James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Yesterday in Sacramento, Jerry Brown was sworn in, at age 76, for his fourth and final term as governor of our most populous and economically most important state.
Today in Fresno he will preside at a symbolic groundbreaking of his major infrastructure project as governor, and the largest one underway anywhere in the country. This is a north-south high-speed-rail program that will start construction in the state's hard-pressed Central Valley region and ultimately link the great population centers of the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles basin.
You can see Brown's inaugural address yesterday via (non-embeddable) C-SPAN video here. If you jump to 12:20, you'll see an introduction by Brown's wife, Anne Gust Brown (in screenshot below), and get an idea of why she has been considered such an important part of his third- and fourth- term success.
And if you go ahead to roughly 23:00, you will see Brown talking about his high-speed-rail project. It gets a cheer, but to be fair, it's a secondary theme in the speech, which goes in more detail into Brown's plans for education, prison reform, and environmental protection. If you're wondering what it's like to talk with Jerry Brown, the speech as a whole (full text here) will get you started. As I mentioned in my article, the autumnal Governor Brown peppers his formal statements and informal comments with references to his family's many generations in the state, and the state's unusual position in the nation. That's also how he ended this speech:
Whether the early explorers came for gold or God, came they did. The rest is history: the founding of the Missions, the devastation of the native people, the discovery of gold, the coming of the Forty-Niners, the Transcontinental Railroad, the founding of great universities, the planting and harvesting of our vast fields, oil production, movies, the aircraft industry, the first freeways, the State Water Project, aerospace, Silicon Valley and endless new companies and Nobel Prizes.
This is California. And we are her sons and daughters.
Yes, California feeds on change and great undertakings, but the path of wisdom counsels us to ground ourselves and nurture carefully all that we have started. We must build on rock, not sand, so that when the storms come, our house stands. We are at a crossroads. [JF note: This "crossroads" sentence is in vapid contrast with the rest and could have been cut.] With big and important new programs now launched and the budget carefully balanced, the challenge is to build for the future, not steal from it, to live within our means and to keep California ever golden and creative, as our forebears have shown and our descendants would expect.
* * *
Now, the rail project. Why am I for it? Beyond the details laid out in the previous installments, here are the summary reasons.
1) America is direly short on infrastructure; the financial and political resistance to remedying that is powerful (for reasons Mancur Olson once laid out) and usually prevails. China is biased toward wastefully building infrastructure it doesn't need. The U.S. is biased the opposite way. So when there's is a real chance to build something valuable in America, I start out in favor of it.
2) The counties of the Central Valley of California, where the first stages of the construction will begin, are not just the poorest part of a rich state but also, taken on their own, would constitute the poorest state in the entire country. Of the five poorest metro areas in the United States, three are there. Most dynamic analyses of the effects of the rail project indicate that it would bring new jobs to a region that most needs them, while chewing up less farmland than normal sprawl and freeway expansion would destroy. Which leads to ...
3) The state's population is growing, and so is the demand for intra-state travel. Any other way of getting California's 30-plus million people from north to south, via cars on new (or more crowded) freeways or planes to new (or more crowded) airports, will be more destructive of the state's finances, its farmland, and its environment than a rail system.
And, maybe the biggest factor of all:
4) There is an established track record of overestimating the problems of big infrastructure projects, and short-sightedly under-envisioning their benefits. Here's the crucial contrast with big military construction projects I've written about recently. Repeatedly, big military projects have come in over budget, past schedule, and below performance promises.
Repeatedly the opposite has been true of big national or regional infrastructure projects. Their drawbacks have been exaggerated before they've been started, and their potential benefit has been grossly under-imagined. Here's a few of the projects that seemed impractical, quixotic, ruinously expensive, or not worth the bother when proposed:
The Louisiana Purchase
The Erie Canal
"Seward's Folly" of buying Alaska
The Transcontinental Railroad
The Panama Canal
The Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay Bridge
The TVA, REA, and WPA, plus Boulder/Hoover Dam
The expansion of a continental airport system
The GI Bill
The Interstate Highway system
Washington, D.C.'s Metro and San Francisco's BART
Details on some of these in the first post in the series.
All of these projects have had their problems. But without any one of them, the United States would be in far worse shape than it is today. High-speed rail also has its problems, and will have more. But the record of big ventures of this sort suggests that we are better at worrying about the problems and noting imperfections than we are at envisioning long-term rewards. Thus I think that the benefit of the doubt should go with the proponents. People on their side have more often been right.
Two days ago, on the occasion of Mario Cuomo's death, I mentioned his ability to "think in public" through his major speeches, notably his address on private faith and public policy at Notre Dame.
This morning, readers Allison B. and then Kevin M. talked about the music of spoken prose and the allusive power of 20th-century speakers from Cuomo to Robert F. Kennedy.
This evening reader David M. closes the loop with an old West Wing segment that bears on exactly these questions. The first two minutes of "War Crimes," an episode from Season 3 of the program in late 2001, could have been in response to ... well, to a blog post 13 years later.
The clip above is legit as of the time I post it, from YouTube. If it turns out to be unauthorized and you can't see it any more, after the jump you'll find a transcript (via David M.) of the exchange I'm directing your attention toward. Placeholder note: Although, as noted over the years, I am not a spiritual person, my inner sense of the proper shape and pace of an English sentence is heavily affected by having heard, recited, and engraved into my brain passages from the old (Thomas Cranmer) version of the Book of Common Prayer thousands of times through my youth. If you watch the West Wing clip you might see why I mention this.
Back to military discussions soon. See transcription after the jump. Envoi: A dozen years after this show appeared, it's conventional to make fun of faster-paced-than-real-humans-could-manage Aaron Sorkin banter. But these two minutes are a reminder of what was impressive in this show.
As I listened I kept asking myself who wrote the lecture (Cuomo himself, I presume) and how he learned to do that? How does it work, practically speaking? I'm not expecting an answer, I just wanted to let you know one result from this short article.
I know how to write a research paper and how to get from a topic to a doc. But the spoken phrasing? The timing? The timbre and oratorical glory??? Yes the writer knows the man and how his rhythms and the words he can speak without embarrassment (Salvific! Although Cuomo knew the word and knew he could say it there). How to deflect cliché and leave grandness. I could never do it.
Wow, what a gift in the writer and the speaker.
I have spent a lot of my working life wrestling with versions of such questions. How does it work, in practical terms, this process of learning to convey thoughts and emotions in words? And learning about the different tools that are available for meaning conveyed on a page or screen, versus through the sound of a voice in a broadcast, versus the look and bearing of a speaker before a group? And the odd art of writing words someone else will deliver, via a script or a speech, versus those where writer and speaker are the same?
As with any learned-and-practiced craft, there are no set answers to any of these questions, simply the ongoing practice. I don't know whether anyone ever thought to ask Mario Cuomo a version of Allison B.'s question, or whether the process was conscious enough for him that he would have been able to offer an answer beyond: I listen and think and try.
* * *
Update: Reader Kevin M. has this astute follow-up:
It was not in the segment of the San Francisco keynote that you linked, but I still distinctly remember him saying “mirabile dictu” at one point in that speech, which I watched on TV and have never rewatched or reread it.
And that reminds me of RFK quoting Aeschylus in Indianapolis the night King was assassinated.
Both of those moments cause me to wonder if the answer to Allison B.’s question is that once upon a time it was more common for politicians to know who they were, knew that it included being intelligent and articulate, and didn’t feel the need to be ashamed of it. Yes, Cuomo could “get away” with salvific at Notre Dame, but the keynote speech was not offered to Catholic scholars.
Moreover, what would happen to a politician, a white politician no less, who started musing on Aeschylus before an African-American audience, especially at such a moment?
Thanks for this addition. Three extra points. First, the RFK/Aeschylus quote on the night of Martin Luther King's assassination was quite extraordinary:
Robert F. Kennedy, delivering an extemporaneous eulogy to Martin Luther King, Jr., the evening of April 4, 1968, in Indianapolis, Indiana, said, “Aeschylus wrote: ‘In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”
Second, I also remember hearing Cuomo use mirabile dictu in a major convention speech—but the one eight years later, when he nominated Bill Clinton in 1992. In a great NYT article about that 1992 speech, Michael Winerip quoted Cuomo as saying, no doubt with a wink, "You write that in for guys like Bill Buckley."
Third, when being reminded of Cuomo's and Kennedy's classical allusions, I naturally thought of another politician I'd written about recently, Jerry Brown. As I mention in my article, he was throwing off references to Yeats and Comenius (?!) when I talked with him, and not in a trying-to-seem-impressive way. What Cuomo, Kennedy, and Brown had in common, of course, is an old-school Catholic education. Brown actually spent three years in a seminary; Cuomo and Kennedy (plus Buckley) were very public about the importance of religion in their lives.
"I can offer you no final truths, complete and unchallengeable. But it's possible this one effort will provoke other efforts—both in support and contradiction of my position—that will help all of us understand our differences and perhaps even discover some basic agreement."
While in transit, I've heard the sad news of Mario Cuomo's death. From sketchy connections in airport(s), here are two ways to remember him.
First, Cuomo's speech 30 years ago at the Democratic Convention in San Francisco, which did more to electrify its audience than any other such speech I have heard, including Barry Goldwater's 20 years earlier (which I watched on TV as a kid in Southern California) and Barack Obama's 20 years later (which I saw in person in Boston).
Listened to 30 years later, Cuomo's speech is startling in its partisan edge. Franklin Roosevelt talked more or less this way. Modern aspirant Democrats don't. Contrast it with Obama's reputation-making convention speech—Obama was much more conciliatory, as given his historical situation he probably had to be.
While that speech is Cuomo's most famous, another one is to me more representative. That was the second speech I want to mention, at Notre Dame, in which the very publicly Jesuitical Governor Cuomo talked about the separation of church and state, in a speech titled "A Catholic Governor's Perspective." You can watch the whole thing via (non-embeddable) C-SPAN report here; or hear an excerpt of Cuomo's speaking (without seeing him) in the video below; or ...
... you can read the full text from Notre Dame's archives, here. It's the source of the quote at the beginning of this article
One thought on Cuomo's legacy. National office in the modern United States—the presidency, or a serious candidacy for it—requires a broader range of skills than any real human being has ever possessed. This is a point I've made in different ways in long Atlantic articles about Barack Obama in 2012, about Jimmy Carter in 1979, about George W. Bush in 2004, and a shorter one about Bill Clinton in 2001.
To succeed fully in national leadership a person would in principle need to be as shrewd a manipulator as Lyndon Johnson, as confidently patient a commander as Dwight Eisenhower, as quickly intelligent as John F. Kennedy, as publicly sunny as Ronald Reagan, as fundamentally sane as Gerald Ford—you get the idea.
Mario Cuomo did not have all these skills. He no doubt was aware of that, which is probably why (through what was generally referred to as his Hamlet-like era in the 1980s) he broke many liberals' hearts by never running for president. If he had run, who knows whether he would have won; if he had won, who knows how "successful" he would have seemed. It's easy to imagine him ending up seeming "feckless" and "indecisive" as president.
But he possessed one of these abilities in remarkable fullness. Among politicians of the past generation-plus seen as national-level contenders, he was the most accomplished and engrossing public thinker. (This is also Obama's strength, and presumably he will overtake Cuomo through the scale of the issues he has been involved in.) Most public officials know, or fear, that they need to buff away the complicated or challenging parts of their views before presenting them in public. That's assuming they ever had, or kept, such thoughts. Mario Cuomo was notable in trying always to talk up to his audience, not down. You see that especially in his Notre Dame speech. It's an example worth reflecting upon.
Rhetorical success, like presidential effectiveness, involves more separate elements than you might think. It helps to have a good voice and physical bearing; to have actor- or announcer-type skills in presentation; to have an ear for sentence-by-sentence euphony; and to understand the intellectual and emotional shape of a speech. Mario Cuomo had all of these, and our public life was richer when he was an active part of it.
I like and respect former Senator, soon-to-be-former Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, and I am sorry that he is leaving this position. For day-job reasons, namely closing a long magazine story that involves the Pentagon, I have been absent from this site for a while and will be for another day. But let me quickly put up what I consider a useful reference: it's a conversation I had with Hagel just four weeks ago, at the Washington Ideas Forum here in D.C:
In particular I direct your attention to:
The section beginning at 15:30 in the video above, when I ask Hagel how his experience as an enlisted combat veteran of Vietnam affects his decisions and outlook in the Pentagon. Note especially what he says starting at around 16:50 on how lessons of Vietnam made him want to know, or at least to ask, how a military commitment would end before deciding to begin it. "It's made me cautious."*
Around 2:10, I ask a several-part question, the last part of which is: Will today's "long wars" ever come to an end? Hagel covers other parts of the question, but not that one, in his initial response. So at 6:45 I re-ask it and say, At what point, if ever, will our Middle Eastern wars be declared over? You'll hear his reply.
Right at the start, I ask him about Defense Department measures to cope with Ebola. This was news that he had announced a few minutes before our talk.
Starting at 8:50, I ask about the Pentagon's view of whether climate change is a national-security concern (answer: it is) and what he thinks should be done about it.
More later. In the meantime, my Atlantic colleague Steve Clemons explains the view from inside Hagel's camp here, and Fred Kaplan explains in Slate some of the sources of Hagel's distance from the White House and other power centers.
* For the record, early in this answer Hagel makes a verbal slip that I decided not to correct. He says that 1968 was the bloodiest year for America in Vietnam, which is true, and that 56,000+ Americans were killed in Vietnam, which is also true. But he says that they all died that year, which of course (and as of course he knows) is not true. The actual American death toll in 1968 was over 16,000, which is shocking on its own (more than 300 per week) but is not 56,000. I judged in real time that Hagel's meaning was sufficiently clear that it was unnecessary, and would have seemed pedantic, for me to interrupt and say "You're talking about the casualties for the whole war, not that one year."
Also for the record, if you'd like a reminder of the odious attempt to block Hagel's confirmation based on smear allegations that he was anti-Semitic, a claim denounced by leading figures in Nebraska's Jewish community and by Israelis with whom Hagel had worked, and also based on the preposterous suggestion that he might be on the North Korean payroll (I'm not making that up), see this and this on the anti-Semitism campaign, and this on North Korea. Spoiler: the person challenging Hagel to prove that he wasn't a North Korean agent was none other than Ted Cruz.
What you see above is part of the mailings flooding into homes in West Virginia's Second Congressional District. It's now represented by Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, who is expected to win today to succeed Jay Rockefeller in the U.S. Senate. Alex Mooney is the Republican candidate to succeed Capito in Congress. Barack ObamaNancy Pelosithe anti-gun Michael BloombergNick Casey Jr. is the Democrat.
Here's what a local Republican received yesterday. It gives a flavor of how local races are being "nationalized."
We're not here on a political-reporting swing—it is amazing how much more interesting it is to see the country doing something other than watching campaign rallies—but it's election day, after all.
The other big item on the local ballot is a levy to support improvements in the Charleston public library. On Halloween, Larry and Sandra Groce, about whom you'll be seeing more in this site, decorated their entire house on the theme of: You know what would be scary? No library! There's a nice story about them and their house in The Charleston Gazette; here is the way the house looked in the stark autumn light yesterday, which gives a rough idea:
Four years ago, when Republicans were sweeping the boards in many midterm contests, the Tea Party faction had one of its biggest and strangest victories in Maine. Biggest, in that the Tea Party Republican candidate who became Maine's governor, Paul LePage, is arguably the most right-wing governor in the country, serving in what is far from the most right-wing state. Strangest, in that he eked out a victory not over the Democratic candidate, who faded badly in the last weeks of the campaign, but over the independent Eliot Cutler.
That race four years ago was full of what-ifs. What if the Democrats, when it became clear that their candidate (Libby Mitchell) was sinking to a distant third, had explicitly or implicitly thrown in the towel or backed Cutler—similar to what is happening now in the Senate race in Kansas? What if fewer people had voted early, before it became clear that the real race was between Cutler and LePage? What if the Maine moderate/centrists who have sent the likes of Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Angus King to Washington had a clearer picture of how hardline LePage was going to be in office? What if the dynamics had shifted a few days earlier, so that Cutler had caught up in time? In the end LePage beat Cutler by 10,000 votes, with Mitchell another 100,000 behind.
As I wrote back in 2010, Eliot Cutler and his wife Melanie are close friends of ours; their daughter Abby, who is now a doctor, once worked for The Atlantic. That meant I wasn't a dispassionate observer, but also that I knew Eliot well enough to be enthusiastic about what he could have done as governor.
This year two things are similar: LePage has been running as a Republican, and Cutler as an independent. The big difference is that the Democrats have unified earlier, and more powerfully, behind a stronger candidate than last time. This is Representative Mike Michaud, from Maine's northern—and poor, and rural—Second Congressional District.
Two months ago, I noted that Angus King, who won statewide races for governor and U.S. Senate as an independent, had endorsed Eliot Cutler. Since then, the race has fallen into a pattern with Michaud and LePage closely matched at just under 40 percent support, with Cutler below 20 percent, even after strong performances in a recent string of debates.
Yesterday two significant press conferences occurred. First, Eliot Cutler said that if people supported him but thought he could not win, they had his blessing to vote strategically—that is, to act as if it were a run-off between the other two candidates, even though he was staying in the race.
Then, his crucial supporter Angus King said that, in effect, he would be voting strategically, and switched his endorsement to Mike Michaud. As King put it (via a Politico story):
“Eliot Cutler is a fine man who would make a good governor of our state,” King said in a statement. “But, like Eliot, I too am a realist. After many months considering the issues and getting to know the candidates, it is clear that the voters of Maine are not prepared to elect Eliot in 2014 .… The good news is that we still have a chance to elect a governor who will represent the majority of Maine people: my friend and colleague, Mike Michaud.”
These moves obviously change the nature of the race, and they avoid another potential what-if: What if a clear majority of Maine's voters wanted not to have Paul LePage for another four years, but got just that because of a split in the liberal-centrist vote?
This also heightens the importance of what Eliot Cutler said yesterday, after saying that his supporters should feel free to pay attention to the polls when considering their vote:
For those voters who have been seized with anxiety and who don’t want fear to become an indelible hallmark of politics in Maine I have a single request: Regardless of whether you vote for me or someone else, please join me in supporting the proposed citizens’ initiative on ranked choice voting and sign a petition at the polls on November 4 to bring ranked choice voting to a vote of the people in a referendum.
The machinery of democracy is already flawed in enough ways, inadvertent and intentional, and the match between party alignment and popular wishes is already sufficiently askew, that we need to seize any opportunity to fix easily correctible errors. So if I were in Maine, in addition to considering "strategic" voting, I would sign that petition. People of Maine, over to you.
"Of no party or clique" was the founding motto of our magazine, 157 years ago next month. In practice this mainly means that we should aspire to present each article or argument on its merits, and not as expressions of some other agenda. (Though of course we all have our larger worldviews, blind spots, favorites, etc.) Sometimes it means there are disagreements in the arguments presented in our pages or on this site.
For the record I want to note two recent disagreements, one about a journalistic tone and one about a diplomatic goal.
1) Gary Hart. Last week I wrote that I found Matt Bai's All the Truth Is Out to be valuable and worth reading in full, perhaps especially if you'd read the interesting but not-quite-representative excerpt in the NYT Magazine. The book as a whole considers the real career, achievements, and, yes, "character" of former senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart, including his original and decades-long work as a defense reformer—and it contrasts that with the smirking shorthand of press references to Hart as a man forced out of politics because of Monkey Business.
Yesterday The Atlantic ran a short news item about Hart that demonstrated the smirking shorthand tone. Indeed, I thought the item had little point except as an occasion to mention Hart this way—that is, it probably wouldn't have been written if some other former senator was going on a diplomatic mission. It began:
But less than a month after a new book thrust him back into the news, Hart has a new job, and it comes courtesy of a fellow member of the semi-exclusive club of presidential losers, John Kerry.
This is just too easy, and there's just too much of it in political media. I'm sorry that we added to the supply. Before you ask, I have discussed this with the item's author, Russell Berman, and I know that he never meant to leave the impression I am talking about. But that's all the more reason to note it in public, as an illustration of the tone we often take by reflex, without meaning to or thinking about it—and because we are talking about real people.*
My view all along has been more or less the opposite: that the greatest opportunity for the United States is re-integrating Iran into normal international relations, and the greatest risks for American interests and the world would come from Iran's continued isolation under extremist leaders. For background: Ten years ago I argued in a cover story that a military "solution" to Iran's nuclear ambitions was a fantasy. It hasn't gotten any more realistic since then. Last year I wrote about the ways in which re-integrating Iran resembles and differs from the Nixon-era accommodation with China. Because it's relevant to the Iran question, I should also mention that David Frum is generally credited with having come up with the line calling Iraq, Iran, and North Korea the "axis of evil" in George W. Bush's State of the Union Speech in 2002. On the 10th anniversary of the speech, Frum wrote that the phrase stood up well.
By all means read these latest pieces by Frum. Then please consider this detailed report by "The Iran Project," which argues (as I would) that the risk/reward calculation of long-term dealings with Iran favors more active attempts at engagement.
The people running The Iran Project are about as august a group of experts as you could find, largely former ambassadors or security advisors from both Republican and Democratic administrations. The image at the top is a screen-grab of a signature page showing some of their names. One member of the panel, longtime CIA official Paul Pillar, has explained its implications this way:
A premise of the report is that a successful nuclear agreement, by resolving the issue that has so heavily dominated for years the U.S.-Iranian relationship in particular, is likely to have other repercussions in the Middle East. This is partly because it would open up opportunities in the U.S.-Iranian relationship itself to address other problems of mutual concern. It is also because, given the importance of the United States to many states in the region, there are apt to be secondary effects involving the relations of those states with Iran.
Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO (and a colleague and friend of mine back in the Carter administration days), made a similar case as negotiations neared a deadline this summer, in "The Hopes and Fears of an Agreement With Iran."
Read them all, decide for yourself, and remember the big-tent spirit we aspire to here.
* For some reason, this old standard comes to mind: "Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest."
I recognize that the social-intellectual ecology of blogging is different from what it was even three or four years ago. Back then—ah, the lost Golden Age of the Blog!—it was easy to assume, or imagine, an ongoing, incremental process of working out concepts in public and exploring evidence as it emerged. This was the era and the mood that Andrew Sullivan captured in his "Why I Blog" cover story for The Atlantic in November, 2008.
The autumn of 2008 is "only" six years in the past, but it seems a different universe. George W. Bush was still the president. At least for supporters, Barack Obama was most strongly identified with the word Hope. The world economy, rather than being "troubled" as it is now, was in full-fledged panic. (Worth remembering for perspective on today's "volatile" stock markets: The Dow Jones average went from the 14,000s to the 6,000s within a little more than a year.)
Twitter was just a glimmer; Facebook had barely one-tenth as many users as it does today. And online discourse, because of the relative "calm" of that era, seems in retrospect something from the days of Emerson and Melville, of Addison and Steele. Our magazine, The Atlantic, had Andrew Sullivan and a handful of other online "Voices." Collectively we put up a relative handful of items per day.
It's the age of superabundance now in all things digital: opinions, outlets, connections, sources of insight and misinformation and distraction. That makes the thinking-in-public process more complex than it seemed six years ago, since it's harder to assume that any reader has had the time to follow a discussion. There's a greater risk that a single comment will be taken out of context—and a vastly greater likelihood that it won't be seen at all. On the other hand, this may return the thinking-out-loud process to something like its normal, pre-Golden-Age-of-Blogs condition, in which you think mainly to yourself and with a small group of onlookers and every so often try to get broader attention for the results.
Water is increasingly the theme that connects the world's big energy, environmental, and climate-related questions. Fracking in the United States, China, and elsewhere is creating new, cheaper, potentially cleaner energy sources; but it consumes a lot of water, and might pollute even more. Air pollution is the most visible (literally) environmental disaster in China, but maintaining water supplies for the country's cities, factories, and farms may be an even greater challenge. Water-level rise is one of the most feared future effects of climate change, and ocean-water acidification in the here-and-now is already an emergency for coral reefs, shellfish, and so on. Then we have the business, agricultural, and environmental consequences of the California drought. (Which is an occasion to mention: Our California High-Speed Rail series is about to resume, and will be the next feature in this space. I have been wrestling with a big print-magazine article and American Futures travels since the previous installment.)
And even the verdant Lehigh Valley, home to Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton, and environs, is dealing with water issues. In "The City That Turned Its Water Into Cash," the latest American Futures installment, John Tierney describes the unusual bet the Allentown city government made about solving the pension burdens it had inherited from its past, with water supplies for its future. It's a local version of privatization steps taken in other cities, most famously or notoriously with Chicago's decision to lease-out the right to run its parking meters. John explains the logic behind it and why the city leaders in Allentown considered this a necessary next step in their area's revival. For more details, please see his post.
Tonight I won't be able to hear President Obama explain what he intends to do in Syria and elsewhere, and why. So rather than giving my reaction after the speech, let me give it before.
Eight years ago I did a cover story in The Atlantic called "Declaring Victory," whose central argument was that the United States could best protect itself against the worst long-term damage from terrorist movements by refusing to be whipsawed, baited, or panicked into self-destructive over-reaction. The piece began with a reference to Osama bin Laden that could as well be applied to the barbarous ISIS of today:
Osama bin Laden’s public statements are those of a fanatic. But they often reveal a canny ability to size up the strengths and weaknesses of both allies and enemies, especially the United States.... In his videotaped statement just days before the 2004 U.S. presidential election, bin Laden also boasted about how easy it had become for him “to provoke and bait” the American leadership: “All that we have to do is to send two mujahideen … to raise a piece of cloth on which is written ‘al-Qaeda’ in order to make the generals race there.”
ISIS, apparently with a number of Western-convert members, is by all evidence even more sophisticated about manipulating the psychology of the democratic West. As applies to them, I stand by the logic and arguments of the counterterrorism experts I quoted all those years ago. They said:
That terrorists can certainly injure a country, but the most dangerous wounds are always self-inflicted, through over-reaction. (The war in Iraq killed many more Americans, had a vastly greater economic cost, and did incalculably more diplomatic and moral damage to our country than did the horrific attacks 13 years ago tomorrow.)
That when politicians, columnists, and cable TV guests are most fervent in urging a president to "do something!" about a threat, they most often have in mind a "something"—military attack—that cannot eliminate a terrorist movement, and that often creates more opposition and even terrorism in the long run. The measures that are most effective in undermining terrorism often have least to do with dramatic, highly publicized "kinetic" acts.
That when people say "we must act now!" they are usually wrong. Usually time is on the side of the stronger player, which in this case is us. Usually the greatest weapon of the underdog is the potential to panic and rattle the other side.
That when people say "we might look weak," usually it's time to discount whatever else they say. Looking weak has little to do with being weak. Every person, institution, and state has ultimate interests to defend and lines that can't be crossed. But the more worried you seem about "proving" strength whenever it is challenged, the weaker you look. Speak softly. Big stick.
That there is an asymmetry, to use a current term, in decisions about the use of violence. If you don't attack today, you can always attack tomorrow. But if you do attack today, you have foreclosed other choices for a long time to come. (Our options in 2014 and beyond are limited by the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.)
You don't have to believe me on this, though as I say I think the article stands up. But if you can't trust me, I hope you will believe David Frum, who is now a colleague at The Atlantic but who during the early George W. Bush years was (as he points out) helping to make the case for war with Iraq. In a wise item today on our site he says:
No matter how bad things, look, though, it’s always possible to make them worse. A war now against ISIS will do just that....
Frum rightly captures the standard congressional/op-ed/cable-news reflex in time of crisis:
Something must be done! This is something! Let’s do this!
Barack Obama's early and well-explained opposition to invading Iraq, which gave him the opening to beat Hillary Clinton and become president, reflected awareness of all these points about the paradoxes of weakness and strength, of deliberation and haste. Most of the time as president he has acted from the same principles—the obvious exception being his mistaken early approval of the ineffective "surge" in Afghanistan. I hope that in his ISIS remarks and policies he does not feel tempted to again prove that he is "tough."
I believe I am the only amateur pilot who’s a Democrat. Okay, I'm exaggerating. I can think of four others. No, five! Therefore when people in the aviation community talk about the effect of “Presidential TFRs”—the 30-mile-radius no-fly zones, known as Temporary Flight Restrictions, that travel with a president wherever he is—they often begin by saying, “Welcome to Obama's America ...” or “That idiot Obama has done it again...” The complaints started some other way between 2001 and 2009.
Politics apart, I give you this account from someone who flies the same kind of small propeller airplane as I do, but who happens to live in the vicinity of the Clinton-and-Obama-preferred summer vacation site of Martha’s Vineyard. He originally posted this on a pilots’ private-discussion board but agreed to its reposting here. I've added a few explanations of aviation lingo in brackets, [like this]. This person, who uses his plane to fly himself on business trips, writes:
I just spent the last two weeks living with the presidential TFR on Martha’s Vineyard. I flew through the TFR nearly every day, commuting to work and with other activities. Unlike past years, I did it mostly VFR, IFR days excepting, of course. [VFR is Visual Flight Rules, the clear-sky conditions in which pilots set their own courses. Under IFR, Instrument Flight Rules, pilots file flight plans in advance and must follow controllers' instructions on course, altitude, etc.]
In the past years when the president was on the Vineyard, I filed IFR every day to go through the outer ring. [The farther-out part of the the 30-mile-radius space, where you need prior approval to fly. The inner ring, usually with 10-mile radius, is much more tightly controlled.] That’s a major PITA, especially when it’s clear skies.
This year, on the first day of the TFR, I phoned Cape Approach [local Air Traffic Controllers, or ATC] and talked to one of the controllers and asked him what was the best way from their perspective and he said just to call Cape Clearance from Chatham on the ground (CQX [Chatham airport] is untowered) and get a squawk code and that would be fine. [Squawk code is a four-digit code you enter in the plane's transponder, which lets controllers watching radar screens know which plane is which.] Cape Approach’s perspective was that if you are squawking a code and talking to them, you are fine in the outer ring ...
In the interest of caution and even though I had been given the guidance from Cape Approach, I diligently followed the NOTAM [Notice to Airmen, the equivalent of "now hear this" bulletins] and filed and activated a VFR flight plan every day from Foreflight [a popular and excellent iPad-based flight planning program] when flying VFR.
1. VFR flight plans are useless for the TFR. [A VFR flight plan is mainly useful as a search-and-rescue safeguard, so people know where you were intending to go and when, if you don't show up.] Boston Approach stated as much when he alluded to “entering you in the system” as I was picking up flight following on the way home one day. I told him I had a VFR flight plan open, if that saved him some work and he responded to the effect that it wasn’t enough. You need to be in “the system” [in the system = filing identifying info for the plane and pilot, along with intended route and timing for this specific flight, in the ATC system] and added “you don’t want to mess with them”....
2. Controllers get as nervous as we do. I wonder if there are Secret Service or others sitting in the ATC facility? ATC gets extremely nervous when the president is on the move. At one point, he left the Vineyard and went back to D.C. for a day and this started another TFR centered on Otis (FMH), and creates lots of uncertainty, since he is rarely on time and the TFR times drift. [The image at the top shows airspace when both TFRs are in effect.] I knew this was happening and planned to avoid the FMH inner 10 mile ring already. The controller was very jumpy, asked me my heading and told me he would advise. I let him know I was “direct GAILS [a GPS navigation point], if that helps” which kept me outside the ring. He said “Thank you” and never bothered me again, after an audible exhale.
3. Lots of pilots are clueless. At one point, ATC asked me if I had a visual on somebody low and slow, squawking 1200. [1200 is the transponder code for planes flying visually and not necessarily talking with controllers. Planes inside the TFR should not be using this code.] I never saw him, but I did see the flash of sunlight off the wings of the orbiting F-16’s from miles out as they turned to investigate. I never heard what happened. Lots of pilots stumble into the area unaware of the TFR. How can this be? There were too many forehead-smacking moments as I listened to the daily dance. We as pilots have to do better.
4. Actually going to the Vineyard (MVY) [MVY is Vineyard Haven airport, on the island] inside the inner ring is a “whole 'nuther thing”. Yesterday, we went to visit friends who were staying on the Vineyard, and rather than take the ferry for 90 minutes, I decided we would just fly. Made the reservation at Hyannis with the TSA, per the NOTAM and made the 4-minute flight to HYA from CQX [Chatham to Hyannis] for our “check.”
Wow, what an employment spectacle that was. We were directed to a holding area and a bus was sent to pick us up, after waiting in the plane for some time. The plane was fully unloaded of luggage and we and our bags were taken to a temporary screening area where the bags were searched by hand. We were all frisked/wanded. My plane was inspected by another person. I gave pertinent information to others seated with laptops, who were talking to ATC and passing the approvals on. Eventually, they determined that the duffel bags of lunches, sweatshirts, frisbees, and suntan lotion posed a low security risk.
An hour after landing, we were loaded back on the bus and dropped at the plane to repack it, and get started again for the 10-minute flight from HYA to MVY. [Hyannis to Vineyard Haven.] How to make a 15-minute flight into 2 hours? With the TSA, anything is possible. In the end, the screening experience left me disappointed that I had to go to such great lengths to fly my airplane within 10 miles of another fellow citizen on my way to the beach. We, as a nation, are very afraid of airplanes. Sigh.
5. ATC were great to work with throughout. They were absolute professionals.
6. The amount of hardware and manpower mobilized to support this vacation are incredible. I flew out of the Vineyard last night at 10pm after the TFR had been lifted and saw the exodus of all the supporting cast. Multiple C-5’s taking off for Andrews, two Ospreys, four F-16’s, Coast Guard and State Police helicopters, and more. It was breathtaking and concerning.
There are multiple businesses that are effectively shut down during the vacation TFR. There is a skydiving outfit at Marston Mills that is in the outer ring, along with some banner towing that stops operations. More impacted are the businesses on the Vineyard. The usual weekend line of planes landing for breakfast on the Vineyard are gone, for sure, but the biggest hit is the grass airfield at Katama. There is a great breakfast place there, bi-plane rides and across the road is the open beach of the Atlantic. Katama hosts dozens of planes on any given summer day. That entire thing shuts down. I wonder if the restaurant owners, bi-plane operator, skydiving businesses, FBO's etc. are compensated? It's a huge hit for these businesses at what is basically prime time of the summer vacation on Cape Cod.
Life on the Cape has returned to normal. Until next year.
There is a larger, stricter, and permanent version of these controls sitting over Washington, D.C. airspace all the time. Presidential campaign season is a nightmare for the air-traffic system, because rolling no-fly zones accompany the incumbent president (and sometimes smaller ones for challengers) during campaign travels. Here is what an Obama bus trip in the industrial Midwest did to airspace two years ago:
The big red circles in Michigan and Ohio were for currently active TFRs. The yellow circles were for ones about to go into effect. The big red one over D.C. is the permanent zone there. The little yellow one just above it is Camp David. Here is a post from a pilot who was flying at the time of that TFR.
I am not making a sweeping policy point here. As far as policy points go, anyone who knows the history of the 1960s understands that it is genuinely important to protect presidents from threat of mortal harm. (How would the history of that era differed if John F. Kennedy had stayed in office? Or a century earlier, if Abraham Lincoln had?) Anyone who knows America understands why Barack Obama has required even more protection than most of his predecessors. I am very glad the Secret Service has done its job as effectively as it has.
Instead this is offered as a specimen of the operating realities of our security state—many of which persist precisely because they don't come to public attention. Are these 60-mile-wide shutdowns the least obtrusive way of realizing the legitimate national goal of protecting a president? They seem excessive to me, though of course I'm biased. But the next time some president asks me for advice on where to summer, I'll suggest: Look for a place that won't snarl life and shut down business for millions of people who happen to live there. Maybe even a place like ... the outskirts of Waco?
As a reminder, this is No. 10 in a series on the proposed north-south California High-Speed Rail system, which deserves national attention as the highest-stakes infrastructure project underway anywhere in America now. (Although someone from Philadelphia just wrote to say: Uncle! What we really need is HSR from the East Coast through to the Midwest. I know what he's talking about, but I'll leave that to someone else.) For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, and No. 9.
The previous entry was very long and detailed—it was a reply by Dan Richard, the chairman of California's High-Speed Rail Authority, to an extensive set of criticisms. This one is short and thematic. It comes from a veteran of a Federal agency, and it concerns the larger question of how to think about projects that will take decades to unfold, and whose implications are by definition unknowable when the choice about whether to proceed, or not, is made. Let's turn it over to the former Federal administrator:
I am spurred to write by [a previous] post devoted to critics of HSR. I don’t know whether it’s a good idea or not, but I do have a long memory and an interest in technological innovation.
Remember the super-sonic transport. In the 1960’s we knew all long flights would take place at supersonic speed. It was obvious, until it wasn’t.
Remember the ship the United States. In the 50’s we were very proud that the US had taken the trans-Atlantic speed record back from the Brits. The granddaughter of the designer is desperately trying to preserve the ship.
There’s always cost-overruns on big projects, always.
The HSR is building for the future, and the transportation and economic environment in which it will be tested will be quite different than today’s. For example, one disadvantage of rail and air is the hassle of renting a car on the other end. True enough today, but 20 years from now things like Uber and the driverless car may have made owning a car a rarity and renting a car the rule, which would impact the economics and convenience of HSR.
Simply acquiring the right of way may become significant in unexpected ways. The railroad magnates of the past didn’t realize that some of their rights of way would be used for fiber optic cable. And they didn’t realize they needed a bigger rail tunnel in Baltimore and a double-tracked tunnel in DC.
Bottomline: The decision on HSR is going to shape the future in ways we can’t predict, and a touch of modesty in the arguments would be welcome.
I agree. What makes decisions like this important is that people will be living with their consequences a century from now. An overstatement? Everything about today's California life is conditioned by decisions about its freeway network made 60-plus years ago, and by the decision to tear up the Southern California light-rail network in the decades before that. Along the Eastern seaboard, in parts of the Midwest, and in the Plains, the U.S. rail network of the early 20th century has an obvious effect on where and how people live, work, and travel in the early 21st.
The long shadow of major infrastructure choices is also what makes such decisions difficult. We must choose among options whose consequences we can't fully anticipate. More on how we make such choices, still ahead.
As a reminder, this is No. 9 in a series on the plan for a north-south California High-Speed Rail system, which according to me deserves national attention as the highest-stakes infrastructure project underway anywhere in America now. For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, andNo. 8. We have a few more installments still to go.
When last we visited this topic, with No. 8, eight readers were offering eight complaints about the concept and execution of the system. Back in early July, with No. 3, the chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority, Dan Richard, replied to some preceding rounds of criticism. He is back again, with his answers to the latest crop.
I'm quoting his replies (nearly) in full, not because I think he deserves the last word on the topic—hey, it's my site, I'll get the last word myself—but because this is a hugely consequential decision for California and America, and the details of the pros and cons matter.
Below I've summarized the eight previous complaints, with excerpts from the criticisms in italics. The rest of the material is from Dan Richard. Over to him.
Criticism #1: The ridership projections are unbelievable.
This is a key issue, so let me respond in some detail. Just declaring the ridership projections “unbelievable” does not make them so.
Early ridership projections were subject of criticism. However, the new leadership team took a very different approach. Our ridership and revenue models are quite sophisticated and have been subjected to multiple tests.
First, we performed high, medium & low assessments based on sensitivity analyses. When we finished those, we arbitrarily cut estimated revenues in each case by 30% to see if the resultant values would still exceed costs. However, we’ve taken that a step further, based on recommendations from Peer Review Group and engaged in a probabilistic approach known as Monte Carlo analysis that runs a range of potential outcomes – again subjecting these to a further arbitrary 30% revenue reduction. Again, all outcomes exceed costs. We don’t believe any other infrastructure project has approached its ridership/revenue analysis in as comprehensive a fashion.
There are two external peer review groups that have reviewed this work. We further tested our model by running values through it for the northeast corridor and it accurately correlated to both historical and projected data. Finally, the federal General Accountability Office (GA) was asked by Congress to review our program; the GAO found our methodology for ridership, revenue and O&M costs to be reasonable.
Yes, it is true that there are about 15 million annual trips between the LA Basin and SF Bay areas by highway and air and that those trips are about evenly divided between the two modes. Those numbers are on the low-end of estimates, but generally in the ballpark. However, this view neglects to take into account all of the trips taken within the LA to SF corridor that are not complete end-to-end routes.
For instance, a college student at UC Merced may drive several times a year to visit her parents at home in San Jose, or a small businessman in Palmdale may need to check in on his Burbank branch once a week. There are roughly 100 million such intermediary trips taken on an annual basis -- virtually all of which would be made more convenient by high-speed rail. This is where a substantial amount of our ridership will come from.
While I think viewing ridership in this context largely negates the writer's argument over our projections, I would also point out that perhaps part of the reason why there aren't more trips between LA and SF is that current travel options are just not very attractive. Hours on the road or in airports appeal to virtually no one, while a quick and efficient high-speed rail trip between LA and SF will become a no-brainer for many who think such a trip is too much of a pain to make today.
By the way, our ridership numbers are based on an assumption that our fares would be 83% of a discounted airline fare, or about $86 one way (2013 dollars). Current standard LA-SF airfares are more in the range of $250 one way.
We currently have the most traveled air corridor in the country between LA and SF with 40% of the flights delayed. Experience around the world shows that HSR captures about 70% of the traffic in such corridors (the Acela shows similar splits in the Northeast).
[From previous post:] So I ask, why with a rail trip of over 2h40m and fares 50% of airfares, why would 9.5 M LA Basin and SF Bay travelers in 2030 choose rail over highway and air?
Because it’s faster and cheaper than flying, a more pleasant journey and more reliable in bad weather.
[Atrip by air includes getting to the airport and perhaps an hour or more of being hassled over security, et al. But wouldn't the same be true for HSR rail if it becomes a reality?...Why would a traveler in 2030 elect to take the HSR rather than drive, when at present he is willing to spend 6 h on the road rather than fly?]
Except that our program is not just high-speed rail. This is an essential point. It’s an entire rail modernization program. We’re simultaneously investing in beefing up urban and regional rail systems with strong intermodal connections. In 2030 one can go from SF to LA Union Station and take a subway to Santa Monica or a Metrolink train to Ventura, likely faster than going by car.
[Unlike the Northeast corridor, there are relatively few folks living in the towns between the endpoints. And from discussions with these folks I found that most live in these smaller places because they hate LA and SF and have no reason to go there.]
I have to disagree. First, what does “…relatively few folks living in the towns between the endpoints” mean? Fresno is 80% the size of Baltimore; Bakersfield is 20% larger than Newark; Modesto is three times the size of Wilmington and Merced (which no one on the east coast has heard of), has about the same population as Trenton. Air service between the San Joaquin Valley and LA or SF is extremely limited and quite expensive (e.g., 900 bucks from Fresno to LA). A one-hour train trip can replace a three-hour drive.
[Finally the cost of $68 billion is excessive. It amounts to $200M/mile for the undeviated 344 mile distance between LA and SF...]
First of all, the first phase of our system will cover 520 miles, not to avoid tunneling but rather to connect major population centers; in today’s costs that is about $54 billion or roughly $100 million per mile, which is not uncommon for transit systems. (The $68 billion figure represents the fully inflated cost of the project over its construction life.; no one else bothers to present numbers that way). Moreover, our first construction contract bid came in almost 40% below estimates.
[Perhaps we should let the Japanese build the system, but they would likely choose maglev over rail, despite the fact that they operate one of the few highly profitable high speed passenger rail systems in the world.]
Actually, virtually every high-speed rail system in the world has positive cash flows from operations. Some have paid back some of their initial capital. We feel strongly (as do the Peer Review groups that have analyzed our project) that we’ll be generating positive cash flows as well.
Criticism #2: The cost estimates are unbelievable, among other problems.
[The HSR Authority and anybody associated with this cannot be trusted. Past cost estimates have ranged from $40 billion to $100 billion and now down to what, $80 billion?.. We’re being lied to, openly.]
When Governor Brown’s team came in we took a hard look at the costs. We said that the $33 billion number (which may have been in 2006 dollars; no one is certain at this point) that were called out in the 2008 ballot measure would cost more than that, namely about $60-some billion in 2011 dollars; on a fully inflated basis over 15 years, that would have been $98 billion. We then embarked on a cost-saving campaign to use existing trackway in urban areas, reducing the $98 billion number to $68 and we’re embarking on further cost reductions. We have tried to be transparent and it’s all laid out in great detail in our business plans.
[HSR works best between cities with lots of mass transport...]
As part of our statewide raid modernization plan, there will be a growing network of commuter rail, subway, intercity trains, etc. Undoubtedly, there will also be social media-driven services like Uber and Lyft, along with driverless vehicles, etc.
[Business travelers now can make trip in one day between SF / LA. It’s a long day, sure, but it’s feasible because aircraft travel is so fast. Not so with HSR, so many business travelers will shun it. Families then? No... your cost for 4 people is simply going to be much less driving than paying for 4 tickets.]
As noted above, 40% of LA-SF air trips are delayed, mainly due to weather. As for families, our ridership models account for different trip choices for business and personal travel. The operator of the trains will optimize revenues with a variety of pricing strategies and that may well include discounted trips that work well for families, in the same way airfares can be expensive or cheap depending on how and when they are purchased.
[It’s being built in a corridor that doesn’t have a demand problem (down the Central Valley)... I’m guessing a substantial part of any Central Valley congestion is freight trucks, which HSR won’t do a thing to solve.]
Sure it will. Today, the Amtrak San Joaquin train service is the fifth busiest Amtrak service in the U.S. It handles about 1.3 million trips per year and some of those folks have to take the bus from Bakersfield to LA. That service is growing at double digit rates. Building a new passenger only line in that corridor can free up rail capacity for movement of agricultural produce. Right now, big agribusinesses are telling us that they are begging the freight rail operators for more rail capacity but it’s not there. Let’s get those trucks off the highway and move more goods by freight rail, which we can do if we have a new dedicated passenger service by high speed rail.
There are 4 million people who live in the Central Valley. They face many problems, including having some of the worst air quality in the nation, high unemployment and poverty rates, etc. High Speed Rail is one important way to connect the Valley with other economic centers of the state, improving transportation, air quality and land use.
[It bypasses, and has no plans, to connect to Sacramento or San Diego. Ridiculous.]
The way the bond measure was written, those cities aren’t bypassed, but are in Phase 2 of the program...
[California (and maybe the nation) can’t build a damn thing right.... Oh, Governor Brown’s response to the Bay Bridge’s cost and structural problems? “Shit happens.”]
Yes, the Bay Bridge had issues, but that doesn’t mean we can’t build anything. We are using a design-build approach for High-Speed Rail. It shifts appropriate risks to the contractors. We have put together perhaps the most sophisticated risk assessment/risk management program for any infrastructure project in the U.S. We have open and transparent reporting systems so that the public and the Legislature can monitor costs and schedules. I can’t say there won’t be problems, but we’ve studied other major infrastructure projects and have a good handle on how to build this. Again, we have peer review groups looking over our shoulder.
[HSR in general is fine, when done correctly, and it could be done correctly in California, but the current project pretty much guarantees it won’t.
Instead why not build in corridors of proven demand? That would be Sacramento-Bay Area, where the Amtrak Capitol Corridor runs now. An HSR there would be fantastic, and if it failed at least wouldn’t cost a hundred billion dollars or more.]
First, the bond measure set priority for LA/Anaheim to San Francisco. Second, while the Capitol Corridor is a highly successful enterprise, its route along the coast is not amenable to high-speed service; an entirely new route would be required that will be much more expensive. I won’t say that the project, as we inherited it, was perfectly planned, but we can deliver a modern, clean, effective transportation system serving millions of Californians.
Criticism #3: Earthquakes!
[I know that living in the seismic zone has not prevented Japan from building a successful high speed train such as the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka ... I have some concerns about whether Californians would accept the costs necessary to make such a project safe during relatively large quakes.]
We are very aware of the spectacular engineering achievement of the Japanese high-speed rail system. Their techniques for dealing with active seismic zones are the envy of the world and we will adopt them. The Japanese were the first to develop an early warning system that detects p waves from earthquakes, which travel at twice the speed of the main shock waves. During the terrible earthquake of 2011, that detector system cut the power and stopped a high speed train traveling in the Fukashima region that was so devastated. In 50 years of operation, the Japanese have never had an injury or fatality on their high speed rail system. Yes, we can and will adopt this approach.
Criticism #4: Even in Europe, HSR is an impractical boondoggle.
[I think Americans like it because it is a fun and convenient way for tourists to travel between a few make tourist destinations when they have no schedule to meet. Practical, cost effective transportation it is not.... That is under ideal European conditions. Between SF and LA, you have a much smaller potential ridership, a worse network of feeder lines, and higher costs.]
European countries continue to add to their high-speed rail systems and replace other modes of transportation
[HSR in California is a boondoggle and a gigantic waste of money. You're likely subsidizing each potential rider with trends of thousands of dollars construction costs alone, plus more subsidies in operating costs.... HSR represents political corruption, crony capitalism, and vote buying at its purest.]
I know we live in a time of cynicism with strong distrust of government, but these statements are polemical and not based on fact. No subsidies will be given. None. It would violate the bond act and we believe the system will generate significant positive cash flows. Sorry to dispel the notion that this is all to support expensive union contracts; all federally-funded projects are based upon prevailing wage-labor rates and have been for decades. Please read our business plan – the trains will be operated by the private sector, not public sector.
We see this train service as operating at many levels to serve working class Californians and not just affluent ones. Oh, and by the way, our policy is that 30% of all contract dollars must be spent on small businesses. That’s $1.8 billion for small businesses in the Central Valley over the next five years, just on the first construction segment.
Criticism #5: Maglev would be better—cheaper in the long run, easier to maintain, more advanced.
Maglev is an interesting technology but very expensive to build, much more so than high-speed rail. It's also difficult to build maglev where the terrain and topography vary. It's my understanding that these factors more than offset lower maintenance costs, should they even exist.
Criticism #6: Historical precedents in California are discouraging.
[1) the Bay Bridge—only 24 years from earthquake damage to replacement, with an endless string of engineering flaws and delays discovered along the way.]
I can’t comment on the Bay Bridge. We have a strong, accountable management team and previous critics like the state Auditor General have reported significant progress in the way the HSR Authority is organized and operates. We’ve put in place many of the governance and oversight functions required of corporations and we have high transparency in our operations. In the last three years, our progress has been good, despite litigation aimed at stopping the project.
[2) BART to SFO: estimates of ridership were grotesquely inaccurate. They've had to radically reduce the number of trains.]
Uh, I helped build that project [JF note: Dan Richard was on the BART board from 1992 to 2004] and it is a smashing success. The ridership projections proved inaccurate in its first few years only because of the effects on air travel of Sept 11th and the ensuing economic downturn. Within five years, the project was quite robust and today is operating at 105% of its costs from downtown SF to the airport, extraordinary for an urban mass transit system.
Criticism #7: Precedents in the rest of the country are discouraging too.
[The "Access to the Region's Core" project (in New Jersey) was originally estimated to cost $8.7 billion; by the time it was cancelled, that estimate had risen to $11 billion. Half the original funding was to come from NY and NJ (mostly NJ). So the general tax revenues of the state would be used to construct boutique travel benefits for the highest-earning people in the state, while simultaneously increasing travel costs for everyone via gasoline taxes and toll increases.
Why should the bottom 60% or so be required to pay for a shiny new toy for the top 40%? ... So, if you really want HSR in California, all you have to do is argue that the HSR ticket prices must reflect the full cost of the project.]
It’s hard to argue with the overall concern. All I can say is that we are not allowed by law to provide an operating subsidy, so indeed the ticket prices must reflect the full (operating) cost of the project. The public does pay for the initial infrastructure but there are enormous societal benefits, in terms of air quality, GHG reductions, land use, rising employment and incomes, etc. that benefit even those who don’t ride it. Today’s Amtrak service in the Central Valley is heavily used by working class Californians. I can’t make guarantees at this point, but I don’t believe the HSR fares will be out of line with the current passenger rail charges and there will be different levels of service to maximize ridership.
Criticism #8: The project will have little or no positive environmental effect.
[My understanding is that California agriculture uses about 80% of our water but provides only 5% of economic output. Ongoing drought and shifts in federal policy are only making water more expensive. So whatever the ostensible productivity of that land, the price of water means that the future of California's economy will necessarily continue to shift toward the cities. (Hence the farmland-eating sprawl you lament.)...
I can believe that infrastructure programs can have unexpected benefits. But the systemic trends hurting the Central Valley go much deeper than transportation. The HSR won't fix climate change.]
No, electrified HSR won’t stop all climate change, but it will provide dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, along with criteria pollutants. The air quality in the Central Valley is among the worst in the nation. 21% of the kids there have asthma. Widening state route 99, which has occurred in places (the main north-south artery on the east side of the Valley, directly connecting the cities there) gobbles up five times the farmland per mile as we would be taking for HSR. Moreover, while we can increase capacity with more trains, the highways would need ever more widening.
You are right that infrastructure projects can have unexpected benefits. One such benefit is the creation of a new industry in the Valley, providing economic diversity through support service enterprises for the HSR system. Both Fresno State and Cal State Univ. Bakersfield are beginning programs to train their engineering students to work on HSR-related systems. Tying these cities together with larger population centers also can have untold benefits.
It is true that we must get the land use right. We want to encourage high-density development around the stations and good land use planning. Otherwise, HSR could result in additional sprawl. Nothing is a given, but we clearly have our eyes on how this should be done correctly.
If David Letterman can put out a Top Ten list night after night for decades, we can certainly make it all the way to 10 in our chronicles of the California High-Speed Rail debates. As a reminder, this is No. 8 in a series on the most ambitious and consequential infrastructure project now under consideration in our infrastructure-degraded land. It is the plan for a north-south California High-Speed Rail system, which had its genesis before Jerry Brown’s second coming as California’s governor but is now his signature project as he runs for reelection to an unprecedented fourth term. For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, and No. 7.
Early this month, a three-judge panel of a California state appeals court gave the project a significant boost, by overturning a lower-court ruling that had blocked the system's major source of funding. There are still more legal challenges ahead, plus debate about the plan in this fall's California election; plus ongoing sniping between the most influential Democrat in California, Jerry Brown in Sacramento, and the most influential Republican, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in Washington. For now, California HSR chugs ahead.
Here's a guide to upcoming installments. Today we'll hear a range of questions, complaints, fears, and outright denunciations of the system, drawn from mail that has arrived in the past few weeks. In the next installment, No. 9, we'll go into some further environmental, financial, and land-use aspects of the plan. Then in No. 10, I'll offer my unified field theory on why the 90 percent of Americans who don't live in California should care about the plan, and why I think it can be an important step for the state that has long been most influential in setting technological and environmental standards.
Also as an upcoming guide: We are continuing our American Futures journeys, including right now in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where we are meeting the Marketplace team tomorrow. Soon after Labor Day we'll be back in this space with reports on the cities we have visited over the summer, from Duluth, Minnesota to Winters, California, and points in between.
For now, the HSR mailbag.
1) "Ridership forecasts are simply unbelievable." This is from someone with extensive technical experience in high-speed Maglev train projects.
I have followed your articles on CAHSR with great interest. I am not a fan of the project and would like to make the following observations—
Your concern about what is going to happen without HSR in California is well placed. Congestion on highways and at airports is bound to reach epic proportions. However I do not think the present plan for HSR is going to avert this problem.
Ridership forecasts are simply unbelievable. Currently there are about 15 M annual person trips between the LA Basin and SF Bay areas by highway and air, about evenly divided. This is highly unusual. In the US for a trip of this length ~400 miles where there is good air service, the proportion of highway trips is generally much lower. We are comparing a 6 hour road trip with a little over 1 hour air trip. The average airfare, $130, is also unusually cheap, about half the airfare between Washington, DC and NYC for a distance roughly twice as great.
So I ask, why with a rail trip of over 2h40m and fares 50% of airfares, why would 9.5 M LA Basin and SF Bay travelers in 2030 choose rail over highway and air?
Ah! but you say, a trip by air includes getting to the airport and perhaps an hour or more of being hassled over security, et al. But wouldn't the same be true for HSR rail if it becomes a reality?
Firstly there are 5 airports in metropolitan LA and 3 in metropolitan SF serving the California corridor. It would appear that an airport would be closer at hand than a rail station. Don't imagine that TSA would miss the opportunity to hassle rail passengers. Already Amtrak imposes onerous restrictions on its passengers. [A colleague] attempted to buy tickets in advance at DC Union Station for himself and his wife, and was told the station agent could not sell his wife's ticket without her being present and showing ID. (However he was directed to a ticket machine nearby where he was able to buy both tickets without ID and with what could have been a stolen credit card.)
Think about it. Why would a traveler in 2030 elect to take the HSR rather than drive, when at present he is willing to spend 6 h on the road rather than fly? One reason of course is that the road trip will take more than 6 h by then due to congestion, but also getting to a rail station will also take much longer in a crowded metropolitan area.
As for the projected 28.8 minus 9.5 M riders between intermediate points, there is even less reason to switch from auto to rail. Trip times are much shorter and you have a car at both ends. Unlike the Northeast corridor, there are relatively few folks living in the towns between the endpoints. And from discussions with these folks I found that most live in these smaller places because they hate LA and SF and have no reason to go there. [JF note: OK, maybe, but they often have to go to either of those cities for business, entertainment, etc.]...
Finally the cost of $68 billion is excessive. It amounts to $200M/mile for the undeviated 344 mile distance between LA and SF. Of course the actual rail line is round-about to avoid tunnels and serve those small towners in between. However the proposed Japanese maglev system between Tokyo and Nagoya is estimated to cost $5 trillion yen/286 km, or $167 M/mi. It involves over 142 miles of tunnel! Also the speed is substantially greater than CAHSR. So avoiding tunnels does not seem to save on US construction costs.
Perhaps we should let the Japanese build the system, but they would likely choose maglev over rail, despite the fact that they operate one of the few highly profitable high speed passenger rail systems in the world.
Incidentally I do not hate rail. I worked for the Federal Railroad Administration for over twenty years, and I take rail whenever I can, including driving from Palm Springs to San Bernardino and catching Metrolink to LA whenever I travel there. And I encourage others to take the train whenever possible.
2) No-good, terrible, very bad idea. From an engineer in the Central Valley:
Bad, bad, bad. In no particular order:
· The HSR Authority and anybody associated with this cannot be trusted. Past cost estimates have ranged from $40 billion to $100 billion and now down to what, $80 billion? In other words, the cost estimates are determined by political expediency. Actual costs are, of course, likely to be far higher. We’re being lied to, openly.
· HSR works best between cities with lots of mass transport. That is probably true for SF, certainly not for LA. Whatcha gonna do when you get to downtown LA and you need to be 50 miles from there? Rent a car and join the masses stuck on the freeway. At least LA has a few airports that might get you closer.
· Business travelers now can make trip in one day between SF / LA. It’s a long day, sure, but it’s feasible because aircraft travel is so fast. Not so with HSR, so many business travelers will shun it. Families then? No. Yes, driving is longer but your cost for 4 people is simply going to be much less driving than paying for 4 tickets. And you’ll have your car, instead of an additional rental cost.
· It’s being built in a corridor that doesn’t have a demand problem (down the Central Valley), and even if there were, another lane on Interstate 5 each way would fix that. I’m guessing a substantial part of any Central Valley congestion is freight trucks, which HSR won’t do a thing to solve.
· It bypasses, and has no plans, to connect to Sacramento or San Diego. Ridiculous.
· Think airport security is bad? HSR will require a very ugly fence on each side of it. Imagine if someone snuck over and place a small wedge on a track. How you gonna protect 500 miles of rail?
· California (and maybe the nation) can’t build a damn thing right. CalTrans went $2 billion over on building the new Bay Bridge span (1/2 of the total span), and it has an ever-growing list of serious problems. It’s not foolish to question if the new span will, in an earthquake, remain standing. I’ve seen the same gross but genial incompetence in my government agency. There’s simply no accountability. Oh, Governor Brown’s response to the Bay Bridge’s cost and structural problems? “Shit happens.”
The problem with the California HSR is the proposed project. HSR in general is fine, when done correctly, and it could be done correctly in California, but the current project pretty much guarantees it won’t.
Instead why not build in corridors of proven demand? That would be Sacramento-Bay Area, where the Amtrak Capitol Corridor runs now. An HSR there would be fantastic, and if it failed at least wouldn’t cost a hundred billion dollars or more.
3) What about the earthquakes? A reader in the Midwest is one of several people to write in with this concern:
I lived in Marin County for quite a few years, including the time of the Loma Prieta quake. I have also had the dubious pleasure of living through some rather substantial quakes in Tokyo, China, and Indonesia during my travels.
I know that living in the seismic zone has not prevented Japan from building a successful high speed train such as the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka (which I have taken several times—and is a great ride), but I wonder what real dangers exist for a California route that would seem to cross over the most seismically active and dangerous portions of the state.
I credit the Japanese for doing the most serious anti-quake engineering in the world, but have some concerns about whether Californians would accept the costs necessary to make such a project safe during relatively large quakes.
4) "A boondoggle and a gigantic waste of money." From a reader in California:
I used to live in Europe, about 10 minutes walking distance to a major HSR line. I also live within walking distance of Caltrain in California and take it frequently.
I think Americans like it because it is a fun and convenient way for tourists to travel between a few make tourist destinations when they have no schedule to meet. Practical, cost effective transportation it is not.
High speed trains run rarely enough that you can't take them close to appointments. Delays mean that you often need to leave long layovers to make sure you make a connection. In the end, going by HSR often takes 2-3 times as long as driving. Trains are also much more expensive than long distance buses or flying.
That is under ideal European conditions. Between SF and LA, you have a much smaller potential ridership, a worse network of feeder lines, and higher costs.
HSR in California is a boondoggle and a gigantic waste of money. You're likely subsidizing each potential rider with trends of thousands of dollars construction costs alone, plus more subsidies in operating costs. That's not even counting the expensive union labor for construction and public union labor for operating the trains. HSR is a scheme by which the average tax payer has to pay for the convenience of a small number of privileged and wealthy city dwellers, give contracts to a small number of well connected corporations, and pour money into the hand of unions and union workers. HSR represents political corruption, crony capitalism, and vote buying at its purest.
5) Back to Maglev. From a person I know in Washington, who has worked for years on Maglev projects.
As you know, I advocated for the use of maglev technology over HSR for years. The reason the Central Japan Railroad is going with its superconductor maglev technology, at their own expense, for their new Chuo Shinkansen line is not just because of faster top cruising speeds, but because of the significantly lower maintenance and correspondingly higher "system availability" that maglev technology offers them. Lower annual maintenance costs means lower life cycle costs for the entire system, which is why CJR chairman Yoshiyuki Kasai is deploying this technology at the company’s own expense—yes, without government funds.
Too much is made of speed, though speed is important. But, to be able to travel at high speeds with relatively low maintenance costs allows operators to not require annual operating subsidies from tax payers, something government run railroads are not overly concerned with. In other words, this technology shift creates an environment that encourages private investment in high-speed ground transportation because profits are not only possible, they are highly likely in any reasonably busy corridor.
Aside from the Wenzhou-Hangzhou viaduct crash in July of 2011, the Chinese slowed their HSR trains down from 220 mph to 185 mph because they also learned some laws of physics: for each speed increase of 10 mph over 185 mph, train maintenance costs double. Not only do wheels get replaced more frequently, but rails too.
6) Sobering lessons of experience:
I'm an instinctive supporter, as you are. But life the Bay Area has thrown a couple of cautions at me:
1) the Bay Bridge—only 24 years from earthquake damage to replacement, with an endless string of engineering flaws and delays discovered along the way. And a busted budget. Is HSR management likely to be better? Otherwise, the thing will take a century.
2) BART to SFO: estimates of ridership were grotesquely inaccurate. They've had to radically reduce the number of trains. Now I voted for and love BART to the airport. Works great for me (makes it SFO to LAX instead of OAK to BUR). And various friends were employed in the project for a decade. But the precedent seems dubious.
7) "Just raise the ticket prices to pay for it." From a reader on the East Coast:
You may recall that, in 2010, Chris Christie scuttled a plan to build two new tunnels under the Hudson—I'm a NJ resident and a sometime commuter, so I was paying close attention.
Christie based his objections on the likelihood of cost overruns (which would have to be borne by the state); those who supported the project, like the NY Times, argued that he should take all cost estimates at face value. Voters, who have had a long, long experience with cost overruns (you might recall the Big Dig in Boston ...), inclined to Christie's side of the argument. After all, we'd just spent significantly more than half a billion dollars to feed the egomania of Frank Lautenberg via the "Frank R. Lautenberg Rail Station at Secaucus Junction".
But there are perfectly good reasons to criticize such projects from the Left. The "Access to the Region's Core" project was originally estimated to cost $8.7 billion; by the time it was cancelled, that estimate had risen to $11 billion. Half the original funding was to come from NY and NJ (mostly NJ). So the general tax revenues of the state would be used to construct boutique travel benefits for the highest-earning people in the state, while simultaneously increasing travel costs for everyone via gasoline taxes and toll increases.
Why should the bottom 60% or so be required to pay for a shiny new toy for the top 40%? Certainly, as one of the latter class, I can appreciate that I'm arguing against my interests ... but would it be fair?
So, if you really want HSR in California, all you have to do is argue that the HSR ticket prices must reflect the full cost of the project.
8) "It won't fix climate change." Finally for today:
My understanding is that California agriculture uses about 80% of our water but provides only 5% of economic output. Ongoing drought and shifts in federal policy are only making water more expensive. So whatever the ostensible productivity of that land, the price of water means that the future of California's economy will necessarily continue to shift toward the cities. (Hence the farmland-eating sprawl you lament.)
Thus the question of "what do we do with the Central Valley?" looms ever larger. As you know, unemployment rates are terrible there. I interpret the HSR mostly as a jobs plan. I can believe that infrastructure programs can have unexpected benefits. But the systemic trends hurting the Central Valley go much deeper than transportation. The HSR won't fix climate change.