POLITICS: PennAve

Big ideas: On North Korean loyalty, streetcars and missing workers

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Transportation,Jobs,North Korea,PennAve,Joseph Lawler,Economy,Think Tanks

Nicholas Eberstadt for Aeideas: Throughout its checkered history, North Korea has always broken international rules and violated international norms as it pleased -- more or less whenever Pyongyang deemed doing so to be to its own advantage. But at the same time, North Korean leadership has always adhered its own internal set of rules and norms: what we might call the “North Korean code of honor.” And Rule Number One in this honor code has always been: The Royals Stay Safe.

The regime may launch a surprise attack that culminates in a war killing millions; it may blow up foreign civilian airliners or attempt the assassination of adversary heads of state; it may dispose of untold numbers of its own subjects in labor-death camps or inflict catastrophic famine on its country’s “little people” — but never, never, are the royals to be exposed to harm. Ever.

Indeed: Two decades ago, shortly before his death, dynasty founder Kim Il Sung even laid that injunction down explicitly, as what was supposed to be an Eternal Commandment.

Well, his grandson, Dear-And-Respected-Leader Kim Jong Un, has just broken that injunction — and broken it big time.

Audiences throughout Asia this morning were treated to television footage of a show-trial-style drama in which young Jong Un’s uncle, de facto regent Jang Song Thaek, is dragged from a Party gathering beneath the impassive gaze of his nephew after being publicly denounced by the country’s premier.

This creepy, made-for-TV immolation of a North Korean royal opens a new and very dangerous era in DPRK politics.

Stay posted for more blood on the floor.

Down with streetcars

Jacob Anbinder for the Century Foundation: Slated to open in early 2014, Atlanta's 2.7-mile loop line is just the latest example in a national resurgence of popularity for the streetcar, as an NPR story noted last month. Portland and Seattle each opened new lines in the last 15 years, and Washington, D.C., is soon expected to inaugurate a new route along the gentrifying H Street corridor.

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype surrounding these new mass-transit projects in Atlanta and elsewhere, especially for those advocates desperate for any sort of municipal investment in transportation.

But rather than clamoring for streetcars of their own, cities should do the opposite: Make like Nancy Reagan and just say no.

The persistence of the streetcar isn’t, as one might assume, a sign of renewed interest in investing in public transit for those who need it to get around.

It’s exactly the opposite — a flashy way for cities to make themselves look forward-thinking while papering over very real transit issues.

The problem is inherent in streetcars’ very design. Unlike light rail, they share traffic lanes with cars and cyclists, making their speed comparable to that of a city bus. A very expensive city bus, since they require installing tracks, constructing stations, and purchasing pricey rolling stock.

... In fairness, some streetcar supporters recognize such shortcomings. In response, however, they claim the economic benefits of the streetcar — the idea that a fixed transit link will attract new business better than a bus route — justifies the initial investment.

But while there's a correlation between areas with new streetcar lines and economic growth, there's no proof that a streetcar line causes these changes. In Seattle, Portland, and soon D.C., the routes run in areas that were already rapidly gentrifying.

For less than the cost of installing a streetcar route, cities could create a business improvement district, incentivize small-business development through tax breaks, or, better yet, vastly improve service on existing bus systems.

That last point — the fact that streetcar investment will surely come at the expense of real transit improvements — is perhaps the greatest problem with the streetcar trend.

 4.3 million missing workers

Heidi Shierholz for the Economic Policy Institute: I've looked at the breakdown by age of the 5.6 million “missing workers” — potential workers who, because of weak job opportunities in the aftermath of the Great Recession, are neither employed nor actively seeking work. More than three-quarters of missing workers are under age 55 and are therefore unlikely to be early retirees. That means that even if all of the missing workers age 55 and over are early retirees who will never re-enter the labor force no matter how strong job opportunities are (a very strong assumption), that still leaves 4.3 million missing workers under the age of 55 who are likely to re-enter the labor force when job opportunities strengthen. In other words, weak labor force participation rate remains a key component of the total slack in the labor market.

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