes on the rich are bad for the economy? That exploited workers are simply waiting to move up the ladder of opportunity (all at the same time, mysteriously, it seems)? That globalization is the best possible outcome in the best of all possible worlds? That, tough as it might be (in a vaguely considered, hand-waving fashion) to be poor, there is really nothing to be done because the poor will always be among us?

The wealthy have certain class interests, exceptions notwithstanding, and as individuals they fall into three general categories: (1) liberal reformers (a minority within a minority); (2) cynical self-servers; (3) delusionals who want to believe that the system which gives them their lifestyle is a good one and not a bad one, because they're a part of it.

Note, however, that these categories are not altogether mutually exclusive: no doubt there is a subset of category (3) who become "liberal reformers" (in a certain weak sense) because their process of rationalization isn't quite good enough to overcome their doubts on its own. So they court weak reforms while trying to keep the basic system intact. Fundamental changes scare the bejeebers out of them and they inevitably find reasons to reject them. Some of these are well-paid television newscasters who like to imagine that the median household income is about 10 times what it actually is, and that they and their friends are upper-middle class.

That said, the media model I described has its exceptions and variations ALSO, and for some of the same reasons (as well as additional ones). Again, I was talking about the general case, not the exceptions, well-meaning or otherwise.

For example, The New York Times does a comparatively good job, much of the time, relative to most newspapers. And they have a lot of wealthy readers and lots of high-end advertisers.

Of course, traditionally it's a family owned publication and not a public corporation beholden to shareholders, but it's also hugely in debt and has been selling parts of itself to everyone from Mexican multi-billionaires to some of the larger hedge funds. Not promising, but they built a culture of professionalism which has its own momentum, which lingers; and the original management (their offspring and mentees) continue to exert much higher than average institutional control for the industry. Noblesse oblige is, however, a moribund philosophical plank in modern corporate America -- not that it was ever very popular.

As for NPR, I really can't characterize it because I don't listen to it. As for whom Archer Daniels Midlands is "trying to sell tractors" to on NPR, the obvious answer is "nobody". I daresay they're doing a spot of company PR. Even Rockefeller did that, I understand, and built a few libraries, too.

"They have this silly idea that NPR is unbiased."

Regarding this, NOBODY is unbiased: that is, no media organ is. They all have a point of view, an axe to grind, something to sell, etc.. The naive belief in an "unbiased media" is itself a bias, and an insupportable one, because it prevents or stifles critical thought.

You read something, or listen to something, and, imagining it to be "unbiased", forget that it's not the universe but merely a picture in a frame, and every picture has a framer: somebody has to decide what to include, and exclude; who to interview, and who not to interview as sources, critics, advisers, experts, interpreters, historians, etc.; what information to include, and what to exclude; and yes, what tone to take and how to spin things in the newsroom or the editor's office. Journalists and editors are also victims of their own conditioning and tacit premises, so sometimes the bias is unintended.

"Do you really think ADM is trying to sell tractors to the viewers of PBS? Or do they want to influence the content?"

I've already answered the tractors part: as for the influence part you have it backwards. In a nutshell:

PREMISE 1: Shareholders want to maximize profits

PREMISE 2: Executive managers want to please shareholders.

CONCLUSION: Advertisers want readers (or listeners or watchers) with as much disposable income within their market as they can get.

THEREFORE the executive managers at advertising firms want spend more to advertise with media whose users fit those characteristics.

PREMISE 4: Media users who fit those characteristics have certain class interests and general biases regarding their viewpoint of politics and economics.

THEREFORE executive managers at media companies want their readers to fit the desired demographics, since advertising is how they make money.

INFERENCE: executive managers at media companies, who share many of these same biases already because of their personal class interests, also have a vested interest in shaping the political and economic news to attract readers (etc.) of the desired demographic.

Did I mention that the NYT is hugely in debt?

Emil Pulsifer

"Until liberals realize that money makes the world go around, understand the value of propaganda and agitation, take steps to properly fund their information services and media, organize themselves, and consistently take aggressive action against the lies of the right, they're going to get steamrollered."

I agree completely with this. I also agree that the idea that media can ever be "unbiased" is a delusion.

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