Entrenched hierarchies do not like outside criticism, especially when it’s right. They fight off knowledge that they don’t have or can’t control. In a business setting, the main way out is to found a competing company and drive the one that won’t change out of business. But when it’s not possible, the way out involves a massive crisis – something like a total war, in which people can rapidly rise through the ranks through demonstrating success in battle.
I bring this up because the coronavirus crisis in not such a total war. Branko Milanovic compares it with World War Two, contrasting economists who view it purely as an economic crisis akin to the 2008 crisis or the Depression. That comparison is apt when it comes to looking at non-economic aspects of it, namely the need to centrally plan a public health response. But the scale of the crisis is much smaller, it seems. The rich countries of Asia are emerging only somewhat battered, and even in the West some places seem to be over the hump judging by growth rates in the last few days, especially the Nordic countries but possibly also France. This isn’t the next Spanish Flu, a crisis so big that it would force Westerners to reckon with the fact that the West needs to learn from other places. Even in the United States, where things look worse, the solipsistic population looks for internal comparisons (e.g. between blue and red states) more than international ones, let alone international ones with Asia.
A small crisis is not going to nudge the hierarchy in a more open direction. I see this often in public transportation – institutions that feel embattled respond by entrenching and refusing any reform. The standard excuse is “we’re too busy fighting fires,” often by people that fires seem to erupt around regularly. The virus seems to have the same effect so far – less openness, less sanity checking proposals by looking at what works elsewhere, more digging in around traditional social hierarchies.
American nationalists are saber-rattling with the Chinese government, as in the “Chinese virus” dysphemism and Tom Cotton’s blaming the entire death toll on the PRC. But they still do this on the usual American terms, that is without any assurance that Taiwan is a success story to learn from, or even South Korea and Japan, two American allies that unlike Taiwan the US formally recognizes. If a virus that demonstrates to starkly that Taiwan governs itself better than the PRC won’t get American nationalists to start speaking favorably of Taiwan, what will? To people like Cotton, a crisis is a perfect time to proclaim American superiority, no matter what reality is.
Domestically, too, the American response seems to be to repeat old wives’ tales – for example, traditional American hostility to big cities. Governor Andrew Cuomo went as far as saying that New York is too dense; Seoul, a bigger and denser city, has 700 infections as of 2020-3-22 out of a metro population of 26 million, maybe a factor of 20 better than New York. But he’s the governor and he keeps giving speeches and appearing on television, and a few hundred and even a few thousand dead New Yorkers is not enough to make people ask questions about his and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s squabbling. After all, when nearly 3,000 New Yorkers died on 9/11, few asked why Mayor Rudy Giuliani had put the city’s anti-terrorism response center at World Trade Center against the advice of security experts who pointed out the Twin Towers were a likely target; 9/11’s effect on Giuliani’s popularity was an unmixed blessing.
In an environment in which more national pundits say Cuomo is looking presidential than say he should resign in disgrace, it’s unlikely the crisis will lead Americans in a more open direction. The magnitude of the crisis isn’t enough to create a new crop of leaders. It’s a good thing in the sense that the death toll will not be apocalyptic, but it just underscores what I mean when I say this isn’t World War Two.
Budget-cutting administrations, demanding reform before revenue, have not produced any reform. American state building stalled in the middle of the 20th century when various white middle-class interests realized localism could protect them from too much racial and economic equality. Then around the 1980s and 90s it went into reverse, with a continued assault on state capacity through public-private partnerships, outsourcing planning to consultants, and impositions of managers whose experience was in the private sector in unrelated industries. American construction costs were already high beforehand, but in Canada and Singapore, both of which seem to have had the same trend, costs exploded in the 2000s and 2010s.
The question remains: how come the reform-before-revenue mentality never produced any reform?
I bring this up because I believe the answer is the same as what we are seeing right now with the response to the coronavirus crisis. Budget-cutting or timid politicians are not an existential crisis to the civil service. They can scare off ambitious people the way Cuomo ran Andy Byford out of New York City Transit leadership; they can create a hostile work environment; they can force managers to contend with scarcity; they can force the unions to agree to wage reductions for entering workers. But they do not have the power to close entire departments, to stop running schools or public transportation or firefighting entirely, and the managers and workers both know this.
Just as the Covid-19 crisis is not World War Two, all attempts at privatizing the state in the Anglosphere have amounted to much less than a total war of extermination. It’s a cold war. Like the original Cold War, it has the same stupefying effect as a hot war – hierarchs are all too happy to be unaccountable to the broad public and to pretend their cloak-and-dagger politics achieve any results. Unlike a hot war, it is too low-intensity for people who disagree with the hierarchy but are right to demonstrate competence – nor is the other side going to be destroyed at the end.
The construction cost crisis in the United States, particularly New York, might actually be a big enough crisis to have the same effect on the established order as a total war. It’s unclear, but before the virus came to the United States, there was a lot of genuine interest in making things better, though not in every city.
I suspect the mechanism for costs is that they are so high that there must be a significant enough reduction to make a career without screwing some politically necessary constituency. I don’t know; I don’t yet know the drivers of high New York costs in sufficient detail. But the magnitude and breadth of the problem point to many different explanations each increasing costs by a significant but not apocalyptic amount. Moreover, the fact that there must be many causes seems to be accepted in the local political ecosystem. Thus, people can afford to make reforms, perhaps focusing on the politically low-hanging fruits.
This is less cynical than it may sound. A small success story, such as if Ned Lamont had figured out a way to build 30-30-30 or if the MTA manages to noticeably reduce the cost of some project, creates a visible trail of success, creating more pressure to keep the reforms. Nothing succeeds like success.
A New York that can build subways even at $300 million per kilometer, let alone $100 million per kilometer, and builds housing at a pace befitting a rich global city with considerable immigration, is a completely different place from the failed city that it is today. That New York is a dynamic, rapidly growing city in which there is far more kvetching about how it’s sucking in jobs and people from more static places than kvetching about how it’s exporting jobs and people to cheaper places. I’m using analogy here because low costs by themselves do not protect a city from disease (Italy and Switzerland both have low costs and high coronavirus infection levels), but the same kind of public-sector resurgence can presumably be done for public health, ensuring New York will respond to the next pandemic like Seoul or Tokyo or Taipei.