Posts tagged ‘World Trade Center’

This is a GOOD Sign for the United States

Thomas Friedman, and many others, think it is a sign of America's decline and some sort of failure of government will that other countries are building super-massive showcase infrastructure projects while we are not.  They would take this chart as a sign of decline:


I disagree.  This is a sign of growing maturity on the part of the United States.  Many of these super-tall building projects make little economic sense, but are completed to validate the prestige of emerging nations, like teenage boys comparing penis sizes.  Grown men are beyond that behavior, just as are grown-up nations.  I discussed this in the context of rail a while back at Forbes.  In that case, it seems everyone thinks the US is behind in rail, because it does not have sexy bullet trains.  But in fact we have a far more developed freight network than any other country, and shift of transport to rail makes a much larger positive economic and environmental impact for cargo than for rail.  It comes down to what you care about -- prestige or actual performance.   Again choosing performance over prestige is a sign of maturity.**

The US had a phase just like China's, when we were emerging as a world economic and political power, and had a first generation of successful business pioneers who were unsure how to put their stamp on the world.  So they competed at building tall buildings.   Many of the tallest were not even private efforts.  The Empire State Building was a crony enterprise from start to finish, and ended up sitting empty for years.  The World Trade Center project (WTC) was a complete government boondoggle, built by a public agency at the behest of the Rockefeller family, who wanted to protect its investments in lower Manhattan.  That building also sat nearly empty for years.   By the way, the Ken Burns New York documentary series added a special extra episode at the end after 9/11 on the history of the WTC and really digs in to the awful crony and bureaucratic history of that project.  Though Burns likely did not think of it that way, it could as easily be a documentary of public choice theory.  His coverage earlier in that series of Robert Moses (featuring a lot of Robert Caro) is also excellent.

** I have always wondered if you could take this model further, and predict that once-great nations in decline (at least in decline relative to their earlier position) might not re-engage with such prestige projects, much like an aging male seeking out the young second wife and buying a Porche.

Update:  Here is part of what I wrote on US vs. European and Japanese railroading, which I think is an absolutely awesome example of where the triumphalists like Friedman go wrong:

In particular, both Friedman and Epstein think we need to build more high speed passenger trains.  This is exactly the kind of gauzy non-fact-based wishful thinking that makes me extremely pleased that these folks do not have the dictatorial powers they long for.   High speed rail is a terrible investment, a black hole for pouring away money, that has little net impact on efficiency or pollution.   But rail is a powerful example because it demonstrates exactly how this bias for high-profile triumphal projects causes people to miss the obvious.

Which is this:  The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital.  It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies.    And, it is by farthe greatest rail system in the world.  It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China’s, 1/8 of Germany’s).  But here is the real key:  it is almost all freight.

As a percentage, far more freight moves in the US by rail (vs. truck) than almost any other country in the world.  Europe and Japan are not even close.  Specifically, about 40% of US freight moves by rail, vs. just 10% or so in Europe and less than 5% in Japan.   As a result, far more of European and Japanese freight jams up the highways in trucks than in the United States.  For example, the percentage of freight that hits the roads in Japan is nearly double that of the US.

You see, passenger rail is sexy and pretty and visible.  You can build grand stations and entertain visiting dignitaries on your high-speed trains.  This is why statist governments have invested so much in passenger rail — not to be more efficient, but to awe their citizens and foreign observers.

But there is little efficiency improvement in moving passengers by rail vs. other modes.   Most of the energy consumed goes into hauling not the passengers themselves, but the weight of increasingly plush rail cars.  Trains have to be really, really full all the time to make for a net energy savings for high-speed rail vs. cars or even planes, and they seldom are full.  I had a lovely trip on the high speed rail last summer between London and Paris and back through the Chunnel — especially nice because my son and I had the rail car entirely to ourselves both ways.

The real rail efficiency comes from moving freight.  As compared to passenger rail, more of the total energy budget is used moving the actual freight rather than the cars themselves.  Freight is far more efficient to move by rail than by road, but only the US moves a substantial amount of its freight by rail.    One reason for this is that freight and high-speed passenger traffic have a variety of problems sharing the same rails, so systems that are optimized for one tend to struggle serving the other.

Freight is boring and un-sexy.  Its not a government function in the US.  So intellectuals tend to ignore it, even though it is the far more important, from and energy and environmental standpoint, portion of transport to put on the rails.  In fact, the US would actually probably have even a higher rail modal percentage if the US government had not enforced a regulatory regime (until the Staggers Act) that favored trucks over rail.   If the government really had been asleep the last century, we would be further along.

Man on Wire

This Reason cover spurred me to watch a movie I had wanted to see for a while called "Man on Wire" about Philippe Petit, who snuck up to the top of the World Trade Center, strung a line between the buildings, and tight-rope walked 110 stories up.  It is a great story, and you get to see a man who is a true eccentric, not to mention being either fearless or totally nuts.   He is exactly the kind of person with an eccentric but harmless passion who tends to be crushed by an ever-more intrusive state.

By the way, the movie is also a homage to the WTC, including a lot of construction footage and skyscraper porn.

Ground Zero Mosque and Limited Government

It appears that for a principled defense of property rights, the exercise of religion in America, and limited government we have to turn to ... liberal blogger Kevin Drum

We already know that a large majority of Americans are opposed to building it, but here are the results of an Economist poll on a slightly different question:

Whether or not you think the Islamic cultural centre and mosque should be built near the World Trade Center site, do you think that Muslims have a constitutional right to build a mosque there?

Technically, I think the wording of this question should have been turned around: not whether Muslims have the right to build a mosque on Park Place, but whether the government has the constitutional right to stop them from building a mosque on Park Place.

Still, I think everyone probably understands what this means, and it's just depressing as hell. It's one thing to oppose the mosque just because you don't like the idea, but to deny that Muslims even have a constitutional right to build it? That should be a no-brainer. Of course they do.

Seriously, this is from a man who probably does not think you have the Constitutional right to choose your own doctor. Why are Republicans ceding the high ground on this to Democrats? Well, it turns out that is the theme of my new column this week in Forbes.

...prospective mosque-banners would argue that I simply don't understand how utterly, deeply offensive the proposed location of this mosque is to them. But that is not the case. I am offended as well by what might be a laudatory memorial to a terrorist incident. But the question for me is, do we have a right not to be offended?

The irony is that for the last decade or so, conservatives have fought the political correctness movement over exactly this issue. Conservative commentators, rightly I think, were up in arms over the "hate speech" trial of Mark Steyn in Canada, and more recently the cancellation of Ann Coulter's Canadian speaking tour. In both cases Canadian government and university officials argued that Steyn's and Coulter's criticisms of radical Islam were too divisive, too defamatory to Muslims, and in general too offensive to be allowed public voice....

This is what truly floors me about the Ground Zero controversy: Republicans all over the country are standing up and begging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama to void the property rights of a private entity, shut down the construction of a church, and do so to protect some mythical right not to be offended, a right that, until recently, conservatives argued did not exist. Do Republicans really want to encourage the federal government to tear up property rights and First Amendment protections, all in the name of hurt feelings? If conservatives set this precedent today, they are almost certainly not going to like how it is used tomorrow.

Postscript: I notice something in this poll that I have seen several times lately.  Traditionally, poll results for independents always fell somewhere between Republicans and Democrats.  In this poll, as in several others I have seen, Independent responses actually fell outside of these bounds.  Increasingly independents are shedding the "moderate" label and actually pacing the two political parties.  I find this encouraging, though it is probably too much to hope for that this is the leading indicator of some type of radical ideological restructuring of the Coke and Pepsi parties.

At Least 14.3 Years Too Early

The World Wildlife Fund made an ad showing hundreds of planes zeroing in on the World Trade Center to'm not sure what.  Somehow this is linked with tsunamis and pandas, but most of the world has just linked it with the WWF being idiots.   Print and video ad shown at the link.

The post title refers to this.

Greatest Onion Issue, Five Years Later

Few people in September, 2001 were willing to try to get us laughing again.  One notable exception was the Onion, which produced what was probably their greatest issue.  In particular, this is still dead-on five years later:

In a televised address to the American people Tuesday, a determined
President Bush vowed that the U.S. would defeat "whoever exactly it is
we're at war with here."...

Bush is acting with the full support of Congress, which on Sept. 14
authorized him to use any necessary force against the undetermined
attackers. According to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), the
congressional move enables the president to declare war, "to the extent
that war can realistically be declared on, like, maybe three or four
Egyptian guys, an Algerian, and this other guy who kind of looks
Lebanese but could be Syrian. Or whoever else it might have been.
Because it might not have been them."...

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the war against terrorism will be different from any previous model of modern warfare.

"We were lucky enough at Pearl Harbor to be the victim of a craven
sneak attack from an aggressor with the decency to attack military
targets, use their own damn planes, and clearly mark those planes with
their national insignia so that we knew who they were," Rumsfeld said.
"Since the 21st-century breed of coward is not affording us any such
luxury, we are forced to fritter away time searching hither and yon for
him in the manner of a global easter-egg hunt."

"America is up to that challenge," Rumsfeld added....

Gramm said that the U.S. has already learned a great deal about the
details of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and
Pentagon, and that a rough psychological profile of its mastermind has
been constructed.

"For example, we know that the mastermind has the approximate
personality of a terrorist," Gramm said. "Also, he is senseless. New
data is emerging all the time."

She Was Asking For It

While the "she was asking for it" defense has thankfully been purged from most rape trials (at least those involving strangers), it seems to be alive and well in the civil trial world.  Last week, a jury held that the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 were only 32% responsible for their actions.  The real villain in this terrorist attack was ... the Port Authority, owner of the facility, who so thoughtlessly allowed themselves to get bombed.  More via Volokh and Overlawyered.  Based on joint and several liability, the PA now is on the hook for the entire $1.8 billion verdict.

By the way, the "smoking gun" in the trial was apparently a recommendation the PA received (one of hundreds and perhaps thousands of suggestions of wildly varying quality) to close the parking lot to cars to prevent car bombs.  This helps reinforce my earlier point of why litigation insanity like this actually works to make the world less safe, because such litigation provides a strong disincentive for an entity to have any internal discourse on safety, since notes from this discourse can be held against it later. 

It is always useful to think about what consistently applied policy would have satisfied the jury that the PA was not liable.  In this case, the jury's verdict was clearly "they should have closed the garage to prevent car bombings."  Now, lets apply that everywhere consistently.  This would basically mean that we close every car parking garage in the country, since they are all equally vulnerable to a car bomb.  Applying this further, wouldn't this same standard also result in closing all tall buildings to prevent airplane attack, closing all airports to prevent hijackings, and closing all government buildings to prevent bombings (well, maybe thats not so bad).  I have posted before about finding the absurdity from translating a jury's civil verdict into a consistent policy.  Here is one example:

the exact wording on the complaint against the railroad is even better than I thought:

[engineer] did not stop the train in a timely manner, and failed to
yield the right of way to a pedestrian walking along the tracks in
plain view"

A freight train's topping distance is measured in miles, even with full emergency braking.

She and her attorney's further argue:

the railroad was negligent for failing to post signs warning 'of the
dangers of walking near train tracks and that the tracks were actively
in useLets

leave aside the obvious point
about individual responsibility, and ask what would happen if this were
the legal standard, to have such signs.  To make sure someone saw one,
you would have to have one say every 30 feet.  Since there are just over 200,000 miles of freight railroads in the North America that works out to a bit over 35,000,000 signs that need to be posted.  At $100 per sign this would cost $3.5 billion.

Here is the serious point:  Never would any legislature
pass a law that said there had to be warning signs every 30 feet on
railroads.  It would be way too costly for little benefit.  At grade
crossings today, we have signs and flashing lights and even gates and
still thousands of people a year drive in front of trains on grade
crossings.  So, if we would never require it legislatively, how have we
gotten to a point where a jury might effectively retroactively require
such signs, and assess a multi-million dollar penalty for not doing it?