Archive for September 2021

20 Years Ago Today on September 11...

... I was in Manhattan on a business trip from Seattle.  Ironically, I was running an aviation-related startup and in town to try to convince my investors to fund a new round based on improvements in the commercial aviation business.   Perhaps the least important death that day was of my company.

Along with everyone in the country, we watched with horror though via direct line-of-sight from the penthouse hotel balcony of our wealthy investor.  What we did not know, but would learn over the following months, was how many friends we had that died that day, not surprising in retrospect given that my wife and I were both about a decade out of Harvard b-school and many of our college friends worked in the WTC.  Perhaps our closes friend who died was actually just in for a random training session, a dumb class he did not really even want to attend.  I have thought about that often since, and it has made me more likely to resist meetings and trips that are worthless but where there is pressure to show up (do the Germans have a word for that?)

The rest of the day we spent interacting with jittery people on the street who would literally flatten on the ground when a military jet flew low, something that happened a lot that day.  At one point a wall of humanity covered in dust made it to our part of the island, refugees who were in and around the buildings when they collapsed.  The scene that night in Manhattan was weird, like a post-apocalyptic Charlton Heston movie.  Never before or since in my lifetime has Manhattan ever been so quiet at night.  Everyone was leaving the island, and no one was being allowed to enter.  We finally found a place to eat on Broadway near Times Square, where a car would drive by maybe once every 5 minutes.

Fortunately for us we found a friend wandering around Central Park who lived out West too and had the last rent car in Manhattan.  We drove all the way across the country, though the first bit was the hardest.  Out of some weird security concern, we were told that cars were only be allowed to exit the island via one road, but they could not tell us which one it was.  We circumnavigated Manhattan getting this same response at each bridge and tunnel, until someone finally told us the only way out was up north via the GW bridge.  When we got to the Jersey side, it again looked like a zombie movie or something, with miles and miles of cars stopped coming into the city and empty roads going out.

[as a side-note to this, growing up in the 70's I was treated to any number of movies that portrayed Harlem as some kind of blighted no-go zone to be avoided by all white people -- but the Harlem of the 2001 was just another place, certainly not wildly prosperous but not necessarily to be avoided either, certainly better looking than the Robert Moses-destroyed Bronx.  I appreciated the opportunity to have my perceptions changed.  Though to be fair in the 1970's Central Park was portrayed as a no-go zone too and today is is one of my favorite urban spaced in the world].

The Ken Burns series on New York has a good add-on episode entirely dedicated to the WTC -- from conception to construction to destruction, with a high-wire crossing in the middle (if you have not seen the documentary Man on Wire about this, it is well worth the view).  I have spent time in the buildings, and I think they had a mixed legacy architecturally.  I thought the interiors sucked, with long waits for elevators and crappy views via too-small windows (the exception being Windows on the World, for a while the highest-grossing restaurant in the world and a place I was fortunate enough to experience once).  The exteriors worked for me as sculpture, and I thought they were beautiful especially from a boat on the water.

Back When The ACLU Actually Stood Up For Civil Rights, Rather Than Shilling for Totalitarianism

This article by Glenn Greenwald on the ACLU's response to COVID is simply remarkable.  I won't even try to excerpt it.  Suffice it to say that barely a decade ago, the ACLU actually was concerned about individual rights being trashed by coercive government pandemic responses.  Their 2008 position paper can only be called "prescient."   They warned that with a state-sponsored coercive intervention program fanned by media fear porn, "People, rather than the disease, become the enemy."  No kidding.   But the ACLU has unfortunately become an operative of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and as such has reversed its position -- even from as recently as March of 2020 -- presumably because the part in power has changed.

One other thing on a related note -- the ACLU is a long-time strong supporter of abortion rights.  As such, this position in their recent NYT editorial supporting forced vaccination seems counter-productive to their cause in the extreme: "we all have the fundamental right to bodily integrity and to make our own health care decisions. But these rights are not absolute. They do not include the right to inflict harm on others."  In the past, the absolute sanctity of one's body has been the bulwark in protecting abortion rights.  Other people's opinion on whether the fetus is a human life or not were declared irrelevant because "my body is sacred, period."  But if the body is no longer sacred if and when the government declares another human being is being harmed, how is that any different from the typical abortion opponents argument?

Update on The Phoenix Light Rail Fail: @valleymetro FY 2021 Report

The previous annual installment in this series was here.

Well, the Phoenix light rail system has hit new levels of fail that even I could not have projected.  Here are the annual numbers updated for the most recent report:

Yes, I know that supporters will argue that the agency should get a "pass" due to COVID.  I am willing to do so for the bus system, but not for light rail.  Let me explain.

I have always been, perhaps unlikely for a libertarian, comfortable with some base level of public transportation.  Lack of mobility can be a huge barrier to upward mobility and I can support public transit systems in major cities as a sensible anti-poverty program.

What I oppose is the replacement of relatively inexpensive and tremendously flexible bus transit systems with light rail.  Light rail requires orders of magnitude more capital and operating cost per passenger (except perhaps in the absolute largest and densest cities, which does not include Phoenix).  Light rail is limited by time and money and necessity to only a few routes.  In almost no city outside the centers of the few largest cities (think Manhattan) has it ever been possible to develop a complete enough web for citizens to entirely give up a car.  And light rail is absolutely inflexible -- once capacity is added on one route (for literally billions of dollars) it can't be moved where busses can be shifted easily from route to route.  For example, on a days' notice we had bus routes going to the major local vaccination centers -- no way to do that with rail.

It has always seemed to me that light rail is a middle class boondoggle.  White professionals kind of like the trains whereas they won't ride busses.  The few light rail routes tend to follow middle class / professional commuting routes.  Light rail gets professionals from home to office (after which they use their car for other sorts of trips) but does little to provide mobility for the poor to the doctor, to the store, to support services, etc.  Worse, because light rail costs 10x or more per passenger than busses, the advent of light rail generally starves a transit agency of funds and causes them to cut back on busses to save money (because once the rail is laid, you can't really cut back on it).  Look at the chart above, despite years of light rail extensions, total transit ridership in Phoenix stalled after growing for over a decade.  Wealthy university students at ASU got a nice train to the downtown clubs, but the poor who depend on busses for basic mobility lost a lot of service and routes.

I will confess that I didn't anticipate a pandemic in my prior opposition to light rail, but it has been more proof of the light rail fail.  Busses that are not needed are parked, sidelining a modest capital investment.  But light rail is $2+ billion in capital investment lying dormant.  With the middle class eschewing transit during COVID, transit is returned to its core function of providing essential mobility to the poor.  But it can't do this as well as it used to because of the multi-billion dollar light rail capital albatross.

Texas Republicans Want to Be Creepy Totalitarians Just Like Their Blue State Counterparts

Just as Republicans were starting to successfully cast themselves as an alternative to blue state COVID totalitarianism, Republicans in Texas decide to dabble in a bit of creepy statism themselves.  I am going to stay away from the abortion issues involved (a policy that has served me well for decades on this blog), but I do want to address the enforcement mechanisms in the law.  From Zero Hedge:

One provision that makes the law unique is the fact that private citizens will be allowed to sue providers and anyone involved in "facilitating coverage", which could mean people who drive others to the abortion clinic could be found liable in court to losses of at least $10,000. The ACLU says this provision "actively encourages private citizens to act as bounty hunters".

It is good to see the ACLU weighing in on the bad aspects of this enforcement mechanism, though it is telling we have never heard a peep out of them when this same private bounty hunting enforcement mechanism has been used in numerous California laws aimed at leftish goals (eg the dysfunctional ADA lawsuit mess and sue your boss laws, both of which substitute private bounty-hunting litigation for what normally would be state regulatory enforcement actions).

At least in the California laws, the litigant had to actually be a somewhat interested party (eg disabled or an employee of the firm).  Texas has unleashed the equivalent of Cuban block captains on their citizens.

This is a terrible precedent.  Conservatives who are really passionate about abortion may not be able to see it, but I can easily imagine this applied to all sorts of awful rules.  How about lawsuits for $10,000 for any parent that drives a kid to school that is not wearing a mask?  How about a $5,000 lawsuit by any citizen against someone who idles their car too long and thus destroys the planet?   Conservatives are handing the Left a gift with this enforcement precedent and we could all be suffering under it soon.