California HSR, spoiled brat politics, and bad hardball

Attention Conservation Notice: HSR supporters have undermined their own vision through their cynical lack of faith in voters and democratic process. Yeah, democracy is tedious. And you don’t get what you want when you want it. That’s the price.

For those of you who have been watching the California HSR saga, the Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny issued his second ruling in the Kings County Lawsuit filed earlier this year. To recap, the lawsuit alleged multiple things (and since I’m not a lawyer, I will probably mess this up, but here goes)

1. The state does not have a finance plan that satisfies Prop 1a passed in 2008, which the first link of statewide HSR system (520 km if I remember right), and that link would operate without taxpayer subsidy. (Whose idea was it to put THAT in the initiative? Yes, HSR systems make money around the world; but they usually do so after government eats most of the early capital cost risks and babies the systems along in their early years. Is that really so wrong, when you think about it? Isn’t one of the roles of government to absorb risk?)

2. The “blended system” plan that came about after the CHSRA was forced to admit the real costs of the proposed high speed rail system isn’t what Prop 1a promised voters. (The cost estimates went from $32 billion at the time of the vote, which was laughable, to $43 billion, and then, after much dusting up with People Who Can Do Math the far-more-accurate $83 to $117 billion, which caused an outcry, which caused them to rescope the project to the blended system, resulting about $76 billion. This rescoping is going to bite them, too. Yeah, I know, but keep up, would you?)

3. And therefore, the state is not allowed to spend out of the $9 billion of bonds that Prop 1a authorized, which also means they can’t spend from the federal pots of money they obtained either.

Sigh. That’s only on Part 1. Part 2 of the lawsuit will be argued in 2014, when they take on whether the blended system on the table captures what voters were promised. As it stands now, plenty of people are annoyed; what they voted for was a high speed rail system. They didn’t vote for a proposition that builds HSR in the central valley and then improves Caltrain and Amtrack in the big urban markets. The revised cost estimates made some folks furious; the revised construction plan annoys plenty of others who note that the resulting system is not likely to be particularly high speed. (It would be higher speed than now. Does that help?)

So the Judge heard arguments in June and issued his first ruling in favor of King’s County and Fukuda in November, but he gave the Attorney General time to make arguments for why the state should be allowed to spend out those resources. Again, I’m not a lawyer, but my sense would have been that this precise moment, having lost, would have been a good time to grovel and scramble to find a potential source of funding to fix the gap. Instead, the Attorney General tried to argue that the court does not have the authority to make a decision, aka as “you’re not the boss of me,” and that the right to determine whether funds may be spent resides with the legislature.

Last week, the judge issued his final decision, and it’s not good for HSR: the state can’t spend 1a money, and they can’t enjoin Federal money. Since they’ve already spent about $1 billion, Californians are on the hook for that anyway.

Reporting on Kenny’s ruling has been, generally, petulant, like Kenny is a mean meany mean pants who is capriciously throwing up obstacles to a great vision.

Only he’s not. The judge is enforcing the terms of the ballot box initiatives supporters wrote and voted for.

From the beginning, the supporters of the project have overemphasized what damage criticism might do–note their continued flouncing around about the Hyperloop, which is the least of their problems at this point–and underemphasized the possibility that, in managing and using criticisms that arise, voters might still be brought around to understanding–and perhaps event wanting–public infrastructure of this scale and scope. Instead, they pursued assumed the worst of voters–that voters are spoiled brats incapable of signing on to a vision unless it was tarted up with unrealistic promises about how the projects work. I have said it a million times on this blog: I think voters would have been open to persuasion, even if it took longer than supporters wanted. Instead of trusting the democratic process, project supporters did everything they could to subvert it. In politics, William Galston once noted, one does occasionally have the obligation to play hardball. But here? Now, the procedural tide has turned on them, and they will have no choice but to go back to the very voters they have trusted so little–and whose faith in the project they have done much to undermine.

Mary Beard on what to do when your writing is smelling up the place

Mary Beard, a classicist, has a wonderful blog up on academic life over at the Times Literary Supplement, and I very much enjoy it. She’s got a delightful sense of humor, for one. For another, it has reassured me knowing that it took her five years to get a book out of her Sather lectures. She’s come up to the end of the book, and it’s not smelling right, and she lays out the hard constraints that accompany that sinking feeling when something isn’t working:

1. The radical version is a complete restructuring/rethink. My gloomy experience is that if a section or paragraph is hard to write it’s because you’re trying to say the wrong thing. Get the thoughts straight and it will fall into place. That means taking a big enough break from it to be able to think afresh. No time for that.

2. The primrose path is the demon drink. Now actually a glass or two of wine can be rather a good idea in these circumstances. It can remove the inhibitions just enough to get the ink flowing. The trouble is that you have to know when to stop, The second glass worked a treat last night, the third ruined it.

3. The ostrich version is to pretend that your troubles have quite other roots. I have been through the superficially attractive argument that the pages are really rather good; it’s just that I am not ready to let the damn thing go. I’m trying to put off the process of finishing, because I am just too wedded to the project (and scared of the next one). But, nice psychoanalytical fantasy that it is, I fear it just isnt true. The pages do need more work.

Implementation woes and ACA

I don’t know what to say that hasn’t already been said, other than, for the love of God, you people. Anybody who didn’t know that the Affordable Care Act was going to be difficult to implementat was kidding themselves. I did wonder where the big roll-out was in terms of public education a couple months ago. We did a better job with rolling out mandatory seat-belt laws, but in fairness, that was less ambitious. But still, that means more prep, not less. Perhaps I just missed it, as I was focussed on other things, but right now progressives should be seething. They played chicken with the Tea Party types and forced a shutdown over a program that clearly wasn’t ready for roll out. That’s bad. Ack. ACK.

The problems:

1. The health care industry is unbelievably complicated. Most people have no idea what their insurance really covers–or how expensive charges can really get–until the very worst happens.

2. The ACA is more complicated than it should be. It’s a plan with many moving parts, as we say. There’s not much we can do about it due to the horse-trading nature of most legislatively created programs, but still. That doesn’t help.

3. But no, people, the ‘way it was’ before the us attempted to provide health care wasn’t sunshine and roses, either. Just because things were fine for you doesn’t mean it was fine for society, unless you are Margaret Thatcher, and you plan to live your life in such a way that you die disliked even by your own party and appointees. (I think that’s a fair statement.) Your political and economic community matters even if the only political factors you care about are taxation and liberty.

If transit is a right, are transit strikes unethical?

That’s the question that was lurking about my brain yesterday while I pottered in the garden. Progressives do have a problem here; I think that many of us buy into the notion that access is a right. But most also support labor in their quest to secure good wages and job benefits, and to maintain those over time. I have trouble with rights to the city as a concept. Positive rights strike me as difficult to forge and sustain a consensus around, and without a social and political consensus about rights, and/or a legal basis for them.

It’s a puzzle.

Doris Lessing lays the boulder down

Doris Lessing has left us at the age of 94. A H/T to Ms Magazine for the following, from the Golden Notebook:

We spend our lives fighting to get people very slightly more stupid than ourselves to accept truths that the great men have always known. They have known for thousands of years that to lock a sick person into solitary confinement makes him worse. They have known for thousands of years that a poor man who is frightened of his landlord and of the police is a slave. They have known it. We know it. But do the great enlightened mass of the British people know it? No. It is our task, Ella, yours and mine, to tell them. Because the great men are too great to be bothered. They are already discovering how to colonise Venus and to irrigate the moon. That is what is important for our time. You and I are the boulder-pushers. All our lives, you and I, we’ll put all our energies, all our talents into pushing a great boulder up a mountain. The boulder is the truth that the great men know by instinct, and the mountain is the stupidity of mankind.

Here is the NPR obit.

Finally, good reporting on an adjunct’s life and death

Attention conservation notice: if the humanities really aren’t about job training, that holds for the PhD level of training as well as undergraduate.

Earlier this year, most of us probably read Death of an Adjunct when it was swirling around the internet a month or so go. Writing for Slate, LV Anderson opens up the story by doing actual journalism (whoa! So refreshing when that happens!) about the life of Margaret Mary Vojtko.

Instead of the victim and object of pity the first op-ed portrayed her to be, Anderson gets at Vojtko and paints her in many dimensions. It has been a very long time since I’ve seen writing I admired more than this in Slate. There are three takeaway points

1. Margaret Mary Vojtko lived as she wanted to live, within the constraints of gender, her income, and unjust institutions. She seemed to have been fiercely independent and wanted what she wanted and didn’t want what she didn’t want. She appears to be have been a difficult old woman. This difficulty does not, I should note, ameliorate the obligations that the rest of us have to care about her and support her. It just makes more real the idea that caring and supporting is difficult, and contemporary society makes it easy–very easy–for people to shrug off the opportunities they have to help and care. Duquesne’s policies are lousy, but she had family, too, who “didn’t speak to her for months.”

2. There are multiple Catholic approaches to poverty, but the university here epitomizes one that social policy scholars have critiqued. Sigrid Kahl argues that institutional Catholicism, with its focus on works, sees nothing wrong with those who are impoverished. So unlike the stigma associated with poverty in American and English protestants (God hates you and loves me!), those raised in Catholic tradition happily offer charity to individuals. But the institution does not necessarily work for the major structural reforms that serve to alleviate poverty. (See Kahl, S. (2005). The religious roots of modern poverty policy: Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed Protestant traditions compared. Archives Européennes de Sociologie (European Journal of Sociology) 46(1), 91-126.)

3. Adjunct unions can make a difference in their pay and benefits packages.

Unstated throughout is something I really wish to note: nobody pays any real attention to the oversupply of PhDs in the humanities even as they remark upon it (as is done here), and even though Margaret Mary Votjko herself did not hold a PhD. That is, not only are there more PhDs than open jobs, but there are people like Votjko with master’s degrees also in that job pool. That’s impossible. So what’s the answer? I’ve heard various answers from various quarters, and none of them have to me to seemed like good answers, a lot like the unionization answer. Unionizing vis-a-vis an oversupply doesn’t strike me as a winning strategy in the long term, but I could be wrong, and I’d be happy to be proved wrong here.

One answer is that programs in the humanities should accept fewer candidates.

But which schools should eliminate their programs is a tough question. Let the Ivy leagues keep their programs to populate all the other programs, since those are the only places that produce people who get jobs? There’s some value to diversity. And no department wants to give up their program as it signals a loss of status in the hierarchy of universities. There are many takes on why departments hold onto PhD programs, and none of them make sense to me, as most PhD programs lose money for departments and universities. But I have to admit that PhD education overall is still a bit of mystery to me, despite my having one and working in academic departments. One claim is that departments couldn’t function without PhD students: professors supposedly steal students’ work and use them as veritable slave labor.

I personally have experienced none of this. I worked with Randy Crane at UCLA, and he was lovely to me even though I was a difficult young woman. I can see how lab work might turn exploitative, but for me, students take up time and resources and I don’t actively seek them, wonderful though they are. Instead, I am confronted with young people who love the subject and want to have more education in it, and would love to do the job I do. Denying them those things because they may not get a job at the end seems awfully paternalistic and even mean to me. Why can’t a person give themselves that time and a shot at their dream job, even if that shot is a long shot? Nobody is telling people their sons and daughters shouldn’t have music lessons, lest they later yearn to be musician in a hard labor market for musicians.

Instead, humanists create a contradiction in their own arguments for the humanities in their own expectations about jobs. Humanists routinely argue about the inherent value of the humanities–and I agree wholeheartedly–for undergrads. It’s not job training, we say. But then, at the end, if there is no secure university job for humanity PhDs, it’s tragic rather than expected. Mary Margaret Votjko strikes me as exactly fitting this contradiction. She also studied nursing. She could have pursued nursing as a job and her various interests in languages as a vocation had she really wanted economic security. She didn’t do that because she wanted what she wanted.

It strikes me as much more reasonable to caution people about how hard it is to get and keep university jobs, let them make their choices, and also encourage the idea that the avocation of the humanities is not your job ticket even with a PhD.

Eric Eidlin blogging on HSR and land use in Europe

Eric Eidlin is a friend of mine from back in the day at UCLA; he’s currently a community planner with FTA up in San Francisco. He is currently on a fellowship in Germany and France and he is writing his observations at The Urban Current. Here is one of my favorite entries so far, on Train Stations and the Tension between “place” and “node.”:

An issue that has come up frequently in my discussions with my French project contacts is how to balance the conflicting roles of train stations: how, on one hand, to design stations that serve as places through which large numbers of travelers can move through efficiently, while at the same time creating memorable and pleasant urban places where people want to spend their time. This is what planner geeks like me call the ‘tension between place and node.’

Go read.