28.6.11

UNUSUAL ALLIES.  Tom Clancy's Against All Enemies, a joint venture with Peter Telep, envisions a joint venture of Islamic militants and Latin American druggies to wreak havoc of several kinds in the United States.  No spoilers in Book Review No. 18.  But I have to wonder if Mr Clancy is rethinking a line from Patriot Games, in which some Irish militants who seek the help of Islamic militants come to view insh'allah as "manana without the urgency."  Or perhaps he's making use of some of his connections, and alerting readers to a possible threat, or to a threat already blocked.  Or maybe he's making it up.  Whatever.  Quick read.  Finished it in the course of a recent train ride.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
RECOGNIZING EXCELLENCE.  Cold Spring Shops regulars know about the Economics Concepts Poster Contest.  With a little help from several Naperville teachers and Northern Illinois University Outreach, we were able to provide a recognition assembly for Poster Contest winners in Naperville.
Sharon Phares, a teacher at White Eagle Elementary School, said, “One of my past students said that their whole family changed the way they live because of opportunity cost. They changed their lifestyle because of their son. They recycle; they’ve reduced their electricity use.”
Economics: it's about making choices under constraints.
Kerry DiFusco, from Spring Brook Elementary School, added that her students enjoyed learning about the role they play in the global economy. “It gives us a chance to connect with global market places and the business community, and students can see how they are connected as the consumers.”

DiFusco added that this experience will help her students make responsible choices as they move toward financial independence. “They know what debit cards are,” DiFusco said, “and they know why they shouldn’t get credit cards when they become college students.”
The pushers of tee shirts (all you have to do is fill out this application) will not like that, but there it is.
AN EXPENSIVE AND INEFFECTIVE SIGNAL?  For a job market signal to accurately identify a person as having the proper ability for the job, it must be sufficiently costly and difficult to acquire that people lacking the ability will not pursue it.  A conversation about universal college includes an essay by Atlantic editor David Indiviglio that suggests the push to increase college enrollment actually produces a pooling equilibrium in which the signal loses its value.
You don't want to hire someone to whom you have to explain something three times before he or she gets it. Or worse, you don't want to hire someone who will never be able to grasp that thing, due to inferior reasoning ability. As a result, a college degree has become a proxy for determining whether a job applicant has a minimum level of intelligence necessary to perform a job. But with many private college educations exceeding $120,000 these days, that's a pretty expensive means for identifying adequate intelligence.

Unfortunately, this may describe all a college degree has become. There was a time when a high school degree served this purpose. But when high school standards declined and college became more popular, some applicants stood out above others as being more educated and potentially smarter than those with only a high school diploma. If the trend keeps up, however, a time will come when a college degree isn't enough either: masters degrees will be commonly sought, as the value of college degrees fall to be worth as little high school degrees are today, since so many applicants will have them. If this trend keeps up forever, perhaps we'll one day have locksmiths with PhD's.

At some point, we have to ask when the madness will stop. As college gets deemed more and more essential, it also gets more and more expensive. At this time, it still appears to a sensible investment, but that doesn't mean it is necessarily worthwhile in the broader sense. If the same person could be performing the same job without that degree, then it was a waste of tens of thousands of dollars, or in some cases even over a hundred thousand dollars. And that doesn't even consider the four years wasted, when a person could be developing on-the-job skills, instead of absorbing academic knowledge that he or she will never use.

Note/Update: A few readers have suggested that the situation would be better if employers didn't face potential lawsuits for conducting aptitude tests. Without that option, they instead must rely on college as a gauge of ability. Conducting aptitude tests would certainly be better than forcing people to waste the time and money of college if it's unnecessary. 
In the limit the increased time to acquire an accurate signal collides with the decreased time to realize a return on the investment. There's probably a model to that effect in one of the economics journals. (Note to self: maybe yet another research project to start and struggle to finish.)

A recent New York Times column by David Leonhardt approaches the problem from a different direction.
Either way, the general skills that colleges teach, like discipline and persistence, may be more important than academics anyway.

None of this means colleges are perfect. Many have abysmal graduation rates. Yet the answer is to improve colleges, not abandon them. Given how much the economy changes, why would a high-school diploma forever satisfy most citizens’ educational needs?
Perhaps in the precincts where writers for the house organ of the Eastern Establishment gather, where your excellent high school comes bundled with a granite countertop, High School is still High School, and College is College.   But maybe not.
My elitism comes from the few years I spent as an adjunct at George Mason. The typical undergrad in my course could not write a paper or solve an algebra problem. I doubt that adding more students at this margin is the way to raise people's incomes.
Or, framed in the form of an hypothesis,
Regarding the third point, one thing I’ve said before is that rather than scraping closer to the bottom of the college-eligibility barrel — when the average student has a 40 percent chance of not finishing, what chance does the marginal student have? — we should encourage kids in useless majors to switch to something employers actually value.
Or insist that the high schools do their job, in order that the colleges can do theirs. Or change the campus culture such that the placebound strivers who might, but for the admission decisions of the 200 contenders for the top 50 universities, be offered the same intellectual challenges that those contenders might offer, rather than be fobbed off with programming structured by access-assessment-remediation-retention.
PRICE SCISSORS CUT BOTH WAYS.  For years, Chinese labor markets offered manufacturers the right mix of low wages and low skills.  No longer.
Worker anger is evident across Guangdong, which has been hit this month by a wave of strikes.  Hundreds of migrant workers fought police in Chaozhou in the eastern part of the province.  In the middle of the month, in the industrial center of Dongguan, 2,000 employees struck a plant owned by Japan’s Citizen Watch to protest long working hours and low pay.

And in Zengcheng, the “Blue Jeans Capital of the World,” thousands of migrant workers rioted after government-hired thugs knocked down a pregnant 20-year-old itinerant vendor.  For three days, migrants overturned official vehicles and set fire to government buildings.
Sure, there are High Concept explanations.
In general, modernizing societies are almost always unstable, especially after periods of sustained prosperity.  As Alexis de Tocqueville noted, the French Revolution followed an unprecedented economic advance and discontent was most evident in those parts of France that had seen the most improvement.  Unfortunately for China’s Communist Party, these trends from Europe’s 18th century also played out in Asia’s 20th, particularly in the Confucian society of South Korea two decades ago and in Chinese-dominated Taiwan a little later.

To make matter worse for themselves, China’s recent leaders have replicated all the conditions under which protests flourish.  They have, without this being their intention, adopted policies that have widened the wealth gap, denied the appearance of justice, and promoted runaway corruption.  At the same time, Hu and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, tried to make their rule appear benign, thereby lessening fear in society.  So workers in today’s China, more angry and less afraid, are now assertive and defiant.
Their defiance has the support of the Invisible Hand.
Employees these days have much more bargaining power.  Back at the Simone factory in Panyu, management said it would fire those who did not return to work.  That threat used to be effective, but not now.

Why not?  For several years, Guangdong has been short of help.  Some residents have become relatively well-off and no longer need mind-dulling employment in factories, something evident in Shenzhen, the booming city bordering even-more-prosperous Hong Kong.

Moreover, China’s workforce is starting to level off.  Sometime between 2013 and 2016—and probably at the earlier end of the range—the number of the country’s workers will peak and then begin to decline.  That will leave employers in Guangdong scrambling for migrants, who now prefer jobs closer to their homes in interior China.  That’s one reason why Foxconn, operating the world’s biggest factory in Shenzhen, is locating facilities in inland provinces.
Now the commissars have two problems. First, low wages are still a signal of low productivity, the hardest workers being just off the farm notwithstanding. Second, as competition for workers bids up wages, backward bends the supply curve.

Leon Trotsky's acolytes have different plans for China.
Even a local social explosion in Zengcheng—known as the “Jeans capital”—has reverberated throughout the world. The satellite city of Guangzhou produces one third of the world’s jeans, for some 60 different international brands. Zengcheng is only one of many manufacturing “capitals”, each specialising in a single commodity, mainly for export.

Broader industrial unrest in China would have far-reaching ramifications for international corporations, ranging from German machine exporters to the mining giants in Australia and Brazil. General Motors now produces more cars and trucks in China than in the US and Walmart is dependent on China for most of its cheap consumer goods. Apple’s iPhones and iPads are made by huge sweatshops run by Foxconn. Foreign-owned subsidiaries directly employ 16 million Chinese workers, with many millions more involved in complex supply chains for transnational corporations.

The angry protests of rural migrants in Zengcheng were sparked by the rough handling of a pregnant woman by local security guards. Underlying the incident, however, were sharpening social tensions produced by soaring prices for food, housing and other essentials. The wage rises won by workers last year in a series of strikes that began at a Honda plant have been completely eroded by inflation.
Comrade Trotsky suggests that China is the Middle Kingdom of bubbles.
In an online survey in March, the Global Times found that that 94 percent of respondents regarded themselves as “marginalised” by the current social order. Typical of those who voted “yes” was one person who declared that China was “a heaven of the rich, while the poor are bitterly struggling for employment, housing and survival.” In one way or another, this seething social discontent in China will eventually find its expression in a mass movement against the Stalinist regime in Beijing.

In Europe and the US, having bailed out the banks and major corporations, governments are now imposing the huge debts incurred in the form of drastic austerity measures. Terrified at the prospect of rising unemployment and discontent, the Chinese regime responded to the global financial crisis by providing massive stimulus packages and opening the credit floodgates to keep the economy growing at a frenetic pace. These policies were never sustainable in the long term. Already Beijing is applying the credit brake that will inevitably lead to a slowing economy, rising unemployment and wider unrest.

If there is one lesson that Chinese workers should to learn from the protests in the Middle East, Europe and the US, it is that no amount of pressure is going to force the regime in Beijing to make any fundamental changes.
Perhaps the Final Crisis of Capitalism is at hand. On the other hand, perhaps cheap Chinese labor is yet another scarce resource, whose price will be bid up the same way any other price is.

27.6.11

MARKETS ALLOCATE RESOURCES.  David Freddoso looks on the bright side of the popping housing bubble.
The bear market in housing is a great equalizer that promises to undo the inequalities government cannot and will not ever fix. It is creating opportunities for lower-income families, who are now well within reach of enjoying a devalued but still inherently valuable and enjoyable asset -- big houses with big yards.

This is one reason among many why government efforts to re-inflate the housing bubble and prop prices up are so deeply misguided. For all the criticism of laissez faire and its alleged lack of concern for the poor, the invisible hand of the market does at times reach out to the poor and help them at the expense of the well-to-do. We are seeing this right now. It would be a shame if government stepped interfered with some kind of misguided "housing policy."
It's a different world, indeed, when a Section 8 voucher holder is able to be picky.
If [Liza Jackson] was cramped in Honolulu, here she had higher standards. At least three bedrooms. Hardwood floors, preferably. An open kitchen.

They wound their way to the first address, which turned out to be the sort of Section 8 offering typical of the boom years: a small, 1970s-era brick number with dirt patches in the front yard.

“I’ll put ‘[Heck] no’ next to this one,” Jackson said, making a note.

She hit the gas, passing two young men in shorts and tank tops.

“Uh-oh, street punks,” Jackson said, further disqualifying the area.
That's not to say all is well, however. In Chicago's Chatham neighborhood, falling housing prices induce "there goes the neighborhood" reactions among the current residents.
Back in the day, the higher rents and home prices pretty much kept the riff-raff out. But home values in Chatham have plummeted. In 1990, the median value of a home in Chatham was $99,794. During the housing boom — from 2000 to 2009 — that rose to $182,727. By this year, though, it had sunk to just $69,750, according to the Chicago Association of Realtors.

When that happens, “The land becomes affordable by a group of folks who couldn’t have afforded it 10 or 15 years earlier,” says William A. Sampson, a sociologist at DePaul University who’s an expert on the black middle class.

Thumbing through all the news stories about shootings, stabbings, babies getting killed and other crimes, I’m shocked that so many of the perpetrators, as well as the victims, have addresses in Chatham.

This is exactly what a previous generation feared.

Twenty-five years ago, the Chicago Sun-Times ran a series called “The Chatham Story.” In one of those stories, a retired factory worker talked about the future he saw then for Chatham.

“They are coming from the ghetto,” he said. “From down in the slums. And they are not the type of people I like to live with. They don’t care about the neighborhood.”

Today, longtime Chathamites seem more convinced than ever, from what I kept hearing, that poor people moving in from somewhere else are the ones causing most of the problems. Sampson understands that fear.

“Middle-income black folks don’t want poor black people living around them,” he says. “They say, ‘Look, I’ve worked my tail off for all these years to get away from that. Now, you are going to put them down the street.’ ”
The habits of the middle class matter still.
Maryellen Drake’s parents moved to Chatham in 1957. She was born and raised there. For 20 years, she’s served as vice president of the Chatham Avalon Park Community Council, which has been tackling important community issues for 50 years.

Today, Drake looks around, and what she sees disgusts her.

“This is a class issue,” she says of Chatham’s troubles. “It’s not just about income. It’s about the standards that you are accustomed to . . . Barbecue grills on the front lawn. Ten and 12 people piled up on the front porch. Opening fire hydrants instead of going in the backyard and getting in the pool or under a hose.

“I can’t say they are Section 8. Can’t say they are from the projects. But I know that — by the way they behave — although they look like me, we are very different.”

Some longtime residents figure it’s up to them to teach the new arrivals the rules.

Chatham resident Berlean Burris, the wife of former U.S. Sen. Roland Burris, says she reached out to a family who, with the help of Section 8 housing aid, moved in to the house next door while the owner, an investor, tries to find a buyer for the place.

“When she first moved in, I went over there and talked to her and brought her a basket of things,” she says. “Another neighbor told me she did the same thing. She says a Section 8 resident was barbecuing in the front yard, and she went over there and said: ‘You know we don’t barbecue in the front lawn. You do it in the back.’ And they started barbecuing in the back.”
Probably better to be sociable than to be snobbish. Probably too soon to tell whether the long-term residents will socialize the street punks, or if the street punks will come to dominate Chatham.
RIDING THE RAILS.  Richard Straub, of Marion, Ohio, files a report on a train trip to the Pacific Northwest and return.  His experience compares favorably with mine from last year.  He made the trip in May, before floods, fire, and runaway trucks disrupted the Western service.

He had to begin his trip in Toledo because Erie-Lackawanna went out of the passenger business with the coming of Amtrak, and the line out of Marion was deemed redundant by Conrail.
ROBBING THE POOR BOX.  Illinois tax returns provide taxpayers with an opportunity to make a donation to an approved charity, which either reduces the taxpayer's refund or increases the amount he owes.  That cash is too tempting to legislators.
In a normal year, it takes about six months for the money to make its way to agencies that are supposed to get it.
But the Eastern Illinois Foodbank has yet to receive any money donated with tax forms for 2009 or 2010, said Tracy Smith, executive director of Feeding Illinois. That organization runs a group of food banks that include the Eastern Illinois Foodbank.
If the money is paid back sometime soon, Smith said she can live with that.
"But we would have a real problem if we went around asking our donors to give money to this tax fund and we never saw this money," she said.
Melaney Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health, which controls funds for seven designated recipients, said the money will eventually make its way to food banks, crisis nurseries and other causes designated by the donors.
"It may not necessarily be tomorrow, but they will be used for those intended purposes," she said.
Why should the charity fund be any different from the employee pension fund, or the so-called Highway Trust Fund and Social Security Trust Fund?

Can anybody argue, with a straight face, that government-managed funds protect individuals against their self-destructive impulses to spend their retirement savings, or their childrens' college funds any more?
THE ORPHANS BECOME MORE EXPENSIVE.  Work continues on the Talgo trains the Wisconsin Department of Transportation ordered to provide new coaches on the Milwaukee to Chicago trains, and ultimately to provide the trains to run to Madison.  The Superintendent has his reservations about fixed-formation trains, no matter their provenance, and maintains that traditional passenger rail is more than adequate for regional passenger train service within 500 miles of Chicago, once upon a time home to the best passenger rail network in the world.

Recent news from the Milwaukee Talgo plant does not provide evidence to change the Superintendent's mind.
But now the state Department of Transportation is asking the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee to authorize borrowing $21.4 million more to cover related costs, including $11.7 million to build and equip a temporary maintenance base at Talgo's factory on Milwaukee's north side; $6.9 million for a British consulting company to oversee the manufacturing process; and up to $2.5 million for spare parts.

Together with $800,000 in separately appropriated funds, that brings the total cost of the train car acquisition to $69.7 million, almost 47% more than the original $47.5 million price tag, according to the department's funding request.

Reggie Newson, executive assistant to state Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb, said the state is required to pay many of those costs to fulfill contracts signed by Doyle's administration. Newson and Gottlieb were named to their positions under Walker.

But former Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi, who served under Doyle, said nearly all of the costs would have been covered by an $810 million federal stimulus grant awarded to Wisconsin last year to extend the Hiawatha to Madison, as part of a larger plan for high-speed trains connecting Chicago to the Twin Cities and other Midwestern destinations. Walker, however, campaigned against the 110-mph route, and the federal government yanked the funds after his election in November.

"We made a commitment based on having the grant," Busalacchi said. "When they gave back that money, they threw all that away."

Gottlieb and Newson agree that at least half the additional costs - $3.2 million for a temporary maintenance base and $8.5 million for equipment - would have been covered by the stimulus grant. But they and other transportation officials say much of the remainder would have been the state's responsibility.
The original plan intended to place a maintenance base near the Talgo factory at Capitol Drive, a deadhead move on tracks once maintained to passenger standards for the Chippewa Hiawatha and Copper Country Limited.  Without rehabilitation, a train going to the shed will take almost as much time to get from the Milwaukee Depot to the maintenance base as it does to get to Chicago.  There is some vacant ground at Merrill Park -- that's 35th Street for younger Milwaukeeans quite suitable for building a train terminal.  But if you look at the property closely, you'll see that it's a good place for parking E units and rib-side coaches.
REALITY SHOWS CAN HAVE STEEP GRADING CURVES.  A College Misery poster discovers a game show called Ninja Warrior, which is apparently tougher than American Gladiator, where someone does win at the end, and possibly more capricious than Navy SEAL training.
I really wish that I could convey this to my students. The idea that there is no first, second, or third. There is only meets expectations or fails. If you don't both learn the material and perform well on the assignments, then you fail regardless (or "irregardless" as many of my students will say) of anyone else's performance. In Ninja Warrior there is no "best" or "top" loser. There are only losers.

The course doesn't care if everyone fails. In some ways, we shouldn't either. If, after repeated practice and guidance, not one student can sloppily perform basic basketweaving tasks 1-5 without help, then they should all fail. But that's not how students understand things. They affirm that if the task was too hard for anyone in the room, then it must have been too hard of a task. It doesn't matter if last year's group could do it or if next year's group won't have a problem doing it.
Perhaps there's something in that old opening day speech about looking to your left and to your right.

24.6.11

PACHYDERMS AND TRAINS.

The Circus World Museum provided some props for the movie version of Water for Elephants.  The gift shop also had Sara Gruen's novel in paperback.  (Got it for less than Amazon's currently asking, yay!) Intriguing stuff for Book Review No. 17.


Ms Gruen wrote the book as a National Novel Writing Month project.  She's a technical writer by profession, but evidently a decent researcher.  The circus is a hard-knock life under the best of circumstances, and the hardscrabble train shows of the Great Depression are not operating under the best of circumstances.  Payless paydays, arbitrary firings, vice squad raids, unscheduled changes in the route so as to be able to cannibalize acts from failed circuses, it's all there.  And thus the plot.  With a lot of material you'll also find in the Cold Spring Shops research files, and a lot more.

The protagonist is the circus veterinarian.  In those days, circuses didn't advertise in Variety or  in Journal of the American Medical Association for veterinarians.  Read the book to find out how he lands the job.

He's correct about this, though: a proper circus has pachyderms and a train.


The Karlson Brothers Circus will have a herd of elephants.  Probably some of the seamier details of the traveling circus will be omitted.

What intrigues about the book is the provision of supplemental material.  First, there's an interview with the author, attesting to the research she did.  Less flamboyant than a barker offering $100 to anyone who can demonstrate that it's not real, but probably helpful to modern audiences.  (A good circus story has the "no s***, this really happened" that characterizes a proper sea story.)  There are also some book-group discussion questions.  Some reminded me of questions in my dad's fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade readers. (The things you learn: the seventh-year reader is a virtual book.)  Others might be material for deeper analysis.   "In what ways and to what degree do [the impresario's] maneuvers and practices regarding the defunct [competing] circus reflect traditional American business practices?  How would you compare his behavior with that of major businessmen and financiers of today?  What alternative actions would you prefer?"

The conversation with the author and the discussion questions also make the case for preserving threads of a common culture.  Genesis 28:11.  Apparently there's more from Genesis 28 to 34 for the close reader.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
THE FUTILITY OF A POSITIONAL ARMS RACE.  Good question from Inside School Research.
Certainly, there are plenty of low-performing and middling schools where teachers complain of students lacking ambition. But, in lots of relatively well-off communities around the country, a culture of competition certainly is pervasive. My question is: Is there a middle ground somewhere that everyone can occupy?
We could start with higher expectations in the low-performing and middling common schools.  Stop accommodating dysfunctional behavior and calling it cultural differences.  And consider the source of that status anxiety in those relatively well-off communities.

(A conjecture: rising income inequality is in part a consequence of lowered expectations masquerading as cultural sensitivity in precisely those neighborhoods where high expectations would do the most good.)

Daniel Luzer at Washington Monthly's College Guide follows up.
The solution here is to destroy high stakes admissions. How about looking into that?
In case anyone is interested:

All of higher education is in the same business as the Ivies.

There's excess demand for perceived quality credentials, raising the stakes.

Where there is excess demand, there will be rewards for providing the services.

That is, if the institutions currently not caught up in the high-stakes hustle lift their game.

Alternatively, the institutions in the middle of the high-stakes hustle can expand their faculties, and their enrollments.

SECOND SECTION.  Income inequality and test score inequality.
ADDICTED TO CONNECTIVITY.  The Chicago area had a visit from a squall line Tuesday evening.  A few power lines were blown down.  Never mind the risk of food spoilage.
Residents on Wednesday were stocking up on ice in an effort to salvage perishable food. Some businesses that still had power were mobbed by people who wanted to recharge computers and cellphones.

"I have never been in a Starbucks that was more crowded," said Terry Dason of Winnetka, who stopped into a Glencoe Starbucks on Wednesday afternoon. "Everybody was in there because they didn't have a charger for their cellphones (and) computers. It was a riot."
Well, not a riot riot, but those North Shore types just have to update their statuses.

On the other hand, the power company has announced that it will not be paying for food spoilage, because a windstorm is an Act of God.

22.6.11

ANALYSIS IS WORK, INTERNALLY CONSISTENT ANALYSIS IS HARD WORK.  Perhaps that's why Barbara Ehrenreich's This Land is Your Their Land wound up on the remainder table.  I promise not to spend more time on Book Review No. 16 than she and her editors apparently did on the book.  Go here for an identification of one of the internal inconsistencies a careful reader will find.  It's easier to take a few Nation columns (or perhaps even Katrina van den Heuvel has standards and these are out-takes?) and group them, loosely, into sections called Chasms of Inequality, Meanness on the Rise, Strangling the Middle Class, Hell Day at Work, Declining Health, Getting Sex Straight, and False Gods, and get something into print.  Never mind that some of the business follies at work that might be fostering inequality well might be self-correcting.  Never mind that inequality, or business follies, take the work of many people to understand, and one self-employed polemicist is unlikely to be able to reduce any of them to a short essay.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
TRY FREEDOM.  Cold Spring Shops remains vigilant for highway lobby rent-seekers masquerading as libertarians.  The Mahablog looks for a different kind of rent-seeker.
But because the libertarian definition of “liberty” really is the fig leaf for class interests of the very wealthy, who these days can use their wealth to manipulate public opinion through mass media, the phantom promises of libertarianism are turning us all into the serfs of corporatism.
That's a reaction to "The Liberty Scam" on Slate, a column that's fired up a few people, some to the point of not bothering, others to the point of further commentary.  Give yourself about 20 minutes to check and evaluate all the links.
IN THE SAME BUSINESS AS THE IVIES.  Google recognizes that.
Google is also recruiting college grads from schools other than the usual suspects such as Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and MIT. Colleges such as the University of Victoria in Canada and Emory University in Atlanta rarely saw Google recruiters in the past. Now it's more common.
(Via Newmark's Door.)

It's up to the faculty and academic administrators at other than the usual suspects to make the correct inference.
FIFTIES NOSTALGIA.  Michael Barone sees it in contemporary economic liberals.
Still, liberals pine for what I call America’s Midcentury Moment. It was the product of World War II, lasting from 1940 until the mid-1960s when the wartime experience wore off and the emerging baby boomers led culture and politics in another direction. For those of us who grew up in those years, the Midcentury Moment seemed the norm in American experience. But in fact it was the result of a unique time in U.S. history, when a united nation was mobilized for total war and Americans were, literally or figuratively, put into uniform.
And, having won that war, without serious damage to the physical capital of the country, in a position where monopoly industries could make a lot of money to buy labor peace with the unions without fear that consumers could find cheaper, and sometimes better, products from overseas.
This massive mobilization reshaped our national mores for a generation in ways that we find hard to comprehend. At one time or another 16 million Americans served in the military. The equivalent proportion of today’s population would be 38 million Americans serving in the military over the next three and a half years—something none of us can imagine. Nor can we envision ourselves paying taxes at World War II rates, accepting rationing of butter and meat and rubber, doing without new cars, or putting most of our wage and salary increases into low-interest government bonds.
In that last sentence is the germ of a new Victory Program, by the way. It's called Defund the Chinese.  Instead of spending $100 on a new gadget that will fall apart within a year, buy a Series EE bond.
Victory in World War II conferred enormous prestige on the leaders of the big units—big government, big business, big labor—who had led the war effort at home. No wonder that levels of confidence in the big units and their leaders remained high for a generation—higher, I suspect, than they had ever been before the Midcentury Moment and higher, certainly, than they have been since.

No wonder, also, that Americans in the Midcentury Moment were unusually conformist, content to be very small cogs in very large machines: They married and bore children at record rates for an advanced society; they worked as organization men and flocked to mass-produced suburbs; they worshipped in seemingly interchangeable churches. This was an America that celebrated the average, the normal, the regular.

The liberals who long to return to the Midcentury Moment seem to forget that it was a time of enormous cultural uniformity that stigmatized being unmarried or unchurched or gay. The huge menu of lifestyle choices from which we can choose today was a very short menu with very few choices then.
Now imagine the economic liberals making common cause with the Moral Majority ...
FUND THE ENGLISH DEPARTMENT PROPERLY.  Professor Murray (Beer 'n Circus) Sperber explains why you can't teach writing on the cheap, or pretend that Writing Across the Curriculum is a division of labor that makes everyone's task easier.
Poor student writing is a terrible problem and I offer the following recommendations based on my 40 years of teaching composition.

Many students need to be taught the basic concepts of English composition. Start with words; students often insert totally inappropriate polysyllabic words when common, shorter ones would work much better.  Move on to sentences: Rule Number 1: avoid passive constructions whenever possible. Then on to paragraphs, followed by one-page papers, and finally, 3-to-5 page papers.  (Students should have learned those skills in middle and high school but most have not; colleges and universities must teach them.)

Most of all, instructors must line-edit student work. Yes, line-editing is very labor-intensive, but there is no shortcut for this key function.

Composition instructors should also stress rewriting; students must correct and resubmit all work that the instructor has line-edited. By the end of the semester, students may be able to revise on their own, but instructors should always ask for drafts of a paper—if nothing else, it short-circuits plagiarism.

Learning to write is not a mystical process; in fact, it is quite simple. Someone who knows more about writing than the student goes over the student’s work line-by-line, and demonstrates how to correct specific problems. A grad student in my survey, an excellent writer, attributed her ability to her mother working with her that way on her writing every night during her K-12 years.

Many other students who could write well had attended private colleges and had instructors who line-edited their work. Unfortunately, many graduates of public universities, even the “Public Ivies,” have never had anyone line-edit their work. As a result, they have serious writing problems, despite the fact that they’ve written a huge number of pages.

How to institutionalize my recommendations?  First, make basic English Composition a much more intensive writing course for undergraduate students than at present and hire trained instructors for this labor-intensive work. Some private universities do that, paying their comp teachers well and giving them five-year renewable contracts. Almost no public universities do anything remotely like that, except in some honors divisions.

Too many universities, even those making a serious attempt to include a quality Freshmen Comp course, do not follow up the basic course with subsequent intensive writing classes. Many students improve their writing during their freshman year and then either hit a plateau in their writing or, more often, forget what they learned and lapse into sloppy writing. Educators know that learned skills must be reinforced but many schools fail to do so.
He has additional recommendations, none of which can be accomplished on the cheap, none of which emphasize technology or active learning or any of the other deaducationist fads of the hour.
FOLLOW THE MONEY.  A recent study of income equality confirms that the nerds beat the jocks.
For years, statistics have depicted growing income disparity in the United States, and it has reached levels not seen since the Great Depression. In 2008, the last year for which data are available, for example, the top 0.1% of earners took in more than 10% of the personal income in the United States, including capital gains, and the top 1% took in more than 20%. But economists had little idea who these people were. How many were Wall Street financiers? Sports stars? Entrepreneurs? Economists could only speculate, and debates over what is fair stalled.

Now a mounting body of economic research indicates that the rise in pay for company executives is a critical feature in the widening income gap.

The largest single chunk of the highest-income earners, it turns out, are executives and other managers in firms, according to a landmark analysis of tax returns by economists Jon Bakija, Adam Cole and Bradley T. Heim. These are not just executives from Wall Street, either, but from companies in even relatively mundane fields such as the milk business.

The top 0.1% of earners make about $1.7 million or more, including capital gains. Of those, 41% were executives, managers and supervisors at nonfinancial companies, according to the analysis, with nearly half of them deriving most of their income from their ownership in privately held firms. An additional 18% were managers at financial firms or financial professionals at any sort of firm. In all, nearly 60% fell into one of those two categories.
The political economy of getting rich is about what you would expect.
Inequality, economists have noted, is an essential part of capitalism. At least in theory, "the invisible hand," or market system, sets compensation levels to lead workers into pursuits that are the most productive to society. This produces inequality but leads to a more efficient economy.

As a result, economists have noted, there is an inherent tension in market-oriented democracies, because while society aims to endow each person with equal political rights, it allows very unequal economic outcomes.

Americans have been uneasy about the income gap at least since the '80s, according to polls.

Repeated surveys by the National Opinion Research Center since 1987 have found that 60% or more of Americans agree or strongly agree with the statement that "differences in income in America are too large."

The uneasiness arises out of the fear that extremes of wealth can unfairly reduce the economic opportunities and political rights of everyone else, according to sociologists. The wealthy, for example, can afford better private schools for their children or acquire political might by purchasing campaign advertising or making campaign donations. Moreover, as millions struggle to find jobs in the wake of the recession, the notion that the very wealthiest are gaining ground strikes some as unfair.

"Americans think income inequality is excessive and have done so consistently for years," said Leslie McCall, a sociology professor at Northwestern University who is writing a book on the subject. "Their concerns arise when it seems that extreme incomes for some are restricting opportunities for everyone else."

Whatever people think of it, the gap between the very highest earners and everyone else has been widening significantly.
But it's not about entertainers and pro sports and lobbyists.
After executives, managers and financial professionals, the next largest groups in the top 0.1% of earners were lawyers with 6.2% and real estate professionals at 4.7%. Media and sports figures, who are often assumed to represent a large portion of very high-income earners, collectively made up only 3%.

"Basically, executives represent a much bigger share of the top incomes than a lot of people had thought," said Bakija, a professor at Williams College, who with his co-authors is continuing the research.
The charts that accompany the article also show a few salespeople, professors and scientists, and farmers and ranchers with annual incomes in excess of $1.7 million.

Evaluate the numbers carefully: the top one-tenth-of one percent begins at $1.7 million, the average over those 152,000 households is $5.6 million, and the top earner's reported income is not disclosed, but is not bounded from above.  On the other hand, the average for the bottom ninety percent is $31,244.  The incomes of those 137.2 million households are bounded from below by zero, and bounded above at about $80,000.  That last figure is not stated in the article, it's an educated guess.  Where incomes are bounded from below but not from above, statements about inequality that focus on widening gaps between top and bottom are in part artifacts of an expanding universe:  the political economy issue is really whether there are fewer private schools (or schools that come bundled with granite countertops) than there used to be.

The detailed charts suggest that the folks just above the upper middle class have also done well.  The approximately 14 million households in the ninetieth to ninety-ninth percentile show income gains.  I may have to check on Google Scholar from a work computer to see if the working paper from which this research comes is available, and if the lower percentiles are disaggregated.  That disaggregation would be instructive as to whether we're observing an economic analogue to an expanding universe, or if all percentiles up to the ninetieth have lost ground.

20.6.11

DO YOU RAGE, OR DO YOU ATTEMPT TO UNDERSTAND?  Matt Taibbi, whose The Great Derangement was material for a 2009 book review, is back with Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con that is Breaking America.  Book Review No. 15: once the name calling is over, what reforms will be in place, and with what effect?  Mr Taibbi opens with a dig at Tea Party enthusiasts (page 12):
If you want to understand why America is such a paradise for high-class thieves, just look at the way a manufactured movement like the Tea Party corrals and neutralizes public anger that otherwise should be sending pitchforks in the direction of downtown Manhattan.

There are two reasons why Tea Party voters will probably never get wise to the Ponzi-scheme reality of bubble economics.  One has to do with the sales pitch of Tea Party rhetoric, which cleverly exploits Main Street frustrations over genuinely intrusive state and local governments that are constantly in the pockets of small businesses for fees and fines and permits.

The other reason is obvious: the bubble economy is hard as hell to understand.  To even have a chance at grasping how it works, you need to commit large chunks of time to learning about things like securitization, credit default swaps, collateralized default obligations, etc., stuff that's fiendishly complicated and that if ingested too quickly can feature a truly toxic boredom factor.

So long as this stuff is not widely understood by the public, the Grifter class is going to skate on almost everything it does -- because the tendency of most voters, in particular conservative voters, is to assume that Wall Street makes its money engaging in normal capitalist business and that any attempt to restrain that sector of the economy is thinly disguised socialism.
Elsewhere in the book, Mr Taibbi identifies the role of the Federal Reserve -- yes, that bete noire of Ayn Rand and Ron Paul -- in keeping the various bubbles inflated and the Connected Class solvent: socialism for the rich.  It's apparently more fun to snark at Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann.  Or to miss the point.
Our world isn't about ideology anymore.  It's about complexity.  We live in a complex bureaucratic state with complex laws and complex business practices, and the few organizations with the corporate willpower to master these complexities will inevitably own the political power.  On the other hand, movements like the Tea Party more than anything else reflect a widespread longing for simpler times and simple solutions -- just throw the U. S. Constitution at the whole mess and everything will be jake.  For immigration, build a big fence.  Abolish the Federal Reserve, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Education.  At times the overt longing for simple answers that you get from Tea Party leaders is so earnest and touching, it almost makes you forget how insane most of them are.
Again, easier to snark than to analyze.  Look at that list: the inflater of the bubble, the chief almoner of corporate welfare, and the creator of content-free content standards.  Mr Taibbi seems to understand the problem at some level, as this passage from page 30 suggests, but he doesn't develop a theoretically consistent argument.
There are really two Americas, one for the grifter class and one for everybody else.  In everybody-else land, the world of small businesses and wage-earning employees, the government is something to be avoided, an overwhelming, all-powerful entity whose attentions usually presage some kind of financial setback, if not complete ruin.  In the grifter world, however, government is a slavish lapdog that the financial companies that will be the major players in this book use as a tool for making money.
It thus follows that enumerated and limited powers are insane.  Mr Taibbi doesn't go there.  He has another opportunity, later in the book, to go there again, when he voices fears that Obamacare (his word, not mine) will be the next public program to be captured by the grifters.  Reward people for mastering the complexities of the procedural republic: do not act surprised when people master those complexities.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
CAN'T CARRY WATER FOR A PATTERNMAKER.   Jay Mathews engages an argument by UCLA's Mike Rose about the proper role of high school and college.  They agree that fobbing off anybody who doesn't look like college material, for whatever reason, into the industrial arts track is a mistake.
People like me jabber about great high school teachers they have seen having enormous impact on disadvantaged students. But, Rose notes, those classroom magicians didn’t save everyone. The majority of students in their schools never get near a college. Rose says he has worked with students who were bad in high school, but are now deeply engaged in vocational community college courses. “Yet they resist, often with strong emotion, anything smacking of the traditional classroom, including the very structure of the classroom itself. This resistance holds even when the subject (textiles, history of fashion) relates to their interests.”

College-oriented intellectuals like me who can’t fix anything mechanical beyond changing a battery don’t understand the conceptual depths of some vocational training, Rose says. The physics of electrical repair and the chemistry of hospital lab work “can give rise to the study of the arts and sciences,” he says.

This makes sense. Our side of the great high school debate will have to find ways that low-income students can afford college and support themselves and their families as they seek a degree. College programs that combine work and study make sense.

Even more important, and more difficult, is the failure of our side to produce a style of college-prep high school instruction that overcomes the visceral distaste many students have for sitting in a classroom and responding to a teacher at a white board or an overhead. There are high schools that appear to be doing this, like the Big Picture and High Tech High models. But they require unusually skilled teachers of a sort not easily found, and not being given that kind of training in our education schools.
Indeed.

But without a grounding in the habits of the middle class, starting in kindergarten, all those improvements on chalk-and-talk are as for naught.
COMPLEX PROPOSITION ALERT.  At Minding the Campus, Publius Audax conflates competition for position with competition that augments economic welfare.
The problem with the pursuit of ‘prestige’ is that it is an inherently zero-sum game. What prestige UT gains must come at the loss of a university somewhere else (Berkeley or Columbus). This leads to an endless arms race in rising salaries and falling workload for article-generating academic stars, accelerating the rise in costs for students while distracting energy and initiative away from the quality of instruction.
How shall I proceed?

One way: rephrase the first two sentences.  The problem with the pursuit of 'train speed' is that it is an inherently zero-sum game.  What prestige The Milwaukee Road gains must come at the loss of a railroad somewhere else (Burlington or Chicago and North Western.)  Think again: isn't a faster service a benefit to travellers, no matter whether it's Milwaukee or Burlington or the Rock Island or the Soo Line rewriting the timetables?

And thus the heart of the matter: in what way does the market test for academic credentials work?   The author's premise appears to be that administrators engage in expense-preference behavior (why should managers not act like managers everywhere?) by recruiting professors who lend their names (and their grant money) to the institution, while providing nothing for the students.  Perhaps it is sufficient for the most selective institutions to assemble classes of high achieving self-starters who will polish their human capital with little contact with those star professors who, snarking about falling workload notwithstanding, are focusing on their grants, and their publishing.

But where there is expense-preference behavior, there is implicitly a constraint that the managers must satisfy lest they get fired.  In for-profit businesses, managerial models have a minimum level of profit the firm must earn in order to satisfy the stockholders at the same time the managers are pursuing their goals of sales or market share or growth or emoluments.

Such a constraint is less easy to motivate in a world of non-profit institutions with at least some ability to credibly signal the ability of their clients.  But costs that rise for students at a rate higher than the appreciation in value of the signal (or the return on human capital) are incentives to substitute, and substitution implies the enforcement of constraints.

Thus, the column does not rule out institutions imitating the academic profile of the most highly regarded institutions, and competing on dimensions of student services other than funded research or big time sports.
MR. ROOSEVELT'S ARMORED TRAIN GETS AROUND.  The tool car that magically becomes a relic of Dr. Win The War turns up in Chicago.


The Superintendent is not at liberty to say how the car is transmuted into HO Scale.

19.6.11

PREACHING, IN THE PROPER FORM, TO THE CONVERTED.  P. J. O'Rourke's latest book is Don't Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards.  Quick Book Review No. 14:  it's likely to amuse people whose worldview is similar to Mr O'Rourke's, while giving those who don't ample reason to mutter "mean-spirited" or "not funny" or "I'm offended."  It comes in three parts.  First, we get The Sex, Death, and Boredom Theory of Politics.  Freedom is good.  Happiness is not an entitlement.  Then comes What Is to Be Done?  The answer is not one that Lenin, who also posed that question, would agree with.  The section is a perspective on current events.  The policy prescription is the third part, Putting Our Big, Fat Political Ass on a Diet.  "The only answer to politics is to reduce its power."  That's page 253.  The rest is simply commentary.

The Proper Form refers to the book's footnoting.  Where Mr O'Rourke makes reference to a source, there is a number on the page, and a corresponding number at the bottom of that page identifying a description of the source, and perhaps an excerpt from that source.  None of this easy-for-the-typesetter, never mind the strain on the reader provision of end-notes, and, most notably, none of this numbered endnotes, internal asides in the position of footnotes, but identified by asterisks or daggers or other survivals of railroad timetabling, that are symptoms of either a sloppy writer or a lazy editor.

Never mind the politics, master the forms of footnoting!

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
DOUBLE ENTENDRE?  U. S. Not Dense Enough for High-Speed Rail.  Cold Spring Shops regulars know the facts.  The proprietor of the weblog knows his railroads.
High-speed interurban lines are an American invention. Though Japan systematized HSR with the Shinkansen, the U.S. had streamliners running many years earlier between cities at speeds faster than Amtrak runs today. So HSR is, in fact, an American invention. We just forgot about it.
I believe that's The Case for Traditional Passenger Rail.
TAX DOLLARS AT WORK.  Friday was the perfect kind of day to play hookey, as well as the kind of day the over-the-road truckers would like to get their load delivered early and head for home.

It was also the kind of day the Illinois Department of Transportation picked to make what looked like a non-emergency repair to an overhead sign where Interstate 39 flies over U.S. 20 near Rockford, requiring the crews to take part of the off-ramp and one lane at a time out of service.  Yes, mid-morning on a getaway day.  I'm sure somebody in the Department of Transportation had good reason to do so then, rather than, say, around sunset on Thursday, when the road is less taken.

The lineup of trucks waiting to clear the bottleneck was pretty impressive.  Some days, the right lane of Interstate 39, and the free part of Interstate 90 north of the Cheddar Curtain, is a solid line of trucks, sometimes with a solid line of speeding flatlanders congealing behind one of the elephants pulling out to pass, at 66 mph, one or more of the elephants going 65 mph.  That congestion might be one indicator of something resembling an economic recovery.  The roadhogs' lobby is slow to release its index of truck tonnage, but the January 2011 index is near the January 2008 value.

The real elephants were further north.  Here, however, is an economics puzzle.  On a purchasing-power adjusted basis, is a ticket to a Britney Spears ticket cheaper than a ticket to the late nineteenth century P. T. Barnum sideshow?


Amy Arlington was one of several performers brought out in the course of the sideshow.  The snake act is not always part of Britney Spears's routine.

Nora Hildebrandt would have to look for some other job today, as one does not have to pay the barker money to view a tattooed lady.  Just go to the beach.

The culture-studies chin-pullers, of course, have no lack of research questions (with the predictable interpretations) when it comes to female sideshow performers.

No doubt they'd find much to Get Upset About with this prop, from a long ago clown act.


The traveling circus was like that, though.  Exotica was exotica, not necessarily to be affirmed or celebrated.

16.6.11

CARING FOR THE GRAND ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC.  Milwaukee's Soldiers Home, authorized by President Lincoln, and the last intact Soldiers Home, is on the list of endangered historic places.
The Soldiers Home was one of the first racially integrated federal programs, if not the first, a place where white and black Civil War veterans lived together many years before the armed forces were themselves desegregated, according to newspaper archives.
It might have been the only Soldiers Home with a view of a ballpark. The Veterans Administration built bleachers on Mockingbird Hill overlooking County Stadium.  The roof mechanism for Miller Park obstructs any such viewing from the grounds.
WHO ABANDONED WHOM?  Remaking the University offers a perspective on the academic positional arms race.
Much of the public is no longer willing to pay for the service-university, where so much of that service is clearly going not to their children or grandchildren or neighbors children but to the usual suspects at the top of a society whose growing inequality has led to their own economic decline.  It could be an entirely different story for the development-university, one centered on the academic development of all of its students, undergrad and grad, through teaching and research alike.
That sounds like the old land grant model, something different from a subprime party school or an open-admissions, content-free college light.  The problem, though, is in using tax dollars to support a service that might not be available to all a state's residents.
THE BOULEVARD OF STEEL.  Trains for America reports that New York Representative Louise Slaughter wants to speed up the Empire Corridor.
"I am continuing to push forward in my effort to bring a dedicated third track for high-speed passenger rail to Upstate New York that will bring passengers from Buffalo to Albany to New York City at a top speed of 110 mph," said Slaughter. "I look forward to continuing our conversation with the goal of achieving 110 mph across Upstate New York because I know that high-speed rail is a win-win situation for passenger rail, freight rail and New York."
Advantage, Cold Spring Shops.
New York already has space for dedicated passenger tracks in the Empire Corridor -- one simply replaces the tracks the Vanderbilts installed and Robert R. Young removed.
Existing Amtrak service, including the Lake Shore Limited, is capable of 110 mph speeds on West Albany hill, without the need for a pusher out of the Albany station, something the Super Hudsons on the Twentieth Century Limited regularly required.  The provision of separate passenger tracks in the Empire Corridor, which is the configuration the New York Central System had, would also spare freight dispatchers the obligation to cross both passenger and freight trains from track to track to keep the line fluid, something that contributes to a rough ride.  Traditional Passenger Rail rules.
THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD.  In Coral Gables, Florida, put your pickup truck inside at night.
City spokeswoman Maria Rosa Higgins Fallon said, "Historically, Coral Gables has gone through great lengths to preserve its character through the enforcement of its zoning code, a reason why in a downward economy, property values in Coral Gables have fared better than in other neighboring communities."
Might stimulate some garage reconstruction, as contemporary pickups have the cross-section of an aircraft carrier.
DIVERGING APPROACH LIMITED.   Rule 245J now has an analogue on traffic lights.  A flashing aspect, most recently a flashing yellow left turn arrow, is less restrictive than a steady aspect.
The Federal Highway Administration estimates that the signals — which allow drivers to make a left turn after yielding, even when the light is red for traffic going straight and opposing traffic has a green light — are in use at more than 1,000 intersections, and the number is rising, spokeswoman Cathy St. Denis says.
That description is imprecise.  The Michigan version, in which a flashing yellow arrow replaces a flashing red arrow (Rule 245N), stipulates that oncoming traffic has the green.  The national Department of Transportation has done some research, concluding that a more permissive aspect expedites traffic flow.

First you create channels at crossroads, and set up traffic lights that permit left turns only on arrows, and then make people wait for the light to cycle, and then you conclude that all those constraints on motion impede motion.  Duh.

Those signals still will be holding traffic going straight for the duration of the left turn arrow, and if those signals are not synchronized with neighboring signals, there's still a greater waste of time and gas in those queues that take so long to clear out as the lights change.
DON'T DRINK THE WATER.  Portland, Oregon drains a reservoir.
Water officials in Portland, Ore., decided to drain a reservoir holding nearly 8 million gallons of drinking water after a security camera captured a 21-year-old man urinating into itearly Wednesday, The Oregonian tells us.
Water authorities do not flush reservoirs when a skunk drowns in one.  Costs and benefits, apparently.
A REALITY CHECK FOR THE POLITICAL CLASS.  Brian Williams characterizes the Anthony Weiner (pronounced "wiener") racy Twitter story as a distraction.

Wrong.  Governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed, and citizen legislators ought not be indulging themselves like tsarist princes.

14.6.11

THE CASE FOR TRADITIONAL PASSENGER RAIL.  The latest proposal to speed up Midwestern passenger rail service to get sneered at is the Iowa line.  Wendell Cox offers his readers the grisly details.
The Federal government is again offering money it does not have to entice a state (Iowa) to spend money that it does not have on something it does not need. The state of Iowa is being asked to provide funds to match federal funding for a so-called "high speed rail" line from Chicago to Iowa City. The new rail line would simply duplicate service that is already available. Luxury intercity bus service is provided between Iowa City and Chicago twice daily. The luxury buses are equipped with plugs for laptop computers and with free wireless high-speed internet service. Perhaps most surprisingly, the luxury buses make the trip faster than the so-called high speed rail line, at 3:50 hours. The trains would take more than an hour longer (5:00 hours). No one would be able to get to Chicago quicker than now. Only in America does anyone call a train that averages 45 miles per hour "high speed rail."

The state would be required to provide $20 million in subsidies to buy trains and then more to operate the trains, making up the substantial difference between costs and passenger fares. This is despite a fare much higher than the bus fare, likely to be at least $50 (based upon current fares for similar distances). By contrast, the luxury bus service charges a fare of $18.00, and does not require a penny of taxpayer subsidy. Because the luxury bus is commercially viable (read "sustainable"), service can readily be added and funded by passengers. Adding rail service would require even more in subsidies from Iowa. The bus is also more environmentally friendly than the train.

Further, this funding would be just the first step of a faux-high speed rail plan that envisions new intercity trains from Chicago across Iowa to Omaha. In the long run, this could cost the state hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars. Already, a similar line from St. Louis to Chicago has escalated in cost nearly 10 times, after adjustment for inflation, from under $400 million to $4 billion.
Michael Barone picked up the column, and the usual suspects are raising the usual objections.

Mr Barone's description of the bus service is incomplete.
It’s part of a larger trend for private companies to offer convenient and inexpensive bus service. A one-way ticket on the bus costs $18, compared to a likely train fare of more than $50. And the bus takes only three hours and 50 minutes to get from Iowa City to Chicago. That’s one hour and 10 minutes faster than the “high-speed” train.

So let’s get this straight. The progressive, modern, “win the future” high-speed rail, which would cost the taxpayers of Iowa millions, would be slower than existing bus service and would cost more. Why ever would Iowa want to spend one dime on this project?
That bus service is less than meets the eye.  It's a by subscription service, without public timetables, and the service is not as frequent or as cheap as Messrs Barone and Cox would have you believe.  I did a search for a weekday round trip from Chicago (the bus loads outside Union Station) to Iowa City and return.  Leave Chicago at five this afternoon, arrive Iowa City at the corner of Dubuque and Court Streets 8.50 pm, $28.  Return tomorrow afternoon, leave 7.10 pm, arrive at Union Station at 11 pm, $28.  No mention of intermediate stops for passengers or food or potty or smoke breaks.

But the critics of Passenger Rail are correct on one point.  Iowa can have a passenger train that's time competitive with the bus, and for less money than the national government and the states of Illinois and Iowa are paying to keep patching Interstate 80.  I give you Traditional Passenger Rail.


I took the picture at the Illinois Railway Museum on Memorial Day.  Inasmuch as the Iowa fast train is to start on the Burlington racetrack as far as Wyanet, where it gets on the Rock Island Line, and both railroads operated fixed-formation stainless steel train sets with Twelve Hundred Horsepower or Eighteen Hundred Horsepower locomotives, it serves.  Along the way, a train is capable of setting passengers down at Rock Island for the casinos, or stopping at Naperville to pick up Illinoisans for whom being a Hawkeye unaccountably dominates being a Huskie.  And that timing on the intercity bus?
The aforementioned Des Moines Rocket reached Iowa City in 4 hours 25 minutes on the timetable in effect in June of 1954, and the Rocky Mountain Rocket was there 3 hours 54 minutes after leaving Chicago. 
Note: more than one train a day. The value of a corridor is in having multiple trains making intermediate stops (but not so many intermediate stops to destroy the speed advantage of the train over longer distances.)  It doesn't have to involve fancy electric trains or all the other European trappings the highway lobby's useful idiots masquerading as libertarians like to invoke.  Good old diesel locomotives geared for 117 mph with rakes of stainless steel coaches connected the Midwest with a passenger train network destroyed partly by the carriers' loss of interest in being railroads, and partly by public spending on interstate highways that are themselves wearing out.