Skip to content
Jul 17 10

Stimulus, Slowing Me Down

by Editor

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The Merritt Parkway is a lovely, four-lane road (two in each direction) that cuts through much of southern Connecticut, from the New York line to just past New Haven. For a driver, among its pleasures are the freedom from trucks—it’s much too small for commercial traffic, with lots of low overhanging bridges and sharp curves—and its many trees. It is truly a parkway.

Notwithstanding the National Trust for Historic Preservation placing the road on its 2010 “endangered” list, I have always considered the Merritt to be among the better roads to drive on. It seems well-maintained, certainly relative to I-95, its bigger and uglier parallel sibling. While storms sometimes damage trees (and thus slow down drivers), and of course accidents hold things up, the Merritt has been reliably drivable. Indeed, even in the worst traffic—such as around holidays—it remains my strong preference. The alternatives are uglier, no less congested, and generally unpleasant.

The state of Connecticut must agree with the National Trust, however: they have chosen to spend $70 million in Federal “stimulus” funds on road improvements to the Merritt. … The near-term results of which are massive traffic jams and slowdowns. On a recent nighttime drive, three separate road work spots added a combined hour of delay to my northbound trip.

You could call this “stimulating,” but not in a good way. Indeed, it seems more than a little ironic that stimulus funds are being used in a way that so dramatically wastes time and energy (gasoline), and I find myself splutteringly frustrated even thinking about how to calculate this. But lets try. Some sources (such as the White House) report that the Merritt sees 60,000 cars per day; since the construction seems to be affecting only one side at a time, primarily during nighttime hours, let’s cut that in half to 30,000 (one half of the road) and estimate that 40% of that number travels at night, to get to 12,000 drivers during the hours when construction is taking place and therefore affected by the slow down.

The construction affects a nine mile long stretch of the parkway. Hopefully every car on the road gets better mileage than nine miles to the gallon—but with the construction forcing cars to idle (or inch forward), it is entirely conceivable that the effective mileage for each car has been reduced to just that. (After all: when you’re not moving, your car gets zero miles to the gallon.) Wasting two gallons of gasoline per car comes out to 24,000 gallons of gas wasted each day just on the Merritt. At an average pump price of $2.85, that’s $68,400 dollars wasted, per day. If it takes six months (180 days) to complete the roadwork then total fuel waste is 4,320,000 gallons, at a cost of $12,312,000.

Then there’s the impact on people’s time. If the average delay is similar to what I recently experienced—one hour—that’s also 12,000 work hours per day lost to this “stimulus”-funded construction project, assuming one person per car. Over the course of 180 days, that’s 2,160,000 work hours. If we generously say that each of those hours is worth $100 (hey, this is Connecticut we’re talking about) that’s $216,000,000 in wasted time. Add in the fuel costs, and that’s $228,312,000 wasted in time and fuel.

$228 million wasted for a $70 million “stimulus” funds road improvement program. That is not even calculating the environmental impact of all that gasoline spent on nothing.  Sure, that $70 million is going to create jobs to do the roadwork, and the jobs required to create the materials used in the roadwork.  But there’s still no comparing $70 million invested to $228 million wasted.  We might as well give that $70 million away by sprinkling it on the streets, which is still likely to create less traffic and less waste.

No question, it’s easier to complain than come up with solutions. If the state of Connecticut says the road needs to be fixed, who am I to say it ain’t so. And sure, someone could make an argument about how much better and more efficient the road will be when it’s done (though it’s not a road widening project, so the efficiency benefits are limited). But the state could make a better effort to inform drivers of the delays before they’re suddenly upon them, and suggest detour routes, and even provide digital signage that estimates (and updates) the length of the delays, so that drivers can make informed decisions. If you’re driving from Bridgeport to Milford, odds are there are local roads that (under these circumstances) would be faster than joining the mass of clogged vehicles on the Merritt. If you’re driving from New York to or past New Haven, you might decide to stick it out—though, still, recommended diversions to I-95 or I-84 could help address the overall problem. Instead, Connecticut provides little in the way of driver information and assistance until it’s too late to do much about it.

Perhaps the biggest lesson in this is the one no one in government will ever learn: loudly proclaiming to drivers stuck in miserable slowdowns that the roadwork is being funded by Federal “stimulus” dollars … may not be having the impact you think, or desire, on this captive automotive audience.

Jun 22 10

iPatience, on the other side

by Editor

For a quick, by-the-numbers look at how 600,000 new version 4 iPhones might be distributed across the country, see iPatience.  If you managed to pre-order your iPhone, this analysis suggests it should be a manageable experience to actually go pick one up this Thursday…

May 18 10

Beinart’s Broadside

by Editor

Last night, I appended a comment to my essay on Tony Judt, about a new piece by Peter Beinart in the New York Review of Books.  Beinart’s piece is lengthy, but credible, critical, and important to read.

It has also captured the attention of some interesting commentators, prompting pieces also worth the read.  For instance, I wouldn’t have expected New York’s The Jewish Week to acknowledge any validity in Beinart’s argument – especially after episodes such as this one – but it has.  Here are a selection of responses to Beinart:

This is an important argument to have, and an important one to have in public: aired laundry still dries faster.

May 15 10

The Kagan Problem

by Editor

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

There are news articles galore about Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, reflecting the simplistic positioning of the left or the right—that she’s too much for one side and not enough for the other. For all the flattering things I have read, and all the quotes from friends of Kagan’s from high school and college praising her brilliance, I remain unconvinced. And I am as concerned with what this nomination says about President Obama as about Kagan herself. There are three parts to this issue.

Part One

As many have noted (e.g., Glenn Greenwald in a good NPR interview) Kagan’s views range from either unknown to poorly developed. She has spent more time serving in managerial and administrative jobs than working to develop a clear legal philosophy. No matter what one’s view of the Supreme Court—desirous of liberal judicial activism, or hoping to make Constitutional originalism the activist perspective—it would seem that a well-developed philosophy is a desirable in any nominee.

Then there’s the bits we do know. For example, Kagan’s decision to bar military recruiters at Harvard was misguided. The military’s “Don’t Ask / Don’t Tell” policy is absurd, but it is unreasonable for an institution to take Federal dollars, including money from the Pentagon, and then decide it doesn’t want Pentagon representatives on campus. That is simple hypocrisy. The recent case Kagan defended before the Supreme Court—regarding the shenanigans over a cross in the Mojave National Preserve—similarly defied common sense. Regardless of one’s view on the legitimacy of the cross itself, to advocate before the Court that the plaintiff has no standing based on Congressional tomfoolery was an affront to justice. Inherited from the Bush administration, Obama’s Solicitor General should have scrapped this case.

Part Two

The Obama administration has not been nearly as ardently liberal as some expected—or wanted. In particular, this president’s approach to civil liberties issues too closely mirrors George W. Bush’s, which is to say they lean towards the authoritarian, with doses of justification coming either from external threats or the simple desire for a “strong executive” branch.

It’s easy enough to contextualize the shift from the Obama campaign to the Obama presidency on some issues: closing Guantanamo was never going to be simple, nor was a pull-out of Afghanistan and Iraq truly imminent. On other fronts, however, there is more than enough disappointment to go around, the latest of which is Attorney General Eric Holder’s floating of a suspension of certain Miranda rights for “terrorist suspects,” and idea Obama seems to support. This may seem irrelevant to Kagan as a Supreme Court nominee, but it’s all of a piece: on any number of fronts, the Obama administration has failed to follow-through on its campaign commitments to restoring civil liberties to pre-Bush-era levels. It makes it difficult to trust that an unknown like Kagan will be the kind of Justice that Obama supporters want.

Part Three

Then there’s the simple and even broader issue of “political capital” and general Democratic wimpyness. For all the threat of a filibuster, the Democrats still hold 59 seats in that Congressional body. That’s more than a simple majority. Just as with health care, however, the political calculus of both Obama and his party seems to be one of safety, not boldness. Kagan—unknown, and in some important ways (for a Justice) unknowable—seems to represent the safe choice, because of the unknowns. It’s a shame.

The Democrats have learned the wrong lessons from the Reagan-era fiasco over the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. The focus tends to be on avoiding the Waterloo moment of a nominee withdrawing under fire. What this overlooks is the tremendous value to one’s political base: the Bork nomination may have failed, but it become a rallying point for American conservatives, and in the end was possibly more powerful and valuable even than his appointment to the Court might have been.

One gets the sense, 6 months out from mid-term elections, that Obama and the Democrats don’t have the stomach for a nomination fight. That statement on its own is just pathetic. Obama’s approval ratings (to the extent they matter) are strong. The Senate tilts heavily Democratic. A bolder, more philosophical nominee could almost certainly succeed in passing the Senate on a simple majority vote. And a battle over values—well-argued and cogently thought-through—could have its own value for the American left. If nothing else, it would provide a rallying point for tapping back into the core messages of Obama’s 2008 campaign, and reigniting Democratic and independent voters for the fall elections.

And if those 2008 messages are no longer meaningful or relevant to Obama’s leadership? Then both this administration and the nation have bigger problems and deeper, darker waters ahead.