Getting ready for the next disaster

One of the many surprises resulting from the carnage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy was how ill-prepared the US northeast—well, the entire US East Coast, for that matter—was in terms of defending what passes for its infrastructure. New York City has yet to take any initiative whatsoever on any plan to deal with rising oceans from global warming, including the well-forecasted impact of storm surges. But there were other significant preparedness shortfalls as well. Had no one really ever thought deeply about how to distribute gasoline if none of the pumps worked? Or how to get heat, food and medicines to people if there was a massive disruption to the grid? Or whether or not it might be a good idea to have a stash of spare generators handy? Based on the evidence, it would appear that if there was some deep thinking going on here, and there probably was somewhere, much of it never got incorporated into actual policy measures.

Well, it’s nothing new. Two years ago the Long Island Rail Road suffered a catastrophic power shutdown when a fire destroyed one switch. It turns out that some of the switches used by the LIRR are more than 100 years old. Some of the system has since been upgraded, but still—not upgrading your switching system on one of the busiest railroads in America for over 100 years? Meanwhile, bridges keep being closed, and occasionally collapsing, around the country, ever since the horrific (and highly public) collapse of the I35W bridge in Minnesota in 2007.

This seems to be symptomatic of something deeper. Edmund Luce has a column in Monday’s Financial Times so spot on that it deserves a full read, but we’ll just sample some of the highlights:

Last summer India had the largest power outage in human history affecting 600m people. So it stung when my visiting Indian mother-in-law pointed out that America’s east coast, including Washington, was “as bad as India”. Then it was a so-called derecho storm, which left 6m US homes without power for days in the searing heat. Last month it was Superstorm Sandy, which left 10m households shivering. Forecasters predict a heavy late December cold snap that is bound to cause blackouts.

It is hard to pinpoint the date at which Americans developed an Indian – or perhaps British – fatalism about the declining quality of their infrastructure. When my British mother spent several months in the US in the 1950s, it was dazzlingly futuristic. There was air-conditioning, an icebox in every fridge, ubiquitous neon lights and an open road on which even the working class could afford to drive. But bit by bit over the past 30 years, the world’s first truly modern infrastructure has shown its age. It has been starved by a generation of under-investment. And Americans have adapted around it.

And just how likely is the US Congress, that paragon of forward thinking, to respond to this? Luce is not optimistic:

There are three reasons to worry. First, there is remarkably little public outrage over the dilapidation in the power grid, public roads, domestic airports and waterways. This means that lawmakers will be feeling stronger pressures in other directions (such as defending the existing low level of capital gains tax, for example, or maintaining job-creating defence budgets). It is hard to fly domestically in the US and not at regular intervals face heavy delays, cancellations or being bumped off your flight. It is also hard not to miss the impressively stoical reaction of most passengers.

Luce discusses how this could be solved relatively easily, but at a cost, which is why it probably won’t be. But he’s also captured something here. One of the issues that is most surprising about this whole situation is the resignation, if not outright indifference, that most Americans express in the face of the steady deterioration of their infrastructure. But Luce offers a proposition to account for this:

Second, most Americans are unaware of how far behind the rest of the world their country has fallen. According to the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness report, US infrastructure ranks below 20th in most of the nine categories, and below 30 for quality of air transport and electricity supply. The US gave birth to the internet – the kind of decentralised network that the US power grid desperately needs. Yet according to the OECD club of mostly rich nations, average US internet speeds are barely a 10th of those in countries such as South Korea and Germany. In an age where the global IT superhighway is no longer a slogan, this is no joke. The budding US entrepreneur can survive gridlocked traffic. But a slow internet can be crippling.

You can bet everyone in Silicon Valley is well aware of this, even if the rest of the country isn’t. And Luce has yet more:

Third, it may be asking too much of Washington in its present state of polarisation to give the green light to an ambitious infrastructure plan. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the US needs to spend $2,200bn in the next decade simply to maintain the existing quality of infrastructure. Under the current budget, Washington will spend less than half that amount. It requires a leap of faith to assume it will double, say, rather than fall sharply, when the bipartisan fiscal bargain is struck next year – if indeed it is.

In a departure from their party’s traditions, many Republicans are now ideologically opposed to any serious federal role in infrastructure and want to decentralise it to the states. It is thus also a stretch to imagine Congress setting up a public infrastructure bank, as President Barack Obama has requested. The bank would use $10bn in seed money to leverage a multiple of that in private money for cross-state projects – much like the European Investment Bank. The chances are it will stay on the drawing board.

Meanwhile, here in London, where we allegedly are under an austerity budget (and to a great extent we are) transportation infrastructure continues to be a high priority, as does the internet. And the various refrains and arguments over various models of airport expansion are now so customary as to be tedious. Prior to the Olympics this year we did some venturing out to some of the fringes of east London where there were various Olympic-related events taking place, and it was an eye-opener. London has been steadily expanding its rail infrastructure (for both the London Underground and the London Overground) further eastward. This is how it’s done. London laid out the transportation infrastructure for Canary Wharf and its environs over two decades ago, and the place just keeps growing. London is steadily marching eastwards, led in part by the transport and other infrastructure the local and national governments have had the foresight to prepare.

And this is where the impact of good planning, or the lack of it, takes on importance. It’s great fun being married to a geographer. Mrs W, in an inspired moment, once took a map of the Boston metropolitan area and overlaid it with the London Undergound map—a geographically accurate one, which is actually more impressive in some ways than the traditional Tube map. Of course, we’ve now got the nearly-fully-rebuilt Overground as well, not to mention hundreds of bus routes, and the many, many train services providing London commuters with access to and from areas outside of London. But even just sticking with the Underground map, the result is striking. The entire London Underground network is much larger than you think—it stretches literally, 16 miles north of central London, 15 miles east (with more coming), 10 miles south, and a whopping 29 miles west. (This doesn’t even include the current Crossrail project, which will allow pretty much anyone in London the ability to travel from Maidenhead to Shenfeld—nearly 50 miles) across the breadth of London on one single line.)

If you map this onto the Boston metropolitan area, particularly downtown Boston, where would this get you? Well, 15 miles east of Boston puts you in the middle of Massachusetts Bay, so that doesn’t help. 16 miles north gets you to up around North Reading. 10 miles south gets you to down around Quincy, which does have T service–the Red Line terminates there. 29 miles west of downtown Boston gets you out past Marlborough. Of course, the response will be there are the commuter rail systems, but of course they’re largely useless unless you’re an actual commuter. The commuter rail system feeding the South Shore of Boston, rebuilt in the 1990s and early 2000s at an ungodly cost, barely runs on weekends (it doesn’t even run on one of the two available lines), and mostly runs at rush hours in the morning and the evening during the week. And the MBTA is threatening further cuts in service.

This is not to say that London doesn’t have too much traffic, and too many cars. It does. But it also has evolved so that you can lead a perfectly comfortable life in London without ever hopping in a car to drive somewhere. I know of people my age who have never had a driver’s licence. And this is true in many—perhaps even most, for all I know–of the world’s cities. Certainly it’s true in Europe—but European cities, like the old cities of Britain, evolved before the automobile. And that accounts for a lot of it.

But it’s also true that we’ve all known for a decade or two now that the automobile-based culture of modern America was supported by so many forms of subisidy that users have avoided paying the full economic costs of the system; that long-term transport costs are bound to rise; and that the suburban model so prevalent in the US, and found in so few places elsewhere in the world, was going to be more difficult to sustain in the future. Right now there’s a burst of cheap energy from shale gas, but this is benefiting mainly chemical producers and utilities (and, good, consumers of natural gas utilities), at least for the time being—this may change once the full environmental costs are factored in, which they have not yet been.

But that’s only part of it. There seems also to be some aspect of American exceptionalism going on here (although I’d be prepared to accept that there’s something similar going on elsewhere if someone would point me in the right direction—China, for example—I just don’t know). Maybe it’s just outright denial. How else to account for Mayor Bloomberg’s anemic response to potential disaster (thank god for Governor Cuomo) including his magical thinking over wanting to let the New York Marathon take place the following weekend? Howe else to explain the preposterous amounts of skyscraper construction in Miami since the last major hurricane hit the area? How else to explain the mess that flood insurance is at present—where a program originally intended to let farmers stay on productive farmland has morphed into a convenient mechanism for rebuilding in areas that consistently get wiped out, and will continue to be in the future? How many more Sandys will it take before we get some sensible thinking? Edmund Luce is depressed. He has every reason to be.

An open letter to former Colorado football coach Bill McCartney: STFU

On Sunday, the University of Colorado fired head football coach Jon Embree after two seasons. Reaction has been mixed and at times heated. Some point to the results, noting not only the 4-21 record but also suggesting that the program was actually regressing. Others argued that Embree inherited a dumpster fire from previous coach Dan Hawkins and that it was unrealistic and patently unfair not to give him more than two seasons to turn things around. I personally felt that Embree’s hiring was a mistake in the first place and that he was never likely to succeed, given two years, three years or ten years. That said, I have a long, well-established track record of being wrong about CU and its football coaches, so I’m the furthest thing from an expert opinion here. Suffice it to say that I see both sides of the argument and believe each has merit.

Then yesterday, former coach Bill McCartney, regarded by some in Colorado as the Word of God on football matters, weighed in with an open letter on Embree’s firing. As the man who recruited and coached Embree, an outstanding tight end in his playing days, Coach Mac’s position on the subject surprised no one.

I encouraged [Embree] to pursue coaching. He preceded to build a solid résumé.

Finally, CU hired one of its own. Not only that, but with a pedigree that was exemplary. This guy is good.

To short-circuit a five-year contract before two full years is an indictment of true integrity. Webster’s Dictionary defines integrity as utter sincerity, honesty, candor, not artificial, not shallow, no empty promises.

“One of its own.” That was part of the problem, actually – pro-McCartney-era voices “encouraging” the AD into a questionable hire. One local media analyst – the guy I regard as the best and smartest in town, in fact – has really good contacts and insight into the workings of the athletic department at CU; he went so far as to use the word “bully” in describing the process.

The “finally” part is troublesome, too. While Embree might be the first former player hired to the job, the school previously hired a couple of McCartney assistants – fellows named “Neuheisel” and “Barnett” – and those didn’t work out so well, either.

Still, I knew what was coming when I read the word “integrity.” I wasn’t disappointed.

Men and women of Colorado, don’t let this happen. Please weigh in. This is wrong. It undermines the values of the university.

“Values of the university.” Let’s examine this, because the man throwing around all this noble language has a credibility problem.

McCartney’s early years as coach at CU were undistinguished – he only seven games in his first three years, and that third year produced a 1-10 mark. Fine. It’s a university, not an NFL franchise.

His fortunes improved dramatically once he decided to…well, put it this way. He and his staff devoted very little effort to making sure their new recruits were choirboys. Commencing with the 1987 season, his teams won 73 games in eight years, including a mythical (and highly controversial split “national title” in 1990. Meanwhile his players were keeping Boulder law enforcement busy. From 1986-89, for instance, two dozen CU student-athletes were arrested on a variety of charges, including sexual assault.

Mr. Character. And a Man of God® – McCartney is the founder of the Promise Keepers, remember. More on that in a second, but now back to that national championship. It wouldn’t have happened save for one of the worst officiating flubs in major sports history. The ref crew, with CU trying to punch in the winning TD at the end of the game, lost track and allowed Colorado to score on a 5th down play. McCartney – the one quoted above making a big deal out of “integrity,” “sincerity” and “honesty,” of course did the noble thing, right?

Ummm, no.

Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, a former Missouri Tigers player, did little to soothe the controversy. Asked whether he would consider forfeiting the game, McCartney declared that he had considered it but decided against it because “the field was lousy.”

Do as I say, not as I do, I suppose.

What else? Oh, right. Promise Keepers. An organization built on principles of female subservience and homophobia.

From a CU podium in 1992, McCartney referred to homosexuality as “an abomination against almighty God” in support of Amendment 2, which prohibited laws protecting gays from discrimination.

Not only did Coach Mac say these hateful things, he did so backed by the CU logo, lending the appearance that the university community agreed with him. Trust me, it didn’t, and he was officially reprimanded for doing so. McCartney was so bad that the school had to adopt official policy prohibiting the kinds of activity he repeatedly engaged in.

All of which leads me back to McCartney’s words in his open letter: “It undermines the values of the university.” And a question: Coach McCartney, what do you know about the “values of the university”? For that matter, what do you know about the values of any university?

In point of fact, everything he stood for, from the recruitment of players who were archetypally unsuited for a university community to his repeated insistence on advocating Old Testament morality in an environment dedicated to progress, intellect and enlightenment, was directly counter to “university principles.”

Dear Coach McCartney: Shut. The fuck. Up. Every time you open your mouth you devalue my degree a little more. You were an embarrassment to the CU community as a coach and when you seize the microphone now all you do is remind us of your hypocrisy and the fundamental corruption of your ideology.

Worse, you taint our opinions of men like Jon Embree. I don’t know much about him as a person, although he struck me as dedicated, hardworking and decent. The more you wrap your forked tongue around his firing, the more I tend to evaluate him in terms of you. In that light, losing his job is only the second-worst thing that’s happened to him this week.

Please. Shut up and go away.

Annals of Corporate Citizenship, #41,244.

Any guesses how corporate America is preparing for the impact of the resolution of the negotiations currently in the works on resolving the horribly- (and inaccurately-) named “fiscal cliff?” Well, if you guessed that there was a fire sale on giving money to shareholders before there are any changes to the current tax code, you’d be spot on. According to Markit, who tracks this sort of thing, as reported in yesterday’s Financial Times, there has been a surge in special dividends from corporate America to shareholders this quarter. As the FT succinctly puts it,

Since the start of the fourth quarter, a record 103 companies have announced they will pay special dividends before the end of the year, according to Markit. The data firm is forecasting that 123 companies will announce special fourth-quarter dividends, compared to the previous average of just 31.

Well, who knew? And why is this happening?

The current tax rate of 15 per cent on dividends, legislated by the Bush tax cuts in 2003, could spike to a top rate of more than 40 per cent next year unless President Barack Obama and Congress can avoid the fiscal cliff , which would trigger automatic tax rises and spending cuts. Mr Obama made raising taxes on the wealthy a central plank of his re-election campaign.

Well, this doesn’t sound so bad, really, if you’re a shareholder. Everyone likes a bit extra from time to time. But wait, who are the shareholders?

The dividends have been promised by companies where management insiders hold a high proportion of the shares.

And, of course, it gets better:

Some larger companies, such as Walmart, have also moved up their regular scheduled dividend payout from early January to late December. Almost half of Wal-Mart’s shares are held by the Walton family.

Huh. No one could have possibly predicted etc etc.

A company’s right to lie?

Yesterday federal District Court Judge Gladys Kessler issued a ruling requiring tobacco companies to use their own revenues to inform the public that they have lied about the dangers of tobacco use:

“Defendants have known many of these facts for at least 50 years or more. Despite that knowledge, they have consistently, repeatedly and with enormous skill and sophistication, denied these facts to the public, the Government, and to the public health community.”

The pattern of dishonesty perpetrated by Big Tobacco and their supporters is well-documented. Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway connected the dots in between the campaigns of misinformation about tobacco, DDT and climate disruption and those who designed them.

But here’s the question:  will the tobacco companies get away with it? Is corporate deceit protected by the Constitution? We may be about to find out. Continue reading

I rafted the Nile

Last weekend, I went white water rafting on Uganda’s Nile River. Fear filled my bones for days leading up to the trip, along with most of the five-hour voyage down the mighty waterway. But, I refused to leave Africa without exploring this historically famous river. So, I did it. I rafted the Nile.

White water rapid intensity is measured by grade, from one to six. Grade six is usually considered unnavigable and unsafe to rafters. We took on the Nile at grade five. Experienced rafters like venturing this river for two main reasons: the water is deep, and it’s warm. This means rocks and frigid temperatures are less of a concern when flying out of the boat. It also leaves more time to traumatically count seconds while trapped underwater. Continue reading