On Blaming Black Leadership

This fine piece in In These Times  reminds us how instrumental Federal policies on homeownership and road construction were in killing Detroit, and gives the lie to those who want to blame the city’s bankruptcy on corrupt leadership-specifically, corrupt Black leadership.

Certainly there were, and are, Black leaders whose personal weaknesses interfere with the progress of the entities they seek to lead; but the pattern of blaming Black leaders comes from the same bag of racist tricks as the suggestion that the President isn’t really an American because he has black skin.

Detroit is not struggling because its leaders, or its people, are Black.  Its troubles lie at the door of white legislators who made abandoning cities a winning proposition for white families, and white regulators who contributed to the same flight, and white car company executives who decided they owed nothing back to the city of their birth.

To claim otherwise is simply to blame the victim.



Killer phones

A distracting mobile phone call contributes to killing 79 in a rail crash in Spain.

Ten days ago Spain suffered its worst rail crash  since 1944, in Santiago de Compostella. 79 passengers died.

The crash took place on a new 90 km section of track between Santiago and Ourense. This is built for high-speed operation at 220 km/hr, but currently limited to 200 km/hr by signalling limitations. However, the accident was on a sharpish curve before the station, with a limit of only 80 km/hr. There is a single signal for deceleration.

Just before the accident, the driver took a mobile phone call from the ticket collector, requesting an additional stop before Corunna (and well beyond Santiago) to let off a family of passengers. There was no urgency for the call. [Update from comments:> the handset may well have been a rail=specific 2-way radio, not an ordinary mobile, but it makes no difference to my argument.]

The magistrate investigating legal liability for the accident - there is of course another technical investigation under way - has blamed the driver for going too fast against signals and the route plan. He has not given weight to the phone call; it’s unnecessary to fix the driver’s responsibility, and perhaps he wanted to avoid the impression of blaming the unfortunate but surely innocent ticket collector and the family he was trying to help.

However, common sense suggests the phone call was significant. The driver was experienced and not fatigued - he only took over at Ourense, and knew the track well. The weather was clear. There does not seem to have been any equipment failure (as opposed to design flaws). The phone call is the standout differentiating factor. There’s a mass of evidence that phone calls are distracting to car and truck drivers and responsible for a good many vehicle accidents and deaths.

The USA lags well behind international practice in legislating against the use of mobile phones at the wheel. 66 countries, covering the great majority of the world’s population, have bans. Only seven US states are reported by Wikipedia as having general bans (California, Connecticut, Delaware, DC, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey). Several others have footling partial bans on learner drivers, at night, near schools and so on.

Contrary to intuition and folk wisdom, hands-free phones make little difference. It’s the speech that’s distracting, not the use of one hand.

Just turn it off.

PS on signalling
For high-speed rail buffs only. The track section is designed and equipped for the latest ERMTS in-cab signalling which among many other goodies brakes the train automatically if speed limits are exceeded. That’s the system in use on the true high-speed AVE trainsets on the lines going out from Madrid to Barcelona and Seville. But the line doesn’t run all the way to Galicia, and the section to Ourense is still under construction. The short high-speed track to Ourense is a vanity regionally-driven anticipation, using Iberian gauge. The ALVIA trainsets like the one that crashed are expensive electric/diesel hybrids with dual-gauge bogies (not SFIK implicated). The manufacturers of the trainsets and the signalling between them have not been able to get the complex ERMTS software to work properly. (Source: El Pais.) For now the ALVIAs have to use the older and less capable ASFA system - which does not include automatic braking. It’s rated up to 200 km/hr, but in hindsight this looks a mistake, along with the single trackside signal to announce the drastic speed reduction.

Electric vehicles and more

Severin Borenstein, one of the high-candlepower sources in the energy/environment community, has an excellent post on things that make sense and things that don’t for improving energy behavior in transportation.  Just read it.

I would only cavil at his easy identification of a climate charge (erroneously called a carbon tax) and a cap-and-trade scheme (which is not his main point).  These are not Tweedledum and Tweedledee, no matter how many times economists assume the canopener of “when the market equilibrates we get the same result with either one”.    Just one example of a Really Big Difference: to set a climate charge, the government needs to know how much greenhouse gases (GHG) are being emitted now, and the damage one more ton causes at that level, i.e., the marginal benefit of reduction over a narrow range around current conditions.  This is not chopped liver, but consider that to set the cap for a cap-and-trade scheme the government needs to know this whole marginal benefit function for reducing discharges over a fairly wide range, and also the same function for costs of reduction, to see where they cross.  The latter of these has been historically very difficult to construct, as it comprises mostly predictions of the cost of doing things we have never done.  Remember in the seventies, when engineers and executives at all the car companies came to Washington and swore that the slightest messing with exhaust pollution would make all our cars stop in the middle of the street, cost a fortune, and generally cripple all of American culture.  They probably believed it, but it doesn’t matter: they were wrong by a country mile.  Estimates of the cost of GHG reduction will also be way too high, and one of the great advantages of the carbon charge is that it doesn’t require us to make them.


High Speed Rail

The California Senate voted another tranche of financing yesterday , keeping the state’s high speed rail project alive. There’s a cartoon to be drawn in which the program is a maiden tied up in the middle of a freeway with the highway/automobile industry approaching, or maybe it’s a train being switched off a track leading to a washed-out trestle…
I don’t entirely trust my judgment on this issue, because I love trains, an affection acquired in youth going to high school (and everywhere) in New York on one of the only two (IIRC) 24-hr public transit systems in the world, and deepened riding all sorts of trains, especially in Europe. You can read, eat, write, get up and walk around or to the dining car for a snack, or sleep, and you don’t have to park it when you arrive.  What’s not to like? Keeping a car between two white lines is a very low-grade use of a human, even with a radio or a passenger for conversation. My instinct is to be a fan of California HSR. Unfortunately, it’s not a slam dunk for us.

Continue reading “High Speed Rail”

Thank you, John Boehner and Paul Ryan

Security screeners and Customs agents at airports are “domestic discretionary spending. Think about that the next time you miss your flight because the security line didn’t move.

I got to the airport and hour and ten minutes early for my flight today. It was a mid-afternoon flight, not at one of the peak periods; I had a boarding pass; and I wasn’t checking a bag. So the timing should have been ample.

But I almost missed the flight anyway, because the security-screening line was out the door; only two of four lanes were open.

TSA screeners are “domestic discretionary spending.” So are the Customs folks whose scarcity when I landed in Dallas on a flight from Guatemala caused me to miss my connecting flight to Washington; the line, also at a non-peak period, took more than an hour.

Think about that the next time someone tells you we need to work on the deficit by shrinking the size of the federal government.

Footnote Could we save money and make life easier for passengers by simplifying the screening process, without losing anything on the security side? Probably. But it’s not as if the Teahadis in Congress are actually working on that problem; they’re just slashing everything in sight save defense and rural pork. While we have the rules we have, fewer screeners and fewer Customs folks at airports means more missed flights.

A price worth paying? No, I don’t think so, either.

The Public Be Damned: Using the Amtrak Script to Destroy the Post Office

If the conversation about the end of the U.S. Postal Service sounds familiar, it’s not just because we’ve heard variations of it since 1970, when the old Post Office Department became a separate business.  It’s also because the destruction of mail delivery closely parallels the wrecking of American  passenger rail.  Apparently the Congress has it in for quasi-public institutions with work forces composed disproportionately of African-Americans.

Passenger rail has always been a losing proposition; the money is in freight.  But until the late 20th Century, as the price of using public assets—tracks, switches, signals and the rest—freight railroad companies were required to carry passengers at a loss.  Then somehow this social compact broke down.  Both railroads and their regulators started talking as if railroading were an ordinary commercial enterprise instead of a public utility.  Ordinary for-profits aren’t expected to maintain business lines at a loss.  Indeed, to the extent they do so, they’re considered incompetent.  So the people making money from national railroad facilities were able to persuade Congress that they shouldn’t have to bother maintaining passenger service.  In other words, the railroads figured out how to shift their burden—what had been a simple cost of doing business—to the public.  Voila: Amtrak.

Independent passenger rail was bound to be a financial failure, and it was.  So year after year after year Congress has complained about Amtrak’s losses and tried to reduce them by shrinking the system until by now it’s small enough to drown in the proverbial bathtub.  Little-noticed along the way is the fact that many of the jobs being lost belong to black people.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was the first black-led union recognized by the AFL, and probably the most powerful union dominated by African-Americans in the United States.   Much of the foundation of the black middle class was laid on the decent wages and benefits and pensions fought for and won by that union.  So whatever hurts Amtrak—and these days, pretty much everything does—also hurts the African-American community.

Now connect the dots to the Postal Service.  Mail, like rail, is a public utility.   (If you doubt that, take a look at the Constitution, where the Post Office rates a specific mention.)  A group of companies—the mailing houses and catalog producers—get to use this public utility to make a private profit, and they’re doing very well by that arrangement.

Once again, though, the price they were supposed to be paying for this benefit was to subsidize service to individuals.  So once again, someone re-conceived this public utility as an independent corporation subject only to the iron law of profit and loss.  Now the profitable commercial service can  continue on its merry way while the money-losing public service is forced to resort to the kind of cuts which predict—if they don’t actually cause—an imminent visit to the scrapheap (or bathtub).

And once again, an outsized group of the fired employees are African-Americans, because the Post Office was an equal opportunity employer before the phrase had even been coined.  So right in the middle of the Great Recession another pillar of the black middle class is knocked down.

There is an alternative to the current flood of crocodile tears over the death of written communication.  We could return to the social compact that regarded mail service—and rail service, for that matter—as something to be paid for by the people who benefit from it most.  That doesn’t mean those of us who receive an occasional Saturday letter, or sometimes take the Metroliner—it means the freight shippers.  In the case of the Post Office, at least, the public has been subsidizing them instead of the other way around.  End that particular piece of corporate welfare and see how many post offices can suddenly re-open.

Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that these two agencies, staffed by black workers, have been asked to do the impossible and then punished for failing to manage it.  But coincidences of this kind—which permit imposition of exceptional harm on one group provided the primary purpose of the harm is making money—are precisely what is meant by the term “institutional racism.”

It isn’t too late to remember that rail and mail are public utilities and to govern them accordingly.  Otherwise, we’re just echoing the words of an earlier Gilded Age, spoken by a railway man as he was cancelling a mail train: “The public be damned!”

Dreaming of the State

This past Sunday, I flew home to Los Angeles from Thanksgiving with my relatives in Montreal (actually, it was a bat mitzvah since Canadian Thanksgiving occurred six weeks ago but you get the idea).  The Sunday after Thanksgiving is the busiest flying day of the year, with millions of passengers criss-crossing the country.  And I had to connect through O’Hare, the second busiest airport in the world.  I was dreading the experience, and half-expected to be stranded in Chicago on Sunday night.

And nothing happened.  The flight into Chicago was fine; the flight out of Chicago was fine.

And as far as I can tell, the same thing happened in thousands of flights all over the nation.  Flights were generally on-time arriving and departing, despite rainy and cloudy weather conditions.

Now, I don’t know how this occurred.  Airports run by state and local governments and regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration all coordinated tens of thousands, if not millions of different activities, events, and flights throughout the United States.

But…but…we all know that this just isn’t possible, because the government is invariably inefficient, incompetent, corrupt, slow, bureaucratic, and completely incapable of nimbly managing these millions of transactions and activities, unlike the private sector.  (That’s why it’s so great that the Republicans want to cut the FAA’s budget).  There is simply no way that any of this could have happened.  I really have no idea how I got home from Montreal.

So at this point I’m figuring that I must have dreamed up the whole thing.

Time to clip wings

A commercial airline pilot mostly follows instructions from ground-based controllers, as can be confirmed by listening to United Airlines’ channel 9.  But the job properly requires some distinctive qualities, including

  • good judgment
  • responsibility to the welfare of the passengers
  • responsiveness to evidence and facts, rather than superstition and hunches
  • understanding the rules of a common carrier, and the basics of public service.

This jerk appears to lack all of the above, in addition to being personally an ignorant bigot and possibly cowardly.  If Delta doesn’t put him on the street, I will go far out of my way if necessary to avoid using their service, and others should do the same. I don’t feature being delayed because a pilot suddenly has the idea to behave like an infant, nor fall out of the skies because he or she is crazy or detached from reality.

Chris Christie: A Moron AND A Hypocrite!

The New York Times reports this morning:

The Christie administration, lenders and a new developer have reached a deal to revive the vast Xanadu entertainment and retail complex, which sits forlorn and unfinished along a stretch of New Jersey highway after having burned through two owners and $1.9 billion, people involved in the negotiations said Thursday.

 The plan: make it even bigger, give it a new name and slap a new skin on the much reviled exterior walls of the 2.4-million-square-foot complex.

The new developer, the Triple Five group, will invest more than $1 billion in the seven-year-old project. And Gov. Chris Christie has agreed to provide low-interest financing and to forgo most sales tax revenue for a period of time…

Hmmm…Chris Christie.  Where have I heard that name?  Oh yes, the guy who is supposedly the fiscally conservative Republican governor of New Jersey, the one who rejected billions of dollars in federal and external money for high-speed rail a few months ago:

If the tunnel—called the “Access to the Region’s Core,” or ARC project—doesn’t get built, New Jersey is almost certain to lose the federal money that had been committed to the project. The state will also have to pay back around $300 million that’s already been spent. Meanwhile, commuters and Amtrak riders will continue to suffer through long delays every morning as trains wait for their turn to pass through a century-old train tunnel under the Hudson. Property values near commuter rail won’t increase, as they did after the first commuter connection to midtown Manhattan opened in 1996. The people who were working on the project will, of course, lose their jobs. And the strain on the existing tunnel will continue to increase, until New Jersey is eventually forced to build a new tunnel, with or without the federal money and super-low interest rates that make the ARC project so attractive today.

You see?  If it’s a public good, then according to Christie it’s not “financially viable.”  But if it’s a particular boondoggle, then of course you can spend New Jersey taxpayer money to subsidize it.  That’s not just hypocritical: it’s economically insane.  It has the government picking winners and losers, while failing to provide the infrastructure to help the private sector generally.

You’d almost think that these guys don’t care about anything as long as they can oppose the President.

The road from serfdom

Ilya Repin´s painting of Volga boatmen is not one of serfs.

Brad deLong illustrates his contribution to a discussion on Hayek´s The Road to Serfdom with this picture by the 19th-century Russian/Ukrainian artist Ilya Repin. [Russian added from comments]

High-resolution image from Wikimedia here.
I can´t get very interested in Hayek´s obsolete polemic, but Repin´s painting is a masterpiece and worth thinking about.

First of all, Brad is wrong to think it´s a picture of serfs. The painting dates from 1873; serfdom was abolished in 1861, and there´s no indication that this is a laudatory piece about the the bad old days. The subjects are burlaks; free but very poor migrant workers. In 1870, many were no doubt former serfs.

The formal merits of the piece are obviously very great, but I´m unqualified to comment. The wedge-shaped composition in the letter-box canvas points off to the right, creating an impression of the vastness of the Volga and the Russian plain it flows through, and the interminable nature of the labourers´ task. The beauty of the summer light and pale blue sky contrast with the misery of the humans.

What I can respond to is the psychological and social commentary. Repin was an acute observer, for my money the finest psychological painter since Rembrandt. You may find his messaging overbearing, but it´s far from trite - see this other famous picture about the disruptive return of a Siberian exile to a household that has reorganized itself without him.

The Volga painting says several different things to me.

1. The burlaks are brutalized and degraded by their narrow and poverty-stricken lives. (In England, barges were hauled along canals by horses, not men.) It´s not that the road to serfdom is easy, it´s that the road from serfdom to citizenship is long and hard. Compare the parallel legacy of American slavery. Russian intellectuals tended to romanticise the peasantry; Repin is asking them to face the sordid reality. Distributing the land to Russian peasants will not instantly turn them into Athenian or Yankee citizen-farmers. Though once they had the land, they had the commonsense not to vote for Lenin, the one time they had a chance in 1917.

2. The burlaks are strongly characterised, distinct individuals, struggling to retain their dignity as human beings. They are very far from a formless, plastic mass - in fact they are so individualistic that they seem to have a hard time of pulling together in an effective way. Not surprising that revolutionaries like the Peoples´ Will signally failed to organise them politically.
Repin may well be distorting reality a bit to make this point. See this actual photograph from the 1900s, showing well-coordinated and purposeful labour. But then again, people pose for photographs.

3. The painting is sometimes given the English title of ¨convict boatmen on the Volga¨, but this seems a mistake. Chains and guards are not in evidence - though the burlaks are as badly off materially as convicts. The coercion here is that of poverty, not state repression. Repin is making a straightforward plea for economic progress and justice.

PS: Vaguely relevant older musings from me on the Tsarist katorga here.