Barring signal troubles, links to any posts of substance ought to work.


That's too bad, as Venezuela's latest attempt to deal with the food desert their country has become (thanks to the miracles of socialism) is to encourage citizens to breed rabbits.

The problem, dear reader, is that the citizens are struggling with a choice Michael Moore made a movie about.  Pets, or meat?

You can enter your rabbits at the county fair.

Kane County Fair, 2006.

You can warn spectators that your bunnies are always looking for a handout.

DeKalb County Fair, 2017.

You can provide information about what those bunny ears mean.

Sheboygan County Fair, 2017.

You can dress 'em up and have a fashion show.

Walworth County Fair, 2013.

You can let city kids pretend that they, too, are bunny farmers.

Walworth County Fair, 2015.

And sometimes you can treat your rabbits like a cash crop.

Boone County Fair, 2011.

I recall attending the Kendall County Fair a few years ago and observing packets of rabbit jerky on sale in the rabbit building.  Probably a good thing bunnies can't read.


Clemson's Bruce Yandle, famous in political economy for his "bootleggers and Baptists" description of the administrative state (put briefly, Baptists are shocked to find there is bootlegging going on, demand Government Do Something, and incumbent bootleggers benefit because Government Bans Competition) has now come up with another good metaphor.  The regulatory kudzu is strangling initiative in the private economy.

Kudzu is a government-introduced invasive species, brought in precisely because its aggressive growth makes it a better cover crop than a quick-growing catalpa tree.
Kudzu vines grow so rapidly, as much as 60 feet in a growing season or two feet a day, that soon those eroded fields that had been unfit for the plow became vine-covered fields that could not be plowed.

The vines recognized no fence lines. Along with farmers' fields, everything was fair game, including telephone poles, abandoned homes and barns, and even unpaved roads and byways. Eventually, in 1997, after 40 years of kudzu conquest, Congress placed the vine on the federal noxious weed list. It is now being poisoned. In spite of the effort to take back the soil, kudzu still prevails in many areas.
The stuff is so prolific that, worst case scenario, a bad bout of continental warming will be followed by the winter wheat crops of the Dakotas and the prairie provinces being crowded out.  I think I've had to yank out a plant or two in my back yard, fortunately there are no power poles for the stuff to crawl up in this neighborhood.

But perhaps Our President, while he's keeping the barking moonbats occupied looking at his social media accounts, is uprooting the kudzu in the swamp.
Trump's new rule stating that two old regulations must be removed for any new one places a heavy burden on regulators, and it has the potential to lighten the regulatory load we all carry. In recent years, the number of Federal Register pages that announce new and modified rules has grown by more than 200 pages per day, 365 days a year.

It's high time we cut back some kudzu. But there's more to the Trump executive order. When the cost of planting the new rule is weighed against the cost relief of pulling two different rules, the net difference must be no more than zero. In other words, the implied "regulatory budget" is zero. Of course the entire two-for-one process will be subject to the Administrative Procedures Act, which means that due process and opportunities for citizens to respond will be preserved.
Sometimes freedom emerges from darkness.  "This will have a tremendous positive impact on business and job creation. The media has failed to notice this but that’s not a surprise, is it?"

Let the record show that a Congress, and the executive departments given broad powers by various legislation, can sometimes add by subtracting.  "Congressional lawmakers have gone all in on President Trump's bid to slash Obama-era regulations, targeting $19 billion in rules and the elimination of enough red tape to free up 5,200 federal workers, according to a new analysis."

In the past year, that work has rolled back about a year of stagnation-inducing Hope and Change.

Let the record show, however, that there are some business interests who would rather behave like cartelized bootleggers.  Or cartelized greenies.
Mr. Trump’s exit [from the Paris climate accords] suggests that we might be observing the start of a new chapter in America’s environmental saga—a disturbance in how the Bootlegger-Baptist framework normally functions to support costly environmental regulations. But do not bet against the environmental coalition in the longer term. It is, after all, strong, well organized, and loaded with deep-pocket bootleggers. And remember, the market is the ultimate environmental regulator, and market forces seem to be calling for a cleaner world.
Yes, and market forces less constrained by incumbent-favoring regulations and subsidies might be more effective at producing a cleaner world, not to mention a world where the kudzu won't take over the winter wheat fields.


That's part of the creative destruction by which the steel minimills displaced the geographically disfavored integrated steel mills.

But some of those integrated mills reduced their locational disadvantages the same way, a century or more ago.

Here's the long version of that story.

There's a shorter version, courtesy the Association for Iron and Steel Technology.


The salaries of some government officials ... it's the Highway Department I'm looking at today ... depend on them ignoring reality.  The latest foolishness, raising the registration fee on electric and hybrid cars and trucks to collect in one lump sum what they're not collecting at the pump.  Kea Wilson for Strong Towns goes after Missouri, but the same foolishness is infecting Wisconsin lawmakers.  I can't make this stuff up.  "If what we want are safe roads that we can afford to repair, why on earth would we incentivize drivers to buy gas guzzling vehicles—which skew towards the heaviest vehicles most capable of causing extensive road damage—rather than light, fuel efficient vehicles that might help keep that pavement intact for longer?"

The reality:  registration fees and excise taxes don't even come close to covering the full cost of roads, and a reality-based accounting might lead to the highway commissioners choosing to close some roads, or let them revert to cattle paths.  Missouri might be a good place to start.  "Missouri has the 7th largest number of highway miles in the nation and the 46th lowest revenue per mile for maintenance, mostly because our largest source of funding depends on a bottom-of-the-barrel gas tax of just 17 cents per gallon."

But sticking it to the metrofexuals might appeal on some gut level.
It’s a radical thing, to re-imagine the world you live in, especially if that world is made of highly permanent concrete highway ramps that you can sail onto without ever paying a toll, just like you’ve done your entire life. It might be even more difficult to reimagine this world for a member of the working poor who has no choice, it seems, but to drive alone every day in their busted SUV that was the only car they could get, just to get themselves between their three jobs that barely allow them to make make ends meet. From that perspective, of course you’d want the snob with the fancy limited edition Tesla to pay more at the DMV. Low income drivers need those roads to survive. And if they have to pony up even a penny more, they won’t be able to make rent.

But pause for a minute, and look beyond that knee-jerk fear, and you’ll find that the solutions our DOTs are offering us might make life even worse for that poor driver, and for all of us. The hefty registration fee on the Nissan Leaf might patch a budget pothole for a day, but it won’t address the yawning chasm as the rest of our overbuilt road network continues to crumble—and meanwhile, we just incentivized more heavy, gas-guzzling cars to get on the road and accelerate the problem even faster.
That "need the road to survive" is also the argumentum ad misericordiam that precludes tolling.  Never mind that tolling permits the analogue to farebox recovery plus it's flexible enough to give people incentives to change the timing of their trips.
We could keep the gas taxes in our cities, where the land tax per acre actually pays for most of the limited asphalt we lay down. But when we look to fund a highway, why not consider road tolls over taxes, especially on premium fast lanes, which would establish a common-sense feedback loop that would encourage people to drive less and make sure the long-road truckers who damage our roads most are paying more of the bill? And in the city, why not look into a tax on vehicles miles travelled rather than on gasoline?

In both instances, long-travelling poor drivers would have to pay more, but it wouldn’t be any more brutal on them than our current system, which does nothing to disincentivize the constant road construction and extended development patterns that put that poor drivers’ three jobs miles and miles apart from one another in the first place. And while we’re at it, we could take small, incremental steps to make our development pattern more dense and human-scaled, so we wouldn’t have to pour so much money and debt into propping up a road system that simply doesn’t, and will never, create enough wealth to sustain itself, and makes a lot of us pretty miserable in the process.
Tolling might also induce substitutions, starting, for instance, with ride-share drivers soliciting commuters. Yes, you might have to break up the bus cartels along the way.

Or perhaps transit authorities might be willing to add services and extend routes, as the substitutions have the potential to make full farebox recovery of costs a thing.


The Big Remedial Apple.  Nothing but Distressed Material at the once-highly-regarded City University of New York.  And the Distressed Material pays a remediation tax.
have to waste their first semester, or even their first full year or longer, learning the skills and knowledge they didn’t get from the city Department of Education, even though it graduated them.

Time spent on remediation also eats up students’ limited resources — the grants, scholarships, loans or personal savings they’d counted on for higher education.

Too many quit before they’re caught up — and others never finish college after starting so far behind.
I had the policy response to habitually irresponsible high school districts years ago, and I have yet to be argued out of it.

Being mugged by reality might be a thing, even in New York City, where the risk of a real mugging is real.
Last year, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz said the city Department of Education should absorb the costs of these kids’ remediation: Why let it get away with sticking the students with the cost of its failures?

And the full “remediation tax” is higher still: This report doesn’t count the cost to kids who try to make it in the workplace without basic skills.

By the city’s own reckoning, only 35 percent of its high-school graduates last year were college- and career-ready.
First, identify the districts that are failing to prepare their graduates.

I'm still waiting for that first university to follow up with a bill.

But I can wait.  Business as usual isn't working.



I've suggested that advocates of Regional Rail consider an expansion of the Chicago-area corridor services as far afield as Fargo to the north, Cleveland to the east, and Memphis to the south.

Today, a meditation on the ways you used to be able to go to Fargo.  It starts at Fergus Falls, which a rail enthusiast at a threshing bee suggested I explore.

A secondary main line of Northern Pacific once connected Wadena, Minn. to Jamestown, N. Dak and onward to Leeds by way of Fergus Falls.  The passenger trains quit coming a long time ago, and there's little use for station agents to round up grain hoppers and cattle cars these days.

The solid brick station remains, though, as a pub.

The Burlington Northern, er BNSF, branch line is still in service.

Great Northern got rid of its secondary main line by way of St. Cloud, Sauk Center, and Fergus Falls after the merger.  The trackage between Fergus Falls and the Red River now belongs to the Otter Tail Valley Railroad, a Genessee and Wyoming property.  The Great Northern station is now Otter Tail general offices.

The sign advises, "No trespassing.  Please do not walk on the platform."  You'll note I honored the request.  The platform looks ready for the Winnipeg Limited to roll in and unload mail and express later that night.

Speaking of the Winnipeg Limited, this line was used by passenger trains almost until the coming of Amtrak.  Great Northern's version of the Empire Builder used the main line through Willmar and the Surrey Cutoff between Fargo and Minot.  The Western Star sometimes used that routing, although sometimes it would use the Sauk Center - Fergus Falls routing in one direction. But the Star was paired with another train, the Dakotan, that would use the other routing.  And the Star had a connecting train between Great Falls and Havre in Montana.  Furthermore, the Star connected with Burlington's overnight Black Hawk (and The Milwaukee Road's Pioneer Limited) for Wisconsin points and Chicago.  And the Dakotan ran as far as Minot by way of Grand Forks, Devils Lake, and Williston (as in the North Dakota oil patch.)

Thus, a passenger could start in Chicago and get to any Minnesota or North Dakota destination with a change of trains in St. Paul or perhaps Fargo; and, if one had enough endurance, ride to Great Falls.  Or change to a Northern Pacific day train between Fargo and Winnipeg; this also lasted almost to the merger.

The Winnipeg Limited was an overnight train that also handled blocks of tour sleeping cars (this experience is still possible today, with cars moving on Amtrak or Canadian trains) for and from the Canadian Rockies.  Its schedule permitted connections to the Morning Zephyr or from the Afternoon Zephyr at St. Paul; again, until 1970, riders could choose the Morning Hiawatha or Afternoon Hiawatha, although no self-respecting Great Northern man would sell that ticket to Chicago or LaCrosse.  Milwaukee or Watertown, maybe.

And most of these trains made connections at St. Paul with Rock Island trains for Kansas City or St. Louis.  All gone a few years before Amtrak, but a passenger could go from the Dakotas to the Southwest without going through Chicago.  Headed for California?  That Great Northern man will send you to Portland.

Today's convoluted Empire Builder routing attempts to protect a great deal of this service, not so well in my view.  No, you can't get to Winnipeg any more, and Burlington wants to keep the passenger trains off the Surrey Cutoff to expedite the containers, grain, and oil.

The platform is painted to keep passengers away from the coaches, because for a while the Otter Tail Valley ran excursion trains.  That doesn't happen any more, but they at least have a proper buggy on hand.

I was informed a former Great Northern station was in use as a residence not far from the tracks.

Find the Our Lady of Victory school and look for a building that looks like a repurposed railway station.

Fergus Falls is county seat, and a Federal District Court sits here.  The city hall has a real New England look to it.

The general offices of the Otter Tail Power Company are also in town, not far from a hydroelectric dam that might still be spinning a turbine or two.

As long as we're on this nostalgia trip, forty years ago I was rummaging through issues of the National Electric Rate Book to figure out the provisions of automatic fuel price adjustment clauses in utility tariffs.  And after wading through lots of entries with mundane corporate titles such as Central Illinois Light and Wisconsin Public Service, to encounter a Metropolitan Edison (let's have some Orthodox plain-chant at 440 Hz, please) or an Otter Tail Power Company spices up the day.  Yes, it exists, and yes, it did post a fuel adjustment, which we had to tweak for its use of hydroelectric power.

To the east, the impetus for the trip, a visit to the Lake Region Pioneer Threshermen's Association show grounds, where they are running a narrow-gauge French tank engine repatriated after the war.

Too bad nobody preservation-minded glommed onto a streamlined German Pacific that I understand was brought across by the Transportation Corps for evaluation.

The train is calling at a former Great Northern depot moved to the show grounds from Dalton.  Note that Laker is a Soo Line name, but the Soo Line also got in on the Winnipeg trade, handling through cars off owner Canadian Pacific eastbound and Chicago and North Western westbound.

The threshermen didn't have to move the building too far, as the old line, which is now the Lake Region Trail, crossed the driveway to the show grounds.

I'll throw in one action shot from the threshing bee.  First time I've seen a sawmill powered by two traction engines.  The one closer to the camera made a lot more noise, perhaps it was picking up most of the load.

I have to remark on those northern skies.  In the summer, is it the angle of the sun, or the absence of pollutants, that makes them such a clear blue?

Next, a visit to a station that lost its passenger trains on Amtrak day and recently regained them.

That's the concourse of the Saint Paul Union Depot.  I took a few other pictures, but much of the interior is really dark.  The stairs lead to track level, but intercity buses call at those platforms.  Passenger service uses platforms just off the end of the concourse.  Double stack trains require more overhead clearance, you know.

I spoke with a gentleman at the state capitol who mentioned Minnesota's interest in a second train for and from Chicago.  Contemplate this station, which once hosted the world's fastest and most comprehensive corridor service (to Chicago) as well as transcontinental trains of four railroads and regional service to Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis, and the Twin Ports, and reflect on how much work there is to be done.

But at least there is train service here, and the morning I was there, the eastbound Builder got away on time.

The Chicago Great Western's station at Red Wing has been without trains for a long time.  But substantial brick buildings have all sorts of promise for adaptive reuse.

Saw that, had to stop and get a late breakfast!

The Milwaukee Road had secured the riverfront at Red Wing first, thus Chicago Great Western had to engage in a lot of mountain railroading to get into Red Wing by way of a branch, continuing on to Rochester by way of Zumbrota.


Salena Zito remembers the day LTV Steel blew out the furnaces in Youngstown.
It was just before 7 a.m., and the fog that had settled over the river was beginning to lift. As the sun began to streak through the mist, the men made their way into the labyrinth of buildings where they worked.

In the next hour, their lives would change forever.

From then on, this date in 1977 would be known as Black Monday in the Steel Valley, which stretches from Mahoning and Trumbull counties in Ohio eastward toward Pittsburgh. It is the date when Youngstown Sheet and Tube abruptly furloughed 5,000 workers in one day.
It would be scant consolation to these men that the closures of steel mills all up and down the Mahoning and Monongahela valleys was creative destruction at work, a shakeout of suboptimally small plants at less advantageous locations.

Campbell Works plant gate with open-hearth shop behind.

The younger people of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan might have seen the closings and thought about seeking their fortunes elsewhere.  The people who had made their life plans with the expectation that the mills would always be there, not so much, and at first, policy makers weren't too worried.
News reports from the days and weeks following Black Monday showed that the White House, larger business community and economic experts were detached from the potency of what was happening here. They thought the overall economic impact was exaggerated, that it would not be the calamity [H. K. Porter rolling mill hand Gary] Steinbeck and everyone else in Youngstown knew it would be.

“No one never calculated the cultural tragedy as part of the equation either,” Steinbeck said. “They didn’t just dismantle the old mills, they dismantled the societal fabric of what made Youngstown Youngstown.”
The troubles of 1977 might have been foreseen as long ago as the end of the war,  and yet when they hit, they hit hard.
The events of Black Monday forever changed not only the Steel Valley, but her people and eventually American culture and politics. Just last year the reverberations were felt in the presidential election when many hard-core Democrats from this area broke from their party to vote for Donald Trump, a Republican who promised to bring jobs back to the Heartland.

Even today, after the election, the Washington establishment still hasn’t processed or properly dissected its effects. Economic experts predicted that the service industry would be the employment of the future. Steelworkers were retrained to fill jobs in that sector, which was expected to sustain the middle class in the same way that manufacturing did.

It did not. According to a study done by the Midwest Center for Research, the average salary of a steelworker in the late 1970s was $24,772.80. Today, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the median household income in the Mahoning Valley is $24,133.

There was also a push for Americans to be more mobile. Lose your job in Youngstown? Fine, move to Raleigh or Texas. No one calculated that the tight-knit people of Youngstown didn’t want to leave their town.
It wasn't just Donald Trump: the Reagan administration did a few things to protect domestic steel producers (and domestic steel consumers, particularly the legacy automobile companies.)  But Japanese cars and Korean, later Chinese, steel, wasn't the main threat to the legacy steel companies.

There are still good jobs in steel, but the minimills are located closer to markets: to the extent that the minimills are producing long products, they're more likely to be along navigable rivers (thus look to Arkansas and Louisiana for your H-sections.)  The legacy steel companies failed to take the challenge from the minimills seriously.  As I noted a year ago, "steel consumers gained, but some communities and many steel workers, lost."


At Outside the Beltway, Steven Taylor suggests that drawing inferences about the breakdown of intellectual integrity in higher education because a few of the usual suspects (Oberlin, Reed, Missouri, Virginia) are enabling the usual derangements is a "small N inference."

Perhaps so, or perhaps these are the most visible carbuncles.  Consider what's going on at Boise State, which serves as a prototype for football excellence without academic money or student achievement.  A political scientist suggests that arguments against constraints on gender crossing follow logically from arguments against constraints on sex roles, and that (of course!) rubs the director of diversity, Francisco Salinas, the wrong way.
Salinas’s explanation concludes with another leap: “Not every person who agrees with [political scientist Scott] Yenor’s piece is likely to become an espoused Neo-Nazi, but likely every Neo-Nazi would agree with the substance of Yenor’s piece.” Note the pure demagoguery in the word “espoused.” The director of student diversity and inclusion insinuates that a Boise State professor and those who are persuaded by his descriptive account of the professed aims and principles of the feminist and transgender movements are Nazis, either closeted or avowed. The missing premise of Salinas’s statement, of course, is that social conservatives like Yenor share with Nazis a disregard for human dignity. That slanderous premise turns the truth on its head.

Salinas’s non sequitur provides the perfect illustration of a troubling trend: the effort by some students, administrators, and faculty to shut dissenting voices up through intimidation and name-calling.
It's so much easier to claim offense than it is to suggest, here are the ways in which the thesis is badly supported.  But that's work.  Easier to deflect, to question motives, to use the vocabulary introduced by Sinclair Lewis and Herbert Croly.
Refutation requires engagement with ideas, and a striving to understand the truth. From it arise norms of civility, good faith among interlocutors, and a willingness to consider the merits of different arguments. It is easier to denounce without disputation, to assume someone is wrong without bothering to discover whether they are wrong or demonstrating how they are wrong.

The intellectual winds blowing in Idaho are ominous.
Thus, dear reader, small sample or not, Rod Dreher is correct to ask, "What the hell is wrong with Boise State University? What is wrong with American universities?"



My recent excursion through the 94th latitude of Minnesota took me through Sauk Center, hometown of Sinclair Lewis.  Despite his role in giving generations of pajama boys a vocabulary to sneer at the yeomanry, his old town recognizes his work.

Yes, that's a reference to the famous Main Street.  (Read the plot summary and imagine Hillary Rodham in Arkansas, circa 1975.)

But what Mr Lewis and other now-celebrated writers of that era emphasized set the tone for the political divisions we see today.  Here's Michael Barone.
The immediate effect of [World War I] was characterized by enormous disorder and disillusion ... This disillusion, as Jon Lauck has written in From Warm Center to Ragged Edge and Fred Siegel in The Revolt Against the Masses, resulted in a revulsion among intellectuals and writers against middle-class America and against the progressivism they had only recently believed in, notable especially in the journalism of ... H. L. Mencken and in popular postwar fiction.  Sinclair Lewis made sport of the midwestern small town in Main Street and Babbitt, while F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway almost totally ignored the midwestern places where they grew up as rich kids ... .
We could toss Sherwood Anderson into the mix, and perhaps a few other novelists and poets of the era, without losing the generality of Mr Barone's continuation.
This revolt showed a contempt for many of the advances of Midwest civilization set in motion by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Yankee reformist impulse ... In effect the intellectuals were spurning the midwestern culture promoting education, advancing equal rights for blacks and women, and encouraging family stability, hard work, delayed gratification, and civic involvement.  There was also a mostly forgotten encouragement of high culture.
Yes, some of that passage sounds contradictory, and parts dated; read Mr Barone's essay in full to see his logic, or where he might go astray.

It is on that spurning of the midwestern culture that I wish to concentrate.  If the disillusioned writers of the Lost Generation provided a vocabulary for the posturing and preening to sneer at the yeomanry, that posturing and preening might have given the yeomanry reason to mock their presumptive betters.  And there might be an entire year of this Lost Generation virtue-signalling in high school literature class: what better way to antagonize the future farmers and mechanics and shopkeepers?

Thus, that the yeomanry might, as Joan C. Williams notes, have animus against "professionals" without being per se against becoming wealthy reflects simply this antagonism.  "Professionals" refers to the teachers pushing that Lost Generation stuff, as well as the people who went off to the fancy colleges and came back all full of themselves and putting on airs.  Becoming wealthy is what a responsible farmer or mechanic or shopkeeper does.

And there are plenty of ways for people who are full of themselves to put on airs.  Let Benjamin Schwarz list a few:
This consumption comes in two forms. One is tangible (the right greens purchased at the right market, the right street food purchased from the right food truck, the right handbag purchased at the right boutique, the right house purchased in the right neighborhood). The intangible form includes the right indie music, day school, college, and grad program. Either way, consumption becomes the dominant means of self-definition. So it’s not as surprising as it first appears that studies scholarly and satirical—such as Sharon Zukin’s Point of Purchase, Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class, David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise, Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like, Lisa Birnbach’s True Prep, and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart — have largely defined this educated elite by probing what it buys and what those purchases signify.

In The Sum of Small Things, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California, has refined this exercise by synthesizing up-to-date information on elite spending in a handful of cities—including New York, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—which she defines as “the geographical lens through which we can observe the consumption habits of the new elites.” Subjecting those spending preferences to fine-grained analysis, she has, partially unintentionally, presented a dark picture of this elite (which she calls the “aspirational class”).
Why "dark?"
That cup of Intelligentsia coffee may “only” cost five dollars, but learning about it in the first place depends on prizing the judgment of certain cultural tastemakers (again, say, the New York Times and those right-thinking podcasts), and on possessing a worldview that attaches a particular value and virtue to a particular container of hot liquid. Acquiring that cultural capital is, itself, a rarefied and usually expensive endeavor, because it involves a lengthy and complex process of what the sociologists call cultural and social formation: The peculiar cachet that the educated class attaches to that cup of coffee is far more likely to elude the daughter of an insurance adjuster brought up in Lansing, Kansas (a middle-class suburb of Kansas City), who attended the local high school and Kansas State, than it is the daughter of a screenwriter raised in uber-achieving north-of-Montana-Avenue Santa Monica, who attended the Harvard-Westlake School and Yale. Thus, buying that cup of coffee—or that organic cotton t-shirt, or that subscription to Harper’s — signifies a class identity that the purchase, in turn, reinforces.

Currid-Halkett’s analysis of the means of forming that identity reveals its superficiality. For example, as The Sum of Small Things establishes, many of the elite’s purchases are made in the name of protecting the environment. But the notion that self-denial—rather than buying things to gratify oneself—might better serve that end seems absent from the elite worldview.
Put another way: when a Thorstein Veblen or a Ken Galbraith writes about conspicuous consumption, all must understand that it's the Babbitts (or, to use a Mencken term, the "booboisie") being mocked.

And Sauk Center honors another local boy who made his reputation mocking, perhaps more gently, his former neighbors.

That's the Cold Spring Shops staff car at the trail crossing.  The buildings to the left background are for the county fair, which is not fenced.  The yeomanry show off their animals there.

The trail itself uses a former Great Northern Railway line that carried passenger trains almost to the coming of Amtrak.  (The ferroequinology post is still in preparation.)

But in Mr Keillor's mockery is the mind-set of his audience.  What point is there to living in Edina, or Eden Prairie, or Santa Monica, if the women aren't all strong, the men aren't all good looking, and the children aren't all above average?  That's why we have Milwaukee or Muncie or Sioux Falls.

And therein lies the continuing quest for the Confederacy of the Frustrated.  Smug begets anger, and anger perhaps begets Donald Trump, and the cosmopolitans become ever more alienated from the provincials, and perhaps, as Mark Bauerlein argues, it's one more re-litigation of the 1960s.
Liberalism has waged combat in this way ever since the Culture Wars erupted in the 1960s. Liberals and leftists forever altered sex roles, marriage, and childrearing, changed the meaning of patriotism, and expelled religion from the public square. When traditionalists stood up and shouted “Stop!” liberals accused them of benighted or cynical gamesmanship, of ginning up another Culture War. Their own radical actions they regarded as the steady march of history, the natural advance of freedom.

The strategy is simple. Broken marriages, unwed mothers, abortion, sex change operations, all of that is normal. It’s the religious believers, the Trump voters, who are the attackers, when they identify social pathologies, and even when they simply want to be left alone.

This is classic passive-aggression. Starting a battle does not fit the liberal self-image of tolerance, and so each skirmish had to be the other side’s fault.

But the game has run its course. Too many people have felt the sting of liberal censure, and they don’t believe they deserved it. They know whom the aggressors really are, and right now their favorite recourse is to vote for Donald Trump.
I suspect the condescension and the censure of the yeomanry began well before the 1960s: only the intensity of the censure changed.  Babbitt becomes Neanderthal becomes bitter clingers becomes basket of deplorables, and bourgeois becomes a general purpose insult: but the our-aspirations-are-better is still the same.

And so the insurgency goes on.  I've been to a number of threshing events, and it's rare to see a participant in the parade of vintage vehicles making an explicitly political statement.  Here is one, though, from the Lake Region Pioneer Threshermens' Association gathering in Dalton, Minnesota.

The show is a long way from Fargo or Sioux Falls, and yet it might be worth the trip.  Among other things, they re-enact a proper thresherman's dinner (the noon meal, for you clueless coasties) of hot dish and jello salad with store coffe, and there's a steam train calling at an honest to Yim Hill Great Northern depot.

Then there's a straw poll I saw at the Sheboygan County Fair.

That's a Republican fund-raiser.  The Democrats also had a booth, but their fund-raising was a cookie jar labelled "Donations" ("contributions" being too fraught a term, and "favors" being too Illinois a term) and their message was a rewrite of a famous Barry Goldwater passage (as if anyone under sixty even remembers the original) that, translated into insurgent-speak reads "Extremism in defense of public assistance is no vice; moderation in pursuit of other people's money is no virtue."

But that was at least within the bounds of normal political discourse.  Here's what the state Democrats had at the Wisconsin State Fair.

"Decency" is too bourgeois a thing.  Well, credit Leah Singer for saying something positive about life in Terre Haute (where Indiana State University were hiring.)
Never does one ask about the low cost of living that is allowing us to pay off the mountain of debt we accrued in California. And never does one ask about my fellow community members, who are running successful businesses, enriching the city's arts and making a difference for the local environment.

As I got to know my new Midwest home, I realize how living in a bubble and subscribing to the Middle America stereotypes is truly damaging to this country.

Makes me wonder how much of that stereotyping comes from an uncritical reading of Main Street or binge-listening to Prairie Home Companion monologues.


Paul Krugman asks, "Why Can’t We Get Cities Right?"  It's a lament about city planning, I think.  You get places like Houston and Atlanta that are too untidy to his urban planner mind (Professor Krugman has done some very good work on regional economics, on his own and with regional scientists you might have heard of) whilst Manhattan and San Francisco have lots of penthouse development, with the indigent sleeping in the parks.
Houston and San Francisco are extreme cases, but not that extreme. It turns out that America’s big metropolitan areas are pretty sharply divided between Sunbelt cities where anything goes, like Houston or Atlanta, and those on the East or West Coast where nothing goes, like San Francisco or, to a lesser extent, New York. (Chicago is a huge city with dense development but relatively low housing prices; maybe it has some lessons to teach the rest of us?)
Chicago does, but the explanation for those low housing prices is a simple one: a decrease in demand.

And the best the commentariat and our political masters can come up with is that further increases in taxes will be necessary to bolster the state's finances.  Note, please, that the decrease in Chicago population precedes the imposition of the sugary drink tax, which is driving grocers and residents across the county line.  (Don't get me started on how buying pop with a Link card, which is Illinois-speak for "food stamps," wipes out the tax.)

How bad is it?  Bad enough that legislators are leaving, too.
More than two-dozen legislators – about 15 percent of the General Assembly – have either resigned months into the current session or said they won’t seek re-election. They are Democrats and Republicans, rank-and-file moderates and those in leadership posts, including House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, who said last week that she’s ending her nearly 40-year legislative career when her term expires.
Trade unites and politics divides.  But forty or fifty years of politics as usual might have rendered Illinois inhospitable to trade.  I mean, when you lose a factory to Gary, Indiana ...


From the local newspaper we read, "NIU keys on academic reputation amid enrollment decline."  For instance, "It also received special recognition last year by the Brookings Institution as one of the few universities in the nation to produce important research while aiding students from low-income families."  We documented that here, with commentary.  Apparently doing it right still requires deanlet-speak.
One boost to the university’s academic reputation was that the incoming class posted the highest mean grade-point average in more than a decade at 3.28.

“We’re doing a much better job of promoting all of the wonderful things that are happening on campus,” [vice president for enrollment management Sol] Jensen said. “As we delve more into digital promotions, I know there’s more opportunities to be more targeted in populations and receive immediate and influential feedback and metrics.”
Put another way, the digital generation doesn't toss its cookies and launder its caches rapidly enough.

Unfortunately, being a vice president of enrollment management doesn't require competence in comparative advantage.
“Providing education for the state of Illinois and generally for our service region are of great importance,” Jensen said. “Students who come from Kishwaukee College are extremely important to us for a number of reasons, but mainly because they grew up here and could also be working here.”
Yes, but when Gary, Indiana, is beating Chicagoland out for factories, there's more to do than raising the university's academic profile.

A Vox essay suggests that doing right by pluggers and strivers is a good idea.
While more Americans are going to college as a whole, the gap between the affluent and poor has widened — and the value of a college degree is declining.

It starts in high school, where poor kids are less likely to earn a high school diploma than their richer peers.
Hell, it starts before kindergarten, with the moneyed folks enrolling their spawn in Harvard Prep Day Care, while their neighbors in humbler circumstances entrust Squirt to grandma or an uncle or aunt.

Then Vox author Alvin Chang summarizes in two sentences something I've been arguing, repeatedly, and at length, for fifteen years on this site, and for longer when I was on curriculum committees or the like.
Part of this gap can be attributed to students from poor families being more likely to go to colleges with lower graduation rates and lower admissions standards. These schools tend to have fewer resources compared to more selective schools and flagship state universities.
In Cold Spring Shops terminology, that's "rendered unemployable by access-assessment-remediation-retention."  Look, I don't care how they phrase it as long as they're writing about it.

There's still room for him to refine his argument when he gets to the Deeper Implications.
[T]here’s also something about the American college environment that betrays students from lower- and working-class backgrounds.

Some of it is financial, but there's something else going on — something that is perpetuated by the beliefs and values of upper-middle class people. This ranges from big-picture things, like what we think the purpose of college is, to more mundane things, like our eating or vacationing habits. And when mixed with this country's imprecise way of talking about class, it creates a toxic environment that stunts the performances of students who are trying to climb the social class ladder.
Once upon the time, the common schools would inculcate the values of the upper middle class, but that doesn't happen as much any more, because of some imagined -ism or something. But the upper middle class still passes those values along. You know how that's going to play out. "In other words, the very way we think about college makes it a finishing school for people from affluent families — and a glass ceiling for everyone else."

There's some social science that follows, which might reward careful study.  Toward the end Mr Chang suggests the land-grants and mid-majors and regional comprehensives still have a problem.
Sociologist Annette Lareau followed dozens of children for a decade and found in her 2003 book, Unequal Childhoods, that more privileged children tend to be raised to reason with and question authority.

She named this parenting style "concerted cultivation," and found that the skills that these children develop translate well to a middle- and upper-class environment.

And it's those people who fill the quads and administrative buildings on college campuses, and they come with a certain worldview about how successful humans should act. This is also true of second-tier schools, where students come from less affluent backgrounds, but administrators still come from upper-middle class backgrounds and exhibit upper-middle class expectations.

So all of this means there is a mismatch between these disadvantaged students and the college environment.
A mismatch it might be, and yet a mismatch that the people running the common schools might be able to address long before the thick envelopes go out.
When students were told in a mere one-hour session that their class backgrounds shape their college experiences — and that they need to cater their actions accordingly — it influenced their ability to get caught up to everyone else.

It doesn't mean their experience wasn't harder. After all, they tend to work more in college, have more family responsibilities, and have larger financial barriers. Rather, it just means someone needed to tell them about the biases of higher ed they will have to overcome.

"In my research, first-generation college students are impressively resilient and optimistic," Gibbons said. "They belief in themselves, and have a desire to persevere.

"They wouldn't be in college if they weren't."
Yes, and they deserve the same intellectual environment as their counterparts in the finishing schools enjoy. I used to quip to students that they'd have to work twice as hard at Northern Illinois to get half the recognition their counterparts at Harvard or Northwestern got, but fortunately that wasn't difficult.

Let me finish by proposing a small change to Mr Chang's concluding remarks.
Still, the way we think about college — and perhaps more importantly, the skills we insist we need our adults to have in order to be part of the dominant social class — has poisoned higher education for those who need it most.

Preaching the virtues of mobility and education are one thing. It's another to realize that one thing standing in the way might be the very values and attitudes that shape our identities.
More precisely, it might be that Influential People who hold those attitudes for themselves are OK with those values and attitudes not being passed along to their less fortunate neighbors and contemporaries whose circumstances are less favorable.



There's the beginnings of a commuter rail service along the old joint Great Northern and Northern Pacific Elk River Line.  Trains run, mostly on a conventional rush-hour schedule, between Big Lake and a Minneapolis station not far from the old Great Northern grand station that vanished in the middle 1970s.

That's a morning train, just arrived.  Most laid-back commuter train I've ever seen.  Train pulls into Minneapolis and probably half the passengers on the upper deck just sat there.  I will confess to getting a bit antsy, even though I let the Chicago mob detrain before I leave my seat, that's usually a wait of two or three minutes.  In the distance, the Union Pacific and BNSF paired tracks.

The seating imitates the pattern German regional trains use, with the seats fixed in groups of four, and tables provided in some groups.  For now, the tables support electronic devices, rather than pinochle games.

The commuter station is below street level; upstairs is the terminus of the two light rail lines, and the gates to Target Field, where the Twins play.  The two light rail lines stay together through central Minneapolis to the new Vikings stadium, where one route goes to the Mall of America and the other to St. Paul and the once-again rail station in the Union Depot complex.

I saw a preserved Grain Belt Beer sign along the river, but the stadium gets beer from Wisconsin.

That's a three-car light rail train at the Capitol Hill stop in St. Paul.  There's enough content inside the Capitol to provoke yet another post.

Didn't see any Hamm's beer signs, but note who else is selling at the baseball stadium.  This is an afternoon train loading for Big Lake.  A passenger I chatted with noted that the long gestation of the train was "typical Minnesota."  Usual practice is these four car rakes, but with the traffic I observed on all the highways in the area, the appeal of a commuter train might grow.

End of the line is Big Lake, with a connecting bus as far as St. Cloud.  These tracks also carry Amtrak's Empire Builder, which in its current incarnation deviates from its traditional Great Northern routing all the way to Minot (Chicago to St. Paul on The Milwaukee Road, St. Paul to Fargo-Moorhead on the old Northern Pacific, Fargo to Minot via Grand Forks and Devil's Lake rather than the Surrey Cutoff.) Upon my return, I did some research on the pre-Amtrak Minnesota and North Dakota service: until the Burlington Northern merger, there was quite the network of regional trains making it possible for passengers as far west as Great Falls, Montana, to reach anywhere in North Dakota or much of the 94th latitude of Minnesota, and to connect to Chicago.

Unfortunately, it's because I can refer to the 94th latitude of Minnesota that there isn't much by way of rail or bus service in that part of the world, but the Empire Builder as we understand it can't function as both the cruise train and the regional train.


That's right, that Gary, Indiana.  It's not in Illinois, and that might be enough.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb showed up in Gary recently wearing a hard hat and holding a shovel ... doing two important things: welcoming a trucking company from south suburban Chicago Ridge, and taking a dig at Illinois.

“We are thrilled to welcome HMD Trucking to Indiana, home to balanced budgets, a AAA credit rating and a low cost of doing business,” Holcomb said. “It is clear why HMD Trucking decided to move from Illinois to Indiana. We have become the best state in the Midwest to start, get and grow jobs.”
The editors are finding it hard to be boosters, with Illinois in the fiscal and political morass it is.
Indiana is in fine fettle, while Illinois is a basket case, with more than a $130 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, an unbalanced budget and $15 billion in overdue bills. Illinois has higher taxes, too, which would need to be raised even higher to right the ship. We have no idea what that would cost taxpayers, given that the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, ruled by House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, has resisted Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner on his turnaround plan. This constitutes a major roadblock to future job growth and prosperity.

Employers don’t want to pay for someone else’s dysfunction. They want to grow in a healthy, stable environment. They want trustworthy government, simplified regulations and the lowest costs possible. So things keep looking worse in Illinois, and better in Indiana. Chief Executive magazine ranks Indiana No. 5 in the country for business, with Illinois at No. 48. US News & World Report has Indiana as the No. 1 “best state for government,” while Illinois is No. 47. The major credit rating agencies all give Indiana a top score and put Illinois at the bottom.

As for the proposed Toyota/Mazda plant, we’re rooting for Illinois, of course. But the precariousness of this state is a big red flag. The only negative comment we’ve seen about Indiana is that its 3.1 percent unemployment rate could be too low. “The job market is so strong that automakers might have a hard time finding enough employees,” USA Today reported. Illinois’ jobless rate is 4.8 percent, higher than the 4.3 percent national rate.
And that rate is with Illinois losing population, particularly productive population, to other states.


First a rave, then a rant.

Northern Illinois scheduled a game in Lincoln, Nebraska yesterday.
After NIU scored the first 14 points of the game on interception return touchdowns, Nebraska put 17 straight points on the board in the second half before NIU responded with a game-winning drive and two defensive stops in the final six minutes of the game.

The win was NIU's sixth in its last 10 games versus Big Ten opponents since 2009 and the fourth in five games under Head Coach Rod Carey.
During the fifteen years Cold Spring Shops have been posting, there has been more good news than bad to report about the football program, despite evidence headquarters might want to devote fewer resources to becoming the next Boise State.

The outlook from Lincoln is less cheerful.
This time, defeat came not on the road against a potent roster stacked with high-end talent, but rather in the friendly, cavernous confines of home and at the hands of a Midwest mid-major picked to finish in the middle of its Mid-American Conference division.

“All of this will sound like an understatement,” head coach Mike Riley said to open his postgame remarks, “but we are just really, bitterly disappointed with losing the game.”
Well, Hillary Clinton wondered why she wasn't ahead by fifty points, and look how that turned out.

Put not your faith in pre-season punditry, dear reader.  To repeat, there's been more football success than frustration in DeKalb the past fifteen years.

Yeah, I had some errands to run, and finished the afternoon at the Milwaukee Oktoberfest.  The victory called for a toast.  Note in the distance the Spanferkl roast is in progress.

In Lincoln, they're not yet measuring the head coach for a spit, and yet the frustration is mounting.
[Athletics director Shawn] Eichorst realized that following Saturday’s 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois, when an athletics director who prefers to be seen in public only slightly more often than Bigfoot put himself in front of reporters to address the elephant in the room.

“I’m frustrated, I’m angry, I’m disappointed,” Eichorst told the Omaha World-Herald. “It’s not acceptable. I’m supportive, but we have just got to play better.”

While losing a payday game to a Mid-American Conference team is practically a rite of passage for membership in the Big Ten, this was not a well-timed toe-stubbing for Nebraska.
Let us call the roll of Big Ten teams who have stubbed their toe to Northern Illinois: Wisconsin, Northwestern, Minnesota, Purdue, now Nebraska. Maryland were not yet in the conference in 2003.

And "payday game?"  Please.  There are more than a few Mid-American teams in this USA Today listing of guarantee games, but note, none involving Northern Illinois.

Now, for the rant.

At the season opener, I noticed a new countdown clock, giving the time remaining until the redcap puts the baggage on the Corn King 400 and the referee whistles off.  This is apparently part of a Mid-American initiative to reduce game times by five minutes, to an average of three hours twenty minutes, or the time a Hiawatha could once get from New Lisbon to Chicago.  "[Conference commissioner Jon] Steinbrecher said conference officials are studying ways to get a handle on games that have been drawn out by more passing and scoring, penalty administration, TV timeouts and other factors."

Get rid of video review.  Just get rid of it.  Officials can be sloppy and have their errors reversed upon appeal to the tape jockeys.  Coaches know that the officials are sloppy, and they simply use their challenges rather than get tossed out for arguing bad calls.



It's going on fifteen years since Cold Spring Shops opened.

Ten years since it moved to new quarters.

There's now enough landscaping to make the place look less like a model railroad structure plopped down on a table.

Two years since we started looking for the Confederacy of the Frustrated.

That's still timely: despite recent developments, "subverting the dominant paradigm and being transgressive isn't for the critical studies people only."

See you down the road.


Streetsblog's Roger Rudick takes a ride on the San Joaquin Daylight from Oakland to Los Angeles.  That's a bus ride between Bakersfield and Los Angeles.

He's astonished to discover that his coaches are former Jersey Arrow electric multiple unit coaches recently replaced by gallery coach trains led by locomotives into Penn Station.  "There’s so much demand for transportation options that Amtrak is running antique hand-me-downs from New Jersey Transit to provide more seats."  The Arrows, in turn, replaced MP54 arks initially built to cover the electrified, but holy, local to Paoli.  We build passenger carrying stock to last in the U.S.A.

Mr Rudick notes that the Amtrak service with the bus connection still gets to Los Angeles more quickly than the all-rail Coast Starlight via San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara.  And I struck Daylight, as Southern Pacific was never able to substitute a bus for the Los Angeles to Bakersfield section of the run.  Thus the San Joaquin Daylight had to slug it out up and over Tehachapi Pass: spectacular mountain railroading, with great photo opportunities for ferroequinologists, but slow.


Washington Monthly's Jon Marcus contemplates The Looming Decline of the Public Research University.
[U]niversity research is in trouble, and so is an economy more dependent on it than many people understand. Federal funding for basic research—more than half of it conducted on university campuses like this one—has effectively declined since 2008, failing to keep pace with inflation. This is before we take into account Trump administration proposals to slash the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) budgets by billions of dollars more.
This is without taking account the ways in which the people running the flagship universities have aped the methods in use at the hundred or so institutions claiming to top the U.S. News league tables have been sticking their thumbs in the eyes of normal Americans.
In places like Columbus, Ohio, and Columbia, Missouri, the big research universities are among the most important institutions in town. The checkerboard patchwork of farms on the approach to Port Columbus International Airport gives way to office buildings housing high-tech companies spun off by Ohio State and the affluent suburbs where their employees live. The real estate company CBRE ranks the city as the country’s top small market for attracting tech talent.

More than one in five graduate students who worked on sponsored research at eight Big Ten universities studied by Ohio State economist Bruce Weinberg, including Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Purdue, and Ohio State, stayed in the state where they attended school—13 percent of them within fifty miles of the campus. That may not sound like a lot—and, indeed, the exodus of highly educated people is a serious problem—but it’s significant when you consider that the jobs for these students exist in a national labor market. People with engineering PhDs from Minnesota could take their talents anywhere. If even 20 percent stick around, that’s a big win for states that can’t expect an influx of educated elites from other parts of the country. These graduates provide an educated workforce that employers need, create jobs themselves by starting their own businesses, and pay taxes.
Yes, that's one of the hidden strengths of the country. But dig into the article, and you see what else is at work.
Many of these same universities have suffered some of the nation’s deepest cuts to public higher education. Illinois reduced per-student spending by an inflation-adjusted 54 percent between 2008 and last year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The figure was 22 percent in Iowa and Missouri, 21 percent in Michigan, 15 percent in Minnesota and Ohio, and 6 percent in Indiana. While higher education funding increased last year in thirty-eight states, Scott Walker’s 2015–17 budget cut another $250 million from the University of Wisconsin system. The University of Iowa recently had its state appropriation cut by 6 percent, including an unexpected $9 million in the middle of the fiscal year.

The University of Missouri is eliminating about 400 employee positions, many through layoffs, after protests over race and other issues resulted in the resignations of the chancellor and system president and a major drop in enrollment. That decline, plus state budget cuts, will cost the school more than $31 million, though it hopes to make up some of that shortfall by increasing tuition.
I repeat, as repeat I must, "higher education's Republican problem, or Trump problem, or whatever it is, is self-made."


England's rich objected to the view from their great houses being spoiled by the passage of steam trains.  That might be why The Great Western Railway named passenger locomotives after Granges, Halls, Manors, and Castles, currying favour by giving away naming rights.

Today, it's the grandees of Connecticut carrying on the same tradition.  Don't you dare straighten out the Shore Line in Old Saybrook with a bridge high enough to let yachts pass under it.
In Old Lyme, across the Connecticut River from Old Saybrook, about one in four residents signed a petition objecting to the bypass, which at one point involved elevated tracks through the downtown, a backdrop for the 19th century American Impressionist movement. That design has been scrapped.
Never mind that French impressionists would set up easels in railway stations.

Don't think of tunnelling under the estates, either.
Officials are talking about a tunnel instead, where the Connecticut River meets the Long Island Sound, according to First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder.

“Even with a tunnel, you have venting, and that has to come out somewhere, and you have vibrations,” Reemsnyder, 62, said by telephone. “It’s already had a negative effect on house sales. A line on the map already has done this community damage.”
Let's be grateful she's not raising the canard about improved train service bringing housebreakers, who will schlep their swag back to the big cities on the train.

Perhaps the people in the northern suburbs of Chicago, who are objecting to improvements along the Hiawatha route, ought to buy the Connecticut houses.  There aren't many freight trains left on Amtrak's fast lines.


That's despite the odds of a particular combination of numbers rolling out of the machinery being orders of magnitude worse than one in a hundred.

Whenever there's a major flood (doesn't matter if it follows a hurricane or a rain storm or it's just the spring thaw somewhere in the north) you'll get people talking about "hundred-year" or "thousand-year" or what have you flood events.

And yes, there are people who lose that lottery multiple times, and perhaps there will be a moment when our political masters will sit down and rethink the current system of publicly subsidized flood insurance, under which the taxpayers replace the same damaged property, repeatedly.  Not surprisingly, the flood insurance program replaces more than a little beach-front property for rent-seekers, and once the emergency passes, I intend to turn to that dimension of the situation.

But the algorithm by which homeowners on a given tract of land will be allowed by our political masters to buy flood insurance -- yes, dear reader, a prudent citizen who would like to carry flood coverage cannot visit the friendly local insurance agent and buy it -- relies on statistical inference from small samples.
If a parcel of land fell inside the boundaries of where a 1-percent-annual-risk flood was likely to reach, any new buildings constructed there would have to be elevated and insured — and would therefore be more expensive. And you might not be able to build there at all. Outside the floodplain, there would be no restrictions.

But there’s a gap between the data those maps are built on and the floodplain boundaries themselves. To get from point A to point B, scientists have to make a lot of assumptions and extrapolations, building in layers of uncertainty that mean the final determination of what is and isn’t in the floodplain should never be thought of as exact.

It begins with roughly 8,000 streamgages, sensors that the U.S. Geological Survey has deployed to collect real-time data on the depth and velocity of rivers and streams across the country. Throw that into a mathematical potpourri with other data points — what’s known about the shape of the stream, say — and you can come up with an estimate of flow, water measured in cubic feet per second.

The USGS collects these flow estimates, plotting them over the years to find the normal amount of water that moves down a given stream — and what that flow looks like when it jumps to levels well above average. Finally, a computer model helps turn those high flow rates (a measure that doesn’t tell you much about whether your couch will be underwater) into an estimated flood depth (which does). Plunk the flood depth estimates down on top of maps and you get a floodplain.
There are parcels on which householders are eligible to buy the insurance for houses with basements, suggesting additional subtleties, but the idea of determining eligibility using statistical inference remains the same.

But the use of the term "normal" covers a multitude of sins.  This Pajamas Media essay explains why supposedly rare events can repeat; the error is common enough that it has a name, the gambler's fallacy, and it's likely that sometime this weekend a .250 hitter has come to the plate oh-for-three in a late inning and a radio announcer has said "he's due."

The essay also suggests that a sufficiently long history of stream depths will generate a histogram that approximates to a Gaussian distribution, or normal curve.  Thus, a stream with an average depth of six inches will almost always be from three to nine inches deep, and almost never exceed a foot, let alone a yard.

Suppose, though, that the rain events that overfill the stream follow a Pareto distribution, or power rule.  Then you might observe a cluster of depths ranging from zero to three inches, and every so often, you reckon your soundings in fathoms.  It might be wise to check whether the data generating the histogram looks more like a Gaussian pattern or a Pareto pattern.