National / International News
The controversial project to expand an oil pipeline running from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico has failed to get the approval of Congress.
Flying is not what it used to be. What was once glamorous now feels like walking through a mall to get to a cattle chute. Airlines are expanding first class and squeezing coach passengers into tighter quarters. Every spare inch of space and every service from bag-checking to expedited security has a price.
So on a recent trip from Los Angeles to Chicago, I decided to try for my own upgrades. At every opportunity, I discreetly offered cash to airline employees, Transportation Security Administration employees and fellow passengers in exchange for a better seat or faster service. I wanted to know what would happen when institutional fees leave the institution and were offered instead on the black market.
I started at the United Airlines ticket counter, offering the agent a $20 bill for a seat upgrade. She refused, acting as though this kind of thing happened all the time. She pointed to a seat map on the screen. “This is the only upgrade I have,” she said. “It’s $85.” At security, I tried to slip a couple of twenties to the officer at the T.S.A. PreCheck line so I could breeze through. He gave me a look that said, “Nice try,” and pointed to the long line of people inching toward the body scanners.
Once I got to the gate, I approached the passengers in the roped-off section for premium fliers. I went down the line, one by one, offering cash for their seats. One man shook his head, barely looking up from his phone. Another appeared confused. I had to explain that I wasn’t trying to get on the plane; I had a seat in coach. He declined. “I’ve got to get some work done,” he said.
Nearly everyone seemed bothered by my offer. The closest I got to a yes was with a couple who did not want to split up for the flight; otherwise, they might have considered it.
On the plane, I could not persuade anyone in a seat with extra legroom to switch places for money. I was surprised; I said I was willing to go as high as $100 and told them I needed to sit close to the front to exit quickly once we landed.
Perhaps I appeared a little suspect to some people. I have a bushy beard and long hair. I could pass for a young Cat Stevens in the right light.
But I did talk to Debbie, a flight attendant who was not on my flight but who observes the behavior of hundreds of passengers every day. Debbie, who asked that I not use her last name, was a social worker at a mental hospital before becoming a flight attendant. “So I was used to working with unpredictable people,” she said, “and I was actually kind of surprised at the general rudeness and lack of caring about other people that I saw in passengers on planes when I first started.”
Now she’s used to it. She wasn’t surprised that no one took my offer of cash for a seat. She sometimes has trouble getting passengers to switch seats to accommodate families, even when she offers free drinks and a seat that isn’t a downgrade.
Once, while Debbie was flying off duty, the pilot announced that an emergency landing was needed. “The working flight attendants wanted to move me up front so that I could help with an evacuation if it was necessary,” she said. The crew asked first-class passengers if one of them would give up a seat for her, but none were willing to move. “Luckily we didn’t need to evacuate,” Debbie said. “But it was interesting that nobody wanted to move, even when a flight attendant is saying ‘This will help save your life.’”
I also ran my experiment by Tom Bunn, a former airline captain (whose employers included United) and a licensed therapist. He, too, was not surprised by the reactions I got, but for different reasons.
For many people, he said, the act of flying is incredibly stressful. It is not so much because of long security lines and cramped seats, but because of the psychological act of giving up control, of leaving solid ground. Settling into an assigned seat, he said, is part of the process of quieting their anxiety. “So any change they have to face, they would rather not face it,” Mr. Bunn said. My cash offer may not have been enough to justify restarting that process of calming themselves.
My own theory is that people considering my offer may have been afraid that they would be breaking a rule and could be kicked off the plane as a result. Recently, a group of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men traveling from New York to Israel caused a flight delay when they refused to sit next to women for religious reasons. Many of the men offered passengers money to exchange seats, which, it turns out, is not against many airlines’ policies.
I contacted six airlines, including United, to ask about their policy regarding passenger-to-passenger transactions. Delta, United, American and Spirit responded. Delta and American said they had no policy that forbade passengers from exchanging seats for money. Spirit forbids only switching to an exit row or to larger front seats, the airline’s first-class equivalent.
Rahsaan Johnson of United said it was against company policy for employees to take money from a customer in exchange for a favor. But United does not have a policy against customers exchanging money for seat swaps. “Seat assignment is not specifically prohibited at this point. Changing cabins is,” Mr. Johnson said. So, for example, if you are in coach, you cannot switch with someone in first class.
Of all the upgrades I tried to get, only one could have landed me in any real trouble: offering cash for access to T.S.A. PreCheck. “That’s not how the program works,” said Ross Feinstein, T.S.A.’s press secretary. “Bribing a federal employee, I believe, is illegal.”
It does however, seem to be legal to buy your way to the front of the T.S.A. line. “The actual T.S.A. process begins where someone checks your ID,” Mr. Feinstein said. Before that point, anyone ahead of you in line is fair game for an offer.
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In third grade, Amanda Ferrara persuaded her parents to let her take horse-riding lessons. She had always loved animals, and her parents, both Bronx born but living in a rural part of Westchester County, N.Y., agreed. Nine years later, her family owns one horse and leases two more.
She says she loves the pursuit and spends six days a week at the barn that boards the horses, taking the bus there after school and staying until dark, often doing homework or eating at the barn. Yet her afternoons are not spent entirely on horseback. For every hour she rides, she spends two to three hours getting her horse ready and cooling him down. “It’s my entire life now,” Amanda, 17, said.
When children express a desire for a pony, obliging parents in urban and suburban areas often vow that they will find a middle-class horse that will not cost more than a car (or a mortgage) payment. It is not easy, though it may not be impossible.
The Ferrara family boards all three horses — Cookie, Teddy and Rubio — at Echo Farm in South Salem, N.Y., which charges $1,300 a month per horse. That includes hay and grain, cleaning the stall and turning the horse out into the field every day.
At least the animals make the expense of boat ownership look reasonable.
Still, despite the cost, parents think the experience is worth it. They typically insist that horses provide deep life lessons in being responsible and caring for something that goes beyond themselves — or how well the animal can jump a fence.
“They’re learning a lot of responsibility at a young age,” said Callie Kuntz-Bauer, owner of Echo Farm. “You have to give up a lot of your social life. You can’t go out and party if you have a 6 a.m. horse show.”
So when children ask for a pony, what are parents to do? They would save a lot of money by steering the child toward another sport. But those parents who want to cultivate their children’s interest need to consider recurring costs that can continue for 30 years or more, long past the time when a child will be riding the horse.
Owners should expect the total spending for the animal’s upkeep to be far greater than the cost to buy it. “The real price is the monthly expenses,” said Carleton Henrich, a mother of four who grew up on 250 acres in southern Virginia.
Henrich recently bought a 5-year-old thoroughbred named Emery. A giant at 17 hands high (5 feet 8 inches at the withers), Emery is for her and her three daughters. (Her son is less interested.)
“He’s a big teddy bear,” she said, giving Emery a peppermint.
Henrich negotiated a two-week trial period to get a sense of the horse’s demeanor. But even during that period she had to have insurance to cover anything that might happen to him. She, like many owners of expensive horses, now has mortality insurance and medical coverage for the animal, which typically costs 3 percent of a horse’s value per year.
Even minor injuries can be costly in time as well as money. Amanda Ferrara said an injury a couple of years ago confined Cookie to his stall for six months. It took six more months for him to get back in shape. But at that point Amanda couldn’t jump with him anymore, so now her family just rides him for recreation.
Leasing a horse generally saves a family only on the upfront cost of buying one. Kuntz-Bauer said that a full lease of a horse is typically one-third of the horse’s value a year. The horses in her barn range in value from $2,500 to $50,000. And people who lease a horse usually take over all the responsibilities and ensuing costs as if they were the owner. A partial lease could spread the costs across multiple owners, but it also reduces riding time.
The list of expenses doesn’t end with room and board. Entry fees for competitions range from $500 for a one-day event to $3,000 to $6,000 for five-day events where the horses have to be transported, boarded and fed, Kuntz-Bauer said. There are also Interscholastic Equestrian Association events where competitors ride the horses at the host barn and don’t need their own horse to compete.
A veterinarian to assess a horse’s initial fitness will cost $1,500 to $2,000. Kuntz-Bauer said annual shots will run about $400. There are costs for dental visits and new shoes, too.
And some costs can rise rapidly.
Rachel Kosmal McCart, a lawyer specializing in horse issues in Portland, Ore., said local hay to feed horses in her area rose from $1 a bale 11 years ago to $5 a bale today. “People who were used to paying very little to feed their horses suddenly couldn’t afford to feed them,” she said.
Incidentals include saddles, bridle and blankets, as well as riding clothes and boots. Used gear is available, too; Georgina Bloomberg, a champion equestrian and daughter of the former New York City mayor, runs the Rider’s Closet to help make the clothes more affordable.
Not all areas are as expensive as Westchester County or other horsy enclaves filled with well-heeled parents and high land costs. Outside Portland, Ore., for example, it would cost $600 a month to board a horse.
In most areas, even wealthy ones, there are also opportunities simply to take lessons or buy time to ride.
Horse clubs can defer costs further and still teach valuable lessons. In New Canaan, Conn., the New Canaan Mounted Troop aims to teach equestrian skills to children ages 7 to 17. The annual cost of $4,350 is not cheap, but it covers one lesson and one barn day per week during the school year.
The group started out as part of the Junior Cavalry of America, a sort of Girl Scouts on horseback, but today it functions like an equine version of Zipcar: Cadets can ride any of its 27 horses, all donated, as long as they have the ability.
But Margot Tucker, the student leader of the troop, said she got the most out of the barn days, when students help care for the horses. “If I could ride every day that would be awesome,” she said. “But what I really like about it is being part of the community. It’s the friendships we have.”
Those are the learning experiences that parents want their children to absorb from horses or any other activity.
This story is part of a collaboration between Marketplace and The New York Times called “A Guide to Buying Just About Anything.”
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When a strange man knocked on her door three years ago, Susan Manion decided to do more to protect her private information. As a musician in Northern Illinois, she was used to people getting in touch. But her work had started to draw unwanted attention.
“It wasn’t a stalker,” says Ms. Manion. She thinks the man wanted to collaborate, but her doorstep was the wrong place. “We didn’t want something like that happening again. It creeped me out.”
Ms. Manion signed up for DeleteMe, a service from a company called Abine. Abine promises to “remove your public profile from leading data sites.” Your public data profile can include photos of your house or family, your address and contact information. Ms. Manion has paid for Abine’s service for two years and says her home address and phone number are less likely to pop up in search results.
Nearly 25 years after the first publicly viewable website appeared, the culture of sharing on the Internet is changing. Privacy and anonymity are crucial features of new social apps like Secret, Whisper and Canary. A growing number of websites also offer services that help protect, maintain or even erase what is fast becoming your most permanent and accessible record: data that can be gleaned about you from search engine results.
These businesses are responding to what they see as evolving consumer interest. This month, a report by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project found varying attitudes around privacy but a consensus around the challenges of managing personal information online.
“There’s this overwhelming sense that consumers feel they’ve lost control over the way their data is used by companies,” says Mary Madden, a senior researcher at Pew.
That is exactly what people like Rob Shavell, Abine’s chief executive, are banking on. When Mr. Shavell and his co-founders started the company in 2009, financing was not easy to find. Investors didn’t think young users cared about privacy. But Mr. Shavell said that in the last six months, Abine has faced more competition than in its first four years.
“That exact group that investors told us would never care, they’re moving from Facebook to Snapchat,” Mr. Shavell said, referring to the app that allows users to send each other messages that disappear right after delivery. “They do all kinds of things to make sure they’re managing their online identities in such a way that it’s not going to have so many negative ramifications.”
Other data companies are pivoting. MyLife.com began as Reunion.com in 2002, helping users connect with old classmates and friends. Then Facebook happened.
“As Facebook became so popular, we realized there wasn’t as much of a need for our services,” said Jeffrey Tinsley, the company’s chief executive. “So we looked for other opportunities.”
That road has had bumpy stretches. The firm was criticized for mining the email address books of some of its 52 million users for new customers. Mr. Tinsley realized the script on privacy had flipped. So he changed his business model to helping users try to manage their public data online.
“Three years ago, 75 percent of our revenue was public profile stuff and maybe 25 percent was helping people take it down,” he said. “Now it’s the exact opposite.”
To deliver for their customers, subscription services like Abine and MyLife use organized, repeated pressure. They go to top data broker websites like Spokeo.com, which collects information, then creates and sells profiles on consumers. They fill out removal forms on behalf of users. But the result is never a full cleanup.
“The options for getting facts and personal information removed once it’s been posted online in the U.S. are fairly limited,” says Christopher T. Bavitz, managing director of the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School. “It’s very challenging to regulate the spread of this kind of information, but it’s challenging for very good reasons. The first good reason is the First Amendment.”
Users’ control over information has fared better in Europe after a May ruling from the European Court of Justice on the so-called right to be forgotten. That allows users to petition search engines to remove outdated or incorrect information about them. Google reports receiving 163,000 requests and approving 41 percent.
A growing chorus of voices is worried that the emergence of paid services that promise to clean up data could result in another case of the haves and have-nots. Ryan Calo, an assistant law professor at the University of Washington, said many states sold, rented or granted access to criminal records and other information to third-party data brokers.
“If a juvenile commits a crime but doesn’t reoffend, they might have the right to get the state’s record sealed or expunged,” Mr. Calo said. “But the user doesn’t have the same right to access when it comes to the data broker.”
Mr. Calo worries that these sorts of arrangements disproportionately affect populations that cannot afford to pay even once, let alone for the subscription fee that many services charge.
If you ask Philip R. Zimmermann whether money can buy back privacy, he will laugh and point to a paradox. If money is no object, he said, you are too famous to escape the Internet anyway. Mr. Zimmermann created Pretty Good Privacy, or P.G.P., a widely used email encryption program, in 1991. He now runs Silent Circle, a company that promises encrypted communication and offers the $629 Blackphone, a smartphone that features a custom operating system and applications.
Silent Circle tries to protect a user’s privacy out of the gate, instead of acting as a cleaning service. Encryption can make it more difficult for your data to be mined and published around the web. When it comes to cleaning up information that is already public, however, Mr. Zimmermann recalled the plutonium contamination at the Rocky Flats Plant nuclear weapons facility in Colorado.
“It gets into the soil,” he said. “If you’re a person that’s not of any interest to anyone, then maybe your information exists only on a couple of servers. Maybe. But once it’s out, it’s pretty hard to get it cleaned up. You can’t put toothpaste back in the tube.”
This story is part of a collaboration between Marketplace and The New York Times called “A Guide to Buying Just About Anything.”