Tiny Quiet Boycott

In 2013, someone I know was trying to fly to California for a break, but didn’t catch a break from the TSA, probably based on his appearance[1].

The TSA deserves much of the blame in the story. However, how does one reform the TSA?[2][3] By doing politics, of course! It’s a good thing that our national politics aren’t deadlocked, dysfunctional, and generally fucked[4].

But I note that JetBlue didn’t help once he was cleared by security. Sure, we can come up with reasons to explain away why this is the right thing to do[5], but none of them seem particularly strong. And, from symmetry I know I wouldn’t want to get stranded after getting put through the TSA wringer.

So JetBlue’s choice made me sad, but what can one do?

You’ve already seen the post title, so you know that I did end up doing something about it. I had been flying JetBlue regularly[6] (I had flown JetBlue the month before I read Aditya’s post), so I had leverage: I could just stop exchanging money for their services.

There are many reasons that people just stop giving companies money, but in this case it’s straightforward to disambiguate. I simply filled out a feedback form on JetBlue’s website, telling them that I resolved to not fly JetBlue for the next 5 years because of their poor customer service in this specific instance. And so I started my tiny, quiet boycott.

Why 5 years? It balances practicality and having some actual principles. In the specific case of airlines, I only fly at most a few times a year, and choosing some short time span like a year means that my choice to avoid JetBlue wouldn’t rise above noise, even to someone that was watching my airline choices in particular. On the other hand, forever is a long time[7], and I’ve seen enough of the world that it seems obvious “negative press cycles” seem to sometimes happen for arbitrary reasons. However, not reacting at all because the news delivery channel is noisy just gets us to a worse equilibrium, where anyone can get away with murder because you can’t completely trust your newspaper. Hence, timeboxed principles[8].

Why tiny? Why quiet? Partly because trumpeting a cause on social media seemed (and still seems[9]) distasteful, the way we end up with a louder and louder social chamber filled with attentional red queen races[10]. Another part is that while the instigating incident is sad and shitty, I didn’t have the energy to grow even a small mass movement around it[11]. So, tiny and quiet it was.

Well, it’s been 5 years since then, and I succeeded in refraining from flying JetBlue[12]. Miscellaneous thoughts[13]:

  • I nearly caved after 2 years; the price temptation is real. I feel like now I viscerally understand how we ended up price pressuring out all the niceties that used to be associated with air travel.

    I will note the 5 year timebox helped me to stay the course. When I would see lower prices on a route through JetBlue, I could remind myself that I wasn’t bound to pass up lower prices forever, just for a while.

  • Was anyone paying attention? Functional Decision Theory (FDT)[14] at least implies that one ought to do some apparently irrational act like voting, even without communicating. The catch is that lots of knowledge impacting voting is public and shared, but there are relatively few people that know Aditya. As far as I know, I am the only one that took direct financial action as a result of his post, so the impact of this incident is capped at a few hundred dollars, if that. Once transactions are bucketed into annual reports and rounded to the nearest million dollars, my impact is negligible. However, if JetBlue’s company-wide policies are generally causing awful post-TSA treatment and people implement FDT[15], then maybe it could add up to really hitting them in the dollars[16].
  • Was it worth it? It was for a good cause, and pretty low cost to me. But I didn’t pin this down into the universe of different causes and actions. I didn’t do a cost/benefit analysis, didn’t run an impact analysis; intuitively it seems quiet boycotting would do atrociously on those measures. On the other hand, as part of a well rounded charity budget, we could file this under “probably not impactful, but feels righteous”.
  • What about actually reforming the TSA? That will have to wait for another day.


You too can do timeboxed quiet boycotts. Tell your friends to be superrational, and cooperate without cooperating!

[1]  He looks mildly middle eastern, but only if you don’t recognize that Indians are at best geographically adjacent.

[2]  Note any existing organization isn’t just going to sit down and take attempts to kill or reform it lightly. Samz[]dat: mass movements that lose their originating purpose will find some other way to perpetuate themselves.

[3]  I’m slightly amenable to the 2nd-level take: security theater keeps people from freaking out, and that’s great! Perhaps it’s comparable to gazelle stotting. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that we’re throwing people under the bus. Under the extended biological metaphor, the TSA is more of an autoimmune disease, with the organism expending resources to attack itself.

[4]  You got me: while I disparage US politics, I don’t follow politics particularly closely and don’t understand the levers of power. Hell, I haven’t even read The Power Broker yet.

[5]  It’s a holiday, so everything is booked up hard (especially since JetBlue has a no-overbooking policy, so they don’t normally have to bump people from flight to flight). Or maybe there were unintended consequences from a new policy. These excuses seem tepid: was there really no recourse?

[6]  It seems much harder to expect any boycott impact if you never planned on buying products from the target company. I could vow to never buy any makeup brand, and it would have zero impact on any bottom line in the world.

[7]  Another point: much of the time there’s some discretion being exercised by a corporate agent, and trying to pin infinite blame on an organization for the actions of a single person seems a bit much. For example, deciding you will never use T-Mobile Austria because one of their front-line Twitter help people didn’t escalate properly (Twitter @troyhuntVice) is a bit of an over reaction. And, if “negative press cycles” happen more frequently than companies turn over, you’re going to eventually have a bad time, and will eventually be forced to choose between being principled and practical.

[8]  Another way to think about this is being akin to tit-for-tat: react, but with forgiveness. Obviously, this simple first level analysis is simple.

[9]  Remember, I ain’t posting to Facebook.

[10]  It also calls to mind slacktivism, noise without meaningful action.

[11]  I might not have thought it at the time, but now I know my effective altruist sensibilities would have kicked in and forced me to ask whether I wanted to draw this from my non-altruistic project bucket, since it’s obvious this cause wouldn’t win any QALY contests.

[12]  In one case, even when I was not the person buying the plane tickets.

[13]  For some reason I thought that Alaska Airlines had bought JetBlue, and wrote up something about not considering all my bases: if I was flying Alaska, then was I effectively flying JetBlue? Except I had misremembered, and Alaska had bought Virgin instead. Score another point for memory being frighteningly malleable.

[14]  Also see Hofstader’s superrationality.

[15]  Yeah, I know how this sounds. “If only people did X, we would be so much better off!”

[16]  I know, I’m re-implementing organized movements from the ground up. I know, the particular genre of “we’re going to replace common practice X by thinking from first principles, it’ll be great!” has a… poor track record.