Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sunday Reading

Today is the big travel day after Thanksgiving (and I got home last night). Some Republicans are calling for the TSA to follow the Israeli model of airport security for U.S. airports. But Dana Milbank reports that it would be very expensive.

In a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, Israel uses profiling, background checks and extensive interviews to filter out the highest-risk fliers, who are then subjected to searches of luggage and person more invasive than anything the Transportation Security Administration has conjured. The air security argument has been about whether Americans would prefer Israeli-style profiling to the current system of body scans and pat-downs. But this overlooks a more fundamental problem: The Israeli system, even if it could be scaled up, is out of our price range.

El Al, Israel’s national carrier, reported spending $107,828,000 on security in 2009 for the 1.9 million passengers it carried. That works out to about $56.75 per passenger. The United States, by contrast, spent $5.33 billion on aviation security in fiscal 2010, and the air travel system handled 769.6 million passengers in 2009 (a low year), according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That amounts to $6.93 per passenger.

The analogy isn’t perfect, because security is largely handled by the airline in Israel and by the government here. (In both countries, the government pays just under two-thirds of the security costs.) But this rough comparison indicates that Israel spends more than eight times as much on security per passenger. To duplicate that, the United States would need to spend an extra $38 billion a year.

And that might understate the cost of staffing the nation’s sprawling air travel system with highly skilled interrogators; Israel, after all, has only one major airport. In Foreign Policy magazine, Annie Lowrey calculated early this year that if each passenger flying through a U.S. airport were subjected to 10 minutes of questioning by a guard, we would need 3 million full-time guards, at a cost of more than $150 billion a year.

That would more than cancel plans by incoming House Speaker John Boehner to cut $100 billion from the budget this year by returning spending to 2008 levels. It’s also substantially more than the combined cost of TARP, which the Treasury said will wind up costing about $50 billion, and the auto bailout, forecast to cost $17 billion. It eclipses the $40 billion for AIG and would eventually top the bailouts of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, expected to total $360 billion. The $16 billion that Republicans say they’ll save by banning pet-project earmarks is small change by comparison.

Implementing the Israeli model also would amount to a massive government jobs program – just the sort of junk conservatives said they wouldn’t touch.

More below the fold.

Caveat Emporium — The internet can be a tough place to shop, and at least one merchant loves it when people hate him, as DecorMyEyes customer Clarabelle Rodriguez found out last summer.

Dozens of people over the last three years, she found, had nearly identical tales about DecorMyEyes: a purchase gone wrong, followed by phone calls, e-mails and threats, sometimes lasting for months or years.

Occasionally, the owner of DecorMyEyes gave his name to these customers as Stanley Bolds, but the consensus at Get Satisfaction was that he and Tony Russo were the same person. Others dug around a little deeper and decided that both names were fictitious and that the company was actually owned and run by a man named Vitaly Borker.

Today, when reading the dozens of comments about DecorMyEyes, it is hard to decide which one conveys the most outrage. It is easy, though, to choose the most outrageous. It was written by Mr. Russo/Bolds/Borker himself.

“Hello, My name is Stanley with,” the post began. “I just wanted to let you guys know that the more replies you people post, the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement.”

It’s all part of a sales strategy, he said. Online chatter about DecorMyEyes, even furious online chatter, pushed the site higher in Google search results, which led to greater sales. He closed with a sardonic expression of gratitude: “I never had the amount of traffic I have now since my 1st complaint. I am in heaven.”

That would sound like schoolyard taunting but for this fact: The post is two years old. Between then and now, hundreds of additional tirades have been tacked to Get Satisfaction,, and sites like them.

Not only has this heap of grievances failed to deter DecorMyEyes, but as Ms. Rodriguez’s all-too-cursory Google search demonstrated, the company can show up in the most coveted place on the Internet’s most powerful site.

Which means the owner of DecorMyEyes might be more than just a combustible bully with a mean streak and a potty mouth. He might also be a pioneer of a new brand of anti-salesmanship — utterly noxious retail — that is facilitated by the quirks and shortcomings of Internet commerce and that tramples long-cherished traditions of customer service, like deference and charm.

Nice? No.


“Very,” says Vitaly Borker, the founder and owner of DecorMyEyes, during the first of several surprisingly unguarded conversations.

“I’ve exploited this opportunity because it works. No matter where they post their negative comments, it helps my return on investment. So I decided, why not use that negativity to my advantage?”

Mercury In Retrograde

Last month was the end of the line for yet another American automotive brand. Assembly plants produced the final vehicles to carry the Mercury nameplate, an unceremonious end for a marque that had been introduced in 1939 as an upscale companion for basic Fords — but more recently allowed to atrophy to little more than a selection of lightly modified Ford sedans and S.U.V.’s.

Still, Mercury leaves behind a history peppered with compelling and even innovative cars that at once conveyed a clear message: based on Fords, but better. Depending on the year and the car, better could have meant any combination of bigger, more stylish, more powerful or more luxurious. Pairing Mercury with the Lincoln franchise after World War II underscored the theme of what is today called entry-level luxury.

Ford’s name for its new division naturally conjured up allusions of the speedy messenger to the gods from ancient mythology, for many years depicted in the company’s logo with a winged helmet. It also represented business or financial success; for many, buying a Mercury flaunted upward mobility.

John Baumann of Holland, Mich., grew up with the brand. “My father sold Mercurys, so we always had them around,” said Mr. Baumann, who was a teenager when the first Mercury Cougar came out in 1967. Since then, he’s had eyes only for early Cougars, especially the 1969-70 convertibles. He owns five.

One of the most acclaimed Mercury designs, the first Cougar was based on Ford’s Mustang but offered a striking look of its own — a roomier, more luxurious interior and, its fans say, a smoother driving feel. But it was a success the company let go fallow.

“My sons drove Capris in the ’80s,” Mr. Baumann said. ”But there’s nothing there today for the next generation — my grandsons — sporty enough to drive in high school.”

Looking at the brand’s final models, it might be difficult to envision a time when a Mercury was cool enough for a high schooler. But Tom Austin remembers when it was. Four years ago, he bought a 1953 Mercury Monterey, a car that was still fairly hot in 1957 when, as a high school student, he co-wrote and recorded the hit song “Short Shorts” with the Royal Teens.

Now a real estate appraiser in Ramsey, N.J., Mr. Austin shares the old-car hobby with his two sons. Mr. Austin’s Mercury exemplified the brand’s blueprint for revving up a Ford model with flashier styling, a more powerful engine and a plusher interior. It was a formula that Ford used, in varying degrees, to create models for the step-up brand over its 71-year run.

Bonus: John Pearley Huffman takes a Mercury Grand Marquis for a last ride.

Doonesbury — More tweets from the twit.

HT to CLW.