James Fallows

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. More

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.
  • California High-Speed Rail—More Questions and Concerns

    "Bad, bad, bad," and other critiques

    California and railroads: not a contradiction in terms ( Calisphere )

    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.

    California railroad map, 1900 (Calisphere)

    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.

    A previous big rail project in California (Wikimedia).

    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.

    The Italians have a high-speed rail system. If they can do it ... ???

    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.

    "The Last Spike," Thomas Hill (Wikimedia)

    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.

    Thanks to all for writing. More to come.

  • Maine Governorship Watch: Let's Hear From the Democrats

    The Michaud campaign asks for and gets equal time.

    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.

  • Third-Party Watch in Maine

    In most states, independent candidacies are pipe dreams. Maine is one of the rare states in which they can and do win. Here's what this year's race for the governorship shows.

    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 The Atlantic.

    Eliot Cutler

    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 longeror 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.

  • Militarization of the Police, Fargo Edition

    We thought North Dakota was too sensible for this.

    Law enforcement team this past winter in Fargo, North Dakota ( Michael Vosburg, Fargo Forum )

    The stormtrooper look by law enforcement in Missouri has usefully brought into focus the long-term trend of police forces morphing into military units. For previous installments and a reading list, see here and here

    Today's photo, courtesy of Michael Vosburg of the Fargo, N.D. Forum, is of a police team six months ago, in the winter. The photo is worth a second look, for details ranging from the vehicle's license plate to the choice of green camouflage in the snow.

    The full story, by Archie Ingersoll, is also worth reading. It points out that the last big public disturbance in the Fargo area was 13 years ago, during the Testicle Festival. (I'll let you look it up.) Oddities like the Testicle Festival are part of the picture we'd like to have of Americana. Combat-dressed cops are not, or shouldn't be. Usefully, the Forum article ends with a sane observation from the police chief of Moorhead, Minnesota, which is Fargo's sister city across the Red River:

    [F]ear is a factor police have to be mindful of when dealing with disorderly crowds, said Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger. When officers don intimidating riot gear, their appearance alone can stir trouble.

    “If you show up with that gear and you don’t have a riot, you’re inviting one,” he said. “The best weapon we have is our ability to communicate.”

    Let's send Chief Ebinger to Ferguson. Meanwhile on policing, reader Billy Townsend of central Florida says the Ferguson showdown highlights the oddly uneven ways in which we hold public servants "accountable":

    There's a fascinating parallel here between police officers and teachers. Police body cameras and test scores serve the same purpose. They are meant to provide accountability, assessment, and motivation for the core interaction between a public servant and the public served.

    American political power at all levels has determined that a tortured, inaccurate, funhouse mirror statistical approximation of a teacher's interaction with a student is absolutely vital to public well-being and worthy of billions and billions of tax dollars.

    Meanwhile, it is controversial—and maybe too expensive—to provide a precise, direct accounting of the core interaction between a police officer and the public. That is, to be direct, completely nuts. 

    Think about it: in the eyes of American state power, teaching Mike Brown makes the teacher immediately suspect and open to public sanction based on Mike Brown's test scores. Shooting Mike Brown in the street and leaving his body uncovered for four hours makes Mike Brown automatically suspect in the eyes of state power.

    A camera provides for police the holy grail that education reformers seek for teachers—the ultimate evidence of policing quality. How would such evidence have changed what happened in Ferguson?

    More from Townsend on his own site, here.  Thanks to reader JW for the Forum tip.

    Update If you would like an illustration of Townsend's point about the difference that photographic evidence can make, consider this cellphone video of police shooting to death Kajieme Powell yesterday.   

  • Hugh Calkins

    An example of applying energy, abilities, and leverage to the public good. We can't have enough of these examples.

    I learned recently that Hugh Calkins, a lawyer and educational-reform leader, had died early this month at age 90. He was very well known in Cleveland, where he raised his family and spent most of his career, but I think his achievement and character deserve wider notice.

    Calkins's early years were as complete a sweep of meritocratic successes as you can imagine. He was born in Newton, Mass., and went to Exeter and then Harvard. He studied engineering, was president (editor) of the Harvard Crimson, graduated early, and enlisted in the Air Force. When he was out of the service, he went to Harvard Law School, where (like Barack Obama many years later) he was president of the Harvard Law Review. Then he was a law clerk, first for Learned Hand on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and later for Felix Frankfurter on the Supreme Court. Not yet married, he decided to move to and start his career in Cleveland, on the hunch that he would find it more satisfying to be fully engaged in the life of a "large representative city" like this.

    A tribute from Calkins's law firm, Jones Day, gives an idea of his day-job accomplishments as a long-time partner and head of the firm's tax practice. A site set up by his family lists more of his range of achievements, notably including his 61 years of marriage to Ann Clark Calkins and raising their four children.

    Hugh Calkins (Courtesy of the Calkins family)

    I met Hugh Calkins, and came to admire him, in strange circumstances. In the late 1960s, when Calkins was in his mid-40s and I was in my teens, he rose to sudden prominence at his alma mater, Harvard. I had just become president of the Harvard Crimson when he was chosen as the newest–and youngest, and first Midwestern, and by a million miles most "progressive"–member of the Harvard "Corporation." The Corporation, formally known as the President and Fellows of Harvard College, is the ultimate governing authority for the world's brand-name university. (I see that Harvard's official site now embraces the body's name, saying that "The oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere is the Harvard Corporation.") Now it is larger, but then it had only five members, so one forceful new person could make a big difference.

    The university at the time, like many others institutions and like much of the country, was all but blowing up. Poor Harvard president Nathan Pusey, a distinguished leader with the sensibility of a bygone age, had absolutely no idea how to deal with student and faculty protest over the war in Vietnam and other sources of turmoil. Hugh Calkins—who had opposed the Vietnam war and earned a place on Nixon's enemies list, who was serving on the Cleveland school board, and who had been involved in a long effort to improve finances and standards in Cleveland's over-crowded schools—represented something entirely new. Yale already had the smooth president Kingman Brewster; soon Harvard would have the smooth new president Derek Bok. But for a while in 1969 and 1970, the closest thing this institution had to a smooth conciliator was Hugh Calkins of Cleveland.

    The Crimson ran a profile at the time, "Who Is This Man Hugh Calkins?" I think I wrote it, and I know I did the reporting and interviewing of Calkins, but it's all a sixties-era blur. What I remember is the difference he made. It is embarrassing to quote oneself as a teenager, but for the record:

    In the first week of the strike, Calkins talked about dissent and ROTC and all the other issues for two straight nights on television. He ate breakfast with students in the Houses and told them about ROTC. When he saw posters in the Yard giving some students' version of what he said, Calkins trotted over to the Crimson to type out a reply and explain why the poster version was a distortion.

    With a somewhat disturbing energy and bounce, Calkins has spoken in House dining halls and appeared with SDS members on panel discussions. A few other Corporation members have tried the same thing on a smaller scale. But now, at the beginning of May, there are probably no more than five or six undergraduates who could give an accurate description of what any of the other Fellows looks like.

    Who is this man Hugh Calkins, and why is he now so present on our campus?

    That era passed, for the university, for the country, for Calkins himself. By 1984, when he was 60, he had become the senior figure on the Corporation and reached the end of his term. Through much of the rest of his career, his passion—apart from his family—was public education. He taught math in inner-city Cleveland middle schools. This former president of the Harvard Law Review went back to John Carroll University to get a teaching credential after retiring from Jones Day, and continued his teaching work. Eventually he founded a charter school and ran an organization called Initiatives in Urban Education. In the words of his son Andy, from an email letting me know about his father's death, "He cared deeply about injustice, poverty, the rule of law, and the right of every child to a high quality education." 

    I mention this because Hugh Calkins was a person of enormous talent and opportunity, who kept deciding to apply his energy, his abilities, and his leverage to the public good. It is an example worth noting. Sympathies, and admiration, to all of his family—including one of his daughters, who by chance* is now the principal of the public elementary school our children attended (before her time) in Washington D.C.

    Taking up art very late in life, with a portrait of his wife Ann.

    There will be a ceremony celebrating Hugh Calkins's life and achievement in Cleveland on September 13. My wife and I hope to be there. 


    * Although we did not realize this connection until long afterward, by chance we sort-of owe our marriage and thus the existence of our children to the indirect influence of the Calkins family. My wife Deb and her sister Sue grew up in a very small town on Lake Erie. Ann Clark Calkins was interviewing candidates for Radcliffe/Harvard from northern Ohio and ended up steering them there, which is the only way my wife and I would ever have met.

  • When U.S. Law Enforcement Had a Different Look

    Americans have often thought of themselves as level-headed and BS-detecting. What would a modern Mark Twain or Will Rogers make of policemen all dressed up for war?

    Sheriff Andy Taylor and equipment-loving Deputy Barney Fife (Wikipedia)

    If you haven't yet seen it, please read this Storify account, by Kelsey Atherton, of how veterans of real combat—in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere—view today's wildly over-militarized American police. For instance:

    A reader on the East Coast responded to my post last night, which said that perhaps the scenes of stormtroopers among us would startle the public into realizing how far this security-state trend had gone. This reader, S.C., suggests a contrasting visual cue:

    Maybe you’re right to conjecture that police-state images might horrify the country into restoring good sense about cops in combat gear, riding in tanks on streets. Here’s a thought about that. It’s not new, but it might be worth mentioning.

    I’ve pasted in an image [shown at the top of this post] that may fit slantwise with your insight. It’s not what you meant, but it conveys the message in a country that still likes seeing if calm wisdom and brains can head off any need for ostentatious official bellicosity. From the old and much-loved The Andy Griffith Show, it’s Sheriff Andy Taylor, who spurns sidearms in police work, and whose face expresses all that needs to be said about Deputy Barney Fife’s comically enthusiastic wanna-be militarism.

    I love it that Sheriff Taylor always allowed Deputy Fife to carry only one bullet, and required him to keep it in his pocket. Maybe you’ll want to keep this photo in yours, in case it’s needed (and assuming it’s not already there).

    It’s unrealistic, of course, to try too hard to map this half-century-old sitcom onto present problems. But it’s also unwise not to recall what Sheriff Taylor stood for, and not to recognize the extent of the country’s respect for it.

    Agreed. On that same theme, here is a clip from an episode of The Andy Griffith Show 50 years ago, in 1964, in which Barney Fife has a different helmet but the same enthusiasm for dress-up military gear. 

    That gentle, dismissive, pretense-puncturing humor—something I associated with Andy Griffith in my childhood and that my parents did with Will Rogers in theirs—doesn't have an exact current counterpart, or not one I can think of just now. Stephen Colbert is closer than Jon Stewart; in his earliest, funny-rather-than-angry days, Rush Limbaugh could sound this way. Among politicians, Ronald Reagan was actually good at it—"There you go again!"—as was John F. Kennedy in some of his press conferences. It's an effect Barack Obama strains for and sometimes achieves, for instance when poking fun at the latest Birther-style claim. (And yes, before you point it out, I'm aware that in an actual small Southern town 50 years ago, the real-world counterparts of Andy Taylor and Barney Fife would have been enforcing segregation laws.)

    We would like to think that such level-headed, amused BS-detection is part of our national cast of mind. A Yank at Oxford! The Duke and the King in Huckleberry Finn! The Tweet shown above, by @BFriedmanDC, may offer a glimmer of hope for its reappearance. It is the kind of comment Sheriff Andy Taylor might have made if he had seen legions of Barney Fifes dressed for war.

  • Turning Policemen Into Soldiers, the Culmination of a Long Trend

    Another poisoned fruit of the post-9/11 sensibility

    Ferguson, Mo. police watching over their city (Reuters)

    The images from Missouri of stormtrooper-looking police confronting their citizens naturally raises the question: how the hell did we get to this point? When did the normal cops become Navy SEALs? What country is this, anyway?

    There will be more and more mainstream coverage of the modern militarization of the police, a phenomenon mainly of the post-9/11 years. For reference/aggregation purposes, here is a guide to further reading:

    1) The Book on this topic: Rise of the Warrior Cop, by Radley Balko. It came out a year ago and is more timely now than ever.

    2) "Lockdown Nation," a Peter Moskos review of Balko's book last year in PS magazine.

    3) "How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police," an Atlantic dispatch by Arthur Rizer and Joseph Hartman three years ago. 

    4) "Tanks in Small Towns," a web item I did in 2011 on signs of this trend, including this photo of a police force in South Carolina:

    And this one from a small town in Virginia:

    And this from Florida:

    5) Some other Atlantic coverage here, here, here

    6) Update: An important and well-illustrated report by Matt Apuzzo in the NYT two months ago, called "War Gear Flows to Police Departments." 

    7) Update^2: A new report from Alec MacGillis in TNR on how "anti-terrorist" funding from DHS has equipped police forces with this CENTCOM-style war gear.

    This Ferguson, Missouri episode is obviously about race, and is (another) occasion for pointing readers to Ta-Nehisi Coates's powerful "Reparations" article. It is also about how we govern ourselves, and about how far the ramifying self-damage of the post-9/11 era has gone.

    "Self-damage"? All the literature about terrorism emphasizes that the harm directly done in an attack is nothing compared with the self-destructive reactions it can induce. From Fallujah to Ferguson, that is part of what we're seeing now.

    I won't belabor that theme for the moment but will say: Perhaps these incredible police-state-like images will have some attention-focusing or "enough!" effect, like their counterparts from another era (below). Meanwhile, check out Balko's book. 

     

  • Two Ways of Looking at the Hillary Clinton Interview

    Whichever way you see it, the presumptive Democratic nominee has shown us something significant.

    Two first families: the Obamas and the Clintons at a ceremony on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death (Reuters)

    On return from a long spell away from the Internet, I was going to recommend that you read Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with Hillary Clinton, and not just the setup but the transcript as a whole. But such a recommendation is hardly necessary, since for several days the interview has been making news worldwide.

    There are two ways to think about the political and policy implications of Hillary Clinton’s deciding to say what she did, during this strange limbo period when she is clearly preparing to run for president but has more to lose than gain by officially saying so.

    • One approach would be to think that we’re primarily witnessing a media event—journalists doing what journalists do. It's in our nature as reporters, even when representing an institution as august as a 157-year-old magazine, to highlight what has changed rather than what’s constant, what is controversial rather than what’s agreed on, the one juicy, taken-in-isolation sentence that will make people stop and say, Did you see that? And it is in nature of the political commentariat to seize on any sign of rancor or big-shot melodrama.

    Therefore if our Atlantic site runs a headline suggesting that Hillary Clinton is all but blaming Barack Obama for the ISIS/ISIL  menace (“Hillary Clinton: 'Failure' to Help Syrian Rebels Led to the Rise of ISIS”), or if we emphasize the few places where she departed from his policy rather than the many more where she supported it, maybe we’re just revealing the way we journalists think. When politicians start complaining that some comment was “taken out of context,” this is the point they’re trying to make. And in fairness, anyone who reads the whole transcript will find that the tabloid version of her comments—weakling Obama lost Syria!—is cushioned in qualifiers and complexities.

    If this is the way the Clinton camp feels about our presentation of the interview, they are perfectly well versed in all the the formal and informal ways of getting that message across. Indeed, just this afternoon, a little while after I started typing this item (but several days after the interview ran), the first such indication appeared, in a "no criticism intended" story via Politico

    •  The other approach is to think that Hillary Clinton, as experienced a figure as we now have on the national scene, knew exactly what she was saying, and conveyed to an interviewer as experienced as Goldberg exactly the impression she intended to—including letting the impression sink in through several days' worth of op-ed and talk-show news cycles before beginning to offset it with an "out of context" claim. 

    That impression is a faux-respectful but pointed dismissal of Obama's achievements and underlying thought-patterns. It's a picture of the president approximating that of a Maureen Dowd column. It also introduces into Democratic party discourse the “Who (re-)lost Iraq?” “Who lost Syria?” “Who lost Iran?” and “Who is losing the world?” queries that the Republicans are perpetually ready to serve up. All this is presumably in preparation for Clinton's distancing herself from a "weak" Obama when she starts running in earnest to succeed him.

    If the former interpretation is right, Clinton is rustier at dealing with the press than we assumed. Rustier in taking care with what she says, rustier in taking several days before countering a (presumably) undesired interpretation.

    I hope she's just rusty. Because if she intended this, my heart sinks. 

    It sinks for her, that she thought this would make her sound tough or wise; it sinks for the Democratic Party, that this is the future foreign policy choice it’s getting; and it sinks for the country, if this is the way we’re going to be talked to about our options in dealings with the world.

    The easiest and least useful stance when it comes to foreign policy is: Situation X is terrible, we have to do something. Or its cousin: Situation X is terrible, you should have done something. Pointing out terribleness around the world is not even half of the necessary thought-work in foreign policy. The harder and more important part—what constitutes actual statesmanship—is considering exactly which “something” you would do; and why that exact something would make conditions better rather than worse; and what Pandora’s box you might be opening; and how the results of your something will look a year from now, or a decade, when the terribleness of this moment has passed. 

    E.g.: Yeah, we should have “done something” in Syria to prevent the rise of ISIS. But the U.S. did a hell of a lot of somethings in Iraq over the past decade, with a lot more leverage that it could possibly have had in Syria. And the result of the somethings in Iraq was … ? A long story in the NYT tells us that the current leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph himself, drew his political formation from America’s own efforts to “do something” in Iraq:

    “He was a street thug when we picked him up in 2004,” said a Pentagon official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. “It’s hard to imagine we could have had a crystal ball then that would tell us he’d become head of ISIS.”

    At every turn, Mr. Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’ involvement in Iraq — most of the political changes that fueled his fight, or led to his promotion, were born directly from some American action. And now he has forced a new chapter of that intervention, after ISIS’ military successes and brutal massacres of minorities in its advance prompted President Obama to order airstrikes in Iraq. 

    Of course everyone including Clinton “knows” that you should only do something when it’s smart and not when it’s stupid. In her books and speeches, she is most impressive when showing commanding knowledge of the complexities and contradictions of negotiating with the Russians and Chinese, and why you can’t just “be tough” in dealings with them. In those specifics, she can sound like the description I just came across, in Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, about some pre-World War I Balkan leaders: “It is a characteristic of the most skillful politicians that they are capable of reasoning simultaneously at different levels of conditionality. [One Serbian figure] wanted peace, but he also believed—he never concealed it—that the final historical phase of Serbian expansion would in all probability not be achieved without war.” 

    But in this interview—assuming it's not "out of context"—she is often making the broad, lazy "do something" points and avoiding the harder ones. She appears to disdain the president for exactly the kind of slogan—"don't do stupid shit"—that her husband would have been proud of for its apparent simplicity but potential breadth and depth. (Remember "It's the economy, stupid"?) Meanwhile she offers her own radically simplified view of the Middle East—Netanyahu right, others wrong—that is at odds with what she did in the State Department and what she would likely have to do in the White House. David Brooks was heartened by this possible preview of a Hillary Clinton administration's policy. I agree with Kevin Drum and John Cassidy, who were not. Also see Paul Waldman.

    But really, go read the interview. Either way, the presumptive nominee has, under Jeffrey Goldberg's questioning, shown us something significant. 

  • An Israeli Progressive on His Country’s Moral Culpability

    “I can think of no military objective in the world that would justify [this] non-combatant casualty rate.”

    An Israeli artillery unit fires into Gaza (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

    This post has been updated to reflect the IDF's updated Palestinian casualty figures, which give the non-combatant fatality rate for Operation Protective Edge at about 50 percent. [Please see update explanation at the end.]

    Through this week and still for the next few days, I am out of the country and in unreliable and very expensive Internet range. So for timeliness reasons, I am now posting, without elaborate set-up, an email message that has come in from Dr. Hillel Ben Sasson, director of programs at the Molad think tank in Jerusalem, who was part of a memorable exchange last month with an American rabbi visiting the city. 

    This latest message is about the ways in which—from a progressive Israeli’s point of view—the nation’s government and military should and should not be held culpable for the destruction of houses, schools, power plants, hospitals, and other structures in Gaza, and the appalling civilian death toll there. Like his previous message, this one raises questions of “universal” versus particularistic or narrow morality and human obligations, and what standards of ethics apply in a situation like this one, where the position of the parties is so different in so many fundamental ways. I would like to engage these, plus the ethical ramifications for Americans and others far from the scene, but I can’t do it in present circumstances.

    In my freedom from Internet exposure these past few days, I have instead been reading two powerful histories that cast the origins of World War I in (for me) new light: To End All Wars, by Adam Hochschild, and The Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark. Plus The Atlantic’s own special centennial issue on the war, which I have just managed to download and will read tonight.

    More, later, on how these bear on the morality of Gaza. For now, another dispatch worth reading carefully from Hillel Ben Sasson:

    Before addressing the actual question of whether or not the IDF's actions in Gaza were permissible and therefore justifiable, it's important that we differentiate between the responsibilities and potential blame of the military and government, and the judgements we pass on the Israeli society with its almost consensual support of the soldiers. Let us begin with the latter group.

    In my view, it is not only permissible but indeed commendable that a society whose sons and daughters are sent to fight in its name and who are paying with their lives to enable this society to continue and thrive, responds in an overwhelming wave of support and solidarity. Israelis sending anything from candy to underwear down to those on the front are a sign of social health and collective decency. (A friend of mine who was fighting in Gaza told me that as he was manning a post in Gaza, an armored tank stopped by them, dropped a pack of McDonalds burgers sent from the "back", and continued on to its mission).

    The military and it's commanders in government, however, we ought to judge by a different standard, and this standard is the rules of war.

    These rules are not moral ornamentals; they are the globally agreed upon laws that govern exchanges of violence between nations. They stem out of the understanding that unchecked violence is bad for everyone - today for you, tomorrow for me - and that immense power comes with considerable responsibilities for the ways of exerting it. Abiding by the rules of just war has nothing to do with anti-patriotism or pacifistic convictions. It is what prevents wars from deteriorating to complete mutual annihilation. From this elementary understanding, I draw several conclusions:

    1. I can think of no military objective in the world that would justify a 50 percent non-combatant casualty rate (These are IDF numbers).* We must ask, what exactly were the specific objectives that resulted in such a horrific toll? I doubt that there's an answer which is both true and acceptable. And we must remember, it was Netanyahu and Yaalon who called the shots,

    2. I have no doubt that the IDF is true to its word - there was no intentional targeting of civilians. This however, is not enough. Yes, Hamas launches rockets from densely populated urban areas; Hamas might also use Innocent Gazans as human shields. Yet the hand that pulls the trigger is the one that bears responsibility. It might be justified in pulling it, but it cannot escape scrutiny altogether.

    3. A troubling issue for me is that there's no debate on the facts - IDF officials admit that innocent civilians were killed in the recent bombing of the UNRWA school in Rafah. We had witnessed in the past military operations that took a severe toll in civilian lives on the other side, but we have never seen such a resignation to accept so high of a body count simply because it serves a tactical military objective. This is worrisome to me.

    Finally, I would like to remind readers in the USA that for us, Israeli progressives, this is not an abstract moral debate. It is our responsibility to address our own society with these questions, it is our role to confront our leadership with pressing and hard issues. It lies on our shoulders to bridge between the two realms, channeling the enormous forces of social solidarity into national self correction.


    *This post originally used outdated IDF casualty figures showing an 80 percent non-combatant death rate on the Palestinian side.


    JF addendum, August 12, 2pm EDT: As noted above, this message from Hillel Ben Sasson came in while I was on the road, in Europe, in places with no regular internet connection. On Sunday Hillel Ben Sasson sent a note saying that the IDF had updated its casualty data. The "85% non-combatant" figure he had used earlier had been replaced by one saying it was closer to 50%. My colleagues on the Atlantic's site updated the post at his request.  

  • The Courts Speak Up for California High-Speed Rail

    And so do some readers.

    Artist's rendering of a high-speed train station (AP)

    As a reminder, this is #7 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 re-election to an unprecedented fourth term. For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, and No. 6

    The big HSR news of this past week was a ruling from a three-judge panel of California's 3rd district court of appeals. Late on Thursday, the judges unanimously overturned a lower-court ruling that had prevented the HSR authority from selling bonds to begin construction of the system.

    The issues in the case are, well, legalistic. For more about them you can check the thorough accounts from the LA Times, the San Jose Mercury News, KQED, and the Fresno Bee. The Bee's and KQED reports have embedded versions of the full text of the ruling.

    As all the stories make clear, the ruling does not end the legal problems for the high-speed rail program, nor the political controversy about it. But the appeals court decision was widely reported as a significant step forward for the project and a win for Governor Brown. E.g. this headline from the Mercury News:

    And this summing up from the Fresno Bee:

    The ruling represents the second legal victory in a week for the rail program at the appellate level. On July 24, a different three-judge panel from the 3rd District ruled in the rail authority's favor and upheld [lower court judge] Kenny's approval of an environmental impact report that selected the Pacheco Pass between Gilroy and Los Banos as the preferred corridor for high-speed trains between the Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley. The San Francisco Peninsula communities of Atherton and Palo Alto had challenged Kenny's approval of environmental work for the Bay Area-to-Central Valley section of the rail line.

    For now, that is enough of the legalities. On to further reader discussion of the merits of the plan. First, from a reader in Southern California:

    One of the arguments I keep running across is the idea that the High Speed train should run non-stop along the I-5 corridor instead of along the 99, which was only included to get legislators on board.

    Federal Highway Administration

    No, it runs along the 99 corridor to get passengers on board. There are a million people in the Fresno metro area, plus all the people in Bakersfield and a major seaport city in Stockton. Depending on how you count the borders, the San Joaquin Valley is home to nearly 4 million potential customers.

    [JF note: see the Federal Highway Administration map of I-5 and Highway 99, at right. I-5 is in red and bypasses, to the west, most of the major cities of the San Joaquin Valley. Highway 99, shown in yellow, goes from city to city through the valley.]

    And the San Joaquin Valley is in a natural cul-de-sac, cut off from the south by mountains and mired in a 19th century agricultural economy. One of the biggest benefits of the HSR project is reconnecting the Central Valley with SoCal to allow a modern economy to develop.

    While limiting the number of stops helps keep the average speed high, providing more connections helps keep revenues high. The train has to at least serve the big five; Bakersfield, Visalia, Fresno, Modesto and Stockton; plus possibly Merced.

    Asking the people of the Central Valley to drive to their destination to board the train is not going to improve the transportation options for the people who could be the key to profitable ridership.

    And now, from a reader who was traveling in Europe as he sent the message. He responded a comment from a previous reader, who had said: "The difference of HSR in Europe and Asia to the US is the access to the stations: European cities were built around train stations: see Frankfurt, Hannover, London, Amsterdam." This latest reader, Robert Mahnke, replies:

    I don’t know why this sentence really bugged me, but perhaps it’s because it reflects a mistaken belief that we are doomed to live in poorly designed cities because it’s our birthright, rather than a choice we have made.

    I am in Brussels, and arrived here by the Eurostar last night after spending several days at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London, located on top of St Pancras station, so right now I am very much appreciating the planning decisions made around rail in Europe.

    Of course, most European cities were *not* built around train stations. Londinium was the capital of Roman Britannia. Frankfurt, Hannover and Amsterdam all date from medieval times. Steam trains were a nineteenth- century innovation. To build train stations in these cities surely involved expensive, disruptive engineering projects. (Conversely, American cities like Denver, Phoenix and Tulsa *did* grow up around railroads.)

    Amsterdam is an example. Amsterdam Centraal station was built in 1889. In his history of the city, the Dutch journalist Geert Mak laments the decision to build it essentially in the city’s harbor, blocking the city’s waterfront on the IJ. [JF note: I was in Amsterdam last week when I received this message; the IJ, pronounced roughly "eye," is the lake/bay to the city's north.] Since then, reclamation projects have filled in much of the IJ around the city, so modern maps make it hard to see what he means, but here is a 16th-century view of the city:

    Amsterdam Museum

    The perspective is from over the IJ — reflecting that Amsterdam’s trade was with the sea (and the Amstel River), not over the swampy land. If you look at a modern map (the IJ is to the north and west), you’ll see that the train station was built in the harbor, cutting off the city from the IJ:

    Wikimeda

    So as Mak writes, it was a large and hard choice to put Amsterdam’s train station where it is.

    Amsterdam Centraal is not at the center of downtown, surely because it would have been so disruptive to site it there. Typically, one doesn’t find train stations at the very center of cities. For older cities, it’s surely because the demolitions that would have been necessary didn’t make sense. So you find multiple rail stations at somewhat more peripheral locations, e.g., in London:

    London Toolkit

    Which is to say that European planners confronted the same problem of building railroads into a built environment that HSR rail now faces. US cities that predate the railroad are similar. I grew up in Boston, where you go to North Station for a train to Portland and South Station for a train to New York.

    Much of the reason that it feels like some of these cities were built around the train stations is that later public transit serves them so well. When I go to Amsterdam, I can take HSR from Brussels or Cologne and get onto a tram, and if I then fly out of Schiphol, there’s a fast and convenient train from Amsterdam Centraal right into the airport terminal. When I landed at London Heathrow the other day, I got right on the Underground’s Piccadilly line and got off at St Pancras / Kings Cross station, and my hotel was next door. (And not every European city does it right. When I fly to Berlin, I have to take a cab from the airport. But getting it right is not a uniquely European phenomenon. You can take the El in Chicago right to an O’Hare terminal.)

    It is possible to “retrofit” cities to make this work. The Silver Line didn’t exist when I last lived in Boston. I flew back and forth from SFO to Logan on a recent weekend to bring my kids to their grandparents. I got on a Silver Line bus a curbside, and it took me via dedicated lanes to South Station, where I got right on the Red Line to Cambridge. When I went back, it worked just as seamlessly.

    California’s struggles with HSR make me wonder if our political system gives too much power to those who would block public-works projects. That said, I will also say that I have been in both Singapore and Beijing recently, and in both cities it seemed to me that the political system makes bad redevelopment too easy. Two cities apparently at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but both downtowns were full of massive projects which made no sense to a pedestrian at street level but might have looked great to someone arriving in a limousine.

    Still to come in the series: some reader mail critical of the project, some other international and historical comparisons, and my own "this I believe!" explanation of why on balance I think this is an investment worth making and a risk worth taking for the state.

  • On David Frum, The New York Times, and the Non-Faked 'Fake' Gaza Photos

    What they reveal about the three words that are journalists' only source of self-respect

    1. A colleague at The Atlantic made a major journalistic error this week. As he has himself admitted, in the first half of a post on our site. Of course, I am talking about David Frum, who sent out a series of tweets that flat-out and falsely claimed that The New York Times had highlighted a “faked” photo of Palestinian casualties. Frum was entirely wrong; the photo was all too real; and now Frum has apologized, to the photographers and for his snap misjudgment. 

    I am late to this discussion because I have been out of the country, in Europe, for a week (and still am) and only learned about it today. I want to say something about the case not to make further trouble for Frum, with whom I agree on some issues and disagree on others and am on friendly terms. Nor do I mean to offer anything like an official statement from The Atlantic, which it is not my place to do. 

    Rather I want to emphasize a point about journalism that is often misunderstood or overlooked, especially when reporters are attempting to chronicle events as gruesome and politically white-hot as those in Gaza now. I am talking about something at the center of our purpose as journalists, which this episode highlights in the clearest possible way. 

     

    2. Reporters have different interests and styles and predilections, different strengths and weaknesses, different stories of having ended up in this craft. But there is one thing they—we—have in common. It is the fundamental drive that makes us stick with this odd line of work, the usually unspoken but immensely powerful source of pride in what we do. It is summed up by three words: I saw this.

    People in this business exist to witness, and to report. Those in this business can tell themselves: As a reporter I saw people doing their work, abusing their power, helping their friends, creating their businesses, doing this and that and whatever is significant in the world. I saw this with my own eyes. As a reporter, I heard people, with my own ears, answer questions, explain their views, avoid or embrace the truth. As a reporter, I traveled to see what a city, a prison, a factory, a war zone actually looked like, up close. All reporters get things wrong and have imperfect information and are "unscientifically" swayed by what they happen to observe or miss. But they are generally trying their best to see more. 

    Having observed all this, a reporter naturally wants to tell everyone what he has seen, and heard, and found. But the desire to tell, and be listened to, is the second most-powerful impulse among reporters. The desire to seeto hear, to experience, to ask, to attempt to knowis the most powerful of all. 

    Let me give you two examples, both involving people now at The Atlantic, and both involving the question of “faked” or real victims of violence in the Middle East.

    3. Ten years ago the man who is now The Atlantic's editor-in-chief, James Bennet, was the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. There was an episode between Israeli forces and Palestinians; a number of the Palestinians ended up dead. But why? And killed by whom? As a reporter Bennet went out to see the bodies. His story began:

    Set in fields of white, pink and red carnations, the giant cooler here, which usually holds vegetables or flowers for sale to an Israeli company, has been turned over to the dead.

    It was to this cooler that, inevitably, the Palestinian doctor came Wednesday morning, when, just as inevitably, the latest Israeli Army raid touched off a parallel struggle to define reality. Were there, in fact, children among the dead, as the Palestinians claimed? How many? Did they die from Israeli sniper fire or from militants' explosives?

    The doctor, Ahmed Abu Nikera, had had enough of these questions. In the dank, shadowy room, he yanked and pulled to open the bloodstained white cloth wrapping one of the bodies as tightly as a mummy.

    ''This is a child,'' he said, after he revealed the pale gray face of Ibrahim al Qun, 14. ''This is the exit wound.'' He pointed at the ragged, softball-sized black hole where the boy's left eye had been. A sniper's bullet entered at the back of the boy's head, he said.... 

    Dr. Nikara untied a cord binding the cloth around [another] child's neck, then pulled back Asma's hair to reveal a hole the size of a half dollar over her left ear -- an exit wound. She had no sign of shrapnel wounds.

    ''This is what the Israelis call an accident,'' the doctor said.

    [This child's brother] Ahmad lay in the flower cooler. He had a similar hole in his head, above his right ear, and he did not have shrapnel wounds.

     

    If you read the full story, you will see that James Bennet emphasizes the murkiness and unknowability of the situation as a whole. But he knows what he saw—the little bodies, the entry and exit wounds—and he tells us that directly, with the authority of a first-hand witness, with no “some people claim” equivocation. If someone 5,000 miles away would speculate, "You know, I bet a lot of this is fake," a reporter like Bennet could have replied: At some other times, a lot of it might be. But I was there, and you were not, and I am telling you what I saw. (For the record, I did not tell James Bennet that I planned to mention this article of his.)

    4. Now, the other example. About a year before Bennet’s piece, when the U.S. invasion of Iraq had just begun, I was in Israel, learning about another bitterly disputed death. This was the case of Mohammed al-Dura, a Palestinian boy in Gaza who, according to many Palestinians and other Arabs, had been mercilessly shot by Israeli soldiers as he crouched in terror behind his father. The episode was so famous that the image of the frightened and martyred boy was shown on postage stamps from some Arabic states. But according to another narrative, the boy was not shot by Israeli soldiers—and perhaps had not been shot at all, the whole episode being staged to reinforce a "blood libel" against Israel for its willingness to slaughter gentile children.

    One of many images of al-Dura, from my story.

    You can read the details of what I found in the resulting article, "Who Shot Mohammed al-Dura?" The similarity with James Bennet's story is that I wanted to see for myself. Not the boy, which was impossible, but as much forensic information as was available, and people who had looked into the case. My conclusion, based on what I saw and heard, was that some things were knowable: in particular, that the boy could not have been shot by the IDF soldiers known to be in the area. The physics of trajectories, sight lines, and bullet damage did not match up. What did happen to the boy—still living? accidentally shot? shot intentionally by soldiers in some other location, or by someone else?—was unprovable at the time (I asserted) and might never be known.

     

    5. This last point brings us back to David Frum. Both my story and James Bennet's touch on the reality Frum raises in the second part of his post: that images of bloodshed, warfare, and atrocity have often been manipulated for propaganda ends. This has happened as long as there have been images, and it frequently happens now in the Middle East. 

    It is because of that possibility that James Bennet wanted to see the little bodies in the morgue. And because provocative imagery is sometimes faked, a few people I interviewed in Israel and the United States claimed that it must have been faked in the al-Dura case. The boy could not possibly have been shot! The whole thing was staged by the "Pallywood" propaganda film industry. 

    People argued to me then, and a decade later are still arguing via email and letters, that a Pallywood staging had to be the explanation. They thought I was naive and gullible to think otherwise. From my point of view, I was applying normal skepticism. Yeah, maybe it was Pallywood. But where's the proof? 

    Erik Wemple argues in a very tough critique of Frum's claims for The Washington Post that imbalanced, one-sided skepticism was the main problem with Frum's apology. He was willing to believe the worst about the motives and standards of the nation's leading news organization, while accepting at face value some Pallywood-style fantasies about all-fronts fakery. (Ali Gharib spoke at length with one of Frum's original sources. The results are fascinating. Bag NewsNotes also applies a convincingly skeptical view to this source. For the record, I have also seen tips from this source but didn't write stories about them because I didn't find them believable.)

     

    6. Now, at last, the real issue. Most of us argue about Gaza from a safe distance. Meanwhile people there are being killed, injured, displaced, and terrified—the vast majority of them of course Palestinians (more than 96 percent of all deaths so far) and also Israeli soldiers and some civilians. The Israeli soldiers are there because of national policy; the Palestinians of Gaza have no choice. But also there with them, exposed to danger, are relief workers and reporters, determined to see what is happening, and through their broadcasts and their photos and their articles and their interviews to convey that reality to the rest of the world.

    We all dislike something about the press, so we take for granted rather than glorify the fact that these are people taking real risks for usually minimal pay. And glorification would be beside the point. From my time in even faintly similar circumstances (during the anti-government riots in South Korea, with a rebel group in Mindanao, in Burma during the 1988 upheavals) I know that people do this for adrenaline and camaraderie and a host of normal, non-glorious reasons. 

    But respect is called for. For all their blind spots and flaws, reporters on the scene are trying to see, so they can tell, and the photographic and video reporters take greater risks than all the rest, since they must be closer to the action. For people on the other side of the world to casually assert that they're just making things up—this could and would drive them crazy. I'm sure that fakery has occurred. But the claim that it has is as serious as they come in journalism. It goes at our ultimate source of self-respect. As when saying that a doctor is deliberately misdiagnosing patients, that a pilot is drunk in the cockpit, that a lifeguard is purposely letting people drown, you might be right, but you had better be very, very sure before making the claim.

    As he would point out quickly himself, David Frum is not of this part of the journalistic world. If he were, he would have known how grave an accusation he was making, and he would not have made it without being sure. I respect him for promptly* apologizing and saying that he had been wrong. And I have written this dispatch to express, and encourage, respect for the reporters in the Middle East and elsewhere now taking risks to tell us what they have seen.


    * Several readers have noted that the apology came six days after the original tweets, so I shouldn't have written "promptly" the first time. The rest of the sentence stands.

    Also Michael Shaw of BagNewsNotes has written to ask that he be given full credit for the original demolition of the "source" on which Frum wrongly relied. Even though this isn't really the subject I was writing about, I know how frustrating it can be to have broken a story and not get credit for it, so I am happy to point readers to Shaw's original post

  • Barefoot Running: The Videos

    "The collision of the heel with the ground generates a significant impact transient, a nearly instantaneous, large force. This force sends a shock wave up through the body via the skeletal system." Scientists on what can happen when you run.

    How bones, muscles, tendons, and joints absorb stress, as documented in a famous study ( Skeletal Biology Lab, Harvard )

    Over the years I've mentioned the famous and fascinating running-related videos from Daniel Lieberman's Skeletal Biology Lab at Harvard. But I haven't done so in a while, and in the context of recent finger-shoe news it's worth highlighting them again. This is also a way of thanking people who keep sending me links to them.

    Videos like the ones below are slow-mo studies of how a runner's legs and feet look, and how the body absorbs stress, with different running styles. The main contrast is between landing on the front part of your foot, as almost anyone naturally does when running barefoot, and landing on the heel, as almost anyone naturally does while walking and which today's thickly padded shoes encourage for running as well.

    Here's one of the videos showing the biomechanics of "forefoot strike" running. Its main point is that the impact of landing and pushing off is spread out over a longer period, and buffered in force (mainly by the calf muscles, Achilles tendon, and arch of the foot), compared with the sudden shock of landing on the heel.

    Here, for contrast, is the way heel-strike running looks, with padded running shoes.

    As part of the explanation on the site says:

    Our research indicates that humans were able to run comfortably and safely when barefoot or in minimal footwear by landing with a flat foot (midfoot strike) or by landing on the ball of the foot before bringing down the heel (forefoot strike)...  

    Most runners who wear standard running shoes usually heel strike, [in which] ... the collision of the heel with the ground generates a significant impact transient, a nearly instantaneous, large force. This force sends a shock wave up through the body via the skeletal system. In forefoot striking, the collision of the forefoot with the ground generates a very minimal impact force with no impact transient.

    Therefore, quite simply, a runner can avoid experiencing the large impact force by forefoot striking properly.

    There is a lot more on the site, which I will simply steer you toward rather than trying to summarize. The larger point, again, is that barefoot-style running, and the "minimalist" shoes that encourage it, can be easier on your whole system—if you're able to adjust to run that way. The recent no-questions-asked trial offer for the best known minimalist shoe is a chance to find out whether your running style, and these shoes, are a plausible match. 

  • California High-Speed Rail: Some Views From the Valley

    People in Los Angeles and San Francisco often say that the initial links in a proposed north-south system would be "trains to nowhere." People from nowhere weigh in.

    The Fresno Amtrak station ( James Fallows )

    For those joining us late: California's controversial High-Speed Rail project is worth paying attention to, no matter where you live. While everyone moans about America's decaying infrastructure, this is the most ambitious and important infrastructure project anywhere in the country. Its outcome has a bearing on Jerry Brown's current campaign for a fourth term as governor. It also shows something about our governments' ability to undertake big, complicated efforts—and our public ability to discuss and decide on these issues.

    But the place where people are already paying closest attention is California's Central Valley, where the first links in the north-south chain would be laid. As everyone in the state knows, the broad valley that runs from near Redding in the north to Bakersfield in the south contains some of the world's most productive agricultural territory. It also contains many of California's most distressed communities. If the recent suggestion to split California into six separate states ever took effect, which it won't, the new state of Central California would likely become the nation's poorest, replacing Mississippi. People in many of these communities also cope with the nation's most polluted air. As a reminder, from a chart I've used before:

    No place in America is remotely as polluted as the big cities in China. But six of the seven most-polluted communities in America are in California's Central Valley. (Chart originally from Washington Post.)

    Dan Richard, chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority explained early in this series that for legal, technical, and financial reasons the construction would not begin in the population centers of LA or San Francisco. Instead it would start by connecting points within the San Joaquin Valley, which is the part of the Central Valley running from the Sacramento area south toward Bakersfield. Some farmers there are bitterly opposed to the project, saying that it would cost too much precious farmland. Richard and others contend—convincingly, from my point of view—that more farmland will get chewed up by road-building and sprawl if the state does not develop a viable rail option. For now, let's hear from some readers in and around this part of the state.  

    1) The benefit will be greatest in areas that really could use the help. From a reader who works in Fresno, the largest city on the inland north-south route:

    I recently read part 5 of your series on the California High-Speed Rail project and noted a glaring omission - no reader was from the San Joaquin Valley (SJV).   

    This matters to me because I live in the SJV (reside in Tulare, work in Downtown Fresno) and I believe that one of the most compelling arguments for the project are the huge benefits HSR will have on SJV, one of the state's fastest growing regions. The current population of the SJV is just under 4.1 million, which by itself exceeds the population of 25 other states in the country.

    Most of the readers that do not support HSR in your piece, and a popular topic among critics, mention the L.A to S.F commute. Now, while Prop. 1A mentions the non-stop requirement from L.A to S.F, the greatest utilization of HSR, in my opinion, will be the much shorter trips (i.e. Fresno to S.F, Bakersfield/ Palmdale to L.A).

    The cost-benefit of this project is much greater for the SJV cities. They will be connected like never before to the state's major metropolitan areas. Tedious drives with a roundtrip travel time of 6-8 hours will be reduced to 3 hours. Neglected city cores will be redeveloped, new businesses will move in, residents will have the opportunity to seek new job opportunities in S.F/L.A, and most importantly all of this will be the game changer the SJV needs to diversify it's agriculture based economy.

    The SJV, even during good times and in wet years, suffers from chronic high unemployment, usually double-digits. In order for California to succeed, this region of 4 million people also needs to succeed. HSR provides that opportunity through the new long-term jobs that will be sparked by HSR and the stations located in the city cores. The SJV usually gets neglected in Sacramento and here's a perfect opportunity to get noticed.

    For me, this is the main reason why I believe that the California High-Speed Rail is vital and necessary to California's future.

    Screenshot of the interactive UC Davis / Esri map, showing the planned first phase of construction, starting north of Fresno and running down to Bakersfield. The colors show economic and environmental stress, with orange and red for the most beleaguered communities. You can see the live version of the map here.

     

    2) Isn't California going to need some big new transport anyway? From a reader in the home city of the University of California's latest branch:

    I live in Merced, with strong ties to both the Bay Area and San Diego. A couple of things that I'm curious about, that I think would make a big difference in this debate

    1) Airports. How much more growth can Bay Area and Southern California airports support before we need to spend billions of dollars on some type of infrastructure project? Are existing intrastate flights crowding out connections with Asia? It seems like that could have huge ramifications for the California economy.

    2) Central Valley demographics. People envision High Speed Rail as a pet project for liberal elites...but between Bakersfield and Modesto, it seems like the greatest demand would be from people who don't take car ownership for granted, and definitely not one car for every adult member of a family. Is that what's already driving Amtrak's California routes to be some of the most heavily used in the country?

    And many of the people writing in seem confident that Central Valley jobs are so diffuse that no train station could be conveniently located for commuters...but is that actually the case? I honestly have no idea where most people work in Merced, but a lot of major offices seem to be located downtown.

     

    3) Rail travel time is "good" time. Travel by car or air is not. From a reader in the SF Bay Area:

    As a CA resident, [these exchanges are] changing my thinking about the value of HSR. Still concerned about many of the obstacles presented, but the point about leveraging land development near the stations and right-of-way rights along the route was new to me.

    One relevant aspect that I don't see being included is an assessment of relative productivity between the travel options. As a former resident of San Luis Obispo I often took AMTRAK to LA and San Diego when its schedule happened to align with mine (not nearly as often as I'd have liked due only one trip a day without getting on/off a bus connector) and now as a resident of NORCAL I often commute into SF via the ferry from Vallejo.

    In both cases I found my productivity during the travel to be very high -- comfortable seats, tables available, able to walk/stretch periodically, food service, WIFI (not-so-much on AMTRAK but iPhone hotspot solves that shortcoming), not to mention pleasant scenery going by -- that what appears on paper to be a long commute is transformed into a "What? At my stop already?" highly productive and enjoyable experiences. There's no comparison to the level of productivity when traveling by car or commercial airliner.

    As before, I'm mainly quoting readers rather than arguing or annotating along the way. But let me underscore the final point in this reader's note.

    Three hours door-to-door for a plane flight, versus three hours on a train, sounds like the same time-cost for getting where you're going. But in reality they're entirely different experiences. Much of your time for air travel is "bad" time. You're in a cab on either end, you're waiting in an infinity of lines in between, you have all the other charm-free elements of today's airline experience. If you're driving, it can be more enjoyable, but you're not supposed to be reading, typing, etc. By contrast, nearly all of your time on a train trip is "good" time, even allowing for the cattle-car experience of waiting to board at New York's godawful Penn Station.

    From another reader on just this point:

    I have for years commuted on the Amtrak San Joaquin from the Bay Area to my home near Yosemite.

    Got no complaints.  WiFi works. People are nice.  Serviceable bus connection to Mariposa/Yosemite at Merced.  No complaints.  The bullet train will not really cover that route, but I don't care.

    And still on this point:

    I took the Tokyo to Osaka "bullet train" in 2000, and this week, I took the DB ICE train from Frankfurt to Stuttgart.  If the LCD display hadn't shown our speed (240 Km/hr), I wouldn't have known it -- the ride was that smooth.

    The post-WW II explosion of the suburbs really complicates intra-metro light rail, but we certainly have a case (IMO) for more inter-metro high speed rail to reduce ground and air traffic congestion.

    Amtrak train at Fresno station, from Wikimedia Commons

     

    4) "We've effectively paralyzed ourselves." To round things out for now, a reader outside California on the larger political questions the project raises:

    I think one thing that stands in HSRs way, not just in California but nationally, is that our system has too many intentional and unintentional choke points, so that we've effectively paralyzed ourselves.

    Eminent domain proceedings are expensive (as is the land that the project will sit on) and time consuming, and there are enough ways for community organizers of both the positive and negative sort to kill most projects via NIMBYism or on other grounds.

    While we've pulled off several impressive civil engineering feats recently, we haven't, as far as I can remember, done anything really new, in the sense of expanding capacity, in perhaps the past twenty years. Most of the major civil engineering projects have been replacements or augmentations of existing (pre-1980) infrastructure, along with some infill development to expand capacity on pre-existing things.

    As I say, I think a large part of this is because we have too many kill points built into our system, so that it's almost impossible to achieve the consensus necessary to build a truly new project. However, there are two other important factors that I think also explain our lack of "new" infrastructure.

    First, we already have picked a lot of low hanging fruit. China and the rest of the developing world can absorb a lot of new highways and the like, because they're building from scratch. We already have a well built highway system, with Interstates that extend to even the most remote areas of the Dakotas and Montana, linking all of our major and most of our minor cities. Our rail system is terrible for passenger traffic, but for freight, it's second to none in terms of efficiency, thanks in part to our large loading gauges.

    Secondly, disruptive infrastructure is more disruptive when it's disrupting something valuable, and we have a lot of money tied up in existing infrastructure, to the point that it's prohibitively expensive to reroute things.

    Consider the Tappan Zee bridge, which was originally located where it was in order to circumvent the Port Authority's jurisdiction on trans-Hudson bridges. The replacement bridge, which is scheduled to open in 2018, stands right next to the original, because trying to use the more efficient southern routing was deemed too expensive and disruptive, so they just repeated the mistakes of 50 years ago.

    Indeed, this is a large part of why the CA HSR project is supposed to go to the city limits, rather than the city center. Starting to tear up houses and apartments at $1M and $2M a pop gets very expensive very quickly, especially when you have people who are fighting it in court...

    Finally, I think there is some justified skepticism about how the government, especially at the state and federal level, contracts and supervises these projects, especially in terms of cost control, though this problem isn't unique to those levels of government, or to civil infrastructure projects in general... Perhaps the new overachievers in local government that you referenced in one of your prior posts will be able to make headway on this.

    Nonetheless, I do think you're right that large infrastructure projects are often criticized more harshly than perhaps they should have been, particularly in terms of their societal merit, since most infrastructure projects don't capture the full value of the benefits that they create (nor should they).

    For the record: This post is No. 6 in a series. See also No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5.  Also see the interactive map showing different planned construction phases of the project, put together by UC Davis, the HSRA, and the mapping team at Esri.

  • Interesting News on the Finger-Shoe Front

    The company at the center of recent lawsuit news has a plan to get more people to try its unusual shoes. Run in them for six weeks, and if you don't like them, you can get all your money back.

    These are a newer, fancier version of the shoes I've used for years. ( Vibram )

    I am a fan of Vibram Five Fingers running shoes, as I have made clear every so often. I was wearing my trusty Vibrams when I passed the "Haynesworth Test" four years ago. I've worn them as I evolved past an uncomfortable era of Achilles tendon problems into a time of happily injury-free running. Two months ago I was among those saying that a highly publicized court settlement, in which Vibram set aside $3.75 million to compensate people who felt they'd been misled about health benefits of the shoes, showed more about our legal system than it did about this footwear. 

    The point about these shoes has always been: they're exactly right for some people, and wrong for others. It all depends on running style. If you naturally run with a "forefoot strike"—that is, landing on the front part of your foot, as nearly everyone does when running barefoot—or if you can adjust to run that way, the shoes are great. If you run with a "heel strike," landing on the back of your foot, which is the style that heavily padded modern running shoes encourage and which some people cannot change away from, then finger shoes don't make sense. You'll feel like you're breaking your heels.

    Along with one of my sons, modeling our birthday gifts of Five Finger shoes a few years ago

    But how can you know for sure, without trying? That has been Vibram's challenge all along—or so I know after an out-of-the-blue conversation with the company's U.S. CEO, Mike Gionfriddo, and his associates. (Vibram is based in Italy; its overall CEO is Antonio Dus. Readers with experience in the U.S. military will know the Vibram name in another context, since it produces outersoles for U.S. combat boots.)

    Gionfriddo and his Vibram team pointed out that the company dominates its category, that of minimalist shoes, but the category itself is perhaps 1% of all sports-shoes sales. Their aim is to get more people to give finger shoes a try.

    So they said they had a new plan. For the rest of this year, all shoe sales via their web site will come with an unconditional full-refund offer, if for any reason you turn out not to like running in them. To quote a  message I got from the company:

    We believe in our product and think that those who try the minimalist approach will become believers as well. To show our commitment, we’re making a guarantee: for anyone who purchases a pair of FiveFingers from July 22 until the end of the year through the website (VibramFiveFingers.com) and aren’t satisfied after six weeks with the experience – for any reason – we’ll take the shoe back and return a full refund.

    I asked what they'd do with returned shoes. They said they would clean them up and donate them to organizations that might use them. Then I asked how and when they planned to publicize the offer. They said, "Well, we are making the announcement to you now."

    And I, in turn, am making the announcement to any interested readers: If you'd been tempted by the idea of these odd-looking finger shoes, you now have a way to try them at no economic risk. Over to the Vibram web site for more. 


    For the record: I have no connection with the company whatsoever except as a satisfied repeat customer. I'm passing on the information not as an advertisement, though obviously I like my shoes, but because it's a significant development in controversies about this type of shoe. Also, no matter the subject, reporters always enjoy having a little scoop. 

    Update Broader perspective on the whole "minimalist shoe" question at Runner's World.

  • California High-Speed Rail: 10 Readers With 10 Views

    A solution looking for a problem? A genuine leap forward? The best we can expect from messy political half-measures? Or something truly brave? Take your pick.

    Projected Southern California reach of HIgh-Speed Rail Project ( UC Davis and Esri )

    As a reminder: California's plan to build a north-south High-Speed Rail (HSR) system is the most ambitious and important infrastructure project now being contemplated anywhere in the United States. It has also become one of the most controversial. Jerry Brown, now running for an unprecedented fourth term as governor, has stuck with HSR as his signature/legacy project.

    He is opposed by Republicans, probably most significantly in the form of Representative Kevin McCarthy, Eric Cantor's successor as House Majority Leader, who is trying to deploy federal leverage against the plan, as described in this NYT piece. He has also run into resistance from his own lieutenant governor, the former mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom. (Both are Democrats, but this is very much a Jerry Brown rather than a Brown-Newsom administration. Newsom, in his mid-40s, is part of the generation of politicians waiting for the current Brown/Feinstein/Boxer cohort of statewide officials, now ages 73 through 81, to move on.) And there is resistance on a variety of other fronts.

    In four previous installments, we've heard: some of the rationale for the plan; some of the most frequent criticisms; and some of the responses from the man Jerry Brown chose to oversee the project. For reference they are No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4.

    Today, 10 views from 10 readers. Actually, there are a lot more than 10 views in what you'll see below! This is a small sampling of the mail that has come in, which I've chosen to reflect main or recurrent themes. Here we go:

    1) "Highly ambitious projects leap civilization forward." From a reader in the tech industry in the SF Bay area.

    Earlier this year I took EuroStar from London to Paris—my first time doing so since I moved to the US seven years ago. Two moments I remember vividly:

    1) I checked the times and prices on their website, internalized them, opened a new tab in Chrome, and then realized that there was nothing to type. I'm so accustomed to having a myriad of choices when flying within the US that my brain instinctively says "OK, option 1 understood, now let's look at option 2". But there is no alternative to eurostar when traveling from central London to central Paris, unless you have lots of time to spare. So I booked the eurostar—the price was reasonable, and the schedule had hourly trains.

    2) Seeing the English countryside woosh by, being in the tunnel only twenty minutes, and then being delivered to the heart of Paris. I was in awe of how pleasant an experience travelling between two cities can be.

    Putting these together: I see that I, as a consumer, value choice and competition, but when lack of choice/competition is the necessary cost of undertaking very ambitious projects then I'll happily accept that compromise. Highly ambitious projects leap civilization forward, whereas choice and competition let me save a few percent at checkout.

     

    2) Let's leap forward, but to self-driving cars.

    I'm a fan of Brown's high-speed train system, but the thing that will make the most difference in CA (I'm living in San Jose now) will be self-driving cars—not purchased by individuals, but rented by individuals for the time necessary to get them where they want to go.

    I've been pushing the notion of an 2024 Olympics bid for the Bay area that would replace light rail expansion with thousands of self-driving cars. We've got Google; we've got Tesla. It's about time to get amateur drivers off the streets (i.e., all of us).

     

    An earlier era's ambitious infrastructure program: The Last Spike, by Thomas Hill (Wikimedia)

     

    3) In theory, yes. In practice, no.

    Just my two cents on your discussion about California HSR. I agree with your correspondent who said they support it in theory.  I love the idea of high speed rail.  I just have strong doubts given the cost and implementation strategy for exactly the reasons that person stated.

    In addition, I just think if the goal is to reduce traffic congestion, the State could get a much better return for less money by investing in expansion and improvement of the existing rail services across the state.  For example, the Metrolink commuter rail service in the LA region is very popular, but due to limited funds can only expand very slowly even though there is proven demand. Same with the LA metro-rail program, the Amtrak California service etc. etc.

     

    4) Will it pay off in door-to-door travel? From a reader now on the East Coast:

    Lived in both SF and LA for a total of 8 years combined and have taken the flight between them more times that I can remember.

    Just looked on Kayak—$134 R/T from Oakland to Burbank, 4 weeks out.  Both easy airports to use, arrive at the airport 1 1/2 hours ahead of your flight and the total travel time is 2 hours 45 minutes.

    $81 billion to provide a service that will be much slower and more expensive than flying.

    This particular HSR proposal is not only a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist, it is the mother of all pork barrel projects – lots of high paying jobs for something that no one needs, wants or will use.

    I'm not going to comment on most of these, but here I'll add: this doesn't seem to be the right cost-and-time comparison. Air fares obviously rise when you change plans at short notice, and rail fares generally don't. Thus for a lot of business trips the air cost would be higher. And the "total" travel time leaves out the overhead of getting to and from the airports.

    Aspirational high-speed rail map, via Federal Railroad Administration

     

    5) "Political ossification that prevents real vision":

    As a frequent commuter to LA from Sacramento, I’ve had deep questions about the financial viability of the HSR. People choose their travel mode to LA from the Bay Area and Sacramento ...  for different reasons:

    Airplane: speed and convenience, with some pricing advantages in some cases. This is the true place for market share competition with HSR. These travelers are without a car when they arrive as they would be in the HSR. However LA is so decentralized and the mass transit system too complicated for a periodic visitor/tourist to use, so a downtown HSR doesn’t confer a real advantage over arriving at Burbank (the experienced travelers’ preference) or LAX. (Note also that the vaunted Bay Area transit system is only robust in the northern half—it’s as difficult as LA’s in San Jose environs.) Southwest Air seems able to meet any price challenge, and can be less costly than driving alone. Boeing’s recent foray into bio jet fuel indicates that airplanes may be able to reduce their GHG emissions even more significantly...

    Auto: cost, spontaneity and convenience on arrival. Avoiding rental car costs of nearly $50/day is an important consideration, and traveling in a group is always less expensive than an airline ticket. The HSR will have almost NO penetration into this market—I have not seen an financial projections that show ticket prices competing with driving instead of airplanes. And if EVs are as successful as the ARB AB 32 Scoping Plan envisions, driving costs will drop precipitously, so the HSR is even less likely to  There is currently little congestion outside of the Bay Area and the LA Basin (and that HSR riders will be driving around means there will be no relief there) and if congestion arise in the Central Valley, expanding I-5 and Hwy 99 from 4 to 6 lanes (or creating a separate truck-only road along I-5) will quickly address that problem.

    Which brings me to two key issues I have not yet seen discussed:

    1)      The real pollution problem in the Central Valley is not auto travel between the Bay Area and LA. Trucks making the I-5 trek are a much bigger source, and agriculture, oil production and local traffic probably overwhelm the Bay Area/LA traffic stream, particularly since autos emit less criteria pollutants per mile at freeway speeds. I don’t see the HSR will make a real dent in the overall emission levels.

    2)      Viewing the HSR in isolation from EV penetration and airline bio jet fuel use illustrates a much larger problem in California: The failure to analyze the interplay among different emission reduction strategies. The Scoping Plan was a mess this way—it was clear that reductions in one sector would reduce the potential emissions in another, but the Plan failed to account for this effect. The HSR probably is not cost effective when compared to other measures in this manner, and the GHG allowances probably could be used much more effectively in other ways (e.g., mitigating AB 32 price increases on low income consumers). A comprehensive, holistic analysis is completely missing.

    It’s also naïve to think that there will be any train ridership between Fresno and Bakersfield for the first leg just at one reader noted. There’s no advantage for train travel because there is parking shortage in either place and no real traffic congestion except briefly at rush hour ....

    I’m afraid that California is going to kill HSR just as it did electricity restructuring and GHG cap and trade programs. I generally supported both of those, but the state’s execution reflects the growing political ossification that prevents real vision.

     

    Federal Railroad Administration.

    6) "Infrastructure is the real thing. Yet we are behind ... even the French!"

    I'm so glad you've taken up this issue. I do hope that it broadens into a deeper discussion of the need for infrastructure investment throughout the country...

    The word "infrastructure" gets thrown around like so many metaphors which become mindlessly absorbed into a kind of bureaucrat-ese; they make the speaker sound knowledgeable and on the inside.  (Like referring to hotels and movies as "properties" as if speaking clinically about such things elevates the speaker to the dispassionate management elite.)

    But "infrastructure" is as close to a literal metaphor as anything I can think of.  If you look at the development of this country, the movement west, the development of commerce throughout the interior of the country; it was all of it hung on the firm grounding of infrastructure.  Initially the infrastructure was natural—Pittsburgh arose at the confluence of three great rivers.  The Erie Canal brought commerce and development to interior NY state, eastern Ohio and the Great Lakes.  See also the St. Lawrence Seaway. Would Duluth, Cleveland, Detroit, etc., have become anything without it?

    Railroads made possible all of the great agricultural activities in the country's interior; so many towns arose simply because of the railroads.  So many centers of commerce arose simply because of the interstate highways.  (And so many in downtown cores were lost because of those same highways...)   Regulated telecommunications made sure that the hard-to-wire regions of the interior nevertheless got reliable telephone service.  Consider the questionable viability of all of the small towns in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, etc. had telephone service to them not been a regulatory requirement.  See also air service in the regulated era.  The level of commercial and domestic development on the interior of the country could not have happened had it not had all of that publicly financed or mandated infrastructure upon which to hang.  And all of it depended in one form or another on public investment and subsidy. Even the railroads.

    By comparison, look at us now. Whatever happened to the vast Greyhound and Continental Trailways bus network?  It used to be possible to go most anywhere by passenger rail.  The de-regulation of the airlines has caused the cessation of commercial air service to large numbers of smaller, but significant, centers of commerce. Interstate highways still provide access, but it's necessary to have an inefficient and expensive automobile to use it, absent some commercial service.  And high-speed internet still remains elusive to rural areas that are not commercially viable on their own. If this is the result of the "free market,"  you can have it.  We moved from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution specifically to have greater support for our national commerce.

    Infrastructure is a real thing, and without it, the skin and the muscle and the sinews have nothing to hang onto, no grounding against which to leverage its force.  Human activity won't go anywhere if there's no way for it to go.

    The Reagan and neo-Reagan political era have brought with it a kind of auto-immune (clever pun?) disease in which government investment is reviled, and the country eats away at itself.  (Correction.  I guess we still find the benefit in public investment in our sports stadiums.)  Our attitudes of public and regulated private investment for the benefit of the whole have to change, or we will, as we are, decay to a level from which it may not be possible to recover.  Why can't we chant "USA! USA! USA!" and actually accomplish something other than tearing apart third world countries?  Two and a half efficient and convenient hours from SFO to LAX?  You betcha.  I'll have more of that thank you!

    High-speed rail technology has been available for 50 years. It is an embarrassment that we are so far behind ... even the French!!

     

    7) "Why not start someplace more modest?"

    I have lived in Southern California for most of my life except for a few college years in the Bay Area. I have driven and flown between the two metro areas more times than I could count over the past 50 years.

    I remember the days when we would park a car at LAX on a Friday after work, walk into the terminal, buy a ticket and walk on the plane, then rent a car at SFO and be in downtown San Francisco in time for dinner.

    Today, for a trip to SF you can figure an hour for each of the following:

    -get to LAX and park

    -allow an extra hour for delays in airport screening

    -check in, screening and boarding

    -flying time

    -rent a car at SFO

    -drive to your destination in SF area

    Total time: 6 hours

    Driving time: door to door if  you live north of downtown LA : 7 hours

    How is the high speed rail going to make this faster?  Eventually high speed rail stations will become giant messes like todays airports.

    Door-to-door transit time is what counts.  I would never think of flying to Las Vegas even though i live minutes from Orange County airport. And driving, is, of course much cheaper.

    Rather than the HSR we should focus on the urban transportation infrastructures of getting people between airports and their homes; and, improving the nightmarish 'people-processing' situation at our airports.  And, what the heck, go ahead and impose a $50 toll on single occupancy vehicles driving between LA and SF.  I would still drive.

    And, why not start with something more modest: build decent rail transport between Los Angeles and San Diego.  No one flies between those two urban areas. You would displace a lot of auto traffic by building good rail service.  It doesn't even have to be `high speed'. Current Amtrak, Coaster and Metrolink service is pathetic. Double track the entire distance between Orange County and San Diego; separate track usage between passenger and freight trains.

    A brief reply here: the chairman of the HSR project, Dan Richard, explained in a previous round why the bond act authorizing the project required the first phase to go northward from Los Angeles toward San Francisco, rather than southward toward San Diego.

     

    8) "The Valley is skewed toward short-term expectations."

    Two thoughts: (A) the expectations from the Bay Area; (B) my concerns about access to stations.

    (A) I think the [Silicon] Valley is skewed through short-term expectations from the tech startup world as well as instantaneous payback and financial self-support within 5-7 years. "How will it ever pay for itself" often only looks at the short-term revenue-from-tickets divided by cost-to-build-and-maintain—and not the ratio of industrial-impact divided by cost-to-build-and-maintain.  

    With Tech IPOs and mergers and acquisitions fueling a large percentage of people who live in the Bay Area, I heard few bankers saying: "I will pay a much higher price for the stocks because in 15-20 years this will create tons of jobs and prevent us from many mistakes."  Furthermore, I'd like to remind people on the recent "star" IPOs and deals in Tech and BioTech:

        •    EPZM - market cap of 1bn, EV/EBITDA of -395.74

        •    XON - market cap of 2.3bn, operating margin of -213.13%

        •    FEYE - market cap of 5.16bn, operating margin of -118.94%, EV/EBITDA of -20.77

        •    BNFT - market cap of 300m, operating margin of -132.73%

        •    FUEL - market cap of 800m, EV/EBITDA -47.11, but an ok operating margin of -6.82%

        •    TWTR - market cap of 22bn, EV/EBITDA -32.67, operating margin of -92.54%

        •    KIN - market cap of 305m, no revenue.

        •    XLRN - market cap 836m, operating margin of -18.43%, $20m debt  

        •    VMEM - market cap 356m, operating margin of -139.12%,

        •    CHGG - market cap 506m, operating margin -20.51%

    But generally, look at the debt leverage of these companies as well, and think about what kind of assets are in the company. Sure, some patents, and for some of them actual biotech equipment, but FUEL is leveraged 11.45x, for example; VMEM is 9.34x leveraged at -31.62m levered free cash flow; CHGG has a -60.16m levered free cash flow.

    I think by numbers alone the HSR might look better ;)

    (B) The difference of HSR in Europe and Asia to the US is the access to the stations: European cities were built around train stations: see Frankfurt, Hannover, London, Amsterdam.

    If I have to take a car to the train station somewhere in Oakland/Berkeley and then wait for a train that is coming up from San Diego with 1h delay (remember 500 miles! London-Brussels is only 225 miles with a single stop, etc.), just to end up far outside Sacramento and to take a bus in again, I might as well drive.

     

     

    9) "A cowardly approach, but all we can hope for these days."

    Interesting piece on the high-speed rail. May be worth noting that this 'build almost to where you want to go' seems to be a common dodge these days; a way to make it harder for governments not to fund the useful part of a project for Phase II. There are 2 examples of this approach in Seattle.

    First, the light rail to the airport was first built, well, not to the airport. It stopped about a mile or two away. Of course, that lead to outcry, and guess what? The 'useful' part was ultimately built.

    Same thing is happening with the replacement of the 520 floating bridge. [This is the Highway 520 bridge that crosses the northern end of Lake Washington.] A new, 6-lane bridge is being built from the east side. As it approaches Seattle, it will be joining into the existing, decrepit, 4 lane bridge. Anyone think the piece to actually connect this to I-5—the 'useful' part—will not be funded?

    A cowardly approach to infrastructure work, which ultimately wastes money and results in sub-optimal designs, but I guess that's all we can hope for these days.

     

    10) A chance for California to lead the way? From a reader in the Pacific NW, where California doings are often regarded with suspicion:

    Thank you for your work on the California HSR system.  I agree with your assessment that it is critical infrastructure work.  I think there is another angle that you should bring up in a later piece: the path lighting that California is doing.  If Cali succeeds, it will show that true HSR can be a success in America, unlocking the option for the rest of us.  I was disappointed that the Obama administration was forced to take small actions on 110 mph trains in the Midwest instead of doing the bold but correct thing.  

    Here in the Northwest, we are watching eagerly.  Like California, we have state sponsored trains (Amtrak Cascades) that are a very pleasant way to get around.  It just happens that they are held up by having to share tracks with freight trains and are not as quick as they could be.  There are many incremental improvements to be made, but a great leap forward may only be possible when inspired by success in California.

     

    For the record: This post is No. 5. See also No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4. Also see the interactive map showing different planned construction phases of the project, put together by UC Davis, the HSRA, and the mapping team at Esri, here. Also for the record: there are two of these posts that come very close to expressing my own view on the project. More of that, and other pros and cons, to come.

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