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.
Yes, yes, I am aware that Rashōmon is a Japanese reference, and we're talking about events in China. But bear with me—at the moment it's a convenient shorthand for the contradictory possibilities, and the unknowable underlying reality, of events that are important but not fully understood. If you'd prefer, you could think of this as Heisenberg Comes to Hong Kong.
Two days ago I mentioned some of the downbeat political and economic news out of China, mainly involving challenges for the economy and the continued tightening of political controls under the hoped-for reform leader Xi Jinping. Now three representative reactions from readers in and around China:
1) “Stop being such a downer.” From a reader based in the U.S. who often does business in China:
Please don't do this if you can help it. For years, you were the guy bringing out ideas. Now, not so much.
I know how many bad stories there are. My family provides them. I see them. There are plenty of folks to point out the obvious.
It is only stories that everyone knows. You're reinforcing ideas already in peoples heads.
There's no lack of forecasters predicting doom for China. It's the story Westerners like best.
There are better and more interesting stories.
The stories that get written are the ones already in Westerners heads. Everything is viewed thru the Western lens. No one is writing from a Chinese view. I understand why. It's anathema. One would be outcast.
Folks think it's a billion people yearning to be free. It's more like a billion people wanting clean air, an apartment, a retirement home that's not a shithole, fashionable clothes.
But those are stories that run counter to Western canon on China.
I recently did a trip across Hubei and Hunan that was (sort of) like your trip across the US. The overall vibe was positive. It's a different picture of China than folks in the US get.
2) “The reality is downcast right now, and you might as well say so.” From a foreigner who has lived in China for the past 10+ years and has been involved in the music business there:
I've spent more time in Hong Kong of late, as my wife and I are planning to return to the US after many years in China, and we're organizing our affairs in Hong Kong as an intermediate on our way back to the US.
The situation for music became so dismal in China that I finally decided to give up the endeavor altogether. Our last several live shows were tampered with in a very heavy-handed way by the gov't: we were forbidden from performing certain songs at the last minute and not permitted to substitute others for them, our show times were moved around at the last minute, and our appearances even spliced out of videos of the events. I concluded that it was no use trying to fight these (invisible) forces, and we decided that it would be best for us to move back to the US and focus on a future there.
It's a sad day. I remember the overwhelming sense of optimism among my Chinese friends when I first moved to China [more than ten years ago]. The sense then was that the genuine opening up of China was inevitable, and everyone (I'm speaking of my Chinese friends and colleagues and not expats) had the sense that the heavy hand that had been upon them for so long was finally lifting.
Now my sense is that optimism is all but gone. The strident nationalism is no substitute; it brings a certain angry determination but almost none of the spontaneous optimism that was so evident a decade ago. I feel so sorry for China's artists and scientists, who are not only very talented, but who will suffer both in career and in reputation because of forces in the country that are beyond their control
On the bright side, things are looking up for the US, and my (uninformed) guess is that roughly speaking as China spirals into more and more economic peril because of its dubious policy choices, it will be much to the benefit of the US economy, as people from China and elsewhere flock toward the West generally and the US in particular in search of the optimism that they can no longer find in China.
3) “Things are good and bad at the same time.” From someone formerly of Hong Kong, now in the U.S.:
As an ex-Hongkonger, I am of course as disappointed and frustrated as many are at Beijing's decision not to allow direct election of our Chief Executive. However, being a determined optimist, I see this as a cup half-full.
First , let's remember that the British government has never allowed any sort of elections for the CEO (Governor) of Hong Kong, or India, or any of its former colonies (including the United States) in its long and shameful history of colonialism either, as every Chinese mainlander will tirelessly remind you. So no one can deny that indirect election as now proposed is definitely a step forward.
Second, I propose we should view the CEO of Hongkong not as equivalent to the US President, but as a US Supreme Court Justice, who is also nominated by the party in power and not elected by the people. What this means is that as long as the CEO candidates nominated by China maintain their independence after the elections, we are in good shape.
Hongkongers need to find an Earl Warren, who seemed to toe the party line before nomination but who turned out to be a defender of civil rights. Whether such a candidate can be found is a test of the moral integrity and courage of Hongkong's elites. Whether Beijing will acquiesce in his/her subsequent independence will be a test of its good faith. But as things stand right now, a bad outcome is not a foregone conclusion.
All these accounts are true. After the jump, a quote from China Airborne on the necessity and difficulty of accepting such contradictions.
The red circles show typical 30-mile-radius no-fly zones that accompany a president, in this case one centered on Martha's Vineyard and one over Otis Air National Guard base on Cape Cod. (FAA Sectional Chart)
I believe I am the only amateur pilot who’s a Democrat. Okay, I'm exaggerating. I can think of four others. No, five! Therefore when people in the aviation community talk about the effect of “Presidential TFRs”—the 30-mile-radius no-fly zones, known as Temporary Flight Restrictions, that travel with a president wherever he is—they often begin by saying, “Welcome to Obama's America ...” or “That idiot Obama has done it again...” The complaints started some other way between 2001 and 2009.
Politics apart, I give you this account from someone who flies the same kind of small propeller airplane as I do, but who happens to live in the vicinity of the Clinton-and-Obama-preferred summer vacation site of Martha’s Vineyard. He originally posted this on a pilots’ private-discussion board but agreed to its reposting here. I've added a few explanations of aviation lingo in brackets, [like this]. This person, who uses his plane to fly himself on business trips, writes:
I just spent the last two weeks living with the presidential TFR on Martha’s Vineyard. I flew through the TFR nearly every day, commuting to work and with other activities. Unlike past years, I did it mostly VFR, IFR days excepting, of course. [VFR is Visual Flight Rules, the clear-sky conditions in which pilots set their own courses. Under IFR, Instrument Flight Rules, pilots file flight plans in advance and must follow controllers' instructions on course, altitude, etc.]
In the past years when the president was on the Vineyard, I filed IFR every day to go through the outer ring. [The farther-out part of the the 30-mile-radius space, where you need prior approval to fly. The inner ring, usually with 10-mile radius, is much more tightly controlled.] That’s a major PITA, especially when it’s clear skies.
This year, on the first day of the TFR, I phoned Cape Approach [local Air Traffic Controllers, or ATC] and talked to one of the controllers and asked him what was the best way from their perspective and he said just to call Cape Clearance from Chatham on the ground (CQX [Chatham airport] is untowered) and get a squawk code and that would be fine. [Squawk code is a four-digit code you enter in the plane's transponder, which lets controllers watching radar screens know which plane is which.] Cape Approach’s perspective was that if you are squawking a code and talking to them, you are fine in the outer ring ...
In the interest of caution and even though I had been given the guidance from Cape Approach, I diligently followed the NOTAM [Notice to Airmen, the equivalent of "now hear this" bulletins] and filed and activated a VFR flight plan every day from Foreflight [a popular and excellent iPad-based flight planning program] when flying VFR.
1. VFR flight plans are useless for the TFR. [A VFR flight plan is mainly useful as a search-and-rescue safeguard, so people know where you were intending to go and when, if you don't show up.] Boston Approach stated as much when he alluded to “entering you in the system” as I was picking up flight following on the way home one day. I told him I had a VFR flight plan open, if that saved him some work and he responded to the effect that it wasn’t enough. You need to be in “the system” [in the system = filing identifying info for the plane and pilot, along with intended route and timing for this specific flight, in the ATC system] and added “you don’t want to mess with them”....
2. Controllers get as nervous as we do. I wonder if there are Secret Service or others sitting in the ATC facility? ATC gets extremely nervous when the president is on the move. At one point, he left the Vineyard and went back to D.C. for a day and this started another TFR centered on Otis (FMH), and creates lots of uncertainty, since he is rarely on time and the TFR times drift. [The image at the top shows airspace when both TFRs are in effect.] I knew this was happening and planned to avoid the FMH inner 10 mile ring already. The controller was very jumpy, asked me my heading and told me he would advise. I let him know I was “direct GAILS [a GPS navigation point], if that helps” which kept me outside the ring. He said “Thank you” and never bothered me again, after an audible exhale.
3. Lots of pilots are clueless. At one point, ATC asked me if I had a visual on somebody low and slow, squawking 1200. [1200 is the transponder code for planes flying visually and not necessarily talking with controllers. Planes inside the TFR should not be using this code.] I never saw him, but I did see the flash of sunlight off the wings of the orbiting F-16’s from miles out as they turned to investigate. I never heard what happened. Lots of pilots stumble into the area unaware of the TFR. How can this be? There were too many forehead-smacking moments as I listened to the daily dance. We as pilots have to do better.
4. Actually going to the Vineyard (MVY) [MVY is Vineyard Haven airport, on the island] inside the inner ring is a “whole 'nuther thing”. Yesterday, we went to visit friends who were staying on the Vineyard, and rather than take the ferry for 90 minutes, I decided we would just fly. Made the reservation at Hyannis with the TSA, per the NOTAM and made the 4-minute flight to HYA from CQX [Chatham to Hyannis] for our “check.”
Wow, what an employment spectacle that was. We were directed to a holding area and a bus was sent to pick us up, after waiting in the plane for some time. The plane was fully unloaded of luggage and we and our bags were taken to a temporary screening area where the bags were searched by hand. We were all frisked/wanded. My plane was inspected by another person. I gave pertinent information to others seated with laptops, who were talking to ATC and passing the approvals on. Eventually, they determined that the duffel bags of lunches, sweatshirts, frisbees, and suntan lotion posed a low security risk.
An hour after landing, we were loaded back on the bus and dropped at the plane to repack it, and get started again for the 10-minute flight from HYA to MVY. [Hyannis to Vineyard Haven.] How to make a 15-minute flight into 2 hours? With the TSA, anything is possible. In the end, the screening experience left me disappointed that I had to go to such great lengths to fly my airplane within 10 miles of another fellow citizen on my way to the beach. We, as a nation, are very afraid of airplanes. Sigh.
5. ATC were great to work with throughout. They were absolute professionals.
6. The amount of hardware and manpower mobilized to support this vacation are incredible. I flew out of the Vineyard last night at 10pm after the TFR had been lifted and saw the exodus of all the supporting cast. Multiple C-5’s taking off for Andrews, two Ospreys, four F-16’s, Coast Guard and State Police helicopters, and more. It was breathtaking and concerning.
There are multiple businesses that are effectively shut down during the vacation TFR. There is a skydiving outfit at Marston Mills that is in the outer ring, along with some banner towing that stops operations. More impacted are the businesses on the Vineyard. The usual weekend line of planes landing for breakfast on the Vineyard are gone, for sure, but the biggest hit is the grass airfield at Katama. There is a great breakfast place there, bi-plane rides and across the road is the open beach of the Atlantic. Katama hosts dozens of planes on any given summer day. That entire thing shuts down. I wonder if the restaurant owners, bi-plane operator, skydiving businesses, FBO's etc. are compensated? It's a huge hit for these businesses at what is basically prime time of the summer vacation on Cape Cod.
Life on the Cape has returned to normal. Until next year.
There is a larger, stricter, and permanent version of these controls sitting over Washington, D.C. airspace all the time. Presidential campaign season is a nightmare for the air-traffic system, because rolling no-fly zones accompany the incumbent president (and sometimes smaller ones for challengers) during campaign travels. Here is what an Obama bus trip in the industrial Midwest did to airspace two years ago:
The big red circles in Michigan and Ohio were for currently active TFRs. The yellow circles were for ones about to go into effect. The big red one over D.C. is the permanent zone there. The little yellow one just above it is Camp David. Here is a post from a pilot who was flying at the time of that TFR.
I am not making a sweeping policy point here. As far as policy points go, anyone who knows the history of the 1960s understands that it is genuinely important to protect presidents from threat of mortal harm. (How would the history of that era differed if John F. Kennedy had stayed in office? Or a century earlier, if Abraham Lincoln had?) Anyone who knows America understands why Barack Obama has required even more protection than most of his predecessors. I am very glad the Secret Service has done its job as effectively as it has.
Instead this is offered as a specimen of the operating realities of our security state—many of which persist precisely because they don't come to public attention. Are these 60-mile-wide shutdowns the least obtrusive way of realizing the legitimate national goal of protecting a president? They seem excessive to me, though of course I'm biased. But the next time some president asks me for advice on where to summer, I'll suggest: Look for a place that won't snarl life and shut down business for millions of people who happen to live there. Maybe even a place like ... the outskirts of Waco?
Crowds in Hong Kong protest the Chinese government's edict on voting rules. (Reuters)
First, for fair-and-balanced purposes, if you'd like to start with some depressing trends out of the U.S., be sure to read “The punditry vs. the presidency,” by Michael Cohen in the NY Daily News. It is about the destructive, non-accountable pundit pressure on Barack Obama to prove his strength by “doing something” about the crises underway around the world. Ah, it brings the "why we hate the media" days back so vividly.
On to China.
1. Politics. Last night my wife and I heard the cheering news on (state-controlled) China Central TV that universal suffrage was coming to Hong Kong. Great! And, yes, we actually watch this channel a lot of the time.
Unfortunately, as everyone except the state-controlled Chinese media pointed out, the announcement was part of a deal that ensures that the right to vote won't really matter. The Hong Kong electorate will be able to cast its vote only for one of several Party-approved candidates. As an illustration of the contrast in coverage, reader Rick Jones sent this screen shot:
On the overall situation, here is a useful assessment by Richard Bush of Brookings. For instance:
China's 2012 promise [of universal suffrage by 2017 for Hong Kong] created hopes among the public that the chief executive would be picked through a truly democratic election. Those hopes have now been dashed, and it is likely that China has bought itself more instability, not less.
After the jump, an email from a long-time foreign resident in Hong Kong about some local reaction to the decision.
2. Economics. If you want the big picture on why the challenge now facing China’s economic leaders is different from, and even harder than, ones they have dealt with in the past three decades of rapid growth, you could start with Minxin Pei’s China’s Trapped Transition. It came out six years ago, and it foresaw a structural crisis for China's economy within six or seven years. Or, you could even read China Airborne, which is on this exact theme. For now I suggest that you start with two online postings by Michael Pettis, in Beijing.
One is a guide to the four stages of development the political-economic system has gone through, from the poverty of the 1970s to the mixed success-and-crisis situation of the country today. Here is what Pettis thinks a not-yet-realized fourth step would mean:
What China needs now is another set of liberalizing reforms that cause a surge in social capital such that Chinese individuals and businesses have incentives to change their behavior in ways that generate greater productive activity from the same set of assets.
These must include changing the legal structure, predictably enforcing business law, changing the way capital is priced and allocated, and other factors that determined the incentives, so that Chinese are more heavily rewarded for activity that increases productivity and penalized, or at least less heavily rewarded, for rent seeking.
But because this means almost by definition undermining the very policies that allow elite rent capturing (preferential access to cheap credit, most importantly), it was always likely to be strongly resisted until debt levels got high enough to create a sense of urgency. This resistance to reform over the past 7-10 years was the origin of the “vested interests” debate.
The other Pettis article is this new item on the very bad, and less bad, options for a Chinese fiscal/financial transition.
3) Sociology. My friend Eric Liu points out in a WSJ essay (drawn from his very good new book A Chinaman's Chance) that China has practically no naturalized citizens: some 941, as of the 2000 census. No doubt there are more now, but by comparison the U.S. has somewhere in the vicinity of 18 million. Like Eric Liu, I view this as reason #1 that the long-term strategic assets of the United States vastly exceed those of China. Also, see the report from Frank Langfitt of NPR on a much-discussed recent episode in which a foreigner keeled over, unconscious, on a Shanghai subway and everyone on the train ran away rather than offering help.
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.
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.
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 complaints, 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.
My colleague, Alexis Madrigal, has a wonderful daily newsletter called 5 Intriguing Things. If you haven’t signed up for it, you can check out back issues here and sign up to get it delivered daily here.
In the same spirit, and before resuming the High Speed Rail saga, here are five (bonus six!) articles worth mentioning. These are connected only by my having noticed them while reading and traveling and wanting to pass them on.
1) The Washington Monthly's sensible college rankings. As I've chronicled here before, in one chapter of life I was involved in trying to clean up the "America's Best Colleges" ranking system, as editor of US News & World Report. For background on US News ranking controversies, see an item by John Tierney last year, and one from me five years ago.
The biggest problem with that ranking system is that it ends up being mainly an input measure. The oldest, richest colleges, which can choose from the widest range of the best-prepared students, naturally come out on top. Over the past few years, The Washington Monthly (where I also once worked) has developed inventive ways to measure output—not the advantages that students begin with, but the difference a school makes to them and to society. Rankings aren't going away, so the only answer to bad rankings is more and better ones.
This week TWM put out its latest update, with a set of associated articles. You can find links to all of them here. I’m delighted that the #1 school on this year's “National Universities” list is UC San Diego, where I have spent so much time over the years (including last year as a “Pacific Leadership Fellow”) that I feel like an honorary Triton. Also, that four of the top five are UC branches--and the other is Texas A&M, whose research programs I've written admiringly about.
2) "Terrorism as Theater," by my Atlantic colleague Robert Kaplan, in his role as chief geopolitical strategist for the global intelligence firm Stratfor. Kaplan's article, which you can read here, explains the hideous logic of ISIS's videotaping its murder of James Foley. A sample:
In producing a docu-drama in its own twisted way, the Islamic State was sending the following messages:
• We don't play by your rules. There are no limits to what we are willing to do. • America's mistreatment of Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay comes with a "price tag," to quote a recently adopted phrase for retribution killings. After all, we are a state. We have our own enemy combatants as you can see from the video, and our own way of dealing with them. • Just because we observe no limits does not mean we lack sophistication.
Sobering and worth reading in full.
3) "Friends of Israel," by Connie Bruck in The New Yorker, which you can read here. This is a long, dispassionate, names-and-dates-and-quotes explanation of how situations like the following can arise:
• American opinion is very sharply divided, among Jews and non-Jews alike, about recent trends in Israeli policy in general and the Gaza operation in particular. Yet the U.S. Congress, which most of the time can't agree on even basic steps for which there is overwhelming public support (like rebuilding bridges and highways), has rushed to pass unanimous (!) resolutions backing Israel's Gaza policy, and to vote near-unanimous increases in funding for "Iron Dome." Bruck gets Senators, Representatives, and staffers to explain how and why this occurred.
• Similarly on Iran, the story explains how, even as an American president and his secretaries of State and Defense stressed the importance of negotiations with Iran, AIPAC got 59 Senators to sign onto a measure that would effectively torpedo the negotiations and commit the U.S. to back Israel if it decided to attack Iran. Bruck quotes Sen. Diane Feinstein's tart remarks in opposing the measure (which the White House fought bitterly, and which did not succeed): “We cannot let Israel”—or of course any other country—“determine when and where the United States goes to war.”
The story is very much worth reading for its quotes and detail, and also as a marker. Journalists have for decades written routinely about lobbies and their role in our politics. The gun lobby, the big-oil lobby, the trial lawyer lobby, the military-industrial lobby. The anti-Castro Cuban lobby, the tobacco or sugar lobbies, big pharma, the “China Lobby” of the Chiang Kai-Shek era, a different kind of China lobby now, and a dozen others you might name. I think it's a positive step toward realistic discourse to have matter-of-fact treatment of this part of the lobbying landscape. But read it and judge for yourself.
Meanwhile, if you'd like to see an argument that Bruck has gone way too far in criticizing AIPAC, see this in Commentary. If you'd like the opposite critique, see this in Mondoweiss.
4) Uber vs. Lyft. I've been a big fan of Uber, but they have a lot of explaining to do if the details in this carefully documented piece by Casey Newton in the Verge are correct. (And at face value they are quite damaging.) Meanwhile, for a version of how the “sharing economy” debates are spilling over even into the realm of small-plane aviation, check out this account in Flying magazine.
5) More on the militarization of the police. If you're looking for a big-picture perspective on the trend that Ferguson, Missouri has brought to everyone's notice, check out this report from the ACLU.
6) To end on a brighter note, consider this brief item from HotPads blog about the way some Midwestern industrial cities are trying to reduce their carbon footprint.
California and railroads: not a contradiction in terms (
If David Letterman can put out a Top Ten list night after night for decades, we can certainly make it all the way to 10 in our chronicles of the California High-Speed Rail debates. As a reminder, this is No. 8 in a series on the most ambitious and consequential infrastructure project now under consideration in our infrastructure-degraded land. It is the plan for a north-south California High-Speed Rail system, which had its genesis before Jerry Brown’s second coming as California’s governor but is now his signature project as he runs for reelection to an unprecedented fourth term. For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, and No. 7.
Early this month, a three-judge panel of a California state appeals court gave the project a significant boost, by overturning a lower-court ruling that had blocked the system's major source of funding. There are still more legal challenges ahead, plus debate about the plan in this fall's California election; plus ongoing sniping between the most influential Democrat in California, Jerry Brown in Sacramento, and the most influential Republican, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in Washington. For now, California HSR chugs ahead.
Here's a guide to upcoming installments. Today we'll hear a range of questions, complaints, fears, and outright denunciations of the system, drawn from mail that has arrived in the past few weeks. In the next installment, No. 9, we'll go into some further environmental, financial, and land-use aspects of the plan. Then in No. 10, I'll offer my unified field theory on why the 90 percent of Americans who don't live in California should care about the plan, and why I think it can be an important step for the state that has long been most influential in setting technological and environmental standards.
Also as an upcoming guide: We are continuing our American Futures journeys, including right now in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where we are meeting the Marketplace team tomorrow. Soon after Labor Day we'll be back in this space with reports on the cities we have visited over the summer, from Duluth, Minnesota to Winters, California, and points in between.
For now, the HSR mailbag.
1) "Ridership forecasts are simply unbelievable." This is from someone with extensive technical experience in high-speed Maglev train projects.
I have followed your articles on CAHSR with great interest. I am not a fan of the project and would like to make the following observations—
Your concern about what is going to happen without HSR in California is well placed. Congestion on highways and at airports is bound to reach epic proportions. However I do not think the present plan for HSR is going to avert this problem.
Ridership forecasts are simply unbelievable. Currently there are about 15 M annual person trips between the LA Basin and SF Bay areas by highway and air, about evenly divided. This is highly unusual. In the US for a trip of this length ~400 miles where there is good air service, the proportion of highway trips is generally much lower. We are comparing a 6 hour road trip with a little over 1 hour air trip. The average airfare, $130, is also unusually cheap, about half the airfare between Washington, DC and NYC for a distance roughly twice as great.
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?
Ah! but you say, a trip 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?
Firstly there are 5 airports in metropolitan LA and 3 in metropolitan SF serving the California corridor. It would appear that an airport would be closer at hand than a rail station. Don't imagine that TSA would miss the opportunity to hassle rail passengers. Already Amtrak imposes onerous restrictions on its passengers. [A colleague] attempted to buy tickets in advance at DC Union Station for himself and his wife, and was told the station agent could not sell his wife's ticket without her being present and showing ID. (However he was directed to a ticket machine nearby where he was able to buy both tickets without ID and with what could have been a stolen credit card.)
Think about it. 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? One reason of course is that the road trip will take more than 6 h by then due to congestion, but also getting to a rail station will also take much longer in a crowded metropolitan area.
As for the projected 28.8 minus 9.5 M riders between intermediate points, there is even less reason to switch from auto to rail. Trip times are much shorter and you have a car at both ends. 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. [JF note: OK, maybe, but they often have to go to either of those cities for business, entertainment, etc.]...
Finally the cost of $68 billion is excessive. It amounts to $200M/mile for the undeviated 344 mile distance between LA and SF. Of course the actual rail line is round-about to avoid tunnels and serve those small towners in between. However the proposed Japanese maglev system between Tokyo and Nagoya is estimated to cost $5 trillion yen/286 km, or $167 M/mi. It involves over 142 miles of tunnel! Also the speed is substantially greater than CAHSR. So avoiding tunnels does not seem to save on US construction costs.
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.
Incidentally I do not hate rail. I worked for the Federal Railroad Administration for over twenty years, and I take rail whenever I can, including driving from Palm Springs to San Bernardino and catching Metrolink to LA whenever I travel there. And I encourage others to take the train whenever possible.
2) No-good, terrible, very bad idea. From an engineer in the Central Valley:
Bad, bad, bad. In no particular order:
· 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? In other words, the cost estimates are determined by political expediency. Actual costs are, of course, likely to be far higher. We’re being lied to, openly.
· HSR works best between cities with lots of mass transport. That is probably true for SF, certainly not for LA. Whatcha gonna do when you get to downtown LA and you need to be 50 miles from there? Rent a car and join the masses stuck on the freeway. At least LA has a few airports that might get you closer.
· 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. Yes, driving is longer but your cost for 4 people is simply going to be much less driving than paying for 4 tickets. And you’ll have your car, instead of an additional rental cost.
· It’s being built in a corridor that doesn’t have a demand problem (down the Central Valley), and even if there were, another lane on Interstate 5 each way would fix that. I’m guessing a substantial part of any Central Valley congestion is freight trucks, which HSR won’t do a thing to solve.
· It bypasses, and has no plans, to connect to Sacramento or San Diego. Ridiculous.
· Think airport security is bad? HSR will require a very ugly fence on each side of it. Imagine if someone snuck over and place a small wedge on a track. How you gonna protect 500 miles of rail?
· California (and maybe the nation) can’t build a damn thing right. CalTrans went $2 billion over on building the new Bay Bridge span (1/2 of the total span), and it has an ever-growing list of serious problems. It’s not foolish to question if the new span will, in an earthquake, remain standing. I’ve seen the same gross but genial incompetence in my government agency. There’s simply no accountability. Oh, Governor Brown’s response to the Bay Bridge’s cost and structural problems? “Shit happens.”
The problem with the California HSR is the proposed project. 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.
3) What about the earthquakes? A reader in the Midwest is one of several people to write in with this concern:
I lived in Marin County for quite a few years, including the time of the Loma Prieta quake. I have also had the dubious pleasure of living through some rather substantial quakes in Tokyo, China, and Indonesia during my travels.
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 (which I have taken several times—and is a great ride), but I wonder what real dangers exist for a California route that would seem to cross over the most seismically active and dangerous portions of the state.
I credit the Japanese for doing the most serious anti-quake engineering in the world, but have some concerns about whether Californians would accept the costs necessary to make such a project safe during relatively large quakes.
4) "A boondoggle and a gigantic waste of money." From a reader in California:
I used to live in Europe, about 10 minutes walking distance to a major HSR line. I also live within walking distance of Caltrain in California and take it frequently.
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.
High speed trains run rarely enough that you can't take them close to appointments. Delays mean that you often need to leave long layovers to make sure you make a connection. In the end, going by HSR often takes 2-3 times as long as driving. Trains are also much more expensive than long distance buses or flying.
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.
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. That's not even counting the expensive union labor for construction and public union labor for operating the trains. HSR is a scheme by which the average tax payer has to pay for the convenience of a small number of privileged and wealthy city dwellers, give contracts to a small number of well connected corporations, and pour money into the hand of unions and union workers. HSR represents political corruption, crony capitalism, and vote buying at its purest.
5) Back to Maglev. From a person I know in Washington, who has worked for years on Maglev projects.
As you know, I advocated for the use of maglev technology over HSR for years. The reason the Central Japan Railroad is going with its superconductor maglev technology, at their own expense, for their new Chuo Shinkansen line is not just because of faster top cruising speeds, but because of the significantly lower maintenance and correspondingly higher "system availability" that maglev technology offers them. Lower annual maintenance costs means lower life cycle costs for the entire system, which is why CJR chairman Yoshiyuki Kasai is deploying this technology at the company’s own expense—yes, without government funds.
Too much is made of speed, though speed is important. But, to be able to travel at high speeds with relatively low maintenance costs allows operators to not require annual operating subsidies from tax payers, something government run railroads are not overly concerned with. In other words, this technology shift creates an environment that encourages private investment in high-speed ground transportation because profits are not only possible, they are highly likely in any reasonably busy corridor.
Aside from the Wenzhou-Hangzhou viaduct crash in July of 2011, the Chinese slowed their HSR trains down from 220 mph to 185 mph because they also learned some laws of physics: for each speed increase of 10 mph over 185 mph, train maintenance costs double. Not only do wheels get replaced more frequently, but rails too.
6) Sobering lessons of experience:
I'm an instinctive supporter, as you are. But life the Bay Area has thrown a couple of cautions at me:
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. And a busted budget. Is HSR management likely to be better? Otherwise, the thing will take a century.
2) BART to SFO: estimates of ridership were grotesquely inaccurate. They've had to radically reduce the number of trains. Now I voted for and love BART to the airport. Works great for me (makes it SFO to LAX instead of OAK to BUR). And various friends were employed in the project for a decade. But the precedent seems dubious.
7) "Just raise the ticket prices to pay for it." From a reader on the East Coast:
You may recall that, in 2010, Chris Christie scuttled a plan to build two new tunnels under the Hudson—I'm a NJ resident and a sometime commuter, so I was paying close attention.
Christie based his objections on the likelihood of cost overruns (which would have to be borne by the state); those who supported the project, like the NY Times, argued that he should take all cost estimates at face value. Voters, who have had a long, long experience with cost overruns (you might recall the Big Dig in Boston ...), inclined to Christie's side of the argument. After all, we'd just spent significantly more than half a billion dollars to feed the egomania of Frank Lautenberg via the "Frank R. Lautenberg Rail Station at Secaucus Junction".
But there are perfectly good reasons to criticize such projects from the Left. The "Access to the Region's Core" project 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%? Certainly, as one of the latter class, I can appreciate that I'm arguing against my interests ... but would it be fair?
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.
8) "It won't fix climate change." Finally for today:
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.)
Thus the question of "what do we do with the Central Valley?" looms ever larger. As you know, unemployment rates are terrible there. I interpret the HSR mostly as a jobs plan. 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.
Last night I wrote about the upcoming race for the governorship in Maine. Four years ago, the Independent candidate (and my longtime friend) Eliot Cutler narrowly lost to the Tea Party Republican Paul LePage. Now LePage is running for reelection, Cutler is running against him as an independent, and the Democrats have nominated Mike Michaud, the incumbent representative from Maine's northern, rural Second District.
I said that I admired and supported Cutler, but that on venerable Atlantic "of no party or clique" principles I'd be happy to post a 30-second video from the other candidates like the one I posted from Cutler's. I give you now David Farmer, a senior adviser with Michaud for Maine, who wrote by email as follows:
In a recent article that you wrote about Eliot Cutler, you offered to post a video from U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud's campaign for governor. I would like to take you up on your offer. Here's a link to the video from YouTube. You can also link to the ad from our website, which is www.michaud2014.com.
And while I certainly understand your allegiance to your friend, I would also add that Congress Michaud isn't your typical politician ....
Congressman Michaud comes from a blue collar background. He worked in a paper mill for 29 years. He first ran for office when he was just 24 years old with the goal of cleaning up the river that was being polluted by the mill where he worked. He has a compelling life story and decided to leave Congress to try to get Maine back on the right track after four terrible years under Tea Party Gov. Paul LePage. He's one of the few members of Congress who isn't a millionaire and who brings a real determination to represent working families.
But I suspect that there's little need to argue the merits of Congressman Michaud or the dynamics of the race that show him to be in the best position to defeat Gov. LePage.
Instead, I'd just ask that out of fairness, you post our video alongside Mr. Cutler's.
There you go. If and when I hear from the LePage campaign, I'll post their clip as well. People of Maine, over to you.
First, a disclosure. Eliot Cutler, who nearly won the race to become Maine’s governor four years ago and is now running for the job again, is a close family friend. My wife and I often hung around with him and his wife Melanie when we were all living and working in Beijing. He ran an American law firm's office there; she was in practice as a doctor. The Cutlers’ daughter Abby, now herself a doctor, was once a young editorial staffer at TheAtlantic.
During the 2010 race, I did an item saying that if I were from Maine, I would enthusiastically vote for Eliot for governor. This was in keeping with my Official Policy that journalists should steer clear of endorsing candidates except (a) in presidential races, where every American gets a say, and (b) for personal friends, as explained in this 2006 item about then-Senate candidate Jim Webb.
The drama of the 2010 Maine governor’s race was that Cutler was running as an Independent, against the Tea Party Republican Paul LePage and the Democrat Libby Mitchell. In most states, third-party candidacies are pipe dreams. Maine is an exception. Angus King, who succeeded Olympia Snowe as U.S. senator, is an independent who had previously been a popular independent governor. James Longley, governor in the 1970s, was also an independent.
Paul LePage is about as right-wing a governor as now serves anywhere in the U.S., and is considerably to the right of the other major statewide officials, Senators King and Susan Collins. (Maine does not have a lieutenant governor.) LePage made it into office with only 38.3 percent of the vote, as Cutler and Mitchell split the anti-Tea Party majority. Eliot started out behind; closed fast in the final month of the campaign; and ended up just short of LePage, with 36.5 percent. That was almost twice the Democratic total (19 percent), and by most accounts he would have won if the race had gone on a few days longer—or if fewer people had voted early, before it became clear that he was the stronger anti-LePage candidate.
This year the Democrats have put a more concerted effort into fielding a candidate, Representative Mike Michaud. The Democrats argue that they offer the better prospect for getting rid of LePage; Cutler argues that he would be the more policy-experienced and ambitious governor.
In that contest, I'm with Eliot, whom I've known and respected since were both young staffers in the Jimmy Carter administration. He worked in the White House on Carter's prescient energy policy, and had previously worked for Maine Senator Ed Muskie on the original Clean Water Act. I've talked with him a million times about the problems and opportunities for his state. He was the one who first suggested that we visit Eastport, Maine, as part of our American Futures series.
Of course what I think doesn't matter to anyone in Maine. What might is the endorsement yesterday from Angus King. Because polls have consistently shown that most Maine voters would rather not have LePage as their governor, King addressed the "strategic voting" question: whether a vote for the Independent candidate would make it more likely that LePage stays in.
King, one of Maine’s most popular politicians and a former two-term governor, said that Maine voters need to choose the best candidate for the job, regardless of political party or whatever perceived chance of winning the candidate has three months before Election Day.
“What people have to cross over is this idea of trying to think of all the political angles,” King said. “If the people of Maine look at these candidates and say, ‘Who will make the best governor, who has the ideas, who has the best thinking?’—Eliot wins. That’s why I believe he’s going to. That’s the calculation.”
For me this race holds mainly personal interest. For the country, it's worth watching as a test case of possible alternatives to major-party duopoly. Everyone wishes the two main parties were less encrusted and impregnable. Maine is one of the few places where a third-party alternative actually has a chance. We'll see how it goes.
Here is a sample of Eliot Cutler's current campaign themes. Having admitted my bias, I'll make this offer: If the LePage and Michaud campaigns have comparable 30-second campaign videos, I will post them as well.
The stormtrooper look by law enforcement in Missouri has usefully brought into focus the long-term trend of police forces morphing into military units. For previous installments and a reading list, see here and here.
Today's photo, courtesy of Michael Vosburg of the Fargo, N.D. Forum, is of a police team six months ago, in the winter. The photo is worth a second look, for details ranging from the vehicle's license plate to the choice of green camouflage in the snow.
The full story, by Archie Ingersoll, is also worth reading. It points out that the last big public disturbance in the Fargo area was 13 years ago, during the Testicle Festival. (I'll let you look it up.) Oddities like the Testicle Festival are part of the picture we'd like to have of Americana. Combat-dressed cops are not, or shouldn't be. Usefully, the Forum article ends with a sane observation from the police chief of Moorhead, Minnesota, which is Fargo's sister city across the Red River:
[F]ear is a factor police have to be mindful of when dealing with disorderly crowds, said Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger. When officers don intimidating riot gear, their appearance alone can stir trouble.
“If you show up with that gear and you don’t have a riot, you’re inviting one,” he said. “The best weapon we have is our ability to communicate.”
Let's send Chief Ebinger to Ferguson. Meanwhile on policing, reader Billy Townsend of central Florida says the Ferguson showdown highlights the oddly uneven ways in which we hold public servants "accountable":
There's a fascinating parallel here between police officers and teachers. Police body cameras and test scores serve the same purpose. They are meant to provide accountability, assessment, and motivation for the core interaction between a public servant and the public served.
American political power at all levels has determined that a tortured, inaccurate, funhouse mirror statistical approximation of a teacher's interaction with a student is absolutely vital to public well-being and worthy of billions and billions of tax dollars.
Meanwhile, it is controversial—and maybe too expensive—to provide a precise, direct accounting of the core interaction between a police officer and the public. That is, to be direct, completely nuts.
Think about it: in the eyes of American state power, teaching Mike Brown makes the teacher immediately suspect and open to public sanction based on Mike Brown's test scores. Shooting Mike Brown in the street and leaving his body uncovered for four hours makes Mike Brown automatically suspect in the eyes of state power.
A camera provides for police the holy grail that education reformers seek for teachers—the ultimate evidence of policing quality. How would such evidence have changed what happened in Ferguson?
More from Townsend on his own site, here. Thanks to reader JW for the Forum tip.
Update If you would like an illustration of Townsend's point about the difference that photographic evidence can make, consider this cellphone video of police shooting to death Kajieme Powell yesterday.
I learned recently that Hugh Calkins, a lawyer and educational-reform leader, had died early this month at age 90. He was very well known in Cleveland, where he raised his family and spent most of his career, but I think his achievement and character deserve wider notice.
Calkins's early years were as complete a sweep of meritocratic successes as you can imagine. He was born in Newton, Mass., and went to Exeter and then Harvard. He studied engineering, was president (editor) of the Harvard Crimson, graduated early, and enlisted in the Air Force. When he was out of the service, he went to Harvard Law School, where (like Barack Obama many years later) he was president of the Harvard Law Review. Then he was a law clerk, first for Learned Hand on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and later for Felix Frankfurter on the Supreme Court. Not yet married, he decided to move to and start his career in Cleveland, on the hunch that he would find it more satisfying to be fully engaged in the life of a "large representative city" like this.
A tribute from Calkins's law firm, Jones Day, gives an idea of his day-job accomplishments as a long-time partner and head of the firm's tax practice. A site set up by his family lists more of his range of achievements, notably including his 61 years of marriage to Ann Clark Calkins and raising their four children.
I met Hugh Calkins, and came to admire him, in strange circumstances. In the late 1960s, when Calkins was in his mid-40s and I was in my teens, he rose to sudden prominence at his alma mater, Harvard. I had just become president of the Harvard Crimson when he was chosen as the newest–and youngest, and first Midwestern, and by a million miles most "progressive"–member of the Harvard "Corporation." The Corporation, formally known as the President and Fellows of Harvard College, is the ultimate governing authority for the world's brand-name university. (I see that Harvard's official site now embraces the body's name, saying that "The oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere is the Harvard Corporation.") Now it is larger, but then it had only five members, so one forceful new person could make a big difference.
The university at the time, like many others institutions and like much of the country, was all but blowing up. Poor Harvard president Nathan Pusey, a distinguished leader with the sensibility of a bygone age, had absolutely no idea how to deal with student and faculty protest over the war in Vietnam and other sources of turmoil. Hugh Calkins—who had opposed the Vietnam war and earned a place on Nixon's enemies list, who was serving on the Cleveland school board, and who had been involved in a long effort to improve finances and standards in Cleveland's over-crowded schools—represented something entirely new. Yale already had the smooth president Kingman Brewster; soon Harvard would have the smooth new president Derek Bok. But for a while in 1969 and 1970, the closest thing this institution had to a smooth conciliator was Hugh Calkins of Cleveland.
The Crimson ran a profile at the time, "Who Is This Man Hugh Calkins?" I think I wrote it, and I know I did the reporting and interviewing of Calkins, but it's all a sixties-era blur. What I remember is the difference he made. It is embarrassing to quote oneself as a teenager, but for the record:
In the first week of the strike, Calkins talked about dissent and ROTC and all the other issues for two straight nights on television. He ate breakfast with students in the Houses and told them about ROTC. When he saw posters in the Yard giving some students' version of what he said, Calkins trotted over to the Crimson to type out a reply and explain why the poster version was a distortion.
With a somewhat disturbing energy and bounce, Calkins has spoken in House dining halls and appeared with SDS members on panel discussions. A few other Corporation members have tried the same thing on a smaller scale. But now, at the beginning of May, there are probably no more than five or six undergraduates who could give an accurate description of what any of the other Fellows looks like.
Who is this man Hugh Calkins, and why is he now so present on our campus?
That era passed, for the university, for the country, for Calkins himself. By 1984, when he was 60, he had become the senior figure on the Corporation and reached the end of his term. Through much of the rest of his career, his passion—apart from his family—was public education. He taught math in inner-city Cleveland middle schools. This former president of the Harvard Law Review went back to John Carroll University to get a teaching credential after retiring from Jones Day, and continued his teaching work. Eventually he founded a charter school and ran an organization called Initiatives in Urban Education. In the words of his son Andy, from an email letting me know about his father's death, "He cared deeply about injustice, poverty, the rule of law, and the right of every child to a high quality education."
I mention this because Hugh Calkins was a person of enormous talent and opportunity, who kept deciding to apply his energy, his abilities, and his leverage to the public good. It is an example worth noting. Sympathies, and admiration, to all of his family—including one of his daughters, who by chance* is now the principal of the public elementary school our children attended (before her time) in Washington D.C.
There will be a ceremony celebrating Hugh Calkins's life and achievement in Cleveland on September 13. My wife and I hope to be there.
* Although we did not realize this connection until long afterward, by chance we sort-of owe our marriage and thus the existence of our children to the indirect influence of the Calkins family. My wife Deb and her sister Sue grew up in a very small town on Lake Erie. Ann Clark Calkins was interviewing candidates for Radcliffe/Harvard from northern Ohio and ended up steering them there, which is the only way my wife and I would ever have met.
Sheriff Andy Taylor and equipment-loving Deputy Barney Fife (Wikipedia)
If you haven't yet seen it, please read this Storify account, by Kelsey Atherton, of how veterans of real combat—in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere—view today's wildly over-militarized American police. For instance:
A reader on the East Coast responded to my post last night, which said that perhaps the scenes of stormtroopers among us would startle the public into realizing how far this security-state trend had gone. This reader, S.C., suggests a contrasting visual cue:
Maybe you’re right to conjecture that police-state images might horrify the country into restoring good sense about cops in combat gear, riding in tanks on streets. Here’s a thought about that. It’s not new, but it might be worth mentioning.
I’ve pasted in an image [shown at the top of this post] that may fit slantwise with your insight. It’s not what you meant, but it conveys the message in a country that still likes seeing if calm wisdom and brains can head off any need for ostentatious official bellicosity. From the old and much-loved The Andy Griffith Show, it’s Sheriff Andy Taylor, who spurns sidearms in police work, and whose face expresses all that needs to be said about Deputy Barney Fife’s comically enthusiastic wanna-be militarism.
I love it that Sheriff Taylor always allowed Deputy Fife to carry only one bullet, and required him to keep it in his pocket. Maybe you’ll want to keep this photo in yours, in case it’s needed (and assuming it’s not already there).
It’s unrealistic, of course, to try too hard to map this half-century-old sitcom onto present problems. But it’s also unwise not to recall what Sheriff Taylor stood for, and not to recognize the extent of the country’s respect for it.
Agreed. On that same theme, here is a clip from an episode of The Andy Griffith Show 50 years ago, in 1964, in which Barney Fife has a different helmet but the same enthusiasm for dress-up military gear.
That gentle, dismissive, pretense-puncturing humor—something I associated with Andy Griffith in my childhood and that my parents did with Will Rogers in theirs—doesn't have an exact current counterpart, or not one I can think of just now. Stephen Colbert is closer than Jon Stewart; in his earliest, funny-rather-than-angry days, Rush Limbaugh could sound this way. Among politicians, Ronald Reagan was actually good at it—"There you go again!"—as was John F. Kennedy in some of his press conferences. It's an effect Barack Obama strains for and sometimes achieves, for instance when poking fun at the latest Birther-style claim. (And yes, before you point it out, I'm aware that in an actual small Southern town 50 years ago, the real-world counterparts of Andy Taylor and Barney Fife would have been enforcing segregation laws.)
We would like to think that such level-headed, amused BS-detection is part of our national cast of mind. A Yank at Oxford! The Duke and the King in Huckleberry Finn! The Tweet shown above, by @BFriedmanDC, may offer a glimmer of hope for its reappearance. It is the kind of comment Sheriff Andy Taylor might have made if he had seen legions of Barney Fifes dressed for war.
Ferguson, Mo. police watching over their city (Reuters)
The images from Missouri of stormtrooper-looking police confronting their citizens naturally raises the question: how the hell did we get to this point? When did the normal cops become Navy SEALs? What country is this, anyway?
There will be more and more mainstream coverage of the modern militarization of the police, a phenomenon mainly of the post-9/11 years. For reference/aggregation purposes, here is a guide to further reading:
1) The Book on this topic: Rise of the Warrior Cop, by Radley Balko. It came out a year ago and is more timely now than ever.
2) "Lockdown Nation," a Peter Moskos review of Balko's book last year in PS magazine.
6) Update: An important and well-illustrated report by Matt Apuzzo in the NYT two months ago, called "War Gear Flows to Police Departments."
7) Update^2: A new report from Alec MacGillis in TNR on how "anti-terrorist" funding from DHS has equipped police forces with this CENTCOM-style war gear.
This Ferguson, Missouri episode is obviously about race, and is (another) occasion for pointing readers to Ta-Nehisi Coates's powerful "Reparations" article. It is also about how we govern ourselves, and about how far the ramifying self-damage of the post-9/11 era has gone.
"Self-damage"? All the literature about terrorism emphasizes that the harm directly done in an attack is nothing compared with the self-destructive reactions it can induce. From Fallujah to Ferguson, that is part of what we're seeing now.
I won't belabor that theme for the moment but will say: Perhaps these incredible police-state-like images will have some attention-focusing or "enough!" effect, like their counterparts from another era (below). Meanwhile, check out Balko's book.
Two first families: the Obamas and the Clintons at a ceremony on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death (Reuters)
On return from a long spell away from the Internet, I was going to recommend that you read Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with Hillary Clinton, and not just the setup but the transcript as a whole. But such a recommendation is hardly necessary, since for several days the interview has been making news worldwide.
There are two ways to think about the political and policy implications of Hillary Clinton’s deciding to say what she did, during this strange limbo period when she is clearly preparing to run for president but has more to lose than gain by officially saying so.
• One approach would be to think that we’re primarily witnessing a media event—journalists doing what journalists do. It's in our nature as reporters, even when representing an institution as august as a 157-year-old magazine, to highlight what has changed rather than what’s constant, what is controversial rather than what’s agreed on, the one juicy, taken-in-isolation sentence that will make people stop and say, Did you see that? And it is in nature of the political commentariat to seize on any sign of rancor or big-shot melodrama.
Therefore if our Atlantic site runs a headline suggesting that Hillary Clinton is all but blaming Barack Obama for the ISIS/ISIL menace (“Hillary Clinton: 'Failure' to Help Syrian Rebels Led to the Rise of ISIS”), or if we emphasize the few places where she departed from his policy rather than the many more where she supported it, maybe we’re just revealing the way we journalists think. When politicians start complaining that some comment was “taken out of context,” this is the point they’re trying to make. And in fairness, anyone who reads the whole transcript will find that the tabloid version of her comments—weakling Obama lost Syria!—is cushioned in qualifiers and complexities.
If this is the way the Clinton camp feels about our presentation of the interview, they are perfectly well versed in all the the formal and informal ways of getting that message across. Indeed, just this afternoon, a little while after I started typing this item (but several days after the interview ran), the first such indication appeared, in a "no criticism intended" story via Politico.
• The other approach is to think that Hillary Clinton, as experienced a figure as we now have on the national scene, knew exactly what she was saying, and conveyed to an interviewer as experienced as Goldberg exactly the impression she intended to—including letting the impression sink in through several days' worth of op-ed and talk-show news cycles before beginning to offset it with an "out of context" claim.
That impression is a faux-respectful but pointed dismissal of Obama's achievements and underlying thought-patterns. It's a picture of the president approximating that of a Maureen Dowd column. It also introduces into Democratic party discourse the “Who (re-)lost Iraq?” “Who lost Syria?” “Who lost Iran?” and “Who is losing the world?” queries that the Republicans are perpetually ready to serve up. All this is presumably in preparation for Clinton's distancing herself from a "weak" Obama when she starts running in earnest to succeed him.
If the former interpretation is right, Clinton is rustier at dealing with the press than we assumed. Rustier in taking care with what she says, rustier in taking several days before countering a (presumably) undesired interpretation.
I hope she's just rusty. Because if she intended this, my heart sinks.
It sinks for her, that she thought this would make her sound tough or wise; it sinks for the Democratic Party, that this is the future foreign policy choice it’s getting; and it sinks for the country, if this is the way we’re going to be talked to about our options in dealings with the world.
The easiest and least useful stance when it comes to foreign policy is: Situation X is terrible, we have to do something. Or its cousin: Situation X is terrible, you should have done something. Pointing out terribleness around the world is not even half of the necessary thought-work in foreign policy. The harder and more important part—what constitutes actual statesmanship—is considering exactly which “something” you would do; and why that exact something would make conditions better rather than worse; and what Pandora’s box you might be opening; and how the results of your something will look a year from now, or a decade, when the terribleness of this moment has passed.
E.g.: Yeah, we should have “done something” in Syria to prevent the rise of ISIS. But the U.S. did a hell of a lot of somethings in Iraq over the past decade, with a lot more leverage that it could possibly have had in Syria. And the result of the somethings in Iraq was … ? A long story in the NYT tells us that the current leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph himself, drew his political formation from America’s own efforts to “do something” in Iraq:
“He was a street thug when we picked him up in 2004,” said a Pentagon official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. “It’s hard to imagine we could have had a crystal ball then that would tell us he’d become head of ISIS.”
At every turn, Mr. Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’ involvement in Iraq — most of the political changes that fueled his fight, or led to his promotion, were born directly from some American action. And now he has forced a new chapter of that intervention, after ISIS’ military successes and brutal massacres of minorities in its advance prompted President Obama to order airstrikes in Iraq.
Of course everyone including Clinton “knows” that you should only do something when it’s smart and not when it’s stupid. In her books and speeches, she is most impressive when showing commanding knowledge of the complexities and contradictions of negotiating with the Russians and Chinese, and why you can’t just “be tough” in dealings with them. In those specifics, she can sound like the description I just came across, in Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, about some pre-World War I Balkan leaders: “It is a characteristic of the most skillful politicians that they are capable of reasoning simultaneously at different levels of conditionality. [One Serbian figure] wanted peace, but he also believed—he never concealed it—that the final historical phase of Serbian expansion would in all probability not be achieved without war.”
But in this interview—assuming it's not "out of context"—she is often making the broad, lazy "do something" points and avoiding the harder ones. She appears to disdain the president for exactly the kind of slogan—"don't do stupid shit"—that her husband would have been proud of for its apparent simplicity but potential breadth and depth. (Remember "It's the economy, stupid"?) Meanwhile she offers her own radically simplified view of the Middle East—Netanyahu right, others wrong—that is at odds with what she did in the State Department and what she would likely have to do in the White House. David Brooks was heartened by this possible preview of a Hillary Clinton administration's policy. I agree with Kevin Drum and John Cassidy, who were not. Also see Paul Waldman.
But really, go read the interview. Either way, the presumptive nominee has, under Jeffrey Goldberg's questioning, shown us something significant.
An Israeli artillery unit fires into Gaza (Baz Ratner/Reuters)
This post has been updated to reflect the IDF's updated Palestinian casualty figures, which give the non-combatant fatality rate for Operation Protective Edge at about 50 percent. [Please see update explanation at the end.]
Through this week and still for the next few days, I am out of the country and in unreliable and very expensive Internet range. So for timeliness reasons, I am now posting, without elaborate set-up, an email message that has come in from Dr. Hillel Ben Sasson, director of programs at the Molad think tank in Jerusalem, who was part of a memorable exchange last month with an American rabbi visiting the city.
This latest message is about the ways in which—from a progressive Israeli’s point of view—the nation’s government and military should and should not be held culpable for the destruction of houses, schools, power plants, hospitals, and other structures in Gaza, and the appalling civilian death toll there. Like his previous message, this one raises questions of “universal” versus particularistic or narrow morality and human obligations, and what standards of ethics apply in a situation like this one, where the position of the parties is so different in so many fundamental ways. I would like to engage these, plus the ethical ramifications for Americans and others far from the scene, but I can’t do it in present circumstances.
In my freedom from Internet exposure these past few days, I have instead been reading two powerful histories that cast the origins of World War I in (for me) new light: To End All Wars, by Adam Hochschild, and The Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark. Plus The Atlantic’s own special centennial issue on the war, which I have just managed to download and will read tonight.
More, later, on how these bear on the morality of Gaza. For now, another dispatch worth reading carefully from Hillel Ben Sasson:
Before addressing the actual question of whether or not the IDF's actions in Gaza were permissible and therefore justifiable, it's important that we differentiate between the responsibilities and potential blame of the military and government, and the judgements we pass on the Israeli society with its almost consensual support of the soldiers. Let us begin with the latter group.
In my view, it is not only permissible but indeed commendable that a society whose sons and daughters are sent to fight in its name and who are paying with their lives to enable this society to continue and thrive, responds in an overwhelming wave of support and solidarity. Israelis sending anything from candy to underwear down to those on the front are a sign of social health and collective decency. (A friend of mine who was fighting in Gaza told me that as he was manning a post in Gaza, an armored tank stopped by them, dropped a pack of McDonalds burgers sent from the "back", and continued on to its mission).
The military and it's commanders in government, however, we ought to judge by a different standard, and this standard is the rules of war.
These rules are not moral ornamentals; they are the globally agreed upon laws that govern exchanges of violence between nations. They stem out of the understanding that unchecked violence is bad for everyone - today for you, tomorrow for me - and that immense power comes with considerable responsibilities for the ways of exerting it. Abiding by the rules of just war has nothing to do with anti-patriotism or pacifistic convictions. It is what prevents wars from deteriorating to complete mutual annihilation. From this elementary understanding, I draw several conclusions:
1. I can think of no military objective in the world that would justify a 50 percent non-combatant casualty rate (These are IDF numbers).* We must ask, what exactly were the specific objectives that resulted in such a horrific toll? I doubt that there's an answer which is both true and acceptable. And we must remember, it was Netanyahu and Yaalon who called the shots,
2. I have no doubt that the IDF is true to its word - there was no intentional targeting of civilians. This however, is not enough. Yes, Hamas launches rockets from densely populated urban areas; Hamas might also use Innocent Gazans as human shields. Yet the hand that pulls the trigger is the one that bears responsibility. It might be justified in pulling it, but it cannot escape scrutiny altogether.
3. A troubling issue for me is that there's no debate on the facts - IDF officials admit that innocent civilians were killed in the recent bombing of the UNRWA school in Rafah. We had witnessed in the past military operations that took a severe toll in civilian lives on the other side, but we have never seen such a resignation to accept so high of a body count simply because it serves a tactical military objective. This is worrisome to me.
Finally, I would like to remind readers in the USA that for us, Israeli progressives, this is not an abstract moral debate. It is our responsibility to address our own society with these questions, it is our role to confront our leadership with pressing and hard issues. It lies on our shoulders to bridge between the two realms, channeling the enormous forces of social solidarity into national self correction.
*This post originally used outdated IDF casualty figures showing an 80 percent non-combatant death rate on the Palestinian side.
JF addendum, August 12, 2pm EDT: As noted above, this message from Hillel Ben Sasson came in while I was on the road, in Europe, in places with no regular internet connection. On Sunday Hillel Ben Sasson sent a note saying that the IDF had updated its casualty data. The "85% non-combatant" figure he had used earlier had been replaced by one saying it was closer to 50%. My colleagues on the Atlantic's site updated the post at his request.