The magnificence of high-speed rail by mattsteinglass
July 1, 2010, 3:45 pm
Filed under: Europe, Transportation

This summer for various reasons, both business and pleasure, we’ve had to arrange the vacation time so we could visit both my wife’s family in the Netherlands and mine in the good old US of A. We used to do this regularly a few years back, and the method was to get a round-trip ticket from Hanoi to New York with a stopover in Amsterdam. Singapore Air, Thai Airways and Air Malaysia all fly to Schiphol, so it wasn’t too hard to arrange this. But this year for whatever reason all the flights to New York through Amsterdam were unbelievably expensive. In May, however, it occurred to me to check out the possibility of flying to New York through Paris, and taking the Thalys high-speed train back and forth from Paris to Amsterdam. This turned out to be much cheaper and no more time-consuming, since Vietnam Airways runs a very cheap direct flight from Hanoi to Paris, which cuts out the Bangkok, Singapore or KL transfer.

Anyway, long story short, to get to Amsterdam, we flew to Paris yesterday and took the TGV. To get the cheap fare on the Thalys, you had to pre-book, so I booked a train that left us plenty of time to get to the station in case our flight was late. As it happened, our flight was on time, so we wound up at the Gare du Nord with three hours to kill. Now, if you’re stuck in an airport for three hours with young kids waiting for your next flight, you wander around trying to find a playground, usually fail to find one, and end up succumbing to their whining pleas for smoothies and coloring books.

If, on the other hand, you’re stuck at Gare du Nord some morning for three hours with young kids, you go for a stroll, like this:

Sacre Coeur, Montmartre

The Thalys from Paris to Amsterdam takes about 3 1/2 hours. So by the afternoon, we were sitting on a friend’s houseboat on the Amstel.

Houseboat on River Amstel

I mean, not that it wasn’t a really long trip or that really long trips with kids are every free of unpleasantnesses. There was dropped ice cream, whining, and so forth. But in the meantime we got a few hours in Montmartre and the kids got to actually see something of Paris, rather than seeing the inside of an airport. Since the point of travel is generally to see places like Paris rather than to see the insides of airports, I think the ability of rail travel to get you to fun places directly, and to do so via other places that are, themselves, often fun, is a big advantage over air travel.


Every man a John DeLorean by mattsteinglass
May 31, 2009, 12:50 am
Filed under: Marxism, Transportation

I think the answer to Matthew Yglesias’s question of where the relentless increase in government-subsidized auto industry overcapacity will end might lie in C. Wright Mills’s vision of the ultimate non-alienated society where everyone builds his own car.

Socialism spreads beyond the Defense Department by mattsteinglass
May 12, 2009, 8:43 am
Filed under: Transportation, War

Matthew Yglesias notes that US federal spending has leapt to European levels as a result of the stimulus, but that it should drop back to normal US levels in the future. But then he notes:

Some of the money really will just dry up. But there’s some good stuff in that stimulus, especially on education and on high-speed rail, that it’d be a shame to see go “poof.” I doubt we’ll see overall spending plateau at FY 2009 levels, but over the medium term we could see some of the stimulus programs crowd out state spending or federal spending on other, less worthy (the military, farm subsidies, etc.) priorities.

I can almost vaguely imagine cutting farm subsidies at some point, but how exactly is the US supposed to start cutting defense spending? Where does the political consensus to do that come from? I agree wholeheartedly that we should cut defense spending drastically, but not a single American politician seems to have the guts to try it. And given that the DoD is the bastioned redoubt of American socialism — state-supported monopoly firms building staggeringly expensive products that often enough aren’t even desired by their tiny number of “consumers”, and are just built to provide jobs in legislators’ districts — I don’t see how that changes.

And without cutting defense spending, I don’t see how we get the money for upgrading our public infrastructure to compete with Europe, Japan and China. To a first approximation, it seems to me that the reason the US doesn’t have this:


ICE train, Amsterdam. By Erwin van der Meer. Creative Commons license.

ICE train, Amsterdam. By Erwin van der Meer. Creative Commons license.

…is that it has this:


US aircraft carriers, fighters and B2 bomber, Pacific Ocean. By US Navy Chief Photographer’s Mate Todd P. Cichonowicz, Creative Commons license.

US aircraft carriers, fighters and B2 bomber, Pacific Ocean. By US Navy Chief Photographer’s Mate Todd P. Cichonowicz, Creative Commons license.

But almost no one is allowed to ride on the latter stuff, and the justifications that are being offered for having them at this point are extremely unpersuasive.

The flap of a chicken’s wing can cause the collapse of an auto industry 50 years later by mattsteinglass
May 6, 2009, 9:31 pm
Filed under: Transportation

On Dani Rodrik’s blog, Robert Lawrence has an explanation of the long slow suicide of the US automakers that’s so neat and unexpected, it’s too good to be true. We all know US automakers chose to build SUVs  and pickups for far too long because the profit margins were higher. But why were the profit margins higher? In part, as it turns out, because the US charged a 25% tariff on imports of light trucks, and just a 3.5% tariff on imports of other cars. But why did the US charge a 25% tariff on light trucks? Aha:

It all comes down to the long forgotten chicken wars of the 60s.  In 1962, when implementing the European Common Market, the Community denied access to US chicken producers. In response after being unable to resolve the issue diplomatically, the US responded with retaliatory tariffs that included a twenty five percent tariffs on trucks that was aimed at the German Volkswagen Combi-Bus that was enjoying brisk sales in the US. 

Since the trade (GATT) rules required that retaliation be applied on a non-discriminatory basis, the tariffs were levied on all truck-type vehicles imported from all countries and have never been removed. Over time, the Germans stopped building these vehicles and today the tariffs are mainly paid on trucks coming from Asia. The tariffs have bred bad habits, steering Detroit away from building high-quality automobiles towards trucks and truck like cars that have suddenly fallen into disfavor.

It’s so crazy and perfect it almost defies belief. But a lot of things that defy belief have turned out to be true lately.

Libertarian solution to piracy: more piracy by mattsteinglass
April 16, 2009, 1:49 pm
Filed under: Conservatism, Crime, Terrorism, Transportation

Josh Marshall notes Ron Paul‘s intriguing proposal for combating Somali-style piracy: issuing “Letters of Marque and Reprisal”.

“We shouldn’t put prohibitions in their way. We shouldn’t say that they can’t carry guns. Because quite frankly, I think the companies are capable of dealing with this. But it also raises the subject of the, principle of the “Marque and Reprisal”. The “Marque and Reprisal” principle was used in our early years, lo and behold, for pirates. And that means that, under international agreement and understanding, and a letter coming from our US Congress, those ships do have a right under international law to defend themselves.”

As Marshall notes, this isn’t really what “Letters of Marque and Reprisal” were. They were, rather, licenses issued by one country to captains allowing them to practice piracy against the ships of other countries, generally countries the first country was at war with. Paul’s proposal makes no sense because no private entrepreneur is going to be interested in a license to sail to the Horn of Africa and rob dirt-poor Somalis whose only possessions are rubber dinghies, outboard motors and AK-47s. As for the merchant ships themselves, they don’t need Letters of Marque; they have the right to defend themselves under international law right now. The reason merchant crews don’t carry arms is that ship owners don’t want their crews carrying arms, because they’re afraid of shipboard unrest.

But at a deeper level, Paul’s proposals seems to me like one of those moments that touches on the weakness of the libertarian project. Maximalist libertarians find it almost impossible to recognize that there are any problems created by individual liberty that can’t be solved with more individual liberty, any flaws in free markets that can’t be solved with more free markets. Problems with widespread gun ownership? Solution: more gun ownership! Problems with unregulated financial institutions? Solution: more deregulation of financial institutions! Problems with the private health system? Solution: more privatization of the health system! Even with a good as transparently public as safety on the high seas, you’ve got Ron Paul arguing that the solution is to issue licenses to private entrepreneurs. Because if piracy is illegal, only criminals will be pirates. It’s silly.

DC Purple Line: only “revolutionary” in the sense that Stalin was by mattsteinglass
December 5, 2008, 8:31 am
Filed under: Russia, Transportation, United States

Not sure why Ezra Klein and Brad Plumer think the DC Metro’s proposed Purple Line represents some kind of revolutionary move towards connecting suburbs to suburbs rather than the hub-and-spoke model of connecting suburbs to city centers. In fact the traditional subway model has always aspired to hub, spoke, and wheel. That’s because as you get farther away from the city center, the spokes get farther apart, and the people living in between them 1. are likely to be living too far from a station, and 2. have to travel all the way to the center and transfer in order to get to any intermediate destination, which is inefficient. Here is the proposed DC Purple Line:

I grew up right near that proposed “West Silver Spring” station, and as a teenager, I took the subway probably half as often as I might have, because I was stuck almost two miles from either the Tenleytown stop or the Silver Spring stop. Now here, for comparison, is a map of the Moscow subway system, mostly built between the 1930s and 1970s in a traditional hub-spoke-wheel model:

Note how the brown “Circle Line” accomplishes the same thing as the proposed DC Purple Line, but in a more complete fashion. Also, did you know baseball was invented in Russia?

That everyone has a right to their own tastes does not preclude my arguing that some of their tastes are bad by mattsteinglass
August 12, 2008, 2:29 pm
Filed under: Transportation

I note Matthew Yglesias saying that to argue for less cars and more urban transit doesn’t mean arguing for eliminating all cars, and I think: well, sort of. Yglesias is moving to a fallback position, that he objects to his own resources being spent to subsidize other people’s love of cars. If that’s as far as he’s prepared to go, then fine for him. But personally, I am not satisfied with stopping at “Hey, if you want to live in a subdivision and drive everywhere that’s fine, but you have to pay the costs of your own negative externalities.” I could stop there, but it doesn’t fully express the honest truth of my aesthetic and moral judgment, which is that car-based suburbs are terrible. That is my judgment, as someone who grew up in an essentially suburban neighborhood (though technically inside Washington, DC — the very fact that we used to insist on the distinction tells you something), and it is grounded in evidence both quantitative and qualitative.

Hilary Putnam has a terrific book called The Collapse of the Fact-Value Dichotomy in which he argues that people have assimilated, through a series of confused misunderstandings, the notion that there is an absolute distinction between facts and values, and that while you can have arguments over facts, you can’t have arguments over values. Putnam tries to show that this isn’t true, that most of the things we think of as “facts” are actually “thick” concepts which come with values already built into them, and that the way we learn and believe in values isn’t categorically distinct from the way we learn and believe in facts. He thinks we can and should argue about values, too. I think Yglesias may be buying into the dichotomy, and I don’t think he has to. In fact American culture is a constant and never-ending argument about values, and arguing for good urban values and against the bad aspects of the exurbs is part of the common decisionmaking process about how we’re going to construct our society in the future. Which, whether it’s building highways and offramps or maglevs and bike trails, is inevitably a common decision.