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JEFF JACOBY

Musings, random & otherwise

IF YOU WERE one of the journalists kidnapped in Gaza last month and ordered at gunpoint to become a Muslim, what would you have done? Fox News reporter Steve Centanni and photographer Olaf Wiig announced their acceptance of Islam on a videotape released by their kidnappers -- ``because they had the guns," Centanni later said, ``and we didn't know what the hell was going on."

Whether their acquiescence was an act of cowardice or of prudence, reasonable people can debate. Clearly it wasn't their only choice. If I were ever told, with a gun to my head, to recite the Shahada or die, I hope I would have the courage to take the bullet.

And I hope I would remember the example not of Centanni and Wiig, but of Fabrizio Quattrocchi, an Italian security guard taken hostage in Iraq in 2004. Quattrocchi's jihadi captors, intending to make a video of an infidel's craven death, ordered him to kneel beside an open grave with a hood on his head. Defiantly, he stood up, tried to rip off the hood, and shouted, ``I will show you how an Italian dies!" They murdered him an instant later, but he died bravely, on his feet, refusing with his last breath to be humiliated by savages.

* * *

Whenever disaster strikes, some sage invariably declares that the devastation is actually good news, since the money spent on rebuilding will give a boost to the economy.

Last week that hoary economic fallacy showed up in, of all places, The Economist. In a report marking Katrina's first anniversary, the magazine discerned a ``silver lining" in the storm's massive damage: ``There are plenty of jobs in New Orleans these days."

That recalled USA Today's headline after Florida's terrible run of hurricanes in 2004: ``Economic growth from hurricanes could outweigh costs." The story quoted an economist who acknowledged the ``real pain" caused by the destruction. ``But from an economic point of view it is a plus," he said . In 2001, Paul Krugman had said much the same thing about 9/11: ``Ghastly as it may seem to say this, the terror attack . . . could even do some economic good," he wrote.

This is like calling it an economic ``plus" when your car is totaled , since you now have to spend thousands of dollars to buy a new one. But that's illogical -- the car dealer's gain is negated by your loss. If your car hadn't been wrecked, you would have spent that money on something else -- a sale that some other vendor will now be denied. Similarly, the billions spent to clean up and rebuild after a Katrina or a 9/11 represent a net loss. But for the disaster, those billions could have been channeled to more productive uses. Instead they must be spent merely to regain lost ground .

* * *

``Traffic congestion is choking our cities, hurting our economy, and reducing our quality of life," begins a new report from the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. Rush-hour gridlock paralyzes 39,500 lane-miles of roadway each year, eating up $63 billion in lost time and fuel. But much worse is to come.

By 2030, the number of severely congested lane-miles will reach nearly 60,000 per year, an increase of more than 50 percent. Commuters in the largest metropolitan areas will spend 65 percent more time in traffic than they do now . Within 25 years, at least a dozen major cities will be choked with travel delays worse than in today's Los Angeles, whose notorious congestion is the worst in America.

The solution is the obvious one: Build more highways, and manage them more intelligently. ``The old canard `we can't build our way out of congestion' is not true," the authors write.

They estimate that 104,000 new lane-miles will be needed by 2030, at a cost of about $21 billion a year, much of which could be raised through electronic tolling. The return on that investment would be a stunning 7.7 billion fewer hours spent in traffic each year, along with all the wealth and freedom those time savings would generate.

All this is heresy, of course, to the car-haters and PC nannies who are forever lecturing us to quit driving and use mass transit. But we are overwhelmingly a nation of drivers; the real ``mass transit" is the traffic on our highways. If the highways don't grow to keep up with that traffic, the strangulating misery of gridlock will only get worse.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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