Category Transportation

Apple and the American economy

The Economist:

THE macroeconomic discussions that Apple’s success prompts tend to be very curious things. Here we have a company that’s been phenomenally successful, making products people love and directly creating nearly 50,000 American jobs in doing so, criticised for not locating its manufacturing operations in America, even as Americans complain to Apple about the working conditions of those doing the manufacture abroad: life in dormitories, 12-hour shifts 6 days a week, and low pay. It isn’t enough for Apple to have changed the world with its innovative consumer electronics. It must also rebuild American manufacturing, and not just any manufacturing: the manufacturing of decades ago when reasonable hours and high wages were the norm.

The utility of Apple, however, is that it does provide a framework within which we can discuss the significant changes that have occurred across the global economy in recent decades. Contributing to that effort is a very nice and much talked about piece from the New York Times, which asks simply why it is that Apple’s manufacturing is located in Asia.

Food Stamps: Wisconsin, Minnesota & Massachusetts 2006-2010

Food Stamps WI, MN, MA 2006-2010

Data via:

To Cut Smog, Navistar Blazes Risky Path of Its Own

Tom Zeller & Norman Mayersohn:

In a testing cell tucked deep in the bowels of Navistar’s engine plant and technical center here, a hulking prototype of a truck engine sits behind a large glass window like a patient on an operating table. A snarl of sensors and wires is attached to nearly every part of the humming engine, feeding reams of data to a battery of computers and watchful engineers in the adjacent control room.
One measurement — for nitrogen oxide emissions, or NOx — is of particular concern to Navistar. From 2010 onward, all new truck engines must achieve tough, near-zero limits for NOx, a chief ingredient of smog. Virtually every truck maker besides Navistar chose to use an add-on system to their existing engines that uses a fluid cocktail to help neutralize the pollutant as it makes its way out of the exhaust.
Navistar went a different route, deciding to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to refine an engine that produces minimal NOx in the first place. At the same time, the company attacked the competing systems, suing federal air quality regulators and claiming that the add-on technology was so flawed that it failed to meet the clean-air requirements.

Oil & Water, Jet Fuel & Labor

William Swelbar:

On June 25, 2008 I blogged asking the question: Is Oil A Cancer Or A Cure? At that time, the price of a barrel of oil had not yet reached its apex of $147 per barrel, but was well on its way. Based on findings by the Air Transport Association’s superb economic analysis team led by chief economist John Heimlich, the U.S. airline industry paid the equivalent of $174.64 per barrel [price of a barrel of oil plus the equivalent cost to refine crude into jet fuel (the crack spread)] on July 11, 2008. By December 23, 2008 the price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate had fallen to $30.28 per barrel. So far in 2011, we’ve seen a similar surge in oil prices, but based on current geopolitical events, I am not expecting another $117 drop in the price of a barrel of oil like we witnessed in 2008.
I’m actually wondering what happens if the wave of Mideast political upheaval washes over Algeria? Or Saudi Arabia? Some economic experts say the price of oil could rocket past the $200 threshold.
In 2011, the industry has paid an average of $89.15 per barrel of crude and another $25.80 in the crack spread for a total cost of “in the wing” jet fuel of nearly $115 per barrel. Since February 22, 2011 the industry has paid more than the equivalent of $120 per barrel for jet fuel. On March 1, 2011 the industry paid the equivalent of $132.17 per barrel for jet fuel including the crack spread of $32.54. For all of 2008, the industry paid the equivalent of $25 per barrel to refine crude into jet fuel. In the last five days of trading the crack spread paid by the industry is nearly $30 per barrel.

New Interest in Turning Gas to Diesel

Matthew Wald:

Diesel and jet fuel are usually made from crude oil. But with oil prices rising even as a glut of natural gas keeps prices for that fuel extraordinarily cheap, a bit of expensive alchemy is suddenly starting to look financially appealing: turning natural gas into liquid fuels.
A South African firm, Sasol, announced Monday that it would spend just over 1 billion Canadian dollars to buy a half-interest in a Canadian shale gas field, so it can explore turning natural gas into diesel and other liquids. Sasol’s proprietary conversion technology was developed decades ago to help the apartheid government of South Africa survive an international oil embargo, and it is a refinement of the ones used by the Germans to make fuel for the Wehrmacht during World War II.
The technology takes “a lot of money and a lot of effort,” said Michael E. Webber, associate director of the Center for International Energy Environmental Policy at the University of Texas, Austin. “You wouldn’t do this if you could find easy oil,” he said.

Making commuters’ lives easier

The Economist:

EARLY this month, a massive new railway tunnel opened for the first time. It was finished six months early and nearly 10% under budget. So by now you know this didn’t happen in America (or Britain, for that matter.) No, this feat of modern engineering (and good government) was completed in the Swedish city of Malmö, just across the Oresund bridge from Copenhagen, Denmark.
The project transformed Malmö Central Station, which is actually in the northern part of the city, from a dead end where trains had to reverse course into a through station. The former terminus is now just a stop on a large circular route that cuts underground through the center of Sweden’s third-largest city. The construction of the tunnel was accompanied by the construction of two new stations–one in the actual city centre, and another south of the city, in an area targeted for future development. Here’s a map:

Much more from Railzone.

P2P car sharing

Chris Nuttall:

Google is investing in a start-up that hopes to shake up the vehicle rental industry and change the way people view their cars., which launches in San Francisco on Tuesday after a successful pilot programme in Boston, says it is the world’s first operational peer-to-peer car-sharing service.
The Series A round announced with Google Ventures and Valley VC firm August Capital on Tuesday is expected to help it to $5m in total funding to date.

Great idea.

The global power of Brazilian agribusiness

The Economist Intelligence Unit

razil is world’s fifth-largest country by geographical area and the largest in terms of arable land. Although only a fraction of its land is exploited, the country produces a highly diverse array of agricultural goods. This puts Brazil in a unique position to lead the global agricultural sector in the medium to long term. With an abundant supply of natural resources–water, land and a favourable climate–it has the opportunity to be the largest agribusiness superpower, supplying the world market while also providing affordable food for its own population.
The country already ranks as the top global supplier of products as diverse as beef, orange juice and ethanol, and is expected to continue to expand its exports in other areas as well, such as cotton, soybean oil and cellulose. Its markets are also diverse: China is now the largest market for Brazilian agribusiness products, and sales to Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa are also growing rapidly.
To maintain this trajectory, Brazil must build on the significant improvements in productivity that underpin its current success and overcome the barriers to full realisation of its potential. Obstacles range from scarcity of credit to logistical logjams, from protectionist measures in key markets to environmental concerns.
Frontier regions are a testament to what is right, and wrong, with Brazil’s agribusiness sector. The rich harvests from the country’s vast hinterland have more than paid back public and private investment in research to create new plant varieties adapted to the region’s soil and climate. Large-scale production and professional management have helped to offset the high costs and tight margins of farming such areas. Attracted by the promise of growth, investors have both financed agriculture’s expansion and provided technological know-how. Yet agricultural endeavours in these regions are burdened by inadequate transport and insufficient storage capacity. Productivity in such segments as beef production and corn remains low. Margins remain tight.

Computers & Cars: MyFord Touch

Walt Mossberg

Instead of the usual array of knobs, dials and passive screens, MyFord Touch is dominated by a giant 8-inch touch screen, with large function icons in the center and color-coded corners that you touch to switch the screen among four main functions: multisource audio entertainment, navigation, phone and climate control. There is also a “home” view, combining common functions that can be personalized.

The system also has several other elements. There are twin 4-inch screens on either side of the speedometer. The one on the left presents vehicle information, such as miles traveled, and allows you to customize some of the gauges so that, for instance, you can finally banish that tachometer you never use in favor of, say, a digital readout on gas-mileage efficiency. The one on the right replicates, in simpler form, the main functions of the center screen, so you can select and check things like audio and climate control without looking at, or touching, the main screen.

These smaller screens are controlled by five-way arrow clusters on the steering wheel, like controllers on iPods and other devices usable by touch alone. There also are some large, touch-sensitive buttons below the main center screen for things like setting volume and fan speed.

Trains in America, and Elsewhere

The Economist

Fundamentally, without major government commitments to high-speed rail, America simply will not have a high-speed passenger rail network. This should probably be discomfiting, since every other economic superpower (the EU, Japan and China) does have a high-speed rail network. That makes America look a bit backward. The time horizon for building such a network is several decades, and it’s interesting to think about what will happen in the middle decades of this century if air transport becomes unaffordable due to high fuel costs and America doesn’t have an electric alternative for high-speed intercity transit.

Politically, I would describe what’s going on here as a loss of confidence in the principle of government investment and planning, in the face of the demonstrated incapacity of the contemporary American government to do an adequate job of investment and planning. That incapacity is largely due to conservative political opposition to government intervention in the economy, either for ideological reasons or because it entails higher taxes or because it treads on the toes of vested business interests. But the fact that the American government can’t get its act together to create a decent modern passenger rail network doesn’t mean that governments in general are incapable of doing so, or that it isn’t a good idea. Europe, Japan, and China seem perfectly capable of doing this job. A more narrow response to the rail problem, specifically, would be to encourage a BOT deal in which the government uses eminent domain to create the rail corridor and turns to the private sector to raise the capital, build it and perhaps run it. But, again, this doesn’t question the need for the government to plan national infrastructure, which seems to me to be pretty hard to gainsay.