Tagged: James Fallows
James and Deborah Fallows have been visiting remote corners of the US by small plane to tease out the secrets of successful local economies. In Eastport, Maine, they heard lots of talk about the potential of Eastport’s deep, ice-free harbour, and relative proximity to Europe, to attract European trade. I noted that the same case has been made for Canso, where construction of the causeway to Cape Breton in 1955 inadvertently created a similarly deep, ice-free superport.
Inveterate boosterism deflator Tim Bousquet of The Coast, a Halifax newsweekly, isn’t impressed:
I think boosters of both the Canso and the Eastport “superports”—and you and Fallows, too—are making the same mistake in logic. No shipper wants to use the North American port that is closest to Europe. That makes no sense at all.
Think about it. You are the manager of a German manufacturing firm, and you want to export to North America. You’re not going to sell many widgets in Canso or in Eastport. Instead, your primary market is going to be places like New York City, or Chicago, where there are millions of people and lots of industry to buy your widgets.
So how do you get your widgets to Chicago? Expensive and light stuff, you can fly directly there. Everything else has two legs: one by sea, and one by land.
The sea part of the voyage is relatively inexpensive. You can stack a gazillion of your widgets in the new post-Panamax ships. A small, underpaid crew from the Philippines steering a ship flying the flag of a lightly regulated country like Liberia doesn’t cost much.
The land part of the journey, however, is expensive. You’ve got to divide up your gigantic cargo and divvy it into a thousand trucks, each driven by a highly paid (relative to the shiphands) driver, using lots of fuel to get to Chicago. Or, if you’re lucky, you can use rail, which, while cheaper than the trucks, is still much more expensive than the sea voyage, per unit transported per distance.
The guy sitting in Germany isn’t looking for the North American port closest to Germany, but rather the North American port closest to Chicago, or wherever his widgets are going. If that means a longer sea journey, the cost is more than made up for with the huge savings of a shorter land journey. I’m not sure why megaport boosters get this so wrong.
Existing American megaports—New York, Hampton Roads, Charleston—are investing billions retrofitting their operations to handle the post-Panamax ships, and the rail lines are upgrading like crazy, refitting for double-stacked containers and such. There’s no chance—none—that Canso or Eastport ports can match the investment, and CN will never be able to out compete Norfolk Southern or CSX for the American midwest market. Just ain’t gonna happen.
I find this megaport boosterism in Canada a little sad, really, for how delusional it is.
To underscore Tim’s point about the low cost of ocean shipping, John “Johnny Nova” Chisholm, former owner of the massive harbourside gravel quarry at Cape Porcupine on the Canso Strait, once told me he could ship gravel to Galveston, Texas, cheaper than he could truck it to Antigonish.
And ship it he did, in vast quantities.
[See correction and clarification at end.] Two months ago, Atlantic journalists James and Deborah Fallows began traveling around the United States in a small plane, visiting relatively obscure cities in a quest to find out what makes some thrive while others struggle.
They spent much of last week in Eastport, Maine, hard up against the New Brunswick border. Jim’s initial blog posts bespeak a community well on the way to recovery, populated by leaders determined to go the distance. Since Eastport shares much in common with struggling Atlantic port communities, Maritimers might want to perk up their ears.
In a post last week, and again on the weekend, Jim focused on two factors residents believe will play a role in Eastport’s potential for economic prosperity: the depth of its harbour, and its proximity to Europe.
As you’ll hear, a group of ambitious people in the city are trying to use the port’s unique capacity — and its proximity to Europe, and its potential proximity to Asia as northwest passages through a warming Canadian arctic become more frequent (they are already happening) — as one foundation of its hoped-for economic revival.
As mentioned yesterday — and as cited non-stop by local port authorities — Eastport has the deepest natural harbor in the continental United States, at 60+ feet. Its siting, “remote” from the rest of America’s perspective, is also a potential strategic plus.
To buttress the point, he offered three maps, created by the nifty online Great Circle Mapper, showing how much closer to Europe Eastport is than Boston, New York, or Miami. And not just from Europe, but from the African ports of Casablanca and Dakar. Here’s the London map:
Compared to Boston, Eastport has the potential to save vessels more than 500 miles* in a round trip to London; 900 miles when compared to New York. All that means time, fuel, and money saved. Similar maps made the same point with the two African ports.
All this rang a bell with David Ryan, a Long Island, filmmaker, boat builder, and yachtsman, who happens to be a mutual friend of Jim’s and mine. In an email to both of us, he wrote:
I heard the same thing when we were in Port Hastings [on the Strait of Canso in Cape Breton Island], Nova Scotia, back around 2003. There was no reason a local should have been telling me in particular that they had 60 feet of water, were ice-free year round, and right on one of Canada’s main train arteries, yet I was; so I take it this is something that all Post Hastings boosters tell anyone and everyone who visits.
One curious feature of the superport formed by the eastern half of the Strait of Canso is that it was accidental. Construction of the 4,544 ft, rock-filled causeway connecting Cape Breton Island to the mainland in 1955 had the unanticipated result of creating an ice-free, deepwater harbour. This image from Google Earth shows how the causeway traps the seasonal ice flowing down from the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway, keeping the deep waterway east of the causeway free from ice. Voilà! A superport.
For a time, the superport turned the nearby community of Port Hawkesbury into something of a boom town, albeit one that never quite lived up to its potential. An oil refinery, a gypsum plant, and a heavy water plant all eventually failed—
the heavy water plant spectacularly so**—but the paper mill still operates at reduced capacity, as does a tank farm, a bulk coal facility, and a massive rock quarry. Together they make Port Hawkesbury Canada’s second largest port by tonnage, after Vancouver. A biomass electrical generating station officially opens in Port Hawkesbury this Wednesday, but hopes for a container terminal remain elusive (though not as elusive as Sydney’s parallel pipe dream).
Thinking about all this history led me back to the Great Circle Mapper, where I reconstructed Jim’s images of the Great Eastport Advantage — this time including Port Hawkesbury. As I expected, the Nova Scotia port has as much of an advantage over Eastport as Eastport has over Boston.
Here is the map showing distances to Casablanca:
And here is Dakar.
The Canso Superport wins all three.
Whether this makes it any more likely than Eastport to foster lasting economic growth, and what other factors might affect the two communities’ prospects, is a much tougher question, and a topic for another day. We may get some hint, however, from an apocryphal Presbyterian prayer one hears quoted from time to time in Cape Breton:
And more especially do we thank Thee, O Lord, for the Gut of Canso, Thine own body of water, which separates us from the wickedness that lieth on the other side thereof.
* [Clarification] In response to a question from Robert G. McNeil, the units are nautical miles.
** [Correction] Thanks to Stanley Beaton for reminding me it wasn’t the heavy water plant at Port Hawkesbury that proved a disaster. It was AECL’s sister facility at Glace Bay.
[T]his was the first multiple-fatality crash involving a major airline in North America since November, 2001. The streak has ended, but it lasted nearly twelve years, with some 20,000 commercial jetliners taking off and landing safely in this country every single day — an astonishing run. Is it perverse to suggest that Saturday’s accident, awful as it was, serves to underscore just how safe commercial flying has become? [Emphasis added]
20,000 x 365 days x 12 years = 87.6 million major airline flights, a jaw-dropping safety achievement.
Smith’s blog and that of James Fallows offer fascinating analysis of the crash, pitched mainly to lay readers. Another takeaway: That initial media and “aviation expert” speculation about the causes of a crash almost always proves to be wide of the mark.
Yesterday, White House press spokesman Jay Carney kiboshed the idea of minting a platinum trillion dollar coin to get around the Congressionally imposed debt ceiling that Republicans are using to ransom deep cuts in medicare and social security.
Some economists have urged President Barack Obama to exploit a legal loophole that would allow the government to print a single $1,000,000,000,000 coin, and deposit it with the Federal Reserve Bank, thereby enabling the US Government to pay bills Congress has already authorized.
MSNBC Host Chris Hays summed up the case for the coin this way:
If this seems surreal or ridiculous or magical to you, you are not wrong. It’s totally bizarre and unprecedented. Even if it’s legal, as many legal experts believe it to be, it seems to run against our expectations of how our government does and should behave. It’s the kind of thing that just isn’t done. But that, you see, is the entire point. Behaviour of individuals within institutions is constrained by the formal rules–explicit prohibitions–and norms–implicit prohibitions that aren’t spelled out, but just aren’t done.
And what the modern Republican party has excelled at, particularly in the era of Obama, is exploiting the gap between these two. They’ve made a habit of doing the thing that just isn’t done. Requiring a 60-vote majority for nearly every simple procedural vote just wasn’t done, and then the Republicans did it. Refusing to confirm any candidate for an open position because you object to the position’s very existence just wasn’t done, but Senate Republicans did precisely that with the newly created Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, which they continue to boycott. And most clearly before the summer of June, 2011, opposition parties didn’t use the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip with which to extract ransom, and they certainly didn’t threaten default as a means to gain political leverage.
The president has been extremely reticent to meet this extraordinary degradation of previous norms with innovations of his own. He is, at heart, an ardent institiuionalist. But there is no way to unilaterally maintain norms. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. And the only way to produce a new set of healthy norms is to do some innovating of your own.
And you can tell, I think, the trillion dollar coin idea spooks republicans precisely because it would be so out of character. It would so gleefully and flagrantly violate their own expectations about how democrats play the game.
I go back and forth on whether Obama is a leader of exceptional forbearance, or a patsy who can’t play hardball. In this case, I’m dismayed that the President has once again abjured what may be his strongest weapon on the eve of negotiations that promise to be not just difficult but fraught with potential harm to the United States and the world.
Since Contrarian readers may not have followed this looming crisis all that closely, I will follow the advice of James Fallows and include these two sentences in this discussion:
- Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize one single penny in additional public spending.
- For Congress to “decide whether” to raise the debt ceiling, for programs and tax rates it has already voted into law, makes exactly as much sense as it would for a family to “decide whether” to pay a credit-card bill for goods it has already bought.
For those who prefer to ingest their economic news visually, here is Hayes’s entire commentary on the Republican Debt ceiling fiasco (the coin discussion starts 25 seconds in):
And here is the bipartisan panel discussion that followed.
At first blush, this is a discussion about the intricacies of US politics. But in Canada, over the last two years, the Harper Government has been flouting Parliamentary norms in a manner that is, so far as I know, unprecedented in scope. Harper has cobbled together massive omnibus bills that change dozens of important federal laws touching wide-ranging spheres of Canadian affairs–ranging from National Parks to native rights to protection of waterways. Harper has used his parliamentary majority to force these laws through with a minimum of debate.
Just as Republicans can say Democrats used the filibuster too, Harperites can say Liberals used Omnibus bills, too. Yes they did, and sometimes in regrettable ways, but never on this massive scale.
What we’ve seen from Harper in the last two years is a flouting of norms, and as Hayes says, once norms are gone, they’re gone, and you can’t get ’em back. Once Canada’s dalliance with the radical right ends, as inevitably it one day will, the most important task facing a moderate or progressive alternative will be to repair the damage Harper has done to Canadian Parliamentary Democracy.
A Chinese engineer, on his first trip to the United States, a work assignment for his company, snapped this photo, reproduced today on James Fallows’s blog. Fallows asks his readers:
- Why did he take the photo?
- What happened next?
For the answers, go here.
Earlier this week, various blogs and media outlets reported that Beijing was experiencing frightful levels of air pollution. To document the crisis, China hand James Fallows cited what he called “the indispensable (and highly controversial)” Twitter feed @Beijingair, which produces hourly readings of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in Beijing. On Monday, @Beijingair showed readings in excess of 300 µg/m3, contributing to conditions the US EPA characterizes as “hazardous,” and warranting “health warnings of emergency conditions.”
What caught my attention was Fallows’s assertion that the @BeijingAir feed is “the only known source of PM 2.5 readings in China.” That is astounding: one PM2.5 meter for a nation of 1.3 billion people. By contrast, Sydney, Nova Scotia, population ~27,000,* has seven instruments that monitor PM2.5.
Bear with me for a brief technical digression. PM2.5 is a measure of the concentration of airborne particles smaller than 2.5 microns (millionths of a metre)—tiny particles that can find their way deep inside people’s lungs. It’s the air quality scientist’s indicator of choice for air pollution most likely to damage health.
To confound matters further, Sydney’s closely monitored air quality appears to be quite good. Here is the most recent publicly available data, from a 24-hour sample collected on October 12.
Each column represents a different monitoring station, each of which has two types of monitors. The highest reading among them was less than 1/1ooth of that registered this week in Beijing. These monitors run for 24 hours once every six days, a schedule that coincides with Canada’s National Air Pollution Surveillance (NAPS) network. A seventh Sydney-based unit operates continuously and contributes data used to calculate Environment Canada’s Air Quality Health Index (AQHI), but the PM2.5 results are not reported separately.
This appears to be a clear case of underkill in Beijing, where much better data is warranted, and I would argue, overkill in Sydney, where air quality has been unremarkable by North American standards for the last two decades. Over-measurement in Sydney reflects the public panic over the Tar Ponds cleanup in the late ’90s and early ‘oughts. A few environmental activists persuaded residents that air-quality impacts from the Tar Ponds were putting their health at risk, a falsehood Environment Canada has been loathe to correct. Ironically, back before Sydney’s coke ovens closed in 1988, the city’s air likely did pose a health hazard, but went largely unmonitored.
The relative hazards of air quality in China vs. Nova Scotia show up clearly in this NASA map compiled from satellite readings of average PM2.5 levels around the world between 2001 and 2006:
I would ascribe both conditions — Sydney overkill and Beijing underkill — to the politicization of environmental monitoring. Back when Sydney’s polluting steel mill and coke ovens were the largest employer in a region short of jobs, few people wanted to hear about associated environmental concerns, and government was content to turn a blind eye. Similarly, the Chinese government is reluctant to highlight the environmental costs of its spectacular economic growth (although, as Fallows often points out, its environmental record is not so indifferent as some in the west assume).
In subsequent posts on Beijing air monitoring, Fallows has subtly adjusted his claim about @Beijingair’s putative uniqueness in China. He now describes it as “the only public readings of PM 2.5.” The controversial feed is based on an air monitoring unit on the roof of the US Embassy in Beijing. Official chinese annoyance over it was the subject of a Wikileaks cable, and may have contributed to the Chinese government decision to block access to Twitter in 2009. There are welcome early signs, here and here, that China may soon begin more appropriate monitoring. I would be surprised if they are not secretly monitoring PM2.5.
My point here is that citizens should take care to view environmental hazards in context, and always remain mindful that any chemical hazard is proportional to dose.
*Sydney no longer exists as a municipal unit, having been amalgamated into the Cape Breton Regional Municipality in 1995. Wikipedia puts the “Sydney area” population in the 2006 census at 33,012, but this is suspiciously high. I was unable to ferret out local population numbers from StatsCan’s online census information, but will be delighted if readers can steer me to them.
Contrarian regulars know of my admiration for the eclectic James Fallows, who writes and blogs for The Atlantic. James is in China this winter, finishing up a book, and while he does that, rotating squads of unterbloggers are filling in for him. I’m in the rotation this week, and I’ve posted three items so far:
My week of guest-blogging happens to fall amidst a crush of other work, so it’s unlikely I’ll get much posted here until things settle down. But I will alert you to posts at Jim’s site.
Eamonn Fingleton, an ex-pat Irish financial journalist who lives in Tokyo, takes a decidedly contrarian view of the Japanese economy. Far from stagnating for 20 years, as received media wisdom would have it, Japan’s economy has been ticking along just fine, he contends.
Guest-blogging for James Fallows at TheAtlantic.com website (where Contrarian will take a guest-blogging turn the week of March 14), Fingleton cites a couple of inconvenient facts in support of his analysis:
- Japan’s current account surplus in 1990, regarded as the onset of its 20-year economic malaise, stood at $36 billion. By last year, it had risen to $194 billion.
- Over the same 20-year period, the yen rose 65 percent against the US dollar, the strongest performance of any major currency.
How can such facts be reconciled with the “two lost decades” story? I don’t think they can. There is clearly a contradiction here, and after studying the facts on the ground in Tokyo for decades I find it hard to avoid the implausible-sounding conclusion that the story of Japan’s stagnation is a media myth.
Certainly anyone who visits Japan these days is struck by the obvious affluence even among average citizens. The cars on the roads, for instance, are generally much larger and better equipped than in the 1980s (indeed state of the art navigation devices, for instance, are more or less standard on many models). Overseas vacation travel has more than doubled since the 1980s. The Japanese boast the world’s most advanced cell phones, and the biggest and best high-definition television screens. Japan’s already long life expectancy has increased by nearly two years. Its Internet connections are some of the world’s fastest — something like ten times faster on average than American speeds.
The rest of Fingleton’s argument is, to say the least, intriguing.
China hand James Fallows expends a lot of time and words reassuring Americans that China is not the unstoppable, omnipotent superpower they fear it to be. Reality is more complicated, he argues, especially when viewed up close, from within China, where he has spent years.
However, a Fallows cover story in the current Atlantic warns of one technology in which China is leaving the west in its dust: the quest for ways to burn coal without emitting carbon. In exhorting the west to greater effort in pursuit of clean coal, Fallows takes aim at one of the environmental movement’s most sacred bovines: the belief that clean coal is a PR fraud perpetrated by coal and coal-power interests bent on evading responsibility for the planet-destroying externalities of their industry.
This has brought a shower predictable wrath in comments sections, as well as some thoughtful rebuttal, including a post from David Roberts at Grist. Roberts disagrees with Fallows on the future of coal, but regards him as “one of the most reliably excellent journalists working today.” He pays Fallows the further compliment of summarizing accurately the four broad points in the Atlantic piece:
- Coal does enormous damage to people and the environment.
- It will be impossible to meet future global energy demand without coal, which is cheap and plentiful. We can not eliminate it from the energy mix.
- We urgently need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a radical amount.
- Given 2 and 3, it follows that making coal cleaner must be a priority, alongside an “all-out effort on all other fronts, from conservation and efficiency to improved battery technology to wind- and solar-power systems to improved nuclear facilities”
Nevertheless, Roberts views the piece as a takedown of environmentalists (DFHs in his ironic coinage) to the benefit of the powers that be (PTBs), whose self-serving intransigence doesn’t merit the encouragement:
If DFHs continue to believe coal can be eliminated, they will… release more reports and white papers to that effect. They’ll lobby lawmakers (and a few of the ones from California might even listen). They’ll protest outside coal plants. They’ll organize Facebook petitions.
If the PTBs continue to believe that coal is a precious piece of American Heritage to be protected at all cost and that climate change is either alarmism or an outright hoax, they will continue to funnel subsidies to coal, block policies that subsidize clean energy, manipulate markets to protect coal from competition, and otherwise quash innovations that might threaten the interests of dirty energy incumbents. There will be no “all-out effort.”
Which is worse? Sounds to me like the PTBs are in a position to do serious damage to America’s energy future. The DFHs, not so much….
If you believe, as Fallows does, that climate change is an urgent, enormous challenge, then it’s hard to see the value in worrying that some idealistic green somewhere thinks we can tackle it without coal. Being contrarian toward DFHs is a little … safe.
I claim some expertise with this topic because Cape Breton, where I live, is an island whose recent human history is defined by coal, from the first coal mine in North America at Port Morien, through a coal-fueled industrial boom in the first half of the 20th Century, doomed government efforts to keep mines and a steel mill alive on subsidies the last half, and finally to the mines’ eventual closure, protracted fights over industrial cleanups, and an intractably depressed post-industrial economy. In a journalism career here, and subsequently as a communications director for a massive (and massively controversial) cleanup of coal-based industrial waste, I’ve lived with coal issues throughout my working life.
Coal is massively destructive – to the health and lives of miners who extract it from deep mines; to the landscape wherever it is extracted by strip mining and mountain top removal; to the health of those living downwind of coal-fired power plant and cement factories; and most urgently to the planetary ecosystem through climate altering emissions from those plants.
But… North Americans and Europeans use vastly more energy per capita than the Chinese or the Indians, and much of China’s and India’s coal consumption occurs in the service of exports to the West. This leaves us in no position to look down our long white noses and demand restraint from our third-world brothers and sisters, especially when we are doing so little to curb our own steadily rising consumption.
Since coal is far and away our most abundant fossil fuel, the only one in no imminent danger of running out any time soon, the unmistakable conclusion is that the world will continue to burn lots and lots of coal. Let’s at least explore the technical and economic feasibility of doing so without unleashing carbon into the atmosphere.
For Roberts’s ironic term DFHs, I would substitute <em>eco-narcissists</em>: those who demand a solution to environmental problems, but for whom no actual solution is ever pure enough. In their reasoning, climate change threatens the very existence of the planet, but heaven forfend we combat it with wind power (too many dead birds and too much disease-causing, low-frequency noise), nuclear (too dangerous, and too much long-lived radioactive waste), tidal (too much harm to fisheries and marine mammals), clean coal (“George Bush’s favourite techno-fix,” in the ad hominem phrase of Canadian Green Party leader Elizabeth May), etc., etc.
Roberts contends that even if Fallows and I are right, we’re picking on a basically harmless, not to say easy, target. I think he underestimates the harm caused by environmentalist dogs in the manger.
Imagine if the driving forces of the civil rights movement in the 1960s had demanded an end to segregation, but opposed specific actions to desegregate buses, lunch counters, high schools, etc. In fact, conservative elements in the movement harboured grave misgivings about direct action. Had their views held sway, how much would that have slowed progress on the issue? How much does the dominant environmental movement position on coal — “The world is burning, but don’t use fire extinguishers; they contain chemicals that might increase asthma rates” — slow progress on this issue? It’s not obvious to me that the effect is trivial.
If you truly believe climate change threatens life on the planet, then surely we need to throw everything we have at this problem — conservation, wind, solar, tidal, ocean energy, geothermal, nuclear, clean coal — and no potential solution should be dismissed out of hand, especially for reasons that are more firmly rooted in culture and ideology than science.
Political junkies in Nova Scotia tend to keep an eye on elections in adjacent provinces, but not so much in adjacent US states. The Atlantic’s James Fallows points to an interesting race for governor of Maine, where independent candidate (and Fallows friend) Eliot Cutler seemed to be coming on strong last week, rising in the polls and winning an avalanche of major newspaper endorsements.
As Fallows points out, victory for an independent is not so far-fetched in the Pine Tree State, where two of the last five governors won election as independents. Viewed from a region devoid of political leadership, Cutler sounds appealing.
He is serious (but also funny), well experienced in politics and with a politician’s natural affability, and extremely ambitious for his home state. Maine has all the natural endowments that tourists and residents of the rest of the country know about — but also some very deep problems with its school systems, its economic base, and the general preparedness of its year-round population for modern global competition. I heard Eliot Cutler talk about this a lot while we were in China [where Fallows and Culter both lived for several years]. Whatever new factory I’d visited or research project he’d learned about became the prelude for a discussion of what Maine would need to do to keep up. If you’re not from Maine, a little of this can go a long way — but for people of the state it’s a good kind of obsession for a public figure to have.
Sounds a bit like Frank McKenna.