When a city or country decides how to go about solving some problem, it will usually learn from somewhere else – either consciously as a set of best practices, or unconsciously as a sanity check. The “who do you learn from?” question is then what that somewhere else is. This is true of the ongoing corona pandemic, but also of infrastructure, which is why I want to draw this analogy.
In the Covid-19 outbreak, it has become obvious that Western countries do not learn from non-Western ones. I’ve heard people say that high-income Asia has responded better to the crisis before it was used to from the SARS outbreak of 2003. But SARS affected primarily China and Hong Kong, and secondarily Taiwan, Canada, and Singapore. Korea and Japan barely had any cases. And yet, Korea’s response to the crisis has drawn praise for reducing the daily infection rate through aggressive monitoring and testing. Daily growth in Korea is maybe 1%, slower than the rate of recoveries.
There is a clean cleave between rich Asian countries’ response to the virus and Western countries’. It’s not SARS, and it’s not whatever racist mythology Westerners tell themselves about Asian collectivism (in what way is the Hong Kong democracy protest movement collectivist?). What it is, is that Asians are happy to learn from other Asians. SARS normalized mask wearing in high-income Asia as a solution to poor air quality or to a contagious disease, and Koreans and Japanese picked it up from nearby countries.
Europeans and Americans, in contrast, wouldn’t stoop to learn from a civilization they look down. My American Twitter feed talked about the virus somewhat when it was raging mostly in China and then in Korea, but as soon as it hit Italy, most of it transitioned to talking about Italy. The rest of Europe didn’t think it would affect it, and even the strategies for how to deal with it are entirely European. Masks are nowhere to be found, tricks like Korea’s use of disposable chopsticks at elevators to avoid finger-pressing are nowhere to be found, testing capacity is low even in countries with strong civil service and good health care, metro stations and public buildings have no hand sanitizer. If it wasn’t invented here, it isn’t worth implementing, never mind how many thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Europeans will die for their civilization’s pride.
I went over a few national or supranational traditions of metro construction around a year to a year and a half ago, covering the United States, the Soviet bloc, and Britain. There are a few more traditions I could go over by popular request – Japanese (with influence across Asia, especially Korea), French, German, Chinese, increasingly Indian. These traditions do not neatly divide the world into spheres of influence – rather, there are places with multiple influences, like a combination of British and Japanese influence in Singapore and Hong Kong, and the Chinese system synthesizing some Soviet principles in addition to engaging in extensive domestic innovation.
I bring this complication up because when it comes to high costs, the Anglosphere seems mainly to learn from the rest of the Anglosphere, and the US almost exclusively from the US (very rarely from Canada and Britain, never from other English-speaking countries).
The Anglosphere shares certain institutions like common law, but Israel uses common law as well, and yet the Israeli rail electrification project’s communications and media coverage constantly emphasized “like Europe,” not like the English-speaking world; when it comes to how to build trains, Israel’s notion of the ideal functioning country is a pan-European medley.
Rather, the shared characteristics in the Anglosphere seem to be that these countries mostly learn from each other. The idea of road pricing was introduced to the world by the Smeed Report in 1962-4, then actually implemented in Singapore in 1975, then failed to make it to Hong Kong, then got back to London in 2003, and only then became a well-known idea in the American discourse. Moreover, in the Bloomberg-era discourse, London figured heavily, and few people mentioned Singapore and Stockholm; subsequently Milan adopted congestion pricing as well, and the American discourse has ignored it just as it has Stockholm.
Certain governance features that seem relevant to construction costs, like the privatization of state planning, are endemic to the Anglosphere. The use of public-private partnerships is widespread, more so than in other developed countries. Planning is routinely outsourced to consultants. What’s more, my vague understanding of Singapore is that for all its supposed state capacity, it’s headed in that direction too, no doubt thinking that if the US and UK are doing something then it must be good.
Obviously the importation of British and American ideas to Singapore has its limits, as we’re seeing now with the outbreak, but this importation remains widespread. In contrast, importation of Continental ideas is limited. One possible explanation is that Singaporeans view the entire West as a single culture, much as Westerners can’t tell Chinese people apart and often group the entirety of Asia together; if you don’t think there’s much of a difference between different European countries, then you will import ideas from the one that speaks English.
Why are they like this?
The West is a solipsistic civilization, and a lot of Europeans and Americans are going to die in the next few months as a result. But within the West, the United States is especially solipsistic. This does not mean it will necessarily fare worse in the outbreak than Europe – the virus reached it later, so it does have more time, measured in perhaps two weeks, to implement social distancing, ramp up testing capacity, and build emergency hospitals to reduce the death rate from infection. More fundamentally, when it comes to learning from Korea and Taiwan, the US isn’t any worse than Europe.
However, the virus is just my motivating example; my actual work is about public transportation, and there, the US is worse, because Europe has good test cases to learn from that other European countries look at and the US does not. I have seen multiple examples of this even among reformers, like the RPA report on construction costs or the GAO one, let alone among state governments (Massachusetts will simply not learn from anything outside North America).
The explanation, I think, has to do with who the process is empowering. Senior management in big American cities does not understand anything about how things work in other countries, nor do the managers have any social relationships with their peers abroad. Domestically, and sometimes even across the northern border, it’s different – a senior manager in New York has gone to national conferences and met peers from Los Angeles and Chicago and Boston and Seattle and probably also Toronto. A best practices effort that’s restricted to North America empowers such managers.
In contrast, a best practices effort that goes global disempowers the most powerful people in politics and the bureaucracy. They are monolingual, so they can’t easily contradict what people say in a report that talks about how things work in Paris or Tokyo or Madrid or Stockholm. They are unlikely to have lived abroad, or if they did, it was so long ago their knowledge is no longer relevant. They have no established relationships with their peers. They are useless in such a process, and they know it.
I was on a diversity panel at Intercon called Gaming as the Other, I believe in 2015. There were me as the immigrant (just about the only 1st-and-not-1.5th-generation immigrant in a community numbering in the low hundreds), a second-generation Chinese-American, and two black Americans. We discussed different issues relevant to this 95% white community, and at some point, someone from the audience asked me a very good question: “Alon, do you feel excluded when we talk about American pop culture references?” I thought about it a little and said no, I can usually fill in the gaps – I don’t feel excluded when the Americans know something I don’t but when I know something they don’t, because I know they will not respect my knowledge. The two black Americans did not connect to this; the Chinese-American did, bringing up a school in Chinatown in Manhattan that split over traditional vs. simplified characters, a distinction few non-Chinese people would understand.
It’s likely that the single biggest institutional barrier to improving public transportation in the United States is not exactly bureaucratic inertia, but rather than the improvements do not tap onto the agreed-upon skillset of the most powerful people. The political appointees are of no use. Some managers are, but not many, especially not at the top levels. At planning agencies it’s often the junior people who are most useful. Why should a manager listen to an underling?