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The Race to the Sky: How Competition Pushes Humanity Forward

Blog Post | Infrastructure & Transportation

The Race to the Sky: How Competition Pushes Humanity Forward

Cities could still be growing quickly upward, but regulations are limiting their growth.

“I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline.”

—Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

The story of how the Empire State Building came to dominate Manhattan’s skyline—defeating 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building for the title of the tallest building in the world—is an illustration of the power of competition and innovation.

In 1929, the successful businessman George Ohrstrom hired architect H. Craig Severance to design 40 Wall Street. Severance was a well-known architect in New York City and together with William van Alen had built amazing constructions, such as the Bainbridge Building on W. 57th Street and the Prudence Building at 331 Madison Avenue. Van Alen was an innovator and a revolutionary who often challenged the classical and Renaissance styles that had influenced most American cities since the beginning of the 20th century. He often ran into problems with clients who rejected his modern styles. Severance, worried about losing clients, decided that he no longer needed Van Alen’s partnership, and they ended their business relationship in 1924. In 1929, Walter Chrysler hired Van Alen to design a monument to his name, the Chrysler Building.

Competition Incentivized Innovation

In April 1929, Severance learned that his former partner was designing a structure of 809 feet. Ohrstrom and Severance, worried about falling behind, announced that they would add two additional floors to their original design so that 40 Wall Street would end up with a total height of 840 feet. That same year, Empire State Inc., led by former General Motors executive John Jakob Raskob, entered the race—putting pressure on Severance and Van Alen. To keep pace with the other two projects, architectural firm Shreve, Lamb & Harmon and builders Starrett Brothers & Eken accelerated the construction process. According to architectural historian Carol Willis, the framework of the Empire State Building rose four and a half stories per week due to an A-team design approach in which architects, builders, and engineers collaborated closely with each other.

Troubled by both Severance and the Empire State project, Van Alen designed the famous chrome-steel art deco crown for the top of the Chrysler Building and a sphere to stand on top of the crown. The sphere was built inside the crown, hidden from the public, and it was never announced to the press or explicitly mentioned. On the other hand, Severance modified his design one more time and asked permission to add a lantern and a flagpole at the top of the tower, increasing the height by 50 feet. Severance planned to have 40 Wall Street reach the 900-foot mark to secure its place as the tallest building in the world.

On October 23, 1929, the sphere of the Chrysler Building was lifted from the inside of the crown, reaching 1,046 feet and surpassing the final height of 927 feet of 40 Wall Street. The crash of Wall Street on October 28 distracted the press from the trick played by Van Alen, and it was not reported immediately. When Severance found out, it was too late to change his design—40 Wall Street held the title for one month from its opening in the first week of May 1930 to the opening of the Chrysler Building on May 27. The Chrysler Building held the title for only 11 months until the Empire State Building was completed in 1931 and became the new tallest building.

Regulations Limit Us

The Empire State Building held the title of tallest building in the world for 40 years, and it was built in only one year and 45 days. Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, believes that excessive restrictions slow construction today. Regulations such as height restrictions prevent cities from going up. Humanity now has better technology than in the time of New York’s race to the sky, but getting permits to build upward is extremely difficult. Excessive restrictions also generate artificial scarcity, which is slowing the growth of cities and making it difficult (and expensive) to live in them. Cities could grow upward, but regulations limit their growth.

However, we continue to see competition in many industries; technology companies fighting for the dominance of artificial intelligence are creating better and more efficient tools. The race between SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic is improving the development of innovative technologies. Soon we might even have commercial flights to the moon. History has shown that when brilliant minds have freedom to compete, humanity moves forward.

Blog Post | Infrastructure

How the Dutch Tamed the Waters

If the Dutch could beat back the encroaching waves in the 17th and 18th centuries, why couldn’t low-lying developing nations today also overcome gradual changes in sea level?

Britannia may once have ruled the waves, but it was the Dutch who tamed the sea. In water management and beating back a rowdy ocean, the Dutch are undisputed champions—a title they have proudly held for a long time. Some of the iconic Dutch windmills, for instance those at Kinderdijk, were built hundreds of years ago explicitly to empty the surrounding lands of water. The first dikes and dams in these lowlands were most likely constructed over 2,000 years ago, probably by Romans or Frisians.

For centuries, the people living along the Atlantic coasts have carved off and dammed areas when the tide went out, gradually drying saltmarshes and expanding land suitable for agriculture. Today upwards of one-third of this prosperous northern European nation’s territory lies below sea level. Yet, as the Danish writer Bjørn Lomborg puts it, nobody here “needs scuba gear to get around.” The reason, explains the information site Netherlands Tourism proudly, is that the Dutch have “one of the most sophisticated anti-flood systems in place anywhere in the world.”

Considered one of the modern wonders of the world, some of the storm surge barriers that today protect the low-lying Netherlands are kilometers long. The Eastern Scheldt Storm Surge Barrier, for instance, consists of 62 steel slides in-between concrete pillars almost 40 meters high and weighing over 18,000 tons. During normal times, they allow for the free flow of water and fish with a flourishing aquatic ecosystem. When a particularly large storm approaches, the barriers can be lowered to protect the land beyond.

The Eastern Scheldt is just the largest of the 13 grand dams and barriers that make up the Delta Works. Another impressive structure is the Maeslant Barrier on the main waterway to Rotterdam, Europe’s largest seaport. Consisting of two 210-meter long and 22-meter high hollow steel gates that usually rest in adjacent dry docks, the gates swing out and close the waterways when storm surges of at least 3 meters are predicted. When closed, the gates form a next-to-watertight protective barrier. 

The Dutch are squeezed by water from all sides. Still, rather than being subject to the whims of nature, the Dutch are masters of their fate. To mark their achievement, next to the Storm Surge Barrier in Eastern Scheldt is an inscription. In Dutch, it reads “hier gaan over het tij, de maan, wind en wij,” which can be translated as “The tide here is ruled by Thee: Moon, Wind, and We.” It’s not for nothing that a common Dutch saying is: “God created the Earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.”

The creation of these elaborate water protection systems is usually credited to government action after the 1953 storm that killed over 2,000 people. As the badly-maintained levees, which were damaged in World War II, gave way to an unusual combination of a high spring tide and severe storm, the waters rushed through thousands of hectares of houses, pastures, and people. Over the next four decades, the Dutch constructed dams, protective barriers, and ever-more sophisticated systems such that the devastation they saw in “The ‘53” would never happen again.

The construction of these supreme feats of engineering—roughly from the 1953 storm to the final inauguration of the Maeslant Barrier in 1997—cost about 5 percent of the GDP, over several decades. The annual upkeep of the full Delta Works programs, financed out of the taxpayer-funded Delta Fund, comes to $1.8 billion per year, which is equivalent to 0.2 percent of the Netherlands’ GDP in 2019. 

The Maeslant has been closed a handful of times, and the Eastern Scheldt barrier at least 27 times—most recently in the February 2020 storm Ciara. The number of Dutch deaths from flooding since the Delta Works became operational has been zero.

But the Dutch mastery over the sea didn’t begin in 1953. For centuries, local water boards (or “polder boards”) maintained dunes, water protection-fortifications, streams, and trenches. They levied fees on the population in their local catchment area, bypassing political disputes in the capital.

Some of the oldest living financial documents are perpetual bonds from these water companies that, almost four centuries later, are still paying interest on money raised in the 1640s. Yale financial historian William Goetzmann writes in Money Changes Everything that:

Whether the country was run by the Spanish, French, or Dutch, the water companies maintained power of taxation and the ability to raise their own armies in times of need – armies to fight floods. […] Without their own capabilities, the great threat to the citizens would not be from their neighbors but from the ever-present risk of inundation.

Sea level rises—from a warming planet, thermally expanding oceans, and melting ice caps, ice sheets, and glaciers—may be new worries in a world sensitive to climate change. But, adaptation and innovation aren’t new to the Dutch. Generation after generation of people living along the Dutch Atlantic shore has fought an uphill battle with an encroaching sea. Relentlessly draining lands through clever use of canals, ditches, sluices, barriers, windmills to pump away water, and persistently pushing back the sea, the Dutch have overcome their oceanic challenge.

The United Nation International Panel on Climate Change reports that the global average sea level rose by about 20 centimeters between 1901 and 2010. Yet, over the same period, the Dutch expanded their land area by tens of thousands of square kilometers! The Dutch, in other words, show us that even poor countries by modern standards can come out victorious from a fight with the elements.

If the Dutch could beat back the encroaching waves while being much poorer and less technologically advanced than most people in the world today, why couldn’t low-lying, developing nations today also beat the threat that is gradual sea level rises? Vietnam now has the GDP per capita of the Netherlands in the late 1940s; Bangladeshis are, on average, as rich as the Dutch at the start of the 20th century. But the Dutch mastered the ocean already in the 17th and 18th centuries!

In his long read from January this year, Financial Times journalist Simon Kuper wrote that “whenever a city starts thinking of protecting itself against floods, someone will say: ‘Bring in the Dutch.’” Indeed.

Blog Post | Science & Technology

The Internet Is a Miracle We All Take for Granted

Between 1990 and 2016, internet access rose from 0 to 46 percent of the world's population.

Children enjoying using the internet. Individuals using the internet (% of the population).

“If someone was ready to fork over $1 million to you to stop using the Internet – forever – would you do it?” Economics professor W. Michael Cox, who asked that question of his students, received an unambiguous reply. “You couldn’t pay me enough,” they answered. That answer speaks to just how priceless the internet has become, and how encouraging it is to see it spreading throughout the world, including to the poorest countries.

The internet’s ubiquity makes summarising its various uses a pretty daunting task. To start with, it is the repository of all human knowledge. Search engines provide answers to virtually all questions. Online videos explain billions of different topics and procedures. Users can take online courses and communicate with experts. New books are easily accessible in digital and audio forms, while old books are being digitised en masse. Publishing and broadcasting have been democratised. People can share their ideas easily and, if need be, anonymously.

Then there are the huge benefits to human communication. Letters that used to take weeks or months to arrive have been superseded by email and social media apps that make written contact instantaneous and practically cost-free. International phone calls were once very expensive. Today, video chats allow for a face-to-face conversation with anyone, anywhere. In the future, it may even be possible to download the contents of human brains onto a computer, thus enabling communication with people from beyond the grave.

The internet is also a great productivity enhancer. Online banking allows people conveniently to view their balances, pay their bills and make other transactions. Online shopping allows buyers to access most goods and services, compare their prices and read product reviews. Sellers can reach more people than could ever fit in a retail store. Research shows that much of US growth since the mid-1990s has been driven by internet-induced efficiency gains among large retailers, such as Walmart and, later, Amazon.

Our professional lives are more flexible too, with ever more of us able to work from home, avoiding an often costly and time-consuming commute. Online hiring gives employers easy access to a worldwide talent pool.

Of course, like all technologies, the internet can be used for nefarious purposes – just think of all those Nigerian email scams and “fake news” – but it is also an excellent resource for discovering the reputational standing of local doctors, lawyers, educators and restaurants.

As well as making people’s lives infinitely more convenient, the internet is a tool of humanitarian assistance and rising global consciousness. It makes it easier to raise, remit and donate money. That’s especially important during emergencies, such as wars and natural disasters, when speedy response from the donor community is necessary. And, it can alert the public to human rights abuses, such as the attempted ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority in Burma.

It has also been a boon for popular entertainment, allowing more people than ever to access movies, shows, concerts and live events from the comfort of their living rooms. It’s easy to forget there was once a time when the eccentric billionaire and insomniac Howard Hughes bought a local TV station just so he could watch his favourite movies. The station then broadcast films from a list that Hughes pre-approved. Today, almost everyone has access to thousands of titles on Netflix.

Put plainly, in today’s world, access to the internet is essential for full economic and political participation, as well as intellectual growth and social interaction.

Thankfully, internet use is growing rapidly. Between 1990 and 2016, the share of the world’s population with access to the internet rose from zero to 46 per cent. It is expected to rise to 52 per cent by 2020. In 2016, the highest number of internet users was in North America (78 per cent) and the lowest was in sub-Saharan Africa (20 per cent). Those numbers are likely to increase, because the cost of internet “transit price” or sending data from one computer to another fell from $1,200 per megabyte per second (Mbps) in 1998 to $0.63 in 2015. In other words, the internet transit price is heading toward zero.

And plans are afoot to bring the internet to some of the poorest people in the world. Currently, traffic flows through expensive fiber optic cables. Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are working on a system of internet satellites designed to provide low-cost internet service from Earth’s orbit. Google, in the meantime, wants to launch high-altitude internet balloons to the stratosphere, where they will catch a ride on wind currents to their destinations in the developing world.

The internet is now so ingrained in most of our lives that it’s easy to forget just how miraculous a technology it is. The fact this miracle is available to more and more of humanity is a cause for huge celebration.

This first appeared in CapX.

Blog Post | Environment & Pollution

Apocalyptic Warnings About “Water Wars” Too Pessimistic

Freshwater reserves are falling but access to drinking water is up.

The shenanigans in Flint, Michigan, made me think about people and water. Today, more people than ever have access to drinking water (see chart 1). Yet, freshwater reserves are falling throughout the world (see chart 2). What are we to make of these global trends?

As ever, the alarmists were well ahead of the curve. Back in college, I remember reading about the likelihood of a military conflict between Israel, Jordan and Syria over the water from the Jordan River. Turns out, water scarcity is much less of an issue in a region torn apart by sectarian strife, but a deluge of apocalyptic warnings continues unabated: “Water Wars,” “Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution And Profit,” “The Great Lakes Water Wars,” “Blue Gold: World Water Wars,” etc.

On the upside, it is useful to remember that 71 percent of the world’s surface is covered by water. The trick, therefore, is not to have access to “water” per se, but to have access to “drinkable water” (and agriculture-friendly water).

In the short run, there is space for more efficiency. Precision agriculture, such as that practiced in Israel, is a good start. But, in the long run, plentiful water is likely to depend on plentiful energy.

In some places, like the desert kingdoms of the Middle East, people get water by burning oil in desalination plants. Ideally, however, countries with plenty of sunshine will be able to switch to a more environmentally-friendly solar power in the future. The price of solar energy has dropped by 99.5 percent between 1977 and 2014. And while I am aware that solar is not yet price-competitive with fossil fuels, and suffers from well-known problems (cloudy days, space and storage), I am hopeful that in the not-too distant future humanity’s concern over freshwater resources will disappear thanks to solar power and desalination. 

The first appeared in Reason.