James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Union Pacific Station, East Los Angeles, 1950 (
As a reminder, this is No. 10 in a series on the proposed north-south California High-Speed Rail system, which deserves national attention as the highest-stakes infrastructure project underway anywhere in America now. (Although someone from Philadelphia just wrote to say: Uncle! What we really need is HSR from the East Coast through to the Midwest. I know what he's talking about, but I'll leave that to someone else.) For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, and No. 9.
The previous entry was very long and detailed—it was a reply by Dan Richard, the chairman of California's High-Speed Rail Authority, to an extensive set of criticisms. This one is short and thematic. It comes from a veteran of a Federal agency, and it concerns the larger question of how to think about projects that will take decades to unfold, and whose implications are by definition unknowable when the choice about whether to proceed, or not, is made. Let's turn it over to the former Federal administrator:
I am spurred to write by [a previous] post devoted to critics of HSR. I don’t know whether it’s a good idea or not, but I do have a long memory and an interest in technological innovation.
Remember the super-sonic transport. In the 1960’s we knew all long flights would take place at supersonic speed. It was obvious, until it wasn’t.
Remember the ship the United States. In the 50’s we were very proud that the US had taken the trans-Atlantic speed record back from the Brits. The granddaughter of the designer is desperately trying to preserve the ship.
There’s always cost-overruns on big projects, always.
The HSR is building for the future, and the transportation and economic environment in which it will be tested will be quite different than today’s. For example, one disadvantage of rail and air is the hassle of renting a car on the other end. True enough today, but 20 years from now things like Uber and the driverless car may have made owning a car a rarity and renting a car the rule, which would impact the economics and convenience of HSR.
Simply acquiring the right of way may become significant in unexpected ways. The railroad magnates of the past didn’t realize that some of their rights of way would be used for fiber optic cable. And they didn’t realize they needed a bigger rail tunnel in Baltimore and a double-tracked tunnel in DC.
Bottomline: The decision on HSR is going to shape the future in ways we can’t predict, and a touch of modesty in the arguments would be welcome.
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I agree. What makes decisions like this important is that people will be living with their consequences a century from now. An overstatement? Everything about today's California life is conditioned by decisions about its freeway network made 60-plus years ago, and by the decision to tear up the Southern California light-rail network in the decades before that. Along the Eastern seaboard, in parts of the Midwest, and in the Plains, the U.S. rail network of the early 20th century has an obvious effect on where and how people live, work, and travel in the early 21st.
The long shadow of major infrastructure choices is also what makes such decisions difficult. We must choose among options whose consequences we can't fully anticipate. More on how we make such choices, still ahead.
As a reminder, this is No. 9 in a series on the plan for a north-south California High-Speed Rail system, which according to me deserves national attention as the highest-stakes infrastructure project underway anywhere in America now. For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, andNo. 8. We have a few more installments still to go.
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When last we visited this topic, with No. 8, eight readers were offering eight complaints about the concept and execution of the system. Back in early July, with No. 3, the chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority, Dan Richard, replied to some preceding rounds of criticism. He is back again, with his answers to the latest crop.
I'm quoting his replies (nearly) in full, not because I think he deserves the last word on the topic—hey, it's my site, I'll get the last word myself—but because this is a hugely consequential decision for California and America, and the details of the pros and cons matter.
Below I've summarized the eight previous 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.
California and railroads: not a contradiction in terms (
If David Letterman can put out a Top Ten list night after night for decades, we can certainly make it all the way to 10 in our chronicles of the California High-Speed Rail debates. As a reminder, this is No. 8 in a series on the most ambitious and consequential infrastructure project now under consideration in our infrastructure-degraded land. It is the plan for a north-south California High-Speed Rail system, which had its genesis before Jerry Brown’s second coming as California’s governor but is now his signature project as he runs for reelection to an unprecedented fourth term. For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, and No. 7.
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Early this month, a three-judge panel of a California state appeals court gave the project a significant boost, by overturning a lower-court ruling that had blocked the system's major source of funding. There are still more legal challenges ahead, plus debate about the plan in this fall's California election; plus ongoing sniping between the most influential Democrat in California, Jerry Brown in Sacramento, and the most influential Republican, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in Washington. For now, California HSR chugs ahead.
Here's a guide to upcoming installments. Today we'll hear a range of questions, complaints, fears, and outright denunciations of the system, drawn from mail that has arrived in the past few weeks. In the next installment, No. 9, we'll go into some further environmental, financial, and land-use aspects of the plan. Then in No. 10, I'll offer my unified field theory on why the 90 percent of Americans who don't live in California should care about the plan, and why I think it can be an important step for the state that has long been most influential in setting technological and environmental standards.
Also as an upcoming guide: We are continuing our American Futures journeys, including right now in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where we are meeting the Marketplace team tomorrow. Soon after Labor Day we'll be back in this space with reports on the cities we have visited over the summer, from Duluth, Minnesota to Winters, California, and points in between.
For now, the HSR mailbag.
1) "Ridership forecasts are simply unbelievable." This is from someone with extensive technical experience in high-speed Maglev train projects.
I have followed your articles on CAHSR with great interest. I am not a fan of the project and would like to make the following observations—
Your concern about what is going to happen without HSR in California is well placed. Congestion on highways and at airports is bound to reach epic proportions. However I do not think the present plan for HSR is going to avert this problem.
Ridership forecasts are simply unbelievable. Currently there are about 15 M annual person trips between the LA Basin and SF Bay areas by highway and air, about evenly divided. This is highly unusual. In the US for a trip of this length ~400 miles where there is good air service, the proportion of highway trips is generally much lower. We are comparing a 6 hour road trip with a little over 1 hour air trip. The average airfare, $130, is also unusually cheap, about half the airfare between Washington, DC and NYC for a distance roughly twice as great.
So I ask, why with a rail trip of over 2h40m and fares 50% of airfares, why would 9.5 M LA Basin and SF Bay travelers in 2030 choose rail over highway and air?
Ah! but you say, a trip by air includes getting to the airport and perhaps an hour or more of being hassled over security, et al. But wouldn't the same be true for HSR rail if it becomes a reality?
Firstly there are 5 airports in metropolitan LA and 3 in metropolitan SF serving the California corridor. It would appear that an airport would be closer at hand than a rail station. Don't imagine that TSA would miss the opportunity to hassle rail passengers. Already Amtrak imposes onerous restrictions on its passengers. [A colleague] attempted to buy tickets in advance at DC Union Station for himself and his wife, and was told the station agent could not sell his wife's ticket without her being present and showing ID. (However he was directed to a ticket machine nearby where he was able to buy both tickets without ID and with what could have been a stolen credit card.)
Think about it. Why would a traveler in 2030 elect to take the HSR rather than drive, when at present he is willing to spend 6 h on the road rather than fly? One reason of course is that the road trip will take more than 6 h by then due to congestion, but also getting to a rail station will also take much longer in a crowded metropolitan area.
As for the projected 28.8 minus 9.5 M riders between intermediate points, there is even less reason to switch from auto to rail. Trip times are much shorter and you have a car at both ends. Unlike the Northeast corridor, there are relatively few folks living in the towns between the endpoints. And from discussions with these folks I found that most live in these smaller places because they hate LA and SF and have no reason to go there. [JF note: OK, maybe, but they often have to go to either of those cities for business, entertainment, etc.]...
Finally the cost of $68 billion is excessive. It amounts to $200M/mile for the undeviated 344 mile distance between LA and SF. Of course the actual rail line is round-about to avoid tunnels and serve those small towners in between. However the proposed Japanese maglev system between Tokyo and Nagoya is estimated to cost $5 trillion yen/286 km, or $167 M/mi. It involves over 142 miles of tunnel! Also the speed is substantially greater than CAHSR. So avoiding tunnels does not seem to save on US construction costs.
Perhaps we should let the Japanese build the system, but they would likely choose maglev over rail, despite the fact that they operate one of the few highly profitable high speed passenger rail systems in the world.
Incidentally I do not hate rail. I worked for the Federal Railroad Administration for over twenty years, and I take rail whenever I can, including driving from Palm Springs to San Bernardino and catching Metrolink to LA whenever I travel there. And I encourage others to take the train whenever possible.
2) No-good, terrible, very bad idea. From an engineer in the Central Valley:
Bad, bad, bad. In no particular order:
· The HSR Authority and anybody associated with this cannot be trusted. Past cost estimates have ranged from $40 billion to $100 billion and now down to what, $80 billion? In other words, the cost estimates are determined by political expediency. Actual costs are, of course, likely to be far higher. We’re being lied to, openly.
· HSR works best between cities with lots of mass transport. That is probably true for SF, certainly not for LA. Whatcha gonna do when you get to downtown LA and you need to be 50 miles from there? Rent a car and join the masses stuck on the freeway. At least LA has a few airports that might get you closer.
· Business travelers now can make trip in one day between SF / LA. It’s a long day, sure, but it’s feasible because aircraft travel is so fast. Not so with HSR, so many business travelers will shun it. Families then? No. Yes, driving is longer but your cost for 4 people is simply going to be much less driving than paying for 4 tickets. And you’ll have your car, instead of an additional rental cost.
· It’s being built in a corridor that doesn’t have a demand problem (down the Central Valley), and even if there were, another lane on Interstate 5 each way would fix that. I’m guessing a substantial part of any Central Valley congestion is freight trucks, which HSR won’t do a thing to solve.
· It bypasses, and has no plans, to connect to Sacramento or San Diego. Ridiculous.
· Think airport security is bad? HSR will require a very ugly fence on each side of it. Imagine if someone snuck over and place a small wedge on a track. How you gonna protect 500 miles of rail?
· California (and maybe the nation) can’t build a damn thing right. CalTrans went $2 billion over on building the new Bay Bridge span (1/2 of the total span), and it has an ever-growing list of serious problems. It’s not foolish to question if the new span will, in an earthquake, remain standing. I’ve seen the same gross but genial incompetence in my government agency. There’s simply no accountability. Oh, Governor Brown’s response to the Bay Bridge’s cost and structural problems? “Shit happens.”
The problem with the California HSR is the proposed project. HSR in general is fine, when done correctly, and it could be done correctly in California, but the current project pretty much guarantees it won’t.
Instead why not build in corridors of proven demand? That would be Sacramento-Bay Area, where the Amtrak Capitol Corridor runs now. An HSR there would be fantastic, and if it failed at least wouldn’t cost a hundred billion dollars or more.
3) What about the earthquakes? A reader in the Midwest is one of several people to write in with this concern:
I lived in Marin County for quite a few years, including the time of the Loma Prieta quake. I have also had the dubious pleasure of living through some rather substantial quakes in Tokyo, China, and Indonesia during my travels.
I know that living in the seismic zone has not prevented Japan from building a successful high speed train such as the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka (which I have taken several times—and is a great ride), but I wonder what real dangers exist for a California route that would seem to cross over the most seismically active and dangerous portions of the state.
I credit the Japanese for doing the most serious anti-quake engineering in the world, but have some concerns about whether Californians would accept the costs necessary to make such a project safe during relatively large quakes.
4) "A boondoggle and a gigantic waste of money." From a reader in California:
I used to live in Europe, about 10 minutes walking distance to a major HSR line. I also live within walking distance of Caltrain in California and take it frequently.
I think Americans like it because it is a fun and convenient way for tourists to travel between a few make tourist destinations when they have no schedule to meet. Practical, cost effective transportation it is not.
High speed trains run rarely enough that you can't take them close to appointments. Delays mean that you often need to leave long layovers to make sure you make a connection. In the end, going by HSR often takes 2-3 times as long as driving. Trains are also much more expensive than long distance buses or flying.
That is under ideal European conditions. Between SF and LA, you have a much smaller potential ridership, a worse network of feeder lines, and higher costs.
HSR in California is a boondoggle and a gigantic waste of money. You're likely subsidizing each potential rider with trends of thousands of dollars construction costs alone, plus more subsidies in operating costs. That's not even counting the expensive union labor for construction and public union labor for operating the trains. HSR is a scheme by which the average tax payer has to pay for the convenience of a small number of privileged and wealthy city dwellers, give contracts to a small number of well connected corporations, and pour money into the hand of unions and union workers. HSR represents political corruption, crony capitalism, and vote buying at its purest.
5) Back to Maglev. From a person I know in Washington, who has worked for years on Maglev projects.
As you know, I advocated for the use of maglev technology over HSR for years. The reason the Central Japan Railroad is going with its superconductor maglev technology, at their own expense, for their new Chuo Shinkansen line is not just because of faster top cruising speeds, but because of the significantly lower maintenance and correspondingly higher "system availability" that maglev technology offers them. Lower annual maintenance costs means lower life cycle costs for the entire system, which is why CJR chairman Yoshiyuki Kasai is deploying this technology at the company’s own expense—yes, without government funds.
Too much is made of speed, though speed is important. But, to be able to travel at high speeds with relatively low maintenance costs allows operators to not require annual operating subsidies from tax payers, something government run railroads are not overly concerned with. In other words, this technology shift creates an environment that encourages private investment in high-speed ground transportation because profits are not only possible, they are highly likely in any reasonably busy corridor.
Aside from the Wenzhou-Hangzhou viaduct crash in July of 2011, the Chinese slowed their HSR trains down from 220 mph to 185 mph because they also learned some laws of physics: for each speed increase of 10 mph over 185 mph, train maintenance costs double. Not only do wheels get replaced more frequently, but rails too.
6) Sobering lessons of experience:
I'm an instinctive supporter, as you are. But life the Bay Area has thrown a couple of cautions at me:
1) the Bay Bridge—only 24 years from earthquake damage to replacement, with an endless string of engineering flaws and delays discovered along the way. And a busted budget. Is HSR management likely to be better? Otherwise, the thing will take a century.
2) BART to SFO: estimates of ridership were grotesquely inaccurate. They've had to radically reduce the number of trains. Now I voted for and love BART to the airport. Works great for me (makes it SFO to LAX instead of OAK to BUR). And various friends were employed in the project for a decade. But the precedent seems dubious.
7) "Just raise the ticket prices to pay for it." From a reader on the East Coast:
You may recall that, in 2010, Chris Christie scuttled a plan to build two new tunnels under the Hudson—I'm a NJ resident and a sometime commuter, so I was paying close attention.
Christie based his objections on the likelihood of cost overruns (which would have to be borne by the state); those who supported the project, like the NY Times, argued that he should take all cost estimates at face value. Voters, who have had a long, long experience with cost overruns (you might recall the Big Dig in Boston ...), inclined to Christie's side of the argument. After all, we'd just spent significantly more than half a billion dollars to feed the egomania of Frank Lautenberg via the "Frank R. Lautenberg Rail Station at Secaucus Junction".
But there are perfectly good reasons to criticize such projects from the Left. The "Access to the Region's Core" project was originally estimated to cost $8.7 billion; by the time it was cancelled, that estimate had risen to $11 billion. Half the original funding was to come from NY and NJ (mostly NJ). So the general tax revenues of the state would be used to construct boutique travel benefits for the highest-earning people in the state, while simultaneously increasing travel costs for everyone via gasoline taxes and toll increases.
Why should the bottom 60% or so be required to pay for a shiny new toy for the top 40%? Certainly, as one of the latter class, I can appreciate that I'm arguing against my interests ... but would it be fair?
So, if you really want HSR in California, all you have to do is argue that the HSR ticket prices must reflect the full cost of the project.
8) "It won't fix climate change." Finally for today:
My understanding is that California agriculture uses about 80% of our water but provides only 5% of economic output. Ongoing drought and shifts in federal policy are only making water more expensive. So whatever the ostensible productivity of that land, the price of water means that the future of California's economy will necessarily continue to shift toward the cities. (Hence the farmland-eating sprawl you lament.)
Thus the question of "what do we do with the Central Valley?" looms ever larger. As you know, unemployment rates are terrible there. I interpret the HSR mostly as a jobs plan. I can believe that infrastructure programs can have unexpected benefits. But the systemic trends hurting the Central Valley go much deeper than transportation. The HSR won't fix climate change.
Last night I wrote about the upcoming race for the governorship in Maine. Four years ago, the Independent candidate (and my longtime friend) Eliot Cutler narrowly lost to the Tea Party Republican Paul LePage. Now LePage is running for reelection, Cutler is running against him as an independent, and the Democrats have nominated Mike Michaud, the incumbent representative from Maine's northern, rural Second District.
I said that I admired and supported Cutler, but that on venerable Atlantic "of no party or clique" principles I'd be happy to post a 30-second video from the other candidates like the one I posted from Cutler's. I give you now David Farmer, a senior adviser with Michaud for Maine, who wrote by email as follows:
In a recent article that you wrote about Eliot Cutler, you offered to post a video from U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud's campaign for governor. I would like to take you up on your offer. Here's a link to the video from YouTube. You can also link to the ad from our website, which is www.michaud2014.com.
And while I certainly understand your allegiance to your friend, I would also add that Congress Michaud isn't your typical politician ....
Congressman Michaud comes from a blue collar background. He worked in a paper mill for 29 years. He first ran for office when he was just 24 years old with the goal of cleaning up the river that was being polluted by the mill where he worked. He has a compelling life story and decided to leave Congress to try to get Maine back on the right track after four terrible years under Tea Party Gov. Paul LePage. He's one of the few members of Congress who isn't a millionaire and who brings a real determination to represent working families.
But I suspect that there's little need to argue the merits of Congressman Michaud or the dynamics of the race that show him to be in the best position to defeat Gov. LePage.
Instead, I'd just ask that out of fairness, you post our video alongside Mr. Cutler's.
There you go. If and when I hear from the LePage campaign, I'll post their clip as well. People of Maine, over to you.
First, a disclosure. Eliot Cutler, who nearly won the race to become Maine’s governor four years ago and is now running for the job again, is a close family friend. My wife and I often hung around with him and his wife Melanie when we were all living and working in Beijing. He ran an American law firm's office there; she was in practice as a doctor. The Cutlers’ daughter Abby, now herself a doctor, was once a young editorial staffer at TheAtlantic.
During the 2010 race, I did an item saying that if I were from Maine, I would enthusiastically vote for Eliot for governor. This was in keeping with my Official Policy that journalists should steer clear of endorsing candidates except (a) in presidential races, where every American gets a say, and (b) for personal friends, as explained in this 2006 item about then-Senate candidate Jim Webb.
The drama of the 2010 Maine governor’s race was that Cutler was running as an Independent, against the Tea Party Republican Paul LePage and the Democrat Libby Mitchell. In most states, third-party candidacies are pipe dreams. Maine is an exception. Angus King, who succeeded Olympia Snowe as U.S. senator, is an independent who had previously been a popular independent governor. James Longley, governor in the 1970s, was also an independent.
Paul LePage is about as right-wing a governor as now serves anywhere in the U.S., and is considerably to the right of the other major statewide officials, Senators King and Susan Collins. (Maine does not have a lieutenant governor.) LePage made it into office with only 38.3 percent of the vote, as Cutler and Mitchell split the anti-Tea Party majority. Eliot started out behind; closed fast in the final month of the campaign; and ended up just short of LePage, with 36.5 percent. That was almost twice the Democratic total (19 percent), and by most accounts he would have won if the race had gone on a few days longer—or if fewer people had voted early, before it became clear that he was the stronger anti-LePage candidate.
This year the Democrats have put a more concerted effort into fielding a candidate, Representative Mike Michaud. The Democrats argue that they offer the better prospect for getting rid of LePage; Cutler argues that he would be the more policy-experienced and ambitious governor.
In that contest, I'm with Eliot, whom I've known and respected since were both young staffers in the Jimmy Carter administration. He worked in the White House on Carter's prescient energy policy, and had previously worked for Maine Senator Ed Muskie on the original Clean Water Act. I've talked with him a million times about the problems and opportunities for his state. He was the one who first suggested that we visit Eastport, Maine, as part of our American Futures series.
Of course what I think doesn't matter to anyone in Maine. What might is the endorsement yesterday from Angus King. Because polls have consistently shown that most Maine voters would rather not have LePage as their governor, King addressed the "strategic voting" question: whether a vote for the Independent candidate would make it more likely that LePage stays in.
King, one of Maine’s most popular politicians and a former two-term governor, said that Maine voters need to choose the best candidate for the job, regardless of political party or whatever perceived chance of winning the candidate has three months before Election Day.
“What people have to cross over is this idea of trying to think of all the political angles,” King said. “If the people of Maine look at these candidates and say, ‘Who will make the best governor, who has the ideas, who has the best thinking?’—Eliot wins. That’s why I believe he’s going to. That’s the calculation.”
For me this race holds mainly personal interest. For the country, it's worth watching as a test case of possible alternatives to major-party duopoly. Everyone wishes the two main parties were less encrusted and impregnable. Maine is one of the few places where a third-party alternative actually has a chance. We'll see how it goes.
Here is a sample of Eliot Cutler's current campaign themes. Having admitted my bias, I'll make this offer: If the LePage and Michaud campaigns have comparable 30-second campaign videos, I will post them as well.
Sheriff Andy Taylor and equipment-loving Deputy Barney Fife (Wikipedia)
If you haven't yet seen it, please read this Storify account, by Kelsey Atherton, of how veterans of real combat—in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere—view today's wildly over-militarized American police. For instance:
A reader on the East Coast responded to my post last night, which said that perhaps the scenes of stormtroopers among us would startle the public into realizing how far this security-state trend had gone. This reader, S.C., suggests a contrasting visual cue:
Maybe you’re right to conjecture that police-state images might horrify the country into restoring good sense about cops in combat gear, riding in tanks on streets. Here’s a thought about that. It’s not new, but it might be worth mentioning.
I’ve pasted in an image [shown at the top of this post] that may fit slantwise with your insight. It’s not what you meant, but it conveys the message in a country that still likes seeing if calm wisdom and brains can head off any need for ostentatious official bellicosity. From the old and much-loved The Andy Griffith Show, it’s Sheriff Andy Taylor, who spurns sidearms in police work, and whose face expresses all that needs to be said about Deputy Barney Fife’s comically enthusiastic wanna-be militarism.
I love it that Sheriff Taylor always allowed Deputy Fife to carry only one bullet, and required him to keep it in his pocket. Maybe you’ll want to keep this photo in yours, in case it’s needed (and assuming it’s not already there).
It’s unrealistic, of course, to try too hard to map this half-century-old sitcom onto present problems. But it’s also unwise not to recall what Sheriff Taylor stood for, and not to recognize the extent of the country’s respect for it.
Agreed. On that same theme, here is a clip from an episode of The Andy Griffith Show 50 years ago, in 1964, in which Barney Fife has a different helmet but the same enthusiasm for dress-up military gear.
That gentle, dismissive, pretense-puncturing humor—something I associated with Andy Griffith in my childhood and that my parents did with Will Rogers in theirs—doesn't have an exact current counterpart, or not one I can think of just now. Stephen Colbert is closer than Jon Stewart; in his earliest, funny-rather-than-angry days, Rush Limbaugh could sound this way. Among politicians, Ronald Reagan was actually good at it—"There you go again!"—as was John F. Kennedy in some of his press conferences. It's an effect Barack Obama strains for and sometimes achieves, for instance when poking fun at the latest Birther-style claim. (And yes, before you point it out, I'm aware that in an actual small Southern town 50 years ago, the real-world counterparts of Andy Taylor and Barney Fife would have been enforcing segregation laws.)
We would like to think that such level-headed, amused BS-detection is part of our national cast of mind. A Yank at Oxford! The Duke and the King in Huckleberry Finn! The Tweet shown above, by @BFriedmanDC, may offer a glimmer of hope for its reappearance. It is the kind of comment Sheriff Andy Taylor might have made if he had seen legions of Barney Fifes dressed for war.
Ferguson, Mo. police watching over their city (Reuters)
The images from Missouri of stormtrooper-looking police confronting their citizens naturally raises the question: how the hell did we get to this point? When did the normal cops become Navy SEALs? What country is this, anyway?
There will be more and more mainstream coverage of the modern militarization of the police, a phenomenon mainly of the post-9/11 years. For reference/aggregation purposes, here is a guide to further reading:
1) The Book on this topic: Rise of the Warrior Cop, by Radley Balko. It came out a year ago and is more timely now than ever.
2) "Lockdown Nation," a Peter Moskos review of Balko's book last year in PS magazine.
6) Update: An important and well-illustrated report by Matt Apuzzo in the NYT two months ago, called "War Gear Flows to Police Departments."
7) Update^2: A new report from Alec MacGillis in TNR on how "anti-terrorist" funding from DHS has equipped police forces with this CENTCOM-style war gear.
This Ferguson, Missouri episode is obviously about race, and is (another) occasion for pointing readers to Ta-Nehisi Coates's powerful "Reparations" article. It is also about how we govern ourselves, and about how far the ramifying self-damage of the post-9/11 era has gone.
"Self-damage"? All the literature about terrorism emphasizes that the harm directly done in an attack is nothing compared with the self-destructive reactions it can induce. From Fallujah to Ferguson, that is part of what we're seeing now.
I won't belabor that theme for the moment but will say: Perhaps these incredible police-state-like images will have some attention-focusing or "enough!" effect, like their counterparts from another era (below). Meanwhile, check out Balko's book.
Two first families: the Obamas and the Clintons at a ceremony on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death (Reuters)
On return from a long spell away from the Internet, I was going to recommend that you read Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with Hillary Clinton, and not just the setup but the transcript as a whole. But such a recommendation is hardly necessary, since for several days the interview has been making news worldwide.
There are two ways to think about the political and policy implications of Hillary Clinton’s deciding to say what she did, during this strange limbo period when she is clearly preparing to run for president but has more to lose than gain by officially saying so.
• One approach would be to think that we’re primarily witnessing a media event—journalists doing what journalists do. It's in our nature as reporters, even when representing an institution as august as a 157-year-old magazine, to highlight what has changed rather than what’s constant, what is controversial rather than what’s agreed on, the one juicy, taken-in-isolation sentence that will make people stop and say, Did you see that? And it is in nature of the political commentariat to seize on any sign of rancor or big-shot melodrama.
Therefore if our Atlantic site runs a headline suggesting that Hillary Clinton is all but blaming Barack Obama for the ISIS/ISIL menace (“Hillary Clinton: 'Failure' to Help Syrian Rebels Led to the Rise of ISIS”), or if we emphasize the few places where she departed from his policy rather than the many more where she supported it, maybe we’re just revealing the way we journalists think. When politicians start complaining that some comment was “taken out of context,” this is the point they’re trying to make. And in fairness, anyone who reads the whole transcript will find that the tabloid version of her comments—weakling Obama lost Syria!—is cushioned in qualifiers and complexities.
If this is the way the Clinton camp feels about our presentation of the interview, they are perfectly well versed in all the the formal and informal ways of getting that message across. Indeed, just this afternoon, a little while after I started typing this item (but several days after the interview ran), the first such indication appeared, in a "no criticism intended" story via Politico.
• The other approach is to think that Hillary Clinton, as experienced a figure as we now have on the national scene, knew exactly what she was saying, and conveyed to an interviewer as experienced as Goldberg exactly the impression she intended to—including letting the impression sink in through several days' worth of op-ed and talk-show news cycles before beginning to offset it with an "out of context" claim.
That impression is a faux-respectful but pointed dismissal of Obama's achievements and underlying thought-patterns. It's a picture of the president approximating that of a Maureen Dowd column. It also introduces into Democratic party discourse the “Who (re-)lost Iraq?” “Who lost Syria?” “Who lost Iran?” and “Who is losing the world?” queries that the Republicans are perpetually ready to serve up. All this is presumably in preparation for Clinton's distancing herself from a "weak" Obama when she starts running in earnest to succeed him.
If the former interpretation is right, Clinton is rustier at dealing with the press than we assumed. Rustier in taking care with what she says, rustier in taking several days before countering a (presumably) undesired interpretation.
I hope she's just rusty. Because if she intended this, my heart sinks.
It sinks for her, that she thought this would make her sound tough or wise; it sinks for the Democratic Party, that this is the future foreign policy choice it’s getting; and it sinks for the country, if this is the way we’re going to be talked to about our options in dealings with the world.
The easiest and least useful stance when it comes to foreign policy is: Situation X is terrible, we have to do something. Or its cousin: Situation X is terrible, you should have done something. Pointing out terribleness around the world is not even half of the necessary thought-work in foreign policy. The harder and more important part—what constitutes actual statesmanship—is considering exactly which “something” you would do; and why that exact something would make conditions better rather than worse; and what Pandora’s box you might be opening; and how the results of your something will look a year from now, or a decade, when the terribleness of this moment has passed.
E.g.: Yeah, we should have “done something” in Syria to prevent the rise of ISIS. But the U.S. did a hell of a lot of somethings in Iraq over the past decade, with a lot more leverage that it could possibly have had in Syria. And the result of the somethings in Iraq was … ? A long story in the NYT tells us that the current leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph himself, drew his political formation from America’s own efforts to “do something” in Iraq:
“He was a street thug when we picked him up in 2004,” said a Pentagon official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. “It’s hard to imagine we could have had a crystal ball then that would tell us he’d become head of ISIS.”
At every turn, Mr. Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’ involvement in Iraq — most of the political changes that fueled his fight, or led to his promotion, were born directly from some American action. And now he has forced a new chapter of that intervention, after ISIS’ military successes and brutal massacres of minorities in its advance prompted President Obama to order airstrikes in Iraq.
Of course everyone including Clinton “knows” that you should only do something when it’s smart and not when it’s stupid. In her books and speeches, she is most impressive when showing commanding knowledge of the complexities and contradictions of negotiating with the Russians and Chinese, and why you can’t just “be tough” in dealings with them. In those specifics, she can sound like the description I just came across, in Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, about some pre-World War I Balkan leaders: “It is a characteristic of the most skillful politicians that they are capable of reasoning simultaneously at different levels of conditionality. [One Serbian figure] wanted peace, but he also believed—he never concealed it—that the final historical phase of Serbian expansion would in all probability not be achieved without war.”
But in this interview—assuming it's not "out of context"—she is often making the broad, lazy "do something" points and avoiding the harder ones. She appears to disdain the president for exactly the kind of slogan—"don't do stupid shit"—that her husband would have been proud of for its apparent simplicity but potential breadth and depth. (Remember "It's the economy, stupid"?) Meanwhile she offers her own radically simplified view of the Middle East—Netanyahu right, others wrong—that is at odds with what she did in the State Department and what she would likely have to do in the White House. David Brooks was heartened by this possible preview of a Hillary Clinton administration's policy. I agree with Kevin Drum and John Cassidy, who were not. Also see Paul Waldman.
But really, go read the interview. Either way, the presumptive nominee has, under Jeffrey Goldberg's questioning, shown us something significant.
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, andNo. 6
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
"The kind of people who might have gone to NASA in the 1960s, Wall Street in the 1980s, or Silicon Valley in the late 1990s are now, I think, more likely than ever to work in municipal government." So says a well-educated young small-town mayor.
Downtown Greer, South Carolina, a rapidly growing small town between Greenville and Spartanburg.
As we've spent time in smaller towns that are undertaking economic or cultural recoveries, my wife Deb and I have repeatedly been struck by a certain migration pattern. This is the presence, and importance, of ambitious people at the beginning of their careers who have chosen to fulfill those ambitions not in Brooklyn or the SF Bay Area or one of the other best-known assumed national talent destinations. Rather they've chosen to live and work in Greenville SC, or Duluth MN, or Burlington VT, or Sioux Falls and Rapid City SD, or Redlands and Winters CA, or Holland MI, or West Point and Columbus MS, or other even less-celebrated places.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
For some people the reasons are family ties to the town. For others, the search for a safer, more pastoral, or more affordable environment in which to raise children. For some, utopian escapism of the type we mainly associate with my Boomer contemporaries of the 1960s and 1970s. But in quite a few places we've heard sentiments like the ones expressed below. Which boil down to, the chance to make a difference, and be part of a success.
This note comes from a young mayor of a smallish Midwest city who is now serving with the U.S. military in a combat zone. We have not yet been to his city, but what he says resembles what we have heard elsewhere:
I'm writing in response to your Atlantic article on small cities ["Why Cities Work Even When Washington Doesn't"], which belatedly reached me here in [Afghanistan] in hard copy in a recent care package. I'm on leave from the city for military duty this year.
As a fairly new small city mayor who is trying to push our city forward with moves like reintroduction of two-way streets downtown and reimagination of public spaces, I predictably loved it. I also wanted to draw your attention to an important, related story.
There has been lots of good buzz and coverage lately about cities and mayors, but a story still waiting to be told is the quality of people coming to work for them. Doubtless there have always been extraordinary people drawn to local government, but something truly unusual is happening, in my view, in the caliber of young professionals drawn to this work now.
The kind of people who might have gone to NASA in the 1960s, Wall Street in the 1980s, or Silicon Valley in the late 1990s are now, I think, more likely than ever to work in municipal government. See, for example, the Code for America phenomenon.
In recruiting talented professionals, we have been able to punch above the weight of a small city like ours, drawing people with international careers in architecture, government, consulting, and engineering to work for five-figure salaries in a small Midwestern city willing to try new things.
Is this a side-effect of federal dysfunction, that public-minded young professionals are far less attracted to the Hill as a place to make their mark and now look to the local level instead? Or something to do with the economy? I don't know, but I think there is something to this untold story of the kinds of people newly drawn to local civic work.
I agree, and will have more to say about this soon.
I've been offline for more than a week because of duties 24/7 at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Here is a sample that is now up at the Ideas Festival site, an hour-long discussion two days ago with former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
I say in the set-up for the interview that Geithner's book, Stress Test, is actually very good, considered just as a book. This is a point that Michael Lewis made in his NYTBR treatment of it too. All appropriate credit to Geithner's co-author, Michael Grunwald, author of The New New Deal.
The next Aspen interview I'll be looking for, when it goes up on their site, is one I conducted an hour later that same day with Amanda Lindhout, on her truly extraordinary memoir A House in the Sky. Stay tuned.
Talk shows aren't bringing on Captain Hazelwood to discuss safe shipping. But they still can't get enough of the Hazelwoods of foreign policy. Also, whether the "New York Times paradox" applies to public radio.
Marilyn Monroe statue in Chinese scrapyard. Explanation below. (Reuters)
A harvest of items worth attention:
1) Media Decline Watch, public radio edition. Anyone who has spent time in Seattle knows the voice and sensibility of Steve Scher. He has been a long-time urbane host and interviewer on the public radio station KUOW. He has made a place in the public awareness similar to that of Michael Krasny on KQED in San Francisco, or Diane Rehm on WAMU in Washington, or Larry Mantle on KPCC in Southern California, or their mainstay counterparts across the country. I was on the show sometimes, and listened to it frequently, in the years we lived in Seattle.
This story by David Brewster, himself a stalwart of Seattle journalism, on the regional news site Crosscut is a sobering account of why Scher decided to take himself out of the radio business. You can read the story yourself, but it helps illustrate public radio's version of what I think of as the modern "New York Times paradox."
The paradox is that digital technology has made the NYT more influential worldwide than it has ever been before, and more than any other single news organization in history. And that same technology has put the Times in terrible economic straits. In the Times's case, I've always assumed that this paradox will be resolved in its favor. It will find a way to convert its global brand into some kind of sustainable business.
The Scher story is a reminder that there may be a comparable "public radio paradox." In influence, public radio in all its incarnations is more important than ever. (The incarnations include the mother-ship NPR, PRI, APM (host of our American Futures-partner Marketplace), the numerous local stations, some state and regional alliances, and others.) And yet NPR layoffs and cutbacks are always in the news, and many other parts of the public radio ecosystem are in financial trouble. This paradox will be harder to resolve than the NYT's, for a variety of reasons: because there are so many players, because there are rivalries among some of them, because they're not run as normal businesses, and because their governing structure is more cumbersome than that of a family business. But it's in everyone's interest that they succeed.
2) A walk on the Aussie side, Baffler edition. On first exposure to Australia, many Americans think, "Hey, it's a nicer version of home." In many (pleasant) visits over the years, I've come to think that—both to its credit and not—Australia is a very deeply different place from the United States. In The Baffler, Sarah Burnside, an Aussie, explains some of the reasons why.
3) Oh calm down, Boomer-finances edition. Scare-mongering is one of our national pastimes, in realms from aviation safety ("My plane almost crashed!") to China's rise or budget deficits. In the American Scholar, my friend Lincoln Caplan debunks a fiscal version of scare-talk: the idea that Boomer-era retirement and medical demands will bankrupt us all. Calm down, he says:
A demographic tool has become an economic one, treating a demographic challenge as both an economic crisis and a basis for pessimism justifying drastic reductions in bedrock government programs, including those supporting children and the poor. Even at state and local levels, the aging boomer demographic is repeatedly blamed for our economic difficulties. That is a lamentable mistake...
The dependency ratio does not justify the solutions that the alarmists propose. Just as important, perhaps, it fails to account for the striking benefits accruing from the dramatic increase in life expectancy in the United States during the 20th century—what the MacArthur Foundation’s Research Network on an Aging Society called “one of the greatest cultural and scientific advances in our history.”
4) Seriously, why are we still hearing from Cheney, Kristol, et al? After the Exxon Valdez, cable news wasn't bringing us Captain Hazelwood as expert commentator on maritime safety. After the next big air disaster, we're not going have the Malaysian aviation authorities on to offer advice. But when it comes to foreign policy, the analysts who have always been wrong and the officials who put wrong policy into effect keep commanding air time. Today, incredibly, ABC gave Dick Cheney an extended platform on This Week with more deferential questioning than Megyn Kelly had applied on Fox News.
Why? Why? If TV is not serving up Hazelwood or the Malaysian savants, or O.J. on managing a post-sports career, why are they bringing us Kristol and Cheney? In Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt offers not excuses but diagnostic-style explanations. You can see them here.
5) Sports news, throwing department. For background on the "Throwing Like a Girl" concept, please see this original article and follow-ups like this and this.
The last of these links takes you to a slo-mo video of the Giants' Tim Lincecum throwing. Tim Heffernan suggests points to an incredible GIF of the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and says we need a new category, "throwing like a machine." I can't embed it, but you can see it here.
6) OK, what about Marilyn Monroe? My friend Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet, says that the standard outside reaction to photos of the statue in a Chinese scrap yard, has been some variation on: Oh, those wacky Chinese! To the contrary, Adam says. He explains why here.
An expert on being wrong shares his thoughts. (Reuters)
A few hours ago I said (sincerely) that a number of prominent officials who had set the stage for today's disaster in Iraq deserved respect for their silence as their successors chose among the least-terrible of available options.
I unwisely included Dick Cheney, former vice president and most ill-tempered figure to hold national office since Richard Nixon, on that list.
If I'd waited a little while, I would have seen a new op-ed by Cheney and his daughter Liz in (where else!) the WSJ denouncing the Obama administration's fecklessness about Iraq and much else. They say, unironically, about the current occupant of the White House:
Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.
You want a specimen of being so wrong about so much at the expense of so many? Consider the thoughts of one Richard B. Cheney, in a major speech to the VFW in August 2002, in the run-up to the war:
Another argument holds that opposing Saddam Hussein would cause even greater troubles in that part of the world, and interfere with the larger war against terror. I believe the opposite is true.
Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits to the region. When the gravest of threats are eliminated, the freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace.
As for the reaction of the Arab "street," the Middle East expert Professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation, the streets in Basra and Baghdad are "sure to erupt in joy in the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans." Extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of Jihad. Moderates throughout the region would take heart. And our ability to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be enhanced, just as it was following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991
"The freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace." Yes, that is exactly how historians will register the lasting effects of the invasion for which Cheney was a major proponent and decision-maker. Along with the rest of his forecasts. What a guy.
If you're anything like me, when you hear the words "wise insights about the Iraq war," two names that immediately come to mind are Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby.
Fortunately the Hertog Institute has engaged them both to teach a course, "The War in Iraq: A Study in Decision-Making."
I will confess that when someone told me about this today, I assumed it was an Onion-style joke. As in, "The Work-Family Balance: Getting It Right," co-taught by John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer. But it turns out to be real. Or "real."
In the cause of public knowledge, I am happy to offer royalty-free use of several items for the reading list. Like:
"The Fifty-First State?" from the year before the war. The Wolfowitz-Libby "study in decision-making" might consider why on Earth so many obvious implications of the war were blithely dismissed ahead of time, including by these two men. Or ...
"Blind into Baghdad," about the grotesque combination of arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence that characterized decision-making about the war. Or ...
"Bush's Lost Year," about the sequence of advantages squandered, opportunities missed, and crucial wrong bets made in the months just after the 9/11 attacks. Students might find this one particularly interesting, since it begins with a long interview with their own Professor Wolfowitz. For the Cliff's Notes version, see after the jump.
Somehow I am guessing that the professors might pass up my generous offer. So instead, here's another "at first I thought this was a joke" candidate: a new essay by William Kristol and Frederick Kagan in Kristol's Weekly Standard with advice about Iraq:
I'll give Kristol and the Kagan brothers this: They are consistent, in attitude as well as typography and headline writing and page layout. Here is what Kristol and Robert Kagan were writing 12 years ago, shortly after the 9/11 attacks:
Sample of their level-headed and confirmed-by-history views: "The Iraq threat is enormous. It gets bigger with every day that passes."
Am I sounding a little testy here? You bet. We all make mistakes. But we are talking about people in public life—writers, politicians, academics—who got the biggest strategic call in many decades completely wrong. Wrong as a matter of analysis, wrong as a matter of planning, wrong as a matter of execution, wrong in conceiving American interests in the broadest sense. None of these people did that intentionally, and many of them have honestly reflected and learned. But we now live with (and many, many people have died because of) the consequences of their gross misjudgments a dozen years ago. In the circumstances, they might have the decency to shut the hell up on this particular topic for a while. They helped create the disaster Iraqis and others are now dealing with. They have earned the right not to be listened to.
* * *
Brian Beutler in The New Republic goes into this standing-to-speak issue very clear-headedly. For the record, he takes my side of the argument, sort of. Also, last week in New York magazine Frank Rich talked about the strange non-accountability of the liberal-hawk faction. His colleague Eric Benson interviewed me on that theme. For Kristol as a special case of someone so wrong so often that he's a reliable reverse-predictor guide to reality, see this, which doesn't go into his enthusiasm even now for Sarah Palin.
And if you would like to see something not testy but deservedly bitter, consider what Andrew Bacevich says most recently about unrepentant war mongers.
Update: I hadn't seen until now that Paul "Let's Disband the Iraqi Army, What Could Go Wrong?" Bremer has offered his wisdom about Iraq in the WSJ. Jeesh! Also see this by Steve Benen at the Maddow blog, and this by Katrina Vanden Heuvel in the WaPo.
* * *
My article "Bush's Lost Year" was about the very subject of this class, decision-making in the Iraq war. Here is the way it ended:
To govern is to choose, and the choices made in 2002 were fateful. The United States began that year shocked and wounded, but with tremendous strategic advantages. Its population was more closely united behind its leadership than it had been in fifty years. World opinion was strongly sympathetic. Longtime allies were eager to help; longtime antagonists were silent. The federal budget was nearly in balance, making ambitious projects feasible. The U.S. military was superbly equipped, trained, and prepared. An immediate foe was evident—and vulnerable—in Afghanistan. For the longer-term effort against Islamic extremism the Administration could draw on a mature school of thought from academics, regional specialists, and its own intelligence agencies. All that was required was to think broadly about the threats to the country, and creatively about the responses.
The Bush Administration chose another path. Implicitly at the beginning of 2002, and as a matter of formal policy by the end, it placed all other considerations second to regime change in Iraq. It hampered the campaign in Afghanistan before fighting began and wound it down prematurely, along the way losing the chance to capture Osama bin Laden. It turned a blind eye to misdeeds in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and to WMD threats from North Korea and Iran far more serious than any posed by Saddam Hussein, all in the name of moving toward a showdown with Iraq. It overused and wore out its army in invading Iraq—without committing enough troops for a successful occupation. It saddled the United States with ongoing costs that dwarf its spending for domestic security. And by every available measure it only worsened the risk of future terrorism. In every sense 2002 was a lost year.
That was how it looked to me 10 years ago. And still does.
Sharecroppers in Georgia, just before World War II. Are their grandchildren better off, because industries have arrived? Hint: my answer is Yes. (
Farm Security Administration, 1941 )
Over the past few weeks, my wife Deb and I have been reporting on Mississippi's efforts to move itself up from the bottom in rankings of educational achievement, and similarly to move itself up from being overall the poorest state in the nation.
Question for the day, from readers: whether any success it achieves will necessarily come at the expense of other places, especially in the North. Of course movement in rankings is by definition zero-sum. The real question is whether greater prosperity for Mississippi has to mean less somewhere else.
For background, here are some installments about the Mississippi educational efforts: one, two, three, and four. (No matter what region you're from, be sure to read at least the first couple of essays by students in that final, fourth item.) And these on industrialization: one, two, three, and four.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
Now, a note representative of several I've received. It concerns how to think or talk about economic activities in the non-union, low-wage, politically conservative, ever-shadowed-by-racial-injustice (cf. Ta-Nehisi Coates) areas of the Deep South. Here goes, quoted in full for context:
I have an odd relationship with your blog. I read it avidly and yet I find myself alienated. You prick my despair about the country, in fact. In your most recent entry in the 'Lo and Behold, Industry in Mississippi' series, you asked for feedback and so here is a little exploration of my vexed relation to your work and perspectives.
First off, I'm a native of a Rust Belt city and much of my family originally migrated here from the South. In fact they were slaveowners who left the South to industrialize the North - and they were very successful at it, probably even a factor in the victory of the North over the South in the Civil War.
But I grew up in a different time - the time of decline of industry. I grew up with the decades of desolation and loss. I understand the impact of abandonment, wholesale and profound, that has infected the Rust Belt in the post war era. I know the economic decline of Rust Belt cities to be deeply imprinted with American racism as well as the relentless and devastatingly effective rightwing campaign against unionization. The deindustrialization of the North cannot be separated from the success of Southern style politics and ideologies over the last 40 years. The American people have suffered serious economic harm as a result.
So forgive me if Joe Max Higgins does not seem charming. To be honest my chief reaction to reading this piece was to wish that TVA funding was quickly and permanently yanked. I do not support federal funds in order to develop this political cesspool into an influential center of the American economy. I think the South should be quarantined, politically and economically. They suck on the federal tit whilst fanning resentment of the poor, among many (many!) other political sins. (The best thing about the Dixiecrats is that there were less effective nationally when stranded within the Democratic Party than they are today, when they control Republican ideology and the Supreme Court. )
I wasn't satisfied by your reply to this comment [from another reader, a man in New York]:
"The theme that I find missing in your series is any recognition that the Southern states have been in a continuing economic war with the Northern manufacturing base for at least since the Civil Rights Act. Undermining and destroying unions has been a signature part of that strategy and it has been very successful. The great cities of the North have been hollowed out just as they were beginning to provide a haven for lower class families, not to mention the overall starvation of the middle class."
You didn't address the above point. The South has had a baleful influence. Perhaps what is in process is the lasting destruction of American broad based prosperity, thanks in no small part to rise of Southern political values. There are no signs of a turnaround for most in this economy - it is only getting worse. Yet continuing on this path would be tragic. It would fundamentally undermine the whole American experiment. I would like your series a lot more if you addressed this.
I keep telling myself I won't do this any more, but I wrote right back to the woman who sent the message:
I have a reaction of "And therefore, what....?" to your views.
Suppose one, like me, is in favor of unions, is in favor of more progressive taxation and a fairer economy, is against what many Southern politicians now stand for, has written endlessly about the "new nullification" menace, and so on. Should I say: "Well, I hope these people in Mississippi stay poor?"
I'd be interested to know what, specifically, you'd like to do to, or with, Mississippi—or St Marys, Georgia, or Greenville, SC—as the action part of your view.
To which she replied:
As to your question - should the people in Mississippi stay poor? I would suggest taking a serious look at the answer 'yes'. If industrial jobs in Mississippi are in fact a part of a national race to the bottom and if that race is destructive to the larger good then the race itself should be stopped. And one consequence of that could be a slow down in the industrializing of Mississippi.
I don't enjoy making careless arguments and there are a number of 'ifs' in the above paragraph. The point is that there is a larger picture. What conventions, regulations, and laws enable corporations to make states compete against each other for their investment? Some of that should simply be outlawed. Some of that sort of thing is actually disallowed under trade pacts - why should it be allowed for states?
It's taken decades to build an economy of downward mobility. Financial deregulation, corporate trade deals, and union busting has required not only policies but ideology and economic theory. It has been a bipartisan effort and academics and the media have contributed. Virtually all of the conventional thinking in my view is tainted by this history. But the issues we are discussing impact the real economy of jobs and wages. We must not avoid painful disputes even though bringing up these difficult issues is a downer in the context of a feel good story of a poor corner of the country doing better.
If you've gotten this far, I hope you'll indulge a further word about the ongoing juggling act for a writer like me. Over the past three-plus decades, in at least four of my books and at least a dozen long Atlantic articles, I've tried my best to apply reporting, reading, thinking, and observation to questions of exactly this sort. The movements of industries among nations; the movements from region to region within a nation; the forces that make whole economies seem to progress or stagnate; the forces that are uniquely necessary if America is to seem "fair"; the burdens of history, race, public policy, and private institutions in shaping American mobility, and so on.
I know that I've written all this stuff. Most readers, probably including this one, don't. But if I say, "go read 'How the World Works' or More Like Us or 'How America Can Rise Again,'" I sound insufferable. And if I don't, I'm left with people who "are not satisfied" because I haven't dealt with a topic at a time when they happened to be noticing or in a post they're seeing on its own. As the world's problems go, it's small. But it is one I have to think about it.
Enough about me! Let's turn now to a reader in Florida. He writes:
I agree with you —I wouldn't lead every Mississippi piece I wrote with a racial disclaimer either. After all, TNC's writing has focused as much on Chicago as Mississippi—which makes sense because parts of Chicago are historically, literally Mississippi north.
That said, two things about two of these posts really struck me and both relate to the historical relationship of Missisippi and Chicago. Key quote from your post:
"Part of the 'Northern narrative' on what we're doing here is that we're just buying industries," [Joe Max Higgins] told me.
In 1914, with the onset of World War I, European immigration halted overnight. By 1915, booming, shorthanded northern industry was "buying" southern black farm labor and creating the Great Migration—and changing America, north and south, forever.
Southern government and industry (mostly agriculture) fought with every legal and extra legal tool it had to halt the migration. "The southern narrative was you will cripple our society by stealing our niggers." It was routine for southern local governments to ban labor recruiting; to ban migration itself through brutally enforced vagrancy laws. My hometown in Florida passed an ordinance in 1916 requiring a $1,000 license for any recruiter seeking black labor. Not getting the license was a crime.
You ask, don't people know these things?
No, they don't. They know about water fountains and epithets. They know nothing about the migration that made both redlining and the successful civil right movement possible by breaking up the status quo.
In my opinion, WWI and the Great Migration are the two most important forces of 20th century. One caused the other. They are, I think, without question the most important racial forces of the 20th century. And we as a country know nothing about them. We know so little about them that an economic developer in Mississippi doesn't see the exquisite historical irony in the South "buying" the industry that the north used to buy its labor and grow the industrial power of the US.
This is plenty to chew on for now. I was tempted to add a "This I Believe!" summary of my economic views, but I am going to save that for tomorrow. I have actually written it already, so I will actually post it after I let it cool.
I will though close with one transition point, tied to the first reader's note. I respect her clarity in following her logic to its conclusion. Still, I completely disagree that the rest of the country might have stayed richer and fairer if our poorest state stayed dirt poor. While I'm at it: I also don't think America would be richer, fairer, or happier if China were still dirt poor. That's a topic-sentence assertion for now. Supporting sentences soon.
Students from the Mississippi School for Math and Science, performing historical re-enactment in honor of Emancipation Day.
Two emails came arrived within minutes of each other over the weekend. Both have to do with the reports my wife Deb and I have been doing from the "Golden Triangle" of Mississippi: the cities of Columbus, Starkville, and West Point. The reports started here, with a catfish fry; included this and this about schools and this and this about industry (and beer); and this about seeing small towns by air. There is more to come, from factories and from an orphanage and a college, plus a Marketplace report soon.
The two letters I'm quoting now are long but worth reading back-to-back. The first is from a man who grew up in the area—Lowndes County is one of three counties in the Triangle—and now lives several states to the north:
As a native of Lowndes County, MS and an alumnus of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, I wanted to let you know how thrilling it is to read the series of articles by you and your wife about my hometown and high school. I especially appreciate the clear lack of schadenfreude in the series so far. This is one of the few times in my adult life that I have had the privilege to read coverage of Mississippi in a national publication in which Mississippi was not used merely as a foil to highlight racial, social, or economic progress elsewhere. I understood perfectly what Joe Max Higgins meant by,"When Eurocopter came in, people started walking upright a little bit."
The population and income maps included with the most recent article are excellent, illuminating, and depressing. I'm curious to see whether you will further explore the intersection of race and economy in the Golden Triangle. I would love to know whether the benefits of the economic development in the Golden Triangle have accrued to blacks as well as whites. Does the economic development help race relations or strain them? I assume it's a mixed bag, but I would love to hear more details.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
Those questions of race and economy are in store for upcoming installments. For the moment, let's turn to the second letter, from a reader in New York. He said he had read some but not all of our Mississippi reports, and also has read Ta-Nehisi Coates's justifiably praised article on reparations:
[T]alking about the success of a few Mississippi towns in attracting industry where the average annual income is $14,000 and comparing this with the reparations article which provides a pretty severe indictment of Mississippi (not to mention Chicago, etc.) provides a hell of a contrast.
The theme that I find missing in your series is any recognition that the Southern states have been in a continuing economic war with the Northern manufacturing base for at least since the Civil Rights Act. Undermining and destroying unions has been a signature part of that strategy and it has been very successful. The great cities of the North have been hollowed out just as they were beginning to provide a haven for lower class families, not to mention the overall starvation of the middle class.
When I travel in the south among my all white family and friends who never interact with anyone more ethnic than a Catholic, I am struck by how rigidly that part of the world is regulated into two societies. Not as if this does not occur in cooler climates. In New York, however, there is no room for that.
Maybe I am missing the larger message in your series, and I know that you are averse to polemics, but I feel that glossing over the underlying original sin while applauding local civic restoration based on a depressed workforce and continuing segregation in schools and the workplace is not as helpful as you might like to be.
I try to avoid the "Oh, yeah?!" temptation to send nasty instant feedback to emails, and generally succeed. You never get in trouble for the peeved message you don't send. In this case I wrote right back, testily.
I didn't dwell on one point of detail I thought was completely wrong, the "never interact with anyone more ethnic" part. Having just come back in Mississippi, where I had spent a fair amount of time in the civil-rights-era late 1960s*, I was reminded of how much more cross-racial minute-by-minute exposure people are forced to have in the typical small Southern town than the typical big Northern city. Obviously this does not mean that race relations are more "equal." My point is simply that the big-city phenomenon of seeing mainly people like yourself all day long is harder to pull off in a small mixed-race town.
Instead I wrote back to say: Okay, would you like me to begin every dispatch with a reminder of Mississippi's troubled past? The Klan, the lynchings, Jim Crow? Don't you think people know this? He replied:
No, I don't think people "know" this. I think most people have a very short view of history which basically includes only those things that happened in their immediate observable universe. I also think that there are about 60 million people in the South who know this perfectly well and either deliberately ignore it, blame the victim, don't care because "those people" are not part of their tribe or are deeply invested in perpetuating it and all of whom benefit from it directly and live with that guilt. Not to mention those who still do the work of the Secessionists.
In the contrast between these notes are many of the themes and tensions of our politics now, and many generations in the past, and probably many generations to come.
* * *
As Ta-Nehisi Coates's article has underscored, we're dealing in the 21st century reverberations of divisions set up 300-plus years ago, in patterns of economics, agriculture, civic organization, and of course racially based slave-holding. Yesterday Andrew Sullivan posted a fascinating map reminding us how closely the blue/gray divisions of 150 years ago match the red/blue political divisions of today. Recently I posted a map showing that the parts of America where the highest proportions of African Americans live in the 21st century are the parts where Africans were brought to work as slaves several centuries ago. A reminder, via screenshot, with darker shadings meaning higher black proportions, and the three dots being the Golden Triangle.
As an illustration of another kind of persistence, consider this Esri "swipe map," which shows racial makeup on one side and obesity rates on the other. Click on "Hide Intro" to see more of the map; zoom in to see county-by-county patterns. Darker shading on the right-hand map means higher African-American percentage; on the left-hand map, it means higher obesity rates. You'll see that in some parts of the country there's a strong correlation in the patterns; in others, not. (For instance, parts of Kentucky and West Virginia have relatively low black populations, and relatively high obesity rates.)
There are many books' worth of possible responses to the themes in these notes—as I am reminded by reading The Hamlet and Absalom, Absalom! for the first time since college. For now, two points only. One about journalism, and one about race.
* * *
The journalistic point involves what we are looking for, in Mississippi and the other places we are visiting for this American Futures project. Is it supposed to be a "balanced" or "comprehensive" view of America? No.
Through the years we were living in China, I never once imagined that my wife or I could offer a comprehensive view of what was going on. The country is too big, dynamic, unknowable, and contradictory for any sane person to dare that.
The U.S. is more familiar and knowable, at least for me, than China. But it is no less contradictory and complex. So I don't imagine for a second that I can offer a "balanced" view of this country of any of the places where we have spent a week or two.
But I can tell youthings I didn't know before we got there. And by both design and happenstance, more of those have been positive than negative.
By design, because we have been looking for smaller cities or areas where turnarounds of one sort or another have been underway. Downtowns that have come back; new industries that have started up where older ones had closed; schools that prepared students for jobs, or mobility in the broadest sense; places that have retained or revived a "thick" sense of civic engagement. Finding and reporting on these places doesn't eliminate America's countless other problems. But does anyone not know about those countless other problems? To me, successes at the moment are more interesting, more instructive, more "news."
By happenstance, because every place we've been—including, notably, the town where I grew up—has provided some surprise we'd had no idea of before arrival. Let's be specific about Mississippi. If you already knew that there was a big industrial boom underway in eastern Mississippi; and that a Russian company making steel and a European company making helicopters had decided this was the place to do business; and that there was a school like MSMS in the nation's poorest state, producing students who wrote essays like this—well, you're ahead of me. Neither my wife or I had any idea of this before our first trip a few weeks ago.
* * *
Now, the point about race, which is also the point about the Civil War and everything before and after.
Start with the nationwide comparison: Americans know, or should, that racial unfairness, starting with slavery, is the country's original sin and its ongoing social and political axis. It was at the heart of our bloodiest war. Countless other things are going on in America, many of them not at all connected to race. But many, from the pattern of our cities to the growth of our prison-industrial complex to the nature of our schools, are still obviously related to our long racial history.
We all know that, or should. But if some Chinese or German or Israeli sociologist shows up and says: "Here I am in America, and I observe that they have racial issues ..." Our natural response is: Thanks a lot for that great insight! That had never occurred to any of us. What can you tell us that's useful or new? As outsiders sometimes do, notably in this theme with An American Dilemma.
So too with the American South. For someone like me to show up in Mississippi and begin every dispatch by saying, "Here I am in the South, and I observe that they have a history of racial injustice ..." does not get anyone very far.
What we can try to do is observe the ways the schools, the industries, the churches, the institutions are evolving and operating in this environment, and their effect on the various groups living there. Which will be the point of some upcoming installments.
When not otherwise noted, any photos in our American Futures coverage are by me or my wife Deb Fallows, including the one at the top of this post.
* For the record: I happen to have spent two years of my toddlerhood in Mississippi. During the Korean War my dad was a Navy doctor, and he was posted to what was then the naval hospital in Jackson. As a teenager I worked for several months in 1968 for the Southern Courier civil-rights newspaper. It was based in Montgomery, but I spent much of my time covering voter-registration and food-stamp-rights efforts in Mississippi and Alabama.