NYTimes Freakonomist Eric Morris Vs California High Speed Rail

(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

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 Rafeal 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.


  1. … which seems to be an exercise in trying to hype mainstream economics, using “offbeat” topics to divert attention from the manifold questions that mainstream economics cannot address.

    Talk about why kids selling drugs on street corners make around the minimum wage, to distract attention from the inability to address the impact of abandoning the industrial development economic policies that we relied on from the 1790’s to the 1970’s and the way that listening to the advice of mainstream economists leads to entire cohorts which are viewed as “surplus to our needs”.

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