The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Sunday, August 06, 2017


When it was first introduced, I read every word of Elon Musk's "Hyperloop" preliminary alpha specification (pdf at link). It was a bold idea—a new, energy efficient (zero emissions) transportation technology that would move passengers from major city to major city at speeds of up to 700 mph. Los Angeles to San Francisco in 20 - 30 minutes. Spectacular and technologically feasible with today's tech—no need to invent anything new.

But there is a problem, and it has little to do with tech—it's government regulations. Virginia Postrel comments:
... what makes Musk’s Hyperloop plan seem like fantasy isn’t the high-tech part. Shooting passengers along at more than 700 miles per hour seems simple -- engineers pushed 200 miles-per-hour in a test this week -- compared to building a tunnel from New York to Washington. And even digging that enormously long tunnel -- twice as long as the longest currently in existence -- seems straightforward compared to navigating the necessary regulatory approvals.

We live in a world where atoms are much harder to do anything with than bits -- and where atoms that require regulatory permission are the hardest of all. The eye-rolling comes less from the technical challenges than from the bureaucratic ones.

With his premature declaration [that "preliminary approval" had been achieved], Musk is doing public debate a favor. He’s reminding us of what the barriers to ambitious projects really are: not technology, not even money, but getting permission to try. “Permits harder than technology,” Musk tweeted after talking with Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti about building a tunnel network. That’s true for the public sector as well as the private.

“For some urban context: a recently opened stretch of subway in New York cost $4.5 billion for less than 2 miles of rails. It was first proposed in 1919 and opened to the public in January 2017,” wrote Bloomberg’s Tom Randall, concluding drily. “These things take time.”

The Second Avenue subway is an extreme example of a general phenomenon. As I’ve previously written, a large infrastructure project may take three or four years of actual construction. But the work can’t even get started until there’s been a decade or more of planning and design. The bottleneck isn’t the actual construction, in other words. It’s the ever-more-detailed analyses, reviews and redesigns required -- and often litigated -- beforehand. (For New Deal nostalgics, this also explains why the stimulus bill passed in 2009 couldn’t easily include a full-blown Work Progress Administration-style jobs plan.)

“It took two years just to complete the geotechnical and environmental studies for the Chesapeake Bay tunnel project that's about to begin” in Virginia, wrote Randall. And that’s just one of the states Musk’s Hyperloop tunnel would have to pass through.
Democrats gasp as Donald Trump works to eliminate regulations that, among other things, act as a brake for innovative technologies that would benefit us all. The big question is this: Why are regulations immediately assumed to be good and necessary? Exactly the opposite assumption is appropriate. My guess is that 10 - 20 percent of regulations are counterproductive and harmful, another 10 - 20 percent are anachronistic artifacts of the 20th century, and another 10 - 20 percent are benign but completely unnecessary. That's around 50 percent!

Environmentalists (a.k.a. modern day luddites) use those regulations as the basis for "lawfare," tying up infrastructure projects in the courts for years and years, as the USA falls further behind the rest of the Western world in mass transit, new highways, new power plants, and the like. The reason infrastructure is so expensive—unnecessary regulations. The reason it takes so long—unnecessary regulations. The reason we can't create government and private sector partnerships to build new infrastructure—unnecessary regulations.

Since the Dems care so much about "working people," maybe they should consider teaming with Trump to reduce the regulatory burden on business and government so that our economy can flourish.

Nah. That won't happen. 'Cause if it did, government might have to get out of the way of the "makers," and that would mean less power for Democrats—the party of Big Intrusive Government.