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.
Union Pacific Station, East Los Angeles, 1950 (
As a reminder, this is No. 10 in a series on the proposed north-south California High-Speed Rail system, which deserves national attention as the highest-stakes infrastructure project underway anywhere in America now. (Although someone from Philadelphia just wrote to say: Uncle! What we really need is HSR from the East Coast through to the Midwest. I know what he's talking about, but I'll leave that to someone else.) For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, and No. 9.
The previous entry was very long and detailed—it was a reply by Dan Richard, the chairman of California's High-Speed Rail Authority, to an extensive set of criticisms. This one is short and thematic. It comes from a veteran of a Federal agency, and it concerns the larger question of how to think about projects that will take decades to unfold, and whose implications are by definition unknowable when the choice about whether to proceed, or not, is made. Let's turn it over to the former Federal administrator:
I am spurred to write by [a previous] post devoted to critics of HSR. I don’t know whether it’s a good idea or not, but I do have a long memory and an interest in technological innovation.
Remember the super-sonic transport. In the 1960’s we knew all long flights would take place at supersonic speed. It was obvious, until it wasn’t.
Remember the ship the United States. In the 50’s we were very proud that the US had taken the trans-Atlantic speed record back from the Brits. The granddaughter of the designer is desperately trying to preserve the ship.
There’s always cost-overruns on big projects, always.
The HSR is building for the future, and the transportation and economic environment in which it will be tested will be quite different than today’s. For example, one disadvantage of rail and air is the hassle of renting a car on the other end. True enough today, but 20 years from now things like Uber and the driverless car may have made owning a car a rarity and renting a car the rule, which would impact the economics and convenience of HSR.
Simply acquiring the right of way may become significant in unexpected ways. The railroad magnates of the past didn’t realize that some of their rights of way would be used for fiber optic cable. And they didn’t realize they needed a bigger rail tunnel in Baltimore and a double-tracked tunnel in DC.
Bottomline: The decision on HSR is going to shape the future in ways we can’t predict, and a touch of modesty in the arguments would be welcome.
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I agree. What makes decisions like this important is that people will be living with their consequences a century from now. An overstatement? Everything about today's California life is conditioned by decisions about its freeway network made 60-plus years ago, and by the decision to tear up the Southern California light-rail network in the decades before that. Along the Eastern seaboard, in parts of the Midwest, and in the Plains, the U.S. rail network of the early 20th century has an obvious effect on where and how people live, work, and travel in the early 21st.
The long shadow of major infrastructure choices is also what makes such decisions difficult. We must choose among options whose consequences we can't fully anticipate. More on how we make such choices, still ahead.
As a reminder, this is No. 9 in a series on the plan for a north-south California High-Speed Rail system, which according to me deserves national attention as the highest-stakes infrastructure project underway anywhere in America now. For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, andNo. 8. We have a few more installments still to go.
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When last we visited this topic, with No. 8, eight readers were offering eight complaints about the concept and execution of the system. Back in early July, with No. 3, the chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority, Dan Richard, replied to some preceding rounds of criticism. He is back again, with his answers to the latest crop.
I'm quoting his replies (nearly) in full, not because I think he deserves the last word on the topic—hey, it's my site, I'll get the last word myself—but because this is a hugely consequential decision for California and America, and the details of the pros and cons matter.
Below I've summarized the eight previous complaint, with excerpts from the criticisms in italics. The rest of the material is from Dan Richard. Over to him.
Criticism #1: The ridership projections are unbelievable.
This is a key issue, so let me respond in some detail. Just declaring the ridership projections “unbelievable” does not make them so.
Early ridership projections were subject of criticism. However, the new leadership team took a very different approach. Our ridership and revenue models are quite sophisticated and have been subjected to multiple tests.
First, we performed high, medium & low assessments based on sensitivity analyses. When we finished those, we arbitrarily cut estimated revenues in each case by 30% to see if the resultant values would still exceed costs. However, we’ve taken that a step further, based on recommendations from Peer Review Group and engaged in a probabilistic approach known as Monte Carlo analysis that runs a range of potential outcomes – again subjecting these to a further arbitrary 30% revenue reduction. Again, all outcomes exceed costs. We don’t believe any other infrastructure project has approached its ridership/revenue analysis in as comprehensive a fashion.
There are two external peer review groups that have reviewed this work. We further tested our model by running values through it for the northeast corridor and it accurately correlated to both historical and projected data. Finally, the federal General Accountability Office (GA) was asked by Congress to review our program; the GAO found our methodology for ridership, revenue and O&M costs to be reasonable.
Yes, it is true that there are about 15 million annual trips between the LA Basin and SF Bay areas by highway and air and that those trips are about evenly divided between the two modes. Those numbers are on the low-end of estimates, but generally in the ballpark. However, this view neglects to take into account all of the trips taken within the LA to SF corridor that are not complete end-to-end routes.
For instance, a college student at UC Merced may drive several times a year to visit her parents at home in San Jose, or a small businessman in Palmdale may need to check in on his Burbank branch once a week. There are roughly 100 million such intermediary trips taken on an annual basis -- virtually all of which would be made more convenient by high-speed rail. This is where a substantial amount of our ridership will come from.
While I think viewing ridership in this context largely negates the writer's argument over our projections, I would also point out that perhaps part of the reason why there aren't more trips between LA and SF is that current travel options are just not very attractive. Hours on the road or in airports appeal to virtually no one, while a quick and efficient high-speed rail trip between LA and SF will become a no-brainer for many who think such a trip is too much of a pain to make today.
By the way, our ridership numbers are based on an assumption that our fares would be 83% of a discounted airline fare, or about $86 one way (2013 dollars). Current standard LA-SF airfares are more in the range of $250 one way.
We currently have the most traveled air corridor in the country between LA and SF with 40% of the flights delayed. Experience around the world shows that HSR captures about 70% of the traffic in such corridors (the Acela shows similar splits in the Northeast).
[From previous post:] So I ask, why with a rail trip of over 2h40m and fares 50% of airfares, why would 9.5 M LA Basin and SF Bay travelers in 2030 choose rail over highway and air?
Because it’s faster and cheaper than flying, a more pleasant journey and more reliable in bad weather.
[Atrip by air includes getting to the airport and perhaps an hour or more of being hassled over security, et al. But wouldn't the same be true for HSR rail if it becomes a reality?...Why would a traveler in 2030 elect to take the HSR rather than drive, when at present he is willing to spend 6 h on the road rather than fly?]
Except that our program is not just high-speed rail. This is an essential point. It’s an entire rail modernization program. We’re simultaneously investing in beefing up urban and regional rail systems with strong intermodal connections. In 2030 one can go from SF to LA Union Station and take a subway to Santa Monica or a Metrolink train to Ventura, likely faster than going by car.
[Unlike the Northeast corridor, there are relatively few folks living in the towns between the endpoints. And from discussions with these folks I found that most live in these smaller places because they hate LA and SF and have no reason to go there.]
I have to disagree. First, what does “…relatively few folks living in the towns between the endpoints” mean? Fresno is 80% the size of Baltimore; Bakersfield is 20% larger than Newark; Modesto is three times the size of Wilmington and Merced (which no one on the east coast has heard of), has about the same population as Trenton. Air service between the San Joaquin Valley and LA or SF is extremely limited and quite expensive (e.g., 900 bucks from Fresno to LA). A one-hour train trip can replace a three-hour drive.
[Finally the cost of $68 billion is excessive. It amounts to $200M/mile for the undeviated 344 mile distance between LA and SF...]
First of all, the first phase of our system will cover 520 miles, not to avoid tunneling but rather to connect major population centers; in today’s costs that is about $54 billion or roughly $100 million per mile, which is not uncommon for transit systems. (The $68 billion figure represents the fully inflated cost of the project over its construction life.; no one else bothers to present numbers that way). Moreover, our first construction contract bid came in almost 40% below estimates.
[Perhaps we should let the Japanese build the system, but they would likely choose maglev over rail, despite the fact that they operate one of the few highly profitable high speed passenger rail systems in the world.]
Actually, virtually every high-speed rail system in the world has positive cash flows from operations. Some have paid back some of their initial capital. We feel strongly (as do the Peer Review groups that have analyzed our project) that we’ll be generating positive cash flows as well.
Criticism #2: The cost estimates are unbelievable, among other problems.
[The HSR Authority and anybody associated with this cannot be trusted. Past cost estimates have ranged from $40 billion to $100 billion and now down to what, $80 billion?.. We’re being lied to, openly.]
When Governor Brown’s team came in we took a hard look at the costs. We said that the $33 billion number (which may have been in 2006 dollars; no one is certain at this point) that were called out in the 2008 ballot measure would cost more than that, namely about $60-some billion in 2011 dollars; on a fully inflated basis over 15 years, that would have been $98 billion. We then embarked on a cost-saving campaign to use existing trackway in urban areas, reducing the $98 billion number to $68 and we’re embarking on further cost reductions. We have tried to be transparent and it’s all laid out in great detail in our business plans.
[HSR works best between cities with lots of mass transport...]
As part of our statewide raid modernization plan, there will be a growing network of commuter rail, subway, intercity trains, etc. Undoubtedly, there will also be social media-driven services like Uber and Lyft, along with driverless vehicles, etc.
[Business travelers now can make trip in one day between SF / LA. It’s a long day, sure, but it’s feasible because aircraft travel is so fast. Not so with HSR, so many business travelers will shun it. Families then? No... your cost for 4 people is simply going to be much less driving than paying for 4 tickets.]
As noted above, 40% of LA-SF air trips are delayed, mainly due to weather. As for families, our ridership models account for different trip choices for business and personal travel. The operator of the trains will optimize revenues with a variety of pricing strategies and that may well include discounted trips that work well for families, in the same way airfares can be expensive or cheap depending on how and when they are purchased.
[It’s being built in a corridor that doesn’t have a demand problem (down the Central Valley)... I’m guessing a substantial part of any Central Valley congestion is freight trucks, which HSR won’t do a thing to solve.]
Sure it will. Today, the Amtrak San Joaquin train service is the fifth busiest Amtrak service in the U.S. It handles about 1.3 million trips per year and some of those folks have to take the bus from Bakersfield to LA. That service is growing at double digit rates. Building a new passenger only line in that corridor can free up rail capacity for movement of agricultural produce. Right now, big agribusinesses are telling us that they are begging the freight rail operators for more rail capacity but it’s not there. Let’s get those trucks off the highway and move more goods by freight rail, which we can do if we have a new dedicated passenger service by high speed rail.
There are 4 million people who live in the Central Valley. They face many problems, including having some of the worst air quality in the nation, high unemployment and poverty rates, etc. High Speed Rail is one important way to connect the Valley with other economic centers of the state, improving transportation, air quality and land use.
[It bypasses, and has no plans, to connect to Sacramento or San Diego. Ridiculous.]
The way the bond measure was written, those cities aren’t bypassed, but are in Phase 2 of the program...
[California (and maybe the nation) can’t build a damn thing right.... Oh, Governor Brown’s response to the Bay Bridge’s cost and structural problems? “Shit happens.”]
Yes, the Bay Bridge had issues, but that doesn’t mean we can’t build anything. We are using a design-build approach for High-Speed Rail. It shifts appropriate risks to the contractors. We have put together perhaps the most sophisticated risk assessment/risk management program for any infrastructure project in the U.S. We have open and transparent reporting systems so that the public and the Legislature can monitor costs and schedules. I can’t say there won’t be problems, but we’ve studied other major infrastructure projects and have a good handle on how to build this. Again, we have peer review groups looking over our shoulder.
[HSR in general is fine, when done correctly, and it could be done correctly in California, but the current project pretty much guarantees it won’t.
Instead why not build in corridors of proven demand? That would be Sacramento-Bay Area, where the Amtrak Capitol Corridor runs now. An HSR there would be fantastic, and if it failed at least wouldn’t cost a hundred billion dollars or more.]
First, the bond measure set priority for LA/Anaheim to San Francisco. Second, while the Capitol Corridor is a highly successful enterprise, its route along the coast is not amenable to high-speed service; an entirely new route would be required that will be much more expensive. I won’t say that the project, as we inherited it, was perfectly planned, but we can deliver a modern, clean, effective transportation system serving millions of Californians.
Criticism #3: Earthquakes!
[I know that living in the seismic zone has not prevented Japan from building a successful high speed train such as the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka ... I have some concerns about whether Californians would accept the costs necessary to make such a project safe during relatively large quakes.]
We are very aware of the spectacular engineering achievement of the Japanese high-speed rail system. Their techniques for dealing with active seismic zones are the envy of the world and we will adopt them. The Japanese were the first to develop an early warning system that detects p waves from earthquakes, which travel at twice the speed of the main shock waves. During the terrible earthquake of 2011, that detector system cut the power and stopped a high speed train traveling in the Fukashima region that was so devastated. In 50 years of operation, the Japanese have never had an injury or fatality on their high speed rail system. Yes, we can and will adopt this approach.
Criticism #4: Even in Europe, HSR is an impractical boondoggle.
[I think Americans like it because it is a fun and convenient way for tourists to travel between a few make tourist destinations when they have no schedule to meet. Practical, cost effective transportation it is not.... That is under ideal European conditions. Between SF and LA, you have a much smaller potential ridership, a worse network of feeder lines, and higher costs.]
European countries continue to add to their high-speed rail systems and replace other modes of transportation
[HSR in California is a boondoggle and a gigantic waste of money. You're likely subsidizing each potential rider with trends of thousands of dollars construction costs alone, plus more subsidies in operating costs.... HSR represents political corruption, crony capitalism, and vote buying at its purest.]
I know we live in a time of cynicism with strong distrust of government, but these statements are polemical and not based on fact. No subsidies will be given. None. It would violate the bond act and we believe the system will generate significant positive cash flows. Sorry to dispel the notion that this is all to support expensive union contracts; all federally-funded projects are based upon prevailing wage-labor rates and have been for decades. Please read our business plan – the trains will be operated by the private sector, not public sector.
We see this train service as operating at many levels to serve working class Californians and not just affluent ones. Oh, and by the way, our policy is that 30% of all contract dollars must be spent on small businesses. That’s $1.8 billion for small businesses in the Central Valley over the next five years, just on the first construction segment.
Criticism #5: Maglev would be better—cheaper in the long run, easier to maintain, more advanced.
Maglev is an interesting technology but very expensive to build, much more so than high-speed rail. It's also difficult to build maglev where the terrain and topography vary. It's my understanding that these factors more than offset lower maintenance costs, should they even exist.
Criticism #6: Historical precedents in California are discouraging.
[1) the Bay Bridge—only 24 years from earthquake damage to replacement, with an endless string of engineering flaws and delays discovered along the way.]
I can’t comment on the Bay Bridge. We have a strong, accountable management team and previous critics like the state Auditor General have reported significant progress in the way the HSR Authority is organized and operates. We’ve put in place many of the governance and oversight functions required of corporations and we have high transparency in our operations. In the last three years, our progress has been good, despite litigation aimed at stopping the project.
[2) BART to SFO: estimates of ridership were grotesquely inaccurate. They've had to radically reduce the number of trains.]
Uh, I helped build that project [JF note: Dan Richard was on the BART board from 1992 to 2004] and it is a smashing success. The ridership projections proved inaccurate in its first few years only because of the effects on air travel of Sept 11th and the ensuing economic downturn. Within five years, the project was quite robust and today is operating at 105% of its costs from downtown SF to the airport, extraordinary for an urban mass transit system.
Criticism #7: Precedents in the rest of the country are discouraging too.
[The "Access to the Region's Core" project (in New Jersey) was originally estimated to cost $8.7 billion; by the time it was cancelled, that estimate had risen to $11 billion. Half the original funding was to come from NY and NJ (mostly NJ). So the general tax revenues of the state would be used to construct boutique travel benefits for the highest-earning people in the state, while simultaneously increasing travel costs for everyone via gasoline taxes and toll increases.
Why should the bottom 60% or so be required to pay for a shiny new toy for the top 40%? ... So, if you really want HSR in California, all you have to do is argue that the HSR ticket prices must reflect the full cost of the project.]
It’s hard to argue with the overall concern. All I can say is that we are not allowed by law to provide an operating subsidy, so indeed the ticket prices must reflect the full (operating) cost of the project. The public does pay for the initial infrastructure but there are enormous societal benefits, in terms of air quality, GHG reductions, land use, rising employment and incomes, etc. that benefit even those who don’t ride it. Today’s Amtrak service in the Central Valley is heavily used by working class Californians. I can’t make guarantees at this point, but I don’t believe the HSR fares will be out of line with the current passenger rail charges and there will be different levels of service to maximize ridership.
Criticism #8: The project will have little or no positive environmental effect.
[My understanding is that California agriculture uses about 80% of our water but provides only 5% of economic output. Ongoing drought and shifts in federal policy are only making water more expensive. So whatever the ostensible productivity of that land, the price of water means that the future of California's economy will necessarily continue to shift toward the cities. (Hence the farmland-eating sprawl you lament.)...
I can believe that infrastructure programs can have unexpected benefits. But the systemic trends hurting the Central Valley go much deeper than transportation. The HSR won't fix climate change.]
No, electrified HSR won’t stop all climate change, but it will provide dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, along with criteria pollutants. The air quality in the Central Valley is among the worst in the nation. 21% of the kids there have asthma. Widening state route 99, which has occurred in places (the main north-south artery on the east side of the Valley, directly connecting the cities there) gobbles up five times the farmland per mile as we would be taking for HSR. Moreover, while we can increase capacity with more trains, the highways would need ever more widening.
You are right that infrastructure projects can have unexpected benefits. One such benefit is the creation of a new industry in the Valley, providing economic diversity through support service enterprises for the HSR system. Both Fresno State and Cal State Univ. Bakersfield are beginning programs to train their engineering students to work on HSR-related systems. Tying these cities together with larger population centers also can have untold benefits.
It is true that we must get the land use right. We want to encourage high-density development around the stations and good land use planning. Otherwise, HSR could result in additional sprawl. Nothing is a given, but we clearly have our eyes on how this should be done correctly.
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.
Everyone "knows" that China is badly polluted. I've written over the years, and still believe, that environmental sustainability in all forms is China's biggest emergency, in every sense: for its people, for its government, for its effect on the world. And yes, I understand that the same is true for modern industrialized life in general. But China is an extreme case, and an extremely important one because of its scale.
Here are two simple charts, neither of them brand-new but both easily comprehensible, that help dramatize how different the situation is there. The first, by Steven Andrews for China Dialoguevia ChinaFile, compares official Chinese classifications of "good" air conditions with those in Europe or North America.
Here is the point of this graphic: The green and yellow zones in the left-hand column, showing official Chinese government classifications, are for "good" or "OK" air—while those same readings would be in the danger zone by U.S. or European standards. When you're living in China, it's impossible not to adjust your standards either to ignore how dire the circumstances are, so you can get on with life, or to think that any day when you can see across the street is "pretty good."
The scale for all countries stops at 250 (micrograms per cubic meter). Everyone who has spent time in Beijing or other bad-air cities knows what it is like with readings of 500 or above. Even Shanghai had a 600+ "airpocalypse" this past winter. No one now alive has experienced anything comparable in North America or Europe, except in the middle of a forest fire or a volcanic eruption.
Here's the other chart, comparing the 10 most-polluted Chinese cities with the 10 in America. It is from The Washington Post a few weeks ago:
The U.S. readings on this chart show something about challenges in the Central Valley of California, which is where six of the seven most-polluted cities are. (And the other is Los Angeles.) More on that shortly, in our American Futures series. But the scale difference of Chinese pollution is sobering. Even the worst American cities would be in the tip-top most excellent bracket in the chart at the top.
More sobering still: Air pollution, while the most visible (literally), is not the most serious of China's environmental problems. Water pollution, and water shortage, are worse.
Protests on Tuesday in Maoming, in Guangdong province in southern China, against a proposed new chemical plant. (
Here is a crude but effective classification scheme that I have used in distinguishing different economic systems. It is between "efficient" levels of corruption in government and business, and "inefficient" corruption.
Through its era of fastest post-war growth, Japan was highly corrupt. Twenty years ago, authorities raided the home of the party boss Shin Kanemaru—and found gold bars and other loot worth something like $50 million. Yet in Japan, and South Korea and Taiwan and even Malaysia, the corruption was efficient. Bridges cost too much and enriched local barons, but they got built. Factories jacked up prices thanks to cartel rules, but they ran and kept people at work. Anybody who has studied the economic/political history of Chicago or Los Angeles will recognize versions of this bargain.
On the other side were countries like Indonesia under Suharto, or the Philippines under Marcos, or North Korea under the Kims, or a lot of others you can think of, with inefficient corruption. The people who could, looted so much that there was not enough left over to keep the system running.
Either sort of corruption has a self-reinforcing nature. When an efficient system is running smoothly, officials have a stake in its long-term survival, which allows them to keep taking their cut. Thus they steal but don't loot. But when an inefficient one is deteriorating, all involved have an incentive to grab everything in sight while the grabbing is good.
Through its 30-plus years of economic modernization, China has seemed to stick to efficient levels of corruption. Connected families got very rich, but most families did better than they had before.
An increasingly important question for Xi Jinping's time in office, which bears on the even more urgent question of whether China can make progress against its environmental catastrophe, involves the levels and forms of Chinese corruption. Has it begun passing from tolerable to intolerable levels? If so, does Xi Jinping have the time, tools, or incentive to do anything about it? Will exposing high-level malfeasance—like the astonishing recent case of Zhou Yongkang, who appears to have taken more than $14 billion while he held powerful petroleum and internal-security roles—encourage the public? Or instead sour and shock them about how bad the problem really is? Is it even possible to run a government and command a party while simultaneously threatening the system that most current power-holders have relied on for power and wealth?
These are yet another set of Big Questions for and about China. Recent useful readings on the theme:
1) Timothy Garton Ash on "China's Gamble of the Century." Thirty-plus years ago, Deng Xiaoping tightened up politically but overall did so toward the end of enacting economic reforms. Xi Jinping is tightening up politically. This piece examines the possible ends.
2) The views of former President Jiang Zemin on the same topic, as reported by Jamil Anderlini and Simon Rabinovitch in the FT and as shown by the headline below:
3) A big piece by Jonathan Ansfield on the front page of the NYT on Tuesday, about the drive against high-level corruption inside the People's Liberation Army, which itself is far more impressive as a business empire than as a fighting force. This is a detailed and enlightening story on an effort whose success or failure will be important in a variety of ways. As the story puts it:
[Xi's] goal, military analysts said, is to transform a service larded with pet projects and patronage networks into a leaner fighting force more adept at projecting power abroad and buttressing party rule at home, while strengthening his own authority over the army.
4) An op-ed in the WSJ by Desmond Tutu and Jared Genser about the ongoing struggles not simply of Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 while serving a long prison term for "subversion," but also of his wife Liu Xia (below). Even as her health deteriorates, she too remains effectively imprisoned under a form of house arrest. E.g.:
Despite living in the middle of one of the busiest and most populous cities in the world, Liu Xia, a poet and a painter, is cut off and alone. Chinese security officials sit outside her front door and at the entrance to her apartment building.
5) An essay by Perry Link in the NYRB called "China After Tiananmen: Money, Yes; Ideas, No." Sample:
At a deeper level, though, Chinese people (like any) do not feel secure in a system built on lies. The wealthy send their money abroad—and their children, too, for education. In 2013 several surveys and reports showed sharp increases in the plans of whole families, especially among the wealthy, to emigrate, and there is no reason to think that poorer people would not follow this trend if they had the means.
6) Reports like this one from Reuters on the ongoing protests in China against environmental hazards and despoliation. Christina Larson also has a (paywalled) article in Science about farmland in China rendered unusable by pollutants, especially heavy metals.
For now I am not trying to weave these into a larger prospects-for-China assessment. (I did attempt something like that in the second half of China Airborne.) But individually and as a group, items like these suggest the scale, complexity, and importance of the changes the Chinese leadership must undertake.
Exposing corruption without delegitimizing the very system that still runs the country; changing the military without alienating it; controlling disastrous pollution without too noticeably slowing the economy; allowing the growth of civil society quickly enough to satisfy the public but gradually enough not to frighten the party—the obligation to do all these things at once, and more, and fast—makes the challenges for European or U.S. leaders look like easy tasks.
Updates from Greenville and "the upstate" of South Carolina coming soon. In the meantime, selected China readings:
1) "Is China the Next Mexico?" Atlantic readers know Jorge Guajardo and his wife Paola Sada as former Guest Bloggers in this space. In China they have been known in recent years as the face of Mexico, since from 2007 through 2013 Jorge was the Mexican ambassador there. (That's him at the right, in a news picture during a tense Mexican-Chinese moment five years ago.) Now they are living in the United States, where Jorge has delivered a puckishly provocative speech.
Its premise is not the tired one of whether Mexico might become the "next China" but rather the reverse: whether China has the hope of going through the political reforms that have transformed Mexico since the end of one-party rule. Very much worth reading, for its "who should be learning from whom?" approach. I hope they are studying this in Beijing.
Disclosures: Jorge and Paola Guajardo are close friends of our family. Also, the venue for the speech was the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) at the UC San Diego, where I have visited many times and feel part of its diaspora.
2) "A Field Guide to Hazardous China Cliches," by Benjamin Carlson in Global Post. Anyone writing or talking about China gets used to a certain rodomontade. China has not simply been around for a long time. It has a "5,000-year history," which must be referred to in exactly those terms. (I burst out into admiring laughter when, with my friend Michele Travierso, I walked into Turkey's pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010. The introductory plaque said something like, "For 6,000 years, civilization on the Anatolian plain..." ) China was not simply buffeted by the decline of the Qing dynasty at just the time of European colonial expansion. It suffered the "century of humiliation," which explains and excuses any touchiness now.
Ben Carlson, a former Atlantic staffer now based in Hong Kong (and a relative of mine), has a very nice brief checklist of these and other phrases to be aware of and avoid—or at least to surround in protectively ironic air-quotes if you have to utter them. As with one of the phrases he saves for later discussion: "Hurting the feelings of the Chinese people." Again very much worth reading.
3) "In China, Watching My Words." From Helen Gao—a Beijing native, Yale college alumna, and recent Atlantic staffer—a very eloquent NYT essay on how she has adjusted what she allows herself to say since moving back to China. This piece has gotten a lot of attention, and deserves it.
4) "China's International Trade and Air Pollution in the United States." Here is the full-text version of a scientific study mentioned in an Atlantic Cities item recently. Most press coverage emphasized a kind of ironic backflip whammy: U.S. factories had outsourced much of their production to China. And—ahah!—the pollution was blowing right back across the Pacific to get them. (I discussed the ramifications of this coverage in an On the Media segment with Bob Garfield today.)
To me the real impact of the study was in charts like the ones below. Here is what they show, for the pollutants sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides. (There are similar ones for CO2 and other pollutants.) In the left-hand column, that China is putting out a lot more than America is; and in the right-hand column, that the U.S. puts out more per capita, though by a declining margin. The middle column is the important one, showing that per unit of output, Chinese factories are still grossly more polluting than those in America (or Europe or Japan). Thus the economic logic of outsourcing, which is powerful, has also made the world's output more environmentally damaging than it was before.
This is a big gnarly issue, which I've tried to deal with here and here and here. But the importance of this study, in my view, is underscoring how important it is to the entire world to clean up those Chinese factories.
5) Pollution take 5.5 years off every person's life. The study above got headlines for concluding that Chinese pollution (some driven by serving export markets) added one extra day, per year, to Southern California's smog burden.
A study a few months ago by a Chinese-American team calculated that for the 500 million residents of Northern China, pollution was already taking five and a half years off the average person's expected life span. This is a genuine public-health and political emergency.
6) The missing 1 trillion (or 4 trillion) dollars. Not to dwell on the negative, but reports here, here, and here detail some of the ways in which the people running China have tried to insulate themselves and their children from the environmental and other effects of actually living there. These reports are not positive indicators—any more than if the Obama family was moving all of its assets out of the U.S., to protect the daughters' future prospects.
7) Let's be realistic about China's ambitions, and problems. My line all along has been: Take China seriously, but don't be afraid of it. Take it seriously, because what happens there affects the entire world. Don't be afraid of it, because it has problems that already-rich and stable countries can barely imagine. More on this theme from the China Daily. And an interesting twist from Global Times. (Both papers are state-controlled; GT is often more fire-breathingly nationalist.)
8) To end on a positive note, a Chinese lower-pollution car.
That is all. Another Reader coming shortly, on Iran and related topics. Then: the story of Greenville, Greer, and environs.
Have been off the grid for several days, seeing sights like the one above: flooded farmland this past weekend in the Missouri River basin just west of St. Louis. Herewith a series of sky-related updates.
1) 'The Plane Was About to Crash.' Except it wasn't. Margaret Sullivan, public editor of the NY Times, takes another look at the fantasized New York Times Magazine story whose author, Noah Gallagher Shannon, I interviewed last week. Good to see an official response.
2) Paragliders vs. Bulldozers, Round 2. In March I mentioned the showdown between, on the one side, the adventurer / hang-glider / paraglider community that has viewed a particular mountain near Salt Like City as one of the best soaring spots in the world, and on the other side a minerals company that is beginning to dismantle that very mountain to turn it into construction gravel. Earlier I quoted one of the gliders about the site, which is known as Point of the Mountain:
Hang-gliding and paragliding are still relatively unknown to the public. Imagine general aviation pilots losing Oshkosh, surfers losing Maui, climbers losing Yosemite, skiers losing Vail... much of the general public would grasp the significance. The Point is like that for free-flight pilots.
The anti-bulldozer group has now produced another video (original one here) arguing that the mountain-removal work is creating a new dust-borne silicosis threat to residents in the area. The video below has some dramatic footage, and its main argument is this: Until now, most of the mining in the area has been at ground level or below, in pits. This new work involves bulldozing away the tops of mountains, which allows far more dust and pollutants to be carried away by the usually fierce local winds, much of it blown straight toward major cities. Judge for yourself:
For the record, after the first episode I asked the company for its reply but so far haven't heard anything.
3) Yeshivah of Flatbush vs. Southwest Airlines. Two weeks ago I mentioned the latest frayed-nerves-while-flying episode, in which 100-plus high schoolers from Yeshivah of Flatbush were ordered off a Southwest Airlines flight because, according to the crew, they were refusing to sit down, turn off cell phones, and generally behave. Or maybe this was an act of anti-Semitism.
At the request of Yeshivah's leaders, the school's executive director, Rabbi Seth Linfield, conducted an inquiry into what happened. One of the school's alums sent me the report (which is available publicly, in PDF form, here) with this note:
All students and alumni (myself included) were just sent this thorough report on the YoF deplaning incident. You may find it interesting. The story seems to be of another massive overreaction; however, Linfield sounds evenhanded in terms of trying to understand the reasons for that overreaction...
One more thing: Although a puff piece, it's also more thorough than I imagined. The story rings true to me, anyway, and I don't say that about everything I've ever received from an alumni association, much less this one.
The report really is an interesting addition to the literature of "the way we live now, miseries of travel dept." Two illustrations from its tick-tock reconstruction:
6. By all accounts, the gate area before boarding was chaotic. Flight 345, the first flight out from New York to Atlanta on Monday morning, is essentially a "commuter" flight. Southwest/AirTran had significantly overbooked flight 345, with at least 50 passengers, many of them full-paying frequent fliers, told that they could not get off the standby list and would have to wait for the next flight at 8:10am. [JF note: This flight was scheduled for 6:00am. After the students' eviction, the wait-list passengers were able to get on the plane.]
7. At approximately 5:30am, the 101 students, accompanied by seven chaperones, began to board the plane. The seven chaperones had a median experience of 15 years in leading student trips. One of the chaperones is a military veteran with special forces training. Another one is a certified EMT.
27. One student suggested to CNN and in social media posts than anti-Semitism may have animated Southwest's decision. That assertion was repeated in many media outlets and seemed to be the primary driver of the story's "pickup."
28. We categorically affirm that anti-Semitism did not play any role in Southwest's decision, however misguided it may have been. When our chaperones spoke with CNN, they expressly noted this point. This is the position of Yeshivah of Flatbush and its trustees, officers and faculty.
4) Solar Impulse. I've meant to say something about the heartening cross-country flight of this solar-powered craft over the past month. You can read a nice Washington Post appreciation here, and see more at the Solar Impulse home site. And here is a nice video:
The downtown view on May 5, 2013, at 5pm China time:
This item's headline is of course an homage to the official slogan of the 2008 Beijing Olympic games: Beijing huanying ni, 北京欢迎你. Beijing Welcomes Youis also the title of Tom Scocca's very good book about the Beijing of the Olympic era. For me it's now time for another brief immersion.
For those who are wondering: this is a view to the northwest from the Beijing Hotel, just west of Wangfujing. The famous tiled roofs of the Forbidden City are about 1 mile away from where I'm standing. If you could see them, you would see them over to the left in this shot.
[Widespread Chinese ignorance of the "June 4 1989 episode"] reminded me of something another teacher told me. She had asked her students from China if they had heard about the death by starvation of 30 to 40 million people during the so-called "three years of natural disasters" in the early 1960s. Her students responded with stunned silence, as if she, a teacher in Hong Kong, was brazenly fabricating history to attack their mother country.
2) Christina Larson, in Bloomberg Businessweek, about new evidence on the birth-defect epidemic being caused by pollution in China. Sample:
In the U.S., for every 10,000 live births, there are 7.5 infants with neural tube defects. In Shanxi province, that number is 18 times higher: 140 infants....
Over a 10-year period, the researchers gathered placentas from 80 stillborn or newborn infants in Shanxi with the disorder. Based on their analysis, they confirmed that those infants had been exposed in utero to significant levels of pesticides, industrial solvents, and especially polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are released into the air when fossil fuels are burned.
4) A Xinhua report saying that March in Beijing -- when we were there -- was the smoggiest in modern history.
And this is without even getting into the dead pigs, the new cases of "bird flu," etc. China is a big, exciting country. But it has very serious problems, and different problems from those in the Western world just now.
Bonus, these are not about China but among the offerings not to miss from the Atlantic recently:
A) Matt O'Brien on why David Stockman's "sky is falling" recent piece was so wrong-headed;
B) Robert Vare with an extended appreciation of Michael Kelly;
C) John Gould on why the return of Hannibal Lecter is more interesting than you might expect; and
D) - Z) Ta-Nehisi Coates's reports from Europe and Conor Friedersdorf's reports from all over , both too numerous to itemize with links right now but worth seeking out.
1) Nuke risk. Self-explanatory from the headline below, in China Dialogue:
A little bit of the rationale, via a comparison with Japan (which of course had a mid-scale nuclear disaster two years ago):
Chinese nuclear technology can be regarded as approaching global levels, with similar design, safety and operational standards. But to reduce costs, Chinese designs often cut back on safety. In the past, earthquake-resilience was lower than in Japan, for example. China also has much less experience of this sector than Japan.
Qian Shaojun, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, has repeatedly said that nuclear safety relies on experience - you cannot claim something is safe until it has been operating for a certain number of reactor years. Japan has at least 10 times as many reactor-years of experience as China.
2) Dead pigs. Also from China Dialogue, this expansion on the incredible dead-pigs-in-the-river story. This news was just breaking while we were in Shanghai early this month. I've avoided saying anything because ... what can you say? But the story adds detail:
"Dead pigs have always ended up in Shanghai. This time they just went there by river, instead of by truck," said one Shaoxing pig farmer, pointing at a porcine corpse.
Yes, of course, the pigs are by definition dead before they end up on a dinner table. But the story suggests that the cause for the riverine dumping is a crackdown on letting pigs who died from disease into the normal meat supply.
FWIW, from the Atlantic's former staffer Yuxin Gao, a commemorative cake:
3) Chengguan. Everyone who has lived in a big Chinese city has seen and probably grown to fear or resent the chengguan, 城管, the blue-uniformed quasi-police "urban management" squads that do a lot of the roughing-up enforcement of vendors, migrants, squatters, and others on the wrong side of the law. A horrific video on China Smack shows a member of the chengguan being bludgeoned to (brain) death by a villager incensed that they were interfering with his (illegal) construction project. If you think that China is a perfectly under-control society, you could pass up the video itself, but you will find the comments instructive.
Short version: a unique natural mountain configuration has made a site in Utah the best place in America for one particular pursuit. The pursuit is paragliding, and the location, Point of the Mountain south of Salt Lake City, has a very unusual combination of topography and natural windflow that makes it a perfect soaring spot. Point of the Mountain has attracted devotees from around the world, as shown below, and built a substantial tourist economy. But to get more gravel, a mining company has for the past ten days been bulldozing away the very ridgeline that is the basis for this world-renowned activity -- as if earth-movers started chewing up a famous skiing slope or dredging sand from Malibu or Waikiki. It's the familiar story of mountain-top removal mining, in a new setting with new effects.
Now the details. Matthew Amend, of Seattle, a glider pilot, sends this report:
Point of the Mountain is a paragliding and hang-gliding site located on a ridge just a few miles south of Salt Lake City. More free-flight pilots have earned their wings there than any other site in the USA. It has been such a part of the culture there for decades that it was designated as a Flight Park years ago, but that apparently is of no concern to a mining corporation which-- with no warning-- began strip-mining the site a couple days ago....
The bulldozers are just enormous. People woke up in the morning and saw the mountain had literally changed shape overnight. Hang-gliding and paragliding are still relatively unknown to the public. Imagine general aviation pilots losing Oshkosh, surfers losing Maui, climbers losing Yosemite, skiers losing Vail... much of the general public would grasp the significance. The Point is like that for free-flight pilots.
To me it's another demoralizing example of "Capital don't give a sh*t". It's not that capitalism as we practice it immoral or evil, any more than a swarm of locusts is. It's just amoral and relentless, remorseless. I've come to think of capitol as being like Plutonium: incredibly powerful and useful, but it needs to be carefully managed and contained, and for God's sake don't allow madmen to get their hands on it.
Well, as if you need me to tell you that. You've experienced what it's done to China's air, water, and soil.
Here's a dramatic video made by people appealing to stop the strip-mining, and here's a petition [new link here] to local authorities and the mining company, Geneva Rock. The petition has now reached its target number of signatures, but its argument is very interesting and depressing. UPDATE There's anew petition still looking for signatures. Local news coverage is here, and here is a friends-of-the-mountain link.
This is far from the biggest environmental choice or crisis America faces, but it symbolizes the many others constantly going on. You can fill in the rest of the argument and implications yourselves.
By the way, the Geneva Rock company is privately owned by a local Utah family, and it prides itself on its commitment to sustainability. Eg: "Sustainability means building for today and tomorrow without depleting future resources. Geneva Rock Products, Inc. seeks to balance the economic, social and environmental impacts of construction today with the understanding that such work will have an effect on the future." Its spokesmen have even said that they want to consider the gliders' concerns. I've asked the company about the latest showdown and will report back when I get their response.
There's no longer any surprise in noting that China has grave environmental problems. For the record, I am sticking with my claim that the simultaneous degradation of air quality, water quality, water supply, food safety, soil quality, and other environment-related variables is the main challenge to China's continued development. And of course the global effects of China's rise to wealth -- through atmospheric emissions, pressure on natural resources, acceleration of deforestation and over-fishing, market demand for ivory and other body parts of endangered species -- are urgent issue to be resolved with the rest of the world.
The news to me for the day is a site that pulls together relevant pollution readings for cities all across China. Here, for instance, is the almost unbelievably hellish current reading shown for the city of Tangshan, which is in Hebei province near Beijing and has been best known as the site of a disastrous earthquake in 1976:
How I am judging hellishness: Two days ago in Beijing, the AQI readings were in the 350ish "hazardous" zone. That was considered very bad when we were living in Beijing in 2009 and 2011. It's also the level at which I usually can feel the pollution, in the form of a chronic headache and a layer-of-something in my throat and lungs. Earlier this year, during the "Airpocalypse" in northern China, the readings in Beijing and other cities were previously unimagined 700s or above. At face value this Tangshan chart shows something over 1000.
My main purpose for now is to highlight the AQICN site; if you go here, for the Beijing readings, you'll see links to other provinces and cities, and an explanation of what is being measured. Thanks to @pdxuser and Mark MacKinnon for pointing it out.
I mentioned yesterday that while the Chinese hacking story was, deservedly, getting headlines, the Chinese government's decision to impose a kind of carbon tax could be the more important long-term news.
There's a very good assessment by former Atlantic guest blogger Ella Chou at Dance to the Revolution of what this new policy will and will not mean for China and everyone else. Here are your talking points for the next time this topic comes up at a dinner party:
Environmental carnage of all sorts is a truly major emergency in China, both in the short term [Beijing at right] and as a potential limit on the country's development;
Chinese emissions are a problem not just for its own people but also for the world. It has now overtaken the U.S. as the biggest carbon emitter; most of the coal that is burned anywhere on Earth is burned in China.
Contrary to what you might think, China's economy is relatively less efficient, and more polluting, than those of rich countries. It takes more energy to heat and cool the standard Chinese building than one in Europe or the US; Chinese farmers use more water, fertilizer, and pesticide per unit of output than is typical even with mechanized farming in the US; Chinese factories put out more air and water pollution per dollar of production than rich-country counterparts. On a per capita basis, the Chinese economy uses less energy than America's. On a per dollar (or per RMB) basis, it uses more. Simplest way to remember this point: China's economy is nowhere near as large as America's now, but it puts out more emissions.
China's pollution problems are a subset of the larger structural challenge for the Chinese economy -- in a way that is well explained at Dance to the Revolution. For more than thirty years price controls have been set to speed/subsidize the growth of huge export-manufacturing industries, and to increase farm output. Thus all these things have been kept artificially cheap: coal and gasoline; fertilizer, pesticide, water; plus financing itself, and use of the environment as a free good. Because they're cheap, companies and farmers have of course used these things freely and often wastefully.
Everyone in the Chinese economic world knows that the country is not going to move out of cheap-workhouse status, toward the realm of "real" rich-country corporate power and prosperity, unless (among other changes) it begins removing these price distortions. So that's the significance of a modest carbon tax, beyond its limited immediate environmental effect. It's part of the effort to "rebalance" the Chinese economy by removing some of its most distorting factors.
Bonus diplomatic-leverage point: Chinese officials have long used U.S. inaction on climate and carbon-tax issues as a rationalization for not taking steps of their own. On average, we're still quite a poor country, the spokesmen would say. If the rich U.S. can't "afford" to deal with emissions, how could we? Now the country is taking this carbon-tax step for reasons of its own reasons -- as a way to deal with pollution and as another step in un-distorting the economy. But as a bonus it gets talking points to prod the US to do its part.
1) Chinese hacking, as reported in the lead front-page story of today's NYT (and a fascinating story in Bloomberg Bus Week). Is this really something new? Or merely our old friend "threat inflation,"* cued both to the impending sequestration menace and last week's SOTU mentions of new efforts in cyber-security?
We're all working with limited info, but at first impression this reads to me like something new, specifically in the degree of traceability to the Chinese military.
Here's the background: Through the years, anyone who's looked into this topic has gotten used to threat inflation -- but also the reverse, in the form of caveats and cautions about how much is unclear. Yes, public and private facilities in the U.S. and elsewhere are subject to nonstop electronic probes and assaults. Yes, a lot of the attacks seem to come out of China. Still, I've heard time and again how hard it is to tell how much reflects "coordinated" military actions and how much is from on-their-own hackers, rival corporations, or ordinary profit-seeking crooks. Apart from China, there's plenty else to worry about. When I did an Atlantic article about the problem three years ago (source of the illustration above), this is what I heard, emphasis added:
Next, the authorities stressed that Chinese organizations and individuals were a serious source of electronic threats--but far from the only one, or perhaps even the main one. You could take this as good news about U.S.-China relations, but it was usually meant as bad news about the problem as a whole. "The Chinese would be in the top three, maybe the top two, leading problems in cyberspace," James Lewis, a former diplomat who worked on security and intelligence issues and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, told me. "They're not close to being the primary problem, and there is debate about whether they're even number two."
Number one in his analysis is Russia, through a combination of state, organized-criminal, and unorganized-individual activity. Number two is Israel--and there are more on the list. "The French are notorious for looking for economic advantage through their intelligence system," I was told by Ed Giorgio, who has served as the chief code maker and chief code breaker for the National Security Agency. "The Israelis are notorious for looking for political advantage. We have seen Brazil emerge as a source of financial crime, to join Russia, which is guilty of all of the above." Interestingly, no one suggested that international terrorist groups--as opposed to governments, corporations, or "normal" criminals--are making significant use of electronic networks to inflict damage on Western targets, although some groups rely on the Internet for recruitment, organization, and propagandizing.
I agree that there's a lot we still don't know; I'll also say, having seen more of the "Chinese cyber-threat" reports than most people, that this one seems more specific** than before, and the flow of recent evidence has pointed increasingly to China. It's worth reading the whole story, and the underlying Mandiant report. Also see Evan Osnos's good run-down of reasons to think this could be something new.
Two other points of context:
First, before any readers in China write in to inform me, of course the U.S. government has its own extensive cyber-teams. In this as in most other military areas, I would assume that its capabilities are far ahead of the PLA's -- and no U.S. official I've asked has ever led me to think otherwise.
Second, the Chinese embassy's earnest but boilerplate response is one more reminder of the uneven level of everything involving China, including savvy in dealings with the outside world. We're told that the technical probes being sent out are extremely sophisticated. On the other hand, the language of the diplomats traces back to the era of "resolutely condemning" foreign hegemony etc:
Contacted Monday, officials at the Chinese embassy in Washington again insisted that their government does not engage in computer hacking, and that such activity is illegal .... [JF note: pirate videos are also "illegal" in China. So is speeding, bribery, etc.]
''Making unfounded accusations based on preliminary results is both irresponsible and unprofessional, and is not helpful for the resolution of the relevant problem,'' said Hong Lei, a ministry spokesman. ''China resolutely opposes hacking actions and has established relevant laws and regulations and taken strict law enforcement measures to defend against online hacking activities.''
2) The real problem for, and with, China. My friends at Danwei have a report, drawn from the Chinese media and Chinese studies, showing that groundwater in nearly all Chinese cities is polluted, and that in about two thirds of them it is "severely" polluted. That is what the big Chinese headline below says.
To put this in context:
Environmental disaster is the gravest threat to China's continued
development. That's according to me, but it is not some wacko view.
The Chinese government is trying very hard to deal with these
problems, and is even unleashing the press to do more. The question is
whether anyone can do enough, fast enough.
This latest report closes a circle. The air that people breathe in many Chinese cities has become dangerously polluted.
Their food supply is subject to constant contamination scandals. Now it appears that not merely stagnant ponds but the water people draw from deep underground is already
tainted. This is a giant problem -- for them, and for everyone.
I mention this because I worry about it and its implications a lot more than whatever the Chinese cyber-sleuths might have in mind, damaging as the cyber-assaults can be.
* For the record: I am not suggesting that the NYT reporters, whom I know and respect, are "inflating" anything. But it is a reality that certain reports, interviews, disclosures come into reporters' hands at some times -- and not at others.
** Eg, this part of the NYT story, about a building in Shanghai that by chance I have seen, though I have not gone inside. (I'll look for it when I'm there next month):
Mandiant [a security firm] discovered that two sets of I.P. addresses used in the attacks were registered in the same neighborhood as [the military's] Unit 61398's building....
"Either they are coming from inside Unit 61398," said Kevin Mandia, the founder and chief executive of Mandiant, in an interview last week, "or the people who run the most-controlled, most-monitored Internet networks in the world are clueless about thousands of people generating attacks from this one neighborhood."
ChinaFile is a new venture by the Asia Society, for which the Atlantic will be a partner and to which I will be one of many contributors.
The discussion today genuinely is worth noticing. It's about the reasons for, and likely consequences of, the "Airpocalypse" that is now evident through so many big Chinese cities. For reference: That's our old neighborhood in Beijing, in a picture shot from a 30th floor window last week.
The long introductory post by Alex Wang, whom I knew in Beijing when he represented the Natural Resources Defense Council there, and who is now at UC Berkeley, sets out all the reasons why the current emergency matters for China and the rest of the world. Other contributors elaborate on some of the even worse ramifications, and possible responses.
As I argued last month -- here, here, and here -- the nearly unendurable conditions that Chinese growth has brought to many Chinese people represent a kind of challenge that the system and its leaders have not reckoned with before. Apart, of course, from the effects on the rest of the world. I think you'll find this discussion valuable and clarifying, if not exactly encouraging. (I have a cameo entry at the end, saying essentially what I've just said here.)