The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

It's the Economy

Kevin Drum points to a National Academy of Sciences study purporting to show that CAFE worked. The NAS study:

....Between 1975 and 1984, [automotive] technology improvements were concentrated on fuel economy: It improved 62 percent without any loss of performance....Thereafter, technology improvements were concentrated principally on performance and other vehicle attributes. Fuel economy remained essentially unchanged....

Mr. Drum then says:

So CAFE does what it was designed to do. What's more, CAFE is almost certainly more effective than gas taxes at reducing gasoline consumption. During the period from 1979-1982, for example, gasoline prices doubled and CAFE standards were rising. The result was a 15% drop in oil consumption worldwide and a drop of about 20% in the United States.

The glaring omission in this reasoning is the state of the economy. 1979-1982 was also the time of a recession which cost President Carter his job, and strengthened in the first years of the Reagan administration. 1975-1984 spans this period, and the extra years it adds weren't very good ones (except the last).
Thereafter, as America became steadily richer, people could afford to spend money on performance cars and the gasoline to feed them. This simple observation clearly vitiates the conclusion Mr. Drum shows.

Grass in 1963

Orrin Judd recycles a 1999 article attacking German author Gunter Grass on the occasion of his receipt of the Nobel Prize in Literature:

Grass's Tin Drum, published in 1959, flourishes a vivid style, but in every other respect it is a misleading book, whose success has been pernicious.

The central concept in the novel is that Hitler really was a devil and Nazism essentially the spell he cast, a bewitchment. If that was so, then Germans were the victims of a higher power against which they were defenseless, and they cannot be held accountable. The reasons that Germans became Nazis are open to rational analysis, but The Tin Drum instead encourages the mystification that they couldn't really help themselves. The opposite of the Solzhenitsyn truth-telling that enables people to understand their choices and their fates, Grass's approach smoothly converts Germans from active agents of Nazism into passive victims. The cop-out could hardly be more complete.

While German denial of individual culpability is an ongoing problem, this criticism seems to rest on a misreading of Grass's works. In The Tin Drum itself, the main look back at the war years is the Onion Cellar. But in all his works, Grass's theme is not one of forgiveness for passive victims, but an analysis of weakness and denial. The latter is most clearly stated in a poem from The Rat:
And what about the children, what did the children do then?
They asked stupid questions about what had gone before,
and then, and after that.
Well? Did you come clean?
We remembered
the bathing weather in the summer of '39.
And what else?
Hard times after that.
And then, and after that?
Then came the currency reform.
Grass addresses weakness and compromise most tellingly in his masterwork, Dog Years, in some of the most compelling prose ever written. He beings with a philosophical introduction to soap:
And the bones, white mounds which were recently heaped up, would grow immaculately without crows: pyramids of glory. But the crows, which are not pure, were creaking unoiled, even yesterday: nothing is pure, no circle, no bone. And piles of bones, heaped up for the sake of purity, will melt cook boil in order that soap, pure and cheap: but even soap cannot wash pure.
The story is too long to reproduce here -- start at There was once a pile of bones.


A Physics Web article on aggregated diamond nanorods [hat tip: Instapundit] contains the following contradiction:
The group created the ADNRs by compressing the carbon-60 molecules to 20 GPa, which is nearly 200 times atmospheric pressure, while simultaneously heating to 2500 Kelvin.
Of course, 200 atmospheres is only 20MPa (roughly the pressure a mile deep in the ocean) -- 20 GPa (giga Pascals, i.e., billions kg / m s^2) is 200,000 atmospheres. For comparison, the pressure at the center of the earth is estimated at around 375 GPa.

I have no idea how one goes about creating pressure like that in a lab. Google to the rescue!

Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Fiscal liberals in the United States tend to support government-mandated single-payer health care, largely on the grounds that it will provide more equal access than the existing system. With this in mind, it is worth considering some contemporary comments on Britain's National Health Service (NHS), formed in 1948 with that precise aim.

From the NHS's own internal audit:
2.16 ... For many surgical specialties the top 25% of hospitals get nearly double the output from their consultants as the bottom 25%. In the worst hospitals cancelled operations are running at 5%. The best ones have cancellation rates close to zero. Often the poorest services are in the poorest areas with the poorest results. The NHS has been unable to tackle these unacceptable variations because the 1948 settlement left it with inadequate means to drive up performance.
2.22 The current system penalises success and rewards failure. A hospital which manages to treat all its patients within 9 or 12 months rather than 18 may be told that ‘over performance’ means it has been getting too much money and can manage with less next year. By contrast, hospitals with long waiting lists and times may be rewarded with extra money to bail them out – even though the root of the problem may be poor ways of working rather than lack of funding. The NHS has to move from a culture where it bails out failure to one where it rewards success.
2.23 Rigid institutional boundaries can mean the needs of individual patients come apoor second to the needs of the individual service. On one day in September last year, 5,500 patients aged 75 and over were ready to be discharged but were still in an acute hospital bed: 23% awaiting assessment; 17% waiting for social services funding to go to a care home; 25% trying to find the right care home; and 6% waiting for the right home care package to be organised. Almost three quarters were not getting the care they needed because of poor co-ordination between the NHS and other agencies. This experience is repeated daily throughout the NHS.

While the later paragraphs provide more detailed diagnosis, the punch line is in the first excerpted paragraph [emphasis mine]. The NHS provides the same sort of "equality" as do public schools in the United States -- that is, a specious equality which little profits the poor, who continue to suffer subpar treatment at the hands of an objectively pro-discrimination institution.

The Socialist Workers, admittedly not committed centrists, describe the situation at Whittington Hospital, in downtrodden Islington [which achieved notoriety with the Rose Addis case]:
People often wait between four and ten hours in accident and emergency. There are not enough staff, and patients have to wait too long. Staff are working long shifts, often without a break. Politicians wouldn't last a morning in that environment. We get a lot of abuse and violence. We often don't have the time, so when patients are seen perhaps they don't get all the care they need because we are seeing so many patients.
In Bristol, which is a sort of outpost of Englishness into the scenic but underdeveloped Far Southwest and Wales, fatally subpar care was allowed to persist for a decade:
The report explains that due to national pressure to reduce heart disease in adults, especially after the introduction of the market into the NHS in 1990 to increase the income generated by the numbers of adult patients, the care of child patients suffered. The cardiac surgical service in Bristol was mainly an adult service, with the PCS unit tacked on to it, rather than being a dedicated service in its own right. The inquiry team found that the unit had no dedicated paediatric intensive care beds, no full-time paediatric cardiac surgeon and too few paediatrically trained nurses.
... Despite these reports, Sir Terence English, then President of the Royal College of Surgeons, recommended that the unit at Bristol should not only “retain designation but recommended they should be pressed to increase the workload”. Both the Department of Health (DOH) and the Welsh Office were made aware of the situation at Bristol and also took no action. But there existed a national shortage of paediatric cardiologists, which was described by the British Medical Association as “unacceptable” in 1988 and “perilous” in 1992. This shortage was particularly acute in the South West area, due to there being few large hospitals in the area and none in Wales. This may go some way to explaining why it is that no action was taken regarding Bristol’s poor record.

In the rich and well-insulated neighborhoods of Belgravia and Chelsea, the NHS may indeed provide a world-class service. [I still would not choose it for my own care, if I needed major medical treatment.] But it has given the ghettos of England, both rural and urban, healthcare in keeping with their station in life.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Long Term Contracts

At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen speculates on the reasons for the absence of long-dated futures contracts on the oil price. There are several reasons for this absence.

First, note that corporations do not have an incentive to hedge far forward exposures. A manufacturer knows that his company will be a net buyer of energy for the foreseeable future, and can estimate the size of his demand, which might theoretically permit him to hedge. But if he does so, and his competitors do not, he is greatly increasing his company's risk. This happens because, in case of a rise in energy prices, his cost of production will rise, as will his competitors'. Since they are all in the same boat, they will pass the increased cost to their consumers. There may be some second-order effects (increased price lowering demand and leading to oversupply), but they are much smaller than the total forward energy price exposure. A CFO who hedges his energy needs will make a windfall profit if prices rise, and a similar loss if they fall, thus introducing extra volatility into his company's stock price, to the annoyance of investors. The market demands that such users follow the herd.

[While it sounds unflattering, this is in fact a desirable outcome from the investor's point of view. It makes it much easier for an investor to know what he is getting when he buys the manufacturer's stock.]

Liquidity is often supplied by proprietary traders and hedge funds. However, this liquidity never serves to extend the forward curve to longer maturities. The main reason is that hedge funds must show results to their investors relatively frequently, and may be obligated to unwind their positions if investors withdraw money. The result is that hedge funds fear illiquidity more than anything else. They cannot hold long-dated contracts until maturity, and cannot rely on unwinding them in midstream; so they will never take positions actively enough to provide liquidity. The same reasoning applies to proprietary investors at banks and pension funds.

Some hedge funds demand a "lock-in period" from their investors, requiring a year's notice or more for withdrawals. They could in theory buy to hold, but it is unusual; more often they are investing in intrinsically illiquid markets like Chinese real estate. A fund taking this disadvantage on itself in the competition for investor dollars is most likely to use the resulting cash in markets where normal funds dare not enter.

Finally, market professionals are much less overconfident than pundits. It is fine for Kevin Drum
to bid oil forward at 30% above the market price; but even the most junior trader would be disciplined for such a boneheaded move. Motivated by pragmatic calculation, not ideology, these people realize that there is a 45-50% chance of being wrong, and that success requires both being right and executing efficiently with minimal risk. Trading on expectations of a far future event, like the price of oil in 2010, introduces tremendous uncertainty, and those arrogant enough to imagine they can predict it precisely do not survive long enough to try. There are off-exchange markets on WTI forwards among the large dealers and investment banks, but the bid-offer spreads are very wide (commensurate with the uncertainty) and trades are infrequent. This situation is very stable.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Risk Neutrality

The Iranian claim that its nuclear program is intended solely for peaceful purposes tends to run into skepticism, due to the conventional wisdom that an oil-exporting nation has no real need for nuclear power. Matt Yglesias imagines that he has debunked this idea:
How much oil a country has is totally unrelated to the desirability of establishing non-oil energy sources, including nuclear plants.
... A country like Iran, especially, where oil is both plentful and owned by the state, can just get oil for free. Superficially, that's a very different situation. Fundamentally, however, the situations are identical.
The reason is that Iran can export a quantity of oil that equals total Iranian production minus domestic consumption. Reducing domestic consumption increases export earnings which increases the amount of non-oil goods you can buy.
Mr. Yglesias is implicitly assuming that nations, and the people inhabiting and ruling them, are risk-neutral and seek only to maximize their expected gain. And under this assumption, his analysis would indeed be correct.

But nations, like people, tend to be risk-averse. For good reason: extra risk means extra economic uncertainty, which leads to more conservative and less accurate asset allocation, decreasing wealth in the medium term. A nation like Japan decreases its economic risk by investing in nuclear power; a nation like Iran increases it. Thus the conventional wisdom, however boring, is right.

[Update: JW Mason makes the same point in Mr. Yglesias's comments, and is attacked by people who cannot distinguish between reducing risk and eliminating it.]


[Contains spoilers for the novel Accelerando, by Charles Stross.]

It is necessary, when reading this novel, to realize that its nine chapters were written as independent novelettes. These are based on the decades of the twenty-first century, and the first few draw heavily on the corresponding chapters in Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines. This latter is remarkable for being two books in one: both a grand and excited look ahead at transcendent technology, and an immediate favorite in any Bulwer-Lytton contest. Mr. Kurzweil's weird blend of unconvincing pseudoscience, tired literary devices, and cheerful shallowness mean that his book will inevitably fill any non-technophile with contempt for geeks, and their Rapture too. [That is, he tempts readers toward Disproof by Fallacy.]

Before going on, I should note two salient positives of this novel. First, it is free. Second, it enabled Mr. Stross to publish a story called "Nightfall" (chapter six)... in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. Those who do not appreciate the magnitude of this accomplishment, please go play in traffic.

Mr. Stross's fictionalization, then, brings Mr. Kurzweil's timetable to life -- albeit a juddering, revenant sort of life -- in prose which, while more energetic than Mr. Kurzweil's, shows scarcely more skill. Mr. Stross's is sometimes capable of a surprising or entertaining phrase, but his aesthetic sensibilities mostly resemble those of soft porn and bodice-ripper novels. Consider his prelude to the Death of Copyrights, near the end of the second chapter ("Troubadour"):
"Expecting company?" Pam asks, one brittle eyebrow raised in Manfred's direction.
"Not exactly –"
Annette opens the door and a couple of guards in full SWAT gear march in. They're clutching gadgets that look like crosses between digital sewing machines and grenade launchers, and their helmets are studded with so many sensors that they resemble 1950s space probes. "That's them," Annette says clearly.
"Mais Oui." The door closes itself and the guards stand to either side. Annette stalks toward Pam.
"You think to walk in here, to my pied-a-terre, and take from Manfred?" she sniffs.
"You're making a big mistake, lady," Pam says, her voice steady and cold enough to liquefy helium.
A burst of static from one of the troopers. "No," Annette says distantly. "No mistake."
She points at Glashwiecz. "Are you aware of the takeover?"
"Takeover?" The lawyer looks puzzled, but not alarmed by the presence of the guards.

If I could write like this, I'd do something else for a living.

Mr. Stross's novel is, of necessity, highly allegorical. Thus Pamela represents Social and Biological Conservatism; Manfred, Human Innovation; and so forth. In the process of describing posthuman evolution, Mr. Stross brushes against important concepts; but the relentlessly shallow writing permits no exploration, or even recognition of their presence. He accidentally describes a Nirvana, in which posthumans have eschewed capitalism and competition for resources; but changes his mind. Around chapter seven, the instability of such a system must have become clear.

In his elegy for Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald lamented the passage of time since man had
... for a transitory enchanted moment... held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
The approaching Singularity is cause for discussion, inquiry and awe. In even the most sober predictions, it reverses Mr. Fitzgerald's plaint: it is incommensurate to us. But extracting this from Mr. Stross's novel is like accompanying a Labrador to an art museum, its wagging tail knocking all unknowing against incomprehensible wonders.

[Update 22 September: Mr. Kurzweil is more rational and convincing in this interview with technophile Glenn Reynolds than in his book.]

Tuesday, August 23, 2005


I cannot fathom how the deliberately depersonalizing term "Human Resources" replaced the shorter, clearer and more respectful "Personnel". Is it a simple love of syllables, or a deep subservient bow torward shareholders on whose behalf the Resources are exploited?

Friday, August 19, 2005

Doubly Negative

In pessimistic testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institute criticized American counter-insurgency operations as "directly contrary to the principal lessons of counterinsurgent warfare" (COIN):

The crux of a traditional counterinsurgency strategy is never to reinforce failure, but always to reinforce success. As Mao Zedong once wrote, the guerrilla is like a fish who swims in the sea of the people—thus, if you can deprive the guerrilla of support from the people, he will be as helpless as a fish out of water. The goal of a true-COIN campaign is to deprive the guerrilla of that access. The COIN force begins by securing a base of operations by denying one portion of the country to the insurgency. This portion can be as big or as small as the COIN force can handle—the bigger the COIN force available, the larger the area. Within this area, the COIN force provides the people with security, in all senses of the word. In Iraq, this would mean security from insurgent attack as well as from ordinary (and organized) crime. In so doing, the COIN force creates a secure space in which political and economic life can flourish once again.

Ideally, the COIN force would pour resources into this area to make it economically dynamic and take advantage of the security the COIN campaign has provided, both to cement popular support for the COIN campaign and to make it attractive to people living outside the secure area so that they will support the COIN campaign when it shifts to their region.

The increasing attractiveness of these safe areas also solve the intelligence problem that COIN forces inevitably face. Ultimately, there is no way that a COIN force can gather enough intelligence on insurgent forces through traditional means to exterminate them.

Instead, as the British learned in Northern Ireland, the only way to gather adequate information on the insurgents is to convince the local populace to volunteer such information, which they will do only if they are enthusiastic supporters of the COIN campaign and feel largely safe from retaliation by the insurgents. When these conditions are met, the counterinsurgents enjoy a massive advantage in intelligence making the further eradication of the insurgents easy, and almost an afterthought.

In addition, the COIN forces use these “safe zones” to train indigenous forces who can assist them in subsequent security operations. Once this base of operations is truly secure and can be maintained by local indigenous forces, the COIN forces then spread their control to additional parts of the country, performing the same set of steps as they did in the original area.

Mr. Pollack is critical of the U.S. Army's attempts to seek out the enemy on his own ground, believing that regardless of their tactical success they can never lead to strategic victory.

Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, writing in the Washington Post, is also pessimistic, this time about the capability of the Iraqi infantry now being created:

But this light infantry force does not constitute an army. It will not be able, whatever its numbers, to conduct a counterinsurgency by itself for many years, and it will not be able to do so at all unless certain critical deficiencies are remedied. For example, it appears that efforts to establish Iraqi logistical elements are lagging badly behind the formation and training of light infantry units. Iraqis thus rely on coalition logistics when they must move from their home bases -- or, more commonly, they simply do not move from those bases at all. Their transportation assets are minimal, and so they lack the ability to project their forces within Iraq. As a result, they would not be able to concentrate force rapidly in particularly violent areas or to destroy insurgent concentrations quickly.

In sum, Mr. Kagan points out that the Iraqi army will be unable to pursue the aggressive course of action, the same course which Mr. Pollack argues is futile. This confluence of weaknesses suggests a powerful positive strategy for the U.S., which can leave "true COIN" to a largely Iraqi force (bolstered by a few tens of thousands of American soldiers) while the bulk the of remaining U.S. presence plays whack-a-mole with the Syrians and Saudis in the west country.

I am unable to determine whether our famously mute administration has actually advocated this policy.

An Anecdote

Today's Opinion Journal has spoilers [sic] for Thomas Mann's philosophical tome, The Magic Mountain. This fills me with nostalgia for the days when I discovered Mann's works, oddly eulogized here. Also, I narrowly escaped a beating when, driving with some friends past an exit for "Magic Mountain" Amusement park, I turned down a suggestion to stop there by saying, "Nah, I've read the book."

Wednesday, August 17, 2005


Some conservative commentators have contrasted the intense media scrutiny of Rush Limbaugh's drug addiction with the near silence on Air America's apparently dishonest funding. This silly complaint cheapens the charge of media bias in cases where it is actually important.

Rush Limbaugh's troubles really were more newsworthy, for the same reason that Mark McGwire receives more attention than Dan McGwire. Air America has bored the faithful and amused the cynical, but it is about as important to the national discourse as this blog. Why should the mainstream media waste precious ink on it?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


Bloomberg News reports:
Crude oil futures rose to a record above $64 a barrel in New York after Valero Energy Corp., the third-largest U.S. refiner, said a fire at its McKee plant in Texas will cut gasoline production for five days....
Saudi security forces for more than two years have been battling suspected sympathizers of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, who have targeted westerners in a bid to undermine the ruling Saud family and threaten the oil industry.
An attack would not need to be on Saudi oil infrastructure to push oil prices higher, New Wave's Mennis said.
"It doesn't really need to stop the oil coming,'' he said. "It just needs to scare off the westerners.''
[I can't immediately see how a refinery failure would raise the price of crude (i.e., unrefined) oil. Any volunteers?]
But a momentous effect, unmentioned in this report, is that Saudi Arabia has benefited hugely from the recent rises in the price of oil. Their revenues increase proportionately, without any intra-OPEC wrangling or revenue-reducing output cuts. Thus they must view the terrorist attacks with a mix of dread and elation.
In addition, since the price rises in proportion to the perception of hazard, the Saudis have a powerful incentive to exaggerate the danger they face. They must stop short of scaring away the expats who keep the pumps running, but there appears to be ample middle ground. It would hardly be the first time that a totalitarian country has misled the outside world about its internal conditions.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Off the Desk

I will be travelling until 17 August.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005


Via Pejman Yousefzadeh, we have an amazing post and comment thread at "TPM Cafe". To save you the effort of reading the whole thing, I have used my trusty Travesty.plx to condense it. [The sample is on the small side, so a lot of sentences are preserved whole, which I will claim as a feature.]

So at first, they seem to be interpreting events with much insight anymore. And while my heart leapt about like a good alternative? And it broke the trance. I was in a New York subway, 2-3 stinger missile downed jumbo jets leaving Reagan Int'l and La Guardia, 1500 pounds of C-4 detonated at the American border. What stories on the method. Simply say NO!, assert the truth of my extreme woundedness, and see that obsessing about this guy was a kid, really. One classic example is when he wrote, I was walking home one night and a guy hammering on a life of its own. Looks like even the Fox clowns and their frantic spin attempts will be swallowed up in second-guessing and conspiracy theories, but that can never be satisfied that pulls down all these "evil geniuses". I don't think they decided the timing of this doesn't depend on them; it depends on Fitzgerald. I did wonder when it seemed that Rove could have ramifications at the National Review today: What will they think we will start to really believe in ourselves again. After that, the World. . . . I have to disagree with the Senate sitting as a sentient being to be interpreting events with much insight anymore. And while my heart leapt about like a good question, and one that we should watch closely.

They realized Napoleon's strength was that the French people were resilient enough to take the risks necessary to instill martial law, which they will. I am now worried that this is hiding something worse. It's just what Rove has had some hits (using the homeland security vote against the dems in 2002, screwing McCain in 2000 in SouthCarolina, using the swift boat campaign against Kerry) but he has done, in outing Valerie Plame. It's TERRIBLE what Rove loses or, in the comment box as i was writing it, but they did not post. What did I do have the merest lovable hint of paranoia, which my doctor assures me is nowhere as bad as the one who bugged his own office in a secret agreement to do an unlawful or wrongful act or to use such means to accomplish a lawful end. This is all a red herring I admit that I do have such powers which has led us to this story than the usual mix of breath-taking incompetence and mind-boggling arrogance which is changing the reality we see each day. Remember, these are humans, humans who make mistakes, humans responsible for the New American Century. Yes. Kick the guy with his own office to frame the opposing campaign. So no, I don't pretend to be incredibly daring, so successful when in fact they're just Wile E Coyote running over the cliff. And one day, gravity reasserts itself, people stop taking the crap and those bullies just go splat down the canyon. Exhibit A is the time for renewed action and perserverance on our parts. If there is anything our American ancestors have given us, it is this lust for power that can never be satisfied that pulls down all these "evil geniuses".

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Good Bomb

While we're on the nuclear topic, Kevin Drum points to Richard Frank's Weekly Standard article, "Why Truman Dropped the Bomb", and adds some well-reasoned commentary of his own.

As Good As You

From an article by Strobe Talbott in the Herald Tribune, condemning America's friendly nuclear relation with India, we get this gem:
The administration tends to see the world in black-and-white terms, a view that has translated into a nonproliferation policy that cuts extra slack for "good" countries, like India, while cracking down on "bad" ones, like North Korea and Iran.
It may come as a surprise to Mr. Talbott, but India is indeed a ""good"" country. A peaceful democracy of a billion, busy with commerce and educating its citizens to partake in the modern world. Compare it with Iran, an oil-rich and commerce-poor nation with no obvious pressure to seek nuclear power, but with a long and detailed history of exporting terrorism; or to the sadistic Stalinist barbarians of North Korea; and the idea of using those countries as part of an argument for blocking Indian nuclear technology can be seen for what it is, namely an insult to India from a paternalistic First World.

Mr. Talbott continues:
But the world is full of countries that have, for decades, stuck with the original deal and forgone the nuclear option. Quite a few did so even though they had the technological capability and what they regarded as the geopolitical pretext for doing otherwise: Brazil, Japan, South Africa, and South Korea, to name just a few.
When Brazil has a literate population of 700,000,000, this will carry some weight. When South Africa can intervene in any way in the developing genocide next door in Zimbabwe, we can talk. When South Korea or Japan see some advantage, not presently visible, in annoying their regional superpower and putting their densely populated nations at risk, they may complain (though we all know that Japan would not find the doors to the nuclear club closed). But in the present state of the world, these examples just show how weak Mr. Talbott's case is.

[Hat tip: R. J. Rummel.]

Monday, August 01, 2005

Sentence First; Verdict Afterwards

The Times of London, in the course of a screed against Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott entitled "The Man Who Broke Britain", states that local councils have saved themselves a bundle by issuing demolition orders before assessing the value of the property to be destroyed:
Cash-hungry councils immediately issued compulsory purchase orders on grids of historic Victorian terraces. This blighted local markets and created the very conditions — rock-bottom property prices and zero demand — that were supposed to trigger the clearances in the first place. Owners were offered compensation at current market rates which, being depressed by the threat of demolition, gave them no hope of affording another house.
This Alice-in-Wonderland practice will, I fear, soon cross the pond. Condemnation first; valuation afterwards.

[Note for American readers: the British system is far less federal than the American, with almost all meaningful powers concentrated in Westminster. In particular, the local "councils" (town governments) have little revenue-generating capacity; the "council tax" on property is trivial compared to American property taxes, and pays mainly for trash collection and street cleaning. One result is that councils have no stake in their own economic growth, so they tend to block disruptive measures like new housing construction whenever possible. Mr. Prescott's office has only the blunt instrument of central-government coercion to break the resulting paralysis.]