The Slippery Slope of Corporate Culture

Greg Smith’s resignation lament in the New York Times, Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs, has rightly caused an uproar. He writes, “I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it,” implying that it has been toxic and destructive all along. Tell us something we don’t know.

Twenty years ago when I worked at JP Morgan, the public bond underwriters and pension managers complained that they were at a disadvantage when competing for business with Goldman because they weren’t allowed to “pay to play”, i.e. make political contributions in exchange for business.

Those two banks had long been at opposite ends of the spectrum. A century ago, the original J. Pierpont Morgan told counsel for a Congressional committee investigating the money trust that the most important criterion for supplying commercial credit was character, “Because a man I do not trust could not get money from me for all the bonds in Christendom.” Language, I must add, that distinguished him in ways large and small from moneylenders like Mr. Goldman and Mr. Sachs. Fifteen years ago an unnamed executive summed up the difference in business practices between the two banks to a Times reporter: “Morgan will show up with 20 people for a three-hour presentation to a client. Goldman Sachs will just send two people to sketch out a deal on a napkin at the golf club bar.”

With Robert Rubin, Henry Paulson, and Jon Corzine among the ranks of Goldman's recent former CEOs who have distinguished themselves in government and finance, you learn almost everything you need to know about the contemporary Goldman ethic, good and bad. Current honcho Lloyd Blankfein has said they are doing “God’s work.” For a Goldman investment banker to evoke the almighty as justification, he has to feel real heat.

Mr. Smith feels let down by corruption in Goldman’s corporate culture:

“It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture … revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients…. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years."

A closer look at that culture would reveal something besides always doing right by the client. Corporate culture is really a nice way of moving people with a variety of motives in lockstep. One man’s client service is another man’s rapacious self-interest. Given the profitability of modern finance, rapacious self-interest has had an inexorable pull. The habits ingrained through a strong corporate culture are merely instruments for moving the herd along. Call it conformism, and in this, as in so many other areas, there’s no question that Goldman is a leader.

Upon reading Smith’s op-ed, I opened an excellent reference volume, The Wiley Book of Business Quotations, to the Goldman Sachs entry for corporate culture. (Okay, maybe that isn't quite accurate—I compiled the book myself and knew what was there.) I found Theresa M. Potter's New York Metropolitan Diary column of November 13, 1996:

Dear Diary:
Overheard on the elevator at Goldman Sachs on a recent “dress-down Friday,” a conversation between a long-time partner and a smartly attired young analyst.
Partner (sternly): It’s Friday. You’re not supposed to be wearing a tie.”
Analyst (crestfallen): “But it’s not silk.”

It’s a slippery slope.


Metro Job Recovery in 2011

The latest BLS release for metro area unemployment has full year averages for 2011 available, so we can see which cities added the most jobs last year. On the whole, it was a much better year for metros than we’ve seen in the recent past. The national economy added jobs, and all but two large metros did as well. New York City added the most jobs of any region, but given that it is far and away the biggest city in America, it should do so. NYC ranked only the middle of the pack on a percentage growth basis. On that measure, Austin, Texas was number one.

The top percentage gainer in the Midwest region? Detroit, Michigan. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising either, as manufacturing is pro-cyclical.

Here is the performance of the metro areas in the United States with more than one million people, ranked by percentage change. The data is also available in spreadsheet form.

Rank Metro Area 2010 2011 Total Change Pct Change
1 Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX 769.5 791.4 21.9 2.85%
2 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 855.2 878.2 23.0 2.69%
3 Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX 2528.1 2593.1 65.0 2.57%
4 Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill, NC-SC 807.5 826.7 19.2 2.38%
5 Nashville-Davidson–Murfreesboro–Franklin, TN 734.3 751.7 17.4 2.37%
6 Salt Lake City, UT 608.1 622.0 13.9 2.29%
7 Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI 1737.1 1775.3 38.2 2.20%
8 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 2860.9 2921.7 60.8 2.13%
9 Raleigh-Cary, NC 498.1 508.6 10.5 2.11%
10 Pittsburgh, PA 1125.3 1148.6 23.3 2.07%
11 Oklahoma City, OK 558.5 569.6 11.1 1.99%
12 Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 1112.0 1132.3 20.3 1.83%
13 Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA 968.8 986.1 17.3 1.79%
14 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 1697.1 1727.1 30.0 1.77%
15 Baltimore-Towson, MD 1274.0 1293.5 19.5 1.53%
16 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 1641.2 1666.1 24.9 1.52%
17 Denver-Aurora-Broomfield, CO 1193.5 1211.6 18.1 1.52%
18 Columbus, OH 903.3 916.9 13.6 1.51%
19 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL 2185.6 2218.3 32.7 1.50%
20 Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ 1688.9 1712.8 23.9 1.42%
21 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA 2272.6 2302.9 30.3 1.33%
22 New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 519.1 526.0 6.9 1.33%
23 San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX 843.0 853.2 10.2 1.21%
24 Richmond, VA 602.4 609.5 7.1 1.18%
25 New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA 8306.8 8403.9 97.1 1.17%
26 Indianapolis-Carmel, IN 871.1 881.2 10.1 1.16%
27 Jacksonville, FL 583.1 589.6 6.5 1.11%
28 Rochester, NY 503.1 508.7 5.6 1.11%
29 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 2962.9 2995.5 32.6 1.10%
30 Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT – Metro 533.2 538.9 5.7 1.07%
31 Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI 4246.6 4291.4 44.8 1.05%
32 Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI 805.8 814.1 8.3 1.03%
33 Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN 592.9 599.0 6.1 1.03%
34 Kansas City, MO-KS 971.6 981.4 9.8 1.01%
35 Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL 1001.1 1011.0 9.9 0.99%
36 Memphis, TN-MS-AR 589.8 595.4 5.6 0.95%
37 Cincinnati-Middletown, OH-KY-IN 980.8 989.4 8.6 0.88%
38 Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY 538.2 542.7 4.5 0.84%
39 San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA 1880.2 1894.3 14.1 0.75%
40 Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH – Metro 2426.5 2443.3 16.8 0.69%
41 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA 5126.8 5162.2 35.4 0.69%
42 San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA 1222.8 1231.2 8.4 0.69%
43 St. Louis, MO-IL 1286.9 1295.4 8.5 0.66%
44 Las Vegas-Paradise, NV 803.6 808.3 4.7 0.58%
45 Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 1125.9 1129.7 3.8 0.34%
46 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 2697.0 2705.9 8.9 0.33%
47 Providence-Fall River-Warwick, RI-MA – Metro 541.3 542.8 1.5 0.28%
48 Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC 735.2 736.8 1.6 0.22%
49 Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH 991.1 992.7 1.6 0.16%
50 Birmingham-Hoover, AL 489.5 488.6 -0.9 -0.18%
51 Sacramento–Arden-Arcade–Roseville, CA 809.9 802.0 -7.9 -0.98%

This first appeared at Aaron's blog,

Historic Day in Corruption History: Two Governors From Same State in Jail at Same Time

Today, history will be made. Rod Blagojevich is going to jail in Littleton, Colorado. Blagojevich will join his predecessor Governor George Ryan who’s in prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. America’s fifth largest state will now have two back-to-back Governors in federal prison at the same time. What other state in America can say that? Both Illinois Governors were convicted of major felonies. Have Illinois voters turned the corner on supporting corrupt politicians? It appears not. Recently, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has been busy. Long time Chicago Machine boss William Beavers was indicted on tax fraud. Tuesday, Illinois State Rep. Derrick Smith was arrested on a federal bribery charge.

Here's a report from WLS-TV:

Federal Transit Administration Weighs In on Honolulu Mayor's Race

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has intervened in the Honolulu Mayor's race against challenger and former Hawaii Governor Ben Cayetano. Governor Cayetano and Mayor Peter Carlisle are locked in a bitter contest that could determine whether the proposed $5.1 billion rail line is built. Mayor Carlisle is a strong supporter of the rail line. Challenger Cayetano has promised to "pull the plug" on the rail system. Recent polls show that the project's former thin majority support among Honolulu residents has now turned to opposition.

At a 1:30 p.m. press conference yesterday (March 13), Governor Cayetano released e-mails from the FTA indicating concerns about the rail project. According to Cayetano, "Not only it is apparent that FTA officials share some of our concerns, but it's also apparent that they warned the city about pending litigation if certain things were not done."

One of the FTA emails, obtained from the administrative record said “I do not think the FTA should be associated with their lousy practices of public manipulation and we should call them on it.”

Reflecting a surprising ability to "turn on a dime," FTA quickly responded in an apparent attempt to diffuse Governor Cayetano's point. According to KITV, "In response to the press conference, a spokesman for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation issued the following statement on behalf of the FTA:"

There is no question that this project has overcome early obstacles because of a much improved Federal partnership with the City of Honolulu and State of Hawaii over the last several years. The Federal Transit Administration believes that this project will bring much needed relief from the suffocating congestion on the H-1 Freeway and provide a real transportation alternative for the people of Oahu as gas prices rise.

Curiously, the FTA's statement contradicted its own previous position on the traffic impact of the rail line. In its January 2011 "record of decision" for the project, FTA indicated:  "Many commenters [on the Draft EIS] reiterated their concern that the Project will not relieve highway congestion in Honolulu. FTA agrees..." Further, it is unusual for federal agencies to take part in local election campaigns.

The Honolulu rail project was covered in more detail in a recent commentary, Honolulu's Money Train.

Clarification (March 15). The complete quotation above was not used because it was not necessary to the point, which was FTA agreed that highway congestion would not be relieved by rail in its record of decision, but in its statement on Tuesday appears to have reversed that view. We are unaware of any change in the technical documentation that would have justified such a change.

The complete quotation was "Many commenters [on the Draft EIS] reiterated their concern that the Project will not relieve highway congestion in Honolulu. FTA agrees, but the purpose of the project is to provide an alternative to the use of congested highways for many travelers.” The "provide an alternative" clause was omitted because it was unrelated to the apparent change in position on traffic congestion by FTA.

"FTA agrees." in the article above, has been changed to "FTA agrees..."

Replaced by a Machine

I love the Omaha World Herald – I read papers all over the world and this one is the best local paper I’ve seen. The bias is largely limited to the Opinion pages and they do original research on local topics. For national and world news, they have reporters outside the Omaha metro, but they also include the best of the news wire articles. The paper is a readable length, yet it contains enough stories that you know what’s going on but not so many that it’s a repeat of the nightly news from the national broadcast networks. Mostly, I like the way they let the reader connect the dots.

A perfect example appeared on Sunday March 11, 2012 on page 10A in the print edition. Two stories occupy the three columns on the left side of the page. The story occupying the top of the three columns is about IBM’s Watson supercomputer (from Bloomberg news). Watson’s newest consulting client will be Wall Street bank Citigroup, Inc. “the third-largest U.S. lender.” Directly beneath that is a story from the Associated Press (AP) about Main Street abandoning Wall Street – seems that if individual “ordinary” investors do not start giving their money to Wall Street banks again soon, the re-inflated stock market bubble will deflate – bye-bye Dow 15,000.

How do these two stories relate? Well, Citigroup is feeding information to Watson on “sentiment and news not in the usual metrics” like what you post on Facebook or search on Google. Citigroup will use Watson to “analyze customers’ needs” and process that with their client data to figure out how to get you to put your money back where it makes them the most money in fees and commissions.

Watson doesn’t come cheap – according to the Bloomberg News article, banks spent $400 billion last year on “information technology,” helping to generate $107 billion in revenue for IBM. How can banks afford to spend billions of dollars to get consultations with a computer? The answer is in the AP article in the bottom of the same columns: “corporate America has racked up double-digit profit gains” since the official end of the Great Recession in 2009.

These two articles make me a little happy. The first one pleases the economist in me because an American company with a real product is going to thrive by charging Wall Street billions of dollars for something. The second article pleases me because it means that Main Street got the message – don’t eat the hot dogs at the Wall Street party because the fuel for the weenie roast is your future. Let the machines do it.

[NOTE: links are available without registration for up to 2 weeks after publication. Access to the archives requires email registration.]

Susanne Trimbath, Ph.D. is CEO and Chief Economist of STP Advisory Services. Dr. Trimbath’s credits include appearances on national television and radio programs and the Emmy® Award nominated Bloomberg report Phantom Shares. She appears in four documentaries on the financial crisis, including Stock Shock: the Rise of Sirius XM and Collapse of Wall Street Ethics and the newly released Wall Street Conspiracy. Dr. Trimbath was formerly Senior Research Economist at the Milken Institute. She served as Senior Advisor on United States Agency for International Development capital markets projects in Russia, Romania and Ukraine. Dr. Trimbath teaches graduate and undergraduate finance and economics.

Owen McShane: 1941-2012 lost a one of its first columnists, a regular contributor and good friend with the passing of Owen McShane.

Owen McShane (Robert Ivan Owen McShane) was born in 1941 and died on March 6, 2012. His long and successful career in public policy was built on a strong academic foundation. He graduated from the University of Auckland, earning degrees in architecture and urban planning.  He continued on to be awarded a masters degree in city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley. There he studied under fabled Aaron Widavsky, chairman of the Political Science Department. His master's thesis dealt with a US federal program intended to reduce unemployment and promote business development in central cities.

He joined the new City Development Division of Auckland City Council after graduating from the University of Auckland. After returning from America, Owen held positions in both the public sector and government. He was a columnist for the National Business Review  and has been published in many magazines and newspapers.

In recent years, Owen directed the Centre for Resource Management Studies in New Zealand. The Centre seeks to promote "a heightened awareness and understanding" of the environment and is committed to the "the promotion of scientifically robust, research-based and rational decision-making processes at all levels in matters concerning the environment." Owen was also a regular participant and presenter at the annual American Dream Coalition conferences.

Owen developed an understanding of economics, which assisted him in avoiding the disconnected romanticism that sometimes characterizes architecture and urban planning. Combining economics with architecture and urban planning made his contributions more effective by adding the crucial human element.

From Owen's perspective, rational urban policy was not determined by remote or theoretical visions of the city that he was trained to plan. The success of a city was rather judged by the standard of living experienced by its residents. For example, his How Can Cities with Unaffordable Housing be Ranked Among the Most Livable Cities in the World? (, June 9, 2009) may have been the first to point out that popular indexes of the quality of life in international urban areas routinely ranked the most unaffordable at the top. This kind of analysis led Owen to postulate that " genuine sustainable development" had to work from middle class people and families too" in The Disappearance of the Next Middle Class (, August 24, 2010).  

Owen McShane was an untiring advocate of ordinary people, championing individual aspirations in a world that has increasingly been captured by bureaucratic theories that take little or no account of their preferences or their economic advancement.

Owen will be greatly missed both in New Zealand and far from its shores.

Photo: Courtesy of the Heartland Institute


No G-8 Summit for Chicago

Veteran Chicago journalist Ben Joravsky explains why Chicago’s better off without the G-8 summit:

One, we're not equipped to handle it. Two, we can't afford it. And, three, it has the potential to give the Republicans great campaign material for the coming election.

President Obama has done Mayor Emanuel a great favor, because there’s no real upside to the summit for Chicago. Banks on La Salle Street were planning to close. Many major corporations located downtown were telling their employees to stay home. The fear of violence from the demonstrators was bound to dampen economic activity. There’s no real need to showcase Chicago, international travelers are well aware of the town.

Some may view as an embarrassment to Emanuel. The Chicago Sun-Times reported to President Obama only gave Emanuel “an hour’s advance notice.”  But Emanuel is the lucky one. Violent demonstrations or not, the G-8 would have put the spotlight on Chicago. Do we want to shine a light on the recent loss of  200,000 people? The high retail sales tax? The bad public schools? The relentless legacy of public corruption?

President Obama helped his former Chief of Staff dodge a major bullet.

On Jane Jacobs: "Generating and Preserving Diversity"

“To understand cities, we have to deal outright with combinations or mixtures of uses, not separate uses, as the essential phenomena.”

“Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.” -Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

One of Jane Jacobs's great insights was the importance of diversity and a mixture of uses to urban success.  Cities seem to be natural generators of diversity, but not universally so. Some places are lively and bustling while others remain inert. Jacobs attempted to diagnose this by identifying four key items she believed needed to be in place to actively generate diversity in an urban district:

  1. The district must serve more than one primary use, and preferably more than two.
  2. Most blocks must be short.
  3. Buildings must be mingled in their age, condition, and required economic yield.
  4. A dense concentration of people.

Some of these, such as block size, would appear to be relatively stable over time. Others respond dynamically, either bringing about or destroying diversity.  In the current “global city” era, we see two countervailing trends here, one tending to support diversity, the other to destroy it.

On the plus side, we’ve seen many formerly monolithic central business districts such as Chicago’s Loop or Downtown Manhattan see additional primary uses come into being. For example, Downtown Manhattan has seen a residential population boom. Chicago’s Loop also has vastly more residents than in years past, as well as the emergence of the so-called “Loop U”, a collection of colleges that collectively have over 60,000 students. Tourism has also taken on a more important role.

Similar trends have appeared in other cities. We see what were once 9-5 office districts or down at the heels industrial zones near the center take on several new primary uses, notably residential, educational, tourism, entertainment, and cultural hub activities.  These new primary uses bring different people, on different schedules, into the districts in question to help fuel a significant increase in liveliness and diversity.  This is exciting news for those of us who love cities.

On the other hand, we’ve also witnessed what may be a longer term threat. Jacobs also noted that diversity tended to destroy itself, particularly as one use becomes dominant and bids up rents to the point where other uses flee.  This results in a single-use office district, restaurant strip, etc.

The rise of the global city has seen outsized returns to those who participate in selected functions such as specialized finance or producer services. This has led to large cost increases in these cities which has displaced non-high end functions. Central cities are increasingly playgrounds for the rich, lacking in the diversity of people and uses that were once there.

From a Jacobsian perspective, one troubling consequence has been the reduction in the supply of older, obsolete buildings with lower economic yield requirements. Large numbers of older buildings, such as Class C office space or warehouses, have been demolished and replaced, or else converted into high end uses such as luxury condos. This is reducing the supply of lower rent buildings, undermining one of the pillars of Jacobs foundations of diversity. She noted how the hot areas tended to move around in cities as uses were displaced. So perhaps it is unsurprising that various districts in Brooklyn, for example, have become hipster and artistic havens while Manhattan has become more uniformly upscale and placid.

Whether or not these global city effects will ultimately lead to a self-undermining success is unknown. But the loss or upscale conversion of older and lower rent buildings in our central cities, while something to celebrate in many respects, should be a long term concern to those who care about truly sustainable urban diversity, especially if taken too far.

This piece originally appeared as a part of the City Builder Book Club's discussion of Jane Jacobs's "The Death and Life of Great American Cities."

California's Bullet Train --- A Fresh Start and a Change in Direction

A new strategy is beginning to emerge toward California’s embattled high-speed rail venture. The strategy is designed to rescue the project from a possible defeat at the hands of the state legislature, gain friends and supporters among local transportation agencies, win converts among independent analysts and turn around a largely skeptical public.

The plan combines the existing commitment to proceed with construction of the first rail segment in the Central Valley with near-term actions aimed at upgrading rail facilities at both ends of the proposed LA-to-SF high-speed line. Specifically, the so-called "bookend" strategy will involve "blending" high-speed rail service with commuter rail service in existing Bay Area and Southern California rail corridors.

At the northern end of the line, between San Francisco and San Jose, bullet trains would share track with Caltrain commuter trains. Both would benefit from new investments in electrification, signaling systems, bridge replacements, passing tracks and grade crossings elimination. Similar type of improvements would be introduced at the Los Angeles/Orange County/San Diego ends of the line, benefitting LA’s Metrolink and other Southern California commuter rail and transit systems.

Improving the urban "bookends" of the system will make it possible to increase the speed of local commuter trains and thus bring immediate benefits to large segments of California’s urban population. It will be a good investment whether or not the overall $98 billion high-speed rail project ever goes forward, said Will Kempton, chief executive of the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) and Chairman of the independent Peer Review Group advising the High Speed Rail Authority.

The investments will be funded with a portion of Proposition 1A funds, supplemented by matching funds from local government agencies. Up to $2.3 billion in bond money and its $950 million "interconnectivity" fund would be committed to these near term improvements according to well-informed sources. This would provide approximately $1.4 billion for Southern California and $900 million for the Bay Area, assuming a 60/40 split. Another $2.7 billion has been already set aside for the 130-mile Central Valley segment, leaving roughly $4 billion of Proposition 1A money for future HSR construction.

The new strategy has evolved from discussions held by the High Speed Rail Authority’s new chairman, Dan Richard with the Governor and his fellow board members. In a conversation we had with Chairman Richard several weeks ago, he was frank to admit that significant changes must be made in the Authority’s way of doing business if the bullet train project is to retain the support of the state legislature, overcome the skepticism of independent critics and turn around public opinion. The Authority must find ways, in the Governor’s words, to do things "better, faster and cheaper."

While supportive of the Governor’s vision, Richard saw a need to show signs of near-term progress and not have to wait until 2033 to demonstrate the benefits of the investment. The dollars spent on the "bookends" could have "an immediate and dramatic effect," he told us.

Turning to the Central Valley project, Richard freely admitted the ham-handed way in which the Authority dealt with the affected property owners and local governments. He made plain his resolve to restore trust and rebuild the agency’s credibility with the Valley constituencies. We also were struck by his refreshing willingness to reach out to the program’s critics, in contrast to the Authority’s often arrogant and dismissive posture of the past.

Richard’s new strategy is beginning to bear fruit. Six Southern California planning and transportation agencies, including the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (Metrolink) voted as a group on March 1 to support the development of high-speed rail "while providing funding for local early investment projects in

Southern California that will improve rail service immediately." The Authority hopes to stimulate similar expressions of support in Northern California by working closely with the Bay Area’s Caltrain and San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency. The Peer Review Group, which has long supported the "bookends" approach, can be expected to provide an additional boost to Richard’s strategy.

As for the initial Central Valley segment, its construction, initially planned to begin in September, has been pushed back. The slowdown is due to the need to revisit the environmental report whose initial version has run into a storm of objections concerning the proposed route. The revised draft report will be subject to another round of public hearings before the route through the valley is finalized. Assuming the state legislature authorizes the bond funding, construction in the Central Valley is now expected to begin in early 2013, although court challenges may cause further delays. Critics are expected to continue questioning the value of that investment, fueling continued controversy and increasing the project’s vulnerability.

A New Perception

Regardless of what ultimately becomes of the Central Valley project, the new urban "bookends" strategy is bound to profoundly modify the public perception of the bullet train venture. While the Governor and Chairman Richard maintain that the ultimate year 2033 goal of a 2 hour 40 minute train trip from LA to San Francisco has not changed, the practical effect of the new strategy will be to shift the focus from achieving that distant vision to effecting concrete near-term improvements— investments designed to benefit millions of present-day commuters in California’s two largest metropolitan rail corridors.

Given California’s budget deficit, given the uncertainty of further federal support for high-speed rail in general and for California’s HSR project in particular (see below), and given a lack of any evidence of private investor interest, the"bookend" program of investments may indeed end up as the key accomplishment of the Proposition 1A initiative. While bullet train visionaries will regret this shift in the focus, pragmatists will welcome it as a prudent and realistic response to the growing skepticism. From an economist standpoint, the bookend strategy will be viewed as the best use of scarce financial resources. The public will see it as a victory for common sense: a decision that wisely  places greater value on satisfying present-day needs than on the promise of distant-in-time benefits.

Could Washington come to the rescue?

Meanwhile, in Washington, the Administration continues pursuing its fantasy-land rhetoric. "We envision an America in which 80 percent of people have access to high-speed rail," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood reiterated in a recent blog. "We’re committed to this program... there’s no going back... we will keep the momentum going" he stated at a February 29 high-speed rail conference sponsored by the U.S. High Speed Rail Association.

Except that this momentum, if there ever was one, has long since vanished. No funds for high-speed rail have been provided two years in a row, including the current (FY 2012) year. Nor are any HSR funds likely to be appropriated  in the next year’s budget. Congressional reaction to the Administration’s $2.5 billion HSR request in its FY 2013 budget submission has ranged from cool to dismissive. The President’s high-speed rail program is "a vision disconnected from reality" members of the Senate Budget Committee told Sec. LaHood at a recent hearing on the Administration’s transportation budget.

Rep. John Mica (R-FL), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was even more blunt. "If the president thinks his proposal for high-speed rail is going to fly, he’s pipe-dreaming," he told participants at the February 29 rail conference. In short, all signs point to continued congressional unwillingness to support a federal high-speed rail program. This sentiment seems to cross party lines: neither the Republican-controlled House nor the Democratic-led Senate have included HSR funds in their reauthorization bills. Rep. Jeff Denham’s (R-CA) bill would specifically prohibit new federal funds from going to California’s bullet train project during the entire life of the bill.

For California, the implications are grave. Without further federal funds, the State of California will be obliged to seek a fresh infusion of public and private funds by 2015 if it is to continue pursuing its $98 billion bullet train vision. Will a new bond initiative or a public-private partnership succeed? Time alone will tell.

Information Technology and the Irrelevance of Architecture

Throughout history, architecture served as the primary communication device of common cultural values. Whether inspiring religious awe or displaying the power of an empire, great works of architecture went beyond mere utility to reflect the shared expression of time and place.  Modern architecture, with its right angles and smooth surfaces devoid of ornamentation expressed the early 20th Century zeitgeist of efficiency and mass production. In many ways, the Modern architectural language also conveyed common cultural values of the time as it became the model for socialist utopia.

The information technology revolution of the late twentieth century changed the role of architecture forever. With digital information readily available at our fingertips, buildings are no longer needed as a communication device. This new paradigm has largely gone unnoticed by the architectural establishment, which itself has been through a series of futile stylistic phases in recent decades ranging from the campy Postmodernism to the cynical Deconstructivism. The soul-searching continues today, as leading architects promote the use of technology to justify the creation of wild, superfluous forms that are for the most part nothing more than self-referential, sculptural contortions.

Function still matters, but building design often no longer serves the higher aim of communicating a shared culture to a civic audience. Rather, it is the mobile IT products created by companies like Apple that do a superior job of communicating and transferring information while at the same time filling a human desire for great design.

The implications for urbanism are enormous. Cities, as they are thought of in the traditional sense of high-density concentrations of people and buildings, are no longer required for a productive economy. No other place represents this new reality better than Silicon Valley. Rather than being an exalted futuristic urban landscape as one might expect given the amount of innovation that goes on there, Silicon Valley is a non-descript amalgam of low-density suburban villages. The headquarters of internet giants like Google, Yahoo! and Facebook are just as anonymous—bland office parks that turn inwards and are indifferent to the street.

Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne blasts this reality in a critique of the proposal for the new Apple headquarters, which he calls a ‘retrograde cocoon.’ The proposal is a huge four-story concentric ring set among a park-like setting in the Silicon Valley town of Cupertino which Hawthorne laments as what he sees as the continuation of an unfortunate land-use pattern of low-density sprawl.

Urbanists cannot afford to ignore the fact that technology is unsympathetic to architecture. Computer programmers and IT innovators, people who require countless hours of focused concentration, might actually prefer the pastoral landscape and low-key nature of Silicon Valley to the noisy and bustling urbanism that define what we traditionally think of as a ‘city’. Taking this into consideration, the new Apple HQ is an appropriate design for its purpose and also serves as reminder of the irrelevance of architecture in the twenty-first Century.

This essay originally appeared in the architecture journal CLOG: APPLE

Adam Nathaniel Mayer is an American architectural design professional currently living in China. In addition to his job designing buildings he writes the China Urban Development Blog.