The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said Wednesday it will attempt to do what a string of economists and urban planners couldn’t: persuade the Congress to raise the federal gasoline tax to pay for better roads. — The Wall Street Journal
For all the problems that automobiles bring in society, they are wondrous things. They are, in a way, emblems of freedom. Surely private, discreet mobility is nearly beyond price?
There’s a price and a high one at that: pollution, congestion, sprawl, accident lethality and the geopolitics of oil. But oh, the joy of turning the key and heading to a highway; free, anonymous and among your own things (or your own mess, to be precise), listening to your choice of music–your life briefly in your control.
So far, the joys of the personal car have mysteriously evaded the attention of major poets and composers. Maybe it’s because cars bring joy equally to the proletariat and to the elite.
The primary differentiation between vehicles is not aesthetic but financial. A neat car, like a Bentley or a Maybach, costs money, lots of it, compared to, say, a Ford Focus. Yet their function is identical: they move us around.
Just four times in the 100-plus-year history of the automobile has a truly classless–in the sense that blue jeans are classless–car appeared on the streets. These were vehicles driven by the wealthy and the lowly with equal enthusiasm. They were the Ford Model T, the Ford A, the Volkswagen Beetle and the Morris Minor. All were owned and driven across the social spectrum.
It is an American conceit to believe that our love affair with the automobile is unique. It isn’t: It’s as universal as love itself. The poorest Indian dreams of abandoning the bullock cart for the automobile and even Europeans, who are well served with public transportation, love their cars.
One of the first consequences of Irish prosperity was that Dublin became a traffic jam. The Irish folk song goes, In Dublin’s fair city where the girls are so pretty/ I once met a girl named sweet Molly Malone/and she wheeled her wheel barrow/ through the streets broad and narrow/
singing cockles and mussels alive alive oh. Well, Molly would have a hell of a job in today’s traffic.
When Britain opened its beltway around London–known as the M25 corridor or Orbital–in 1986, so many cars took to the road traffic stopped dead, despite designated speed of 70 mph.
What has happened in western Europe is that driving has become more of a recreational activity, and commuting to work is close to mandatory. London, for example, is the second great city in the world to impose a stiff charge on private cars entering the downtown. The first was Singapore.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg would like to do something similar in New York City, but he faces too many jurisdictions that feed traffic into the city. Other American cities do not have the public transportation infrastructure to be able to contemplate choking them off during the week.
New housing developments everywhere are antithetical to public transportation. The cul-de-sac is hard enough to get a fire truck into, let alone to run buses.
A second problem, after congestion, is where are we going to get the oil to fuel the fleet of cars which is growing exponentially around the world, with most that growth in China and India? That future, for a period of 60 or so years, could be natural gas or electricity–and the smart money is on electricity. The rub is that batteries are not yet up to the task; and today’s gasoline and diesel automobile needs a lot of power for non-motion functions, like air conditioning, lights, power windows, seats and trunks.
Will electric vehicles reach market fast enough? That depends on the thorny issue of geopolitics, religious fanaticism, royal families, and prosperity in India and China.
How to proceed? The government would like to move everything forward, but the Department of Energy is having difficulty getting research and development money out of the door, while local jurisdictions are cutting back on highway funds.
Enter the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with an unlikely proposal for a business group: a fuel tax devoted to transportation solutions. It’s radical, unexpected and comes from an organization with right-of-center clout.
Maybe one day, we’ll again tool down the open road—well, get into a stream of traffic that moves, whether it’s with hydrocarbon or electric fuel. Varoom! –For Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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France is wiping its public face. Maybe you don’t think it needed it but the French do, and they have committed a chunk of their economic stimulus package to refreshing public buildings and historical treasures. The royal palaces of Fontainebleau and Versailles near Paris, and the many chateaus down the Loire River will benefit.
To the casual eye, these monuments, these aspects of the public face of France, looked in pretty good shape. But when this latest effort is finished, they should be as great as they were hundreds of years ago.
By contrast, the economic slump has forced U.S. jurisdictions to cut back on their expenditures for the public face of America. Those who had hoped that the stimulus package would revive the New Deal-era Works Projects Administration are disappointed. Federal and state governments are slashing funding for public works projects and letting public places decay.
Virginia is even closing some of the rest areas on its Interstates. These are not especially plentiful, but they are a godsend for truckers and people traveling with children and pets. They offer no food but they do offer clean toilets and, thoughtfully, an area for dogs to do what dogs do. No luxuries, just necessities.
France is not alone in thinking it must keep its public face clean and smiling. Allegedly, staid Britain works hard on its public face. For example the Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has promised that the double-decker London buses will not be phased out as his predecessor, Socialist Ken Livingstone, had tried to do.
Livingstone wanted all the city’s familiar red buses replaced with so-called bendy buses (articulated buses). On the face of it, the old buses are uneconomic; they take a crew of two, whereas the bendy buses only have a driver. Yet that first economic calculation does not tell the whole story: Johnson sees the double-decker buses as being an integral part of the public face of London.
Likewise, the black taxis of London. They are unique to London and they cost more than regular cars because they are purpose-built, and new designs are introduced every few years. Often modified, new design-taxis are built by different companies: Some are built by companies that are not otherwise in the automobile business. This procurement pattern keeps the innovations coming.
While it costs Londoners more for their buses and their taxis, it comforts them in a way; it makes them feel special. But the real dividends are in tourism: London is the most visited city in Europe.
Paris and Rome each have a high sense of their public face and a regard for the aesthetic sensibilities of the population. Also, they have a certain knowledge that that a smiling public face will bring the smiling tourist faces, clutching their dollars, yen and yuan.
At bottom, it may be more of a philosophical issue than an economic one. Half a century ago, Harvard’s John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about the “private affluence” and “public squalor” in the United States.
Not that there are no great public places in the United States: New York’s Central Park holds its own against London’s Hyde Park or Dublin’s Phoenix Park. Nonetheless, it would have been nice if there were stimulus money to spruce them up and maybe create a great new public toy, like London’s giant Ferris wheel, The Eye. Churchill said that we shape buildings and then they shape us. Quite so. –For Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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Despite Jimmy Carter, lunch is alive and well in Washington. But it is a different rite than it was before his presidency.
Carter was the president who launched an attack on the notorious three-martini lunch. He not only scorned the business lunch culture, but he also changed the tax law so that only half the cost of a business lunch can now be deducted.
Carter became a dirty word in the restaurants of Washington. Yet the change in lunch habits may have occurred anyway.
During the Carter years, drinking at lunch slowed to a stop. There is hardly any drinking at lunch these days: Headwaiters proffer wine lists to shaking heads.
It was not Carter’s jiggling the tax code that killed the three-martini lunch, but rather a great social change that coincided with his time in Washington. For complex reasons, the decision-makers of the big cities dried out in the 1970s. My guess is that the world became more competitive, secretaries were not prepared to cover for their intoxicated bosses, drunk-driving laws tightened and health became an issue.
For me, the old-time Washington lunch was exemplified by a wonderful man, a great friend and a tremendous lobbyist. His name was Tom Clark and he represented the nuclear interests of the General Electric Company in Washington. Clark—who, alas, died more than two decades ago–was the uncontested master of the Washington lunch. And, yes, he drank three martinis with his lunch every day.
Clark was an American patrician, a kind of nobleman. He was also marvelous company and a skilled lobbyist. His principal tool was lunch, but he did not roam from restaurant to restaurant. He ate his lunch every day at Le Provencal, a classic French restaurant, where he always sat at the same large, round table.
Clark’s guests were a who’s who of Washington movers and shakers. There would be a Cabinet secretary at his table, maybe a senator and often a House member. I was one of the regulars at his round table. As a reporter, these feasts were valuable but mostly fun. You could drink anything you liked so long as it was distilled, fermented or brewed. There was a large menu, but most of Clark’s guests followed his lead and ordered grilled Dover sole.
Well, there are no more long, three-martini lunches and grilled Dover sole has given way to a new kind of eating: stacked, fusion food favored by the dieting classes in Washington. Of course without alcohol, three-hour lunches are out. Now we choke down the ersatz food with bottled water, ice tea or diet soda. Tom Clark would not have approved.
It is the shorter lunch that has allowed the development of that gastronomic and political horror: the power breakfast. All over Washington power-brokers are breakfasting with people from Capitol Hill, the media and the political financiers, who are the kingmakers.
Eating around Washington is really not about deals and arm-twisting, but rather about opening and keeping open channels of communication that later might be used to push a lobbying message. In the days when the martini ruled, it was a bit about communications, but mostly it was fun. It was just that it was more productive to have fun with a Cabinet member or an important senator than, well, your neighbor.
In the old days, the greatest lunch place in Washington was another French restaurant: Sans Souci. Its headwaiter, Paul, was known for his prodigious recall of names. You had to fight for a reservation and fight to be seated at a good table. The most important table–in a restaurant that was fairly small and had terraces of tables–was the Kennedy table. At this table, Kennedy family members dined with their White House and media friends. Columnist Art Buchwald was often seen with Ethel Kennedy. A cheery hail from that table as you passed by and you were on the A-list.
Today, there is nothing that looks like an A-list in Washington, and no restaurant dominates political and media circles. Also since the Carter presidency, White House staffers have favored the White House mess over restaurants.
Only retired people dare quaff midday martinis these days. As Rudyard Kipling noted, “There’s sore decline in Adam’s line.” –For North Star Writers Group
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Diamonds are not a country’s best friend; certainly not if yours is a semi-lawless country in Africa, like Zimbabwe.
In Zimbabwe the discovery of diamonds in the beautiful part of the country around Marange, southeast of the capital of Harare, has probably extended the life of the Robert Mugabe regime by two years. Their discovery by a British company, Africa Consolidated Resources, in September 2006, provided Mugabe with another source of plunder; plunder he could use to keep his brutal security forces loyal.
Fact is that such economic governance as remains in Zimbabwe is directed to finding cash to pay the army and the police, who keep the Mugabe regime afloat, Even so, Mugabe had fallen behind; and last December soldiers and police demonstrated in Harare, demanding to be paid. Basically, Mugabe’s response was to cede the diamond operations to the security forces.
In a new report, Human Rights Watch says the security forces killed 200 miners while tightening their grip on the mines and introducing forced labor. The Kimberley Process, a humanitarian alliance set up to stop the flow of so-called blood diamonds, sent a six-person team to investigate the Zimbabwe mines and found such human rights abuses that it classified the gems as blood diamonds to be sanctioned.
But diamonds are hard to trace and label; they are fungible and portable, and they can be mined with a pick and shovel in many places, as they are today in Zimbabwe and Congo. They also can be smuggled in many of the ways drugs are, except there is no odor to aid border guards with dogs.
Through the years diamonds have been ingested, concealed in body cavities and even hidden in wounds. Desperate people do desperate things–and never more so when there is the prospect of riches in places of utter poverty.
A diamond rush, as has happened in Zimbabwe, is a dangerous, lawless, violent and wretched occurrence.
As Mugabe has rejected international mining partners, who might actually know something about the safe and orderly mining of diamonds, the Zimbabwe mines are dangerous, inefficient and environmentally disastrous.
The Zimbabweans are not even getting fair value for their gems. These are being marketed through back channels established by the government, and untold numbers of gems are stolen at production and sold to middle men and unscrupulous cutters around the world.
The link between the security forces and the mines has another bad effect: It adds to the political impotence of Morgan Tsvangirai, prime minister in a power-sharing arrangement with Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party. In that arrangement Mugabe retains control of the the security forces, thus robbing Tsvangirai of any authority–not that he would use it well if he got it.
Zimbabweans are wondering what has happened to Tsvangirai, who seems to have lost the ability to stand up to Mugabe. For nearly a decade, Tsvangirai endured false arrests, allegations of treason, beatings while in custody and had the last election stolen from him and his Movement for Democratic Change.
Now Zimbabweans are asking whether the trappings of power have corrupted their hero or whether, in accepting the South Africa-brokered power-sharing deal, Tsvangirai boxed himself in. Anyway, he looks as though he has become Mugabe’s bagman, touring the world seeking “investment.” Tsvangirai has been promised some very limited humanitarian aid, including $8 million of conditional aid from the British and a promise of a little over $73 million of even more restricted and conditional aid from President Obama. World leaders are aware that $7 million in private charity money for AIDS victims was.diverted.
When Tvangirai got back to Harare, Mugabe supporters ridiculed his efforts
and his own supporters accused him of selling out to Mugabe. As if to show up his old rival, Mugabe then announced a Chinese loan of just under $1 billion; much of this money has to be spent on Chinese imports.
It is ironic that Mugabe should be kept in power by diamonds. It was diamonds that formed the basis of the fortune that enabled the adventurer, Cecil John Rhodes, to colonize Zimbabwe for Britain in the 1890s. Maybe all diamonds are conflict diamonds. Bloody stones. –For Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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