Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Duh Deal

I think Digby and others have properly identified the biggest problem with the deal Obama and the Repukes worked out to extend UI and prevent the Bush tax increases.  The rest of it is awful as well, but I think progressives would accept the package - with plenty of grumbling, to be sure - if it didn't pose a danger to Social Security.  But there is no reason to think that the economy will be doing significantly better in 13 months, or that Democratic politicians will be any more competent at messaging and negotiating.  So the 2pp payroll tax cut will be extended in January 2012.  And again in 2013.  And again, until people realize that it's permanent, and SS benefits will have to be cut, or means-tested.  Either way, Republicans end up making a huge step towards their goal of ending Social Security.

On top of that prize, Republicans also got a good deal on the estate tax, plus an extension of the separate and much lower income tax rate on dividends and capital gains.  In return, Obama got money to extend unemployment insurance benefit eligibility to 99 weeks, and a slew of small-bore tax cuts of dubious value.  Taken together, the stimulus value is lousy, though it's still better than nothing at all.  But, to me, the long-term danger to Social Security doesn't seem worth the gains.  Yes, that's easy for me to say, because I'm not on UI.  However, Social Security has been the cornerstone of the United States rather weak safety net for decades.  Undermining it is a line that should not be crossed.  That's why I think Democrats should reject this deal despite the repercussions and harm that will result.

Update 2010/12/18: This is the clearest statement of the deal's problems that I've seen.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

There Has Never Been a Better Time to Soak the Rich

A total of six deficit reduction plans have now been released (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1a) to varying amounts of fanfare - high for the conservative plans and low for the liberal plans, naturally.  I might have something to say about them later, but right now I want to examine income tax rates a bit.

The most important concept to know with respect to the US income tax system is that it uses marginal rates.  That is to say, only the portion of income higher than the bracket cutoff gets taxed at the higher rate.  An example will illustrate the slightly confusing language.  Imagine a system where there are two income brackets, one from $1 to $50,000 and another from $50,001 to infinity.  The rates are 20% and 50% respectively.  If person A earns $40,000, their tax bill at the end of the year would be $8,000 ($40,000 * 0.2).  If person B earns $80,000, that tax bill would be $25,000 ($50,000 * 0.2 + $30,000 * 0.5).  Person B's tax bill would not be $40,000 ($80,000 * 0.5).  Most discussions about tax rates and brackets make it sound like person B would have to pay the higher amount.  (I'm guilty of this, too, though I've tried to keep the language correct in this post.)  For instance, the current discussion about preventing the Bush tax increases on people earning more than $250,000 gives the impression that if they increases aren't prevented, high earners would face higher taxes on their entire earnings.  That's not true; the tax on the first $250,000 would stay at the old lower rates.  Only the portion of income above $250,000 would be subject to a higher rate.

There are a couple of reasons why a tax system with brackets and increasing rates, which is called a progressive income tax, is used.  The first is that the marginal utility of income declines as it goes up.  Another way of putting that is the first dollar a person earns is more important than the last dollar.  Some more examples to illustrate.  A person making $10,000 per year needs just about every penny to get by.  Food alone would use up about a quarter of that amount.  Housing would use almost all of the rest, leaving very little for even dining out, let alone a vacation.  A person making $100,000 per year would still have plenty to spend with if the government took 30%.  That person could afford to spend $30,000 on housing, $10,000 utilities, $10,000 on transportation, leaving them with $20,000 to spend on non-necessary items or save.  A person making $1,000,000 would still have a tremendous amount to spend even if the government took half.  That person might want to have more to spend in order to impress their peer group, but in no way would they need it.  They would probably end up saving at least half.  The second reason for a progressive income tax is that people who earn more benefit more from the current system, and have a lot more to lose if breaks down.

Enough of that.  Time to geek out with some numbers.

As you can see from this chart, the top marginal rate rose substantially once FDR took office, but the bottom of the top bracket also rose to a very high amount in constant 2005 dollars.  The cutoff for the bracket was then reduce dramatically once World War II spending ramped up in 1942.

In the postwar era, both the top rate and the cutoff drifted down and then bottomed out in the late 1980s.  That happened despite - many argue it partially caused - a very substantial change in income shares.  Both the near-rich - call them the upper middle-class or the working wealthy - and the rich received larger portions of the nation's total income.  But it was the rich - the top 1% that people talk about - who captured most of the nation's increased income.

This is yet another of my confusing charts.  I tried to show both marginal rates and cutoffs for all brackets, but the rates are hard to see.  Note that the dollar amounts are for married couples filing jointly.  2010 isn't included because the CPI factor isn't available yet.

Here's the same chart using constant dollars.  The brackets have been essentially level since the late 1980s.

The charts lead me to several questions:
  • How are bracket cutoffs set?
  • How are rates set?
  • Why is everybody who earns above ~$350,000 treated the same?
The latter is definitely part of the Republican war on workers, in which the bad guys have been winning for about four decades by now.  Altavistaing (doesn't have the same ring as Googling, does it?) for the first two doesn't yield an obvious answer, so I will assume they result from some arcane process based on non-public IRS data.  That leaves me free to design a new way of determining the numbers.

One way of going about it would be to set the cutoffs according to income percentiles - 10% for the bottom 10% of the population, 15% for the next 30% of the population, etc.  Unfortunately, I can't do that well because the data from the Census doesn't break down the top quintile into sufficiently fine divisions.*  The bottom of the 95th percentile was $180,000 in 2009, which is lower than the current top bracket.  Without knowing what the top 2%, 1%, 0.1%, and 0.01% are making I can't confidently configure the top bracket and rate.**

Another way of setting the brackets would be to tie them to the minimum wage.  An advantage of this method would be that dollar amounts are more readily comprehensible than a set of percentiles.  Using this method, brackets could be set at 3 times, 7 times, 500 times, etc., the gross annual earnings of somebody who works full time the minimum wage.  That amount is currently $15,080 (2080 hours at $7.25).   The method also doesn't require inaccessible data.

I chose to set the brackets at 1, 3, 5, 10, 20, 100, 1000, and 5000 times the minimum wage.  To the left is a copy of the first chart with my proposal tacked onto the end.  Both the top rate and bracket would go back to levels similar to those in the 1930s.

The new brackets completely screw up the second chart, but it still illustrates just how high the new upper brackets would start.

Here's the same chart using a logarithmic scale.  The bottom bracket, which starts at $0, is not shown so the upper brackets would be spread out more.

So, as you can see, there is a good case for raising the taxes for the rich substantially.  The current top rate is low compared to the rates in force from the 1940s though the 1970s.  The bottom of the bracket has gone down in real terms to the point that many people that are very well-off, but are still salaried employees and go to work on a daily basis, are taxed at the same rate as bankers and traders.  That makes no sense.  But most the most important reason for raising taxes on the rich is that average Americans just can't afford to pay more.

Postscript:  While writing this post I came across this chart via BI which shows all of the rates and brackets better than the third chart above.

* I know that several people have reconstructed the highest percentiles, but I haven't looked at their data recently.

** I realize I'm flipping between household income and the brackets for married couples filing jointly, as well as gross income and adjusted gross income.  The items don't line up nicely, and precise numbers aren't the point of this post.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Premature Capitulation

Obama really needs to get some desensitizing lotion or learn to think about last night's box scores whenever the concept of pleasing Republicans pops into his mind.  The proposal to freeze government workers' pay would save about $2 billion in FY2011, which represents about 0.18% of the projected deficit.  And Obama made the offer out of the blue, not at the negotiating table where the other side might offer something in return.  It was a moronic move.

ETA: As multiple commenters at BJ point out, the worst aspect of this proposal is what it does to the narrative.  Instead of talking about jobs, we're talking about budget deficits.  And instead of talking about defense spending or health care spending, we're talking about the pay of those evil commie government workers.  Which, in the scheme of things, just doesn't matter that much, because total civilian wages and salaries add up to about $250 billion.  Not paying federal workers at all for a year would cover only about 1/4 of the projected FY2011 deficit.

ETAA: DDay makes a good point about the cost of ethanol subsidies vs. the pay freeze.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Flat-out Sucking

While the heyday of making fun of Tom "Suck on this" Friedman has come and gone, the good friend of deeply insightful cabbies around the world still holds forth undaunted from his perch at Speakers Corner on the New York Times Op-Ed page.  In this week's effort, he flogs the dead horse of flatness once again in a column that could really do without it.  He also works in a lament to lost high-wage industrial jobs, and spices it up with a reference to kids texting.  But the main tactic of the column is to stir parental fears using some almost nativist rhetoric.  The yellow menace is coming for your kids' jobs!  The HindoChiComs are going to drink their milkshakes!  Run for your lives PTA board!

Please.  Stoking fears about how Our Children Are Falling Behind dates back at least to the 60s, when we the Soviets were going to bury us, and also had another heyday in the 80s, when the Japanese were going to buy us.  In neither case was it true.  On the other hand, it is true that the students in a lot of countries are catching up to American children.  That shouldn't be a cause for alarm.  The U.S. became a mature industrial society long before most other countries, and as other countries become wealthier, it's entirely natural for their children to become better educated.  This isn't to say that the U.S. education system doesn't have problems, but many other issues are more important right now.

The column is annoying for a number of reasons beyond tired cliches and fear-mongering.  Friedman blithely calls for more resources from the "U.S.G."  Of course, one of the reasons we can't easily allocate more resources is that we wasted hundreds o f billions on a unnecessary war that he backed to the hilt.  He also fails to mention precisely where the expanded resources for eduction should come from.  Should taxes be raised?  Spending cut in other areas?  It's terribly easy to say the government should Do Something Now, but in the current politi-cultural climate Americans aren't even willing to pay for the government services they already receive.   So it's very unlikely that the federal government will provide more.  Friedman also calls for more resources from parents, which is easy for a very wealthy writer that doesn't have fixed hours or a 40 minute commute to say.  Most of the country doesn't live in an upper class suburb, and Friedman doesn't seem to be able to imagine what the lives of the poor are like in America.

Friedman asserts that a "triple whammy" of globalization, job outsourcing, and falling education outcomes "is one of the main reasons that middle-class wages have been stagnating."  Those issues have something to do with it, though they actually affect the blue-collar middle-class much more than the white-collar middle-class.  But another, arguably more important reason median wages have been basically flat for a couple of decades is that most of the economic gains are going to the top 10%, and especially the top 1%.  Friedman makes no mention of this trend, which is odd because reports about it are regularly in the news.  Here's one article on the topic from some organization that calls itself the NY Times.  And another.  The normally execrable Slate produced an excellent series on inequality back in September.  A little searching would certainly locate dozens more.

There's more to dislike about the column, but it's somewhat pointless to carry on because there doesn't seem to be any kind of accountability for pundits once they reach a certain level.  The NY Times isn't going to fire him, and Friedman is either unaware of his colossal lameness or immune to criticism.  The best thing for everyone to do is to make sure your friends and family don't read him.

Update 2010/12/13: It seems the great unwashed masses have a better grasp of the problems with the schools system than an overpaid pundit.  Surprise - not.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Can't Fight the Seether

A few months ago Kevin Drum, currently my number three blog read, turned noticeably more grumpy.  But it turns out he's more than grumpy; he's positively seething.  And we all should be, because 10% unemployment (17% using the broad measure) is a crisis.  High long-term unemployment wastes human capital and contributes to government budget problems at all levels.  Conservatives would have you believe that deficits are the cause of the current economic problems, but it's just not true.  Some conservatives are positively giddy over the prospect of forcing through cuts in Social Security if the Republican-created crisis continues.  The country's situation has some columnists sounding like pesky bloggers.

But what is to be done other than raise the shrillness to ear-piercing levels?  Republicans are in control of the House, conservatives (Republicans plus the likes of Landrieu and Nelson) are in control of the Senate, and Obama's team seems to be in the last stages of wagon-circling.  The media environment remains as hostile to reality as it has ever been.  And single-issue groups are still stuck on their signature issues.

I think there are two ways forward for progressives.  One is to wait until Republicans fuck up, which they will eventually.  The primary problem with that approach is that the Republicans could inflict terrible damage on the country and the globe before American voters get off their asses and vote them out.  I don't think we can afford to suffer through a repeat of the Bush years.

The other approach is to double down on organizing and get-out-the-vote operations.  With no remedies to the Citizens United decision likely in the near future, Democratic politicians will be drowned out on the airwaves during the 2012 cycle.  The lack of disclosure requirements means corporations and other large donors have no reason to hedge their bets by contributing to some Democrats.  All of the money will go to supporting Republicans (specifically, to tearing down Democrats).  Progressives have no option but to switch all of their attention to grassroots organizing.

I'll have more on the specifics in a future post.

Monday, November 15, 2010


In the middle of this vague but slightly encouraging report about ending the filibuster at the beginning of the next Congress, I found this quote from Amy Klobuchar:
The people of this country want more bipartisanship. They want the government to run better. They want us to help the private sector create jobs. That was the message out of the election, and we'd better heed it.
Putting words in the mouth of "the people" is a standard rhetorical trick that bugs me because the words so rarely reflect anything like what "the people" are be saying.  For this election, the polls I've seen indicate the people were sending only the third of the three messages in Klobuchar's list.

But I want to comment on the first of the three, the message of "bipartisanship."  It's something the DC-based chattering classes talk about a lot more than the population at large.  In the context of the SCLM, it basically means Democrats should shut up and accede to whatever Republicans demand.  When "the people" say it, I think they mean something entirely different.  In that case, bipartisanship means, "I want the noise to stop and technocrats to implement policies I like."  People don't want to have to wade through the claims and counterclaims to figure out what is really going on.  It's work.  Hard work, in fact, because so many in the media are either stenographers or charlatans.  And the work is not done once the truth is discovered.  Politicians need to be called, advocacy groups joined, donations made, letters written, etc., etc.  All that takes time - time people either don't have or would rather spend watching re-runs of Hogan's Heros.  Essentially, indicating a desire for bipartisanship is the adult equivalent of a kid sticking his fingers in his ears and saying "La la la la la" really loud.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

It's All Fun and Games Until Somebody's Taxes Get Hiked

Via several blogs, I've come across this interactive graphic entitled "Budget Puzzle" from the NYT.  It's somewhat buggy (sometimes allowing both mutually exclusive items to be selected) but it is also much more comprehensible than the other budget calculators I've played with.  Most others only give results for the next year, but the NYT version shows results at two different points in the future, which is much more useful.  My solution used early withdrawals from our land wars in Asia, efforts to slow the growth rate of medical expenses, an end to the giant tax holiday the rich have enjoyed over the past 7-9 years, and new taxes on carbon and the banksters.

ETA: Klein has links to some other budget calculators.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

THE/ARC of History

Though updates indicate that rumors of it's death may be premature, there was a flurry of reports (here, here, here, and here) on the move by the current governor of New Jersey to kill the new rail tunnel under the Hudson River, which currently has the moniker of Trans-Hudson Express, or THE (which is a stupid acronym to use).  Apparently the project is not very far along, as only one of the three tunnel sections has been started.  Work on the very deep expansion of Pennsylvania Station has not begun either.  And the minimal amount of work completed is the only upside to the cancellation.  It will eventually be built, because the need won't go away.  But when it is restarted, there will be the opportunity to do it better.

TTP makes a good argument in this post, which is still relevant despite being a couple of years old, that the tunnel would make more sense if it connected to Grand Central.  LIRR is already building a new, deep level station there, which is scheduled to open in 2016.  The THE project (see how the acronym doesn't work?) should connect to the ends of the tunnels of the East Side Access project, which extend south from the station to 37th St. to allow for storage of a limited number of empty trains.  Though most or all of that storage would be eliminated (I haven't seen a track diagram of the new construction), it would no longer be needed because trains could run through from Long Island to New Jersey.  (The TTP post has a link to past discussions of the benefits of run-through trains.)  The main downside of routing the Access to Region's Core (ARC) tunnel to GCT is that it would preclude a stop at PSNY due to the configuration of existing underground infrastructure, such as subways and a major water tunnel.  However, all four railroads (Amtrak, LIRR, MNR, and NJT would be able to split their services between the two stations, so there would probably be few people who couldn't make a connection at one station or another.  Oh, and the GCT alignment would cost more less (because it would eliminate the cavern under 34th St. called for by the current plan).  But, as I've pointed out before, the cost of major infrastructure projects is modest compared to what we spend on "defense."  And since this is likely to be the only conventional rail tunnel built into Manhattan for the next 50 years or more, it makes a whole lot of sense to do it right.

Update:  According to this diagram from NJ-ARP, it is possible to serve both PSNY to GCT with a new tunnel.  However, it appears to me that the proposed configuration would require some cut-and-cover work on 31st St. and Park Ave., unlike a deep tunnel directly to GCT.  I've also come across the annual report for 2009, which includes a good outline of the problems of the current proposal.  One of the most important is that Amtrak trains would NOT be able to use the new tunnels.  That is a mind-boggling limitation.

Mise à jour: I've had a small discussion on the topic here.  The NYT has a good article on the project from a few years back, and Herbert weighs in with a nice rant.

Une autre mise à jour:  One really has to wonder how these decisions get made.  Just about everybody recognized that the current deep dead-end station was a bad design before it was selected, but nonetheless it's the one that was picked.  I guess that connecting to GCT would have forced the commuter rail systems to work together, which they refuse to do.  Selecting a dead-end station allowed them to avoid that horrific scenario.

Une troisième mis à jour: Another comment of mine never appeared here, so I'm posting it below: 
Philg: another thing you need to consider is the size of the tunnels.  The loading gauge (overall width and height of the vehicle) plus dynamic considerations plus room for a catenary means that a tunnel for a conventional train is much larger than that of a subway.  See this post (http://caltrain-hsr.blogspot.com/2010/06/tunnel-sizes.html) for a diagram.

<i>I can’t figure out why it should cost 14X more to build a much more limited system today.</i>

Well, some reasons might be: worker safety standards much higher, design safety standards are higher, the current up-front price tag includes equivalent capabilities that were added incrementally to the PATH tubes, the geological conditions are different, and the construction techniques are different.  I'll note that neither of us is an expert in large infrastructure projects so there are likely a whole host of considerations that we don't know about that nonetheless exist.

<i>If we are committing to incinerating $14 billion taxpayer dollars, why not use it to make it possible for more people to live in Manhattan and walk to work</i>

That's a false choice, of course, aside from governments having a poor history of providing private goods like housing.  Look, the need is there. The North River Tunnels are at capacity and they are major constraint on all commuter and intercity train travel to/from points south and east.  Even if NYC were to engage in some kind of massive building campaign, that doesn't mean New Jersey won't grow.  NJ is a separate semi-sovereign state; there's no way for NYC to limit its growth.  And Amtrak ridership on the NEC will keep going up because the population is increasing everywhere on the East Coast.  I'm not going to justify the current price because I don't know the basis for it, and because I think the current design is stupid.  But it would be wrong to say that the current plan is a complete waste.  It would still result in two new bores and a station that NJT will use, plus improvements in NJ.  When completed, the project will free up capacity for Amtrak and make rehabilitation of the existing tubes easier.

Christie is actually the one person who could bring some sense to this project - if he really wanted to (though possibly he's unaware of the poor decisions that led to the current design).

Click on my name for a bit more discussion.

Ah, I just found this article (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/06/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/06RtunnelNJ.html?_r=1&ref=nyregionspecial2) when I was searching for ridership numbers.  The multimedia attachment explains the construction techniques vs. the existing North River Tunnels (not the PATH tunnels).
Mise à jour numéro à quatre: An article in the L.A. Times says that Christie will make a decision (again) by Thursday.

Moar: Another news report, and a couple of blog posts.  Data from the API shows that NJ could raise its motor fuels taxes considerably without destroying civilization as we know it.

Are we there yet: Three more articles.  The last indicates - surprise, surprise - that Christie is a lying shit.

Are we there yet: Christie has found a way to keep his name in the news for another couple of days.

Are we there yet: Christie is still hogging the limelight thoughtfully considering the project's fate.

Are we there yet: The entirely predictable outcome will be announced tomorrow despite an incident that showed just how fragile the current tunnel infrastructure is.

Finally (2010-11-10):  The arrival was so anti-climatic I forgot to post about it.  Christie continues to be a liar, promising to fix New Jersey's roads without saying how the work will be paid for.  LaHood's op-ed was pretty good,  and he has followed up by asking for money back from NJ.  This article has some speculation about what might happen next under the Hudson.

Postscript: Atrios wonders if this concept is a good alternative to the canceled tunnel.  It is and it isn't.  The link would provide new capacity between Secaucus Junction and Midtown Manhattan, which would be useful to many commuters, but the tunnels could not be used by commuter or intercity trains.  The point of the ARC project was to provide more one-seat rides on NJT into Manhattan, and to free up capacity for Amtrak in the existing North River Tunnels.  The new concept would serve NYC interests better, especially if a new station was built at 10th Ave. and 41st St for the 7 Line.  I think the best alternative for a new crossing of the Hudson would be to drive a new tunnel from the partially constructed ARC portal in NJ directly to Grand Central.  It would be the cheapest, it wouldn't require any C&C work or condemnations in NYC, and it would provide a (more or less) redundant path through NYC for conventional rail trains.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Southwest Groundlines

I've been picking at my regional high-speed rail map for the Southwest for a while, and I've decided enough is enough.  Here it is.  I'd like to think it is self-explanatory, but I've provided some commentary below.

The main point to note is that it is a fantasy map.  I feel it's one that is fairly well grounded in reality, as several of the core routes are based on the current proposal by the California High Speed Rail Authority.  I've also taken into account city population rankings and city pair air routes (see the second page on the map) for my new lines.  But I've also made two major assumptions.  One is that the Federal Railroad Administration will grant a full waiver for HSR trainsets to operate on mixed traffic (freight and passenger) lines.  Currently, lightweight trainsets are prohibited from operating in mixed traffic due to the FRA's somewhat ridiculous safety requirements (which is a long discussion for another day).  I've also assumed full cooperation from BNSF and UP.  Currently the latter is fighting all efforts to have HSR lines anywhere near its property, let alone having frequent passenger operations on them.  BNSF has been more cooperative, but it still would probably not want as much passenger traffic on its lines as I propose.

As I mentioned, several of the core lines, with track that enables high-speed trainsets to travel at up to 220mph, are based on the current CHSRA proposal.  Those lines are San Franscisco-San-Jose-Chowchilla-Los Angeles, Sacramento-Chowchilla, Los Angeles-Irvine, and Los Angeles-Riverside-San Diego.  With the exception of Chowchilla, which is just an interchange point, those cities are all ranked in the top 25 most populous in the country.  I've added five more lines of similar capability: San Jose-Oakland, Mojave-Las Vegas, Riverside-Barstow, Riverside-Phoenix, Phoenix-Tuscon, and Quartzite-Las Vegas.  Phoenix and Las Vegas are connected with dedicated track due to their size and the amount of air traffic between them and other cities in the network.  The Oakland-San Jose line is important because of the difficulties of crossing the bay, and because over half of the population of the SF MSA lives east of the bay.  The Phoenix-Tucson line doesn't compete with an air route because the two cities are too close, but they are both large and the connecting freeway is very busy.  Finally, the Riverside-Barstow line provides more direct routes from San Francisco and Las Vegas to Riverside and San Diego.  I think the importance of all of the high-speed lines is pretty clear.

What might not be as obvious is the inclusion of lower speed lines.  To explain them, let me first describe the two models for HSR systems around the world.  One is a closed system, as used in Japan and Spain.  In those systems, HSR trainsets operate only on dedicated lines, much like a subway does.  Dedicated lines make for less complicated trains, but have a downside, which is that passengers must transfer between trains if their destination is not on a dedicated line.  While a transfer between two trains is usually much less frustrating than a transfer between two planes, it still is a disincentive to taking a train.  An open system, as in France and Germany, allows for "one-seat rides" between a greater number of destinations by utilizing parts of the existing railroad network.  In France, in fact, most locations served by HSR trainsets are not on dedicated lines.  Now, the US does not have an existing passenger rail system anything like what European countries have.  Nonetheless, it still has an extensive rail network that could be exploited to people.  Utilizing the track would require significant upgrades and extensive cooperation between the freight railroad companies and the CHSRA, but it could be done.  I think the low speed lines I propose (marked in green and purple) are logical if one accepts the premise that one-seat rides are important.  A few might be marginal if for some reason the cost of driving doesn't rise significantly.  I expect costs to rise a lot - soonish if Americans come to their senses, or later and more dramatically if they doesn't.  The track on the low speed lines would be upgraded to either 79mph or 110mph, based on a combination of cost and traffic potential.

The Stockton-Fremont-Redwood City low speed line merits a specific comment.  One of the hotter points of debate about the CHSRA system proposal is the choice of route into the Bay Area.  CHSRA has selected Pacheo Pass (Los Banos-Gilroy) over Altamont Pass (Tracy-Fremont) several times.  I think doing so makes sense because going through Pacheo Pass would allow a single train to serve both SF and SJ once the initial segment is constructed.  This would increase the probability that the initial segment is successful, which is very important.  The Altamont Pass route has the advantage of reducing the SF-Sacto distance significantly once the second segment is constructed (which most people seem to think would extend the network to Sacramento).  However, that route would mean the frequency of arrivals and departures from SF and SJ would be about half as often as they would be if Pacheo Pass was selected.  More frequent departures make a transportation system more convenient, which boosts its use.  That's the main reason why I decided to keep the Pacheo Pass route.  However the circuitous route from SF to Sacto via Pacheo Pass would definitely reduce the number of people taking the train between the two cities.  So a shorter route would be needed.  I've included two, actually; one through Altamont Pass and across the southern SF Bay on a new bridge, and one through the Carquinez Strait.  Both routes include existing UP track that would be upgraded.

Another thing that I should expand on is the three types of stations I propose.  The first, a full-service HSR station, would be one where nearly every train would stop.  Obviously every train has to stop in a station at the end of the line, but there is no point in bypassing a major intermediate station like SJ, Fresno, or LA.  The time savings from skipping any one stop is minimal, and there will be demand at all times of the day from passengers in big cities.  Full-service stations would open early and close late, would provide services like checked baggage, and would have various businesses located inside the facility.  A limited-service HSR station would be an intermediate station where not every train would stop.  A few, like Blythe or Elk Grove, might have only have two or three arrivals in each direction per day.  Others, like Palo Alto, Burbank, or Escondido, might see every other train stopping.  Most of these stations would not have other services co-located on the property, but some might.  Finally, a low-speed station would be a location on a low-speed line where a HSR trainset stops.  These locations would see several HSR trains a day, but also might see other electrified trains, conventional diesel-hauled trains, or both.  Once again most would not have services co-located, with exceptions.

Some minor points
  • The map is diagrammatic.  I've laid the lines out in some detail so the distances would be fairly accurate.  But they should not be interpreted too far beyond that.
  • The map shows only lines served by HSR trainsets.  Lines not shown include those that host commuter trains or regional services.  Note that some of those lines are immediately adjacent to dedicated HSR tracks.  (Actually, other passenger lines are on page 2 of the map.  Remember when looking at them that non-HSR trains can operate on lines marked in green, purple, and brown.)
  • Even though the lines are presented together, obviously they can't all be built at once.  And with the exception of the Stockton-Fremont-Redwood City line, there's no point in upgrading existing lines for use by HSR trainsets until all of the dedicated lines are built.
  • Since I have attempted to make a fairly realistic map, I have not included new SF Bay crossings.  For instance, a new SF-Oakland tunnel capable of supporting HSR trainsets would be a nice addition to the system.  But it would also be terribly expensive, and the money spent on it could be better used extending the reach of the rail system.  The same could be said about a Richmond-San Rafael crossing.
  • There are a three areas with top 300 metropolitan areas that are not served: the North Bay, the Central Coast, and Northern Arizona.  All three areas have difficult geography that would make any lines to the area both circuitous and expensive.
  • There are two major air routes that are not duplicated by an HSR line: San Diego-Phoenix, and and San Francisco-Phoenix.  The first route would has difficult geography and little population between the destinations.  The second is too long of a journey for HSR to be effective, even if a direct route could be built.
  • All electrification would supply 25kV AC at 60Hz.  25kV is the de facto global standard, and 60Hz is the national standard.
  • All dedicated lines would be double-tracked with in-cab signaling.
  • Upgraded lines would be electrified, and double-tracked where necessary if they aren't already.
  • While HSR trainsets can operate on upgraded lines, non-HSR trains can't operate on dedicated HSR tracks.
Comments on individual lines:
  • San Francisco to San Jose - (CHSRA, 220mph, Phase 1) Bay Area governments already own this ROW
  • San Jose to Chowchilla - (CHSRA, 220mph, Phase 1) parallel to UP in the Santa Clara Valley, then a new ROW with significant tunnelling to Chowchilla
  • Chowchilla to Mojave - (CHSRA, 220mph, Phase 1) parallel to UP to Frenso, then BNSF to Bakersfield, and then a new ROW with major tunneling to Mojave
  • Mohave to Los Angeles - (CHSRA, 220mph, Phase 1)  parallel to UP in the Antelope Valley, then a new ROW through Soledad Canyon, and parallel to Metrolink in the San Fernando Valley
  • Sacramento to Chowchilla - (CHSRA, 220mph, Phase 2) parallel to UP
  • Stockton to Redwood City - (under study by CHSRA for ... something, 110mph, Phase 2) parallel to UP, with a new bridge from Newark to East Palo Alto
  • Los Angeles to Riverside - (CHSRA, 220mph, Phase 3) parallel to UP
  • Riverside to San Diego - (CHSRA, 220mph, Phase 3) parallel to BNSF, then a new ROW from Perris to La Jolla, then parallel to the Surf line into San Diego
  • Mojave to Las Vegas - (mine, 220mph, Phase 4) parallel to BNSF from Mojave to near Barstow, then parallel to I-15 to Enterprise, then parallel to UP into Las Vegas
  • Riverside to Phoenix - (mine, 220mph, Phase 4) parallel to UP to Indio, then parallel to I-10 to Goodyear, then parallel to UP
  • Phoenix to Tuscon - (mine, 220mph, Phase 5) parallel to up
  • Los Angeles to Irvine - (CHSRA, 220mph, Phase 5) parallel to BNSF and Metrolink
  • Los Angeles to LAX - (110mph, Phase 5) on UP and Metrolink
  • Quartzite to Las Vegas - (mine, 220mph, Phase 5) entirely new alignment
  • Barstow to Riverside - (mine, 220mph, when needed)
  • Redding to Sacramento - (mine, 110mph, Phase 6) on UP
  • Sacramento to Oakland - (mine, 110mph, Phase 6) on UP
  • Gilroy to Salinas - (mine, 110mph, Phase 6) on UP
  • Burbank to Goleta - (mine, 110mph, Phase 6) on Metrolink and UP
  • San Diego to San Ysidro - (mine, 110mph, Phase 6) on SDIY
  • Indio to Calexico - (mine, 110mph, Phase 6) on UP
  • Tuscon to Nogales - (mine, 110mph, Phase 6) on UP
  • Sacramento to Reno - (mine, 79mph, Phase 7) on UP
  • Fullerton to Riverside - (mine, 79mph, Phase 7) on BNSF
  • Placienta to Orange - (mine, 79mph, Phase 7) on BNSF
  • Irvine to La Jolla - (79mph, Phase 7) on Metrolink and Coaster
  • Tempe to Coolidge - (79mph, Phase 7) on UP
Comments on individual stations:
  • Anaheim - (CHSRA, full-service, suburban, new) very close to Disneyland
  • Auburn - (mine, low-speed, suburban, existing) in the foothills northeast of Sacramento
  • Avondale - (mine, limited-service, greenfield, new) western suburbs of Phoenix
  • Bakersfield - (CHSRA, full-service, downtown, new)
  • Barstow - (mine, limited-service, greenfield, new) outside of city because of space considerations
  • Berkeley - (mine, low-speed, downtown, existing)
  • Blythe - (mine, limited-service, greenfield, new) only station on the 230 mile stretch between Indio and Avondale
  • Burbank - (CHSRA, limited-service, downtown, new)
  • Calexico - (mine, low-speed, downtown, new) close to the border crossing to Mexicali
  • Calipatria - (mine, low-speed, downtown, new) northernmost station in Imperial Valley
  • Casa Grande - (mine, limited-service, greenfield, new) largest city between Phoenix and Tuscon
  • Chico - (mine, low-speed, downtown, existing) close to Cal State Chico
  • Chula Vista - (mine, low-speed, suburban, new)  south of downtown San Diego
  • Colton - (mine, full-service, greenfield, new) station at the junction of several lines to allow transfers
  • Coolidge - (mine, low-speed, downtown, new)
  • Corona - (mine, low-speed, suburban, existing)
  • Davis - (mine, low-speed, downtown, existing) close to UC Davis
  • Driftwood Ranch - (mine, limited-service, greenfield, new) southern suburbs of Phoenix
  • East Sacramento - (mine, limited-service, downtown, new) adjacent to Cal State Sacramento
  • El Centro - (mine, low-speed, downtown, new) largest city in Imperial Valley
  • Elk Grove - (mine, limited-service, suburban, new) southern suburbs of Sacramento
  • Encinitas - (mine, low-speed, downtown, existing)
  • Escondido - (CHSRA, limited-service, downtown, new)
  • Fairfield - (mine, low-speed, downtown, existing)
  • Fremont - (mine, full-service, suburban, new)
  • Gilroy - (CHSRA, limited-service, downtown, new)
  • Goleta - (mine, low-speed, suburban, existing) near UC Santa Barbara campus
  • Green Valley - (mine, low-speed, suburban, new)
  • Hayward - (mine, limited-service, downtown, new)
  • Hanford-Visalia - (mine, limited-service, greenfield, new) 
  • Henderson - (mine, limited-service, suburban, new) southeastern suburbs of Las Vegas
  • Higly - (mine, low-speed, suburban, new)  in suburban Phoenix
  • Indio - (mine, low-speed, suburban, new) last station in Coacella Valley
  • Irvine - (CHSRA, full-service, suburban, new) at end of high-speed segment
  • La Jolla - (CHSRA, limited-service, downtown, new) near UC San Diego
  • La Puente - (CHSRA, limited-service, suburban, new)
  • Lancaster - (mine, limited-service, downtown, new) downtown is more dense than the one in Palmdale
  • Las Vegas - (mine, full-service, downtown, new)
  • LAX - (mine, low-speed, airport, new) provides direct airplane-train transfers
  • Livermore - (mine, low-speed, downtown, existing)
  • Los Angeles - (CHSRA, full-service, downtown, new)
  • Madera - (mine, limited-service, downtown, new)
  • Martinez - (mine, low-speed, downtown, existing)
  • Mesa - (mine, low-speed, suburban, new)
  • Merced - (CHSRA, limited-service, downtown, new)
  • Millbrae - (CHSRA, full-service, suburban, existing) provides (almost) direct airplane-train transfers
  • Modesto - (CHSRA, limited-service, downtown, new)
  • Murrieta - (CHSRA, limited-service, downtown, new)
  • Needles-Bullhead - (mine, limited-service, greenfield, new
  • Nogales - (mine, low-speed, downtown, new) close to border crossing to Heroica Nogales
  • Northridge - (mine, low-speed, suburban, existing)
  • Oakland - (mine, full-service, downtown, new) probably underground
  • Oceanside - (mine, low-speed, downtown, existing)
  • Ontario - (CHSRA, full-service, suburban, new) adjacent to airport
  • Oxnard - (mine, low-speed, downtown, existing)
  • Palm Springs - (mine, limited-service, greenfield, new)
  • Palmdale - (CHSRA, limited-service, suburban, new)
  • Palo Alto - (mine, limited-service, downtown, new) one option for the CHSRA "mid-peninsula" station
  • Phoenix - (mine, full-service, downtown, new)
  • Pleasanton - (mine, low-speed, suburban, existing)
  • Red Bluff - (mine, low-speed, downtown, new)
  • Redding - (mine, low-speed, downtown, existing)
  • Redwood City - (mine, limited-service, downtown, new) one option for the CHSRA "mid-peninsula" station
  • Reno - (mine, low-speed, downtown, existing)
  • Richmond - (mine, low-speed, downtown, existing)
  • Riverside - (mine, low-speed, downtown, existing)
  • Roseville - (mine, low-speed, suburban, existing)
  • Sacramento - (CHSRA, full-service, downtown, new)
  • Salinas - (mine, low-speed, downtown, existing)
  • San Diego - (CHSRA, full-service, downtown, new)
  • San Fernando - (CHSRA, limited-service, suburban, new)
  • San Francisco - (CHSRA, full-service, downtown, new) end of the line, underground
  • San Jose - (CHSRA, full-service, downtown, new) close to downtown
  • San Juan Capistrano - (mine, low-speed, suburban, existing)
  • San Ysidro - (mine, low-speed, greenfield, new) adjacent to border crossing to Tijuana
  • Santa Barbara - (mine, low-speed, downtown, existing)
  • Simi Valley - (mine, low-speed, suburban, existing)
  • Sky Harbor - (mine, full-service, airport, new) in airport terminal
  • Stockton - (CHSRA, limited-service, downtown, new)
  • Strip-UNLV - (mine, full-service, suburban, new) towards the southern end of the Strip
  • Sunnyvale - (mine, limited-service, downtown, new)
  • Tempe - (mine, limited-service, downtown, new) adjacent to ASU
  • Tracy - (mine, low-speed, downtown, existing)
  • Truckee - (mine, low-speed, suburban, existing)
  • Tuscon - (mine, full-service, downtown, new) close to UA
  • University - (CHSRA, limited-service, suburban, new) adjacent to UC Riverside
  • Ventura - (mine, low-speed, downtown, existing)
  • Victorville - (mine, limited-service, suburban, ?)
  • Watsonville - (mine, low-speed, greenfield, existing)
  • Whittier - (CHSRA, limited-service, suburban, new)
  • Yorba Linda - (mine, low-speed, suburban, existing)
  • Yuba - (mine, low-speed, downtown, existing)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Golden State Spikes

I've been wasting a lot of time with GMaps, and the latest product is this map of railroads in California.  It's definitely the most extensive map online, and I hope people will find it informative.

A few comments are in order:
  • The map is comprehensive but not complete.
  • I've included the interurban lines of several systems, but not their local streetcar lines.  Additionally, no strictly urban streetcar systems are included.  This might seem like an arbitrary division, but interurbans often hauled freight (in small amounts) whereas streetcar systems almost never did.   Thus, the distinction.
  • No modern transit systems are included.  Right-of-ways abandoned by their original operator and reused later by a transit system are shown as abandoned.
  • Freight spurs are not included, unless they are a remnant of a longer line.
  • Temporary logging spurs are not included.
  • A number of abandoned lines are submerged in various reservoirs around the state.  I've drawn lines through the water, but they are not at all accurate.
  • A few abandoned lines around Sacramento were torn up before 1880, and no drawings of their locations exist.
  • Colors are as follows: green = BNSF; brown = UP; blue = everybody else; purple = operating narrow gauge; red = abandoned standard gauge; orange = abandoned narrow gauge.
  • Because of the limitations of GMaps, the content is split over several pages.  I've arranged the lines from north to south, but I have no control over where the breaks occur.  If an area you would like to look at is on two different pages, try flipping back and forth.  The page breaks aren't fixed, so all of the lines you want to see may (or may not) end up on the same page.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


At least according to the proprietor of Balloon Juice. He makes a good argument, and also works in a Redd Foxx reference.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Still Got That Big Ass?

It's that time of year again, the time when people who monitor such things tell us what we don't want to hear: we're a bunch of fatty fat-asses. Still. And while Vermont and New England in general are less dimensionally-gifted than the rest of the country, the trend is in the wrong direct. Obesity increased in all six states.

There are some positive developments to be noted. One is that nearly every state, as well as the federal government, has developed programs to reduce obesity. Another positive is the trend away from driving by today's youth. Fewer teenagers are getting driver's licenses, though that doesn't necessarily mean they are using a more strenuous means of transport. But it may mean that cars are less important as status symbols. A weaker cult of the automobile means that people are more likely to consider and support transportation options other than motor vehicles. A third positive is the increasing support for bicycling as an option for commuting. The current Secretary of Transportation has voiced this, and support at the local level has been increasing for several years.

Unfortunately (I seem to use that word a lot), I don't see an overall improvement for a while. The trend towards increasingly sedentary lifestyles will continue because the number of jobs that requires a college degree and the ability to sit in front of a computer for hours will continue to increase. The ever-growing selection of electronic entertainment options will keep people indoors as well. Our diets will continue to be unhealthy as long as our agricultural policy remains in the grip of agribusiness puppets - a.k.a. Midwestern senators, which will be the case for the foreseeable future. And the most important factor (IMHO), our car-centric built environment, will remain in place for decades.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Allow Me to Be the First to Say


Of course, there's a bit of bias in pointing this out. Rallies tend to happen over days or weeks, and thus are much less dramatic than the sense of doom created by sell-offs. I think the main point to take away from such events is that markets don't know jack about the future. If they did, big market-wide one-day moves wouldn't happen.

Update: Beat Atrios this time.

Monday, June 28, 2010

After Action Report

President Obama responded in an acceptable manner to McChrystal's inappropriate behavior by having him step down as leader of foreign forces in Afghanistan. I say "acceptable" because McChrystal deserved a more severe punishment. But I suspect Obama didn't want to offend too many people in the military, which would have happened if he had been harsher.

Replacing McChrystal with Petraeus was a savvy move on Obama's part. If counter-insurgency is the appropriate military strategy in Afghanistan, then selecting the general who knows the most about it was a no-brainer. Unfortunately, the strategy in Afghanistan is wrong, so choosing Petraeus won't make much of a difference in the outcome. The savvy part of the choice comes from Petraeus' credibility in official Washington, which means that Obama more-or-less pre-empted any Republican complaints about the change of command. They'll complain a bit anyway, but it won't get any traction in the mainstream press.

Unlike a few people (in comments around the web), I'm not disappointed that the change in command wasn't accompanied by an immediate change in policy. Such a massive course change would have looked desperate and ill-considered. Besides, if Obama is going to change his mind about the overall mission in Afghanistan, McChrystal's snit wasn't the kind of event that would prompt a re-evaluation. I don't know what would prompt a re-evaluation. But whatever it is, I hope Obama comes across it soon.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Ottawa's Shakedown

Those damn Canadians are trying to shake down the good ole' U.S. of A. Literally.

We should have expected Chicago-style thuggery from them.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Unfriendly Fire

This mind-boggling article in Rolling Stone is the hot topic of the day, for good reason. If it's accurate (it's a bit gossipy, so I regard it as accurate but not quite the full picture) then McChyrstal and his command really have lost their minds. One of the reasons America has lasted so long as a democracy is that the military has never developed the mentality that it is a source of authority separate from the elected government. This is not to say that individual generals haven't stuck their noses into the political arena at various times, just that it hasn't been done by the military as a whole. In order to remind the military of it's place, McChrystal needs to be beaten down. Hard.

It's one thing for the military to question the goals of an assignment given to it by the civilian government, though that needs to be done through the hierarchy. But it's entirely different when a military officer mocks elected officials and others civilians. It's simply not acceptable. Individual officers serve at the whim of the president, though that official should (and does) usually defer to the military's promotion system. The top generals are different, however, and Obama should not hesitate to remove McChrystal from responsibility for an ongoing conflict.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Looking at that Movement

Unsurprisingly, the security situation Afghanistan hasn't changed much since my previous post on the situation there.   Last fall, after a long period of (what appeared to be) serious consideration, Obama chose to escalate the conflict.  The decision did not translate into immediate troop movements, however. American forces have ramped up slowly, with the goal being to have all the troops in place for a summer offensive in Kandahar.  That action is taking place now.  But it has been re-branded as a ... well, I don't know what to call it now.  I think the Obama administration just doesn't want the word "offensive" floating about any more.  Nameless or not, it is taking place, and more people are dying.

Recovering economist Atrios likes to ask the question, "What are they doing there again?"  I have no idea what the DoD or White House thinks, but it seems pretty clear to me that the ultimate goal should be to keep al-Qaeda or any other international terrorist group from operating out of Afghanistan.  The strategy - which I believe wasn't articulated until some time after the invasion in late 2001 - has been to create a friendly, pro-Western democratic state.  A lot of the time, however, it seemed like creating a democracy was the goal.  Either way, I think it is fair to say that the strategy-cum-objective has failed.  After 104 months, the central government exercises full control over less than half of the country, and only does so with the backing of the U.S. military. Afghans have gone to the polls several times, but latest presidential election was marred by accusations of fraud, and in all likelihood, fraud.  The Kabul-based government, in addition to being unpopular, is also deeply corrupt.  That is a huge problem, because there are few things that hinder both democracy and economic development more than corruption.

So what now?  I think the goal should remain the same, but the strategy radically changed.  Instead of trying to defeat groups like the Taliban on the ground with US military forces, the US needs to reach an understanding with them.  The deal should include two conditions.  One should be that if a group allows al-Qaeda or something like it to operate in its territory, the US will come after the leaders of the group.  The other condition should be that a group will receive aid as long as it doesn't attempt to destabilize or conquer any other group.  In return, the US will GTFO.

To back up both the threat and the promise, the US will need to maintain at least one base in Afghanistan, probably in the north near Mazar-e-Sharif.  That base would support drones, training, and aid distribution.  The aid should be in the forms of both cash and stuff.  Stuff would be things like construction equipment, steel beams and rebar, transportation equipment, telecommunications equipment, water and sewage equipment, medical supplies, and so on.  Cash, naturally, will flow where it is least useful in the deeply corrupt country.  But it greases palms, so distributing some will have to be done.  Stuff is less mobile, and perhaps the Afghans will put it to good use.  Training would be limited to the national defense and police forces because ultimately, the US would still benefit from an a strong central government in Afghanistan.  But it should be up to the Afghans to go about creating it.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Talking Turkey

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Gaza flotilla disaster is how it has strained relations between America and Turkey.  It can’t be emphasized enough how extraordinarily dumb it would be for the US to antagonize Turkey. The country has a number of internal issues that I’m not exactly happy with, most notably the relationship between the Turkish majority (58 million) and the Kurdish minority (12 million). But it’s also a middle income country of 72 million people that has been trending in the right direction both economically and politically for the past two decades. And it has been a stalwart US ally for decades, so much so that the US has positioned nukes there and has two large bases.

I was never pleased how much the rhetoric of democracy and human rights was subsumed by realpolitik during the Cold War. But at least when it happened it made short-term sense. Now realpolitik is being subsumed by a bizarre mish-mash of tribalism, religion(s), campaign contributions, and arms sales. That makes no sense whatsoever. In the long-run, the US needs to have good relations with Turkey, Egypt (beyond the military), and Iran. They will be the regional powers in the future. But the US can’t, because for now it is enabling Israel’s immoral and self-destructive behavior.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


That's the best word to describe these images.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Rude, Crude, and In Your Food

I suppose I should comment on the disaster in the Gulf.  Just after it occurred, I posted a few places saying, in essence, yuck but I don't think it will get too bad.  Boy, was I wrong about the scale.  Unless the second "top hat" works, the Mississippi Canyon "incident" will end up being the 2nd biggest oil spill in history, ahead of Ixtoc I but less than the disaster precipitated by the first Gulf War.

But there isn't too much point in unleashing an extended rant.  Even a disaster on the scale of this spill won't change many people's minds about petroleum production and utilization.  Americans seems permanently locked into the conceptualization of oil as it stood in the mid-1980s.  The Exxon Valdez spill and two wars in the Persian Gulf didn't change anything fundamental.  The loss of the eastern Gulf of Mexico fisheries won't change anything.  The only thing that will change Americans' attitudes is an actual, long-term shortage.

It's coming.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Born to Watch Volcanoes

I've been watching the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland obsessively for the past few weeks, and I've put much of the information I've found into two maps:

Monday, January 25, 2010

My Nominee

for the next United States Senate Majority Leader: Bernie Sanders.

He's the only one who gets it.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Is Our Democrats Learning?

Sadly, no.

Update 5/25:  Fortunately, the Dems did finally get around to passing health insurance reform.  Good for them.