Two “The Rest of the Story” Stories

The rest of the story” stories have a punch line that twists everything that came before into an entirely new and deeper perspective. My favorite such story is about John Nestor.

Nestor became a minor if hated celebrity in the mid-1980s in Washington, DC for his policy of driving on the beltway in the left hand lane at 55 mph, not a mile faster, the rest of the traffic be damned. Nestor believed that the 55 mph speed limit saved lives and he was going to help other people by slowing them down regardless of the exasperation, raised fingers, or honking. He knew better than other people.

The truth, of course, is that it’s actually variance in speed that kills so by driving more slowly than everyone else Nestor was increasing risk not lowering it. But that’s not the punch line. The punch line? John Nestor was an FDA bureaucrat so obstinate that even the overly cautious FDA thought he was a menace and they pulled him from his job in the renal section for not approving a single new drug in more than four years. On the roads or at the FDA, John Nestor illustrated why I say caution can be deadly.

My second favorite story like this comes from a recent article on land use policy by Mark Gimein at the New Yorker:

In 1948, a federal housing bureaucrat named Paul Oppermann, trying to come to terms with the perils of the nuclear age, proposed a solution to the problem of protecting America’s cities from the bomb: empty them out preëmptively by encouraging the population to move to suburbs and small towns of fifty thousand or fewer. “No power in the world could afford to drop an atomic bomb on a city of 50,000 or less” is how the San Francisco Chronicle summarized the talk that Oppermann gave to a local planning organization. Plus, Oppermann explained, you get slum clearance into the bargain.

The punch line? “The next year, Oppermann assumed office as San Francisco’s planning director.” As Gimein notes Oppermann wasn’t able to move people out of San Francisco but he was able to “[cripple] growth with arcane lot-size rules and off-street-parking-space minimums.”

So now you know the rest of the stories.


And now San Francisco is the center of the high tech industry ...

The real rest of the story is even more ironic than the rest of the story.

More accurately, the suburbs of San Francisco (south of SFO) are the center of high tech industry. So the bureaucrat was right, for all the wrong reasons.

Your statement is a bit outdated already. Yes, Silicon Valley in the southern suburbs continues to host many important tech companies but many tech and e-commerce companies including Twitter, Dropbox, Salesforce, Airbnb, and Uber all base themselves within the city limits of San Francisco. Salesforce is lending its name to what will be the tallest skyscraper in the city when it opens in a couple of years.

Until nuclear concerns resurface one day. Short memories

Tabarrok omits a detail: the national speed limit in the mid-1980s was 55 mph. Is Tabarrok promoting nullification and anarchy? As for Oppermann, I suppose his plan worked since we are still here - aren't we?

It is possible that Prof. Tabarrok, originally from Canada, was more familiar with kph than mph before he arrived in the U.S. and before becoming an American citizen. And that he was further unaware of the war on wasting fuel that was implemented by the sort of people who clearly believe that every aspect of driving be governed by a gun.

I remember police cruising side by side and 55mph. There frequently was some fool to take one for the team and pass them on the shoulder. I was in my late teens and it helped form a healthy scepticism of our rulers good intentions. The national speedb limit craze took about 30 years to abate (somewhat). The road to he'll is paved with disregard for consequences.

Maryland used to put a lot of effort into enforcing its 55mph limit on interstates, including a truck with a radar gun called 'Mother Goose.' They would also have several groups of troopers on a single stretch - after passing one of these groups, the unwary would believe that they could now speed up. The reason for the groups being that Maryland really did try to stop everyone speeding, in contrast to how the Virginia state troopers normally worked. And on Rt 15 into Virginia, they would hang out just a couple of miles before the Virginia border, again making it easy to catch the unwary returning to Virginia (including myself, but really, 70+ mph is not that big of a deal at 1am on an empty road, right?).

The other amusing thing is that Virginia and DC are the two jurisdictions that still apparently forbid radar detectors - I remember Maryland also considered them illegal. And if Prof. Tabarrok wants to write 'Now You Know The Rest Of The Story' story, the fact that Virginia police used to take radar detectors from out of state residents would be a fascinating one in term of the 95 corridor - including how the state police used radar detector detectors.

I was in my late teens and it helped form a healthy scepticism of our rulers good intentions. The national speedb limit craze took about 30 years to abate (somewhat)

The 55 mph limit was amended in New York in 1995. That's twenty years. The pressure to amend it was most intense in the western states, not in densely-populated New York.

For those too young to know, the national speed limit was adopted for national security reasons, triggered by the Arab-Israeli War and the oil crisis. That the speed limit did little to save on the consumption of oil is beside the point, just as the security we endure at the airport does little to protect us from terrorism. Speaking of national security, several weeks ago Cowen wrote a blog post supportive of Joseph McCarthy and his communist witch-hunt. McCarthy ruined the lives and careers of thousands of loyal Americans - nobody was immune from McCarthyism, not even President Eisenhower. And McCarthy was able to do it without any of the laws that Tabarrok finds so objectionable, but by questioning the loyalty of his many targets. Was the 55 mph speed limit misguided? Maybe. Was Nestor's strategy for enforcing the speed limit on the highways around D.C. misguided? Maybe. Did the speed limit or Nestor cause more harm to Americans than Joseph McCarthy? Absolutely not. Freedom and liberty are less often denied by laws than by the zealots who take it upon themselves to define freedom and liberty in their image.

McCarthy was quite right that the Federal govt, particularly under FDR, was riddled with Commie agents. Whether he contributed anything useful to reducing their number I don't know. That's possibly because I've never stumbled upon any account of his doings that wasn't a hate-filled rant. McCarthyite, you might almost say.

You aren't looking very hard, are you? McCarthy apologists are easily found - may I suggest consulting the John Birch Society?

'The John Birch Society, initially founded with only 11 members, had by the early 1960s grown to a membership of nearly 100,000 Americans and received annual private contributions of several million dollars. The society revived the spirit of McCarthyism, claiming in unsubstantiated accusations that a vast communist conspiracy existed within the U.S. government. Among others, the organization implicated President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. However, after the debacle of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s public hearings in the early 1950s, America became more wary of radical anti-communism, and few of the society’s sensational charges were taken seriously by mainstream American society. The John Birch Society remains active today, and its members seek “to expose a semi-secret international cabal whose members sit in the highest places of influence and power worldwide.”'

"You aren’t looking very hard, are you?" Don't you understand what's implied by "stumbled upon"? Surely your native language must have an equivalent expression?

You know, you really cannot have both ways - declare your familarity with American witchhunting and witchhunters, and say they really found witches, while decrying any knowledge of other famous American witchhunters like the John Birch Society, a group founded explicitly to pursue McCarthy's public service to making the U.S. communist free, a group whose influence on American politics is not exactly obscure.

And since you read this web site, you have undoubtedly run across (an expression understood in the UK, one hopes) any number of defenses of McCarthy.

"declare your familarity with American witchhunting and witch hunters": you made that up. I have declared no such familiarity.

"That’s possibly because I’ve never stumbled upon any account of his doings that wasn’t a hate-filled rant. McCarthyite, you might almost say."

The key thing to remember about McCarthy is that espionage was and is a serious crime and McCarthy was not a law enforcement official or prosecutor of any sort. He was a Senator from Wisconsin who would have been relatively obscure if not for his public theatrics. To give McCarthy any sort of credit is to subscribe to the implicit conspiracy theory that J. Edgar Hoover's FBI in cahoots with the administrations of both Truman and Eisenhower was actively thwarting criminal investigations into alleged Soviet espionage involving government officials. If McCarthy had evidence of such espionage, the obvious thing to do would be to pass along the evidence to the Attorney General and FBI Director for legal action. However, since professional criminal investigations usually happen in secret, McCarthy would not have gotten the limelight he so desperately craved.

Documents at the time suggest Hoover's FBI distrusted McCarthy to a large extent because his irresponsible public accusations would undermine legitimate concerns of Communist espionage and infiltration at best and, at worst, could wind up ruining any investigations in progress. He faded from public life and lost the trust of even many of his fellow Republicans once he started hurling completely baseless accusations of treason and espionage against U.S. Army officials.

I find that pretty persuasive. But why is it that much that I've seen written about McCarthy is based on the transparent lie that there were next-to-no communist agents in the Federal government?

"55 saves lives" was how California sold it.

So does NOT getting pregnant and going through childbirth.

Sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein was also obsessed with the need to move out of America's cities to avoid nuclear holocaust. His most jaw-dropping short story, "Solution Unsatisfactory," submitted on 12/24/1940, attempted to explain the logic of the nuclear age: the United States would win World War II in 1945 by atom-bombing an Axis city, to be followed by a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union, and then settle into an uneasy peace in which a nuclear weapon monopoly led to world hegemony: Solution Unsatisfactory.

Heinlein's later 1940s short stories attempted to warn American of the nuclear holocaust awaiting its cities, such as in the short story "On the Slope's of Vesuvius:"

Heinlein himself moved in the later 1940s from Los Angeles to Colorado Springs, then, after his health broke in the later 1960s and he couldn't thrive at altitude to Santa Cruz.

I am extremely happy that Heinlein's warnings didn't come to pass, but I'm also not convinced that they were hysterically irrational.

From Robert A. Heinlein's short story "On the Slopes of Vesuvius," which he wrote in 1947 about 3 men talking in a NYC bar:

"Just a minute, gentlemen - " put in Hughes. "I don't get it. You're talking about somebody - anybody - atom - bombing New York. How can they do it? Didn't we decide to hang on to the secret? Do you think some dirty spy has gotten away with it while we weren't watching?"

Mansfield looked at Warner, then back at Hughes and said gently, "I hate to disturb your peace of mind, Mr. Hughes - Paddy - but there is no secret. Any nation that is willing to go to the trouble and expense can build an atom bomb." ...

"Well, what do you think you would do?"

"I don't 'think' what I'd do, I know what I'd do; I've done it before. When I was a young man and the Black and Tans were breathing down the back o' my neck, I climbed on a ship with never a thought of looking back - and any man who wanted them could have my pigs and welcome to them."'

Warner chuckled. "You must have been quite the lad, Paddy. But I don't believe you would do it - not now. You're firmly rooted in your root and you like it - like me and six million others in this town. That's why decentralization is a fantasy."

Hughes nodded. "It would be hard." That it would be hard he understood. Like leaving home it would be to quit Schreiber's Bar - Grill after all these years - Schreiber couldn't run it without him; he'd chase all the customers away. It would be hard to leave his friends in the parish, hard to leave his home - what with Molly's grave being just around the corner and all. And if the cities were to be blown up a man would have to go back to farming. He'd promised himself when he hit the new country that he'd never, never, never tackle the heartbreaking load of tilling the soil again. Well, perhaps there would be no landlords when the cities were gone. If a man must farm, at least he might be spared that. Still, it would be hard - and Molly's grave off somewhere in the rubble. "But I'd do it....

"Well, what is the answer?" Hughes insisted.

Mansfield hesitated. "Paddy, you understand that there are a lot of factors involved, not all of them too clear. Right? In the first place, it took us about four years. But we were lavish with money and lavish with men, more so maybe than any other nation could be, except possibly Russia. Figured on that alone it might take several times four years for another country to make a bomb. But that's not the whole picture; it's not even the important part. There was a report the War Department put out, the Smyth Report - you've heard of it? - which gives anyone who can read everything but the final answers. With that report, with competent people, uranium ore, and a good deal less money than it cost us, a nation ought to be able to develop a bomb in a good deal less time than it took us."

Hughes shook his head. "I don't expect you to explain, Doctor; I just want to know your answer. How long?"

"I was just explaining that the answer had to be indefinite. I make it not less than two and not more than four years."

In actuality, it turned out to be a little over four years until the Soviet Union tested their first atom bomb on October 1, 1949.

"but I’m also not convinced that they were hysterically irrational."
Concur. At the time, it was not irrational at all - I think quite the opposite.

I can see from the comments that a lot of people do not remember why the 55 mph speed limit was fiscally and economically important at the time. I do notice, however, that some ARE aware of the massive increase that speed limit caused in a cultural trend towards a general disrespect for authority. The massive attitude was "screw the laws, I'm going to go 65 (or 75 or 85) anyway". A giant finger raised in the air towards lawmakers and law enforcers.

Opperman's decentralization ideas were brilliant on many levels. Unfortunately, I am convinced that mankind is genetically disposed towards congregating in density. And, economic factors are also at work that strongly encourage density. Competitive advantages, preference availability - easier in big cities. It would take a massive (there's that word again) regulatory / cultural effort to buck those trends. It would require a lot of infrastructure realignment.

I suppose it is an idea worth thinking about - if Ike had been a bit more enamored of Opperman's concepts instead of highways for gasoline powered private transportation - we might have had a different USA today. That highway push changed a lot of the face of America. Little "rest of the story" stories all over the place.

It seems like the main force pushing us toward the suburbs now is concern over bad schools and crime in big cities. Fix those, and suburbs might become a lot less desireable.

This is true, suburbs are for families. If cities could somehow be made family-friendly, the suburbs would lose most of their appeal. The thing is it's not just the schools, it's being able to afford a house with some square footage and a lawn.

And neighbors that also have kids or at least act friendly towards them.

Most of the housing stock in states which discontinued municipal annexation is outside city limits, so that won't happen. What might happen is shifts in the desirability of various loci in the urban tapestry as a whole. As is, central cities are for people without school-age children or people who can garner berths in charters or private schools. The responsible parties are school apparatchicks who cannot bear to hold the 'disadvantaged' accountable for anything and the social workers and lawyers who demand such conduct. Another set of enablers are state and county legislators who do not provision warehouses for incorrigibles patrolled by armed guards.

After 9/11 our small town saw a number of people move in who didn't want to be anywhere near a big city and it's vulnerabilities to terrorist attack.

9/11 discouraged building new very tall buildings in Manhattan for most of the rest of the decade, but in the 2010s those fears have been forgotten and numerous supertall buildings have sprouted near Central Park.

If they'd had any sense, Larry Silverman would have been given a franchise to replace his lost office space with a set of 40 story buildings while the city rebuilt the old streets and a modest memorial to the dead (215' x 215' at the base would have sufficed, with space for surrounding walkways or approaches. About 15% of the original 16 acre site would have sufficed for this memorial).

He lived in Bonny Doon which is 10 miles north and 1900 ft up from Santa Cruz.

So, Nestor and Oppermann are representative of the sort of people that feel every aspect of commercial life (or at least in terms of medical treatments and real estate development) are to be governed by a gun, right?

That would have been the sort of thing one can imagine Paul Harvey saying, once we know the rest of the story. Oh, and remember, use Bon Ami and good... day.

{} "...are to be governed by a gun, right? "

Right. Do you have some sort of problem with that concept?

That Nestor story linked to was great. You don't find articles written like that anymore in the WaPo.

What a character.

"I always had to battle ... I always had to fight for what I wanted." A self-congratulating bore, probably. Still, you don't hire people in the expectation of enjoying a pint with them. (Otherwise Hellary would never have had a job, would she?)

Good post, but it should have appropriately, and explicitly, credited the late Paul Harvey for the theme, rather than leaving it to commenters like prior_test2 and me.

Of course most everyone here misses the point.

Regulations are as capricious as the people who enforce them. If you don't get this, you really ought to get out a bit more.

I call it regulatory risk. The reality is that it is impossible to know the extent of the regulations, and their writing is rather open to interpretation. An inspector will apply the regulations as they see fit, in response to both the state of the industry at the time and their personal fervor. When the individuals change, the whole regulatory structure from the application point of view changes and can be very very costly.

Having a guy like Nestor show up running the regulatory department you are subject to is a good reason to shutter the shop. Or move to China, Mexico, Vietnam.

Interestingly, one of the more notably capricious figures in American naval history was Hyman Rickover. If he personally thought you were not up to his standards, he did not allow you to become part of the 'Nuclear Navy.'

Oddly enough, the USN even today has probably the world's best nuclear program.

A fascinating man -

It really helps to have almost unlimited resources to be able to do something like that. He was able to have carte blanche in response to a series of incidents. It was becoming apparent that the whole thing would collapse without serious oversight.

The reality for most of the economy is if such a regime was imposed, it would be far more profitable to move operations out of the country.

{} "Of course most everyone here misses the point."

Correct. But of course most commenters here are government enthusiasts.

You blend in here about as well as an agnostic at a Southern Baptist Revival meeting.

Driving at the speed you want and believe is right (whether you're right or not). That's what we call individual freedom on the road.

And the place in which we drive at the speed we believe is right is called Montana!

Or Boulevard Metropolitain in Montreal.

Sadly Montana hasn't had driving at a reasonable and prudent speed since the early 2000s.

Nestor: "You can lose 45 percent of your body heat through a bald head."

Ummm, this man is a doctor...?

Ain't medical science wunnerful?

P.S. He's right of course. If you swaddle all the rest of your body with enough insulation, it must be possible to get your dome's losses up to 45%. Or higher if you really try.

While 55 mph speed limit did save lives I do agree it is stupid to drive the left hand lane and not pull over for faster traffic. The real problem on the highway is not the slow driver or the fast driver it is the erratic driver and people who do dangerous things. The second factor occurs after the "incident" and that generally involves big trucks who are going too fast to stop. Your typical fully loaded 18 wheeler requires four time the stopping distance of a car. We would all be safer if the speed limit for trucks was lower and rigorously enforced.

I'm not aware of any authoritative studies showing that the national 55 mph limit saved lives in any significant number; what I've seen is that the drop was mostly explained by lower number of miles driven during the energy crisis andimproving safety of cars.

As far as the truck speed limit goes, outside of cities I think the truck speed limit is strictly enforced - by insurance companies. The vast majority of long haul trucks are constantly monitored by their companies, and it is my understanding that the insurers are looking at the data for evidence of, among other things, excessive speeding. I've done some long-haul car trips over the last few years, after not doing that kind of thing for decades, and I was shocked at the truck behavior - on the Interstates, the trucks are all in the right hand lane driving at exactly the speed limit; when they pass, they only speed up by a couple of mph. It can be a pain in the tuchis for the cars, because you can be stuck behind one truck in the left lane for miles while it is passing, but it is way different from the popular myth of the crazed truck driver barreling along well above the legal limit.

and the other side

There is a "perfect" speed for fuel economy and it is of course different for different cars. It may be 45 mph or 55 mph or more or less. The point is that there is a speed limit that would save fuel. There is also a speed limit that will maximize safety. The speed in and of itself may not cause the accident but it does typically determine the degree of injury and death AND how many vehicles will be involved. At lower speeds the braking distance and reaction time is very similar between cars and trucks but the difference dramatically increases as the speed increases. That is the problem on our highways. If we all drove family sedans or all drove sports cars the roads would be considerably safer than they are now. But we drive a mix of vehicles and more and more a greater percentage of them are big trucks. I submit that because of these factors it is impossible that accident and death rates do not change with large changes in speed limits and that greater stopping distance especially for trucks. So why than do we find "studies" that refute this? The answer is simple. You will always find "studies" that refute what the author of the "study" set out to refute. That is why there always seems to be a lot of studies with directly conflicting results.

Change the word "study" to "blog comment" and you've got something.

Finance the interstates strictly with toll revenue and finance public road maintenance strictly with motor fuel excises. You'll cut the death toll because people will have the sense to take the bus.

The vast majority of long haul trucks are constantly monitored by their companies, a

They must lay off the monitoring when their freight's being hauled on I-81.

The 55 mph was a scheme meant to promote lower energy consumption, as was the year-round daylight savings time. IIRC, the savings were subsequently assessed at minimal.

There's still, decades after the death of the double-nickel, a significant percentage of drivers who think Speed Limits = Being Safe. I've noted that many of these freaks never improve their driving skill above that of a teenager. Another anecdote: Bikers I know are deathly afraid of Volvos drivers. I suspect yupsters with crap driving skill subconsciously know it - and pay the to save themselves even they routine force other drivers off the road or into bridge abutments.

Check out this video from a Supra-Genius at Vox (who probably aspires to a Volvo someday when he gets sick of Prius):

He was shocked (SHOCKED!) after talking to traffic engineers regarding the importance of speed variance and that (ergo) his being a left-lane as!hol# was, in fact, a problem.

I’ve noted that many of these freaks never improve their driving skill above that of a teenager.

Adolescents likely have better reaction times than you do. They're also commonly impetuous, hence accidents.

Given the appreciation of land values in SF, it appears that Opperman created an extremely large amount of value.

Is it value, or is it cost in the big scheme of things?

variance in lower speeds doesn't kill. but that's inconvenient to the anti-bureaucrat theme of the article, so understandable that it was omitted.

Well, yeah, we could probably save lives from traffic accidents if we dropped the limit to 35 mph and strictly enforced it, but that would be inconvenient to the pro-bureaucrat theme of your comment, so understandable that it was omitted.

Those type of people fly everywhere anyways, so they aren't affected.

"variance in lower speeds doesn’t kill. "

So, you don't drive then?

A problem with the phase "the rest of the story" is that it makes you think you've heard everything. But maybe the story doesn't stop there? If you dig further, how deep does it go?

Considering Mr. Opperman left office in 1958, you'd think his successors might bear some responsibility for subsequent land use policy, as would the mayor and board of supervisors.

Americans don't drive at the speed limit? No wonder some people think self driving cars are 30 years away.

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