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NYTimes Freakonomist Eric Morris Vs California High Speed Rail

by BruceMcF Sun Jul 26th, 2009 at 07:09:47 PM EST

Perhaps there is a recipe for being "provocative" when you do not, after all, want to depart from the economic mainstream - despite the radical incapacities that have come to prominence in the last year - and do not want to upset powerful vested interests.

If I was trying to use Eric Morris' "Freakonomics Blog" piece for the NYTimes, High-Speed Rail and CO2, to work the recipe out, my guess would be:

  • Pick a challenge to the status quo as your target
  • Pick a sexy public issue as your line of attack
  • Narrow the frame to bias the case in favor of the status quo
  • cherry pick information sources that are biased toward your desired conclusions
  • mis-state as much of the rest of the evidence as required to bring your conclusion home

So let's see this recipe at work as Eric Morris does a hack piece trying to argue that HSR funding is bad for CO2 emissions.

H/T to Rafael at the California HSR Blog for bringing this piece to my attention.


Eric Morris's "Freakonomics" blog labels itself as the "hidden side of everything", this particular piece involves taking two information sources and arriving at the final conclusion:

But given the very severe budget constraints we are currently facing, a program as costly as HSR should be evaluated very thoroughly despite its considerable allure.

His first piece of information is David Levinson's estimate that the California HSR will cost $80b. And what is the basis of David Levinson's estimate? As he described it on the California HSR blog:

(5) The cost estimates in question when I was quoted in the newspaper article which was requoted by Eric Morris do in fact come from Reason Foundation (you get interviewed by a newspaper and see how many of your comments actually make it through the back end). I do think they are ballpark, and expect the official estimates are quite low, as they usually are in MegaProjects.

In other words, the cost estimate is from the anti-government-project "Reason Foundation", and David finds them reasonable based on an expectation that there will be a budget blow-out on a Mega-Project.

This is not Eric Morris citing the work of a "transport expert", but citing the reaction of a "transport export" to the work of an ideological propaganda mill. However, citing the "Reason Foundation" as the source of the $80b estimate would undermine the credibility of the blog post in the eyes of many people worried about CO2 emissions ... who would be aware of much hackery places like the Reason Foundation engage in on the issue of climate chaos.

His second piece of information is a report for the UK Dept. of Transport by Booz Allen Hamilton. Unfortunately, the second piece of information is not provocative enough, so it is misrepresented.

After citing the UK Study, Morris says:

But the major caveat is that all of these figures consider emissions from operations only, without taking into account the very large amount of pollution that will be created in the construction of the HSR system.

Well, let's see. This is a figure taken from the UK Transport Study:

As you can see, while the emissions from air and road infrastructure construction are omitted, the study takes into account the "pollution created in the construction". So saying, "without taking into account ... the pollution that will be created in the construction of the HSR system" ... that's what is called a "lie" if you are talking in a bar, or a "misreading" if you are talking in a professional setting.

Its quite clear that the "Emerging HSR" and "Regional HSR", which primarily works by taking car traffic off the road, and which is "conventional rail" in the figure above, can be built and operated with less CO2 emissions than motorist operations alone.

And equally clear that the "Express HSR" in the terms of the Department of Transport, which is genuine "HSR" in European terms, can be built and operated with less CO2 emissions than air operations alone.

Charitably, Eric Morris simply missed what was laid out directly and clearly in unmistakable terms. That may, indeed, be part of what "The Hidden Side of Everything" means ... an inability to see what is laid out in plain view.

Always Look Out for the Framing

Of course, the UK Transport study is framed in terms of new rail infrastructure taking over traffic from existing road and air infrastructure. However, over the relevant period for tackling climate chaos, that requires the assumption that air and road infrastructure lasts forever and magically reproduces itself if new transport capacity is needed.

It is, of course an obviously biased comparison to compare build and operate emissions of rail against operation emissions of air and road. Indeed, this reinforces the working hypothesis that "The Hidden Side of Everything" refers to an incapacity to see what is in plain sight.

But stepping outside of that framing, what the comparison says is that emissions from HSR operation and construction is less than the emissions from air operation alone, and the emissions from HSR operations and car operations are similar ... and clearly HSR transport capacity involves less CO2 emissions than an equivalent capacity in highway construction, because of its substantial advantage in transport capacity per square foot of corridor ... so any traffic moved from air or car to HSR represents a reduction in CO2 emissions.

And at the same time, the majority of the projects that are applying for HSR funding in the Stimulus Bill are "Emerging" and "Regional" HSR, and while these offer faster trips than anything we have available in the US, in European terms this is "conventional rail". And the UK figures that Eric Morris cites shows that this type of rail is an even bigger emissions reduction when it takes over car transport.

Always Look out for the Framing, Part II

Of course, the Booz Allen study is not focused on the question that Eric Morris is posing. In particular, Booz Allen assumes that the emissions of the electric power source required by the HSR line is simply the average CO2 emissions of electricity in Britain.

However, the California project has committed to using renewable power for its needs. If this is a genuine commitment rather than a gimmick, it will mean paying a premium for the renewable power that justifies installation of new renewable power generating capacity.

Indeed, the Booz Allen study explicitly assumes that there is no program targeted at reducing the CO2 emissions of a specific mode of transport ... and, contrary to that assumption, that is exactly the policy in place for the California HSR system.

Now, to be fair, Eric Morris is a straight down the line mainstream economist ... so perhaps he is aware of the conflict between assumption and reality, and just felt it was natural to give pride of place to the false assumption. However, for those who are not mainstream economists, and who think that a false assumption needs to be abandoned ...

... Eric Morris has elected to tilt the case against the California HSR system twice ... once in accepting a report based on a report of a proposed UK corridor that omits the California policy to consume renewable power ... and a second time in misleading his readers about the contents of that report.

Indeed, it seems that the true genius of the tagline, "The Hidden Side of Everything" is the way it invites the presumption of a reader that it is about revealing the hidden side of everything ... without actually making any such promise. Indeed, author seems to be comfortable with trying to hide what would otherwise be uncomfortably clear.

Display:
... a sleight of hand exercise in arriving at cute arguments for questions framed so that the mainstream economics can answer them ... which diverts attention to the incapacity of mainstream economics to cope with a large range of questions ... in other words, more an exercise in shooting an arrow and drawing a bullseye around where it lands ...

... so its not too surprising that Eric Morris displays either a disinterest or inability to think outside the confines of an inappropriate frame.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Jul 26th, 2009 at 07:51:04 PM EST
I don't have a thing to add on the topic, but I love a good, scholarly, evisceration.  Well done!  I enjoyed this one immensely.

Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding. -Hobbes
by Izzy (izzy at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Jul 27th, 2009 at 02:32:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In particular, Booz Allen assumes that the emissions of the electric power source required by the HSR line is simply the average CO2 emissions of electricity in Britain.

However, the California project has committed to using renewable power for its needs. If this is a genuine commitment rather than a gimmick, it will mean paying a premium for the renewable power that justifies installation of new renewable power generating capacity.

Even if that was not the case, and they used standard mix of electricity sources, train in California would do better then in Britain. Quick googling gives Britains electricity consumption consisting of about 75% coal, gas and oil, while Californias is about 65% coal and gas.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Mon Jul 27th, 2009 at 05:17:56 AM EST
Hence the obvious logic, when speaking of HSR, of comparing to... the UK.

No offense intended to Britons in the audience, but seriously?

by Bernard on Mon Jul 27th, 2009 at 08:18:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Anyone who compares anything to our railway system as the good example needs their head examining.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Mon Jul 27th, 2009 at 08:32:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, yes, but when your baseline is the US... :)
by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Jul 27th, 2009 at 09:03:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well ourgovernemnt compared ours to the US, and thought the US was the good idea :-)

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Mon Jul 27th, 2009 at 10:57:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Great work debunking this! This Morris guy is a real 'pro', picking out the one CO2 emissions comparison study that does consider infrastructure (even if for rail only)...

At this point, I will shamelessly link to my earlier Railways, energy, CO2 - Part 2 diary, in which I did my own calculation for infrastructure. I emphasize one point made there: when 'converting' construction-related emissions to a per passenger-km basis, two factors give a strong variation: depreciation time and the strength of traffic. I.e. a "Regional HSR" line upgrade might have a higher addition to emissions per passenger-mile than an "Express HSR" one -- for example if the former needs track replacement more often due to the combination of damage from freight trains and low tolerances due to passenger train comfort standards, and the latter attracts several times more passengers.

in European terms this is "conventional rail"

Also in Chinese or Indian terms :-)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Jul 27th, 2009 at 09:24:47 AM EST
In the US context, a Regional HSR corridor (200km/hr, grade separations and "hardened" level crossings, likely to be electrified) will consist primarily of new track in existing corridors ... remember that outside the Northeast Corridor, most Right of Way east of the Rockies are allotted space for four track and only have one or two tracks installed ... and, indeed, over the past 50 years, much of the double track has been ripped up in favor of bidirectional single track, for the maintenance and property tax savings.

Indeed, given the tendency of US railroads to carry freight that goes by barge in much of Europe (as we saw several times in the Tour de France this year), scheduling conflicts tend to require new track in ROW that has frequent freight traffic, even for Emerging HSR (175km/hr, quad gate level crossings, likely to start out with diesel).

Of course, some of this involves institutional peculiarities of the US ... for instances, I presume that the European situation normally does not involve the US local property situation, where a public authority that does not face property tax liabilities for new track automatically has lower operating costs for rail infrastructure than a private railroad that pays property tax.

in European terms this is "conventional rail"

Also in Chinese or Indian terms :-)

... but that is beside the point, since Eric Morris did not cit from a Chinese or Indian source. Indeed, would not be likely to, since Freakonomics is not about thinking outside the box, but rather about exploring the nooks and crannies available to those who accept thinking inside the box.

Note that the DoT terminology is, in fact, a quite clever pro-rail political ploy, since on the one hand it makes the distinction between HSR and the tier of rapid interurban service beneath HSR, allowing for funding to be targeted to HSR, while at the same time combining all the tiers of rail service better than what we presently have in the US in a broad political coalition, with much broader opportunity to participate than if it was restricted to HSR alone.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Jul 27th, 2009 at 11:34:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
[ET Moderation Technology™] Oops, Bruce, can you do something about these alerts we're getting from Photobucket?

En un viejo país ineficiente, algo así como España entre dos guerras civiles, poseer una casa y poca hacienda y memoria ninguna. -- Gil de Biedma
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Aug 26th, 2009 at 04:30:40 AM EST


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