Captive Markets in Everything

by Henry Farrell on March 6, 2009

“The Irish Times”:

RYANAIR SAYS it is serious about plans to charge passengers for using the toilet on its aircraft. “It’s going to happen,” chief executive Michael O’Leary told journalists yesterday about the proposal, which garnered huge publicity worldwide when he threw it out as a vague possibility last week. Mr O’Leary said aircraft manufacturers had told him there were technical and safety issues about using a coin-operated system on toilet doors, so the proposal now was that passengers would swipe a credit card to gain entry. He said that if the airline was prevented from charging passengers on the way in to the toilet, it would impose the charge when they were on the way out.

When and if Ryanair introduce their proposed transatlantic service, I wouldn’t be surprised if they charge more for the toilets, to extract the maximum benefit from their enhanced bargaining strength two hours or so into the journey.

I’ve always thought that the social expectations associated with Ryanair flights are a microcosm for a certain kind of gung-ho libertarian ideal of market society, in which every possible social interaction is conducted through the cash nexus (if Michael O’Leary thought he could get away with charging you for the attendants’ smiles, he would). There are some quite clear efficiency benefits to this – externalities are internalized, and if you are determined _just to travel_ (and to carefully work around their ways of squeezing you for extra cash) their flights are very cheap indeed. But you can also expect that they will charge you for everything that they possibly can, and take full advantage of every bargaining asymmetry going. This is pretty unattractive to people to me, but it may perhaps be attractive in principle to others (I have no doubt that O’Leary is using the ‘charging for toilets’ story quite calculatedly to drum up publicity for his company). Perhaps these people discover whether they like it in practice as well as in principle the next time they weave their way from the airport bar to board a three hour flight, and discover that the strip on their credit card has become demagnetized …

Update: Thanks to commenter Ray, it appears that Michael O’Leary has admitted he was “taking the piss”: (sort of; reading between the lines of his statement, and knowing a little bit about O’Leary, I’m strongly inclined to think that he at least investigated the idea’s feasibility) .

“Boeing can put people on the moon, design fighter aircraft and smart bombs, but they can’t design a bloody mechanism to go on doors that will accept coins,” he admitted. Mr O’Leary also confessed that it would not be possible because some “bureaucrat in Brussels” had decreed that establishments where food and drink is served have to provide toilets free of charge.

If it hadn’t been for those meddling Brussels bureaucrats, he’d have gotten away with it!

Sockpuppeting your way into trouble

by Kieran Healy on March 6, 2009

This sort of puts Mary Rosh in the ha’penny place:

The son of a prominent Dead Sea Scrolls scholar was arrested on Thursday on charges of identity theft, criminal impersonation, and aggravated harassment relating to a complex online campaign designed to smear opponents of his father’s theories. The Manhattan district attorney’s office alleged in a statement released on Thursday that Raphael Haim Golb, 49, son of Norman Golb, a professor of Jewish history and civilization at the University of Chicago, used dozens of Internet aliases to “influence and affect debate on the Dead Sea Scrolls” and “harass Dead Sea Scrolls scholars who disagree with his viewpoint.” …

The office contends that Mr. Golb impersonated and harassed Lawrence H. Schiffman, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University and a leading Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, by creating an e-mail account in Mr. Schiffman’s name and using it to send e-mail messages in which the sender admitted to plagiarism. Mr. Golb also allegedly supplemented that campaign to discredit Mr. Schiffman by sending letters to university personnel accusing Mr. Schiffman of plagiarism, and by creating blogs that made similar accusations. Two blogs, each with a single entry, accuse Mr. Schiffman of plagiarizing articles written by Norman Golb in the 1980s. …

Mr. Cargill began tracking the cyberbully—whom he calls the “Puppet Master”—two years ago after he himself was targeted. At the time, he was a doctoral student at UCLA helping to produce a film about Khirbet Qumran—the site in present-day Israel where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered—and its inhabitants for an exhibit on the scrolls at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Mr. Cargill said it was then that the aliases began attacking him and his film, both in e-mail messages to his superiors and on various Web forums, for failing to give credence to Norman Golb’s long-held theory about the origin of the scrolls and how they came to Khirbet Qumran. Some scholars, including Mr. Schiffman and Mr. Cargill, believe that the 2,000-year-old documents were assembled by inhabitants of Qumran. Mr. Golb, however, holds that they originated in Jerusalem and were transported to Qumran later.

Risa Levitt Kohn, a professor of religious studies at San Diego State University who curated the San Diego show and several subsequent Dead Sea Scrolls exhibitions, said she too has been “under regular attack” by Internet aliases since then, both in Web forums and in e-mail messages addressed to her superiors. “Sometimes the criticisms of me are straightforward and overt,” she told The Chronicle via e-mail, “and sometimes the letters appear reasonable but essentially demand that these individuals take note of previous exhibitions’ supposed ‘failings.’ Then they provide helpful suggestions to find solutions, almost always involving Norman Golb in one way or another.”

A number of other Dead Sea Scrolls scholars also said they have been harassed by mysterious Internet personas. Because the messages were written under aliases, they had little choice but to ignore them. “This person has posted horrible stuff about me online,” said Jodi Magness, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I don’t even look anymore, it makes me too upset.”

According to The NY Times, Golb Sr has commented, too:

Professor Golb said that opposing scholars had tried to quash his views over the years through tactics like barring him from Dead Sea Scrolls exhibitions. He said he saw the criminal charges as another attack on his work. “Don’t you see how there was kind of a setup?” he said. “This was to hit me harder.”

Sounds like this might get both uglier and more entertaining in equal measure.

Minds that Move the World

by Michael Bérubé on March 6, 2009

Back when I was the director of the humanities program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, we had our conferences and our lecture series and such things.  For obvious reasons, it is much more difficult to host such things than to be a guest at them, and the experience taught me not only what it’s like to have Host Anxiety Dreams but also — I hope! — how to be a Good Guest.  What’s it like to deal with the Guest From Hell?  Well, one year, at the urging of a colleague, I booked a speaker who wound up changing his flight arrangements at the last moment, at a stunning cost of $1000, and then cancelled on us anyway.  When he eventually arrived, the next semester, he gave a mildly interesting if off-the-cuff talk, went home, and then sent me an outraged email when his honorarium arrived, for, although it was in the amount we’d stipulated, it was not in the amount to which he had (quite quickly!) become accustomed.  When I pointed this out to him, things quickly escalated to the point at which he threatened to tell my dean on me, to which I replied,  please do, by all means, and I will be happy to copy your department chair and dean on all our correspondence, going back to your initial change of travel plans and subsequent cancellation.  That ended <i>that</i> little exchange, and I don’t believe we’ve kept in touch since.

Anyway, having encountered a few Guests From Hell, I’ve sometimes wondered what it would be like to host an entire Speakers’ Series From Hell.  And now I know!

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The Treasury View: Swimming pool version

by John Q on March 6, 2009

A reader of my blog sent me, for comment, one of those letters that circulate through the Intertubes. This one is sent as “an explanation of the stimulus bill”. I wouldn’t call it that, but it is quite a good exposition of what’s known as the “Treasury View”[1]. If you believe that the economy is like a swimming pool, and that no matter how big a splash some shock (such as the collapse of the financial system) might make, the water in it will rapidly find its own level, then you will agree that there is no need for, or possible benefit from, the stimulus package. And conversely, if you think the economy is not like this, you are entitled to wonder about the kind of economist (regrettably not imaginary) who would employ such an argument.

fn1. The reference is to the British Treasury, circa 1929
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