Trump, Clinton, Paul Theroux’s Deep South, the Decline of the Midwest, Etc.

Paul Theroux is a travel writer and novelist. I was introduced to his work decades ago by a colleague at the Department of City Planning, who knew of my interest in trains and transit and other countries. I read several of his early books: The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, Riding the Iron Rooster. He branched out from trains, walking the whole coast of Great Britain in The Kingdom by the Sea. Theroux has been all over the world, and in particular all over what had been called the Third World, and then the Developing World, and more recently the Global South, generally mingling with and writing about the ordinary people there, but also meeting with writers and intellectuals like himself.

Now age 75, he did something recently he had never done before: wrote a travel book about his own country, Deep South. The book, for me, provided several big surprises. In light of recent events I’ve included extended excerpts and other commentary below. It’s a long post I suppose, but not to those of us who read books.

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Time to Take Down the American Flag

It’ something I usually do after Veteran’s Day. But this year, I’m going to do it before Election Day. Because something bad is going to happen on that day. Or something terrible. Or something even worse than that, which would be a repeat of 2000. And people are going to be confused by what is going on. But I know what is going on. This is what has been done to this country by Generation Greed, something they don’t want to face but find more difficult to ignore after 2008, something they want rationalizations for, scapegoats for, something they want an excuse for. That’s why they are so angry. And this is what has been allowed to happen by the generation to follow, Generation Apathy. “We’re screwed anyway, let’s just worry about ourselves.”   Uh huh. Good luck with that.

I’ve seen this election analyzed every way to Sunday. By race. By education level. By occupation. By sex. The electorate divided into categories this way and that way. How about by age group? How about by generation? What would that show? Hopefully based on exit polls, we’ll find out. This country once sought to build toward a better future. But for 35 years it has been cashing in the future, now the present, to make things easier in the present, now the future. Those over 59 should be embarrassed about even voting, and making choices for those who will be paying for the choices they’ve already made.

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American Community Survey Data: Falling Median Work Earnings by Educational Attainment

As I noted in my prior post,

https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2016/09/28/the-american-community-survey-economic-changes-from-2005-to-2015/

the business cycle, with expansions and recessions, means that comparisons over time for data items such as work earnings and income are only meaningful if one compares economically similar years. The press reports an increase in inflation-adjusted work earnings from 2014 to 2015, but that is merely what should be expected in an economic upturn. A comparison between 2005 and 2015, on the other hand, shows falling median earnings over the business cycle.  As a follow up, with economic trends for U.S. men compared with women, and less educated workers compared with more highly educated workers, an issue in the Presidential election, I downloaded some additional American Community Survey work earnings data to see that the actual situation is – in the U.S., NYC, and nearby areas.

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The American Community Survey: Economic Changes from 2005 to 2015

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) data was released a couple of weeks ago, and I’m surprised how little coverage of its findings there has been in the media. Most of what I have read, moreover, compared 2015 with 2014, or with 2010, and finds that the economy is getting much better for many Americans.

That, however, is not a meaningful comparison if one is looking to the long term, or trying to explain why so many Americans feel so much worse off. One would expect that people would become better off in the recovery from a deep recession, or worse off in the aftermath of the peak of a bubble.   Politicians, seeking to make points for their sides, often base their talking points on data from such non-comparable years, but that is disingenuous. As it happens, there are enough economic similarities between the first year of American Community Survey data, in 2005, and the latest year, 2015, to make a comparison between them meaningful. What follows is a discussion, with 26 charts, of the economic trends I found most interesting from that comparison – for the United States, New York City, and New York State, New Jersey and Connecticut. Let’s take a break from the fantasy and deception of politics and look at some reality.

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The Staten Island Expressway: Now With Ten Lanes, No EIS Required

For most of its history, the Staten Island Expressway had six lanes, with three in each direction, and service roads that were interrupted rather than continuous. For much of the past decade it has been under construction with the publicly announced purpose of adding mass transit – a busway down the center. With “auxiliary lanes” added in the vicinity of Todt Hill, according to the announced plan.

https://www.dot.ny.gov/programs/smart-planning/repository/SIBUSHOV%20Application.pdf?nd=nysdot

A design approval document was prepared in support of the CE determination. A review of the project indicates that the project will have no significant environmental impact. It does not individually nor cumulatively have a significant environmental impact, and is excluded from the requirement to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or an Environmental Assessment (EA).”

During construction the traffic lanes were shifted first to one side of the road, and then to the other. Including all the lanes used at one time or another, the whole thing seemed to be 12 lanes wide. So what would the final product look like? Last Saturday, on a trip to New Jersey, I found out. It is a 10-lane road with two – one in each direction — in theory restricted to high occupancy vehicles (3+ people), but with limited compliance with that rule and no enforcement. The two additional general traffic “auxiliary lanes” extend from the Verrazano Bridge nearly to Victory Boulevard, almost the entire length of the island. Surprise!

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The Subway: Mean Distance Between Failures Falling, So Is the 1980s Returning?

In the 1990s there was an improving statistic that was as central to New York City’s turnaround as the decrease in the crime rate: the increase in mean distance between failures (MDBF) on the New York City subway. This figure, which measures how long the average subway car goes before it breaks down in service, is considered a key measure of the overall health of a railroad.

In any statistic there are random variations, in part due to temporary unusual conditions. That’s why a one-month increase or decrease in the crime rate, compared with a year earlier, or a one-year increase or decrease in school test scores, doesn’t really mean much. Once a trend is really established, however, it ought to be news. Which is why I was shocked to find, in the MTA Board materials, that MDBF has been falling for three years, not on a one-month basis but on a 12 month moving average basis. The decrease is now significant enough to affect service as people experience it, and may mark the start of a significant downward spiral for the system.

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