Llewellyn King: The Nasty Magic of the Market

End of the line

The late, great neo-classical version of Pennsylvania Station, whose construction was completed in 1910. The grand structure was torn down in 1963, to be replaced by the  claustrophobic  current version.

As architectural historian Vincent Scully wrote: "One entered the city like a god {with the old Penn Station}. One scuttles in now like a rat.''

The market is a wondrous place. It ensures you can drink Scotch whisky in Cape Town and Moscow, or Washington and Tokyo, if you prefer. It distributes goods and services superbly, and it cannot be improved upon in seeking efficiency.

But it can’t think and it can’t plan; and it’s a cruel exterminator of the weak, the unready or, for that matter, the future.

Yet there are those who believe that the market has wisdom as well as efficiency. Not so.

If it were wise, or forward-looking, or sensitive, Mozart wouldn’t have died a pauper, and one of the greatest — if not the greatest architecturally — railway station ever built, Penn Station, wouldn’t have been demolished in 1963 to make way for the profit that could be squeezed out of the architectural deformity that replaced it: the Madison Square Garden/Penn Station horror in New York City.

Around Washington, Los Angeles and other cities are the traces of the tracks of the railroads and streetcar lines of yore. These were torn up when the market anointed the automobile as the uber-urban transport of the future. As Washington and Los Angeles drown in traffic, many wish the tracks — now mostly bike paths — were still there to carry the commuter trains and streetcars that are so badly needed in the most traffic-clogged cities.

Now the market, with its concentration on the present tense, is about to do another great mischief to the future. An abundance of natural gas is sending the market signals which threaten carbon-free nuclear plants before their life is run out, and before a time when nuclear electricity will again be cheaper than gas-generated electricity. World commodity prices are depressed at present, and no one believes that gas will always be the bargain it is today.

Two nuclear plants, Vermont Yankee in Vernon, Vt. , and Kewaunee in Carlton, Wis., have already been shuttered, and three plants on the Exelon Corp. system in the Midwest are in jeopardy. They’ve won a temporary reprieve because the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) says the fact that they have round-the-clock reliability has to be taken into account against wind and solar, which don’t. In a twist, solar and wind have saved some nuclear for the while.

Natural gas, the market distorting fuel of the moment, is a greenhouse gas producer, although less so than coal. However gas, in the final analysis, could be as bad, or worse, than coal when you take into account the habitual losses of the stuff during extraction. Natural gas is almost pure methane. When this gets into the atmosphere, it’s a serious climate pollutant, maybe more so than carbon dioxide, which results when it is burned.

Taken together — methane leaks with the carbon dioxide emissions — and natural gas looks less and less friendly to the environment.

Whatever is said about nuclear, it’s the “Big Green” when it comes to the air. Unlike solar and wind, it’s available 24 hours a day, which is why three Midwest plants got their temporary reprieve by the FERC in August.

When President Obama goes to Paris to plead with the world for action on climate change in December, the market will be undercutting him at home, as more and more electricity is being generated by natural gas for no better reason than it’s cheap.

As with buying clothes or building with lumber, the cost of cheap is very high. The market says, “gas, gas, gas” because it’s cheap – now. The market isn’t responsible for the price tomorrow, or for the non-economic costs like climate change.

But if you want a lot of electricity that disturbs very little of the world’s surface, and doesn’t put any carbon or methane into the air, the answer is nuclear: big, green nuclear.

Llewellyn King ( is  host and executive producer of White House Chronicle, on PBS, and a longtime publisher, editor, columnist and  international business consultant.

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Llewellyn King: Where the motor scooter reigns

HANOI I want tell you about Vietnam: its people, its culture, its economy, its disputes and its aspirations.

But I can’t. Not yet.

Like other visitors to this capital city, I’m not focused on the wide, French-colonial boulevards, the roadsides decorated with extraordinary ceramic mosaics and the great parks; the glorious architecture, which tells its history; traditional, colonial and modern; or the fabulous food, informed by the French but resolutely Vietnamese.

No. I’m totally mesmerized by the traffic: one of the wonders of the world. It’s a wonder not because, like so many of the world’s cities, it’s so terrible, but because it flows in the most extraordinary way. It’s the triumph of a lack of system over a system.

Hanoi has  few  traffic lights, except on major thoroughfares, and no stop or yield signs. Traffic moves along at about 15-miles-an-hour; sometimes a little faster and sometimes slower, depending on the time of day.

Looking at the traffic is like watching a column of ants, going hither and thither in a courteously chaotic way. The only absolute rule on the roads is to keep to the right. Everything else is improvisation.

At the heart of this traffic miracle, this way of moving millions of people with little delay, is the humble but iconic Vespa scooter, its imitators and relations, all powered with small engines in the 150 cc category. For those not intimate with the intricacies of motorcycles, a top-of-the-line Harley Davidson comes in at 1,247 cc.

But central to the Hanoi traffic triumph are scooters and very light motorcycles (some of them electric), the occasional moped and even bicycles -- although compared to when I was here 20 years ago, the bicycle has nearly disappeared.

To the more than 3 million scooters, most of which take to the streets daily, add the skill, courtesy and physical courage of the riders. They weave, dodge, brake, swerve, swoop, accelerate and slow in what, to American eyes, is an unscripted ballet with a cast of millions. The dance is known, but the choreography is new by the split-second.

There are cars, too, but they’re the minority. They let themselves into the shoals of seething motor scooter riders with a confidence that I'd never have. I’d never go anywhere, being convinced that I’d plow down dozens of intrepid riders with my first tentative yards onto the road. You must not only have patience, but also enough boldness to know that the river of motorcycles -- a river that ebbs and rises, but never ceases -- will accommodate you.

I sit in the back of my taxi convinced that blood will flow as I watch young and old glide by with a determination only otherwise seen in NASCAR drivers. The dance is fast and furious; the music is all New World Symphony.

It is worthy of study by fluid dynamists. Maybe the traffic, the smooth-flowing traffic of Hanoi, should also be studied by sociologists.

Everything happens on the darting, rushing motor scooters and mopeds of Hanoi. Families of three are transported, young men and young women ride abreast and meet on wheels.

If you want to cross the street, pluck up you courage, ask forgiveness from your Creator, and step into the maelstrom of  motorized wonder, believing, as you must, that the throng of riders in Hanoi have extrasensory perception and will part, like the Red Sea, for you.

Who would believe that watching traffic could be recreational? Worth the trip, almost.

Reporting on Vietnam, with its intriguing culture, emerging economy, territorial contentions, and future relationship with the United States, will have to wait. There may be a moped in my future.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail is