Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Nine Best-Run Countries in the World, What They Have in Common, and What They Have to Teach the U.S.

How to be among the best?

For much of the twentieth century the United States could, quite factually, consider itself the most prosperous nation on earth. This, however, is no longer the case. While the US is not doing terribly, nine countries scattered over three continents are outperforming us along a wide variety of spectra. The nations in this “best-run” club all have higher levels of wealth, health and quality of life than the U.S. Though it’s hard to say definitively why they are healthy, wealthy and living so well, their public policy choices and infrastructure investments diverge significantly from ours. As we dig into their stats, we’ll see they share many traits in common.

Compared to the US, these nine countries are more egalitarian and less murderous. Per capita, they imprison far fewer people, and far fewer of their citizens die in road accidents. Their governments are less corrupt. Their cities are the greenest in the world and offer their residents advanced infrastructure, low crime rates, and high levels of security and stability. Each country as a whole saves more and has less debt per capita than the US. The populations of these countries own fewer cars than their US counterparts, and the ones they have they drive less. They take trains and transit, walk and bike at greater levels, and they spend less of their income on transportation as a household expense. These countries spend far less on their militaries and on health care than we do, but they spend far more at the pump for a gallon of gasoline. And all but one country achieve their high quality of life with less CO2 emissions per person than the US—many with less than half as much.

One might wonder if these countries are just as urban as ours? The answer is yes. Perhaps they are more homogenous and don’t have the challenges of assimilating immigrant populations? The answer is four have a higher percentage of immigrants than the US, one has comparable, and four have a lower percentage. Over half of these countries have vast, sparsely populated portions of countryside like we do. Four have rich mineral resources like the US does; five have almost none. Four are net energy exporters; five are net energy importers like the US. All but two have their own currency like the US does. All are democracies.

Who are these paragons of good national management? Norway, Switzerland, Australia, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Austria and Canada. Let’s look closer at some of the surprising statistics that help us understand why and how these countries are doing so well. 

These nine countries are in the very top tier of GDP per capita in the world. All have greater GDP per person than the US. More importantly, all have higher GDP per capita after subtracting off their government deficit.   

And all nine have high gross savings as a percent of GDP. As nations they consume smaller portions of what they earn. All except Austria and Finland ran trade surpluses in 2011. (In 2011, the US ran the greatest trade deficit in the world.) 

These countries are more egalitarian in wealth distribution. Their GINI coefficients (which measure how far from the center income is distributed) are all substantially lower than that of the U.S. This means there are fewer really poor people, fewer really rich people, and a lot more in the middle. (The US GINI is so high that our peers in inequality are Cameroon, Uruguay and Jamaica.)

These nine best-run countries also have more social mobility than the US as measured by how much one’s parents’ income predicts one’s own. The result is all nine countries are easier places to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. And these nine countries aren’t over-regulated or hostile to business. Seven of the countries rank among the top 15 nations in the world for ease of doing business. 

These nine countries have less government debt as a percent of GDP and they run substantially less annual deficits as a percent of GDP. Or, in the cases of Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, they run no deficits at all. In terms of national credit ratings tabulated by the World Economic Forum they rank 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 10, 12 and 13. (The US is number 11.) The same forum ranks these countries much higher than the US for protection of property, intellectual property protection, judicial independence, less favoritism in decisions of government officials, and less wasteful government spending.  

These nine countries also have more efficient legal frameworks for settling disputes, their government policy-making is more transparent, and, according  to the Corruption Index, they are among the least corrupt governments in the world. The US, though certainly not the worst on the corruption measure, doesn’t even rank as first tier.

In the Worldwide Governance Project rankings, these nine countries stood out as the most well-governed with the highest marks in the world (all higher than the US) for control of corruption, rule of law, regulatory quality, government effectiveness, political stability, absence of violence/terrorism, and voice and accountability (a measure of political participation, freedom of association, freedom of expression and a free media.)

These nine countries all have a higher percentage of women elected to their main parliament or Congress, 25% - 45% versus the US rate of 18%. (More women = better governance?  Just saying . . .) They also all have smaller parliamentary bodies (perhaps smaller = better functioning?) and each parliamentary member represents many fewer citizens (perhaps giving each individual citizen more influence and say in the political process?)

In the World Economic Council’s assessment of infrastructure, seven of the nine countries ranked higher than the US.  The rankings were: Switzerland (1), Finland (3), Austria (8), Netherlands (10), Denmark (13), Canada (15), Sweden (19), Australia (36) and Norway (39).  The US came in number 25. All nine countries ranked higher than the US in quality of electrical supply. 

The nine best-run countries all offer more weeks of paid maternity leave. (The US offers none.) In eight of these countries workers routinely get 1-4 weeks more vacation, all mandated by government policy. (The US has no legal vacation minimums.) 

These nine countries all allocate substantially more of their annual GDP in aid to foreign countries.

As a percentage of their GDPs, these countries spend 1/5th to 2/5ths of what the US does. (The US spends more on its military than all other countries of the world combined.) None of these countries possess nuclear weapons. The nine countries ranked high (2, 4, 6, 9, 10, 14, 18, 22 and 28) out of 158 countries on the Global Peace Index. (The US ranked 88.) The index includes measures of internal and external stability, security and conflict.

This is an area where the well-run nine run circles around the US.  They spend oodles less on health care, both per capita and as a percent of GDP. And, to top it off, their results are better! First off, they have longer life expectancies. More importantly, they also have longer expected years of healthy life.  (Which is the point of health care, right?)
They all have lower infant mortality rates. In addition, they have lower rates of obesity and diabetes, lower rates of heart disease. Most have lower rates of asthma and lung diseases of all kinds (7 countries out of 9) and alzheimers/dementia (8 out of 9). Their citizens are less likely to die from drug use, kidney disease, leukemia or birth trauma. The US cancer death rate is about average--four countries die from cancer at a lower rate than the US, five die at a higher rate. All nine countries have more practicing doctors per 1000 population than the US.  

And then there’s lifestyle impacts on health costs. Smoking and drinking don’t seem to be responsible for inflating our health care costs. Six of these countries drink more alcohol per person than we do, seven of these countries smoke more than we do. But the citizens of these countries do consume far less high fructose corn syrup per person. The US consumes 55lbs of the stuff per person per year!

In these countries people eat less meat, especially (except for Australia) beef. Their many fewer road accidents help keep health care costs down as well. (AAA estimates the costs of road accidents in the US to be $300 billion annually, or $955 per person.)  

Other factors contributing to high US health care costs are that the US has the highest rate of CT scans, MRI exams, prescription drug use, prescription drug prices, and prescription drug spending. (Over 50% of Americans take at least one prescription drug each day. 25% of US adults take four or more different prescription drugs each day!) Not all of these nine countries have single payer health care but in none of these countries is healthcare tied in any way to employment.

These nine countries imprison fewer people and have much lower murder rates. However, to be fair, the US is third in the world on the “Do you feel safe walking at night?” statistic. (Just behind Sweden and Canada, just ahead of Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands.) None of the nine have capital punishment.

According to the World Economic Forum, organized crime imposes much less toll on businesses in these countries. The US ranks 87 out of 144 countries on this measure, while our nine best-run countries rank 4, 12, 14, 19, 21, 22, 28, 30, and 44. On reliability of police services, they rank 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 12, 13, 17, 18 while the US ranks 30th. On ethical behavior of firms they rank 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, and 18 while the US ranks 29th. On auditing and reporting standards they rank 2, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 18, 23 and 33 while the US ranks 37th.

All but Canada have stricter blood alcohol levels legal for driving (US and Canada--.8, Finland, Austria, Switzerland, Netherlands, Australia--.5; Sweden and Norway--.2) All but Canada use less oil per person—five (Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Finland and Austria) consume approximately half the oil per person as the US. Gas pump price per gallon in these countries averages $7.59, more than twice the US price ($3.75.) (Note: highest gas price is in Norway, a net oil exporter.)

People in eight of these countries make nearly four times as many trips without the use of a car as people in the US. With the exception of Canada, they walk twice as much and bike ten times as much as in the US, especially for short trips. In the US, Americans drive 85% of trips 2/3 of a mile in length (a twelve minute walk) and even 55% of trips 1/3 of a mile in length (a six minute walk.) In seven of these countries the majority of children walk or bike to school. (In the US 85% of all children are driven to school in car or bus.)

People in these nine countries have many fewer cars per capita. They travel many more miles by train.
All nine nations have auto fatality rates that are a third to two-thirds of ours. Their pedestrian fatality rates per capita are, on average, half of ours, even though they do double the walking.

These nine countries have cities with the highest quality of living in the world as calculated by the Mercer Index (2012)—they fill 5 of the top ten spots, and 16 of the top 35 spots:  Vienna, Austria (1), Zurich, Switzerland (2), Vancouver, Canada (5), Geneva, Switzerland (8), Copenhagen, Denmark (9), Bern, Switzerland (10), Sydney, Australia (11), Amsterdam, Netherlands (12), Ottawa, Canada (14), Toronto, Canada (15), Melbourne, Australia (17), Stockholm, Sweden (19), Perth, Australia. (21) Montreal, Canada (23), Helsinki, Finland (32), Oslo, Norway (32). The only US cities that rank in the top 35 are Honolulu (28) and San Francisco (29), and Boston (35).  

These countries have the greenest cities in the world.  The Siemens Green City Index rates cities based on their environmental performance and impact. Copenhagen had the highest rating in the world with (87.31) The other top city ratings were Stockholm (86.65), Oslo(83.98), Vienna (83.34), Amsterdam (83.03), Zurich (82.31,) Vancouver (81.30), Helsinki (79.29).  US cities with the highest ratings were San Francisco (83.80), New York  (79.20), Seattle (79.10) (Australian cities were not evaluated.)

Energy is a complex topic. Consumption and production patterns are influenced by each country’s mineral and hydroelectric resources as well as by their investment in various forms of energy-producing infrastructure. In the coming decades energy use will have an enormous impact on every country’s prosperity. Four of the nine countries (Norway, Denmark, Canada and Australia) are net energy exporters. Five are net energy importers like the US. Two of them (Austria and Finland) import close to two-thirds of the energy they consume.

All the countries but Norway and Canada use less total energy per person than the US (some half as much) and all use less energy for transportation. Except for Australia, they all emit less CO2 per person (some half as much). 

Sweden, Denmark and Canada in particular have made greater investments in installed solar and wind capacity per capita than the US, and the Netherlands and Austria are catching up.
In general the more coal consumed, the greater the CO2 emissions. Oil consumption also has a large impact on CO2 emissions; natural gas has less. Not surprisingly the nations that are extremely energy efficient with extensive transit and train systems tend to have the lowest CO2 emissions. (Note: TOE stands for Tons of Oil Equivalent, a way to compare different sources of energy.)

So what in the end is a point of a government, the point of a country, if not the happiness and life satisfaction of its citizens? In the World Happiness Report produced by the Earth Institute of Columbia University, happiness and life satisfaction levels are assessed through a number of different evaluation measures. Living standards and income undoubtedly contribute to happiness but so do a person’s health (physical and mental), education, values held (such as the level of materialism or altruism), job security, meaningful work, social connections and social engagement. Or, on a more macro level, good governance, freedom (ability of citizens to choose the course of their own lives,) levels of trust in society, and levels of social mobility. (Spiritual connection/spiritual meaning and/or connection with the natural world also come into play.)  On happiness/life satisfaction scales we see Denmark (1), Finland (2), Norway (3), Netherlands (4), Canada (5), Switzerland (6), Sweden (7), Australia (9), and Austria (13) out of 150 countries, with the US coming in at (11).

What Does All This Tell Us?
Now correlation is not causation. And there are so many factors at work here it’s hard to pin down what might be cause and what might be effect. But it's pretty clear that low corruption is a prerequisite for good governance. It’s pretty clear that low CO2 emissions require reduced burning of fossil fuels. It’s pretty clear that electricity via sources other than coal and transportation via methods other than private auto result in less burning of fossil fuels. It’s pretty clear if a nation puts a disproportionate portion of its wealth towards its military and poorly-run health care system, it will have little money to put towards infrastructure such as transit, trains or renewable energy.

If we could achieve the energy efficiency of Denmark, the transportation efficiency of Sweden, the walking and biking rates of the Netherlands, the lack of government corruption of Finland, the oil consumption and transit use rates of Austria, the rail travel rates of Switzerland, the low healthcare costs and high healthy life expectancy of Australia, the low coal use of Norway, and Canada’s level of military expenditure, the US would be in extremely good shape. We could stop burning coal, end fracking, end foreign oil imports and be entirely energy self-sufficient. Our health care and energy costs would drop dramatically, as would our trade deficit. With reduced expenditure on the military, it’s even possible our national deficit would disappear. Our population would be happier, healthier, live longer, and enjoy a higher quality of life. 

To go further, if the US wants to be among the most prosperous nations on earth, we need to encourage active forms of transportation for short trips, develop transit and rail systems for longer trips, reduce income inequality and corruption, become highly energy-efficient, reduce military expenditures to 1.5% of GDP, and reduce health care expenditures to 11% of GDP. This appears to me to be the lesson of our nine best-run countries.

Sources of data:  OECD library, UN Data, BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2012, IEA Statistics 2012, EIA, CIA World Factbook, IRTAD Road Safety Annual Report 2011, Mercer Quality of Living Rankings 2012, World Happiness Report, Journal of Physical Activity and Health, Bicycling and Walking in the United States 2012 Benchmarking Report, EU Transport in Figures Statistical Pocketbook 2012, EU EDGAR data, World Economic Forum, International Transport Forum, Human Development Report 2007/2008, Global Competivenss Report 2012/2013, Renewables 2012 Global Status Report, Global Peace Index, Trends in Global CO2 emissions 2012 Report, Corruption Perception Index, The Economist, Siemens Green City Index.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My Car-free Excursion to Ikea

My Ikea Haul

As a kind of hobby, I’ve been going to places further from home and more logistically challenging without a car lately, places to which I formerly would've driven. On Monday of this week I tackled the Emeryville Ikea store.

After evaluating my route judiciously, I decided to walk to the Mission 24th St BART station, take BART to the Oakland MacArthur Station, and then take the Emery-Go-Round bus to the Ikea/Bay Street bus stop. I thought long and hard about taking my bike on BART but I didn’t do so due to my lack of familiarity with the route and my uncertainty about the bicycle infrastructure on the Oakland side of things. In retrospect, I think I made the right choice.

I live a bit over a mile from BART, a 20 – 25 minute walk going there and a 30 minute walk (all up hill) going home. I wish I lived closer. In the coming decade, people who live a ten-minute walk or less from BART are going to be very, very happy about this because BART has the greatest reach of any public transit system in the Bay Area. Because Muni from my house to BART requires two buses and a transfer, that option can take any where from 13 minutes (a miracle of bus coordination) to 40 minutes. Plus it costs $2 each way. I am far too cheap to pay $2 to avoid a mile walk.

When going to the airport, I have come to appreciate the walk to BART as a feature, not a bug, of the experience because on days of plane travel it is likely the only exercise I will get.  And on my trip to Ikea, walking there was fine. Walking home with two full bags of stuff was a little more tiring.

As good as it ever looks
Now to the BART experience. First off, whoever designed the 24th St and 16th Street BART entrance plazas must deeply hate human beings. That’s the only explanation I can muster for the sheer hostility of those places both visually and as a site of human congregation. Once you descend into the BART Station, it’s not so bad. I eyed the bikes parked inside the station because I had thought a lot about leaving my bike there but had been concerned about the security. I noticed the bikes were, in general, not fancy bikes, and were by and large extremely well locked up, usually with more than one kind of lock. This did not allay my fears.

Pleasant enough inside the station
I had to wait 10 minutes for a train to MacArthur Station. The announced train schedule that flashes up on the board, while usually reliable, wasn’t this time because a train from Fremont curiously decided to go no further than 24th Street, offloaded its passengers, and then took on passengers back to Fremont. This held up my my train which was waiting down the tunnel (you could see its headlight.)

The train was reasonably full and got more so once we hit the first East Bay stop.  Still, BART is roomy, and this makes it a particularly pleasant form of transportation. In Oakland I noticed a number of women get on with large wire handcarts, good for shopping.  (They could probably carry 5 or 6 bags of groceries in terms of volume, though not, perhaps, in terms of weight.)  I began to regret not bringing my own smaller wire handcart, but as it turns out it would’ve been a horror story to bring it, fully loaded, on the Emery-Go-Round.

Pleasant or ride from hell?
I was a little anxious where to find the Emery-Go-Round when I got off at MacArthur, and indeed, there was no sign indicating where along the long platform it would stop, but luckily there was already one there, engine idling, going in the direction I wanted to go. Hooray! I quickly got on board and then proceeded to wait seven minutes (engine running the whole time) before the driver also boarded and closed the doors. The bus seats were 80% full, but it was roomy enough. The Emery-Go-Round is free! Being cheap, I appreciated this value as my round trip BART trip was costing me $7.20. It took about 8 minutes to go the 2.2 miles to Ikea. People got on and off at each stop but many got off at the Ikea/Bay Street stop. However, overhearing conversations, many of my fellow passengers appeared not to be shoppers but people who worked at the stores there.

I kept an eye on bicycle infrastructure as we went and did see some bike lanes and some sharrows. The bus only went over a portion of the route that Google Maps recommended if biking, so I don’t know what the infrastructure was like the entire way. I do know the last segment was a narrow bike lane along fast moving traffic. I also don’t know how rough and tumble the neighborhood is by the MacArthur BART station. I saw a number of houses that looked abandoned with all the downstairs windows boarded up. I felt quite safe, however, on the bus.

For me, coming from out of town and not being familiar with the area, to use bicycle infrastructure successfully the infrastructure needs to be extremely idiot-proof. For example, there should be signs straight out of the BART station that say “This way to Ikea/Bay Street by bike.” There should be a cycle track completely separated from cars the entire way so that I don’t fear being run off the road on an unknown street by unknown ferocious traffic.  Perhaps the cycle track even needs to be painted a different color the whole way so I will have certainty at all times I am going the right way.  And there should be pretty pictures of all this on some website, so when I am making up my mind on whether going by BART plus bicycle is right for me, I can make my choice with happy confidence. This is what I recommend for at least these particular 2.2 miles to connect Ikea/Bay Street to BART by bicycle for out-of-town shoppers.

It was easy to know where to get off for the Ikea stop because I could see the store from the window. But once off the stop, I walked into the Bay Street pedestrian mall thinking that would be a pleasant way to walk to Ikea. Wrong. The only way to get from the Bay Street area to Ikea is either to walk through a dark parking garage or go back and walk along the busy main road. After spending five minutes figuring this out, I walked back to the main road and made my way to Ikea. To Ikea’s credit, once you get to their property there is a nice walking path separated from the cars.

Ikea’s layout is sprawling. It was at least a four minute walk from the bus stop to the store entrance. All told, it took me an hour and twenty minutes to get from my house to the Ikea entrance. I spent 25 minutes in the store. A feature, not a bug, of not bringing a car to Ikea, is that you can only buy what you are willing to physically carry. This reduces impulse buying, a very good thing. (I still bought more than I intended and then cursed myself going home.) I brought two shopping bags with me with shoulder straps, each with the capacity to hold the equivalent of a stuffed paper grocery bag. They were both full when I left the checkout, one with somewhat fragile glass and metal tealight lanterns that I needed to get home in one piece.

Going home, I had the four minute walk to the bus stop. I arrived a little after 3pm. There were almost 20 people waiting at the stop! Very few shoppers, however, or at least few people who had bags of goods with them. I was very glad I had not chosen a rainy day for the trip as there was no shelter at the stop, no protection from sun, wind or rain. I was, however, able to sit. I waited close to ten minutes. When the bus finally came, it was quite large, perhaps 2/3 the size of a regular Muni bus. However, it only had one door. This was a big, big problem because the bus was very full, every seat occupied and all the floor space full of people standing. So every time the bus stopped, people wanting to get off had to claw their way to the front exit, climb down the steps, and then the people who wanted to get on could board. This was a slow, laborious process. In addition, with the bus so full, I had to sit with my packages precariously perched on my lap, and every time the bus lurched and threw the standing passengers around I prayed that no one would fall on me and crush my lanterns. This may seem like a silly anxiety, but if you are going to encourage people to take a bus shopping, the bus simply cannot be packed to the gills because it leaves no room for people’s purchases. If I (or several people) had with me a wire handcart full of things it would've made the congestion on that bus impassable.  If part of the point of the Emery-Go-Round is to convey shoppers from BART to the Bay Street/Ikea stores, then they are shooting themselves in the foot to let the buses get so crowded.

The bus ride back was slow (15 agonizing minutes) and the lurching made me motion sick. This 2.2 mile stretch between BART and Ikea is flat, flat, flat. I could've covered it with ease in 12 minutes on a bike (with no wait time) and felt great the whole time. More than anything, I longed for a bikeshare bike with a big generous front basket (for my well-stuffed bags) and decent bicycle infrastructure on which to ride it.

I was lucky at BART to find a train ready to head to San Francisco. Clipper Card makes going through BART stations a breeze. I don’t understand why anyone would fool with buying BART cards this day and age. The train back to San Francisco was nearly empty, plenty of room for my packages. I was grateful, a bit tired, and enjoyed being able to relax and not feel crushed or motion sick.

Off at 24th street station and then the walk home. The load I was carrying slowed me considerably heading up hill, and it took me half an hour. I really, really would've loved my bike for this final stage of the trip.

All told, the entire adventure took me three hours and ten minutes and $7.20. Almost one hour of this was walking between my house and Bart. If I’d driven to Ikea, I don’t think I could’ve done the trip in under two hours. If I’d driven, I probably would’ve made sure I returned before carpool hours and so the Bay Bridge toll would only have been $4.00. In addition, I would’ve spent $2.50 on gas and another $1.17 on tires and maintenance (based on AAA estimates of these costs per mile.) So that comes to $7.67 total trip cost versus the $7.20 I spent. And I would’ve gotten very little exercise in the process and quite a bit of stress dealing with bridge traffic.

But what would have been even better? What method of getting to Ikea would have been quick and enjoyable and could very well exist with just a little tweaking of our present infrastructure? First, I would add a secure bike parking facility above ground at the Mission/24th street station.  Carrying one’s bike up a flight of stairs along with two bags of shopping is just not doable. Even managing an elevator with a bike and two bags can be tricky. Plus, BART elevators often don’t work, and when they do, they are known for being icky, smelly and so slow they add ten minutes to your trip.
If I could’ve biked to and from the 24th St station, I would’ve saved 30 minutes of walking time. I would’ve been glad to pay $2 ($1 per hour) for no bike stair-climbing and complete bike peace-of-mind. In addition, a regional Bay Area bike share system with stations at MacArthur station and Bay Street/Ikea along with idiot-proof cycle ways (well marked, completely separated from cars) would have reduced my transit time on the other end from 45 minutes to 25 minutes. 

Just these two improvements would’ve reduced my total trip time by 50 minutes, down to 2 hours and 20 minutes, comparable to driving, parking and walking into the store. It would cost perhaps $2 more for the bike parking, (and perhaps $100/year for a bikeshare membership fee) but it would actually be a far more pleasant travel experience than either driving or riding crowded buses. And it would also be cheaper for society. Bikeshare systems generally operate without government subsidies, while the free Emery-Go-Round bus is completely subsidized by commercial and industrial property owners of Emeryville at $1.52 per passenger trip (2009 data.) (So I got $3.04 worth of free bus ride, even though it made me feel a bit sick. Thank you, Emeryville.) Cars are generally subsidized by society at $.39/mile (externalities such as pollution costs, accidents, road repair and maintenance not covered by gas tax monies, etc., but not including current and future costs of climate change) which means if I’d driven, my cost to taxpayers would've been $9.36. (One can argue that the Bay Bridge toll offsets some of this, but not much since bridge maintenance is far more costly than basic road maintenance.)

If we want to encourage people to reduce their driving and shop without cars, we need to make their experience pleasant and comparatively inexpensive. Bicycle infrastructure--such as easy, secure bike parking at BART stations, bikeshare bikes at BART stations, and entirely idiot-proof, extremely pleasant bikeways between BART stations and shopping districts--is an eminently cost-effective way to increase BART's utility to more people.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Beaufort Skedaddle Day

(This post was originally published one year ago today on the 150th anniversary of the Great Beaufort Skedaddle.)
They were at church when the word came. In the pews of Saint Helena’s in Beaufort, South Carolina, master and slave alike heard that an enormous Yankee fleet was massing off Point Royal Sound a mere ten miles away. If Confederate defenses didn’t hold, the town would have to evacuate in a matter of hours. It was time to pack and to pray.

View of Beaufort, Dec 1861
In 1861, Beaufort was one of the wealthiest, most cultured cities in America. The town boasted not only a library of three thousand volumes but also some of the most erudite, educated men in the South. Having built their elegant Greek Revival mansions with ballrooms, chandeliers and two-story piazzas, planter families gathered here each summer to escape the heat and ague of their Sea Island plantations, as well as socialize and talk politics.  Secession politics. For more than a dozen years cries for secession had risen from Beaufort, much of them led by its native son, rabble-rousing, fire-eater Robert Barnwell Rhett, remembered as the “Father of Secession.”

The Confederacy knew full well that Port Royal might be a target for a Northern base, but they couldn’t be sure other sites weren’t also in the running and so were somewhat lackadaisical in establishing defenses for Port Royal Sound. During the summer of 1861, local plantations reluctantly provided slaves to begin construction of two forts to guard the Sound’s entrance: Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island and Fort Beauregard on Phillips Island. But not only were the forts still incomplete by November, the artillery installed fell far short of what was originally proposed and even farther short of what was needed when the Yankees came calling.

Plans had been underway in the North to take a Southern port since early summer, with Lincoln himself involved in the selection. After all, to implement the “Anaconda Plan”—a tight blockade of the Southern coastline intended to cripple the Confederate economy—U.S. Navy warships needed a place to refuel with the coal that gave them power. Port Royal was one of the choicest deepwater ports on the Southern coast. That a massive Northern fleet was poised to sail was common knowledge to anyone who could read a newspaper once The New York Times published the details in the article, “The Great Naval Expedition,” on October 26th. The only unknown was the destination, a secret that, remarkably, was successfully kept.  It wasn’t until they were at sea that the captain of each vessel opened a sealed envelope telling him where his ship was headed.

The Great Naval Expedition en route
The fleet that set out on Oct 29th would prove to be the largest U.S. naval and amphibious expedition in the entire nineteenth century.  It included 17 warships, 25 colliers, 33 transports, 12,000 infantry, 600 marines, and 157 big guns. Port Royal, with its two cobbled-together forts supplied with only 2500 men, 4 gunboats, and 39 guns between them, didn’t stand a chance.

Bombardment of Port Royal
Nature came to the South’s aid in the form of a storm that sank some of the Northern fleet along the way, and then rough water delayed the day of the final attack. But when November 7th dawned clear and calm, the water so still it was glassy, enough of the North’s warships were available to commence battle. Union ships concentrated their enfilade on Fort Walker. To the soldiers inside, the sound of artillery was deafening. By noon, only three of Fort Walker’s water battery guns were still operational; by 2:30 p.m., all powder was gone. The time had come to abandon the fort. The command at Fort Beauregard, concerned about being trapped on Phillips Island with no line of retreat, quickly followed suit. Thankfully, casualties on both sides were light. Accounts vary, but the Confederates finished the day with between 11 and 59 killed and an equivalent number wounded or missing, while the Union fleet saw 8 dead and 23 wounded.

Even with the enormous attacking naval force, Sea Island planters had been so confident in the defending forts manned with recruits from their very own Beaufort Volunteer Artillery that many watched the battle from shore on nearby Saint Helena Island. But when Confederate cannons grew silent and cheers reverberated from the Northern ships, they knew something had gone dreadfully wrong. They hurried home to evacuate, no doubt pained to leave bolls of valuable Sea Island cotton still unpicked in the fields.

When news of the battle’s outcome reached Beaufort, a kind of panic ensued. Facing an invading army of Yankees was too dreadful to contemplate; flight was of the essence. But what to take, what to leave behind? The daguerreotypes? The silver? Of course the family bible must be packed. Some loaded up carriages, hoping to stay ahead of the Yankees on the long overland route to safety. But Beaufort was lucky that day—there was a steamer anchored in the river that could take hundreds swiftly to Charleston. However, it had only so much room. Furniture, clothing, horses, and the vast majority of their most valuable property—slaves—would have to be left behind. In the tumult, even food and dinner dishes were abandoned on dining room tables, testament to the haste involved. That evening the steamer departed overflowing with Beaufort’s white citizenry along with every jewel and sentimental item they could squeeze on board. Legend has it that when Yankee forces arrived two days later to occupy the town, they found just one white man remaining in Beaufort, and he was dead drunk.

What must the deserted slaves, who spoke Gullah, their own Sea Island patois, have thought as the laden steamer chugged away from Beaufort’s dock? Did they realize that history had unexpectedly turned a corner right in front of them, and that now, after centuries of captivity as a people, they were suddenly free? Perhaps the political ramifications didn’t sink in that night, but before the first Yankees arrived, clothing and other finery had been looted (liberated?) from the grand homes, and food and liquor thoroughly consumed in an understandable celebration of events. 

Five generations now free (1862)
It is estimated 8-10,000 slaves were left behind in the Sea Islands when the white population fled. They were soon joined by thousands of others who escaped to the region once they realized that Northern occupation meant freedom.  They all needed food and shelter, and since the Emancipation Proclamation had yet to happen, their legal status, beyond being “contraband,” was unclear. The Army asked for help and received it in the form of the Port Royal Experiment. Financed and organized by Northern abolitionist charities, the Experiment worked as a test case to create self-sufficiency among the former slaves. Its success points to what Reconstruction might have been if less corruption and more competence had been at its helm.  Northern missionaries and teachers flocked to the Sea Islands to create schools and aid societies. Former slaves were allowed to farm the confiscated plantations and were paid $1 per 400 lbs of cotton they were able to harvest.  The Penn School on St. Helena Island was one of the earliest schools established for freed slaves and can be visited as part of the Penn Center today.

Yankees at home on a Beaufort piazza (1862)
The Union Army found Beaufort a pleasant setting for officer’s quarters, administrative offices and hospitals.  Because the Army occupied Beaufort until the end of the war, the fine mansions, while suffering damage, were not burned to the ground like so many other Southern towns and surrounding Sea Island plantations. To this day Beaufort’s centuries-old live oaks and antebellum charm remain. Port Royal turned out to be as advantageous a harbor as the Union had hoped and did much to strengthen the potency of the blockade. After the war, most planter families—their sons dead, their plantations burnt, their Beaufort homes sold in government auctions for back taxes (often without their knowledge)—never returned. The civilization that was antebellum Beaufort vanished into the night with that last steamer.

It is rare that the wheel of fortune spins as violently as it did on November 7, 1861. The town that had advocated so fiercely for secession was the first to feel the brunt of an occupying army. A people remarkable for their wealth lost almost everything in a matter of hours. A region that so defiantly insisted that its way of life—slavery—was non-negotiable ended up being the first to have a colony of former slaves experiment with what it meant to be free. The Great Skedaddle indeed.

Photos above are from (in order):  Library of Congress, Library of Congress, Harper's Weekly 11/9/1861, Harper's Weekly 11/30/1861, Library of Congress, Library of Congress. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Sparkling, Technicolor Prague

Note:  This is the third of a five-part series. Part one is Charming, Livable Amsterdam.  Part two is Fascinating, Evolving Berlin.

My husband and I first visited Prague in September of 1989, two months before Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution that brought about the collapse of its Communist government. Though we didn’t know it at the time, we witnessed the sputtering dregs of the Communist era.  Change must have been in the air, but what we saw was a depressed, lifeless city. Everything was grey, there was little to buy in the shops, few people on the street. There were only a sprinkling of cafes and restaurants, and small numbers of hushed tourists. The Czechs themselves hurried on their business with little reason to pause or linger. Though the tremendous Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque heritage of the city could not be disguised, it was muted, dulled and blurred.

Color, color everywhere
Fast forward twenty-three years, and wow. Prague is nearly unrecognizable. Color and flowers everywhere! Buildings and statues cleaned! Cafes, restaurants and museums tripping over themselves to appeal to tourists. More schlock to buy than you can shake a stick at (half of it made in China.) And the entrepreneurial spirit of the Czech people imaginatively unleashed to make as much money off tourists as possible. Sometimes the kitsch goes a little over-the-top to realms we would recognize in the hallowed halls of Disneyland, but since Prague has so many centuries of being a lively, sparkling place, I would guess the present incarnation is much closer to the city’s true personality than its dread, Soviet-dominated years.

The Czech Bud
The Czech language is pretty much impossible. Though I’ve never studied Dutch or German, just looking at both languages I could often make them out if I squinted and furrowed my brow hard enough. But Czech? No way, no how. Accents and other strange punctuation marks fly around this language like birds in migration; an ungodly assortment of consonants cluster together with no vowels whatsoever. Evidently it is similar to Slovak, Polish and Sorbian, in case you are considering the benefits of studying Czech. Ironically, after living six years in Iowa where there are a surprising number of people of Czech descent, some of whom were my friends, I probably have more exposure to the Czech language than 99% of Americans. But still in Prague Czech engendered no comprehension in my brain whatsoever. Except—big except!--for one word I saw in a restaurant window almost the second we got into town: Budweiser. I recognized it instantly.

The American
I can’t tell you how much this distressed me. Why, I thought, why, why, why, would the Czechs import bad American beer? Why had they brought over oceans stuff that probably no one should even cross a room with, and then proclaim proudly that they were serving it in their restaurant windows? The answer, I soon learned, beer ignoramus that I am, is that Czech Budweiser is the real thing, and darn good to boot—something indeed to be proud of. The American version is only a shameful pale cousin of the brewing tradition of Ceske Budejovice (a town also known as “Budweis”) that has making beer since the sixteenth century. They call their product Budweiser Budvar. Not only is name almost the same, their logo, as you can see, is pretty similar to the American. Any wonder I was confused?

Evidently old Eberhard Anheuser had heard (or tasted) the product of Budweis, and he named his beer to pay homage to the old country brew. He no doubt thought since he was on a completely different continent, no one would really care if he appropriated the word. Of course the result has been a hundred years of lawsuits flying back and forth across continents ever since. As it stands, the Czechs can currently claim to sell Budweiser Budvar and Bud in the European Union countries but not in the US. If you want to try a Czech Bud in the US, look for a beer called “Czechvar” and you will experience “The Beer of Kings” (as opposed to “The King of Beers.”)

So back to Prague, land of the double-tailed lion! (I love it when a city has a spiffy, mythical mascot.) Quite simply Prague is a baroque bonbon of a city. It out-baroques every place I have ever been. The movie Amadeus was shot largely in Prague because Prague looks more like eighteenth-century Vienna than Vienna has any hope of looking now.  For statuary alone, Prague gets the best-in-the-world prize. It’s not just the Charles Bridge that pushes Prague towards sculpture nirvana. Although the 75 statues on this bridge are indeed very fine, they are just a few figurine drops in the proverbial statue bucket. There must’ve been entire decades in Prague where simply everyone who owned or built a building said to themselves, “Hey, I need three more statues on top of this thing!” and went out, flagged down some stone carver, and got them made. There have got to be more statues per square kilometer in Prague than any city in the world. In fact, I bet there are double the number of statues per square kilometer here compared to whichever city is number two on the statuary front. (I am willing to bet a Bud, Czech or American, on this important matter, if indeed someone has tabulated the vital statues per square kilometer metric.)

Adding to the statuary metric
The Czech people are a highly resilient lot. They blossomed in the fourteenth century and then spent most of the last six centuries being oppressed by various occupying forces. Being occupied and controlled by foreign powers is, in my observation, not a fun thing. Evidently the Czechs (used to be called Bohemians) didn’t think so either. In fact, they pretty much invented the term, “defenestration,” (which means throwing someone or something out a window) when, over a usual Protestant-Catholic dispute, the Bohemian Protestants threw two of their Catholic Hapsburg overlords out a window. The pair fell three stories and were either saved by angels or by falling into a dung heap, depending on your point of view. Eventually the Protestant rebellion was snuffed out, its leaders executed, and the Protestant religion outlawed in Bohemia entirely. (Defenestration, while undoubtedly satisfying, does not always work. Let that be a lesson to us all.)

Feeling oppressed?
The Czechs have over a thousand years of very complex history. It largely begins with the realm of King Wenceslas of Christmas carol fame, blossoms during the Middle ages with centuries of self-rule. Then they are conquered by the Hapsburgs and ruled by them for four centuries (the Hapsburgs turn into the Austrian-Hungarian Empire along the way.) They get a brief two decades of autonomy between WWI and WWII, then occupation and rule by the Nazis swiftly followed by occupation and rule by the Soviets. And then, miraculously, independence in 1989 and self-rule ever since.

So you can see what it must mean for the Czech people to finally be in control of their county and their destiny. Unlike the Germans, the Czechs neither mumble about the nastiness of World War II, nor are they the least bit nostalgic about the Communist era. In fact, they are still pretty much pissed about both the Nazis and the Prague Spring of 1968, their attempt to shake off Soviet shackles that was violently put to rest by a not-so-friendly invasion by their large domineering big brother. 

Historic means moolah
In the years since achieving their autonomy, the Czechs have struggled to catch up to their wealthier western neighbors. They’ve thrown out the pretty much unworkable Soviet model of industrialism and struggled to put together an economy that works. Part of what works is tourism, offering up their spectacular cities and countryside to foreign guests. It seems like everyone is hustling in Prague to get in on the tourist money train, offering tours, services, artwork, and handicrafts. There are all sorts of museums, from the privately wacky to the grandly austere, tempting the visitor with treasures of grandma’s lace collection or 15th century art. There are dance performances, theater shows, and concerts galore. My youngest daughter and I saw an impressive though sparsely attended modern dance performance in an 18th century courtyard under the stars (until we got rained on.) Our family hired a private guide to take us on a walking tour. The cost to hire a well-educated (university grad), knowledgeable, English-speaking guide for our family of five was slightly less than the cost of a much more impersonal group tour we might have taken in any other city we traveled in. (Plus we were able to ask endless questions of what life in the Czech Republic was like for the average citizen. Much fun!)

Tourism, though undeniably lucrative, is a tricky business. In my observation, people on holiday (almost regardless of nationality) can be unpleasant, inconsiderate, destructive and swinish. I’m not quite sure why this is, maybe partly due to genuine ignorance of local customs, partly due to a sense of entitlement as paying customers, partly due to just too many people crammed into too little space for considerate human interaction. Copious alcohol can also play a role. The result is that tourists can be like a swarm of insects, consuming and blighting everything in their path. Even worse, these tourists can be your former oppressors, and if you want their money you have to smile and be accommodating.

Imagine 6 times the people
In 2011, roughly 5 million tourists came to Prague, a city with a population of 1.2 million. The top visiting nations were Germany (655,000), Russia (386,000), and the UK (284,000). (The US came in at number five.) We were told that the week we were there tourism was actually quite light for June. Evidently on a normal June day you can barely shuffle shoulder-to-shoulder across the Charles Bridge, it is so packed with humanity. (We were only obliged to dodge, dart and pause numerous times.) The reason for the light traffic, it turns out, was due to a theme recurring throughout our trip: all the Germans were home because Germany was still in the running in the Euro Cup. Even though Hyundai, as in Berlin, had kindly set up an absolutely massive Euro Cup viewing screen in the most iconic spot in the city, in this case Old Town Square, Germans preferred to watch and celebrate this important event at home. Once the Euro Cup was over (or Germany lost a game and failed to progress), then real tourism season would hit. We could only be thankful the German team had played as well as they had!

Nibble those toes
Because the Czech Republic is part of the European Union but not part of the European Monetary Union, it still has its own currency, the koruna.  This means the Czechs can devalue their currency at will against the euro, rendering their country extremely good value for western Europeans to visit. So the Germans and Italians, the French and the Dutch, come in droves, often to drink excellent Czech beer for very low prices. (Not to mention all sorts of hard alcohol which was also  inexpensive and free flowing.) They may also enjoy getting their feet nibbled by fish at Thai massage parlors. (I am not kidding.) It struck me as a bit like Americans going on vacation in Mexico, except more statues and castles. 

It also struck me how polite the Czechs were, how patient with their drunken customers, how tolerant they were of completely handing over the beautiful heart of their city for months at a time. In San Francisco, we’ve ceded Fisherman’s Wharf but have largely managed to keep the nicest parts of the city for our own use. (Sometimes we are quite quiet about what the nicest parts of our city are.) So what San Franciscans have to sacrifice on the altar of tourism is minimal compared to the Czechs. After so many centuries of domination and oppression the Czechs are struggling economically. The Czech Republic’s GDP/capita is below the EU’s average. It’s below Greece’s, right around that of Trinidad and Tobago. It’s above Russia’s, so you might wonder why so many Russian tourists? The Czech Republic is a very egalitarian country with a low Gini index of 25.8, very close to that of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Japan. Whatever their fortunes, good or bad, they are all pretty much in the same boat. Russia has a high Gini index of 40.1, which puts them more in the realm of third world countries and the US. So rich Russians can visit, and plenty of them do.

Of course, I write this having been part of the ravenous swarm myself. We tried to be considerate, tried not to do too much damage, or be too offensive, but no doubt we made our share of blunders even so. One district of Prague where the tourism did not seem overly crushing was in the old Jewish quarter, perhaps because people were spread out between multiple synagogues, perhaps because most Prague tourists come to shop and drink rather than pay witness to what is left of a ghetto, home to Prague’s Jewish population for almost a thousand years. Constructed in medieval and renaissance times and no doubt cramped, unsanitary and squalid, most of the ghetto was destroyed at the turn of the 20th century as a “modernization” effort. While originally confined entirely to the ghetto, Jews had been allowed to live in other parts of the city since 1851, so the numbers needing to relocate were few. At the outbreak of WWII, 92,000 Jews lived in Prague, almost 20% of the city’s population. At least two-thirds perished in the Holocaust.

The layers of history
I thought the synagogues startlingly beautiful and the information presented in them worthwhile, but they were infinitely sad. Some are still in use for services, some have become just silent memorials to what was. The old Jewish cemetery with its layers upon layers of graves especially attested to centuries of striving and surviving, often in the face of great unfairness, cruelty and violence. Though most synagogues in former Czechoslovakia were destroyed during WWII, the ones in Prague were bizarrely spared because the Nazis planned to turn them into an “exotic museum of an extinct race.” In fact, the Nazis collected (i.e. looted) Jewish artifacts from all over Europe to put on display at this future museum. But these handful of buildings and cemetery survived to tell a story quite different from the one the Nazis intended.

I am sorry to report that Prague is not a great city for bicycling, and this goes beyond the amount of cobblestones and the rather enormous hill up to Prague Castle. I didn’t see a lot of bikes, bike rentals, or bike lanes, though there evidently are bike tours available in Prague (and I now wish we’d taken one.) It is even possible to bike from Prague to Vienna along a system of bike greenways. (Future trip!) But the touristy areas of Prague are so crowded, walking is by far the best option. Our walking tour guide said he rides bikes with his kids where he lives, but this is in parks away from the old part of town. 

Skoda, Skoda, Skoda
In addition, the Czechs love their cars. Or I should say, car. The Skoda. (Of course there is more than one model.) Perhaps it comes from so many years of a controlled economy where few could own cars, perhaps it comes from still limited transit infrastructure (though their underground system is more extensive than San Francisco’s) but there is a great deal of national pride around these babies, and in any part of the city that is not pedestrian-only, the car noise and traffic can feel intense. Car manufacturing is also a great driver of the Czech economy. The Czechs export over 80% of the cars they make to places like China (their leading customer), eastern and central Europe.

Awesome candidate for pedestrian zone?
Prague does have quite a bit of pedestrian-only areas in its historic center, and the amount is slowly expanding. Businesses and restaurants are realizing that the pedestrian zones are where tourists feel welcome, comfortable and want to hang out, so stores and restaurants in these zones flourish. Of course the Charles Bridge is pedestrian-only; in fact, it’s almost incomprehensible that cars ever crossed this fifteen-century masterpiece but they did until the mid-1960’s. The twelfth-century Old Town Square with its fabulous Astrological Clock is car-free, and there's also the ritzy shopping street of Na Prikope that is entirely and pleasantly pedestrian (as well as way over my budget.) In addition the lower part of Wenceslas Square went pedestrian-only just this last spring. Long term the vision is to make the entire (huge) Wenceslas Square a continuous pedestrian paradise. Wouldn't it be great for the lovely and immensely old Mala Strana district to also be free from the roar of fast-moving cars? (hint, hint.)

Statuary ode to a wandering Kafka
So summer in Prague is full of flowers and crowds and art and drunkenness. I’m heartily glad color and gaiety have returned to the city. However, someday I want to visit again when things are quieter, perhaps late October. When there might still be a chance that Mozart has just turned the corner of the 18th-century arcade stretching ahead. When Kafka might still wander through the tight streets near Prague Castle. When Golem might peak from behind an old Jewish cemetery headstone. When 12th-century ghosts in armor might drift like mist across the Charles Bridge after dusk. Not a depressed and morose Prague, but a moody, artistic, intense Prague, the Prague that I think is still there, under the artifice and revelry designed to part the tourist from his euro, ruble, or dollar.

(Next in this series will be Enlightened, Elegant Vienna.)