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.
A 500-pound cake, inside the arena it depicts (Village Bake Shoppe)
Yesterday Marketplace had a very thorough story about Allentown’s effort to revive its downtown, and I did a teaser for a series of posts we’ll start next week. If you check the Marketplace link, you can read a great overview by Tommy Andres of the city's predicament and plans. As a bonus you'll see the incredibly Village People-esque Billy Joel music video of his early-80s song "Allentown" (which was actually about nearby Bethlehem) plus modern-day pictures of the city. You go can straight to the video here.
For now, an update on the event that’s the official kickoff of the new era in downtown-Allentown’s history: the debut of the new PPL Arena, with a concert at 8 pm tonight by The Eagles.
Two weeks ago, our team of road-hardened reporters—Kai Ryssdal and Tommy Andres of Marketplace; John Tierney and Deb Fallows of the Atlantic, plus me—were absolutely as one in disbelieving that the now-shiny, then-unfinished new arena could possibly be ready in time for tonight’s scheduled opening.
But by all on-scene accounts, ready it is. I just heard from one local resident that there is still some last-minute patchwork underway. But the huge trucks carrying The Eagles’ stage equipment have been there for a long time, disgorging equipment and setting up for the show that starts five hours from now as I type.
Mayor Ed Pawlowski told me today, “We’re ready!” Doug Pelletier, head of a software firm that has just moved its headquarters to a renovated site one block from the arena, agreed. Scott Krauss and Matt Assad of the Morning Call, who have followed the downtown plans from the start (and often questioned them), have an upbeat report on the opening. They include this quote from Ray O'Connell, a city councilman:
"What this means to Allentown is hope. Hope. Hope for a better Allentown. Hope for the families of Allentown. Hope for the children of the families of Allentown. Hope. And without hope, you have nothing."
To round things out, here is an on-scene update from the Atlantic’s own Corby Kummer. He is in town not for the concert but, in his role as one of the world's leading food writers, for a board meeting of the Rodale Institute. The Rodale publishing empire is based just south of Allentown in Emmaus, and the Rodale Institute, nearby in Kutztown, is the nation's leading center for trials of organic vs conventional farming techniques. Corby reports:
"Hell, yeah, it's ready. Ya gotta have faith." This was the response [yesterday afternoon] of a crusty guy at loading dock of the arena. "Now we just have to get the food in." He was directing traffic in and out of catering facility.
Workers on sidewalks at the rear corner were hosing the concrete. Traffic on the road leading to the monument, 7th St, is still blocked in all but one lane.
[This morning] I stopped a large guy in a small delivery truck with Village Bake Shoppe written on the side and asked if he’d delivered food. Yes indeed, he said. A gigantic 500-pound cake that’s a replica of the whole city block. He said it took over 70 hours and he needed eight people to help him unload it.
Faith. Hope. Cake. And rock stars. You need them all. Good wishes to Allentown tonight, and more of its saga next week.
Update: Here's a livecam, via the Morning Call, of the new arena and the crowds there hearing the Eagles. Didn't know of it when the show began, but will watch when it breaks up to check the crowds.
PPL Center arena in the heart of downtown Allentown, as it looked two weeks ago. On Friday night at 8 pm, it kicks off Allentown's new era with a concert by The Eagles. (All photos: Deborah and James Fallows)
In a few hours, our partners at Marketplace will carry their latest “American Futures” report, this one on an unusual, high-speed, and high-stakes effort to revive the tattered downtown district of Allentown, Pa. Starting next Monday, here at the Atlantic’s site, Deb Fallows, John Tierney, and I will kick off a new season of American Futures reports with a series of posts on Allentown's ambitions, challenges, and personalities.
In between those two dates—to be precise, tomorrow night, Friday, at 8 p.m.—the new era in the town's long history will begin, when a brand-new 10,000-seat arena will have its debut event with a concert by The Eagles. If you're interested in getting tickets, good luck! Some people told us that the concert was entirely sold out three hours after tickets first went on sale; others, that it had taken 24 hours. Either way, it's a significant moment for the town.
What you see at the top of this post is the way the arena and its surroundings looked less than two weeks ago, when the most common downtown sights were cement trucks, construction cranes, paving crews, and other signs of people working hard against a deadline. What you see below this paragraph is one of many sketches of how a revived Allentown central district is hoped to look.
"Will this possibly be ready in time?" we asked ourselves—and our hosts. "Yes!" said mayor Ed Pawlowski, who has overseen the revitalization effort from the city-government's perspective. "Yes!" said J.B. Reilly, the developer most prominently involved in the downtown effort. "Yes!" said Lee Butz, whose construction firm is building the arena. We'll all know for sure tomorrow.
The story we plan to tell about Allentown and the surrounding Lehigh Valley region is different from what we expected before going there (which is, of course, the reason to make these trips), and I suspect different from the image that the city's name may call up in many people's minds. Billy Joel's anthem of industrial decline "Allentown" is misleading in a micro way. It's about the ripple effects of shutting down a huge steel works—but that was in fact the story of nearby Bethlehem and its enormous Bethlehem Steel plant, whose ruins have now become an eerily compelling modern-Stonehenge style arts center, concert venue, and casino. (The music-video is also an astonishing specimen of early-Reagan-era camp, but we'll save that for a later installment — plus the reasons why Billy Joel called the song "Allentown" rather than "Bethlehem" in the first place.)
Allentown has suffered its large industrial layoffs, notably with what had once been the world manufacturing center for Mack trucks. Now that is a center of advanced-tech and light-manufacturing startups—including a great brewery, and a "meadery"—working on what had been the Mack shop floors.
We'll describe the goal of "walkable manufacturing" that the people running this center envision for their community.
But the overall economy of the Lehigh Valley region is stronger, for surprising reasons, than many outsiders would assume. What many people in Allentown describe as the city's real problem, and the challenge their new programs are designed to address, is specifically the decay of their historic downtown as a place where people were willing to shop, dine, spend time and money, work, live, and generally consider an attraction rather than a menace.
Thus when people in Allentown talk about a turning point downwards in their city's modern history, they're less likely to mention the Bethlehem Steel shutdown than the shuttering in the 1990s of the main Hess department store, which had been one of the highest-grossing retailers in the country. If you go to these archives of the Morning Call, you can find some astonishing Times-Square-on-New-Year's-Eve pictures of the throngs that once teemed in front of, and down the aisles inside, the main Hess store. (I will include some if I can get permission from the relevant people at the Morning Call. Meanwhile, here is one from Department Store Museum.) The Hess store and many other downtown retailers were the victims of, naturally, the spread of suburban sprawl-malls. By the way, the more we travel, the more we come to regard these malls as Public Enemy No. One in the mis-shaping of late 20th century America.
Getting an idea of what downtown Allentown had once been helped me understand a comment we heard from State Senator Pat Browne, a Republican who represents Allentown and who is credited with coming up with the tax plan, known as Neighborhood Improvement Zone or NIZ, that plays a crucial part in the investment boom now underway. "Ten thousand people coming right here, downtown!" he said two weeks ago, looking forward to what should happen tomorrow night. "What that will mean to everyone here ..."
If you look even a block or two in the wrong direction from the hub of all the construction, you can see all the signs of a still very troubled downtown area. Pawnshops, boarded up buildings, check-cashing operations. We'll report on how the city thinks it can spread prosperity from an intensely built-up center; what this will mean for the city's sizable Latino minority, many of whom are Puerto Ricans or Dominicans who have come from New York and New Jersey in search of a more affordable, safer life; why some of the area's companies have decided to shift their investments from suburban sprawl back downtown; how the area's school systems affect revival prospects; and more.
There's a lot riding on tomorrow's opening performance by The Eagles. I am happy to report that as of 2:30pm EDT Thursday, 30 hours before the opening, my friends in Allentown are saying that things seem all set and ready to go.
There's more to come, but that's enough for now. Over to Marketplace, and then to The Eagles, and see you here next week for more of the Allentown saga.
Tonight I won't be able to hear President Obama explain what he intends to do in Syria and elsewhere, and why. So rather than giving my reaction after the speech, let me give it before.
Eight years ago I did a cover story in The Atlantic called "Declaring Victory," whose central argument was that the United States could best protect itself against the worst long-term damage from terrorist movements by refusing to be whipsawed, baited, or panicked into self-destructive over-reaction. The piece began with a reference to Osama bin Laden that could as well be applied to the barbarous ISIS of today:
Osama bin Laden’s public statements are those of a fanatic. But they often reveal a canny ability to size up the strengths and weaknesses of both allies and enemies, especially the United States.... In his videotaped statement just days before the 2004 U.S. presidential election, bin Laden also boasted about how easy it had become for him “to provoke and bait” the American leadership: “All that we have to do is to send two mujahideen … to raise a piece of cloth on which is written ‘al-Qaeda’ in order to make the generals race there.”
ISIS, apparently with a number of Western-convert members, is by all evidence even more sophisticated about manipulating the psychology of the democratic West. As applies to them, I stand by the logic and arguments of the counterterrorism experts I quoted all those years ago. They said:
That terrorists can certainly injure a country, but the most dangerous wounds are always self-inflicted, through over-reaction. (The war in Iraq killed many more Americans, had a vastly greater economic cost, and did incalculably more diplomatic and moral damage to our country than did the horrific attacks 13 years ago tomorrow.)
That when politicians, columnists, and cable TV guests are most fervent in urging a president to "do something!" about a threat, they most often have in mind a "something"—military attack—that cannot eliminate a terrorist movement, and that often creates more opposition and even terrorism in the long run. The measures that are most effective in undermining terrorism often have least to do with dramatic, highly publicized "kinetic" acts.
That when people say "we must act now!" they are usually wrong. Usually time is on the side of the stronger player, which in this case is us. Usually the greatest weapon of the underdog is the potential to panic and rattle the other side.
That when people say "we might look weak," usually it's time to discount whatever else they say. Looking weak has little to do with being weak. Every person, institution, and state has ultimate interests to defend and lines that can't be crossed. But the more worried you seem about "proving" strength whenever it is challenged, the weaker you look. Speak softly. Big stick.
That there is an asymmetry, to use a current term, in decisions about the use of violence. If you don't attack today, you can always attack tomorrow. But if you do attack today, you have foreclosed other choices for a long time to come. (Our options in 2014 and beyond are limited by the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.)
You don't have to believe me on this, though as I say I think the article stands up. But if you can't trust me, I hope you will believe David Frum, who is now a colleague at The Atlantic but who during the early George W. Bush years was (as he points out) helping to make the case for war with Iraq. In a wise item today on our site he says:
No matter how bad things, look, though, it’s always possible to make them worse. A war now against ISIS will do just that....
Frum rightly captures the standard congressional/op-ed/cable-news reflex in time of crisis:
Something must be done! This is something! Let’s do this!
Barack Obama's early and well-explained opposition to invading Iraq, which gave him the opening to beat Hillary Clinton and become president, reflected awareness of all these points about the paradoxes of weakness and strength, of deliberation and haste. Most of the time as president he has acted from the same principles—the obvious exception being his mistaken early approval of the ineffective "surge" in Afghanistan. I hope that in his ISIS remarks and policies he does not feel tempted to again prove that he is "tough."
Could Scotland really give up the glamour of the Royal Family? Here they are at a Highland Gathering this past weekend. (Russel Cheyne/Reuters)
As advertised, I don't plan to host an open-ended forum on the merits of the Scottish independence vote. If you'd like to see the Scottish government's white paper supporting a 'Yes' vote, go here. If you've missed Paul Krugman's economic argument against it ("Spain without the sunshine"), it's here. If you'd like to know what the term "devo max" means, you can go here. (Essentially, it's much-increased Scottish autonomy within the U.K.) If you'd like an apparently serious sky-is-falling argument that the Russians will invade Scotland if it votes 'Yes,' you can find it here. For a much more toughly argued warning about the consequences, by a former UK defense minister, see this in the FT.
But to round out the arguments, in one omnibus update, here are reader messages from four distinct perspectives.
1) From a Scot in Scotland:
Just a short note to say that over too many months to count back I have followed this debate with great interest ( as a Scottish resident voter ), and [Daniel Clinkman's, posted here] is the best short summary article I have read.
For me the key points you highlight are the Devo Max option not being made available ( and why ) and the fact that England and Scotland do want, according to all voting history, centre right and centre left respectively.
I have no great interest in Nationalism and certainly not in the tartan waving Bannockburn kind but what makes me most proud to be Scottish is my long term conviction, based on my own experience, that Scots are deeply unhappy with inequality and greatly value social justice .
I'm voting yes and the economics while important are secondary to these issues.
2) From a Brit in America:
Just a couple of brief comments on Daniel Clinkman’s remarks on the Scottish independence vote:
1) Stating that “the authority of the Holyrood parliament is tenuous and could be curtailed or rescinded at any time, without judicial review” is true but incomplete without noting that the UK does not have a written constitution and therefore all UK constitutional arrangements and laws are similarly potentially subject to change “without judicial review." This is not particular to arrangements in Scotland and they are being treated no worse than the rest of the UK in this respect.
2) As for federalism, I have a lot of sympathy for the idea and I’d be all in favor of taking it further and creating autonomous subdivisions in England too (you could even base them on the old Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy if you want historical precedent).
But to state, in the context of a Scottish vote, that “the best case scenario would be devo-max or the federalization of the UK, but Westminster would not allow either to be on the referendum ballot” implies the highly anti-democratic notion that a vote by 5.3 million Scotts should be able to decide on the constitution of the entire UK, total population 64 million. To move in the direction of federalism you would have to have referendum that included all the UK in the vote....
Almost all the discussion I have seen in this country about the referendum has related to the potential effects of independence on Scotland (I did see a piece in the New York Times about what effect it might have on Wales), but nothing on what might happen in England.
Because the population of England is ten times larger than that of Scotland, and given the large percentage of UK GDP generated in London and the South East, the economic impact will probably not be profound, but the cultural effects might be more significant.
The darker side could involve anti-Scotish feelings against Scots living in England ("they have their own country now, why don’t they go and live there”), though I suspect that will always be a marginal view. A more benign effect could be the rehabilitation of Englishness: for a long time the English have been encouraged to view themselves primarily as British, but that can’t really survive the splitting up of Britain. Whether it leads to jingoism or a new flowering of national identity only time will tell.
As for my qualifications to comment on the matter, I’m a British citizen long resident in the US, though I view the UK mostly as an outsider nowadays.
3) From a Yank in Scotland:
A quick biography: I'm an American living in Fife in Scotland. I'm married to an American man of Scottish descent.. My father-in-law has "Remember Culloden!" as his email signature, all of us have an array of clothing items in the family tartan, and my in-laws attend clan gatherings. (You can insert commentary here on Americans, often of Irish or Scottish descent, who become more Irish than the Irish, so to speak.)
As Americans we can't vote in the referendum, though of course we've been following it with keen interest. As a practical matter, we're here on UK visas, not Scottish ones -- though the nationalists all assure us that of course that will be sorted out if independence passes. (The nationalists do a great deal of reassuring that all manner of things will be sorted out if independence passes.)
Daniel Clinkman is right that the UK is a unitary system, not a federalist one. That said, practically speaking Scotland already functions like a quasi-federalist entity.
Scotland maintains a separate NHS system from England and Wales, separate legal and education systems, and offers different benefits to Scottish residents. It has a separate National Trust and Historic Scotland structure (similar to national parks and monuments system). School holidays and bank holidays are different in England and Scotland. Under the current structure, the UK government funds Scottish universities, which Scottish residents can attend for free but which English residents must pay fees to attend....
I don't disagree with Clinkman about the division between Scotland and England and the center-left versus center-right. I think it's a bit more complicated than that, because northern England tends to align more with Scotland.
It's more accurate to say that Scotland and most of northern England hate London and the dominance of southern England. (You find a similar phenomenon in how upstate New York hates New York City, and northwest Pennsylvania hates Philadelphia, etc.)
But it's also complicated by this tenuous notion of "Scots." The Islanders often think of themselves as from Lewis, Harris, or Shetland before they think of themselves as from Scotland. Many of the Highlanders don't trust Edinburgh much more than they trust Westminster -- with good historical reason. Many in Shetland don't want a government in Edinburgh to determine the use of their oil revenue. I'm reminded of the old saw: "What unites the Scots? Hating the English." Take away the English, and you just might take away Scottish unity, too.
I've talked to many Scots around the country about the referendum, and my informal polling results are this: Islanders almost unanimously oppose independence. The highlanders support independence cautiously. Glaswegians support independence enthusiastically. And others would love to no longer be ruled from Westminster, but they are unsure that the current leadership of the SNP [Scottish National Party] could actually form a good government in Edinburgh that would result in positive benefits for Scotland.
As one man in Aviemore told me, "Remember Culloden?? What you have to remember was that Culloden was a civil war, not a war between the English and the Scots. The Highland Clearances were a nasty, brutal thing -- but before that we clans were already nasty and brutal toward each other. There were no schools in the Highlands before the Clearances, no health care, no roads. The English are terrible, but we've been better off with them than without them."
I think the best thing that could happen for Scotland is the way things are currently trending: The polls are close, Westminster freaks out and offers additional concessions to the SNP for control of fiscal policy, unity wins by a hair, and Scotland stays in the UK but with greater autonomy than before.
4) From a mere bystander:
I have absolutely no skin in the Scottish independence game, which means I get to watch and be fascinated without any pride vested in either side winning.
That being said, I noticed that Quartz ran a Scottish independence story today, and included a link to a writer playing a bit dirty in his rhetorical spin against independence. [JF note: This was the "Russians are coming!" piece mentioned above.] ...
If we can define the moral high ground, or rather Highlands, by whose side is using dirty logical tactics, the answer is fairly evident from this sample size of one. (see further here)
Voters in Scotland, over to you. I would have said "People of Scotland..." but in fact the vote is also open to EU and U.K. citizens who are living in Scotland, whether officially Scottish or not.
"A majority of Scots want to live in a center-left society, while a majority of English want to live in a center-right society." Why that may be a bigger problem for the United Kingdom than regional splits are for the United States.
This man is a Scottish-American. So am I. Any questions? (Reuters)
We all have our tribal loyalties and identities, usually starting with our family. For me, after my family, they would be:
tribal identity as an American, based on the years outside the country that sharpened my sense of being from and of the United States;
tribal loyalty as part of the Atlantic family, as I near the 40th anniversary of my first article for the magazine (a profile of the then-presidential aspirant Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, of Texas);
tribal identity as a Californian, through years of living on the other side of the country; and
identity as a Scot, my mother's Mackenzie lineage being the largest single part of my motley background. (Plus, Neanderthal pride.)
Thus I've followed news of the upcoming referendum on independence for Scotland with a combination of "damned right!" romanticism on behalf of the plucky Scots and practical-minded questions about what would happen if the vote went through.
In our travels across the country this past year, my wife Deb and I have met a surprisingly large sample of vacationing or expatriated Scots. Most of them have said that (a) they didn't expect the measure to pass, but (b) they secretly hoped it would.
Here is a message today from Daniel Clinkman, an American who has been living in Scotland. He makes the case that the right-brain/left-brain split in sentiment about the vote—romanticism versus practicality—is not as clear as I have thought:
I'm an American who returned this year from seven years living in the UK, six of those years in Scotland. While I am personally pro-independence, my friends are about equally split between nationalists and unionists, and I see the merits of both sides. I think, though, that the nationalist position is unfairly portrayed in the American media, and I'd like to offer some thoughts on that.
I think it is fair to say that, regardless of the outcome of the independence referendum, the results of the the 2010 general election and the 2011 Scottish election show that the majority of Scots want something different from the majority of English. This has been a trend that began in the 1970s and opened wider and wider over the subsequent decades. A majority of Scots want to live in a center-left society, while a majority of English want to live in a center-right society.
In a federal state this would not be a problem. The domestic policies, discord over which forms the backbone of the nationalist movement, would be the responsibility of the constituent countries of the UK, and Scots could run their internal affairs without hindrance. But the UK is not a federal state, it is a unitary state with sovereignty and legislative authority resting in the Crown-in-Parliament. The authority of the Holyrood parliament is tenuous and could be curtailed or rescinded at any time, without judicial review.
The best case scenario would be devo-max or the federalization of the UK, but Westminster would not allow either to be on the referendum ballot. The prospect of full scale constitutional reform is not even under consideration outside of a few Lib Dem committee meetings. Scots have been put in a position where the status quo is unacceptable to them, and in which viable alternatives - devo-max and federalization - have been expressly refused as options. It is often said that, if devo-max were on the ballot, it would win. It isn't on the ballot, because Westminster knew that and hoped that by denying a third choice, Scots would choose the status quo. Is that manipulation the kind of government you would want to live under?
[In other exchanges] you have mentioned that Scottish nationalism is both emotional and rational. I agree.
On the rational side, Scots are concerned about the science of politics. In the meetings I attended when I lived in Edinburgh, there was great interest in the location of sovereignty and of legislative authority, as well as in the mechanics of governance. There is genuine interest in how to rationalize Scottish governance and make it better. You never hear this in the accounts of Scottish nationalism, which usually emphasize the emotional.
But emotion is also a strength. Scots are proud people and desire to control their own affairs, which they can't under a unitary state with parliamentary sovereignty. Such pride and desire for self-sufficiency is admirable. The combination of emotional and rational thinking gives Scottish nationalism strength and durability.
You mentioned that that rationalism on political science needs to be contrasted with rational approaches to scale, currency, military, etc. I don't really see how the nationalist approach is irrational on those issues. One nationalist advocacy group, Nordic Horizons, is devoted to how Scotland can adopt Scandinavian models of governance, the Scandinavian countries being of similar population size and scale to Scotland. On the currency, I imagine that Scotland will continue to use the UK pound temporarily, after which it will probably restore the Scottish pound, which it would make sense to peg to the UK pound and gradually ween off of. On the military, Scotland will not need a large military force. Its greatest need will be for a navy or coast guard to secure its territorial waters. This will be expensive to set up but it is hardly an insurmountable obstacle.
A lot of this gets misconstrued in the press. Last night I got into a lengthy twitter back and forth with [another writer], who was asking lots of skeptical questions about independence and accusing nationalists of not having considered them. I directed him to the Scottish government's white paper on independence, which addressed all of his concerns, which he then dismissed as having not taken up thirty seconds of thought. That's a false aspersion on Scots nationalists, and is an example of the same kind of condescension to Scots that has alienated that country from the UK. He is not alone in this - he enjoys the good company of much of the British press and many North Americans too.
So that's my take on the matter. I am not Scottish, but the country became my home for many years and I am passionately in favor of what is best for Scotland's people, whatever they decide. I think that the activism and thought given to this by Scots of both nationalist and unionist persuasions is very different from the stereotype of the emotional, skiving Scot put out by the Better Together campaign and its sympathizers in the press.
I'm not intending to host an extended exchange on the pluses and minuses of the vote, which are being thrashed out thoroughly by those with a voice in the matter. But I am watching with fascination.
This model of locomotive is slightly before my time, but otherwise it's a childhood scene I recall. (
If you're joining us late, this is No. 11in the roman fleuve known as the California High-Speed Rail series. HSR is of course a major part of Gov. Jerry Brown's legacy and platform as he runs for an unprecedented fourth term. We'll wrap things up by the time we get to No. 15. For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, and No. 9, and No. 10.
Today's theme is "thinking in time," after the title of a wonderful book by my one-time professors and longer-term mentors Ernest May and Richard Neustadt. In our previous installment, a former Federal official wrote about the difficulty of thinking about effects, good and bad, will be felt only decades in the future. Now readers address the question of considering the future.
1) "If we refuse to embrace the unknown, we will remain inert." From a reader in the South:
In Richmond, VA, I'm involved in historic re-enactments. (One of my many lives involves acting). I'm currently studying for a re-enactment of the Virginia debates over the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, involving Patrick Henry, Peyton Randolph, James Madison and George Wythe. And one of the themes in the debate is whether the existence of defects in the Constitution as proposed should result in its defeat, or whether they could rely upon the goodwill and intentions of those involved to remedy defects as they occur; especially whether to ratify on the assumption that the Bill of Rights would be enacted, or to forestall the entire enterprise to achievesome unattainable level of perfection.
On one side Patrick Henry assumes that the scoundrels will usurp the individual liberties for which they had recently fought bloody battles.
The argument on the other side excoriates the opponents for supposing that the general legislature will do everything mischievous they possibly can, and that they will omit to do everything good which they are authorized to do. In essence it is a plea to recognize that the people will rest their authority in the hands of representatives of goodwill: It is more reasonable to assume that they will as readily do their duty as deviate from it.
It's important to make sure that we have people of goodwill and good talent. There will be things unforeseen; there will be things foreseen which won't materialize. The human mind is incapable of embracing the totality of circumstances. And the failures fade, as the inherent goodness of the works remain.
I really wonder whether the people of Boston drive through the Big Dig wishing it had never been built. Do the people complaining of the Oakland Bay Bridge desire that it not be replaced? Do we assume that the project was handed over to a bunch of incredible dolts? Or is it a massively complex piece of engineering, undoubtedly with issues which were not foreseen?
Yes, there are the failures, and they happen as frequently in private enterprise as they do in government. But if we refuse to embrace the unknown, and refuse to forgive that which was not attained, then we will remain inert.
And in that vein, I give you our contemporary Congress where there are too many people who are not of goodwill who have lost sight of the purposes of the Union. A republic depends upon people of goodwill doing the work of the people... Shining a light on one such important work is extremely valuable to that end.
2) "It's our familiar combination of anarchy and oligarchy." From a reader in northern California
I'm not sure how to deal with this, but it's actually not uncommon. Several studies and stories of past Big Projects (levee systems, aqueducts, even the transcontinental railroads) show that Americans in general can't see beyond the tips of their noses in terms of planning and financing Big Things.
That's something we have to live with in this country: we are not Europe or Japan, where even under "democratic" systems with parliaments and the like the overall government and economic structure remains aristocratic with a strong sense of national identity and vision.
Comparisons to Europe don't work here, because we have a combination of anarchy and oligarchy, neither of which cares about the long term. Trying to show that it'll be better for the kids or grandkids doesn't fly well; it's what you're doing for me today or next week, or perhaps (for a corporation) over the next quarter to at most a year.
3) "A century is nothing!" Last time around I said that infrastructure decisions were so crucial because "people will be living with their consequences a century from now." A reader in Massachusetts says that's a gross under-statement:
a) The Erie Canal opened in 1825. By 1842, its entire route had a railroad. Nevertheless, I understand it’s the big reason that the Northern tier of New York is lined with cities, while the central and Southern corridors are lined with cute little villages.
b) Property values in Manhattan are, to a considerable extent, dominated by the placement of subway lines. Many of those lines, coincidentally, were laid out in part by real-estate speculators. Chicago’s Loop is all about rails, literally.
c) The street grids of most cities bear scars from odd or arbitrary choices made long ago, but which continue to influence the way the city moves and works. San Francisco’s street grid collision at Market Street is one obvious example. The inability of 19thC engineering to get rid of Boston’s Muddy River means that Back Bay, that very tony residential neighborhood, ends abruptly in The Fens, Fenway Park, and the commercial clatter of downscale Kenmore Square. Just to the South, the memory of a short-lived railroad bridge, filled in and vanished for a century and a half, firmly divides downtown from the south end. In Chicago, Clark and Broadway divide at Diversey because that’s where two trails diverged back before 1830.
Even big parties cast a long shadow. Paris 1889, Chicago 1983, San Diego 1915 — what would Paris be without the Eiffel Tower, Chicago without Grant Park (and the Art Institute) and Jefferson Park (and the Museum of Science And Industry, the Columbian Exposition’s palace of fine art), or San Diego without Balboa Park?
d) And why is Boston a city at all? Boston existed for its harbor, just as Salem (once far more important) did. Salem’s Harbor silted up, and then people discovered that while Boston Harbor freezes only once a generation, New York Harbor never freezes. Once that was clear, the ships all moved to New York, yet Boston remained.
e) The Oregon Trail and the Santa Fe Trail were shaped for technologies that vanished long, long ago — and actually were useful for only a brief time. Their routes continue to shape the West. Some of this is geography, but only some.
4) "The number is just too big." The same California reader as in the second point, above, on the distinct challenge of understanding large multi-year costs:
People think of a $68 billion (or whatever— something *10E09) as a lot of money. That's because the vast majority of people in this country get along one way less than $100K a year (more like <$50K) [JF note: median US household income is a little above $50,000] and just can't conceive of anything that can or should cost that much.
They also see that as money spent right now, not over 20+ years. Doesn't matter whether it's current dollars or inflated - the number is just too big.
I understand, because I worked for 40 years in various forms of land use and environmental and transportation planning, that the $68 B inflated number over 20 years is real but phony at the same time: real because you can explain how you got it using standard financial analysis, and because Federal financial planning requirements now insist that such a number be provided; but phony because it is based on a ton of assumptions that will have to change as time goes on.
We have the same problem with regional traffic and emission projections over 20 years. The number could go up or down (though most of the time it goes up), so you have a regular update process to adjust things. Also, the general public, if they think about it at all, see the $68 B as what they will have to pay in taxes for this thing - with some justification considering how transportation in general has played out over the years, though they don't see it that way for things like roads that they use every day.
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.