What Does Private Affluence, Public Squalor Mean?

I’d like to compare three cities: Paris, New York, Boston. They’re about equally wealthy, and I’ve lived years in two and spent a lot of time in the third. Americans dismiss New York and Boston too often as Not Real America, but they’re both excellent examples of how the US differs from Europe.

Private affluence and squalor at home

Visit the home of a middle-class person in the city. (I mean “middle-class” in the European sense of “reasonably educated professional,” not the American one of “not homeless.”) If you’re used to a certain suburban American standard of normality then the New York apartment will look small to you, but the one in Boston will not, and a few years seeing how Europeans live will disabuse you of any notion that New York apartments are small.

Parisian apartments are tiny. I had 40 square meters near Nation, but the citywide average is 31 per person; in New York, it’s 50 if I understand the Census Factfinder correctly. There are studios in Paris well below 20 m^2 – even Stockholm tends to stick to micro-units in the 20-25 m^2 area. There is something called studettes going down to 9 m^2 in the most extreme cases, many inherited from servant attic units built in the Second Empire and Belle Epoque. In New York it’s more or less prohibited by regulation, with the attendant high rents, but the regulations are about bedrooms, not unit size, hence the common experience of living 3 or 4 people to a large apartment, one that in Continental Europe is largely restricted to lower-income cities like Lisbon or Berlin.

In the 1950s, when John Galbraith coined the expression private affluence and public squalor, the American home had amenities unheard of in Europe, like universal ownership of appliances. This is not as stark a distinction today. Europeans have televisions and fast Internet connections for cheaper prices than in the US. But Europeans don’t have driers or air conditioning and don’t have dishwashers as commonly as Americans. I don’t want to exaggerate the difference in housing quality – for one, insulation is a lot better in Paris (and Berlin) than in New York and Boston, so the experience of living on the 3rd floor facing a city street is a lot noisier west of the Pond than east of it. For another difference, American air conditioning is window units in all but the highest-end apartments, which would have central air in Europe too. But the difference exists, and is noticeable.

Public affluence and squalor on the street

Let’s leave the inside of our houses now. How does the public sphere look?

The recent reporting of New York as trash city can make people think that this is literally about the street. To some extent, this is – but it’s not just about trash. For one, the street lighting is better in Paris, and better in Manhattan than in Cambridge, in what I think is an artifact of high density and not just wealth. For two, I don’t remember having to dodge puddles in the rain in Paris; in New York and Boston it’s a common occurrence whenever there’s heavier rain than a drizzle. For three, in the snow, Cambridge becomes mostly impassable to pedestrians, and while Paris does not get serious enough snow for shoveling to ever be a big issue, Stockholm does and the sidewalks in Central Stockholm are shoveled just fine.

The importance of Paris’s wealth and density is that Berlin is not this nice. The street lighting in Berlin is not great by Parisian standards (or, as I recall, by Stockholm ones?). Walking around Bernauer Strasse (let alone Neukölln, one of inner Berlin’s poorest neighborhoods), one never gets the feeling the area is as well-off as Nation, which is itself lower middle-class by Parisian standards. I’m saying this knowing the comparative income levels of Berlin and Paris, and perhaps it’s unfair, but from what I’ve seen, it’s fairly easy to compare France and Germany, their relative levels of public and private affluence are similar.

Public services

Most Americans know, on some level, that various public services are better in Western Europe. Life expectancy in France is higher than in the US by 3-4.5 years depending on source, and life expectancy in Germany is higher by 2-3 years. New York and Massachusetts are wealthy states and outlive the rest of the country by a margin, but they’re still not French, let alone Parisian.

Public health is there in various statistics, but the same is true of transportation. This is not even just public transportation – my recollection of the handful of times I’ve found myself in a taxi in Paris is that it’s a much more pleasant experience than the potholed American streets I’ve taken taxis or ridden with other people on. But it’s much more glaring in public transit than on roads, because public transit inherently requires more public competence. Parisians do not think the RER is particularly good, but it’s a marvel compared with any American commuter rail network, and involves a level of interagency coordination in fares, schedules, and services that is unheard of in the United States.

Worse, public transit in the United States has the reputation of a social service. In metro New York the incomes of transit and car commuters are very close, and in metro Boston transit commuters slightly outearn car commuters, but in both areas, anything that is not a segregated suburban middle-class commuter line is treated as a social service, run by managers who do not use their own system and do not consider use cases beyond their own 9-to-5 work travel.

Squalor and incompetence

Squalor and incompetence feed each other. This does not mean poverty is a moral failing or a result of weakness or stupidity. But it does mean that someone who is denied access to good work will, over a lifetime, learn to do lower-value things and, even if the job denial at 18 was entirely random or a matter of discrimination, be worse at high-value jobs by 50. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that countries with more income mobility and less persistent poverty – for examples, Canada, Australia, and the Nordic countries – do not determine people’s careers by how they did at 18 at the university admissions the way the US, UK, and France do. Talented Canadians who get worse grades in high school because of obstructive teachers will have opportunities to shine at 23 that their French or American counterparts, denied the ability to go to the most prestigious universities, will simply not get.

I bring this up because the US has a cycle of public squalor. Public-sector wages are uncompetitive, so workers are either nerds with particular personal or social interest in the field (sanitation, public transit, etc.), or people who couldn’t get better private-sector work – and this is particularly acute at the management level, especially senior management, since the best managers can leak to the private sector and get better pay there. Weak civil service in turns reduces the political will to pay civil servants high salaries, especially among politicians, who encounter senior managers much more often than they do hard-working train drivers, sanitation workers, and individual teachers.

There’s perhaps an analog of private affluence and public squalor, in which Americans are individually diligent and collectively lazy. Some of this has to be political: ambitious politicians get ahead by doing nothing and packaging it as bravery. I can name multiple national Republicans who became nationally famous by saying no to spending, and not a single Democrat who became nationally famous by successfully pushing through a major government program, such statewide universal health care or a green transition. But it’s not just politicians and their political appointees – there’s punch-clock behavior and agency turf battles below that level.

Is there a solution?

Unambiguously, yes. It’s not evident from just reading about the history of the Anglosphere, since Britain took forever to develop its civil service and thus assumes the process would be equally long in South Korea or Finland (“first 500 years are hardest“). It requires political will, and often a good model – I suspect Finland was able to develop good government so quickly because it consciously imitated Swedish governance. It doesn’t even require setting everything on fire first – South Korea and Taiwan engaged in land reform but did not kill the entire middle class the way some communist countries did.

The good news is that most public-sector workers in the US are not incompetent political appointees. The people I talk to in New York and Boston are sharp and informed and often difficult to keep up with because of how much they understand that I don’t, and for the most part I get the impression that they don’t think their colleagues are morons. The competence level on average decreases as one goes upward, partly because of negative selection of management, but it’s possible and desirable to internally promote people and raise wages to retain talent.

Fundamentally, the US needs to let go of the idea that the public is inferior to the private. But this isn’t just about what’s in Americans’ heads. They need to treat the public commons well, and I don’t just mean building monuments that look nice now and will rust in 10 years. I mean investing in public services, and paying the people who provide them competitively. Public squalor is a choice the US makes every day that it can stop making.


  1. Raghuveer Parthasarathy

    I’m curious if you’ve been to India — a wonderful and fascinating place, but a place where “private affluence and public squalor” is much more striking than it is in the US, and where this public / private distinction is increasing dramatically. I visit every few years, and was just there last week, so this issue is fresh in my mind. Increasingly, the middle class and higher move between private spaces such as homes, restaurants, and shopping areas, via private transport, spending less and less time in the dirty and pedestrian-unfriendly streets. (Photo of a Bangalore mall: https://photos.app.goo.gl/dBPJD5BxWX3iniTb9) I don’t think this is due to disdain for the public sector (at least among those I talk to), but rather (i) a perception that the civic-mindedness that the public needs is missing, and (ii) the immediate desire of getting away from the public-sphere unpleasantness outweighing the longer-term action required to improve it. I don’t know how this will change anytime soon, unfortunately. I’m curious what your thoughts and perspective are.

    • Alon Levy

      I haven’t, and it’s a really good point I haven’t thought of before. I think this kind of perception that the public sector is unsalvageable is generally common in much of the developing world? Hence for example the popularity of private schools in India, or the private helicopters in Brazil. The US in comparison only has a culture of private schooling in uni and in a narrow segment of the urban Northeastern upper class (the gentrifiers in New York are setting up segregated charter schools, not private schools).

      • aaronpriven

        Private schooling in the USA is complicated. About 10% of students are in private schools, but the public school districts are segregated geographically, and so you have the phenomenon of people moving to a “better” school district — so it’s nominally public, but it’s not a public realm open to everyone.

        • Alon Levy

          Sure, and Germany literally provides segregated public education (“Gymnasium”) for the middle class and a smattering of poor kids who impress their primary school teachers. But it’s expected that the state should provide such service, not the DeVos family.

          • Connor Harris

            Huh, I hadn’t realized that Gymnasien don’t admit by competitive examination.

          • Herbert

            In theory Gymnasium admission is based on fourth grade results (There’s some variation between states) but in reality Gymnasium admission correlates heavily with socio-economic factors

          • Lukas

            @Connor Harris
            It is a bit more complicated. A few decades ago, the primary school teacher would “recommend” wich form of school the child should go to after primary school (4y or 6y in some states). Then, these recommendations were binding. Over time, it became easier to switch school types towards Gymnasium for students of the “lesser” schools. More recently, it has become optional for the parents to follow on these recommendations. (So teacher recommends but parents have free choice). This has since been criticised, because it had the effect that “rich” families send their children to Gymnasium regardless of recommendation and many poorer families choose a less academic focused school. (Another proof that free choice doesn’t really help to emancipate)
            The importance of Gymnasien as a the key to university have also lessend since there are options for a second chance to do the Abitur later in life (Zweiter Bildungsweg, Abendschule).
            For example, in NRW Gymnasien have 511k students, Realschulen have 210k, Hauptschulen 63k, all others together 166k. Gesamtschulen (all of the three (Gym+Real+Haupt) integrated into 1) have 319k. That makes schools that directly offer Abitur a huge mayority (830k vs. 438k). It’s not quite like only middle class people go to a Gymnasium, then. Although poor people still have more hurdles, that much is definitely true.
            https://www.schulministerium.nrw.de/docs/bp/Ministerium/Service/Schulstatistik/Amtliche-Schuldaten/Quantita_2018.pdf page 47

    • Eric

      Raghuveer, do you think the building-out of a truly useful transit system could change things? It appears that in most of India (including Bangalore and even Delhi) the metro system is not developed enough to serve most people’s needs, while in Mumbai there is the opposite problem of suburban rail being much too crowded for comfort. Car travel will never be able to serve everyone efficiently in these very large and dense cities. If the transit system becomes more efficient and comfortable than driving, could there be a sudden reversal in these attitudes?

      (The US is in a similar situation with transit not being able to serve most people’s needs, although this is primarily because of low urban densities, rather than a historic lack of large-scale transit spending)

      • Raghuveer Parthasarathy

        Eric — that’s a great question. I think a useful and pervasive transit system would improve the cities enormously. On the plus side, these are emerging. However, progress seems slow, far slower than the rate of increase of cars and traffic. I rode on Bangalore’s metro for the first time last week — it was clean and fast, and relatives also told me good things about it. However, its range is very limited. Over a decade of work has given two lines, totaling just 42 km. More lines are being built, which is great, but the pace seems *far* too slow. Metro ridership is about 400,000 per day, which is impressive, but there are almost 50,000 new vehicles *per month* registered in Bangalore! (https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/what-s-behind-bengaluru-s-traffic-woes-82-lakh-vehicles-too-many-one-ways-and-more-108409).

        • Alon Levy

          India has a lot of class segregation, no? Standard-gauge metros for the middle class, broad-gauge suburban rail for the poor, with no integration between the two. (In Mumbai even the first Metro line intersects the Suburban Rail without a transfer.)

      • Tonami Playman

        Eric, I think that is definitely possible, but like Raghuveer said, the pace of rapid transit development is too slow. Despite many major metro areas in India building rapid transit systems at different stages of construction, the rate of highway expansion is much faster. Then you also have metro line plans that prioritize suburban connections over station density in the core. Bangalore and Chennai metro have low ridership/km partly because they are too short in Bangalore’s case and not very useful and they bypassed the areas with higher density in Chennai. Then you have Delhi which is expanding it’s metro at a more rapid pace, but due to the heavy sprawling nature of Delhi metro, the ridership/km is getting worse with each new line addition.

        Also these cities developed rapidly without rapid transit but with car centric urban landscapes. So even the poorest people most affected by congestion due to slow buses have the perception that their cities need more roads and more cars. The middle class is tied to their cars and one of the biggest complaints of Bangalore metro is the lack of parking at stations.

        The operator of the Gurgaon metro ( the privately run light metro shuttle linking Gurgaon to the Delhi metro) is bankrupted and they are planning on dumping the debt onto DMRC and the Delhi tax payers. While the operator will get paid in full regardless of ridership. The line is bankrupted because the ridership is abysmal. They built a single track loop around a suburban office park where most of the workers drive or are bussed to the site. But unsurprisingly, the metro is loved by it’s frequent users who are mostly upperclass higher income earners.

        Both Mumbai surburban rail and Mumbai metro are overcrowded. The biggest factor being the unique geographic constraint of Mumbai compared to other Indian cities which can sprawl without such constraints. But they still went ahead to build the Worli sealink bypass in the name of relieving congestion. Unsurprisingly the toll road got clogged up like every other part of Mumbai almost immediately. You still have the fancy high rise estates going up in the midst of slums.

        But where is the point where the perception starts to shift, I don’t know and from my vantage point, it seems like a herculian task.

        • Eric

          On the positive side, Mumbai is currently on a metro building spree – lines 2,3,4,6,7 are under construction and should be finished in the next few years, and more lines are in planning.

          Cost permitting, I’m not against the Mumbai sealink. It will only carry a miniscule fraction of the area’s traffic. In general, Indian road networks are much less dense than in true car-oriented cities like in North America, and that seems unlikely to change. It seems to me that zoning reform is more important for India than fighting roads.

          • Alon Levy

            Mumbai did pass zoning reform last year, but construction rates are still not great – I think 5/1,000 people per year, i.e. same as the major German cities and less than Ile-de-France.

            Thankfully it’s building lots of metros at *checks notes* 490 million dollars per underground km.

          • Eric

            I think all but one of Mumbai’s under construction lines are above-ground (elevated). Also, all the lines will be pretty full from the beginning, which lowers the cost per rider.

    • Henry Miller

      In India labor is still cheap enough that if you are in the middle class you don’t have a drivers license – you have a car but you pay somebody else to drive it for you. Even if you car is an old “rust bucket” you pay someone else to drive it for you so that you can do something else. That makes the economics of transportation different.

      Of course it also means that if mass transit was useful the middle class would be more inclined to use it – between not being stuck in traffic (this implies that in India transit must be fully grade separated to be useful – given the traffic there I think this is reasonable) and the fact that they don’t have a culture of enjoying driving: a good transit system could take over.

      I haven’t been to India yet, but I’m working on my VISA now.

      • Raghuveer Parthasarathy

        “In India labor is still cheap enough that if you are in the middle class you don’t have a drivers license – you have a car but you pay somebody else to drive it for you.” This might have been true 20 years ago (when far fewer people had cars). It is not true now. I know of no middle-class car-owning people — the ones who didn’t have cars 20 years ago — who have drivers. It’s true that if one rents a car (for out-of-city trips) it comes with a driver, but that’s very different.

        I can’t imagine how grade separation seems “reasonable” for Indian traffic or infrastructure.

  2. Thomas K Ohlsson

    ‘I suspect Finland was able to develop good government so quickly because it consciously imitated Swedish governance.’

    Half right – half wrong!
    When the eastern half of the swedish kingdom (Finland) was lost to Russia, it retained (for most parts) the Swedish laws and system of governance. So in a limited sence Finland had a ‘good goverment’ even before true independence. Even today there is a degree of coordination between Finland and Sweden when new laws are introduced – since swedish is one of the two official languages of Finland this process is quite easy to cary out.

    • Alon Levy

      Sure, but there must have been divergence over the 19th century… for example, Sweden’s 19c land reforms (Enskiftet, etc.) creating a class of free yeomen, as in the US. By the early 20th century, Finland did not have the wealth or health outcomes of Sweden.

      • Thomas K Ohlsson

        ‘Enskiftet’ was not a land reform in that sense, it did not affect how much land each inividual owned – it only redistributed the various lots. But it is true that this did not happen in Finland.

        Changes in the laws in Finland and Sweden were less syncronized before 1900 than after. In Finland there was a reluctancy to change anything at all – since they feared all changes would be part of the ‘russification’ of the country. Status quo was the best option.

  3. electricangel

    “Public-sector wages are uncompetitive…”
    Cue Larry Littlefield. https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2017/11/26/the-executive-financial-class-the-political-union-class-and-the-serfs-redux/

    “In 1969, according to the BEA data, the average person working in Downstate New York (NYC plus Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties) earned $57,613 (adjusted for inflation into $2016) if they worked in the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate sector, $56,546 if the worked in the rest of the private sector, and $65,211 if they worked in state and local government. “Earnings” in this data includes not only wages and salaries but also non-wage benefits such as employer-funded pensions, 401K contributions, health insurance, and other benefits. ” …

    “the average earnings of those working in the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate sector in Downstate New York, an indication of the fortunes of most of the executive/financial class, soared to peaks of $193,000 in the year 2000 and $156,221 in the year 2007, before dropping back to $112,140 in 2016 – still far higher than the $71,133 for the rest of the private sector — after having been about the same in 1969.”…

    “Aside from a brief period during the high-inflation 1970s and early 1980s, Downstate New York’s state and local government workers have gotten richer and richer relative to private sector workers outside of finance. By 2016, their average earnings had risen to $110,402, far above the $71,133 for private sector workers outside of finance – including the one percenters in that category. ” …

    “Subway workers now make an average of $170,000 annually in salary, overtime and benefits, according to a Times analysis of data compiled by the federal Department of Transportation. That is far more than in any other American transit system; the average in cities like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington is about $100,000 in total compensation annually. The pay for managers is even more extraordinary. The nearly 2,500 people who work in New York subway administration make, on average, $280,000 in salary, overtime and benefits.”

    Now, it’s not Wall Street money. Perhaps these quotes back up your own observations: the well-paid transit work attracts better than average workers. Meanwhile, the inability to pay the rapacious managerial salaries funded on Wall Street means poor managers?

    But there is no sense in which public sector compensation is uncompetitive.

    • threestationsquare

      As Littlefield notes elsewhere, the compensation/pension structure in the NY public sector today has many “tiers”, where earlier employees are grandfathered into overly generous pension plans while more recent hires get less generous pensions and lower pay. After many cycles of this they’re now up to six tiers for most NY state agencies. The figures you quote are averages across all employees, but they are heavily influenced by rest-and-vest deadwood longstanding employees in the higher tiers raking in huge amounts (mostly in pension). Meanwhile compensation for new employees choosing between the public and private sectors is indeed uncompetitive, especially if those new employees are uncertain whether they’ll stay long enough to qualify for any pension at all. No wonder the MTA remains so devoted to antiquated operating practices.

    • Connor Harris

      MTA subway drivers and conductors are paid quite well. MTA planners, at least those who haven’t been there for decades, are not. I know two junior NYCT planners who (per See Through NY) make about $60k/year, not counting benefits; occasional commenter Subutay Musluoglu, who recently took a high position at Metro-North after decades working in cartography and infrastructure consulting, makes $77k. These are low salaries for the technical expertise and mathematical skills that their jobs demand: 23-year-old management consultants make twice as much doing what amounts to undergrad business major coursework. Pensions make up for low salaries a bit, but they generally have long vesting times, and offering low pay up front plus a good pension in a few decades will repel any candidates good enough to think they may eventually have better job opportunities, especially in high-growth fields such as computer programming.

      Similar dynamics play out during active cost-cutting, by the way: Cuomo’s response to MTA deficits was a white-collar hiring freeze, not picking fights with the TWU to eliminate subway conductors or manual track inspections.

      • Alon Levy

        …which 23-year-old management consultants do you know who make $150,000? Because the ones I know make 60-something thousand and hope to soon get promoted to get paid $90,000.

        • Connor Harris

          None specifically, just a general impression from my time in college that Ivy League undergrads could make a bit above $100,000 in the big consulting firms, though upon looking up actual figures (which give typical salaries closer to $90,000), it seems quite possible I’ve exaggerated this.

        • AstoriaBlowin

          “The good news is that most public-sector workers in the US are not incompetent political appointees. The people I talk to in New York and Boston are sharp and informed and often difficult to keep up with”

          In my experience this is true with technical or program staff but absolutely not the case with staff that manage contracts, procurement, etc. Technical staff at USAID, CDC, USDA and other agencies I have worked with are very intelligent, motivated and competent. The administrative side does a great job of living up to stereotypes about paper pushers and time servers. This is an even bigger problem at state and local government levels. With NYC agencies, the level of laziness and incompetence I’ve encountered is maddening. This divide in competence could be a partial explanation for the issues with project management and budget control we see over and over.

    • Onux

      This isn’t just a New York issue. In San Francisco salary and benefits for city workers averages $175,004, even though median household income in the city, fueled by the tech boom, is just $96,265. This does not seem uncompetitive.

      If the issue is is top management pay, SFMTA just hired a new head at $342,483, the same as the pay of the outgoing head Ed Reiskin, who failed to prevent numerous failures and breakdowns this year. By comparison Catherine Guillouard the head of RATP (which runs the much larger Paris Metro, trams, busses, and part of RER) earned 300k euros base (~$332k) until this year, when her salary was increased to 350k euros (~$388k). Bonus for performance can add 100k euro more (~$110k).

      Guillouard gets a larger salary (particularly if bonuses are earned) but the difference is not exceptional, and certainly not in the range of tech or investment banking salaries that are available in the private sector. Plus, 350k euro is apparently the legal max for public entity heads, so her salary isn’t going up soon. Andy Byford gets $325k to run NY Subways, which doesn’t compare well to the head of Muni or RATP given size comparisons, but again isn’t broadly different (still mid six figures).

      • Alon Levy

        First, the $96,265 figure is without in-kind benefits or pensions.

        Second, look at the mix of jobs for city workers: managerial jobs, intermediate professions (teachers, social workers), dangerous jobs (cops, firefighters), generally physically painful jobs (bus drivers). The low-skill, no-training kind of jobs that proliferate at the bottom of the income distribution – cleaners, dishwashers, cooks, hairdressers, call center workers, cab drivers, cashiers – are rarely public-sector. The comparison should not be average to average, but job description to job description, especially for office jobs, where it’s much easier to move between the public and private sectors.

        • Onux

          Fair point about salary without benefits or pensions, although I doubt many private sector workers receive benefits equal to 80% of pay, which is what it would take for household income+benefits to equal public sector income+benefits.

          Also, this is specific to SF households, how many low-skill workers are actually living in the city, given inflated rents, versus commuting in to jobs?

          Is the public sector really bereft of low-skill work? I would think cities employ lots of janitors, school cafeteria cooks, groundskeepers for parks, customer service reps, etc., with duties similar to the cleaners, cooks, and cashiers you list, plus I do not see the distinction between bus drivers and cab drivers.

          If the comparison should be job description to job description, do you have any data on the public sector being lower for office jobs, particularly in the US vs Europe? Looking around the transparentcalifornia.com website, I see in SF a ‘Manger VIII’ at the MTA makes $165k-$212k salary, plus $40-50k benefits. A ‘Manager VI’ makes $175k plus $40k benefits. Managers II-IV are making between $170-190k salary and benefits. I am not sure the exact private equivalents, but in 2016 the average silicon valley salary for a product manager was $133k and for a software engineer was $123k. Walmart store managers apparently make $175k. Benefits will add to this, plus in silicon valley there is the stock option lure, but once again the public sector salaries do not seem particularly low.

          Finally, you mentioned the disparity being greatest at the highest level, but I showed that the head of RATP is only making about 50% more than US equivalents. This is not negligible, but in still pales in comparison to private sector compensation where in France CEOs of companies like BNP Paribas, Renault, Total SA, and Engie are making between E1.84M and E7.4M per year, plus stock grants etc. Even in the transportation sector the head of Alstom is making $700k, or 80% over the head of RATP. If the head of RATP were making 1M euro plus I could see the competitiveness argument, but that isn’t the case.

          • Alon Levy

            I’m not talking about the head of the agency, I’m talking about how much project managers get paid to oversee hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure spending.

          • Onux

            If the issue is what project managers get paid, I am still looking for the private sector comparison. According to salary.com in the US construction project managers receive between $91k and $118k in salary, while VPs of Construction are paid between $184k and $290k. These are both within range of the SFMTA manager salaries I give above and plenty of private sector projects worth hundreds of millions are supervised by these positions. The two most recent managers of the Central Subway project if SF made $207k and $236k base in their final years on the job (salary for the current manager is not available), with total compensation approaching $300k. One of them went on to lead Caltrain electrification where they appear to be making $267k base now. Public sector salaries certainly aren’t higher than private, but they don’t appear to be appreciably lower either.

            Do you have any comparisons on equivalent salaries in France, Germany, etc. for these positions.

  4. FP_J

    Riding on the Brown Line through Chicago’s North Side, one can see the physical manifestation of private affluence and public squalor. Enormous amounts of private capital have been invested in the areas around transit line, in no small part because of the presence of the transit stations. At the same time, the elevated structure itself is rusting apart. In many places, one can see right through steel components that are riddled with rust. It is amazing the thing is structurally sound.

    Now, compare the condition of two (functionally unrelated) public assets: North Side Main Line (opened 1900) and the Eiffel Tower (1889 obviously). The L’s problem isn’t just age, but mismanagement of maintenance.

    • Gok (@Gok)

      I live 100 meters from a Brown Line station. It’s really not that bad, given its age. The entire line was renovated 2006-2009; every station was reconstructed and expanded to support 8 car trains, and they all got new elevators. The elevated structures are ugly but that’s really the result of being built before reinforced concrete was widely available. Given limited resources, totally replacing the structures for cosmetic reasons seems like a low priority.

      A more functionally related comparison might be between the North Side Main Line and the elevated section of the Paris Metro Line 6, which opened around the same time. It looks like Line 6 had to be closed for 3 months this past summer for maintenance, and that will be repeated next year. Construction on the major rebuild of the North Side Main Line started a few weeks ago. Line 6 is certainly better looking and better maintained (wouldn’t mind rubber tyres…) but it’s not like the L is totally dilapidated.

      • Alon Levy

        How noisy is the North Side Main Line? Asking because the Parisian els are quiet enough that at street level the cars make more noise than passing trains – and this is not just the rubber-tired M6 but also the steel-wheeled M2.

        • Gok (@Gok)

          It’s loud. It’s quieter in the renovated sections where rails are continuously welded and there’s a closed deck structure. I don’t know how much it would help to use rubber tired cars.

        • Nilo

          The difference when you stand under the station at Fullerton (concrete columns), and many of the other stations on the L where there’s steel is incredible. Instead of being unable to have a conversation when you’re a block away and the train runs by you can hear the person across the street without a problem.

          • michaelrjames

            Is it that the L has an open track-support structure? The M6 + M2 have ballasted track and is fully-enclosed–ie. in a ‘tray’ (I am sure there must be a rail-geek term for this; when you look up from the street you can’t see the track or supports)–which means the noise goes upward and not down to the street. OTOH I also don’t remember the trains on either Parisian line being noisy when you wait on the platform so there may be additional factors.

          • FP_J

            I think it must be largely because of the open track structure, because its very loud even on the West Side Green Line (Lake Street), which was significantly rehabbed in 1994-6, but continues to use a steel structure.

            The CTA used to apply some kind of grease to sharp curves to reduce the steel-on-steel squeal the trains produce, but they stopped doing that after a series of fires in the 2005-2010 time frame.

          • Tonami Playman

            How feasible is it to replace the steel sections of the line with concrete columns and decks? Has that even been considered or is it just not possible without being outrageously expensive and shutting down the line for an extended period of time?

      • FP_J

        I’m specifically thinking of the S curves around North Ave and Halsted St. The structure is wide here (because it used to have 4 lines) and as the train moves through the curves one can see the outer sides of it from track level. The main steel supports are solid, but my memory is that a lot of the thinner, horizontal stiffeners looked pretty raw. You can see the parts I’m referring to here:


        I haven’t been riding the Brown line for awhile, though, so perhaps they’ve done some painting (I know they have in the loop).

  5. James S

    “street lighting is better in Manhattan than in Cambridge,”

    This is simply untrue. Manhattan in most cases relies on nearby property owners to adequately light the street. There are some blocks in Midtown with just two street lights. Its hard to notice because of all the light pollution from the surrounding buildings. Area light is not the same as “better” lighting, as it is unfocused and can create glare and shadow.

    Cambridge actually has one of the best illumination standards in the country, and they actually care about things like measuring the lumens at the center-point of a crosswalk to determine if it is proper. This is very different from most of the country where highway light standards are used, which do not take into account pedestrians in any way. NYC does not particularly care where the street light is positioned in regards to the crosswalk, which is where it is most needed.

    • Alon Levy

      The illumination in Cambridge may have high standards, but in practice the residential streets (Harvard Street, Broadway, etc.) are pretty dark at night.

      • James S

        And thats fine, as long as the conflict points (intersections) are well lit. Mass Ave is lit like an NFL stadium – sometimes you cant even find your shadow.

        No one needs a spotlight in their window on a quiet residential street. The residential areas of Manhattan that are well lit are for crime safety issues, ie, the enormous floodlights that line the projects. No one in NYC has ever heard of “shielding” when it comes to illumination.

        • Alon Levy

          By Parisian standards, Cambridge does not have quiet residential streets, insulation from street noise is that bad. (Nor does Paris have lights flooding windows.)

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, the South has more air conditioning than New York relative to its income. And in Mediterranean Europe, people who earn Parisian or Southern German incomes have air conditioning. I’m trying to compare places with similar-ish climate.

      • James S

        Every new building in CA has central air, never will you find a nasty window unit. Outside of NY/NJ, PTACs are limited to Motel 6. it’s not a climate thing, it’s a New York exceptionalism thing. I dont think they even have them in Boston or DC.

        • Alon Levy

          PTACs are a New York thing, but putting window ACs in old houses rather than central air is common enough in Cambridge I saw it at a house near Harvard Square.

          • adirondacker12800

            You can get PTACs anywhere. You can get window air conditioners anywhere too. It would be difficult to find a big box store, in the spring, that doesn’t have a pallet load of “bedroom” sized ones. They are rare in the Northwest because it doesn’t get hot. And rare in the Southeast because everybody has central air. Retrofitting central air to an old house is expensive and messy. Slapping a window unit in doesn’t cost much and takes a few minutes. …there is life west of Ninth Avenue.

          • RossB

            Yeah, it is a climate thing. For what its worth, people were buying PTACs in Seattle a while back, to deal with one of the rare heat waves. It is really the wrong tool though; a swamp cooler (or evaporative air conditioner) makes way more sense. On the rare occasions when it is really hot in Seattle, it is also really dry. Likewise for most of the west (Spokane, Oregon, California, etc.). But people who migrated from the East Coast (as well as some who didn’t) just buy what they know, so they end up with a unit better suited for a humid climate.

            Folks in Seattle are increasingly moving towards heat pumps, since they are fairly cost effective, given the moderate temperatures and relatively low cost of electricity.

          • adirondacker12800

            Rich people were buying PTACs. Unless you already have a sleeve installed it’s quite pricey. And they ain’t cheap if even if you do have a sleeve in the wall.

        • michaelrjames

          it’s a New York exceptionalism thing

          Or a building regulation thing?
          By “central air” I assume it is what we call “ducted aircon” in which there is one cooling unit/heat exchanger located where its noise and heat output is not a disturbance, with ducting to distribute cooled air to the whole house or apartment.
          The most common form of aircon is actually a hybrid called “split system” in which the cooling unit/exchanger is externally mounted (not on a window but sometimes below), sometimes on an apartment’s balcony or sometimes on the external wall (depending on building regulations), and copper pipes convey the compressed gas to the internal unit usually wall-mounted high up, though sometimes floor-mounted.

          Split systems were invented by the Japanese in the 70s and rapidly displaced window units (and ducted air for most domestic installations). They have big advantages including one external unit servicing several internal units (multiple rooms) and can be distant to the rooms it services (within limits). And of course being very quiet, essentially little different to the much more expensive ducted systems. I doubt there is much of a saving of using a window-mounted unit, and it is more likely building regs in NYC (ie. where one is allowed to mount the external unit of a split system?).

          BTW, a big effect of air-con is their dehumidification which by itself will make a room temp of say 28-30°C tolerable compared to the same temperature with high humidity. Places with dry heat (deserts) have less demand for aircon.

          • FP_J

            The systems you are describing are known as “mini-splits” in the US (since central/ducted air conditioning is also a split system). They are gaining some traction, but they are significantly more expensive than window package units. Also, most older rentals (at least here in Chicago) don’t provide A/C. If that is something tenants want, they must buy and install the units themselves. In that context, a cheap, portable unit makes a lot of sense.

  6. Lee Ratner

    There is an observation that Americans like first world services but expect it on third world taxation. When I lived in New York, everybody loved to complain about the MTA but very few realized that the MTA was being asked to run a 21st century subway service on a budget. And with a population reluctant to pay for maintenance. So you have a lot of resentments in the United States that make the citizenry reluctant to pay for the common wealth.

    • Alon Levy

      Well, New York also pays about 1.5 times as much for subway operations as Paris and 7 times as much for construction… there’s a big difference between American and French taxation levels, but the extra money goes to welfare, not infrastructure or health care or education.

  7. RossB

    Fundamentally, the US needs to let go of the idea that the public is inferior to the private.

    Right. But those same famous Republicans you mentioned have no interest in ..

    investing in public services, and paying the people who provide them competitively.

    That is a big part of the problem. They love public failures, since it allows them to push for less public spending, or more privatization of the public spending.

    A good example of this is the Veterans Administration. It does many things, but it is known for health care. What isn’t commonly known is that studies have shown that when V. A. nurse practitioners provide care, the health outcomes are as cost effective as any in the world. Not “any in the U. S.”, but any in the world. This, from a country that generally speaking, has very poor health care outcomes.

    Then the U. S. started not one, but two major wars, with relatively low fatality rates, but very high injury rates. The government made only minor increases in V. A. spending. The V. A., of course, was swamped. Service went down. Wait times went up. Republicans jumped at the chance to criticize the V. A., and suggested that the best approach would be to privatize the care. Allow veterans to see private doctors or nurses. There is no evidence that this would actually lead to better care, let alone better care for the money spent, but it was too late. Defenders of the V. A. were seen as big government apologists; opponents were seen as acting in the best interest of the veterans. It is unlikely that future investment — the type that lead to the most advanced electronic medical record keeping system in the world at time — will happen as long as there are those who want to push money into privatization.

    By no means are the problems in the U. S. limited to the sudden, seemingly intractable right-wing lurch of the Republican Party forty years ago, but I doubt that there will be a solution until that party resembles the one that Eisenhower led not too long ago. A big part of the problem is that there are no real checks and balances between the parties. Democrats have taken up the job of governing — often from the middle. Both Bill Clinton and Obama — the last two Democratic presidents — pushed forward the plan first proposed by Nixon and first implemented by Mitt Romney (a Republican). The Republicans — even Romney himself — weren’t interested in improving it — they were interested in scrapping it. This goes for various projects around the country. There is very little debate as to whether a new mass transit plan is too expensive, or the best use of transit dollars. Instead it comes down to whether you prefer cars or transit. With one party simply supporting lower taxes, and the other party managing all government actions, the result is crap.

  8. RossB

    Talented Canadians who get worse grades in high school because of obstructive teachers will have opportunities to shine at 23 that their French or American counterparts, denied the ability to go to the most prestigious universities, will simply not get.

    My guess is this varies state by state. American public universities are quite good — it is one of the few things that the U. S. still does really well (that, and basketball). In general, if you screw up before or after high school — or just take time off — you can make up for it by doing well in community/junior college. It is fairly easy to get in, and at that point, if you do well, it is likely you can get into an outstanding state university. Personally, I didn’t do well at all coming out of high school, and dropped out of a four year university. Years later I went back to community college. I did well at that level, and managed to get into the University of Washington, one of the best universities in the world (although not that good at basketball). So, it can be done, even if it is a bit harder.

    • Alon Levy

      The American public unis are good, but then your career still depends on whether you managed to get into Berkeley/UMich/UIUC/etc.

      • RossB

        Yeah, but my point is that you can get into a good state school if you do well in that state’s junior college. You don’t have to be a perfect student in high school.

        Even if you go to a “lesser school”, you will probably be fine. It may take longer for you to prove yourself, but if you pick something in demand (nursing, just about any tech field) than you will be fine. You can’t expect to just walk out of school and make a bunch of money, but if you are smart and resourceful, you should be able to be reasonably successful.

        The biggest problem with U. S. education is that students take on too much debt. They are focused on that big payoff, and don’t realize that sometimes even Ivy league graduates don’t make much money. I would coach any kid into pursuing junior college first, then your own state school to keep costs down (unfortunately, though, most states have dramatically increased the cost of in-state tuition, which has made the problem worse). I would also recommend the trades. Lots of people pursue a college degree without any real plan. That is all good and well — and it played a huge part of building the American middle class — but graduating with 100 grand in debt and a degree that most employers don’t care about is not something I would recommend.

        • Connor Harris

          Management consulting firms and investment banks hire almost exclusively out of the Ivy League (and, even then, predominantly from a few narrow social networks within the Ivy League, mostly certain athletic teams). They’re not the the only path to a good career, of course, but they’re a big one.

      • Eric

        I think studies have shown that career success in the US doesn’t depend on whether you got into a desirable university, but rather, whether you were talented enough to get into such a university. Actually attending the university appears to be solely a result of success, not a cause.

      • Nilo

        Silicon Valley is filled with people with San Jose State degrees. Life is easier if you went to Berkeley. But there are millions of people who have lived productive, fulfilled, well compensated lives after going to UC-Santa Cruz or Cal State Fullerton.

  9. Chris Protopapas (@CProtopapas)

    My wife and I just came back to the US after a month in Europe. Part of our trip consisted of two weeks of driving around France, mostly south/central parts of the country. Aside from the very nicely maintained roads, one of the things we noticed was the lack of roadside clutter. Driving in New Jersey and New York State afterwards, we suddenly realized that the roadside landscape here is simply ugly, in a nice illustration of “Public Squalor”. Not just billboards, but in particular something we had taken as normal: the huge amount of overhead wires, utility poles and such. This simply does exist in most parts of France: the wires are buried in the ground. Additionally, and possibly related, cell phone service was uniformly excellent throughout our entire trip, much of which was in rural areas. I will not go into our experience on the high-speed train from Paris to Brussels, that is beating a dead horse when it concerns US infrastructure.

  10. Joshua Taehyun Kim

    Very interesting, agree with most of your points.
    One thing I would add in terms of incompetence of public employees in the US, is related to the fact that state capitols are all located far from major metros (Albany-NYC, Sacramento-SF/LA, Springfield-Chicago, etc etc) and are generally not great places to live for an ambitious person. This contributes a lot to the inferior talent pool for workers in state gov, and I think state gov is where these important decisions get made re transit and urban planning. The federal govt, on the other hand, is quite well staffed, and pay may be lower than private sector, but the prestige keeps the competence high. Furthermore, DC is a very nice city to live in.

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