James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
For those joining us late: California's controversial High-Speed Rail project is worth paying attention to, no matter where you live. While everyone moans about America's decaying infrastructure, this is the most ambitious and important infrastructure project anywhere in the country. Its outcome has a bearing on Jerry Brown's current campaign for a fourth term as governor. It also shows something about our governments' ability to undertake big, complicated efforts—and our public ability to discuss and decide on these issues.
But the place where people are already paying closest attention is California's Central Valley, where the first links in the north-south chain would be laid. As everyone in the state knows, the broad valley that runs from near Redding in the north to Bakersfield in the south contains some of the world's most productive agricultural territory. It also contains many of California's most distressed communities. If the recent suggestion to split California into six separate states ever took effect, which it won't, the new state of Central California would likely become the nation's poorest, replacing Mississippi. People in many of these communities also cope with the nation's most polluted air. As a reminder, from a chart I've used before:
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Dan Richard, chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority explained early in this series that for legal, technical, and financial reasons the construction would not begin in the population centers of LA or San Francisco. Instead it would start by connecting points within the San Joaquin Valley, which is the part of the Central Valley running from the Sacramento area south toward Bakersfield. Some farmers there are bitterly opposed to the project, saying that it would cost too much precious farmland. Richard and others contend—convincingly, from my point of view—that more farmland will get chewed up by road-building and sprawl if the state does not develop a viable rail option. For now, let's hear from some readers in and around this part of the state.
1) The benefit will be greatest in areas that really could use the help. From a reader who works in Fresno, the largest city on the inland north-south route:
I recently read part 5 of your series on the California High-Speed Rail project and noted a glaring omission - no reader was from the San Joaquin Valley (SJV).
This matters to me because I live in the SJV (reside in Tulare, work in Downtown Fresno) and I believe that one of the most compelling arguments for the project are the huge benefits HSR will have on SJV, one of the state's fastest growing regions. The current population of the SJV is just under 4.1 million, which by itself exceeds the population of 25 other states in the country.
Most of the readers that do not support HSR in your piece, and a popular topic among critics, mention the L.A to S.F commute. Now, while Prop. 1A mentions the non-stop requirement from L.A to S.F, the greatest utilization of HSR, in my opinion, will be the much shorter trips (i.e. Fresno to S.F, Bakersfield/ Palmdale to L.A).
The cost-benefit of this project is much greater for the SJV cities. They will be connected like never before to the state's major metropolitan areas. Tedious drives with a roundtrip travel time of 6-8 hours will be reduced to 3 hours. Neglected city cores will be redeveloped, new businesses will move in, residents will have the opportunity to seek new job opportunities in S.F/L.A, and most importantly all of this will be the game changer the SJV needs to diversify it's agriculture based economy.
The SJV, even during good times and in wet years, suffers from chronic high unemployment, usually double-digits. In order for California to succeed, this region of 4 million people also needs to succeed. HSR provides that opportunity through the new long-term jobs that will be sparked by HSR and the stations located in the city cores. The SJV usually gets neglected in Sacramento and here's a perfect opportunity to get noticed.
For me, this is the main reason why I believe that the California High-Speed Rail is vital and necessary to California's future.
2) Isn't California going to need some big new transport anyway? From a reader in the home city of the University of California's latest branch:
I live in Merced, with strong ties to both the Bay Area and San Diego. A couple of things that I'm curious about, that I think would make a big difference in this debate
1) Airports. How much more growth can Bay Area and Southern California airports support before we need to spend billions of dollars on some type of infrastructure project? Are existing intrastate flights crowding out connections with Asia? It seems like that could have huge ramifications for the California economy.
2) Central Valley demographics. People envision High Speed Rail as a pet project for liberal elites...but between Bakersfield and Modesto, it seems like the greatest demand would be from people who don't take car ownership for granted, and definitely not one car for every adult member of a family. Is that what's already driving Amtrak's California routes to be some of the most heavily used in the country?
And many of the people writing in seem confident that Central Valley jobs are so diffuse that no train station could be conveniently located for commuters...but is that actually the case? I honestly have no idea where most people work in Merced, but a lot of major offices seem to be located downtown.
3) Rail travel time is "good" time. Travel by car or air is not. From a reader in the SF Bay Area:
As a CA resident, [these exchanges are] changing my thinking about the value of HSR. Still concerned about many of the obstacles presented, but the point about leveraging land development near the stations and right-of-way rights along the route was new to me.
One relevant aspect that I don't see being included is an assessment of relative productivity between the travel options. As a former resident of San Luis Obispo I often took AMTRAK to LA and San Diego when its schedule happened to align with mine (not nearly as often as I'd have liked due only one trip a day without getting on/off a bus connector) and now as a resident of NORCAL I often commute into SF via the ferry from Vallejo.
In both cases I found my productivity during the travel to be very high -- comfortable seats, tables available, able to walk/stretch periodically, food service, WIFI (not-so-much on AMTRAK but iPhone hotspot solves that shortcoming), not to mention pleasant scenery going by -- that what appears on paper to be a long commute is transformed into a "What? At my stop already?" highly productive and enjoyable experiences. There's no comparison to the level of productivity when traveling by car or commercial airliner.
As before, I'm mainly quoting readers rather than arguing or annotating along the way. But let me underscore the final point in this reader's note.
Three hours door-to-door for a plane flight, versus three hours on a train, sounds like the same time-cost for getting where you're going. But in reality they're entirely different experiences. Much of your time for air travel is "bad" time. You're in a cab on either end, you're waiting in an infinity of lines in between, you have all the other charm-free elements of today's airline experience. If you're driving, it can be more enjoyable, but you're not supposed to be reading, typing, etc. By contrast, nearly all of your time on a train trip is "good" time, even allowing for the cattle-car experience of waiting to board at New York's godawful Penn Station.
From another reader on just this point:
I have for years commuted on the Amtrak San Joaquin from the Bay Area to my home near Yosemite.
Got no complaints. WiFi works. People are nice. Serviceable bus connection to Mariposa/Yosemite at Merced. No complaints. The bullet train will not really cover that route, but I don't care.
And still on this point:
I took the Tokyo to Osaka "bullet train" in 2000, and this week, I took the DB ICE train from Frankfurt to Stuttgart. If the LCD display hadn't shown our speed (240 Km/hr), I wouldn't have known it -- the ride was that smooth.
The post-WW II explosion of the suburbs really complicates intra-metro light rail, but we certainly have a case (IMO) for more inter-metro high speed rail to reduce ground and air traffic congestion.
4) "We've effectively paralyzed ourselves." To round things out for now, a reader outside California on the larger political questions the project raises:
I think one thing that stands in HSRs way, not just in California but nationally, is that our system has too many intentional and unintentional choke points, so that we've effectively paralyzed ourselves.
Eminent domain proceedings are expensive (as is the land that the project will sit on) and time consuming, and there are enough ways for community organizers of both the positive and negative sort to kill most projects via NIMBYism or on other grounds.
While we've pulled off several impressive civil engineering feats recently, we haven't, as far as I can remember, done anything really new, in the sense of expanding capacity, in perhaps the past twenty years. Most of the major civil engineering projects have been replacements or augmentations of existing (pre-1980) infrastructure, along with some infill development to expand capacity on pre-existing things.
As I say, I think a large part of this is because we have too many kill points built into our system, so that it's almost impossible to achieve the consensus necessary to build a truly new project. However, there are two other important factors that I think also explain our lack of "new" infrastructure.
First, we already have picked a lot of low hanging fruit. China and the rest of the developing world can absorb a lot of new highways and the like, because they're building from scratch. We already have a well built highway system, with Interstates that extend to even the most remote areas of the Dakotas and Montana, linking all of our major and most of our minor cities. Our rail system is terrible for passenger traffic, but for freight, it's second to none in terms of efficiency, thanks in part to our large loading gauges.
Secondly, disruptive infrastructure is more disruptive when it's disrupting something valuable, and we have a lot of money tied up in existing infrastructure, to the point that it's prohibitively expensive to reroute things.
Consider the Tappan Zee bridge, which was originally located where it was in order to circumvent the Port Authority's jurisdiction on trans-Hudson bridges. The replacement bridge, which is scheduled to open in 2018, stands right next to the original, because trying to use the more efficient southern routing was deemed too expensive and disruptive, so they just repeated the mistakes of 50 years ago.
Indeed, this is a large part of why the CA HSR project is supposed to go to the city limits, rather than the city center. Starting to tear up houses and apartments at $1M and $2M a pop gets very expensive very quickly, especially when you have people who are fighting it in court...
Finally, I think there is some justified skepticism about how the government, especially at the state and federal level, contracts and supervises these projects, especially in terms of cost control, though this problem isn't unique to those levels of government, or to civil infrastructure projects in general... Perhaps the new overachievers in local government that you referenced in one of your prior posts will be able to make headway on this.
Nonetheless, I do think you're right that large infrastructure projects are often criticized more harshly than perhaps they should have been, particularly in terms of their societal merit, since most infrastructure projects don't capture the full value of the benefits that they create (nor should they).
For the record: This post is No. 6 in a series. See also No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5. Also see the interactive map showing different planned construction phases of the project, put together by UC Davis, the HSRA, and the mapping team at Esri.
As a reminder: California's plan to build a north-south High-Speed Rail (HSR) system is the most ambitious and important infrastructure project now being contemplated anywhere in the United States. It has also become one of the most controversial. Jerry Brown, now running for an unprecedented fourth term as governor, has stuck with HSR as his signature/legacy project.
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He is opposed by Republicans, probably most significantly in the form of Representative Kevin McCarthy, Eric Cantor's successor as House Majority Leader, who is trying to deploy federal leverage against the plan, as described in this NYT piece. He has also run into resistance from his own lieutenant governor, the former mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom. (Both are Democrats, but this is very much a Jerry Brown rather than a Brown-Newsom administration. Newsom, in his mid-40s, is part of the generation of politicians waiting for the current Brown/Feinstein/Boxer cohort of statewide officials, now ages 73 through 81, to move on.) And there is resistance on a variety of other fronts.
In four previous installments, we've heard: some of the rationale for the plan; some of the most frequent criticisms; and some of the responses from the man Jerry Brown chose to oversee the project. For reference they are No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4.
Today, 10 views from 10 readers. Actually, there are a lot more than 10 views in what you'll see below! This is a small sampling of the mail that has come in, which I've chosen to reflect main or recurrent themes. Here we go:
1) "Highly ambitious projects leap civilization forward." From a reader in the tech industry in the SF Bay area.
Earlier this year I took EuroStar from London to Paris—my first time doing so since I moved to the US seven years ago. Two moments I remember vividly:
1) I checked the times and prices on their website, internalized them, opened a new tab in Chrome, and then realized that there was nothing to type. I'm so accustomed to having a myriad of choices when flying within the US that my brain instinctively says "OK, option 1 understood, now let's look at option 2". But there is no alternative to eurostar when traveling from central London to central Paris, unless you have lots of time to spare. So I booked the eurostar—the price was reasonable, and the schedule had hourly trains.
2) Seeing the English countryside woosh by, being in the tunnel only twenty minutes, and then being delivered to the heart of Paris. I was in awe of how pleasant an experience travelling between two cities can be.
Putting these together: I see that I, as a consumer, value choice and competition, but when lack of choice/competition is the necessary cost of undertaking very ambitious projects then I'll happily accept that compromise. Highly ambitious projects leap civilization forward, whereas choice and competition let me save a few percent at checkout.
2) Let's leap forward, but to self-driving cars.
I'm a fan of Brown's high-speed train system, but the thing that will make the most difference in CA (I'm living in San Jose now) will be self-driving cars—not purchased by individuals, but rented by individuals for the time necessary to get them where they want to go.
I've been pushing the notion of an 2024 Olympics bid for the Bay area that would replace light rail expansion with thousands of self-driving cars. We've got Google; we've got Tesla. It's about time to get amateur drivers off the streets (i.e., all of us).
3) In theory, yes. In practice, no.
Just my two cents on your discussion about California HSR. I agree with your correspondent who said they support it in theory. I love the idea of high speed rail. I just have strong doubts given the cost and implementation strategy for exactly the reasons that person stated.
In addition, I just think if the goal is to reduce traffic congestion, the State could get a much better return for less money by investing in expansion and improvement of the existing rail services across the state. For example, the Metrolink commuter rail service in the LA region is very popular, but due to limited funds can only expand very slowly even though there is proven demand. Same with the LA metro-rail program, the Amtrak California service etc. etc.
4) Will it pay off in door-to-door travel? From a reader now on the East Coast:
Lived in both SF and LA for a total of 8 years combined and have taken the flight between them more times that I can remember.
Just looked on Kayak—$134 R/T from Oakland to Burbank, 4 weeks out. Both easy airports to use, arrive at the airport 1 1/2 hours ahead of your flight and the total travel time is 2 hours 45 minutes.
$81 billion to provide a service that will be much slower and more expensive than flying.
This particular HSR proposal is not only a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist, it is the mother of all pork barrel projects – lots of high paying jobs for something that no one needs, wants or will use.
I'm not going to comment on most of these, but here I'll add: this doesn't seem to be the right cost-and-time comparison. Air fares obviously rise when you change plans at short notice, and rail fares generally don't. Thus for a lot of business trips the air cost would be higher. And the "total" travel time leaves out the overhead of getting to and from the airports.
5) "Political ossification that prevents real vision":
As a frequent commuter to LA from Sacramento, I’ve had deep questions about the financial viability of the HSR. People choose their travel mode to LA from the Bay Area and Sacramento ... for different reasons:
Airplane: speed and convenience, with some pricing advantages in some cases. This is the true place for market share competition with HSR. These travelers are without a car when they arrive as they would be in the HSR. However LA is so decentralized and the mass transit system too complicated for a periodic visitor/tourist to use, so a downtown HSR doesn’t confer a real advantage over arriving at Burbank (the experienced travelers’ preference) or LAX. (Note also that the vaunted Bay Area transit system is only robust in the northern half—it’s as difficult as LA’s in San Jose environs.) Southwest Air seems able to meet any price challenge, and can be less costly than driving alone. Boeing’s recent foray into bio jet fuel indicates that airplanes may be able to reduce their GHG emissions even more significantly...
Auto: cost, spontaneity and convenience on arrival. Avoiding rental car costs of nearly $50/day is an important consideration, and traveling in a group is always less expensive than an airline ticket. The HSR will have almost NO penetration into this market—I have not seen an financial projections that show ticket prices competing with driving instead of airplanes. And if EVs are as successful as the ARB AB 32 Scoping Plan envisions, driving costs will drop precipitously, so the HSR is even less likely to There is currently little congestion outside of the Bay Area and the LA Basin (and that HSR riders will be driving around means there will be no relief there) and if congestion arise in the Central Valley, expanding I-5 and Hwy 99 from 4 to 6 lanes (or creating a separate truck-only road along I-5) will quickly address that problem.
Which brings me to two key issues I have not yet seen discussed:
1) The real pollution problem in the Central Valley is not auto travel between the Bay Area and LA. Trucks making the I-5 trek are a much bigger source, and agriculture, oil production and local traffic probably overwhelm the Bay Area/LA traffic stream, particularly since autos emit less criteria pollutants per mile at freeway speeds. I don’t see the HSR will make a real dent in the overall emission levels.
2) Viewing the HSR in isolation from EV penetration and airline bio jet fuel use illustrates a much larger problem in California: The failure to analyze the interplay among different emission reduction strategies. The Scoping Plan was a mess this way—it was clear that reductions in one sector would reduce the potential emissions in another, but the Plan failed to account for this effect. The HSR probably is not cost effective when compared to other measures in this manner, and the GHG allowances probably could be used much more effectively in other ways (e.g., mitigating AB 32 price increases on low income consumers). A comprehensive, holistic analysis is completely missing.
It’s also naïve to think that there will be any train ridership between Fresno and Bakersfield for the first leg just at one reader noted. There’s no advantage for train travel because there is parking shortage in either place and no real traffic congestion except briefly at rush hour ....
I’m afraid that California is going to kill HSR just as it did electricity restructuring and GHG cap and trade programs. I generally supported both of those, but the state’s execution reflects the growing political ossification that prevents real vision.
6) "Infrastructure is the real thing. Yet we are behind ... even the French!"
I'm so glad you've taken up this issue. I do hope that it broadens into a deeper discussion of the need for infrastructure investment throughout the country...
The word "infrastructure" gets thrown around like so many metaphors which become mindlessly absorbed into a kind of bureaucrat-ese; they make the speaker sound knowledgeable and on the inside. (Like referring to hotels and movies as "properties" as if speaking clinically about such things elevates the speaker to the dispassionate management elite.)
But "infrastructure" is as close to a literal metaphor as anything I can think of. If you look at the development of this country, the movement west, the development of commerce throughout the interior of the country; it was all of it hung on the firm grounding of infrastructure. Initially the infrastructure was natural—Pittsburgh arose at the confluence of three great rivers. The Erie Canal brought commerce and development to interior NY state, eastern Ohio and the Great Lakes. See also the St. Lawrence Seaway. Would Duluth, Cleveland, Detroit, etc., have become anything without it?
Railroads made possible all of the great agricultural activities in the country's interior; so many towns arose simply because of the railroads. So many centers of commerce arose simply because of the interstate highways. (And so many in downtown cores were lost because of those same highways...) Regulated telecommunications made sure that the hard-to-wire regions of the interior nevertheless got reliable telephone service. Consider the questionable viability of all of the small towns in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, etc. had telephone service to them not been a regulatory requirement. See also air service in the regulated era. The level of commercial and domestic development on the interior of the country could not have happened had it not had all of that publicly financed or mandated infrastructure upon which to hang. And all of it depended in one form or another on public investment and subsidy. Even the railroads.
By comparison, look at us now. Whatever happened to the vast Greyhound and Continental Trailways bus network? It used to be possible to go most anywhere by passenger rail. The de-regulation of the airlines has caused the cessation of commercial air service to large numbers of smaller, but significant, centers of commerce. Interstate highways still provide access, but it's necessary to have an inefficient and expensive automobile to use it, absent some commercial service. And high-speed internet still remains elusive to rural areas that are not commercially viable on their own. If this is the result of the "free market," you can have it. We moved from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution specifically to have greater support for our national commerce.
Infrastructure is a real thing, and without it, the skin and the muscle and the sinews have nothing to hang onto, no grounding against which to leverage its force. Human activity won't go anywhere if there's no way for it to go.
The Reagan and neo-Reagan political era have brought with it a kind of auto-immune (clever pun?) disease in which government investment is reviled, and the country eats away at itself. (Correction. I guess we still find the benefit in public investment in our sports stadiums.) Our attitudes of public and regulated private investment for the benefit of the whole have to change, or we will, as we are, decay to a level from which it may not be possible to recover. Why can't we chant "USA! USA! USA!" and actually accomplish something other than tearing apart third world countries? Two and a half efficient and convenient hours from SFO to LAX? You betcha. I'll have more of that thank you!
High-speed rail technology has been available for 50 years. It is an embarrassment that we are so far behind ... even the French!!
7) "Why not start someplace more modest?"
I have lived in Southern California for most of my life except for a few college years in the Bay Area. I have driven and flown between the two metro areas more times than I could count over the past 50 years.
I remember the days when we would park a car at LAX on a Friday after work, walk into the terminal, buy a ticket and walk on the plane, then rent a car at SFO and be in downtown San Francisco in time for dinner.
Today, for a trip to SF you can figure an hour for each of the following:
-get to LAX and park
-allow an extra hour for delays in airport screening
-check in, screening and boarding
-rent a car at SFO
-drive to your destination in SF area
Total time: 6 hours
Driving time: door to door if you live north of downtown LA : 7 hours
How is the high speed rail going to make this faster? Eventually high speed rail stations will become giant messes like todays airports.
Door-to-door transit time is what counts. I would never think of flying to Las Vegas even though i live minutes from Orange County airport. And driving, is, of course much cheaper.
Rather than the HSR we should focus on the urban transportation infrastructures of getting people between airports and their homes; and, improving the nightmarish 'people-processing' situation at our airports. And, what the heck, go ahead and impose a $50 toll on single occupancy vehicles driving between LA and SF. I would still drive.
And, why not start with something more modest: build decent rail transport between Los Angeles and San Diego. No one flies between those two urban areas. You would displace a lot of auto traffic by building good rail service. It doesn't even have to be `high speed'. Current Amtrak, Coaster and Metrolink service is pathetic. Double track the entire distance between Orange County and San Diego; separate track usage between passenger and freight trains.
A brief reply here: the chairman of the HSR project, Dan Richard, explained in a previous round why the bond act authorizing the project required the first phase to go northward from Los Angeles toward San Francisco, rather than southward toward San Diego.
8) "The Valley is skewed toward short-term expectations."
Two thoughts: (A) the expectations from the Bay Area; (B) my concerns about access to stations.
(A) I think the [Silicon] Valley is skewed through short-term expectations from the tech startup world as well as instantaneous payback and financial self-support within 5-7 years. "How will it ever pay for itself" often only looks at the short-term revenue-from-tickets divided by cost-to-build-and-maintain—and not the ratio of industrial-impact divided by cost-to-build-and-maintain.
With Tech IPOs and mergers and acquisitions fueling a large percentage of people who live in the Bay Area, I heard few bankers saying: "I will pay a much higher price for the stocks because in 15-20 years this will create tons of jobs and prevent us from many mistakes." Furthermore, I'd like to remind people on the recent "star" IPOs and deals in Tech and BioTech:
• EPZM - market cap of 1bn, EV/EBITDA of -395.74
• XON - market cap of 2.3bn, operating margin of -213.13%
• FEYE - market cap of 5.16bn, operating margin of -118.94%, EV/EBITDA of -20.77
• BNFT - market cap of 300m, operating margin of -132.73%
• FUEL - market cap of 800m, EV/EBITDA -47.11, but an ok operating margin of -6.82%
• TWTR - market cap of 22bn, EV/EBITDA -32.67, operating margin of -92.54%
• KIN - market cap of 305m, no revenue.
• XLRN - market cap 836m, operating margin of -18.43%, $20m debt
• VMEM - market cap 356m, operating margin of -139.12%,
• CHGG - market cap 506m, operating margin -20.51%
But generally, look at the debt leverage of these companies as well, and think about what kind of assets are in the company. Sure, some patents, and for some of them actual biotech equipment, but FUEL is leveraged 11.45x, for example; VMEM is 9.34x leveraged at -31.62m levered free cash flow; CHGG has a -60.16m levered free cash flow.
I think by numbers alone the HSR might look better ;)
(B) The difference of HSR in Europe and Asia to the US is the access to the stations: European cities were built around train stations: see Frankfurt, Hannover, London, Amsterdam.
If I have to take a car to the train station somewhere in Oakland/Berkeley and then wait for a train that is coming up from San Diego with 1h delay (remember 500 miles! London-Brussels is only 225 miles with a single stop, etc.), just to end up far outside Sacramento and to take a bus in again, I might as well drive.
9) "A cowardly approach, but all we can hope for these days."
Interesting piece on the high-speed rail. May be worth noting that this 'build almost to where you want to go' seems to be a common dodge these days; a way to make it harder for governments not to fund the useful part of a project for Phase II. There are 2 examples of this approach in Seattle.
First, the light rail to the airport was first built, well, not to the airport. It stopped about a mile or two away. Of course, that lead to outcry, and guess what? The 'useful' part was ultimately built.
Same thing is happening with the replacement of the 520 floating bridge. [This is the Highway 520 bridge that crosses the northern end of Lake Washington.] A new, 6-lane bridge is being built from the east side. As it approaches Seattle, it will be joining into the existing, decrepit, 4 lane bridge. Anyone think the piece to actually connect this to I-5—the 'useful' part—will not be funded?
A cowardly approach to infrastructure work, which ultimately wastes money and results in sub-optimal designs, but I guess that's all we can hope for these days.
10) A chance for California to lead the way? From a reader in the Pacific NW, where California doings are often regarded with suspicion:
Thank you for your work on the California HSR system. I agree with your assessment that it is critical infrastructure work. I think there is another angle that you should bring up in a later piece: the path lighting that California is doing. If Cali succeeds, it will show that true HSR can be a success in America, unlocking the option for the rest of us. I was disappointed that the Obama administration was forced to take small actions on 110 mph trains in the Midwest instead of doing the bold but correct thing.
Here in the Northwest, we are watching eagerly. Like California, we have state sponsored trains (Amtrak Cascades) that are a very pleasant way to get around. It just happens that they are held up by having to share tracks with freight trains and are not as quick as they could be. There are many incremental improvements to be made, but a great leap forward may only be possible when inspired by success in California.
For the record: This post is No. 5. See also No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4. Also see the interactive map showing different planned construction phases of the project, put together by UC Davis, the HSRA, and the mapping team at Esri, here. Also for the record: there are two of these posts that come very close to expressing my own view on the project. More of that, and other pros and cons, to come.
Los Angeles-basin electric-streetcar map a century ago, during the state's previous foray into rail expansion (
California Digital Library )
This is a follow-on to the post earlier today, in an ongoing series about the most important infrastructure project in America today, the attempt under Governor Jerry Brown to build a north-south High-Speed Rail (HSR) system for California. This project is the subject of mounting controversy in California but has received much less national attention than it should. For the record, the installments so far are No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, with this as No. 4.
Since today's two posts are quite long, I'll let them sit for digestion before resuming the discussion in a few days. But since these two posts are related in outlook and source, it seemed worth getting them out during the same reading cycle.
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Last week, a California writer named Chris Reed took me to task for naiveté when it came to HSR. ("7 Ways James Fallows is Wrong About the CA Bullet Train") His real object of criticism was of course not me but the plan itself, of which he is a long-time opponent. What follows in this post is the gist of his seven-point critique, with responses from the same man I quoted earlier today: Dan Richard, head of the High-Speed Rail Authority.
I'm presenting them with the goal of letting a worthy exponent of each side lay out his case. And I'm presenting them in full-length version on the assumption that anyone who doesn't care can skip right over, while anyone who does may want to know the detailed back-and-forth. Each of Reed's critiques is in itals, followed by Richard's responses. In the exchanges, Dan Richard directly criticizes Chris Reed's logic and evidence. But what he says is milder than judgments Reed offered about the plan's creators, or about me, so I figure it's fair to leave those remarks in.
[Reed starts his list of seven complaints]
1. All the wonderful things the train allegedly does don’t matter if it can’t be paid for. There is at most $13 billion in state and federal funding for a project that has a price tag of $68 billion (a price tag that no one really believes is accurate). There is no prospect for further federal funding in an era in which discretionary domestic spending is being squeezed as never before. State funding of $250 million a year from fees from California’s nascent cap-and-trade pollution-rights market begins this budget cycle. But that is a pittance, and if they’re off the record, no state lawmaker will admit to wanting taxpayers to foot the entire bill. So why can’t the private sector come to the rescue? Because …
[Richard replies] Chris Reed’s funding analysis is simplistic and deeply flawed. First and foremost, virtually no project knows where all the funding is coming from at the outset. When we started BART to SFO, we were supposed to have $750 million in federal funding. We had virtually none for years and Sen. Dianne Feinstein and I walked out of Sen. Mark Hatfield’s office in 1994 with the first $25 million, which was a pittance. In the end, we received all $750 million and that was after Republicans took control of the Congress and 1994 and we were assured we wouldn’t get another dollar of federal monies. The California High-Speed Rail program has been held to a standard that no other program has had to face, which is to address calls for how the entire system will be funded, in advance. Nevertheless, here’s a broad outline:
Cap and Trade dollars could provide billions for the project. The state talks of our allocation in terms of percentages because to speak of specific dollars would send signals to the carbon traders about what the expected the price of carbon credits. Still, the $250 million in first year funding is considered a modest amount compared to what future dollars would bring. Moreover, the cap and trade dollars, as more experience is gained, allow us to finance the construction of certain legs and build simultaneously, thereby reducing costs. Our $68 billion estimate includes inflation at 3% per year. Not only has inflation been below that amount, but for every year we cut off the construction time, we save about $1 billion dollars.
Private Sector—Yes Virginia, there is strong private sector interest. People who talk about the lack of private sector involvement generally have no clue how the private sector works. Among other things, one should not want the private sector investment to occur at the outset, because the private sector prices risk and the risk would be highest then. However, our ridership estimates, which have been scrubbed by everyone from two independent peer review groups to the GAO, show that the system, as it is built out, will generate billions of dollars in excess of operating costs. Like the Japanese and other systems, our business model is to sell the rights to operate on our infrastructure to the private sector. We believe the NPV of the excess revenues will be between $12 billion for the initial operating segment and $20 billion for the line from LA to SF. At $20 billion, that would mean the private sector would be putting up about 1/3 of the system costs, doing that along the way to help us build out the full system.
Development Potential—In Japan one-third of the revenues earned by Japan Rail East, one of the private sector operators of the Shinkensen comes from real estate development around the stations. We have not even begun to explore how to maximize that potential. In Arlington Virginia, station area planning resulted in such a dramatic explosion of mixed use development, generating such enormous property tax increments that the county was able to lower its other property taxes (source: Bob Dunphy, formerly with Urban Land Institute, now teaching at Georgetown). Senate President Darrell Steinberg proposed last year a bill that would allow for tax increment financing of any development within one mile of a high speed rail station. Sharing those tax increments with local communities would be appropriate, but we’d still be able to develop an enormous funding base.
Use of the infrastructure—Again, we’re just beginning to look at maximization of the infrastructure we’d be building. Leasing the right-of-way (ROW) for fiber optic cable, as we did at BART, would generate significant revenues. Energy development in our ROW would be another money maker.
The point is that this is a long-term program. Our cap and trade funds are actually one of the more stable transportation funding mechanisms around (especially compared to the current situation of the Highway Trust Fund).
Finally, I do believe there will be additional federal support over time. Experience shows that to be the case, especially if legs of the system are up and running and it's a matter of closing gaps, etc.
2. All the wonderful things the train allegedly does don’t matter if it can’t be built legally. No private sector investors have emerged despite years of promises from the administrations of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown because Prop 1A included a provision that there could be no operating subsidies, whether the rail system was run by the state government or a private operator. No investor wants to partner with a suspect entity like the state of California without revenue or ridership guarantees that are tantamount to promises of subsidies if the project doesn’t meet expectations.
Prop 1A isn’t just susceptible to the NIMBYism that routinely hobbles big projects. The only lawyers who believe it is legal under the terms of Prop 1A work for the rail authority or for political entities that support the project. It’s already been blocked by a Sacramento Superior Court judge on the grounds that it has inadequate financing and insufficient environmental reviews to begin construction of its initial $31 billion, 300-mile link. That’s because of yet another Prop 1A safeguard: the requirement that construction couldn’t begin unless there is all necessary money in hand and completed environmental reviews for an entire rail segment that could be economically viable even if the statewide system were never completed.
I’ve had this argument with Chris before. Yes, there was an adverse judicial ruling. We think it was wrong and it’s on appeal right now. But regardless of the outcome of that, his analysis is again flawed.
The bond act says that we must build “useable segments.” The judge, looking at a preliminary plan produced by the Authority, concluded that the usable segment synonomous with what we called the “initial operating segment” a 300 mile long stretch from Merced to LA and said that we needed to show all the permits and funding for that.
However, the final plan that we presented to the Legislature defined the initial construction in the Central Valley as a useable segment and demonstrated that is was so because of the immediate beneficial impact of enhancement of existing rail service. The federal Surface Transportation Board, in approving that project, said it was doing so because the Central Valley portion had immediate utility.
As for the statement that no lawyers other than ours believe our project is legal, apart from noting that our law firm is the Attorney General of California, Chris overlooks the fact that the Legislative Counsel, the Legislature’s lawyers, were asked by Senators opposed to the project whether what we were proposing comported with the requirements of the Bond Act and the Leg Counsel said it did.
So, we do believe we’ll have access to the bond funding at some point, but we have sufficient federal and other funds available now begin key construction, which is getting underway right now
3. What the state of California wants to do isn’t even a high-speed rail project under the definition established in state law. Fallows somehow has missed the harsh critique of former state Sen. Quentin Kopp, the father of the bullet train idea in California, who opposes Brown’s plan to build a really fast train from San Jose to the northern edges of the Los Angeles exurbs. Kopp says—correctly—that Prop 1A promised a two-hour, 40-minute trip from downtown L.A. to downtown San Francisco. That’s not in the realm of even theoretical possibility if riders have to spend an hour getting from San Francisco to San Jose and then an hour getting from northern L.A. County to downtown L.A. on regular trains.
We are building a train that precisely meets the requirements of the bond act to be designed to achieve a 2 hour 40 minute travel time from LA to SF. That is true even though the 50 mile portion from San Jose to San Francisco will share tracks with Caltrain. You don’t have to take our word for it. The independent Legislative Peer Review Group looked at the planning and concluded that at present, our design would allow for that trip to occur in 2 hours and 32 minutes, well within the design parameters. Project critics have seized upon the “blended approach” to state anecdotally that they believe it means we could never meet the travel times. Actual engineering analysis demonstrates otherwise.
For 90% of the track we’re building, we’ll use brand new, dedicated rail. For the remaining 10%, in urban areas, we share track. This has no material impact on speeds (it may affect ultimate capacity, but we’ll have plenty enough capacity to meet our ridership projections).
Going back to plans published by the High Speed Rail Authority in 2008, long before Governor Brown’s team came on the scene, system maps showed that in urban areas the train would operate at slower speeds, more like 120 mph. This is consistent with experience around the world. The speed is determined by track geometry, i.e., the radius of the curve limits the safe speed. In urban areas, even if one is building entirely new track, trying to lay that in with long sweeping curves becomes prohibitive in terms of land use impacts. So, on those narrower corridors, the speeds are reduced. That is true whether one is using dedicated track or shared track.
We were asked by legislators, citizen groups and the independent Peer Review Group to consider using blended track in urban areas. We concluded we could do so and still meet the performance standards, but save billions of dollars for the next several decades.
Now it’s time for four more reasons that are a little more subjective but that Fallows still has no effective way to counter:
4. The Fallows case for the bullet train builds on information he was provided by the state and its paid consultants. Unless he is the most naive man in the world, he should be hugely suspicious of information provided by those pushing the project. Why? Because here is the short list of some of the many important things they have deceived the public and the media about since 2008:
The project’s cost (used to be $33 billion, then $98 billion, now allegedly $68 billion); annual ridership forecasts (117 million people, or three times as many riders as Amtrak, which operates in 46 states); jobs created; pollution reduction; and cost of fares.
This is a phony cost comparison. Project costs have increased to be sure, though not as much as people think when the comparison is done on a constant dollar basis. You can’t compare an estimate done in 2006 dollars with one done in 2013 dollars and claim they are directly comparable.
What’s much worse, however, is that critics took our efforts at transparency and turned them against us; we began to describe the project in both current year dollars and in fully inflated “year of expenditure” costs. So the $68 billion figure refers to the fully inflated cost of the project over its construction life. We’re the only people who describe projects that way. It’s like seeing the fine print showing that your $400,000 mortgage will cost you $900,000 over its 30 year life. Both numbers are “true” but you can’t mix them up unless you’re trying to make a polemical argument.
Chris Reed ignores the fact that it was Governor Brown and his team who came in and said the costs would be higher. We have been the ones to be honest about the costs. We also assessed whether the higher costs still justified the project and we concluded they did because (a) alternative means of providing that level of mobility would cost 2-3 times as much (an analysis reviewed by the GAO which found it reasonable) and (b) because once built the project would still operate without an on-going subsidy.
Governor Brown’s team also scrubbed the ridership projections to the point where independent experts believe they are reasonable. Our current ridership projections are about 29 million per year. Not sure where Chris got his number. Our number has again been reviewed by multiple peer review organizations and the GAO.
5. The public no longer backs the project. It won narrowly in 2008. Now polls show nearly two-thirds of voters are opposed. Costly projects surrounded by controversy and scandal—and lacking funding—need public support if they are to be completed.
Well, there are polls and there are polls. Some of the most respected polling in California is done by the Public Policy Institute of California. Here’s an excerpt from a note I sent to s a reporter on this very subject, along with an extract of the PPIC polling. If anything, support has been consistent or growing slightly.
“The issue I wanted to call out was your phrase about the "increasingly unpopular high-speed rail system." All journalists have a tendency to describe the project this way and it’s become part of the narrative. In fact, that statement isn't consistent with polling data. Support for the project has been pretty steady over the years, despite controversy, lawsuits, some unfavorable court rulings and the lack of visible progress (i.e., "seeing dirt fly" as Nancy Pelosi likes to say). The most recent reliable polling shows that support has actually increased slightly overall, with a significant jump in the Central Valley. When I say "reliable" polling, I'm ignoring some Republican polls out of Orange County and really pointing to the PPIC poll, which also has the virtue of having asked the same question over the last three years.
I've included a table that shows the tracking of responses to the PPIC questions. [JF note: These are shown below.] For starters, the ballot measure won by something like 52-48 in 2008. Not surprisingly, the public is wary of big infrastructure projects in general. Since that time, support dipped a bit on occasion, but not by a huge amount. This year, the numbers are up a little; probably one could say that the numbers have been more or less even in terms of statistical significance.
What's most interesting to me are the responses to the question of whether high speed rail is very important or somewhat important to the state. Combining those two categories, as pollsters do in my experience, presently about 2/3 of all voters see the project in a positive light. In looking a cross-tabs and deeper questions, one sees in the polls that if the public believes the costs can be kept under control or come down, this number actually rises further.
You will also note that support is stronger among "all voters" than among likely voters. My unscientific analysis of that difference is that it displays a generational split. We all know that younger adults are less likely to vote than their seniors. Anecdotally, I've yet to meet anyone under 30 - Democrat, Republican, Progressive or Conservative - who isn't excited about the train. I'm sure there are some out there, but literally (using the word in its literal meaning) I have not met them.
6. Many Democrats in the state Legislature have lost faith. The incoming Senate president, Kevin De Leon of Los Angeles, even said it was stupid to begin the project in the Central Valley instead of the state’s most populated regions. And the most dominant special interests in Sacramento are public employee unions, not the building-trades unions which love the bullet train. These unions are extremely wary of another big mouth at the state trough. An enormously expensive bailout of the state teachers pension system has just gotten under way; a similar bailout of a program for retiree health care for state employees is still badly needed; and temporary income-tax and sales-tax hikes are expiring in coming years. These factors add up to a grim coming era in which there will be a perpetual dog-eat-dog fight for every dollar in the Legislature. These are the fights that the teacher unions in particular win year after year. There is no reason to think teacher unions will use their clout to help the bullet-train project as opposed to trying to enervate it.
Chris’ political thesis hasn’t played out. The State Building and Construction Trades and the State Labor Federation (which represents all labor organizations, including public employee unions) are all fully supportive of the project. Yes, some Democrats have come out against the project. For the most part, that opposition has been tied to spending money in the Central Valley, which is disappointing to see, but not unexpected parochialism. At the same time, we have the support of key Republicans, like the Mayors of Fresno and Palmdale, both of whom see the tremendous value of the project for their cities, along with the head of the Orange County Business Council and other GOP business leaders. They join with the Mayors of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, Anaheim, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, Fresno Economic Development Commission, Bay Area Council, Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, etc. etc. in supporting the project. Of course, we also have the strong support of the Governor, our two U.S. Senators, former House Speaker Pelosi and the majority of California congressmembers. No project will ever have unanimous support. We have terrific and deep support among leaders in California for which we’re very grateful.
7. The idea that trains dependent on conventional 20th-century engineering are the key to getting people around in 21st-century California is farcical to anyone who pays attention to the enormous building wave of transformative transportation technology. Driverless cars are only one example.
Driveless cars and other technologies are exciting, but have nothing to do with the high technology, high speed train we are building. Driverless cars may be how you get from downtown LA to where you’re going, but they really aren’t the way to get you from LA to San Francisco. Japan, China, Russia, Taiwan and a dozen other countries are investing in rail technology and there is plenty of innovation in the newest generation of trainsets, railcars, signaling and controls.
Fallows’ goal seems to be shoring up a project he perceives in trouble. But unless he moves out of his vacuum-based view of high-speed rail’s glories and addresses its California realities, he’s not even going to be a factor in debates over the bullet train—at least in the Golden State.
That’s because here, we’ve already heard all the happy talk. And we’ve noticed how little it meshes with reality.
I like Chris personally. We met once and we’ve exchanged notes a few times. However, he’s rabidly against the project and will remain so. We’re building a project that is consistent with the realities in California. It isn’t easy. The reality is that neither was the state water project, the state highway system, nor were building the world’s largest privately owned hydroelectric and geothermal systems. Californians weren’t daunted by those challenges. When did we lose confidence in our ability to overcome obstacles and make progress for the future?
For the record, here are some of the Public Policy Institute of California polls that Dan Richard refers to. The date column refers to asking the same question in March 2014, March 2013, and March 2012. If the print is too tiny to make out, the point is that the levels are more or less constant through that period. First, overall support:
Now, "how important to California's future?" with variation between "all voters" (including young) and "likely voters" (older/whiter/richer).
Finally, "how important?" by region of the state.
That will hold us for a little while. When we resume: readers' views; other supporters and critics; what history tell us; and why I am still on board.
First, a word about the roadmap for the series I have in mind here. Last week, in installment No. 1, I tried to put California’s proposed north-south high-speed rail (HSR) system in perspective, and preview why I’ve become a supporter. Then, in No. 2, I summarized and quoted some of the critics and opposition, including an article pointing out in loving detail my (alleged) naiveté.
Why give so much space to the topic in the first place, in those installments and some through this coming week?
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Because California is our most populous, most productive, and (depending on the measure) both our most environmentally progressive and our most polluted state. Whatever it does on the transportation front matters.
Because this initiative is the most expensive and ambitious, and as best I can tell the most important, infrastructure project under consideration in the country as a whole. If it were happening on the East Coast, I promise you it would be in the NYT and the national TV news all the time. If someone has a nominee for a more ambitious/important U.S. infrastructure project, please let me know about it.
Because HSR is the signature and now politically embattled project of Jerry Brown, who is in the middle of his bid for an unmatchable fourth term as governor of California. (Last year he passed Earl Warren to become the longest-serving governor in California history. No successor will have a chance to beat his record, because they will be subject to a two-term limit enacted in 1990, after Brown had served his first two terms.) And ...
Because, in my view, the decision-process about this project will show a lot about the way our prosperous-but-unequal, environmentally-concerned-but-skeptical-of-spending American society can undertake big public endeavors.
More from me later on. Today, as installment No. 3, I give you Dan Richard, who as chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority is Jerry Brown’s designate to oversee the project. He has a long background in finance, utilities, and public works. He started at NASA, served in the first Jerry Brown administration, was an official at PG&E, co-founded an energy consulting firm called MRW & Associates, and was twice the president of the board overseeing BART, the SF-area transit system. For the record, I had not known him until we met in Merced this spring so I could interview him about HSR. Also for the record, he turns out to be a fellow active Cirrus pilot, and flew himself to Merced in his four-seat SR22.
We’ll hear again from Richard in at least one more upcoming installment. For the moment, if you’d like to get a sense of how he sounds, and why he’s spending his time on the project, you could listen to a podcast of his recent address at the Commonwealth Club about what the project can mean to the state. The Commonwealth Club, for those who don't know, is (along with the newer and fast-growing Zócalo) California’s functional equivalent to C-SPAN plus the D.C. think tanks.
For the rest of this installment, here is Richard's response, via email, to the critical letter I posted from a reader who liked the idea of high-speed rail but had soured on the specifics of this project. Passages from the reader’s message are in itals, followed by Richard’s response. In this installment I'm giving Richard his uninterrupted say, as I did with the opponents previously.
[Reader]: First off, I am very supportive of a high speed rail network in theory; very few people I have talked to are not....
However, the actual execution of the high-speed rail plan is what has gone and lost my support. While a high speed land connection between Los Angeles and San Francisco would certainly make money, the high initial investment is obvious. Shorter segments between San Francisco and Sacramento, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, or even Los Angeles and San Diego would make money almost immediately. However, none of those things is what they are building. Instead, they are building the line between Bakersfield and Merced, with the further extensions only in later phases at undetermined dates.
[Dan Richard of HSR] I can understand this frustration. To a certain extent, we're playing cards we were dealt. The bond act established a first phase of the project between LA/Anaheim and San Francisco. It put San Diego and Sacramento into a Phase II, which we cannot fund until we complete Phase 1. If someone asked whether it would have been better to build the first leg between LA and San Diego, I'd be hard pressed to dispute that.
However, having said that, I do believe that as difficult as it is, there are ample reasons to begin in the Central Valley. Here are several:
We can lay the most track-miles per dollar there, which means we can get a good jump on the project.
It's one of the only places where we can test the trains at their maximum speeds of up to 250 mph. You can't do that between SF and San Jose or between LA and Anaheim.
There is no existing corridor there. Securing transportation corridors should be one of the earliest things done.
The Central Valley is growing at the fastest rate in the state. Already, we may have to buy and tear down a four year old apartment complex in Bakersfield that wasn't there when project planning started.
The economic stimulus effect in the Valley would be very great, given poverty and unemployment. The Valley is left behind economically and needs to be connected to the great urban areas.
Politically, I've seen over the last two years, that urban lawmakers—of either party—simply don't want to spend money in the Valley. There will always be an insatiable need for local transportation projects and without forcing the construction of the project spine, I fear it would be a long time before anyone wanted to actually try to connect the whole state.
The line between these two cities [Bakersfield and Merced] would be, basically, useless; to attempt a simile to another part of the country, this would be as if the Acela didn't go between DC and Boston, just between Trenton and Newark...
Even though our first construction segment will not be full high speed rail, it will not be useless. The bond act says we must build useable segments and this segment will be.
Right now, the Amtrak route down the Central Valley is the fifth busiest in the nation. California has three of the top five Amtrak routes. Sacramento is the 7th busiest Amtrak station in the U.S.! The ridership on that line tops 1 million trips per year and is growing at double-digit rates. The trip takes five hours to Bakersfield from Sacramento or Oakland, over a lousy rail bed much of the way, etc. The track is shared with freight, which means that it is subject to speed restrictions of passenger trains, constraining them to 79 mph.
We will be building 130 miles of brand new, passenger-only track. While we will not begin high speed service on that immediately, the current Amtrak trains, rolling onto our track at Madera, will be able to open their throttles and go 110-120 mph with existing equipment, shaving 75-90 minutes off the trip. Moreover, we will be tying in the very popular ACE train service that currently goes from Stockton to San Jose. The point is that we will be building up a network of improved rail service as we "vertically" improve to full HSR levels. I wish we had the money to build everything at once but without a national commitment, what we are doing is building a foundation, using the structure for immediate good purposes and preparing for full HSR.
Building this section first, without connecting any major population center to any other, therefore seems like an investment with no hope of a return. In the meantime, the people already opposed to the system (which are particularly numerous in the Central Valley) will be joined by those opposed to government waste in general, who will point to a train that has already cost billions of dollars and still connects nowhere to nowhere, and say, "enough, pull the plug, this has been a waste of money." Once that happens, the political realist in me has to acknowledge that there is no way promises of "but if we extended it further, it would actually work" would get any traction, and the idea would be dead.
As I have remarked with my friends, only half-jokingly, if they wanted to kill the idea of high speed rail in California forever, they couldn't have gone about it much better than this.
The federal GAO looked at our project at the behest of Congressional Republicans. They concluded that our biggest risk is the lack of full funding—a widely quoted statement in their report. I have been prone to quote their next sentence which was that we have developed a reasonable risk mitigation plan by building the project in segments, with each segment having immediate value. Would it be better to build everything at once? Yes. You have to start somewhere. This is a beachhead.
To this pessimistic political outlook, I could also add the accusations of mismanagement of the funds already spent, and the compromises that are watering down the project as it moves along (portions of the line are now not even going to be high-speed), but those are already documented by actual journalists. My main feeling, though, is that if they wanted this to work, they should have gone about it any other way than what they have.
I have to simply reject these statements. Most importantly, we have not made compromises to water down the project. It's an unfortunate myth. We are maintaining fidelity to the bond act requirements of a 200+ mph electric train designed to get from Los Angeles to downtown San Francisco in less than 2 hours 40 minutes. Ninety percent of the track will be new, dedicated high speed rail track. For the other ten percent, in the urban areas where trains don't operate at line speeds anyway, we will share the track. The passengers won't see any significant difference.
Ultimately, someone may upgrade those last sections, but in the meantime we save billions of dollars, provide early investments to upgrade popular commuter systems on those lines and still meet our performance standards and ridership projections.
Maybe the program was mismanaged, but it is not now. Maybe it was a clown show for a number of years. Not now. Not at all. In fact, the the GAO report found that our cost estimates and ridership estimates largely complied with best practice.
When Jerry Brown came in, the HSR program was rife with problems. The organization was at half-strength, the board was dysfunctional, there was a high level of criticism from independent groups evaluating ridership and plans.
All of that has turned around. The board is highly cohesive and professional. The staff is now at full strength with a highly capable day-to-day CEO, top flight engineering, risk management and program leadership. We have the most sophisticated risk management program likely to be found in any public infrastructure program. Our cost data and risk assessments are now presented publicly on a regular basis at our board meetings and are in accessible form on our website. Our CEO put in excellent local project leaders and former critics have lauded the openness and responsiveness of that team.
Here's a quote from the Independent Peer Review Group, established by the California Legislature. The PRG was highly critical of past plans. No more:
"We believe that the Authority has made manifest progress in all areas of planning and management since the Revised 2012 Business Plan. This assessment applies to risk management, demand forecasting, operating and maintenance (O&M) cost modeling and the analysis of the impact ofHSR on California's greenhouse gas emissions.
"We particularly compliment the inclusion in all of the upcoming financial and economic analyses of probabilistic assessments based on Monte Carlo simulation techniques so that future reports will more accurately report the range and likelihood of potential outcomes. The Authority also expects to incorporate their cost experience in real time at every stage so that future plans will more and more be based on results rather than expectations. As noted by the U.S. GAO, the Authority'S steps to take uncertainty into account are appropriate for this stage in the project. With this said, we also emphasize that essentially all of the Authority's plans and budgets so far necessarily remain based on estimates rather than experience, causing all of the plans to have a wider range of uncertainty than might be the case 5 to 10 years from now. "
It's a big decision, that matters. Watch this space for more.
The Louisiana Purchase, most fortunate land deal in American history, was to Thomas Jefferson's critics a case of unconstitutional overreach. (
St. Louis Public Library )
Every big peacetime project that any democracy has ever undertaken has generated controversy.
In retrospect, both the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the Alaska Purchase of 1867 look like Heaven-sent, near-theft, no-brainer, "where would we possibly be without them?" steps in the development of American scale and might. But each met bitter opposition in its time.
In 2014, it is difficult to imagine the San Francisco Bay area without the Golden Gate bridge. But in 1930, the proposed bridge was mocked as an unnecessary eyesore and resisted by figures as august as Ansel Adams (who later admitted it was not so bad). Congested as today's Bay Area traffic is, it would be incomparably worse without the BART subway/rail system. Fifty years ago, voters and politicians decided to go ahead with construction by very thin margins.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964—a "big project," though not of the infrastructure variety—passed only after the Senate broke a prolonged Southern filibuster. (They were "real" filibusters in those days.) Medicare is now the sacred cow of American politics. Before the vote to approve it in 1965, it was opposed even more fervently than was Obamacare, as the fateful first step toward "socialized medicine." In the summer of 1941, when the Nazis had taken over much of Europe and the attack on Pearl Harbor was just months away, the House of Representatives approved a military draft by a single vote.
Obviously this history does not mean that just because a plan is divisive or unpopular, it will necessarily turn out to be a good idea. But it illustrates two instructive realities.
• The first, which is plain fact, is that big choices are rarely easy choices. Precisely because of their scale and impact, they involve tradeoffs, imperfections, pros and cons.
• The second, which is my opinion, is that big infrastructure investments are usually under-valued and over-criticized while in the planning stage. It's much easier to envision the here-and-now costs and inconveniences, and harder to imagine fully the eventual benefits. That's not true of all of them, but it's how I read the preponderance of American-history evidence from the Louisiana Purchase onward.
* * *
With that context, let's go back to California's ambitious and thus naturally controversial plan to build a north-south high-speed rail system. In the previous installment, I gave the basic pro-HSR case.
For today, a survey of the opposition, which I will lay out as fairly as I can, saving responses for an upcoming post. Here's why I'm happy to do so:
Even the most stalwart supporter of the original Medicare plan, or today's Obamacare, had to know that there were uncertainties and drawbacks. Big decisions are more often 55-45 than 90-10. You have to weight the pros and cons, the knowns and unknowns. I think the pros still prevail in this case, but we have to look at the cons.
The main claims are:
• A high-speed rail system might be great in theory, but the realities of this plan fall far short.
• It will cost too much, take too long, use up too much land, go to the wrong places, and in the end won't be fast or convenient enough to do that much good anyway. And, from some people,
• It's an old-tech band-aid to a problem that really calls for a "disruptive"-tech fundamental solution, from self-driving cars to the Elon Musk-style hyperloop.
And here is a sample note from a reader in California, on the challenges the plan now faces:
I am very supportive of a high speed rail network in theory; very few people I have talked to are not. Driving between Los Angeles and San Francisco is a good 8 hours, while by plane it is a 45-minute hop, plus the two hours and massive frustrations of the airport; neither option is optimal. People already commute two hours one way between the Central Valley and the Bay Area, daily. Outside of the reflexively anti-government types who would oppose any state project, most people can see the attraction of the idea.
However, the actual execution of the high-speed rail plan is what has gone and lost my support. While a high speed land connection between Los Angeles and San Francisco would certainly make money, the high initial investment is obvious. Shorter segments between San Francisco and Sacramento, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, or even Los Angeles and San Diego would make money almost immediately. However, none of those things is what they are building. Instead, they are building the line between Bakersfield and Merced, with the further extensions only in later phases at undetermined dates.
The line between these two cities would be, basically, useless; to attempt a simile to another part of the country, this would be as if the Acela didn't go between DC and Boston, just between Trenton and Newark. Its actually even worse, since unlike Trenton and Newark, Bakersfield, Fresno, etc. have no public transit to speak of, and so the train would only be useful for stranding you at the train station. However, while they are still planning and seeking funding for the further portions, this is all the line will be, and knowing California, this situation will last for years (it's already taken us six to even get to this point).
Building this section first, without connecting any major population center to any other, therefore seems like an investment with no hope of a return. In the meantime, the people already opposed to the system (which are particularly numerous in the Central Valley) will be joined by those opposed to government waste in general, who will point to a train that has already cost billions of dollars and still connects nowhere to nowhere, and say, "enough, pull the plug, this has been a waste of money." Once that happens, the political realist in me has to acknowledge that there is no way promises of "but if we extended it further, it would actually work" would get any traction, and the idea would be dead. As I have remarked with my friends, only half-jokingly, if they wanted to kill the idea of high speed rail in California forever, they couldn't have gone about it much better than this.
To this pessimistic political outlook, I could also add the accusations of mismanagement of the funds already spent, and the compromises that are watering down the project as it moves along (portions of the line are now not even going to be high-speed), but those are already documented by actual journalists. My main feeling, though, is that if they wanted this to work, they should have gone about it any other way than what they have.
Next up: how the plan could still be sensible, in the face of critiques like this.
Planned "Communiversity" site for the Golden Triangle—note the logo—of eastern Mississippi. (
Columbus Dispatch )
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Earlier this week, I wrote about the work that Raj Shaunak and his colleages at East Mississippi Community College, outside Columbus, had done to prepare people in a historically poor, under-employed, and under-educated part of Mississippi for the higher-wage jobs that new industries were starting to offer. This was part of a trend we've seen across the country, notably in the South: that of high schools, universities, and community colleges addressing the common concern that a sub-par U.S. work force is an impediment to manufacturing's revival and overall growth.
For us, the EMCC story was closing the loop for earlier reports on the work that Joe Max Higgins, Brenda Lathan, and others had done to get the jobs there in the first place, and the efforts of the (public) Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science in preparing young people of diverse backgrounds for better opportunities.
I've heard back from Raj Shaunak, and with his permission I quote his note. The names he mentions won't matter to anyone outside his area. But it matters (in my view) that he wrote to include them. Communities and networks of this sort are what distinguish the areas we've seen that are improving their economic and political/ cultural prospects. Raj Shaunak writes:
Thanks for taking the time to tell the story of the Golden Triangle, and Mississippi. It indeed is an American story....
There are many team members who do the daily hard work of navigating individuals in their chosen pathways, tremendous industry experienced faculty and trainers, and above all a tremendously enlightened President (Dr. Rick Young) who believes at his core that the mission of EMCC is to raise all boats in our region. He provides us guidance and support and has afforded me the freedom to execute that mission.
Another very important person who is truly visionary is Dr. Malcolm Portera. Dr. Portera is a West Point MS native, is the past president of Mississippi State University, University of Alabama, helped recruit Nissan to Jackson MS, Mercedes to Tuscaloosa Al, and was crucial with Yokohama. The President of Korea invites him personally for consultation regarding U.S.-Korean economic development joint ventures.
Dr. Portera conceived of Center for Manufacturing Technology Excellence (CMTE) training facility in 1997, sought and got state, local and business involved in funding the state of art training center that we are housed in presently. He is man who is helping Joe Max and me raise $40 million for the Communiversity [above].
Thanks for shedding a positive and realistic light on our region. It indeed is an oasis, but the passion and commitment are replicable elsewhere. We just need more Joe Maxs, Harry Sanders, Brenda Lathans, and numerous other civic and business champions.
The Erie Canal. The transcontinental railroad. The Interstate Highway system. Big, expensive, controversial—and indispensable. Is the next one in this series a new rail network in our most famously freeway-centric state?
This is not a scene from California's High-Speed Rail project, but it's related. (
Wikimedia Commons )
A little more than a year ago, when I did an article on the successful second-act governorship of Jerry Brown, I said that among his major ambitions for the state was to create a north-south High-Speed Rail project, or HSR.
There wasn't space to go into it at the time, but I was a fan of the project then, and have become more so as time has gone on, even as political controversy about it has mounted. Reasons for my initial pro-HSR outlook:
• If you have lived any place where HSR is up and running, you see the difference it can make. China’s high speed rail has its flaws, like crashing. But a relatively quick rail connection between Shanghai and Beijing is miraculous. So too with Xiamen-Shenzhen — or Tokyo-Osaka in Japan, or all the ones in Europe I have heard about but not yet taken.
• If you have lived or worked any place in America with even medium-speed rail service, you see the difference it has made. Amtrak also has its flaws, to put it mildly. But just imagine life along the Bos-Wash corridor without it.
• If you even start to think what already-congested, still-growing California will be like without some alternative to increased reliance on cars and airlines, you get depressed. It’s not just the congestion — at LAX, SFO, 101, and “the 405” and all other freeways of the Southland (where freeway names begin with "the"–and where, for the record, I grew up and still consider myself "from"). It’s the doomed choice between building more roads, thus chewing up more land while ensuring that the new roads clog up soon, and not building more, thus ensuring even worse Beijing-style paralysis.
• Plus, infrastructure! Of the right kind. You can think of big transport investments that didn’t pay off, especially if you start by thinking of Robert Moses. You can more easily think of ones that defined countries, eras, economies. For your old-world types, you have the Silk Road or the Via Appia. For the Japanese, the ancient Tōkaidō, or “Eastern Sea Way,” immortalized by Hiroshige, and the modern Shinkansen that covers much the same route. We Americans have the Erie Canal ...
... and the “National Road,” the transcontinental railroads, the early U.S. expansion of an air-travel infrastructure, the Interstate Highways, the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate, the international effects of the Panama Canal, plus others. History’s record suggests that big investments of this sort are more often a good than a bad idea. It's because of the central historic role of transport-infrastructure projects in shaping the growth of states, regions, and whole countries that I've made this post part of the American Futures series.
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That was my pro-HSR starting position. As I've read and interviewed over the past year, including on reporting trips to California's Central Valley, I've become more strongly in favor of the plan, and supportive of the Brown Administration's determination to stick with it. In installments to come I'll spell out further pros and cons of the effort, and why the pros seem more compelling. For the meantime, here are three analyses worth a serious read:
• An economic impact analysis prepared by the Parsons Brinckerhoff firm for the High-Speed Rail Authority two years ago, which looked into likely effects on regional development, sprawl, commuting times, pollution, and so on.
• An analysis by law school teams from UCLA and Berkeley, which concentrated on the project's effects in the poorest and most polluted part of the state, the central San Joaquin Valley.
• A benefit-cost analysis by Cambridge Systematics, of the "net present value" of a California high-speed rail system. (NPV is a standard way of comparing long-term costs and benefits.) It had charts like these on the likely longer-term benefits of the project, and said that the costs would be significantly less.
The remaining purpose of this first post is to tee up the topic and introduce a wonderful resource for Californians and other interested outsiders who would like to learn more. It's a complex and instructive interactive map, based on technology from our old friends at Esri and created by a group of analysts at UC Davis and elsewhere in California. It addresses the most difficult intellectual and political challenge in considering a huge, long-term project like this: namely, assessing or even imagining the long-term, dynamic effects.
You can go straight to the maps here, but let me explain a little more about what you'll find.
Judging the dynamic effect of big projects — downtown restoration efforts, canals or highways or airports — is essential because they all involve "compared with what?" questions. Building a railroad is expensive. But what is its cost, compared with that of building roads, airports, and so on? Building a railroad requires extra land. But how much land will it use, compared with instead building more highways, airports, etc? Trains use fuel and send out emissions. But compared with ...
The analyses above all go into these comparative questions. But the interactive maps present the information in a different and more literally dynamic way, by letting you zoom in and out, pan around, and compare building plans for the rail system with the main variables: cost, land-use effects, environmental impact, job creation, and influences on the rich-poor divide that is even more acute in California than in the country as a whole.
For instance, this is a screen shot of the map's depiction of the system at an early stage of its construction, overlaid on a display of pollution and health stresses in the Central Valley.
As a reminder of why the environmental situation in the Central Valley is so important, reflect on this chart — previously discussed here, originally from the Washington Post — comparing the ten worst air-pollution cities in China with those in the United States:
The first moral of the chart is: China has a huge problem. The second one is: so does the Central Valley, where six of the seven most-polluted U.S. cities are located, the other being Los Angeles.
There is a lot more in these interactive maps. For instance, here is a screen shot showing the extraordinarily valuable farmland that has already been lost to sprawl around cities from Stockton in the north, through Modesto, Merced, and Fresno, down to Bakersfield in the south. The red dots represent acreage that has been converted to housing developments, malls, and the like. (You can see this much better at the map site.)
A make/break question for the rail project is whether it would accelerate, or retard, the paving-over of some of the world's most productive farm land. To me, the analyses suggest that HSR would be an important land-saving policy, but go to the studies and the maps to judge for yourself.
That's it for now. In upcoming installments, interspersed with travel reports, there will be more about the arguments for—and against—this investment. Please prowl around on the maps, check out the studies, and follow on here for the next rounds.
For their work on the maps, and for explaining to me what they have put together there, my thanks to: Mike McCoy of the California Strategic Growth Council; Nate Roth of the Information Center for the Environment at UC Davis; Dan Richard and Doug Drozd of the California High-Speed Rail Authority; and Jack Dangermond and many others on his team at Esri.
It's one thing to draw high-skill, high-wage jobs to a place that has historically lacked opportunities. It's something else altogether to find people qualified to fill them. A local answer to a national question.
Raj Shaunak, who was born in Kenya and educated in England. He built a successful business in Mississippi and is now training students there. (East Mississippi Community College)
In our previous chronicles of economic, industrial, and educational recovery in the "Golden Triangle" of eastern Mississippi, my wife Deb and I discussed the roles of Joe Max Higgins and Brenda Lathan in helping attract major modern industries to the region, and of Chuck Yarborough, Thomas Easterling, and others in helping build the (public) Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science, which got started in the 1980s with the guidance of then-governor William Winter. Links to some of those previous reports, and a Marketplace broadcast from the Golden Triangle, are at the end of this piece.
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But when you bring thousands of high-wage, high-skill jobs to an area with very low median income, poorly ranked schools, and a history of farming and low-end factories rather than advanced manufacturing, you raise another question. Where are companies going to find the right people to do these jobs? Sure, lots of people need work. But the ones who have been laid off from packing houses or "cut and sew" minimum wage garment plants, or have not held steady jobs at all, may not be ready to run a billion-dollar modern steel mill or an Airbus helicopter factory.
This is where East Mississippi Community College, or EMCC, comes in.
In many stops before Mississippi, we've been impressed by the emphasis on, and seeming success of, programs for "career technical" education. For example, the Camden County High School in far southern Georgia—or, with a different emphasis the Elementary School for Engineering in Greenville, South Carolina. Back at the dawn of time, when I was in high school, "vocational ed" had a patronizing, loser tone. Today's "career technical" programs, in contrast, aspire to help people avoid the minimum-wage service-or-retail trap with better-paid jobs as skilled repair technicians, in health care, in construction and design, in advanced modern factories, in law enforcement, and in other "living wage" categories.
Many of these schools operate on an (admirable) public-good principle. They have no way of knowing where the students they're training will end up working 10 or 20 from now. So they proceed on the belief that it will be better for the region to have a larger pool of better-skilled workers. (That way, some large corporation might open a branch there, and new startup businesses might arise.) And it is obviously a plus for the students to have more skills and options, whether they stay nearby or leave.
EMCC's current ambitions are more targeted. The good jobs are coming to its "Golden Triangle" region, thanks to the efforts of its promoters. The big new factories have already brought in thousands of higher-skill, higher-wage jobs. An enormous plant from Yokohama Tires, now under construction, will bring more. The challenge is to prepare local people to qualify for them.
This is the challenge Raj Shaunak has undertaken.
Raj's family is Indian; he was born in Kenya; and as a teenager he moved with his family to England, where he went to college. I will refer to him as Raj because that is how everyone seems to know him locally. When he picks up the phone he says slowly and in a deep voice, "Rajjjj ... " or "This is Raj..." His accent is an arresting combination of UK-Indian and Mississippi-Southern.
In 1972 Raj paid a visit to Mississippi to see his brother, who was then at Mississippi State University in the Golden Triangle city of Starkville. He ended up staying and building a very successful manufacturing business with other family members.
In 1989 the family sold the business, and Raj was freed from workaday economic concerns. On October 31 of that year he dramatically threw his wristwatch into the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway outside Columbus, and began the next stage of his life. (Me: "Raj, could I call you at 11am tomorrow?" Raj: "Jim, I have no watch, call me when you would like.") Two years later, he was teaching adult-education courses and math. By 1994 he had begun what is now his major commitment: "workforce development," or preparing people in the community for the jobs that the economic development commission was trying to attract.
Here is what the results look like in practice:
• EMCC has brochures, billboards, ads, and other publicity (like what you see above) all over town, letting people know about its programs.
• Students who enroll go through what Raj calls "skills-based pathways," whose details I won't go through now but are suggested by some of the charts below. The essential point, according both to Raj and to the students I spoke with at EMCC (and alumni I met at several factories), is that students are first assessed to see what they know and what they don't; they're brought up to speed in areas of weakness; and they're exposed to the skills, practices, and disciplines required in modern industrial work. These include precision measurement, ability to read graphs and blueprints, "lean manufacturing" procedures, teamwork and flexibility, trouble-shooting, "continuous improvement," and all the other traits you've heard about if you've visited any advanced factory in Japan, Europe, China, or the US.
• In the EMCC training facilities, students work on real versions, or sometimes scaled-down models, of the machinery and products being made in the local factories. I saw them dealing with real engines from the nearby PACCAR factory, and real computer-controlled machine tools.
• I heard about but didn't see working models of the Yokohama Tire assembly line, preparing candidates for the 500 jobs the company plans to offer when the first stage of its new facility opens up. As part of its comprehensive training deal with Yokohama, EMCC hopes to prepare as many as 5,000 candidates for those positions. "What happens to the ones who don't get hired?" Raj asks, anticipating the question. "They will have much higher skills, and they will be more marketable—either when Yokohama opens its next phase [another 500 jobs], or anywhere else."
"We cannot guarantee a job for anyone. We are in the business of training people to be part of a qualified pool of applicants. We're trying to move people from dependence to enterprise and independence."
Also as part of the Yokohama deal, all of the company's own direct hires—"its engineers, its PhDs, its technicians, everyone except the CEO!" as Raj put it—will also go through an EMCC program.
• As a public community college, EMCC's tuition and fees are low. For instance, an initial skills assessment for the Yokohama program costs $50. Some other courses cost $120. According to Raj, about half the students don't end up paying anything themselves, because of various benefits for veterans, dislocated workers, etc.
• There may be an underside to EMCC and the programs it is carrying out; I didn't pretend to be launching a detailed investigation. But at face value, the people I asked—students at the school (without Raj or other officials present), alumni in the factories (some 1/3 of whom had been through EMCC), people around town—all described it as a plus. Just before our visit the state's Lieutenant Governor had come to town to praise Raj and others at EMCC for what they had achieved.
• Mississippi has the highest proportion of African-Americans of all states, at around 38%. In the Golden Triangle, the balance is roughly 50%+ white, 40%+ black, with Asians, Latinos, and others making up the rest. All the classrooms, cafeterias, libraries, and also factory sites I saw were racially mixed—if not exactly in the 50/40 proportion, then with a much larger black presence than mere tokenism.
Raj, by the way, seems to enjoy and make the most of his "other" status on the black-white racial grid. He works very closely with Joe Max Higgins, a white, Arkansas-raised sheriff's son featured in this previous installment. I heard him on a call with Higgins, who was in a rush (as always) and had to hang up. "Joe, Joe, you never have time for the brown man," Raj said, obviously using a familiar joke line between the two.
A few weeks ago Raj took me for catfish buffet at Lion Hills, a former private (and segregated) country club that has now become a EMCC dining center and golf course, and a training facility for its restaurant-management, chef-training, and "turf management" programs. He worked his way through the racially mixed group of diners and students there, seeming to slightly code-shift his accent from group to group. Bonus note: in most big U.S. cities where I have lived, "How are you?" is a pro-forma question to which no one expects a real answer. In this part of Mississippi, people treated it as an actual query, deserving an extended reply. Thus Raj worked the room with a series of several-round discussions with all the people there.
Does any of this matter, the industrial-recruitment efforts and the training of a work force? People in the state think it does. "The industrial boom in the Golden Triangle happened because leaders in the Golden Triangle made it possible," Tate Reeves, the lieutenant governor, said at local event in April. "When you are competing for businesses, you have to have the infrastructure, you have to have the quality of life, you have to have the land," Raj told me by phone this week. "But most places that are competing have those things. We now have a critical mass of trained and trainable workers. Companies have told us that this makes the difference."
That is more than I intended to write, and more than you may have wanted to read. But it is a sign of why Deb and I have found it so enlightening—and overall encouraging—to see how communities around the country are working to improve their economic, cultural, and educational prospects. We all know the problems Americans are facing, in Mississippi and elsewhere. But I'd had no idea that people like Raj Shaunak were making this kind of effort in this kind of place.
"The kind of people who might have gone to NASA in the 1960s, Wall Street in the 1980s, or Silicon Valley in the late 1990s are now, I think, more likely than ever to work in municipal government." So says a well-educated young small-town mayor.
Downtown Greer, South Carolina, a rapidly growing small town between Greenville and Spartanburg.
As we've spent time in smaller towns that are undertaking economic or cultural recoveries, my wife Deb and I have repeatedly been struck by a certain migration pattern. This is the presence, and importance, of ambitious people at the beginning of their careers who have chosen to fulfill those ambitions not in Brooklyn or the SF Bay Area or one of the other best-known assumed national talent destinations. Rather they've chosen to live and work in Greenville SC, or Duluth MN, or Burlington VT, or Sioux Falls and Rapid City SD, or Redlands and Winters CA, or Holland MI, or West Point and Columbus MS, or other even less-celebrated places.
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For some people the reasons are family ties to the town. For others, the search for a safer, more pastoral, or more affordable environment in which to raise children. For some, utopian escapism of the type we mainly associate with my Boomer contemporaries of the 1960s and 1970s. But in quite a few places we've heard sentiments like the ones expressed below. Which boil down to, the chance to make a difference, and be part of a success.
This note comes from a young mayor of a smallish Midwest city who is now serving with the U.S. military in a combat zone. We have not yet been to his city, but what he says resembles what we have heard elsewhere:
I'm writing in response to your Atlantic article on small cities ["Why Cities Work Even When Washington Doesn't"], which belatedly reached me here in [Afghanistan] in hard copy in a recent care package. I'm on leave from the city for military duty this year.
As a fairly new small city mayor who is trying to push our city forward with moves like reintroduction of two-way streets downtown and reimagination of public spaces, I predictably loved it. I also wanted to draw your attention to an important, related story.
There has been lots of good buzz and coverage lately about cities and mayors, but a story still waiting to be told is the quality of people coming to work for them. Doubtless there have always been extraordinary people drawn to local government, but something truly unusual is happening, in my view, in the caliber of young professionals drawn to this work now.
The kind of people who might have gone to NASA in the 1960s, Wall Street in the 1980s, or Silicon Valley in the late 1990s are now, I think, more likely than ever to work in municipal government. See, for example, the Code for America phenomenon.
In recruiting talented professionals, we have been able to punch above the weight of a small city like ours, drawing people with international careers in architecture, government, consulting, and engineering to work for five-figure salaries in a small Midwestern city willing to try new things.
Is this a side-effect of federal dysfunction, that public-minded young professionals are far less attracted to the Hill as a place to make their mark and now look to the local level instead? Or something to do with the economy? I don't know, but I think there is something to this untold story of the kinds of people newly drawn to local civic work.
I agree, and will have more to say about this soon.
I've been offline for more than a week because of duties 24/7 at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Here is a sample that is now up at the Ideas Festival site, an hour-long discussion two days ago with former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
I say in the set-up for the interview that Geithner's book, Stress Test, is actually very good, considered just as a book. This is a point that Michael Lewis made in his NYTBR treatment of it too. All appropriate credit to Geithner's co-author, Michael Grunwald, author of The New New Deal.
The next Aspen interview I'll be looking for, when it goes up on their site, is one I conducted an hour later that same day with Amanda Lindhout, on her truly extraordinary memoir A House in the Sky. Stay tuned.
Monument to the three victims of a lynch mob, in downtown Duluth.
The real importance of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Reparations article, which is still attracting deserved attention, is that it is not mainly about repayment in a literal, financial sense. Instead, as I understand it, it’s about a larger historical reckoning or awareness. “Truth and reconciliation,” you might call it.
By analogy: Whether or not Germany had ever made monetary restitution to Israel or to other victims of the Nazi era, to know anything about modern Germany is to recognize that it has attempted to face its past. In contrast, to know anything about modern Japan or China is to recognize their difficulties in facing episodes from their 20th century past, mainly of the '30s and '40s in Japan's case, and the '50s through mid-'70s in China's.
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The importance of recognition is why I was so struck by the monument (shown above) in downtown Duluth, Minnesota, to the three victims of a famous lynching there 94 years ago this month, in June 1920. A traveling circus had visited town; a local white young woman was allegedly raped; six young black men were rounded up and taken to jail. Then a mob of many thousands of white people stormed the jail, seized the black men, "tried" them on the spot, and convicted three. Those three men—Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie—were hanged that evening from a lamppost in the center of town, while the police did virtually nothing to interfere.
A history of the episode, The Lynchings in Duluth by local author Michael Fedo, includes a photo of the murdered black men, two still strung up and one's body lying on the street, as a rapt white crowd looks on. That photo was made into a popular postcard, and a cropped version of it, minus the bodies, is the cover of Fedo's book, as shown below with a related work. The full-frame photo of the lynching is too gruesome to include here—but again, in keeping with Ta-Nehisi's theme, it's important to note that there was a time when people bought it and sent it through the mail. This happened more often in the South than elsewhere, but it was an American rather than a Southern evil.
In another book of essays about his growing-up in Duluth, Zenith City, Michael Fedo (whom we happened to hear speak in Duluth earlier this month) describes the region's long, willed suppression of all mention or memory of the lynching, which naturally made me think of the forced-forgetting of Tiananmen Square in China. He had barely heard of it as a child but stumbled upon a reference to it in the 1970s, and wrote his history, which was originally called They Was Just Niggers, after a remark by someone in the lynch mob.
In 2000 a local group began a movement to commemorate the episode. Three years later, the dramatic public-art memorial shown in the photo at top was dedicated at the very site of the lynching. It has full-sized bronze renderings of the three men, unsparing descriptions of the violence, and a large quote from Edmund Burke: "An event has happened upon which it is difficult to speak and impossible to remain silent."
The monument is in a still-rough area of Duluth's unevenly improving downtown. Here is the scene directly across the street, looking from the memorial plaza toward the Paul Robeson ballroom and the site where the three men were hanged.
Still the monument is there, barely one minute's walk from the main-drag Superior Street. I can't confirm what I heard from several people in Duluth: that this is the only such monument of its type in America, or at least the most detailed and personalized about its victims. (For a somewhat skeptical perspective on the monument from a Duluther, see this on NPR a few years ago.) But it's different from, and more un-ignorable than, anything I've seen elsewhere, whether in the deep South or in some of the Midwestern states where the Klan flourished in the 1920s. It is in the spirit of the reparation of which Ta-Nehisi writes.
Duluth is a city I've long enjoyed and admired, and in upcoming dispatches my wife Deb and I will go into some of the business-and-technology reasons to pay attention to it now. (Plus, it just won the meaningless-but-interesting Outside magazine 2014 poll on overall best place to live, edging out Asheville, N.C. in the semifinals and Provo, Utah in the finals.) For the moment I'm concentrating on its role in "reparations," and the surprising step this far-Northern, always overwhelmingly white city decided to take.
With that prelude, let's dig back into the mailbox on the "Endless Civil War" theme, especially in the wake of the narrow but welcome defeat of neo-Confederate candidate Chris McDaniel in Mississippi. Say what you will about why Sen. Thad Cochran felt that he had to appeal to black voters, the plain fact of his doing so is a plus. Much of what we have reported from the "Golden Triangle" of Mississippi has also been on-balance positive about the state, for instance here, here, here, and here. Readers agreed and disagreed here and here and here.
In our previous installment, I quoted a Jackson-area attorney, Zachary Bonner, on how tired everyone in Mississippi was of being treated as a specimen of America at its most benighted and, well, Faulknerian. He specifically complained about a CNN "Parts Unknown" feature on the state by Anthony Bourdain. Now some reader response to his views.
"Disappointed." From a reader in Philadelphia:
I have to say I’m a little disappointed in your giving so much valuable blog space to someone like Bonner.
I’ll take the multicultural take of Bourdain, PyInfamous, Stacey Winters, Geno Lee, Willie Seaberry and Willie Simmons every day and twice on Sunday over that of a privileged-for-life white dude with a JD who works for a suit and tie law firm and lives in the lily-white enclave of Ridgeland. A law firm, I might note, that contains not a single woman or person of color, but plenty of names like [a classic Southern name, ending in III]. So much for the lip service to “it doesn’t matter if the man is black or white”.
Rich white dudes like Bonner and his law firm buddies have been speaking about and controlling the narrative of Mississippi for 400 years. We don’t need another one telling us how Bourdain got it wrong and we certainly don’t need him speaking for Geno Lee.
"Whites in Mississippi won't help blacks." On a parallel theme, from a reader in Texas:
About seven years ago I attended a conference of Catholic charities that had received funds from [a large] Catholic foundation. The purpose of the conference was to train the attendees in good corporate governance and financial sustainability because the foundation's grants only lasted three years and would not be renewed.
One of the nonprofits attending was one founded by a Jesuit in, I believe, northern Mississippi. That agency served poor rural African Americans.
At lunch after a fundraising presentation the ED of the Mississippi agency expressed frustration and concern to our table at the inapplicability of the recent training to their situation. Fresh from the training and full of hope among like-minded folk we offered thoughtful suggestions.
The ED just shook her head and said something to this effect:
In Mississippi white people do not give to nonprofits that serve African Americans.
"At least some hope for a better future." Ronald Parlato, who now lives in DC, writes:
I've been reading your articles about Columbus and the Golden Triangle of Mississippi with great interest.
I am a Connecticut Yankee, longtime resident of DC, but Columbus is my second home. I have been traveling through the Deep South and especially Mississippi for years. As many have said before me, "You cannot understand American history without understanding the South", and through my many visits I feel I have at least begun to understand what the South was and is.
When I first told my Northern liberal friends that my wife and I were going to Mississippi for vacation, I got more than the usual quizzical stares. "You shouldn't do that", they said. I was going into the maw of the beast and my visits legitimized an eternally racist, ignorant, and backward society. I was, in other words, a traitor.
My wife was told to remove the cotton plant from her desk at the office because it was racist and oppressive, a reminder of the chains of slavery.
Photographs of meticulously restored antebellum houses were off-limits. How could I have stayed in those symbols of a brutal Southern past?
The more I stayed in those wonderful houses, of course, the more I learned.
In one, I read the plantation logs and journals of the original owner. What I had read in Time on the Cross (the economics of slavery) became real, immediate, and instructional. I could see what this particular slave owner had spent on his slaves (food, shelter, clothes, health care, etc.) and what was his return.
Along the way I stopped in eateries, antique stores, gas stations, police stations, and fire houses. People were always willing to talk, and old folk went on and on about the way it was. I didn't bring up civil rights, nor did they, and as a result I heard about the regular, ordinary life of small Southern towns.
Southerners themselves say that they have an inferiority complex and are very welcoming to Northerners who seem to take a genuine, non-judgmental interest in their lives and their history.
On more than one occasion, I would be asked by a curious passers-by in out-of-the way places in Mississippi, "What on earth are you doing here?". In other words, why would a Northerner, of all people, voluntarily visit the South. Northerners, when hearing of my sojourns in Mississippi were no different and would always ask, "Do you have family there?" - the only possible reason for visiting such a benighted place.
After these many years and a lot of Southern history (if you haven't already, I would suggest Eric Foner's work on Reconstruction, the best of the lot [JF note: Yes, I have, and agree]), I have begun to understand Southern resentment, conservative politics, and the cultural distinctness of the region.
Not only is Mississippi on the bottom of the all socio-economic indicators, is is the most fundamentalist of any state. Dismissal of evolution and acceptance of the Bible as the literal word of God are common.
Conservative politics are easier to understand if observed through this lens.
I return to Columbus every year for at least two months, and I am now on the board of the fledgling Tennessee Williams Foundation. [JF note: Williams was born in downtown Columbus, and his birth house is now a museum.] I have taught literature at Mississippi University for Women, helped produce the yearly performances of Williams by the Tennessee Williams Tribute, and write for a local paper.
Most importantly I have made many friends - many I would never have met back home. I keep intending to write the stories of many of my local heroes who despite everything - poverty, prison, backwoods upbringing - keep working and working hard. Their refusal to take 'government handouts' is not political, but personal.
I have been looking for [Mississippi] success stories for years and maybe with Severstal, Yokahama, the Air Force Base, the W, Eastern Mississippi Community College, and Tennessee Williams there is at least some hope for a better future. I have seen too many Mississippi towns die a sorry death, and I want Columbus to thrive.
A mid-inning conference by the visiting Eau Claire Express.
This evening the political news is out of Virginia, and there is upcoming news in this space from Mississippi and from San Francisco, both of them tomorrow.
But for now, this is how things looked this evening at Wade Stadium in Duluth, Minnesota—an atmospheric WPA-era not-quite-minor-league baseball field that is home to the Duluth Huskies of the Northwoods League. This is a league for promising players who are still active on college rosters, and thus not eligible for pro contracts of any sort. They get expenses and—according to the lifelong Duluth families we sat among in the stadium—most of the players, who come from around the country, spend the summer boarding with volunteer host families in town. Some of the players join their Northwoods teams late because they've been busy in the College World Series and other postseason play.
The home-team Huskies looked strong this evening. They were up 6-1 at the end of the 4th, and came back for 9-7 at the end of the 5th. I asked the native-Duluther sitting next to me, a veteran of the mining industry, whether Northwoods games were generally high-scoring like this, Little League style. He said, No: the Huskies usually didn't get so many runs. But then the visiting Eau Claire Express scored a depressing 2 runs in the top of the ninth, and seven in the top of the 11th—and this is how things stand as I write.
This is a placeholder note about America, and also an announcement about an additional theme in our travels-around-America reports. Last month I had the honor of delivering the 14th annual Casey Shearer Memorial Lecture, at Brown University. Casey Shearer was a talented student journalist and writer in the Brown class of 2000 who, tragically and unexpectedly, died of a heart virus while playing basketball with friends just before he was to graduate. Casey Shearer's influential and popular writings in Brown student media were often about sports and their ramifications; the sports-and-society beat is one he presumably would have pursued as a writer. In his honor, his parents (and our friends) Ruth Goldway and Derek Shearer set up a memorial lecture about some aspect of the journalistic world in which he presumably would have worked.
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As part of this year's Shearer Memorial Lecture, I received, with my wife, a modest honorarium of $1500. We said that in gratitude for this award and in respect for the kind of writing that Casey Shearer might have done we would use the money in the months ahead to pay expenses for reports exploring the role sports plays in the cities we are visiting. I am not making any larger point about the role of the Huskies for the moment, but I am saying that we have applied the $9 cost of our Wade Stadium tickets this evening to this account. (This was half price on "Two-fer Tuesday"). The $18 for beers and brats we are happy to cover ourselves.
Update: the Huskies are coming back with 3 so far in the bottom of the 11th, so it is 16-12 as I write. But my hopes are modest. We actually left the stadium, and have been following online, after the Huskies rallied and seemed back in control by the bottom of the 6th. The truth is, we were freezing. (When flying over Lake Superior yesterday, we didn't see any icebergs, but most people have mentioned that they were present as recently as Memorial Day.)
We're not going to be here for Friday night's game, but in case you are, there's a special attraction: a group of local women are going to dig their way around the infield with spoons, in search of a hidden diamond. American sports at its finest.
And it looks as if it tonight's game might end at 16-12. Pitchers' battle! And there is always tomorrow night, when the Huskies take on the Express again.
The Air Force's training base in Columbus has stayed open through waves of base-closing, thanks to the influence of Mississippi politicians.
Nearly a year ago, when my wife Deb and I were kicking off our American Futures project, we said that one of the ambitions was to apply a "normal" reporting lens to parts of the country that don't usually get it.
The range of experience in New York or San Francisco—or in D.C. or Boston or L.A. or Chicago or sometimes Seattle or Miami or a few other places—is a staple part of American news and pop-culture coverage. But when somewhere in South Dakota, or Alabama, or Inland-Empire California, or Kentucky is in the news, it's usually because of:
a disaster, natural or man-made: tornado, shooting, explosion, flood, drought, hate crime, sinkhole;
a sporting event (NASCAR, Little League World Series) occasionally or a political event regularly: any place in Iowa or New Hampshire every four years in primary season, then Ohio and Florida in the general election campaigns;
a "concept" piece—"meth in the heartland," "the new economy of prisons" "climate change hits the farm"—that involves picking out some Middle American location and using it as the narrative setting for your thesis.
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You've seen something like that going on in Mississippi these past few days, with more to come in the two weeks ahead. The Senate primary is the latest front in the struggle for the future of the GOP. Thus we have reports from Tupelo and Hattiesburg, op-ed pieces on the paradox/ hypocrisy of America's most "conservative" states being the ones most reliant on federal subsidies, and so on. And, given Mississippi's past, plus eloquent reminders of the omnipresence of that past from the state's most celebrated writer, there's an all-but-irresistible freak-show undertone to a lot of reports from Mississippi. These Southerners! Can you believe them?
I mention this as set-up to the very interesting note below, from a lawyer in the Jackson, Mississippi, area. [See update below for his identity.] Here's a policy exception I'm making for this note: When quoting reader mail, I always cut out any specifically complimentary part. If someone says, "Great article, but I wonder about your point that ..." I will quote it as beginning, "I wonder about your point that ..." No doubt it's the WASP in me, but I figure that quoting compliments can't come across well. I'm leaving in the complimentary parts of the note that follows, both because they're integral to the reader's point and because, frankly, it's so heartening for my wife Deb and me to hear that what we've been trying to do has come across in the way we intended, at least in this case.
Now, to our reader in Mississippi:
Yesterday, a stray tweet from a friend announced you had been doing some writing about my home state so I hurried over to check things out. I haven’t had time to read everything, but I want to thank you and your lovely “research assistant” for engaging with some of what is good in our state.
You may be aware the chef Anthony Bourdain, of whom I’m a fan, recorded an episode of his CNN show on the “Mississippi Delta” with stops in Jackson and Oxford too. I was appalled by it.
He was escorted around by the food writer John T. Edge (a Georgia native) and spent an inordinate amount of time in Oxford (where I was previously a resident for eleven years) with the expat writer community and fellow chef John Currence (a New Orleanian).
The most unbearable moment came when Geno Lee, the proprietor of the Big Apple Inn, a historic black-owned business in Jackson famous for their pig-ear sandwiches, announced to the camera, “I didn’t know I had such a cool place until he (John T. Edge) told me so.”
I cringed at the N.Y. Times-published taste maker “blessing” the heretofore clueless owner of a historic business. Edge spoke for Lee, the writers spoke for Oxford, Chef Currence spoke for himself and any truth about Mississippi was lost in the process. What was absent from Bourdain’s show, and what is not absent from your series of dispatches, are the voices of Mississippians speaking for themselves.
I find a lot of reporting, storytelling, and documenting of the South in general and Mississippi in particular to be diagnostic and mostly hostile or contemptuous. (There’s no victim complex here, I assure you, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who give you a more honest accounting of our historical cultural and political depravity which has given way to the current cultural and political malaise and decay.) The hostility is born of our state’s vicious history and pretty understandable; however, I think the tendency to diagnose comes from a certain impenetrability of our society or culture.
There is a complexity of feeling and attitude that history has imprinted on most Mississippians through the generations. This is a place that the American dream went and continues to go unlived by most, not only because of our racial history, but because of isolation, poverty and backwardness that transcends any questions of black and white and effect huge numbers of endemically poor of both races. The collective emotional damage of that history remains unresolved just as the social and economic damage does in way that is more pronounced than Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, or South Carolina.
What I appreciate about your series is that, and maybe you are simply performing that now rare function called journalism, in the face of that impenetrability you broadcast the voices of Mississippians working on the ground in hopes of turning the tide of history in their communities or for themselves. You may find this odd, but Higgins’s quote [in this post] about Eurocopter “changing the psyche” nearly brought me to tears. Despite the small upward or downward spikes in wealth and affluence for the small elite and middle classes (of which I am, thankfully, one), it is that image of sharecropper, white or black, Higgins invokes about which we all shudder. The shame of poverty, lack of education, civic and political failure is shame for those who experience it directly as well as the elites who have allowed it to persist uninterrupted since Reconstruction.
You hear the echoes of Higgins’ “barefoot and pregnant … snuff in their lip” in Kimberly Sanford’s essay when she describes her sister, mother and mother’s third husband—the miscarriage, the dirty table, the work boots and worn jeans. [For about Ms. Sanford, see below.] For Kimberly, it appears the discovery of feminist criticism is changing her psyche in a way similar to that in which Eurocopter helped Higgins dream big for the GT.
These stories of discovery are the ones that get lost among the usual yarns told to tourists in Mississippi whether it be the terror of the Civil Rights Movement, the fantasy of Antebellum culture and the old Lost Cause, the friendly debauchery of the Delta planters or the very real charms for Oxford. But like everywhere else, it’s self-discovery and self-actualization that are in short supply, not images of cotton, bluesmen, bourbon, much less hooded klansman and hoop skirts.
I hope comparing your work to Bourdain’s doesn’t offend you. I only do so because both are recent depictions of life here, even if yours is journalism and his is entertainment.
I love my home state as much as an American can love the political subdivision in which he was born and raised. I do not, however, think Mississippi is a “great place.” It is not. In the present day it is a strange, tribalistic, confused and impoverished. However, I do believe Mississippi has great potential to be a better place. Thank you for sharing with your readers what many of us believe are the green shoots of some kind of economic transformation here. But more so, thank you for letting Joe Max Higgins and Kimberly Sanford speak about discovering ways forward from this dark, green, lonely place.
Sincere thanks back to the reader for this powerful and thoughtful note. Deb and I do feel as if over the past year we have learned as much about the variety of our country as we learned about China in any of our years of traveling and living there.
Update: At his request, I'll identify the author of this message. His name is Zachary Bonner, of Ridgeland, Mississippi. He says that he would be happy to hear from like-minded people in the region or beyond. You will easily find his contact info online.
Before I send you to the rest of the reader's thoughts, let me mention Deb's latest report from Mississippi, which is about some of the science projects developed by students at MSMS, the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, in Columbus. Again its point is to let students and teachers there describe in their own words—literally, in short videos—what they are trying to do. And if you read the powerful collection of MSMS student essays that Deb previously presented here, you might be interested in this update on what is becoming of the five students she mentioned, starting with one the lawyer-reader mentioned:
• Kimberly Sanford, "As I grasp the battered storm door of my unleveled mobile home ..." is going to Harvard.
• Rachel Jones, "The wind of my parents’ perennial unemployment has blown away my umbrella ..." is going to Vassar.
• Brendan Ryan, "my favorite things about living at a residential high school four hours from my hometown is the car rides home ..." is going to Wenzao Ursuline University in Taiwan.
• Sabrina Moore, "MSMS is often referred to as the most diverse square mile in the state of Mississippi ..." is going to Mississippi State.
• Joseph Messer, "I think that home is also wherever I make it ..." is going to Deep Springs College in California.
More from Zachary Bonner the lawyer in greater Jackson:
I feel compelled to add—I have nothing against Bourdain, in fact whether it was naiveté or hubris, but I give his team credit for even trying a show here. But, the Oxford thing is so tired when there are so many corners of the state that have never known anything but hurt.
It’s a cool town for sure. I had all my discoveries on Ole Miss’ campus, got both my degrees there, got married a block off the square and continued to live there while my wife finished her degree. We’re both children of privilege though and Oxford is a place of privilege, although the University finally began changing that as far as the classroom goes about fifteen years ago. Oxford is a like a college town theme park, it’s make believe.
My first job out of law school was in [eastern Mississippi] and I drove and hour back and forth everyday partly on Highway 78 right past the Blue Springs complex, home of Toyota. We had several cases in the Delta during my time at that firm and I can’t tell you the salve watching that plant and its satellite buildings being constructed was after driving though all the empty towns to the west.
But, then, I would go home to this outlier of a place [Oxford] and all that time on the road, it gives you time to think. And then you meet people working cases, witnesses, clients, people who are neither but you have to talk to find the witnesses and clients. You know these people live in a different world than the one I live in (which is probably pretty close to yours) and not just in the existential sense. And at the same time you feel, this person and I, we are neighbors. We have kinship in some way. You are poor and uneducated and a bit afraid that the lawyer has knocked on your door, but you are my brother somehow. But we aren’t really brothers because there are things out of our control that are between and impossible to decipher and correct.
The history and all it means and carries is between us—and it doesn’t matter if the man is black or white in that sense. It applies either way. But we all want the jobs because the jobs take away the shame and the less shame, the more kinship. That’s not really a story for a one-hour TV show hosted by a chef.
C.S.A. monument, West Point, Mississippi, May 2014.
None of us planned it this way, but my wife Deb and I happened to be reporting from Mississippi at just the time when when Ta-Nehisi Coates's "Case for Reparations" article, which starts with scenes from Mississippi, was coming to such deserved attention.
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What Deb and I have been discussing is loosely parallel to, rather than directly engaged with, the issues of legally enforced racial injustice that are central to Ta-Nehisi's story and its follow-ups. We have been looking at the ways a part of the country with this heritage—on average quite poor, historically under-industrialized, with about three times as great an African-American population share as the country as a whole (about 38 percent in Mississippi, vs. about 13 percent for the United States) and with a history of racially based mistreatment of its black population—moves ahead now, as every part of the country aspires to do. We've had Ta-Nehisi's articles in mind as we've been writing, and I think the accounts of Mississippi then and Mississippi now can usefully be read together.
As a reminder, here's a "swipe map" by John Tierney, matching proportions of black population across the country with median household income. (Click "Hide Intro" to see more of the map. You can zoom in and out and pan to different parts of the country. Also you can follow a link to a more fully featured, but non-embeddable, version of the map.)
For background, reports mainly from Deb on extraordinary efforts in innovative Mississippi schools are here: one, two, three, and four. And mine on the surge of heavy industry in the "Golden Triangle" of east-central Mississippi are here: one, two, three, four, and five.
In the latest installment, I quoted a reader from the North arguing that on balance it would have been better for America if Mississippi stayed poor. The reasoning was that industries coming into lower-wage, emphatically non-labor-union Southern states were part of a "race to the bottom" that has immiserated the middle- and working-class everywhere. That reader and others faulted me for not laying out my own views on the race-to-the-bottom question as regards Mississippi, whether or not I'd done so in previous books or in reports from China (which is of course as the center of "race to the bottom" patterns worldwide).
I'll do that, but as part three of today's three-part plan. Part 1 is factual clarification from Joe Max Higgins of Columbus, Mississippi, who has been at the center of some recent reports. Part 2 is a selection of messages from readers on the "race to the bottom" / "let those Southerners stay poor" theme. And part 3, after the jump, is my summary view.
Part 1: Joe Max Higgins and the new industrial wage. Earlier I mentioned that Joe Max Higgins, of the business-promoting "Golden Triangle LINK" organization in Columbus, Mississippi, had one big guideline for the industries he hoped to attract. Namely, that they pay a lot more than people in the area already earned.
As a benchmark: the median household income in the United States is just over $50,000 per year. In many parts of Mississippi, it's barely half as much. Then when the enormous, high-tech Severstal steel mill opened up outside Columbus, employing hundreds of people at an average pay (before benefits) of $80,000, Higgins said that he regarded this as a huge win for his area. A reminder of what it's like inside the mill, from a company video that exactly resembles what I saw:
Many people wrote back to say: Eighty thousand dollars, on average? No way. You've been conned! So I went back to Higgins. He showed me evidence of a formal agreement between the mill and the State of Mississippi that the average pre-benefit pay must be at least $70,000. And at the latest audit, it was just under $80,000.
I'm not getting into the possible differences between median and average earnings there, or what the workers give up or gain by being in a non-union plant. I'm saying that there's a reason the mill had so many thousands of applicants when it opened up, which is that its jobs are such a step up for local workers. (And, before you ask, there is still an installment coming on how local people are being trained for these jobs.)
Part 2: Let's hear from the readers. There has been a very large volume of mail, from which I am trying to take representative samples. Here goes.
• Think of the TVA as reparations. A previous reader objected to the TVA even trying to speed development in Mississippi: "To be honest my chief reaction was to wish that TVA funding was quickly and permanently yanked. I do not support federal funds in order to develop this political cesspool into an influential center of the American economy." Another reader, originally from Wisconsin, responds:
I moved to the mid South about 12 years ago, and very few days go by when I don't find it alienating still. However, your piece on the Black Belt in Mississippi caught me up.
To reference TNC's recent Atlantic article, a TVA designation of "Megasite" plus Federal/State/Local tax incentives could be argued as the sort of economic policies that target the development of poor communities, and if focused on areas historically affected by racist intent/policies (e.g., chattel slavery in the Black Belt of the South followed by sharecropping, lynching, disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, etc., etc., etc.), a sort of reparation. (Did that sentence contain enough hedges?!)
Although I too decry the political shift I feel in the nation as a whole which I think is in large part driven by the weird Republican values emanating from the South, I believe policies of infrastructural development such as the TVA "Megasite" are essential for moving forward. My electricity comes from TVA and in general I do not herald their track record (e.g., Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman TN). However, I was heartened to read about the "Megasite" policy. TVA is not perfect but as a hybrid Federal/State/Private entity, maybe it can be steered toward more progressive ends (could not for the life of me find a better word than progressive there...)
An aside: a pox on those in my home state [Wisconsin] who have lost the true "conservative" Republican values of my father's family who fought for the Union.
• Also about the TVA. A reader, who discloses that his firm does business with the TVA, adds this note:
A minor nitpick with your reader who dislikes the TVA megasites due to it being federal funds helping a region of the country she dislikes politically.
The TVA does not receive federal funding, it is a self funded agency, funded through ratepayers and bonds.
• "They may be charming, but their policies are killing us." In support of the original "let Mississippi stay poor" message:
Add me in as another regular reader who has a hard time much caring about economic gains in white Mississippi. [JF note: the regions I've been writing about have been majority black, and the factory work forces are integrated.]
As a young person, I was too much of a snob to work at learning this history of my own country -- much snazzier to concentrate on Europe and Africa -- so I'm doing some catching up as a semi-retired adult. One of the insights I've gotten through working my way through the Oxford History of the United States is that the shape of modern US society was set by the absence of representatives of the Confederate States from Congress in 1860-65. I don't just mean emancipation, though that's the root. I mean the Homestead Act, the Land-Grant colleges, "internal improvements", a modern-ish federal government and direct taxation system. With the Southern obstructionists around, we could not have had any of that.
And the southern states, insofar as they are controlled by whites (almost entirely) don't seem to have changed much: they exist to impede all forms of necessary national public policy: access to health care for all, education, reasonable gun control, etc. In this era, climate crisis is the moral equivalent of the emancipation struggle and these states, along with some western types who imagine themselves solitary cowboys, would rather all our descendants suffer than sacrifice their phony extractive culture.
The only reason I can imagine attending to the economic struggles of the South is that the majority of this country's Black citizens live there. It would be an additional white crime to abandon them to the unhindered depredations of their white neighbors.
What to do I don't know, but you lose me when you are celebrating industrial development using non-union labor that props up a state whose representatives throw themselves against everything that makes this country and the world work. I'm sure they are charming, but their politics are killing us.
• "Do these people think we can't read?" A note on anti-Southern attitudes:
These comments show explicitly an attitude that has been pretty common from the beginning of the civil rights era- hatred and contempt by progressives for those they consider not sufficiently with the program, most obviously southerners but also non-elite, non-progressives whites outside of the south.
Do these people think we can't read? Or are too stupid to understand what their real feelings, intents and motivations are?
• "The real question is, what's the worst we will put up with?" Mike Levsen, the mayor of Aberdeen, South Dakota (whose city we have coincidentally planned to visit), writes:
We will always try to steal other cities’ assets when the opportunity is offered (and have done it); it is expected of us as city officials. So, I don’t question the Mississippi people, even if it correspondingly causes distress elsewhere. Interestingly, nobody ever suggests we are destroying the work ethic of those companies by giving financial help, the way it is assumed by many that social welfare breeds laziness.
To me, a more essential question demanding answer is “What will we put up with”, not where.
There will always be people occupying the bottom one-fifth or one-tenth.
We spend much time discussing who, what, where, why…but I don’t care about those questions.
Whether by race, geography, legacy, age, or any other demographic indicator.
Whether or not they are responsible for their own situation or undeserving in any way.
Whether they are able to exit from that status or not
They are among us.
Those exiting will be replaced by others who will be a part of our life, our country, our future, and occupy that bottom cohort.
The question is, what is the worst state of life for that bottom rung that we will put up with. How bad does the housing, nutrition, healthcare, educational opportunities, family services, environmental protection legal system access, and all the other things that are degraded by a lack of money have to be before we say it can’t continue. …what’s the worst the rest of the country will put up with...
It’s not important where they are, what’s necessary to acknowledge is that they exist in that situation, and everyone else is also the worse for it.
• "Strategically brilliant but morally bankrupt." From a reader in a big East Coast city:
As a Citizen of this great country, someone who has more than a passing acquaintance with American history in regard to industrialization and things north/south and also someone who builds all over the United States and Canada, I continue to wish that we could somehow meet in the middle on the work issue, because there truly are two legitimate sides to this story.
The actions of various Southern state governments and their business partners actions have been strategically brilliant but morally bankrupt. To wit, South Carolina. They receive $1.92 in Federal funding for every dollar paid, gleefully using the differential as a subsidy for their low wages, low property taxes and poor services, all while issuing a steady stream of anti-Federal, pro-State rhetoric.
States like South Carolina are all about the business owner and only about the worker in the most basic sense that they see them as units of production, nothing more. From a development perspective the best monetary example of how South Carolina would act if they were allowed is by building the Burj Khalifa, which cost $1.5B for 5M sf, or $300 psf.
On the other side, we have the legacy airline and automobile manufacturing unions, who have continued to make their own collective beds through continuing to demand luxurious pensions, European-style working hours, confiscatory base wage, overtime and double time rules, and refusal to modernize their approach towards work and a continued erosion of quality of work that used to separate them from non-union workers. The best development example of how this still works in the US is the Freedom Tower, which cost $3.8B for 3.8M sf, or $1,000 psf, or 3.3 times the cost of the Burj Khalifa.
I’m equally frustrated with both sides. People in work for Boeing in South Carolina need to make more. People who work for Boeing in Washington need to make less. Benefits need to generally equalize on both side.
• And what if Lincoln had lived? To wind up this part for now:
As a native of the upper south (Kentucky) and a student of history generally, I consider myself “southern” in a general kind of way. I have two graduate level degrees, and am currently living in the Mid-West. My speech, however, is peppered with the southern and country idioms, and while in informal company, I am still apt to drop the g’s of words ending in “-ing.”
My political beliefs are left and Democratic, despite the conservative nature of the Kentucky Democratic Party: I can point to real things in my family’s more humble beginnings that are the products of the hard work of my forebears, certainly, but which were made available TO my forebears during hard times by Democratic administrations. THAT is the Democratic Party in which I believe and for which I still vote unflinchingly...
Your post yesterday regarding the affirmative answer given by an urban resident of a Rust Belt city to your hypothetical question, “Should Mississippi remain poor?” prompted a reaction in me, as I’m sure it did (and will) with many others, perhaps none more so than residents of Mississippi. My own reaction, however, is more of an “Amen!” of sorts rather than a typical “circle the wagons” response from a fellow southerner.
I have taken enough history courses to know understand how the anti-union and union-busting policies of the South in general have led to a “national race to the bottom” as your correspondent pointed out, with Northern industries decamping to states where unionization is at best discouraged, but where the State actively pursues policies favorable to “business growth” – low taxes, right-to-work laws, lax environmental regulations, and so on. The move of the textile industries from New England to the lowlands of the Carolinas and Georgia after the Civil War is just such an example.
I am also aware that as much as the South has been guilty of economic depredations against its Northern kin, it has also been a victim. After the Civil War, the untapped natural resources of the South were snapped up at bargain prices by Northern interests, whether it be West Virginia’s and Kentucky’s coal, Georgia’s timber, Alabama’s iron, etc. These new industries were, of course, abetted by the aforementioned state policies that gave them, more or less, a free hand to do as they pleased, whether to the resources they controlled and processed, the workers they employed, or the land they despoiled.
As an American citizen (not one of Kentucky or ‘the South’ alone) with progressive political beliefs, I can understand your correspondent’s dark suggestion that perhaps, yes, Mississippi should be left poor. If increasing economic clout means “the Mississippi model” works, and therefore, her policies should be emulated elsewhere, then I might tend to agree with her. I’ve watched President Obama try to solve some of the nation’s toughest problems with both hands tied around his back by an intransigent opposition that has sometimes appeared willing to destroy the nation in its zeal to “save it” from Obama’s policies. Examples of this, and other, clearly race-based policies, such as those that have rolled back voting protections in the South, etc., have just left me disgusted.
I don’t know how you feel about “alternate history,” but I’ll go one better than the Rust Belt correspondent. I very often wonder how different (and presumably BETTER) the nation as a whole would have been had Lincoln lived, and, instead of his passive “prodigal son” reconciliation with the South, he had been inflamed with a real sense of remaking (with a "Radical" Republican Congress) the South for all times:
- the entire political and military leadership of each seceding state being seized and forcibly removed, either to the North or West, or otherwise given the opportunity to be banished abroad, but removed from the South at the least;
- the political and economic vacuum in the South filled with the growing ranks of the Northern urban poor and immigrants from abroad;
- massive agricultural and land reform;
- investments in infrastructure projects and education; and
- perhaps even a redrawing of jurisdictional boundaries, such as redrawing state boundaries, creating new states with new names, etc....
Such a thing as this “remaking of the South” is unimaginable in American society or history, and thankfully (for the South, perhaps, at least) we had a man with Lincoln’s temperament instead of, say, Stalin’s at that time and in that office. From the nation’s fraught history with race, and with that region’s desire to seemingly stymie nearly every effort to advance public policy that brings light to the darkness and knowledge to the unlearned, it would seem, sometimes, to be a price worth paying.
After the jump, just a little more.
Part 3. "This I believe." After this build-up, I find to my chagrin and horror that the summary I wrote a couple of days ago, of my views on "race to the bottom" and so on, just seems to be lost. With the auto-back-ups, the on-the-fly-notetakers, the cloud sync, and so on, this doesn't happen often. But ...
So here is a bullet-point summary of arguments I've made mainly in books More Like Us, Looking at the Sun, Breaking the News, Postcards from Tomorrow Square, and China Airborne, and a number of Atlantic (and New York Review of Books and Industry Standard articles) since the 1980s.
• I view economic success as a matter of adjusting to an endless series of changes—technological, environmental, cultural, business-competitive, geostrategic, you name it—as quickly and smoothly as possible. The changes will never stop. Individuals, companies, regions, and countries do relatively better or worse depending on the ease and speed with which they adapt.
• Beyond their skill in adjusting, individuals, companies, regions, and countries can sometimes bend the direction of change in their favor, to increase their absolute and relative success. Regions or countries can often do this by investing in infrastructure, research and development, and education.
• Through the past two centuries the United States has overall fared very well thanks in part to success in both these areas. Its culture, laws, policies, geographic openness, and ideas about itself have generally encouraged adaptability. And its policies have bent change in its favor—through expansion of mass education and a research established, through public investment in leading technologies, through remaining attractive as a site for immigration, et cetera. All this is on top of the incredible natural advantages the U.S. enjoys because of scale, resources, distance from enemies, etc.
• The successful American bargain has depended on relative mobility, openness, and egalitarianism, with the obvious enormous exception of slavery and its aftermath, and many other lesser barriers. As legal changes make America even more equal and mobile, it should become more successful in the basic job of adaptation. As economic and other shifts make it more unequal and class-bound, it becomes less itself, and less successful. (This is the whole point of More Like Us.)
To put this in recent historical terms, from the 1930s through the 1970s, most national and regional policies in the U.S. increased its adaptive mobility. Infrastructure building, the expansion of elementary and higher education, social insurance programs, public investment in high tech. From the 1980s through now, the net effect has often been the reverse.
• Trade policy can also be an important part of the mix. The U.S. had an infant-industry protective approach through most of its 19th century rise. A generation ago, it needed to rebuff Japan's mercantilist policies, and it largely did. (Eg through Sematech.) These days it has major rule-of-law, cyber-theft, and intellectual property disputes with China.
• Consistent with all these points, no economic advantage is or can be permanent. Every factory will always be under challenge from someone who can do things faster, better, or cheaper. Every market leader of the moment is subject to "disruptors." (Anyone in journalism knows about this first-hand, after the past decade of top-to-bottom disruption in our business.) The only available "stability" is economic life is therefore that of the bicycle, or the airplane: institutions stay upright only by continuing to move fast enough ahead.
• In this process there are such things as "tragedy of the commons," and "race to the bottom." Tragedy of the commons is the linked disasters of the worldwide environment, from the depletion of the oceans to the failure to deal with climate issues.
"Race to the bottom" is competition of a particular type. It's not the shift of industries to ever-lower-cost sites: Old England to New England, New England to the South, the South to Mexico, Mexico to coastal China, coastal China to inland China, all of China to Vietnam, Vietnam to Bangladesh—and now back in many cases. That is the nature of centuries of world capitalism, and from a worldwide perspective it's been an important agent of equality. "Race to the bottom" is a self-defeating, self-enhancing cycle of competition that ultimately leaves everyone worse off: ever-laxer environmental standards, in the most obvious case. China is realizing, very late, that it has suffered through race-to-the-bottom environmental standards, overwhelmingly by its own rather than foreign firms.
• There are also such things as unfair competition, abusive concentrations of power, preying on the weak, and all the other reasons that from Adam Smith to Teddy Roosevelt onward, real capitalists have embraced regulation.
• To concentrate on the business rise of the American South, I disagree in two ways with those who see Mississippi's industrial rise as reflecting America's "race to the bottom" economic decay. (Even apart from the fact that people in Mississippi are, how do I put this, Americans too.) First, there is little to no evidence that Nissan, Toyota, Severstal, PACCAR, Airbus-Eurocopter, Yokohama Tire, or other big recent entrants are there because they have been given the OK to be extra dirty and pollute. They haven't.
Second, their presence in Mississippi or Alabama is not the reason for industrial hard times in what we now call the American rust-belt. Elaborating that point is the stuff of many books. For now I'll leave it with this: wages in Mississippi are lower than those in either Japan and Germany, and Japanese and German firms are opening factories there. But that isn't making them "race to the bottom." They are not hollowing themselves out. If that is happening elsewhere in the U.S., it is not Mississippi's fault.
• Obviously Germany encourages labor unions, and the American South does not. I think the German bargain is wiser; I think the decline of American labor is both symptom and cause of the pressure on middle-class America in all ways. But as one of the great books on the topic, Tom Geoghegan's Which Side Are You On?, points out, this is a long, complex process tied to every other shift in our politics since the 1960s. Germany also is big on apprenticeships and "career technical education." As we've reported from South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi, these programs are very big features of the industrial expansion here.
I realize that in a 10,000 word (or whatever) post I can't say "In short..." But in short, by my lights the big American problem is the constellation of forces that make us less mobile, less egalitarian, less adaptable, less fair. And in that perspective, the spread of industry and opportunity to an area that has sorely lacked them is progress for America, not the reverse.
Sharecroppers in Georgia, just before World War II. Are their grandchildren better off, because industries have arrived? Hint: my answer is Yes. (
Farm Security Administration, 1941 )
Over the past few weeks, my wife Deb and I have been reporting on Mississippi's efforts to move itself up from the bottom in rankings of educational achievement, and similarly to move itself up from being overall the poorest state in the nation.
Question for the day, from readers: whether any success it achieves will necessarily come at the expense of other places, especially in the North. Of course movement in rankings is by definition zero-sum. The real question is whether greater prosperity for Mississippi has to mean less somewhere else.
For background, here are some installments about the Mississippi educational efforts: one, two, three, and four. (No matter what region you're from, be sure to read at least the first couple of essays by students in that final, fourth item.) And these on industrialization: one, two, three, and four.
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Now, a note representative of several I've received. It concerns how to think or talk about economic activities in the non-union, low-wage, politically conservative, ever-shadowed-by-racial-injustice (cf. Ta-Nehisi Coates) areas of the Deep South. Here goes, quoted in full for context:
I have an odd relationship with your blog. I read it avidly and yet I find myself alienated. You prick my despair about the country, in fact. In your most recent entry in the 'Lo and Behold, Industry in Mississippi' series, you asked for feedback and so here is a little exploration of my vexed relation to your work and perspectives.
First off, I'm a native of a Rust Belt city and much of my family originally migrated here from the South. In fact they were slaveowners who left the South to industrialize the North - and they were very successful at it, probably even a factor in the victory of the North over the South in the Civil War.
But I grew up in a different time - the time of decline of industry. I grew up with the decades of desolation and loss. I understand the impact of abandonment, wholesale and profound, that has infected the Rust Belt in the post war era. I know the economic decline of Rust Belt cities to be deeply imprinted with American racism as well as the relentless and devastatingly effective rightwing campaign against unionization. The deindustrialization of the North cannot be separated from the success of Southern style politics and ideologies over the last 40 years. The American people have suffered serious economic harm as a result.
So forgive me if Joe Max Higgins does not seem charming. To be honest my chief reaction to reading this piece was to wish that TVA funding was quickly and permanently yanked. I do not support federal funds in order to develop this political cesspool into an influential center of the American economy. I think the South should be quarantined, politically and economically. They suck on the federal tit whilst fanning resentment of the poor, among many (many!) other political sins. (The best thing about the Dixiecrats is that there were less effective nationally when stranded within the Democratic Party than they are today, when they control Republican ideology and the Supreme Court. )
I wasn't satisfied by your reply to this comment [from another reader, a man in New York]:
"The theme that I find missing in your series is any recognition that the Southern states have been in a continuing economic war with the Northern manufacturing base for at least since the Civil Rights Act. Undermining and destroying unions has been a signature part of that strategy and it has been very successful. The great cities of the North have been hollowed out just as they were beginning to provide a haven for lower class families, not to mention the overall starvation of the middle class."
You didn't address the above point. The South has had a baleful influence. Perhaps what is in process is the lasting destruction of American broad based prosperity, thanks in no small part to rise of Southern political values. There are no signs of a turnaround for most in this economy - it is only getting worse. Yet continuing on this path would be tragic. It would fundamentally undermine the whole American experiment. I would like your series a lot more if you addressed this.
I keep telling myself I won't do this any more, but I wrote right back to the woman who sent the message:
I have a reaction of "And therefore, what....?" to your views.
Suppose one, like me, is in favor of unions, is in favor of more progressive taxation and a fairer economy, is against what many Southern politicians now stand for, has written endlessly about the "new nullification" menace, and so on. Should I say: "Well, I hope these people in Mississippi stay poor?"
I'd be interested to know what, specifically, you'd like to do to, or with, Mississippi—or St Marys, Georgia, or Greenville, SC—as the action part of your view.
To which she replied:
As to your question - should the people in Mississippi stay poor? I would suggest taking a serious look at the answer 'yes'. If industrial jobs in Mississippi are in fact a part of a national race to the bottom and if that race is destructive to the larger good then the race itself should be stopped. And one consequence of that could be a slow down in the industrializing of Mississippi.
I don't enjoy making careless arguments and there are a number of 'ifs' in the above paragraph. The point is that there is a larger picture. What conventions, regulations, and laws enable corporations to make states compete against each other for their investment? Some of that should simply be outlawed. Some of that sort of thing is actually disallowed under trade pacts - why should it be allowed for states?
It's taken decades to build an economy of downward mobility. Financial deregulation, corporate trade deals, and union busting has required not only policies but ideology and economic theory. It has been a bipartisan effort and academics and the media have contributed. Virtually all of the conventional thinking in my view is tainted by this history. But the issues we are discussing impact the real economy of jobs and wages. We must not avoid painful disputes even though bringing up these difficult issues is a downer in the context of a feel good story of a poor corner of the country doing better.
If you've gotten this far, I hope you'll indulge a further word about the ongoing juggling act for a writer like me. Over the past three-plus decades, in at least four of my books and at least a dozen long Atlantic articles, I've tried my best to apply reporting, reading, thinking, and observation to questions of exactly this sort. The movements of industries among nations; the movements from region to region within a nation; the forces that make whole economies seem to progress or stagnate; the forces that are uniquely necessary if America is to seem "fair"; the burdens of history, race, public policy, and private institutions in shaping American mobility, and so on.
I know that I've written all this stuff. Most readers, probably including this one, don't. But if I say, "go read 'How the World Works' or More Like Us or 'How America Can Rise Again,'" I sound insufferable. And if I don't, I'm left with people who "are not satisfied" because I haven't dealt with a topic at a time when they happened to be noticing or in a post they're seeing on its own. As the world's problems go, it's small. But it is one I have to think about it.
Enough about me! Let's turn now to a reader in Florida. He writes:
I agree with you —I wouldn't lead every Mississippi piece I wrote with a racial disclaimer either. After all, TNC's writing has focused as much on Chicago as Mississippi—which makes sense because parts of Chicago are historically, literally Mississippi north.
That said, two things about two of these posts really struck me and both relate to the historical relationship of Missisippi and Chicago. Key quote from your post:
"Part of the 'Northern narrative' on what we're doing here is that we're just buying industries," [Joe Max Higgins] told me.
In 1914, with the onset of World War I, European immigration halted overnight. By 1915, booming, shorthanded northern industry was "buying" southern black farm labor and creating the Great Migration—and changing America, north and south, forever.
Southern government and industry (mostly agriculture) fought with every legal and extra legal tool it had to halt the migration. "The southern narrative was you will cripple our society by stealing our niggers." It was routine for southern local governments to ban labor recruiting; to ban migration itself through brutally enforced vagrancy laws. My hometown in Florida passed an ordinance in 1916 requiring a $1,000 license for any recruiter seeking black labor. Not getting the license was a crime.
You ask, don't people know these things?
No, they don't. They know about water fountains and epithets. They know nothing about the migration that made both redlining and the successful civil right movement possible by breaking up the status quo.
In my opinion, WWI and the Great Migration are the two most important forces of 20th century. One caused the other. They are, I think, without question the most important racial forces of the 20th century. And we as a country know nothing about them. We know so little about them that an economic developer in Mississippi doesn't see the exquisite historical irony in the South "buying" the industry that the north used to buy its labor and grow the industrial power of the US.
This is plenty to chew on for now. I was tempted to add a "This I Believe!" summary of my economic views, but I am going to save that for tomorrow. I have actually written it already, so I will actually post it after I let it cool.
I will though close with one transition point, tied to the first reader's note. I respect her clarity in following her logic to its conclusion. Still, I completely disagree that the rest of the country might have stayed richer and fairer if our poorest state stayed dirt poor. While I'm at it: I also don't think America would be richer, fairer, or happier if China were still dirt poor. That's a topic-sentence assertion for now. Supporting sentences soon.
This is the story of a man, and a region, and of the tradeoffs that go into the modern movement of industries. What did it take to bring an advanced-tech steel mill, a helicopter factory, a drone plant, and a major new tire works to a corner of the country where the unemployment rate is very high and many educational and sociological indicators are very low? And how much better off is the region for the arrival of these new enterprises? What did it give up, and what did it gain?
The Black Prairie also coincides with the "Black Belt" of these two states in the historical and sociological sense of the term, a region with a high concentration of slave-labor plantations before the Civil War and of African-American population ever since then. One part of this Black Prairie has renamed itself the "Golden Triangle," as shown below and as reported in our previous dispatches. It's the area between the cities of Columbus, West Point, and Starkville, and it is where these new factories have come.
The background on our story starts here, with a roundup of some of the industries that have come to the Golden Triangle. It continues here, on the near-impossibility of untangling the influences of history, international economic trends, institutional and corporate culture, and individual mistakes or insights in understanding why things "succeed" or "fail" in a given area. It continues here, about the particular burden of race in explaining American events in general and Mississippi developments in particular. It is complemented here and here, with reports by Deb Fallows on the ambitious educational efforts underway at a public school in the Golden Triangle. And it will continue this afternoon in a broadcast version on Marketplace and later with at least one more installment by me, about Mississippi's version of "career technical" education.
On Marketplace today you'll hear about, and from, a Golden Triangle figure named Joe Max Higgins, along with his colleague Brenda Lathan and others. This is more about what they have done, and how, and to what effect.
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That's Higgins's license plate, at the top of this item. He obviously loves spelling out the "2EQLAST" joke: In the economic development business, coming in second equals coming in last. You get the deal, or you don't—and there's no reward for a near miss or giving it a good try. It's a subtler version of the standard signature line in his email messages: "Live every second as if your ASS is on fire."
You've heard talk like this from any number of football coaches, and Higgins's talk about his region's prospect is very much that of a coach. Two examples, of many possibilities:
• On what he thought when he considered moving to the Golden Triangle from Arkansas, a dozen years ago:
"When the headhunter called and said I want you to look at a position in Mississippi, I said you gotta be kidding me! I hear 'Mississippi,' and I hear poverty, despair, no future, and no hope for a future.
"Then we drove through here, the azaleas were in boom; it was pretty. My wife said we should at least look the place over. We looked at what God gave 'em, and what they were doing with it. And I said, There's no reason in the world these folks aren't winning! But they're not."
Within "they're not" was the whole range of local economic woes, from a starting point of low income and high unemployment, to a recent wave of factory closures among the low-tech, low-wage small firms that have moved to the South from the Depression era onward.
Higgins went back to the headhunter. "I said, here’s what I want: Audited financial statements, budgets, all this kind of stuff. I spent weeks just looking at stuff. Came to conclusion, these guys should be hitting home runs, but they’re not even getting to the plate. That's an opportunity." So he signed on.
• On what has happened since then, Higgins showed us a very detailed chart of all the industries that have included the Golden Triangle in their site selection during his time here, the number that went ahead, what that meant in terms of capital investment and tax revenues, and what it's meant in jobs. To put it in perspective:
"If you take it strictly on investment, deals we won versus deals we lost, we're batting .442! And some of those deals we lost are ones we said, go away, we're not interested. But now, in jobs, we're batting .241. So how good are we, really? Two-forty-one is maybe better than most, but it won't get you into the hall of fame, not unless you can play second base like a champ. But .442 will get you into the Hall!" And on to an argument about why the average had to go up.
Everything about Joe Max Higgins's talk, walk, body language, and comportment is go, go, go; do, do, do. A recent profile of him by William Browning in the Columbus-based Catfish Alley magazine pointed out that Higgins, who is burly by anyone's standards, used to go through two six-packs of Diet Coke per day. Now he has backed down to just eating packs of an "energy powder" called Spark. Here he was earlier this month:
* * *
The Golden Triangle's first big win was its certification as a TVA "Megasite" ten years ago. The Megasite system was a way for TVA to speed investment within its region by pre-clearing certain sites as being project-ready. They had the infrastructure, they had the permits, they had enough contiguous land, and everything else. As a Federal Reserve report described them:
The Tennessee Valley Authority coined the term in 2004 for sites in the TVA region that could be deemed worthy of large-scale development—1,000 acres in size, environmentally clean, and accessible to transportation and utilities, among other criteria.
For more about the Megasite program, you can see this and this from the TVA; for more about what it meant to the Golden Triangle, you can see this, from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. For instance, the headline of the Fed Reserve assessment is, "Megasites Spur Big Turnaround for Mississippi Region."
The point for now is that Higgins and his colleagues at the "Link" development organization for the Golden Triangle threw themselves all-in to the competition to be awarded Megasite status. As he put it:
"The TVA was tired of every beanfield, cotton field, corn field in anytown USA saying, 'We're going to have the next Toyota-Nissan-Mercedes plant!' So they hired a prominent national consultant to design the criteria for certification.
"Everybody showed up. The could be’s, the wannabes, the never-were's, and thought-they-were's, they all showed up." All the candidate regions were asked to provide simulations of how they would handle major new investments, and to provide specs on every economic, infrastructure, labor-market, and environmental consequence of economic growth.
"They had a two-foot-high book of specs," Higgins said. "We worked 12 hours a day, six days a week. Optioning the sites, doing the soil borings, everything." To cut to the conclusion, ten years ago this August the TVA certified its first two Megasites. One was Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and the other was near the Golden Triangle airport in Columbus.
"The worm turned then," Higgins told me. "That TVA decision was the inciting incident that changed this community forever. I’m serious. Before that, I’m working little projects. I’m working a sweet potato plant here, and a small, small automotive plant there. That was it. To be honest, when I took this job I thought I’ll hit a couple of singles, maybe a double, and then I’ll get a bigger better job somewhere else.
"The Megasite was the incident that made us believe we could win."
Soon after that, Higgins and his team got their first big commitment, with the $600+ million steel mill from SeverCorr, now called Severstal. Then they began applications for a second Megasite, which also succeeded. (The TVA has certified only eight in all, including the two in Columbus.) Then on through the list of other successful industrial recruitments, which in all have brought some $5 billion in total investment, and something like 5,600 new jobs, to an area where the unemployment rate, even with this new work, is still around 15 percent.
* * *
What has it cost, and what has it brought? I can't claim to offer the full reckoning, but here is a summary, for follow-up in another installment.
• It's not just money. The latest big investment news for the region is from Yokohama Tire, which is building a $300 million new plant near West Point, the most depressed part of the Golden Triangle area. It will employ 500 people when it opens next year, toward a planned total of 2,000.
As part of the courtship process, Higgins's group arranged a site visit by the Yokohama corporate high command: helicopter tours of the area; green tea and hot, moist towels to refresh the visitors at each stop; galoshes to protect their shoes from the Black Prairie mud after a rainstorm.
During the aerial tour, Higgins took Yokohama's chairman over the ruins of what had been for nearly a century the economic foundation of West Point. This was a meat packing plant, locally owned for decades by the Bryan family and then taken over by the firm that eventually closed it, Sara Lee. When it shut down it put fully a tenth of the city's population out of work.
"I told the chairman [of Yokohama] that this was an area that placed a lot of stress on long-term relationships," Higgins told me. "People worked for Bryan for generations. When that plant left, it tore the heart out of the whole community. I said, you can be the phoenix rising up, for the next generations."
Hokey, yes. But Higgins said that the helicopter then did several circles around the plant, while the chairman stared down at the devastation. "He looked over at me, and nodded," Higgins said. "I told the pilot, We can go now." (Below, a Google Earth screenshot of the now-being-demolished remains of Bryan/Sara Lee.)
• But it's largely money. Higgins says that the area doesn't offer, and the TVA and EPA won't condone, any waivers from environmental standards. And with the obvious exception of the flame-belching Severstal mill, the industries that are coming are relatively high-tech and clean.
What it does offer is substantial state and county subsidy for infrastructure and construction costs, and tax breaks. For instance, here is the Federal Reserve's summary of what went into Severstal:
From the state, the company got a $25 million grant and $10 million loan for infrastructure plus a bunch of tax credits and breaks on sales taxes and other state taxes. The county contributed the land, a $5 million infrastructure grant and a cut of about 40 percent on real estate taxes. Together, the incentives were worth about $100 million.
The PACCAR plant, which makes engines for one-tenth of the long-haul trucks you see on American roads, got similar incentives totaling about $40 million.
• Can these be worth it? The argument from Higgins and his LINK organization is that from the time groundbreaking begins on the plants, they are returning more money locally—city, county, state, school district—in direct payments than the (amortized) cost of these subsidies, apart from the eventual indirect effect of the jobs and spillover activities. After the ten-year mark, which the first plants are nearing, many of the tax benefits phase out. According to Higgins, Lowndes County, which is where most of the factories have located so far, will get $10 million in taxes from them this year, of a county budget totaling $40 million. The school district, he said, will receive another $13 million.
Joe Max Higgins has made the "incentives more than pay for themselves!" argument so often, and so publicly, in such detail, for so many years that I assume it would have been debunked if it was hyped or untrue. "Part of the 'Northern narrative' on what we're doing here is that we're just buying industries," he told me. "That might work if you were talking about a company that is not very sophisticated and doesn't have a lot of resources. But your Nissans and your Toyotas and your Airbus? You think they're going to sacrifice their business for some little tax deal? That's bullshit."
* * *
Who is being helped? The full answer is beyond my ken. Here are two things I could observe.
• The biggest industrial employers, Severstal and PACCAR, say the racial balance of their employees is "representative of the region." The region is slightly more black than white; on the visits I made—two to the steel mill, one to the engine factory—the workforce appeared slightly more white than black, but slightly rather than heavily. Certainly it was closer to being racially diverse in the fashion of a military unit, than being overwhelmingly white in the fashion of many corporations or, especially, high tech firms. This question is so consequential that I'll return to it, in talking about the role Eastern Mississippi Community College is playing in preparing underskilled local people of all races for forthcoming jobs at the Yokohama works.
• The median income in these areas ranges from slightly below to very far below the national level. As mentioned earlier, the median U.S. household income is around $50,000 per year. It's barely half that in much of West Point. Here's an interactive map showing income levels.
The average earning for hourly employees at Severstal, according to Joe Max Higgins, is around $80,000 before benefits. At PACCAR it's less but still well above the median household income in the area. Some of the line employees I spoke with had come back to the area after holding jobs elsewhere. One I met had previously worked at Sara Lee and then came to the steel mill. Several others had always lived in the vicinity.
"I'm not even interested in factories that aren't going to pay a lot more than people are already making here," Joe Max Higgins told me. "Why would I be? If you are going to create jobs at that level, you are forever dooming your area."
He mentioned a conversation he'd had with the mayor of a small town in Tennessee. "I'll never forget when he told me, I can't wait for the blue jeans plant to close in town!' You never hear a politician say that. He said, 'We got to get those ladies to community college and get their skills up. I can't run my town on minimum wage.' I thought that was the deepest thing I ever heard."
* * *
There are more ramifications to the saga, but these suffice for now. Let me know your major complaints and questions and I will try to address them in upcoming installments. Next up from Deb Fallows: the surprising story of the Palmer Home for Children, in Columbus.