Quotulatiousness

July 22, 2014

The Erie Canal and the canal boom it created

Filed under: Economics, History, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:13

Last week, Chris Edwards posted a short article at the Cato@Liberty blog, discussing the long history of government malinvestment in infrastructure projects:

Most politicians are optimistic about the government’s ability to intervene and solve problems. That’s one reason why they run for office. Neocons, for example, have excessive faith that foreign intervention can fix the world, while liberals embrace the misguided idea that subsidies and regulations can boost the economy.

The Erie Canal was a misleading outlier: it was a major infrastructure project that actually succeeded in turning a profit, and it set off a string of copycat government initiatives … most of which quickly turned into expensive mistakes for state governments:

Chapter 3 of the book [Uncle Sam Can’t Count by Burton and Anita Folsom]looks at the orgy of state government canal building from the 1820s to the 1840s. Here is the basic story:

  • New York State funds construction of the Erie Canal, which opens in 1825.
  • The Erie Canal is a big success, which spurs canal fever across the nation and encourages other state governments to hand out subsidies. Government canal schemes are launched in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Maryland, and Illinois. There is particular excitement about subsidized “internal improvements” among Whig politicians, including Abraham Lincoln.
  • However, politicians overestimate the demand for canals in their states and underestimate the costs and difficulty of construction. They do not recognize that the Erie Canal is uniquely practical and economic as it traverses relatively flat land and connects the Great Lakes with the Atlantic.
  • Some of the state-sponsored canals are huge boondoggles and are abandoned. And other than the Erie Canal, all of the state canals sustain heavy losses, including other subsidized canals in New York.
  • After the failures, numerous states privatize their infrastructure and change their constitutions to prevent politicians from wasting further money on such schemes.

December 3, 2013

Syracuse airport pods – civil liberty violations or crony capitalist profit centres?

Filed under: Government, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:36

Wendy McElroy thinks that the outrage over the new exit pods at Syracuse Hancock International Airport is misdirected:

There is yet another reason not to fly into or within the US. “Nazi-style detention pods” — that’s what opponents of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have called the new “exit pods” being tested at the Syracuse (NY) airport. But the pods are not primarily a rape of civil rights. Their import is equally ominous but more subtle. Their main purpose seems to be profit rather than the flexing of arbitrary power, although the two are closely related.

A major change is occurring in one aspect of airport security. The change? The TSA will no longer be monitoring exit lanes at one-third of American airports; the TSA withdrawal is likely to extend to all airports over time. Exit lanes are the means by which passengers who have completed their travel leave the airport terminal. TSA agents had been policing the lanes to prevent passengers from walking the ‘wrong’ way and re-entering the terminal. Now that task is left to airport security because, as TSA deputy administrator John Halinski explains, ”We firmly believe that exit-lane monitoring is not a screening function, but rather an issue of access control.” Apparently, Halinski believes the ‘S’ in TSA stands for “Screening” because “Security” definitely includes access control.

[...]

The economics of the pod construction make sense only in two contexts. First, the airport wants to avoid or divest itself of unionized employees; unions have been a source of conflict in all areas of airport and airline operations. Second, crony capitalism. This is the faux capitalism by which profits do not result from productivity but from political connections, which often include bribes or kickbacks. The Syracuse Hancock International Airport official “sneak preview” of the security overhaul listed 17 local firms that will profit richly from the construction. Who do the firms know? With what financial incentives did they ‘purchase’ their contracts?

February 6, 2013

Why does every infrastructure project cost more?

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

In his nominally NFL-related column, Gregg Easterbrook usually manages to insert interesting topics that are not in the least related to football:

Where Is the Bridge to Nowhere When You Really Need It? Another reason unprecedented increase in the national debt is not resulting in newly built infrastructure to help the economy grow is that government projects keep taking longer and costing more. Two years ago on Reuters, your columnist opined, “A combination of top-heavy bureaucracy, union rules, cost-plus profits and graft have made recent federally funded construction projects insanely expensive and slow. When the funding comes from borrowing by Washington, then businesses, unions and local petty officials have a self-interest in running up the cost while dragging their feet.

That column ended by noting the slow pace and cost overruns in plans to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge on the Hudson River north of New York City.

Now two years have passed, and guess what’s happened to the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project? It’s no closer to beginning. New York Magazine reports that $88 million has been spent just to study a bridge replacement — not for architecture drawings, just study. The original Tappan Zee Bridge, completed in 1955, cost $675 million in today’s dollars and required three years to complete. New York State officials are saying the replacement will cost at least $3 billion and take five years to build. New York Magazine warns the price is lowballing for an expected cost much higher.

New York is demanding that the federal government fund most of the new bridge. Borrowed funny-money would be used; contractors and unions would have every incentive to drag their feet, running up the bill, while corrupt politicians would want the project to last as long as possible, so there was more funny-money to steal.

Meanwhile the existing Tappan Zee Bridge continues to crumble and nothing’s being done. At the current snail’s pace, a new bridge is many years away. What if the existing bridge collapses? Politicians will claim they were never warned, just as they claimed they were never warned before storm surge from Hurricane Sandy smashed up lower Manhattan, Long Island and Hoboken, N.J. Running up the national debt is bad enough; not building what the country needs is even worse. But politicians observe that behaving recklessly, then blaming others, is what advances their careers. Barack Obama acted recklessly with the nation’s finances, and was re-elected. Chris Christie did nothing to prepare New Jersey’s low-lying city from storm surge, then blamed others, and made the cover of Time magazine. Where is the political leader who will place acting responsibly ahead of self-promotion?

November 22, 2012

Even in a disaster area, the bureaucrats stick to their role

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Health, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:49

I had to double-check the URL here to make sure this wasn’t a parody news item from The Onion:

Bobby Eustace, an 11-year veteran with the city’s fire department tells FoxNews.com that on Sunday he and his fellow firefighters from Ladder 27 in the Bronx were issued a notice of violation for not maintaining restaurant standards in a tent set up in Breezy Point, Queens, to feed victims and first responders.

“It’s just a little ridiculous. The inspector came up and asked if we were wearing hairnets. I told him, ‘We have helmets. This is a disaster area,’” Eustace told FoxNews.com. “Then he asked if we had gloves and thermometers [for food]. I said, “Yeah, we have rectal and oral. Which one do you want?’ He wasn’t amused.”

Eustace says that the Health Department worker then checked off a list of violations at the relief tent, including not having an HVAC system and fire extinguisher.

“He told us that he might come back to see if we fixed the violations. But what can we do? We are just going to keep going until a professional catering company can help take over,” Eustace said, adding that firefighters across the city together have been contributing about $800 a day out of their own pockets to feeding victims in areas hit hard by Sandy.

June 17, 2012

“For the weekend, I’ll have to be a turncoat”

Filed under: Cancon, History, Military, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:43

For some obscure reason (hint: because they didn’t win) American re-enactors are much less fond of War of 1812 re-enactments than Canadians:

When the first big battle of the War of 1812 is re-enacted this fall, the U.S. 1st Artillery regiment will mount an ear-splitting barrage. The Yanks will point their cannons at British redcoats across the Niagara River in Canada. They will wear blue. They will curse King George.

Unlike 200 years ago, they will all be Canadians.

Many Americans aren’t that into the War of 1812 — not like Canadians, anyway — so the latter often play the former in re-enactments along the international border here.

“For the weekend, I’ll have to be a turncoat,” says John Sek, 60, an English-born Canadian who will play a U.S. Army gunnery captain in the Battle of Queenston Heights. “There isn’t the same interest in the war on your side.”

To grossly generalize: Canadians, whose forebears helped repulse several U.S. invasions in 1812, regard the war that began 200 years ago Monday as a crucible of national identity. For them, its bicentennial is a big deal.

February 26, 2012

VisitBritain’s spelling problem

Filed under: Britain, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:20

A bit of an embarrassment for Britain’s national tourism agency:

Tourists attempting to follow VisitBritain’s tip to travel to the Welsh region of the “Breacon Beacons” may find themselves rather lost when entering the destination into their satnav.

The misspelling of the Brecon Beacons was spotted by an eagle-eyed tourist on a New York subway advertisement, which was accompanied with a picturesque photograph capturing the countryside of Llandovery, a market town in Carmarthenshire.

The promotional image, which also currently appears in the advertising spaces in front of passenger seats in New York taxis, was promptly posted on Facebook.

February 5, 2012

Your Super Bowl TV watching schedule

Filed under: Football, Humour, Media — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:54

Scott Stinson charts exactly what will happen over the long, long, long, long, long, long, long hours of the pre-game show leading up to kickoff sometime in the next 48 hours:

Planning to watch the Super Bowl? A little leery about the six-and-a-half-hour pre-game show? Fear not, we can provide you with an approximate guide for what you will see. Read this, then spend time with your family instead. Win-win! (All times approximate, by which we mean made up.)

12:00 p.m. NBC’s broadcast is coming to you live from Indianapolis, which means we begin with Bob Costas trying to: (a) argue that Indianapolis is a great place and that the game is somehow more meaningful for being there; and (b) keep a straight face

12:32 p.m. First shot of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski walking on his injured ankle. Will he play? Will he be effective? Fortunately, we have six hours to listen to people come up with ever more inventive ways to say “maybe.”

12:45 p.m. Costas gives an earnest speech about Indianapolis, home of the iconic Colts franchise. Not mentioned: Most of the iconic stuff happened in Baltimore, before the owner snuck the team out of town in the dead of night. In Indy, the history of the franchise’s fortunes can be summed up as “crappycrappycrappyPeytonManningcrappy.”

1:02 p.m. Time to soak in some of the exciting moments from the official “tailgate” party, which is in fact nowhere near a parking lot. Musical act falls under the category of “Popular Enough Once That Some People in Audience Have Heard of Them, But Not So Popular That We Would Want Them on TV For Long.” So, Fleetwood Mac, Alabama or 3 Doors Down.

1:04 p.m. The real question here is whether the performance rivals that of the tailgate party a few years back, when Journey appeared and caused America to collectively wonder when Steve Perry turned into a Fillipino guy with long hair.

Update: For those of you who only watch the Super Bowl for the ads (and I know there are lots of you), Reuters has most of the “big” ads collated into one post for your convenience. This is especially useful for those of us north of the 49th parallel, where many of the ads will be overlaid with the same crappy commercials we’ve seen all year. I’m not normally a fan of “there ought to be a law” solutions, but I’d be less than upset if CRTC regulations prohibited showing the same commercial 6-8 times per hour. (If nothing else, that level of repetition probably irritates potential customers more than it attracts them.)

Update, 6 February: It looks like the Reuters collection in the first update was intended to emphasize the lamest of the ads. There’s another collection in the National Post with more. (I don’t follow hockey, but I did think the Budweiser hockey ad was well done, even if they just stole the idea from an improv group.)

January 9, 2012

Wrapping “the maple syrup of truth in the waffle of propaganda”

Filed under: Cancon, History, Military, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:30

The Economist casts a jaundiced eye at Canada’s plans to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812:

Canada and the United States started the new year by firing cannons at each other across the Niagara river, which separates the province of Ontario from the state of New York, leaving a whiff of gunpowder and politicking in the air. The guns at Fort George on the Canadian side and Old Fort Niagara on the American shore were replicas of those from the 1812 war between the two countries, and were loaded with blanks.

They fired the first salvo in what Canada’s government plans as a noisy 200th anniversary celebration of a largely forgotten war in which British redcoats, colonial militia and Indian allies stopped an American invasion (which Thomas Jefferson mistakenly predicted was “a mere matter of marching”) of what was then a sparsely populated string of colonies. “The heroic efforts of those who fought for our country in the War of 1812 tell the story of the Canada we know today: an independent and free country with a constitutional monarchy and its own distinct parliamentary system,” says James Moore, the minister of Canadian Heritage.

That wraps the maple syrup of truth in the waffle of propaganda. Although Canada did not become a self-governing country until 1867, the 1812 war did help to forge a common identity among disparate colonists, many of whom were Americans who had come north out of loyalty to the Crown or in search of cheap land. But the Indians did more to foil the American invasion than the Canadian militia, and the British reneged on a promise to reward them with land, according to Alan Taylor, a historian of the war. The Canadian side won mainly because the Americans were poorly led, supplied and organised. Both sides plundered and murdered civilians.

November 1, 2011

Long Island Rail Road: “The scandal isn’t what’s illegal — but what’s legal

Filed under: Law, Politics, Railways, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:37

Nicole Gelinas points out that the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) pension scam is only part of the problem:

Last week, the feds indicted 11 Long Island Rail Road retirees and their alleged associates in a “massive fraud scheme” to steal a billion dollars through fake disability claims. But the bigger outrage is that for decades the LIRR has held state taxpayers and riders hostage — thanks to outdated Washington labor laws.

The first inkling of the scandal came in 2008, when a press report noted that nearly every LIRR worker retired early, getting an MTA pension and a federal benefit. Looking into the anomaly, federal prosecutors unearthed evidence that at least two doctors and other “facilitators” had for years signed off on fake injuries and ailments so that workers could take their pensions.

[. . .]

The state’s fear of an LIRR strike helps drive up the railroad’s costs. Last year, the Empire Center reported, the average LIRR worker pulled in $84,850 — not including benefits.

That’s more than anywhere at the MTA except headquarters — and 23 percent more than subway and bus workers make. Seven of the top 10 people who made more in overtime than they did in regular wages hailed from the LIRR — including one conductor who tripled his $75,390 salary. Plus, workers pay nothing for health benefits.

October 21, 2011

Incentives matter, police edition

Filed under: Law, Liberty — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:00

Jonathan Blanks explains that the incentives provided to police officers clearly do influence their behaviour:

Last week, former undercover police officer Stephen Anderson told the New York State Supreme Court that planting drugs on innocent people was so common that it didn’t even register emotionally to him. The story is starting to get traction in the media as an egregious example of police corruption, but it’s notable only because of the admission to the practice in open court. Each year, there are hundreds of cases in which police officers are caught stealing, using, selling, or planting drugs or pocketing the proceeds from drug busts. Despite the obligatory PR protestations that any given instance of corruption is an isolated case, the systemic, legal, social, and economic incentives in every law enforcement agency in America combine to make police corruption virtually inevitable. And with no other category of crimes are these incentives stronger than with drug crimes.

Anderson testified that drugs would be seized from suspects at a given bust, divided, and then used again as evidence against other people on site (or at a time later) who had nothing to do with the initial arrest. This was, in part, due to established drug arrest quotas the officers needed to meet. As public servants, police departments face the same budgetary pressures as any other government entity and thus their officers are required to meet certain benchmarks set by the powers that be. Added to the normal budgetary justification, however, many police officers are in the position to confiscate cash and property that can be sold at auction thanks to civil asset forfeiture laws. Many departments across the country keep a percentage or the entirety of forfeiture proceeds, so pressure to maintain a certain level of drug arrests is something straight out of Public Choice: 101.

New study shows Tasers often misused by police

Filed under: Law, Liberty — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:36

Robert Farago lists some of the findings from a recent New York Civil Liberties Union study on the use and mis-use of TASERs:

  • Nearly 60 percent of reported Taser incidents did not meet expert-recommended criteria that limit the weapon’s use to situations where officers can document active aggression or a risk of physical injury.
  • Fifteen percent of incident reports indicated clearly inappropriate Taser use, such as officers shocking people who were already handcuffed or restrained.
  • Only 15 percent of documented Taser incidents involved people who were armed or who were thought to be armed, belying the myth that Tasers are most frequently used as an alternative to deadly force.
  • More than one-third of Taser incidents involved multiple or prolonged shocks, which experts link to an increased risk of injury and death.
  • More than a quarter of Taser incidents involved shocks directly to subjects’ chest area, despite explicit warnings by the weapon’s manufacturer that targeting the chest can cause cardiac arrest.
  • In 75 percent of incidents, no verbal warnings were reported, despite expert recommendations that verbal warnings precede Taser firings.
  • 40 percent of the Taser incidents analyzed involved at-risk subjects, such as children, the elderly, the visibly infirm and individuals who are seriously intoxicated or mentally ill.

    October 4, 2011

    New York wants to rework the First Amendment “not as a right, but as a privilege”

    Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:53

    Some New York senators think you’ve got too much freedom of speech, and they think the world would be a much nicer place if you didn’t have as much:

    . . . some state Senators in NY are trying a new line of attack: going directly after the First Amendment and suggesting that current interpretations are way too broad, and it’s not really meant to protect any sort of free speech right. In fact, it sounds as though they’re trying to redefine the right to free speech into a privilege that can be taken away. Seriously:

         Proponents of a more refined First Amendment argue that this freedom should be treated not as a right but as a privilege — a special entitlement granted by the state on a conditional basis that can be revoked if it is ever abused or maltreated.

    Yes, that totally flips the First Amendment on its head. It is not a “more refined First Amendment.” It’s the anti-First Amendment. It suggests, by its very nature, that the government possesses the right to grant the “privilege” of free speech to citizens… and thus the right to revoke it. That’s an astonishingly dangerous path, and one that should not be taken seriously. Of course, given their right to speak freely, state senators Jeff Klein, Diane Savino, David Carlucci and David Valesky have every right to put forth that argument — but similarly, it allows others to point out their rather scary beliefs.

    March 8, 2011

    Helicopter footage of 9/11 just released

    Filed under: History, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:21

    The Guardian explains:

    Previously unseen footage of the 9/11 attacks, filmed from a police helicopter hovering above the burning World Trade Centre, has emerged almost a decade after the terrorist atrocity.

    The New York Police Department air and sea rescue helicopter was dispatched to the scene of the attack to see whether any survivors could be rescued from the rooftops.

    [. . .]

    The video is part of a cache of information about the attack handed over by city agencies to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the federal agency that investigated the collapse.

    It was released by NIST on 3 March under a Freedom of Information Act request, but it remains unclear who published the footage online.

    September 11, 2010

    Nine years on

    Filed under: History, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:04

    Video by James Lileks.

    But every so often — every week, really — I remember the event in some odd echo of the emotions I felt on September 11. It might be the closing credit music of a BBC comedy, or an old movie about New York, or driving past a building designed by the architect of the WTC, or just standing in the spot where I stood when I saw the towers fall. Or more: for God’s sake, the Gallery of Regrettable Food’s publication date was 9/11; half the time I look at the book on the shelf I recall being in the shower, thinking of the interviews I had lined up, turning off the water and hearing Peter Jennings on the radio, wondering why they were replaying tape of the 91 attack on the towers. I remember what Natalie was doing — a happy toddler, she was digging through her box of toys and handing me a phone with a smile as bright as the best tomorrow you could imagine. I remember Jasper on his back, whining, unsure. I remember these things because I picked up my camera and filmed them, because this was a day unlike any other. Today I answered the phone in the same spot where I stood when I called my Washington bureau, told them I’d be rewriting the column — obviously — and wished them well. They were four blocks from the White House. Impossible not to imagine the Fail-Safe squeal on the other end of the line.

    On the Hewitt show tonight I started talking about 9/11, and my mouth overran my head, because somewhere down there is a core of anger that hasn’t diminished a joule. This doesn’t mean anything, by itself — anger is an emotion that believes its justification is self-evident by its very existence. Passion is not an argument; rage is not a plan. But as the years go by I find myself as furious now as I was furious then — and no less unmanned by the sight of the planes and the plumes. Once a year I watch the thing I cobbled together from the footage I Tivo’d, and the day is bright and real and true again.

    Update: How Twitter can be almost poetry. Disturbing, yet moving.

    April 27, 2010

    Almost right

    Filed under: Europe, Humour, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:43

    Kathy Shaidle linked to this map at Spleenville, showing an approximation of how Europeans (and implicitly the rest of the world) view the United States:


    (Click map to see original image)

    [. . .] As a matter of fact, from what I’ve garnered from across the pond, the rest of the world thinks the USA consists of one large metropolis — Newyorkangeles — with a sunny beach where only blond, tanned, perfectly-toned twenty-something models are allowed to go, and the rest of it is a desert wasteland full of racist white cowboys who wear big hats and shoot their guns in the air.

    You forgot the teeth: Europeans all seem to believe that Americans all have identical “Hollywood” smiles. Oh, except for the gun-toting racist yahoos, who only have a few teeth each.

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