Europe and Asia are not Liberal or Conservative America

One frustrating thing coming from telling Americans to be more like democratic Asia, or even more like Europe, is that it is a) a political claim, that b) doesn’t neatly map onto partisanship or even intra-partisan political factions. Demographically, it appeals to more educated people, and to people who identify with more educated political movements (which in the US is solidly the left half of the spectrum), but ideologically, it doesn’t hit the main political cleaves well.

I want to emphasize that the fact that Asia is Asia rather than a neat image of any Western political faction is not by itself why Asian ideas don’t percolate to the West in time. Of note, the Nordic countries specifically have implemented most of the agenda of the center-left in the English-speaking world, and are economically successful. Canadian interest in importing Nordic policy ideas is limited, and American interest is even smaller, confined just to platitudes about health care followed by proposals developed without any curiosity as to how the health care system in Nordic countries actually works. That said, American interest in importing Asian ideas is noticeably even more limited than in importing Scandinavian ones, and European interest is very weak as well. So this lack of ideological load definitely plays a role.

An example

Let us list some relevant public policy practices in South Korea, based on major Western political cleaves. Taiwan and Japan are fairly similar in most though by no means all respects; I bring up Korea for the prosaic reason that I have more reliable immigration data there, whereas in Japan the figure tracked is foreign nationals (excluding naturalized citizens) rather than all foreign-born residents.

Labor: unions exist and go on strike, especially the historically anti-militaristic-regime KCTU (there was extensive industrial action in the early 1990s), but overall union density is low, only 10%, and a total of only 12% of workers are subject to collective bargaining. The effective minimum wage is around $10/hour, average to above average by first-world standards and very high relative to labor productivity ($40/hour, cf. $60-75 in the US and European core).

Government spending and inequality: government spending is among the lowest in the OECD, 30% of GDP at all levels combined. Inequality is somewhat above OECD average but not unusually so and is well below American levels; there appears to be extensive predistribution, that is compressed pre-tax incomes, which is also the case in Switzerland and Japan, whereas in (for example) the Nordic countries pre-tax inequality is high but an extensive welfare state brings after-tax-and-transfers inequality down to low levels.

Military and foreign policy: there is conscription for men, and the military is 2.6% of GDP, more than most NATO members (though less than the US). Foreign policy oscillates between strict Atlanticism under right-wing governments, which the liberals criticize as obsequious to the US, and something like Ostpolitik but toward the North under liberal ones, which the right criticizes as obsequious to China and North Korea.

Immigration and race: only 5% of the population is foreign-born, and much of that is ethnic Koreans migrating from China. But the immigration rate is rising steadily – per Wikipedia the rate is up by about 0.3% of the population per year in the 2010s, slightly more than the growth in the US in 1990-2015, which averaged about 0.25% (cf. 2010-9 Sweden at 0.54%). Immigrants do not naturalize easily, and their children have no automatic right to Korean citizenship. There is extensive racism against Chinese people, who form about half of immigrants to Korea by citizenship (less by ethnicity), especially from the political right.

Feminism and gay rights: there is no gay marriage, open gay service in the military, or a national anti-discrimination law, but the last one exists in many cities, including Seoul. Sex reassignment surgeries have onerous conditions (minimum age of 20, no children), but ID change is subsequently allowed. Women face one of the most severe gender gaps in the developed world, and have low labor force participation, though in the 25-29 age group the rates are practically equal.

Environmentalism: greenhouse gas emissions per capita are on the high side by Western European standards, but low by North American or Australian ones. Electricity comes from coal and nuclear power, but the liberal president wants to replace both with natural gas. Transportation policy discouraged car ownership until the 1980s, and has since involved extensive construction of all infrastructure, specifically building a huge rapid transit network in Seoul and sizable ones in the secondary cities; motorization stands at just below 500 vehicles (not just cars) per 1,000 people, one of the lower figures in the developed world, but rising at 2.5-3% per year.

Crime: the crime rate is very low. A Google search for killings by police finds a mass shooting in 1982 but nothing recent; Wikipedia’s list by country has no Korean data but gives a fairly low rate for Taiwan by European standards (let alone American ones) and an extremely low one for Japan. There is capital punishment on the books and a large number of condemned, but in practice it is no longer used. The incarceration rate is normal by Western European standards (and low by American ones) relative to population.

What this means

To the person who wants to understand where democratic Asia shines (public cleanliness standards, math education, transit-oriented development, metro-regional rail integration), it doesn’t mean much. Success is success. There’s no real connection between how a country does TOD and (say) whether it has gay marriage, a practice that did not exist in any country until 19 years ago. There isn’t even much connection with cultural aspects of high-income Asia that are not exactly about political cleaves, such as the long working hours among salaried professionals or the high social distance between hierarchs and subordinates.

However, all these differences provide ample excuses for people who do not want to understand. I have noticed for a few years that most (though not all) Americans denigrate Germany politically either way, liberals viewing Germany as a land of austerity and conservatives viewing it as a land of open immigration rather than the reverse. This exists in Asia in much greater intensity: it is sexist, racist, closed to immigrants, and stiffly hierarchical – or bureaucratic, unitarist, anti-gun, hostile to small business, and stiffly hierarchical. Who wants to learn from that? Free Westerners don’t need to learn from Asiatic despots and their hiveminds, never mind recent anti-authoritarian mass movements in South Korea and Hong Kong or the state of civil liberties in Japan.

The lack of partisan load within Western politics means that small-minded people who have little interest in learning can easily excuse their disinterest. No broad political movement will say “let’s learn from Korea” because Korean government policy and practice do not match any Western movement well. For the same reason there is no learning from France or Germany in the Anglosphere; from Scandinavia there is a little, but it’s halting, stymied by the lack of a dedicated social democratic party that can propose a coherent program.

In such an environment, learning from elsewhere is a powerful tool, but not for broad party politics, which is how most people politically identify. Rather, it can be used in the following more limited ways:

  • By civil servants, bureaucrats, and issue activists who are not formally affiliated to a political faction. (Of note, TransitMatters is pretty heavily Democratic, but Massachusetts is not a state with much interpartisan competition, nor one with coherent factions within the Democratic legislative caucus.)
  • By politicians promising a specific solution on a specific issue, which from time to time does happen in the United States with respect to Europe, just not Asia (for example, YIMBYs in the Bay Area are trying to import the building typology of historic Continental city centers, relying on pleasant connotations of these cities among Americans who visited them as tourists).
  • As a potential toolkit, especially for people who identify as worldly or educated, without a direct political load. The analog here is that Nordic countries learn from one another at all times, across the entire political spectrum, which means that a left-loaded policy in one Nordic country will inspire the left in the others while acting as a cautionary tale to avoid for the right and vice versa. No such learning happens from Asia anywhere I’ve seen in the West, not in mass politics – when was the last time an American politician, or an American pundit not named Matt Yglesias, pointed to high housing growth rates in Japan and South Korea and said “let’s be like that”?

Is there a future for learning from other places?

Yes, absolutely. I’ve said in interviews that one of my motivating examples for this blog was Ezra Klein’s international comparisons of health care systems in 2005, which he called The Health of Nations. He covered a few countries, writing maybe 2 pages about each, but with American health costs high and rising, this was enough to raise him to superstardom. I’d already been thinking comparatively before because that’s how Israelis think with their cultural cringe, but 2005-6 was when I finally saw an American do that and succeed.

Of course, The Health of Nations was in an extremely politically-loaded context – all countries Ezra surveyed have universal health care paid mostly (but never exclusively) by the government. Moreover, in 2007-9, the work done that created Obamacare was purely domestic, with little interest in the details of implementation in peer countries, such as the Jospin cabinet’s universal health care bill from 2000 or the second Rabin administration’s from 1995.

And yet. I think a comparative approach has a future, looking both at politically-loaded countries like Sweden and unloaded ones like Korea. Just as the fact that American health care expenses reached about 15% of GDP in the mid-2000s while the rest of the first world was happy with about 9% motivated the efficiency arguments behind The Health of Nations, the fact that New York can’t expand the subway and other American cities can barely build any transit motivates looking into countries that are capable of building better infrastructure. Similarly, the total lack of a good example of transit-oriented development in the United States (though not in Canada – Vancouver is pretty good), with accordant rent explosions in just about every urban neighborhood with sidewalks and a semi-reasonable crime rate, is motivating YIMBYism.

Fundamentally, the slave learns the master’s language but not the reverse. The US, so long the self-styled master of the world, is slowly learning to live in a world in which it cannot look down on everyone else. It’s taking at least a generation, possibly two, but a growing minority of Americans notice this – they notice that other countries are sometimes better, and that there is nothing in American history that they can look back to wistfully, forcing a forward and sideways look.


  1. SB

    Problem with comparing Korea and US in matters dealing with urbanism is that land use is completely different.
    Major roads are wide enough to have bus lanes that drivers won’t throw massive outcry, suburbs/bedroom communities are full of high rise apartments and have very few single-family detached housing and ample greenfield land located close to the city for future development.
    None of that exists in US.

      • Herbert

        Maybe an artifact of high test rates?

        Or caused by being a neighbor of tree early and heavy hit Italy? The other neighbors of Switzerland don’t seem to be doing much better with the exception of Germany…

        • Alon Levy

          Ticino has elevated rates if I’m not mistaken because of its proximity and ties to Lombardy, but even German- and French-speaking Switzerland have extremely high rates.

          • Sarapen

            Perhaps it’s also due to Switzerland having a disproportionately large number of jet-setting elites? I dunno, I’m spitballing here.

      • Eric

        This article is about Switzerland’s economic response, not medical/epidemiological response.

  2. Herbert

    High speed rail in Japan predates all other systems by almost two decades. Did the High Speed Ground Transportation Act under LBJ or European efforts to build hsr look towards Japan or did they “merely” try to build on domestic tradition? Did Japan in turn learn anything from the 1903 speed trials of the 1950s test runs in France? What about the second wave of east Asian hsr with Taiwan, China and South Korea?

    • Benjamin Turon

      Yes Mr. Herbert, certainly in the USA and France, the Japanese success with the Tōkaidō Shinkansen inspired efforts towards high speed rail in both countries.

      The SNCF responded to Japan (embarrassed because France held the locomotive speed record, but this had been a publicity stunt) by speeding up the luxury Paris-Toulouse ‘Le Capitole’ to 200-kph operation (for a short section) in 1967. However clearly the future was not in running a few daily first-class express trains very fast, but introducing services of equally fast, frequent, and punctuation trains that were marketed to the majority of intercity travelers. The end result was of course, the TGV.

      In the USA, the Shinkansen was widely covered (I own several 1960 era magazines and books containing articles on the Shinkansen) and was directly cited as an example by US Senator Claiborne Pell (RI-Dem) in his 1966 book “Megalopolis unbound: The supercity and the transportation of tomorrow” of what could be achieved through undertaking a high speed project utilizing the existing tracks of what we now call “The Northeast Corridor”, then the mainlines of the Pennsylvania and New Haven railroads between Washington and Boston.

      Unfortunately for the Americans, they thought they could do high speed rail cheaper, faster, and better than the Japanese (if they can do, we can do it so much better because… we’re Americans) and the resulting ‘Metroliner’ project was what could be labeled a “successful messy work in progress”. This unfortunate tendency of Americans to overestimating their abilities while also under-investing in the effort, would continue to the present day, from the Metroliner to the Acela. This hubris even appears in the otherwise excellent and in-depth July 1966 Trains Magazine article of the Tōkaidō Shinkansen by noted rail author and photographer William D. Middleton, who while praising the Japanese stated what they achieved was possible on any well-built American mainline with some investment in the permanent way, tracks, signaling, and grade crossings.

      My knowledge of British Rail seems to indicate that their high speed rail efforts predate the 1964 inauguration of the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, with the electrification of the West Coast Main Line from London to the Midlands, and introduction of regularly interval shuttle service of fast 100-mph express trains, that they branded of course as “Inter-City”. The great success of the West Coast Inter-City service and the Deltics (powerful high-speed diesel-electric locomotive) on the East Coast Main Line led to the ill-fated Advance Passenger Train project, and it’s successful spin-off, the diesel HST “Intercity 125” trains. The Shinkansen and French effort obviously where known to British Rail, but the timeline of their high-speed rail efforts seem to have started before the Shinkansen broke forth with great publicity during the hubbub around the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games.

      • adirondacker12800

        The promotional film from the USDOT, the PRR and Budd has evaporated from the internet. They were aiming for 160 MPH in the next generation. They knew there were.. issues.. with the Metroliners and were working on it. We then elected Richard Nixon and the money dried up. And since then the Real Americans(tm) have been in charge.

      • R. W. Rynerson

        This film of the SNCF speed trials was shown in Oregon when I was a kid. At age ten or eleven I wanted to get to France ASAP! It was widely written about in the U.S.

        The question that comes to mind is why so little was done in North America despite having the foreign ideas discussed.

        • Lee Ratner

          My guess was that so little was done because most of North America and Australia were thoroughly in the grips of car culture and suburbanization at the time. Trying to build HSR during peak car and suburban culture was going to be difficult.

          • Herbert

            The German minister of transportation under Brandt, a certain Mr. Leber (spd) both promised “most Germans will live within x of an autobahn on-ramp” and funded hsr studies which produced 200 km/h test runs…

          • R. W. Rynerson

            The Brandt government started out to advance on all fronts at the same time. The combination of the Wirtschaftsboom and the end of the Grand Coalition gave them the feeling that they could do everything. I was perhaps the only Republican at the SPD victory party in Berlin on election night 1969 and even I felt as though a huge glacier was starting to move. (And they did accomplish a great deal, in spite of everything.)

          • Herbert

            Willy Brandt was without a doubt the least bad leader Germany has had since the war…

          • adirondacker12800

            Willy and Boris recognize reality most of the time and let it affect their decisions. Perhaps not in the way you would have preferred but one can detect that they are consulting reality.

      • Nilo

        America of course could have bought the original bullet train rolling stock instead of reinventing the wheel and focused on ROW improvements, but unsurprisingly we tried to redo what the Japanese had already done and did it much less well

        • adirondacker12800

          If the Japanese were offering something for sale outside of Japan at the time but they were busy the first generation of of what we now call Shinkansen, for themselves, at the time

    • Alon Levy

      Japan definitely learned a lot from the West. It used a lot of German technology, and evidently chose 25 kV electrification as in postwar France. I don’t know to what extent the Metroliner was inspired by the Shinkansen, but it went in a different direction. The TGV was partly inspired by Shinkansen (and the RER was inspired by Tokyo’s through-running), but went in its own direction, though not diverging nearly so much as the US.

      My impression of Taipei is that it tries to be Tokyo. There are some shared aspects of East Asian urban transit that don’t really exist in the West, and a bunch of street-level observations of Taipei streets that remind me of both my vague memory of Tokyo and pictures I’ve seen recently and descriptions I’ve read. This makes sense since in the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s, all of Asia thought of development as being like Japan, much as in the 1950s and 60s the capitalist world mostly thought of development as being like the US (I don’t think the German economic miracle was recognized outside Germany at the time; the Japanese one wasn’t).

      • adirondacker12800

        I can’t find it easily. The National Geographic had an article about the Wirtschaftswunder. If it was making it into the National Geographic someone somewhere had noticed. I know that the Germans call it the Wirtschaftswunder. Or did back then. And it only had to do with what was called West Germany. There used to be a West Germany and an East Germany and it was quite common to discuss the differences. …. but no, your feeling is that it wasn’t talked about. There were even popular movies about it. And digging tunnels under the Wall. but you feel nobody talked about it. Okay.
        Took me 22 seconds to ask myself “I wonder what his name is”
        and find an answer by typing the meme into Google.
        … nah, we didn’t talk about it.

      • RossB

        Yeah, the Japanese have a long history of borrowing ideas from other countries. This happened before and after the war. Furthermore, some concepts pioneered by Americans were first used by the Japanese to make better automobiles, enabling Japan to be a world leader in that category.

        South Korea is a U. S. protectorate, so of course they borrow ideas from the U. S. This also might explain American arrogance. We beat Japan and Germany, what can we learn from them? We rescued South Korea when they were essentially a rural economy, and through our help, became a more advanced economy. That is an oversimplified view of things, but I’m sure it is common.

        The funny part is that the U. S. used to borrow from other countries a lot as well. It was one of the big reasons why things advanced fairly quickly there. My guess is this is common for empires. Once you get to the top, you start getting cocky, and just assume that you do everything the best. If Japan had won World War 2, it is quite possible they would have taken a similar track. If China becomes the dominant military and economic power in the world, I would expect the same attitude.

        • Alon Levy

          Of note, the part about being a US protectorate is controversial in both Korea and Taiwan, with opposite domestic political valence – in South Korea the conservatives are pro-American to the point of neoconservatism and the liberals engage in Nordpolitik, in Taiwan the conservatives are pan-Blue and fairly pro-PRC while the liberals are pan-Green and back de jure independence and alliance with the US to protect Taiwanese de facto independence.

          I want to caution about treating this as a purely military issue, though. Europe has almost the same arrogance as the US when it comes to learning from Asia. What’s more, the examples I do see of noticing Japan exists in transportation are in France, just about the only EU member with any kind of independent geopolitics. It’s more about wealth (or perceived wealth) than military prowess, and to some extent it’s not even about wealth but about self-identification with some cultural grouping (the Anglosphere, the West, etc.).

          • SB

            Historically KMT was pro-US (well after 1941) and KMT’s end goal was and is unification of China.
            Obviously unification with current state of PRC is really bad idea.
            There is also line of thought that unification is inevitable (because CCP wants unification and increasing economic connections between 2 Chinas) and trying to fight it will leave Taiwan worse off.

          • RossB

            My point is that like them or hate them, with tens of thousands of U. S. troops there (and a fairly recent, larger history of involvement) it is hard for South Korea to ignore the U. S. In contrast, it is much easier for say, Singapore, to ignore the U. S. (even though there are some ties, including military ones).

          • Herbert

            Most Singaporeans watch American entertainment tv in the original language which requires some measure of cultural knowledge to be understood…

      • Joseph

        Most of Taiwan’s core urban areas were organized and laid out by Japan, so Japan’s influence is very direct. Japan’s combination of wide arterials and narrow, sidewalk-less alleyways is also common in China’s pre-1980 urban areas (central Beijing most obviously, Chengdu, X’ian, parts of Guangzhou). In terms of transit Taiwan seems very different from Japan, with limited interest in treating mainline rail as frequent mass transit, or taking it seriously at all. Even though Taiwan has a cultural fascination with Japan I have never seen anyone refer to it as a model for mass transit. Taiwan treats transit as a prestige item that follows car infrastructure, and appears to lack Japan’s emphasis on smooth integration between rail lines.

  3. Matthew Hutton

    Japan’s whole philosophy since 1880 has been based on learning from the West.

  4. Benjamin Turon

    On the ignorance of Americans (and the West) of Asia, and seemingly inability to learn from their example, be it railways or housing, I think this has a lot to do with the cultural history of the West being first with the Industrial Revolution, and the technological leader through most of the 19th and 20th Century. That meant that a non-Western nation like Japan, always had to look overseas to find ways to catch up in the technology. During the Meiji Era many foreign experts cycled through Japan to provide expertise of everything from railways to agricultural to naval operations. These is a reason why Japanese schoolgirls wear a Royal Navy sailor uniforms, while the males wear a Prussian uniform.

    As an amateur student of naval history and technology, this was certainly true even for the Japanese Imperial Navy, which technological trailed the Royal Navy and USN in several important areas, including gunnery fire control, proximity fuses for AA guns, and self-sealing tanks for aircraft. The super-dreadnought Yamato was the biggest battleship, but that compensated for both the inability to out build the US and UK industrially, and match them in quality of fire control and armor plate. The loss of the Second World War and following occupation undoubtedly reinforce in Japan the need to learn from overseas, better ways of doing things in the Post War Era. Famously, Japanese manufacturers imported American efficiency experts – including W. Edwards Deming – to consult on how to improve industrial production. More recently Toyota President Akio Toyoda warned of the “big company problem” of “being number one” leading to complacency, hubris, and decadence.

    That I think is the issue of America, we’ve been “number one” for so long, that were incapable of imagining and acknowledging that we’re not actually number one in the many ways we once led the world. America today is a bit like Qing dynasty in 1800 China, we are so self-absorbed and self-assured that we don’t see the changes occurring outside our borders. Certainly, this was not true of most non-Western nations for the last two centuries, including nations like Japan, China, and South Korea.

    With that said, as a American who only speaks English and has never been overseas – unless you count one day trip to Toronto and a few other times over the Rainbow Bridge – I read regularly about how America is failing and is inferior in so many ways, in various sources including ‘The New York Times’, ‘The Wall Street Journal’, ‘The Economist’, NPR, and the BBC. These various articles are not always the most inform, but they do state clearly: America sucks a lot at doing many things. And this seems broadly acknowledged by a lot of the chattering classes.

    I have read about several times in recent years on how Tokyo has cheaper housing, how Singapore has good quality public housing, and how France can build subways for far cheaper than New York City. The BBC has done stories on housing in London verse housing in Vienna and other foreign cities. Now in the last two months I have read quite a few in-depth articles on how East Asian nations have more effectively meant the current Pandemic Emergency by learning from their past mistakes with SARS and MERS, and then enacting changes in policy while building up the public heath infrastructure to contain a outbreak.

    Of course, perhaps I am helped by looking for news sources outside of the USA, including a subscription to ‘Modern Railways’, plus the purchase of numerous rail books from the UK and Japan, and being a daily watcher of the Japanese national broadcaster, NHK World. NHK World has run a lot of documentaries on their rail system which I have found very informative, including ‘Japan Railway Journal’ and ‘Train Cruise’.

    Continuing with a focus on just rail issues, I do seem America as having a very insular and uninformed culture of both professionals and rail advocates. And furthermore, besides the ignorance of many, there is also a parallel sentiment of despondency in others, that things can’t be made better, that America has lost the ability to learn and enact best practices from overseas. I feel this way sometimes, but I retain hope — while working to better inform people — that America can shake off its apathy and learn from overseas, to build a better rail transport system, including the much needed electrification.

    • Matthew Hutton

      All the stuff about lean manufacturing is the west learning about japan to be fair.

      • adirondacker12800

        Japan learned it from the West. The West knew about it but people who do stuff for a living know better than poindexters who have carefully documented things. It didn’t catch their attention until they were being put out of business. And then being the valiant free market advocates that they were wanted protection from the government.

        • Herbert

          Just look at Boeing. They undoubtedly led the market in civil aviation for decades. Now, they have virtually no product that isn’t a pound for pound loser in a head to head against Airbus and that’s not even counting the max. What keeps them afloat is a mixture of buyer lock-in (hence the max) “too big to fail” and airlines wishing to play the duopoly against each other…

          If COMAC is even a bit successful in LatAm, Africa and non Chinese Asia, Boeing is looking at tough times ahead…

          • RossB

            Yep. I know a lot of people who work (or have worked) at Boeing. They all, independently say the same thing (although the details vary). Essentially they stopped being interested in making the best planes, but became interested in squeezing money out of the company. It is a classic modern corporate American approach, and an allegory for the country as a whole. Very few board members know anything about airplanes. Instead they have MBA degrees. Their philosophy is that domain knowledge doesn’t matter — if you manage a company making soda pop, you can manage an airplane company. If you are a real estate mogul who inherited most of his money, then you can be President of the United States.

            Of course a business wants to make something good and make money. But a lot of innovation — and wealth — is driven by a love of something other than money. Bill Gates didn’t start out trying to be the richest man in the world, he just liked playing with computers. When things get reversed, and people stop being interested in actually producing something of value — and purely interested in making money — then things fall apart (for example Enron and the 2008 financial crisis).

          • michaelrjames

            Very few board members know anything about airplanes. Instead they have MBA degrees. Their philosophy is that domain knowledge doesn’t matter — if you manage a company making soda pop, you can manage an airplane company.

            Precisely. The most famous example I suppose is Steve Scully, Pepsi -> Apple.

            And it reaches its nadir in the management of an entire country in the case of the UK (with USA making a giant leap in that direction under Trump) so you end up with a clown PM who speaks Latin but probably can barely tie his own shoelaces (he can’t manage to keep his shirt tucked in). It was part of the process of laundering origins during the industrial revolution where earning money making actual stuff was disdained, and the first great leap in financialisation was the creation of the East India Company whose investors didn’t want to know what the heck it did, with stuff, on the other side of the planet.
            It was a tiny fluke of happenstance that the UK ended up with bipartisan climate policy because Margaret Thatcher had a chemistry degree (sounds like science fiction, doesn’t it?) and understood implicitly why the planet was warming from burning fossil fuels. A PPE grad (as most PMs are, even Australian PMs via their Rhodie years, two of our last 3 PMs!), (1) wouldn’t have the attention span to listen to any technical arguments and (2) would simply ask ‘what’s the cost?’. (By which they mean, what is the cost today, not tomorrow or 50 years hence.)

          • adirondacker12800

            Successful real estate moguls don’t go bankrupt multiple times. Successful any kind of mogul doesn’t. to a grifter who lies facilely if he “owns” a glittering 200 million dollar tower, it’s worth 200 million. And doesn’t talk about how it’s mortgaged to the gills…..

          • Herbert

            Boris Johnson has admitted on the record that playing the fool is tactics for him. He’s way too laden with historical references and grandiloquent speeches to be as dumb as he likes to portray himself..

  5. fjod

    From my semi-British perspective, it seems like the ‘Anglosphere’ in this case might not be the most apt term for the countries that fail to learn from France, Germany and Scandinavia.

    Firstly, re “there is no learning from France or Germany in the Anglosphere”: the UK does frequently learn from France and Germany (and the other countries I assume this is a shorthand for, i.e. Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland). Even just within transport, HS2 is clearly based off the TGV, London’s transport system uses Paris as its benchmark, and bike policy (e.g. Mini-Hollands) is almost always based off that of the Netherlands. The UK’s feeble attempts at industrial strategy are always framed in comparison to Germany, and discussion of productivity is framed as a ‘gap’ between Britain on the one hand and France/Germany (and sometimes the US) on the other. I think there’s a lot more lessons that the UK could learn, but the UK definitely is learning from these countries – though it might do so less after Brexit.

    Particularly on the right, there are comparisons with Singapore, China, Korea etc., but most of these are very superficial and fail to acknowledge things like Singapore’s radically different conception of the role of the state – I wouldn’t really call this “learning” from these countries. Britons are very ignorant of Japan, despite the two countries sharing a number of obvious similarities. As you say, these ignorances aren’t specific to the Anglosphere, instead being a problem with almost all the European and European-descendant west, though.

    Secondly, re “from Scandinavia there is a little [learning] but it’s halting, stymied by the lack of a dedicated social democratic party”: Scottish independence supporters base a large amount of the mythology of what an independent Scotland could be like on the Scandinavian countries, and the SNP often takes Scandinavian ideas (e.g. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund) into its policy platform. Huge amounts of the Scottish government’s international comparisons are with Scandinavia, both economically ( and more narrowly in transport issues ( It’s maybe worth noting that this learning comes mostly from a party that is not the dedicated social democratic one.

    • adirondacker12800

      The usual number I hear is that the big three U.S. automakers…. which aren’t the big three anymore… make the same number of cars today that they did in the heyday. With a quarter of the workforce. Yes, industrial work has been sent overseas but big chunks of it have been automated. Platoons of people doing things machines now do is never coming back. There is nothing sacred about the five day week or an eight hour day either.

    • Alon Levy

      So, re British learning from Europe… yes, it’s less hopeless than American learning, but it’s not in any way good. In not-transport, consider the following points:

      – British health outcomes are among the worst in Western Europe. Despite this, the mythology of the NHS endures.
      – Every proposal for state reform (e.g. PR, but not just PR) runs into the usual coterie of “Britain is great, why do we learn from France/Germany/small countries?” apologetics.
      – There is little interest in why housing construction rates in London are so far below Paris as well as many other rich European cities (e.g. Munich, Stockholm, Frankfurt, Amsterdam).
      – The herd immunity strategy for dealing with the virus.
      – Brexit itself was sold on the idea of British uniqueness. More populist countries in Western Europe, like Italy, have little interest in leaving the EU. The Tories specifically dissociated themselves from the Continental center-right in leaving EPP and forming ECR.

      And in transport:

      – The British discussion about fare payment is entirely incurious about the German-speaking world’s model. When I tried telling John Bull of London Reconnections about Berlin while he was threading about London’s insights about fare evasion, he yelled at me that he doesn’t care.
      – The RER opened in 1977, but Crossrail construction only goes back around 15 years. There was no close look at Paris at the time, just as congestion pricing took 25 years to make it from Singapore back to London.
      – There is not much interest in why British construction costs are so consistently high, and even people who should know better are making excuses, e.g. comparing HS2 to heavily tunneled mountain railways.
      – The smaller cities are trying to imitate London rather than similar-size German or Nordic or V4 cities. The results are not good. (P.S. this is also a problem in France, but some ideas are percolating, like takt planning, SYTRAL, and heavy use of tramways.)

      • adirondacker12800

        Whose mythology are you reading? There are a lot of conflicting myths.

      • RossB

        >> Brexit itself was sold on the idea of British uniqueness

        Brexit is just a form of chauvinism that comes and goes throughout the world. It is especially bad right now in the U. S. and the U. K., but there are elements of it in France, Germany, Japan and lots of other countries. It is commonplace throughout Africa as well as much of the developing world. Italy may have no interest in leaving the E. U. right now, but it wouldn’t shock me if the pendulum swings back and they want “Italy for Italians”.

        • adirondacker12800

          …… there was a short report interviewing British retirees in Spain. And the interviewer mentioned that perhaps if Brexit happens Spanish pharmacies, doctor etc. will stop taking your insurance card. There were aghast..
          My empathy nerve went numb in early 2017 when I was watching the third or fourth report from a town hall a Republican member of Congress was holding. Remember when Republicans at least went through the motions of listening to their constituents? I digress. And for the the third or fourth time some very emotional person gets up and blurts out “I’ve always voted Republican but if you take away my Obamacare I’ll die”
          Democrats and unaffiliated people, even people who are members of whack job third parties who also have your condition will die if Obamacare repealed, too. But you felt the need to plead for extra special attention because you are a member of the tribe. And the people you are proud to have voted for, for years, because you just bragged about your loyalty to them, have been screeching, for years, that they are most definitely, lickety split, as soon as possible in any they can, repeal Obamacare. Are you naturally stupid or do you make an effort to be that way? So all these issues you say you deeply care about, you don’t because you think they aren’t going to implement them? Or you just like voting for people who lie?
          …. deep red counties in California, that voted for Donald Trump because he has a strong stance on immigration, among other things, were shocked and amazed and very very concerned that it included their immigrants. …. naturally stupid or do you make an effort to be that way? My empathy nerve has gone numb. I’ve stopped trying to figure out their motives. They are that dumb.

          • Herbert

            Left wing movements are so prone to splintering because everybody cares about the finer details of the ideology. Right wing movements virtually never split over anything except the power hunger of the leaders because the party faithful virtually never know the finer points of the ideology. You’ll likely find more leftists who’ve read Burke than conservatives who have.

            Similarly Catholic Europe was happy and content doing what the pope said even when there were two (there were exactly zero theological questions involved in the Avignon schism) but as soon as the damn printing press made vernacular translations of scripture affordable and some Saxon monk translated it into “theodice”, people started arguing over minutiae until there were a thousand protestant sects in countries that would tolerate them…

          • Alon Levy

            Oh, the wingers split all the time. There are the blackpills, NRx, multiple flavors of alt-right each of which thinks the others are alt-lite sellouts, tradcaths…

          • adirondacker12800

            Puritans have schisms. Whatever flavor of Puritanism they are observing.

          • Herbert

            Those splits on the far right barely matter. They still fight the common enemy on a United Front and often the same person is a different flavor of far right each day…

            Meanwhile Stalin purged Spanish anarchists while losing the civil war to a coalition of people who backed incompatible claimants to the Spanish throne as well as a system without a long of any kind…

      • Herbert

        In Germany some cities refuse to learn from other German cities when it comes to tramways… Regensburg, Aachen, Kiel, Hamburg, Wiesbaden and Erlangen are all cities with extremely stony roads to (re-)establishing tram service despite all tram projects in the last three decades in Germany being unmitigated successes.

        • Herbert

          Heck in west Berlin there are even some unwilling to learn from a different part of the same city when it comes to trams…

          • R. W. Rynerson

            When I visited BVG planners in 2002 it became very obvious that the former BVG (West) people, most of them English-speaking and giving a slick presentation, were not interested in the streetcar net. When I asked in German for a show of hands of those who were from the BVG (Ost), three or four tired looking smokers cautiously raised their hands. They were kept on because somebody had to keep up the trams. A generation later, it’s a different situation.

      • R. W. Rynerson

        The first segment of the RER opened before it was the RER in December 1969, with the RATP replacing a steam-powered SNCF commuter train service that operated out of the forgotten Gare de la Bastille. I rode it in March 1970 from its new station at Nation; the original segment became part of Line A.

        It was great to be able to “compare and contrast” the old set-up and the new. Here’s a look at the old:

          • michaelrjames

            I understand that those lines, or bits of them, eventually became part of RERs but they weren’t planned that way. Obviously not the PC which was built in 1844, but was there an RER plan in 1969 when the Vincennes railway was electrified and terminated at Nation?

      • michaelrjames

        Everything you wrote is correct however you are missing the most important thing.

        The UK never had a (proper) revolution and never overthrew its ruling classes. For a brief period post-war it had its chances but blew it … again. The system revolves around the class system and found a way to subvert non-members of the ruling class, like grocer’s daughter Thatcher and of course Blair, both of whom went thru the re-education camp of Oxford (I spent years at Oxford but not my education and was a mere worker bee). From the p.o.v. of the ruling class their British way is highly successful. The fact that the UK has the highest inequality among the Europeans is in fact testament to that. Most of Europe went the technocracy route and run much better democratic governments, and that is the last thing they want in the UK, hence their ridiculous FPTP voting, House of Lords, essentially two-party politics in which the conservatives gain power twice as long as Labor. And Nu-Labor’s record under Blair is very mixed; as I mentioned in a different post most of the NHS-PFI fiasco started under Blair (proving the thesis about Oxford, and Thatcher’s reply when asked what she thought was her greatest achievement: “Tony Blair”).

        It succeeds very well on their terms. The massive shift of their economy to financialisation has worked brilliantly, to enrich the top and entrench power and pump up the value of assets which are overwhelmingly owned by them (One man owns all of Mayfair, and Hugh Grosvenor age 30, inherited it at age 26 and paid zero estate tax). By the tricks of maintaining (for the moment) an absurdly over-valued currency, attracting plenty of foreign capital via its quasi-tax-haven and tax-friendly status etc. it is kind of “money for nothing” and looks like a house of cards that could collapse any time–but one has to hand it to them, they’ve kept it going for along time now.

        It’s why Brexit is a glass half full for the EU, especially the French who have been correct all these decades about “Anglosaxon” finance practices.

        As for the rest–healthcare, education, transport etc–they spend as little as possible and delay spending as long as possible (both HS2 and Crossrail are >40 years behind France and others). HS2 is costing a fortune but where is the money going? A lot to landowners, and they are overwhelmingly the upper-classes: (Guy Shrubsole et al.) 17% is not registered by the Land Registry and is probably inherited land that has never been bought or sold [in the past 1,000 years since the Domesday book first recorded these things]. Half of England is owned by less than 1% of the population. The homeowners’ share adds up to just 5%: “A few thousand dukes, baronets and country squires own far more land than all of Middle England put together.” .

        As Ezra Klein pointed out, the NHS is quite amazing, not because it is so great, but at half the per capita funding of the Europeans and one quarter of the US, it actually achieves a creditable outcome despite the austerity and general incompetence (forced upon it). Even though I am a critic, I can agree with that.

        So, it’s not a case that the Brits who run the joint cannot learn from the Europeans, but that they know if they copied them it would be impoverishing themselves, even if the average Brit would be better off. That’s the real deep logic behind Brexit–they correctly perceive the EU as a threat. All the populist little-Englander stuff is just how they sold it to the gullible public.

        • Herbert

          Only someone who has a weird definition of revolution would say there was never a revolution in the time between Charles I of House Stuart ruling without Parliament and House Orange taking over… Granted, it’s debatable whether the head chopping business or the later switch of dynasty were the revolution and ultimately England does lack a clear cut after 1066 like 1945 is for many countries or 1789 was for France. A problem, incidentally, not unlike Spain’s flawed transition. Or Chile’s…

          • michaelrjames

            Herbert, I think you have explained why I don’t consider those ‘proper’ revolutions, I suppose I could have said ‘people’s” revolutions, instead of passing the power from inheritance to a self-selected elite.

        • Eric

          “at half the per capita funding of the Europeans”

          Is this really true? OECD data suggests the UK’s spending is on the middle to high end…

          • michaelrjames

            Yeah. I know I will cop it when I say what a lot of others say, I can hardly believe those figures. True Klein did his analysis 13 years ago now. (Also note that OECD data actually comes from the country itself, ie. not calculated de novo within the OECD .. just saying.) One has to seriously wonder where all the money goes when comparing the NHS with any (northern) European health system. The reality is there is no one who believes either that figure is real, or that it flows into the health system. Just yesterday (and ok, it’s the Guardian but the author is “a former regional director of public health and honorary professor of public health at the University of Bristol.”):

            England’s ravaged public health system just can’t cope with the coronavirus
            On top of huge cuts, regional bodies have also been decimated in the past 10 years. It’s left us ill-prepared for a crisis like this
            Gabriel Scally,
            Mon 30 Mar 2020
            The NHS has also had 10 years of significant underfunding – and England, in particular, has an operational and management system that is fragmented and lacks an effective command and control structure. The public health function in England has been removed from the NHS and incorporated into local government, where its budgets have been systematically raided to prop up local councils that have suffered catastrophic cuts in the name of austerity.
            Local authority functions closely aligned with public health, such as environmental health and social services, have been notable casualties. Within the local government world, the once powerful directors of public health have seen their influence decline, along with their staffing and resources.
            The impoverishment of the NHS and the public health system in England is not the only depletion that has occurred in civil society that makes us ill-equipped to respond effectively to the greatest global health crisis in a century.
            One of the first acts of the coalition government when it came to power in 2010 was to dismantle the regional structures that had provided a coherent mechanism for integrating and carrying out government policy within the English regions. The government offices for the regions (GOR) were established in 1994 by John Major’s administration as outposts of central government departments. They were tasked with implementing government-funded programmes and monitoring their performance. They also had an important coordination role at times of national emergency, such as during the fuel protest crisis of 2000.

            Perhaps one of those percentage points (or even more, see link below) is swallowed by the interest payments on those shocking PFIs? And the (at least) 2.5% difference between the Brits and France, often rated as #1 in the world (Swiss spending is the same) amounts to some $50bn p.a., which is about $1bn per week (double the fake figure on the side of Boris’ Brexit Bus). So, just these two things add up to about $100bn and maybe that is the difference. All the dysfunction loaded onto it by the Tories is just icing. Anyway, Klein’s observation stands: it is remarkable what the NHS manages despite all of this.

            NHS hospital trusts to pay out further £55bn under PFI scheme
            Some spending one-sixth of entire budget on repaying debts from Blair-era policy
            Denis Campbell, 12 Sep 2019

            One sixth of the budget is about 1.5% GDP.

      • fjod

        As I mentioned in my comment, I broadly agree with you! I think British people are often far too close-minded to other countries’ solutions to these matters, probably historically due to their poor foreign language skills and in the present due to Brexit. A couple of further points…

        – I suppose I missed the differences in coronavirus response because the Dutch policy has been basically followed the same trajectory as the British one (and the Swedish response continues to be far more relaxed than others’); the Dutch premier Rutte was talking about herd immunity until the end of last week, even after the UK had dropped that approach. But you’re right that discussion in the UK didn’t seem to engage with the realities of what was going on in neighbouring countries.
        – In the case of British fare payment regulation, it broadly looks like that of France and is considerably less strict than that of the Netherlands. OK, it doesn’t learn from Germany/Austria/Czechia – but it is in line with its closer neighbours.
        – I’m not hugely sure about the point about smaller British cities. British cities are for the most part so weak that they can’t actually advocate for anything more than getting funding for whatever central government wishes to build, or alerting central government to glaring problems (e.g. bus privatisation) that are then fixed centrally. On the rare occasions they have the powers, such cities do learn from comparators in continental Europe. So tram-train development in Manchester and Sheffield quite explicitly learns from Germany, for example.

        Your mention of France in the last point is interesting, I think. France often doesn’t heed the lessons of its neighbours as much as it could – it suffers from this issue when it comes to issues like state reform, timetable planning (i.e. running bilevel TER at seemingly random intervals) or labour market regulation. Perhaps the UK is better compared to France than the rest of the Anglosphere when it comes to learning from abroad. My first thought on this is that it’s probably due to the historical pride that these two countries have, which is related to the fact that neither France nor Britain have had the historical impetus to learn from abroad like the other large European countries.

        • Alon Levy

          Ile-de-France has a flat-rate monthly pass with an attractive discount to the suburbs (though not to people traveling only intra muros).

          France, too, has big pride issues. That said, it does learn from other countries: the Navigo system is such a technological disaster Paris is moving toward a London-style contactless system with capping (ugh), the RER was informed by Tokyo commuter rail through-running, some TERs are taktifying their timetables citing the positive Swiss experience as a model, the rapid growth in light rail is in line with some tramway rebuilds in Central Europe, and Anne Hidalgo’s pedestrianization and installation of bike lanes are in line with the urbanist zeitgeist all over the developed world.

          In not-transport, the moderate left in France has been talking up the Nordic model since the 1970s as an alternative to ossified French bureaucracy (not always in good faith), and there are a couple recent examples of people in France understanding that Germany is a better-performing country. Hence Macron got his labor market reform, and a previous government, not sure if under Hollande or Sarkozy, reformed business registration laws so that now it only takes 4 days to incorporate in France.

          • Herbert

            I think a good litmus test is whether “we’re the only country that x” is a positive or negative statement most of the time.

            In Germany it’s virtually always said in an accusing or shameful tone…

          • Eric

            What’s wrong with ” contactless system with capping”? Seems like the ideal to me.

          • Alon Levy

            Nothing’s wrong with it, it just is less ideal for running a POP-based system than prepaid monthlies with large enough discounts that regular riders never have to consider not getting a monthly. (And also, London has no monthly capping because lol, only daily and weekly capping, but Paris is planning monthly capping.)

          • Richard Mlynarik

            What’s wrong with ” contactless system with capping”?

            You’re not reducing the number of transactions in any meaningful way, even if the system does feature fare gates (which such hardware-heavy vendor-promoted systems always do, even if technically that isn’t the case.)

            An actually ideal system features very free flow onto and off all vehicles, without queues to validate/exclude each rider. The way to do this is to price fixed-period (multi-hour, multi-day, etc) tickets attractively, reducing transactions to a single ahead-of-riding-period purchase with occassional random spot validation.

            With capped systems, every ride up to each individual rider’s capping point — meaning a large majority of all rides — involves a swipe. And in actual real-world practice, you’ve also bought into faregates, hugely expensive fortress stations, and slowed and restricted pedestrian movement, and probably into mandatory tag-on and tag-off for every trip, often for obscure and statistically ignorant purposes about “data collection”. More queuing, more swiping, more overhead. And more vendor profit.

          • fjod

            Yeah, both countries are making first steps to learn things from abroad that they should’ve learnt some time ago. I think we can both give examples of things each country has learnt from abroad, and things that each country is ignorant of (in some cases seemingly wilfully).

            The more interesting question might be: which countries are best at learning from abroad? From the stuff you’ve written, it seems like Israel might be a contender on transit.

        • R. W. Rynerson

          British light rail advocates – as compared to management and politicians – were very interested in Continental LRT projects in the 60’s and 70’s. The term “Light” Rail came to North America via Modern Tramways, the periodical of the Light Railway Transport League. [In the UK, a “light” railway did not need parliamentary assent; it was really meant for industrial purposes.] One of the officers of the group was a traffic department staffer of British European Airways who used his travels to keep in touch with East and West European evolution of the LRT concept. We met for an upscale breakfast (comped by his hotel due to his profession) in film noir confidentiality after he called on BVG Ost brass and was safely out of the East. A younger member of that conspiracy migrated to Edmonton from Glasgow and became the first rail operations manager in Alberta.

      • rational plan

        Oh everyone knows why housing construction is lower (mix of nimbyism and lack of public housing). But no one will agree to change it. There is talk of wide ranging change on planning etc. But put it on the net and it’s all we should not build any houses of greenfields while at the same time everyone petitions against anything taller than 3 storeys built in town. Houses need to built everyone agrees but not near me. Central government tries to impose housing allocation targets and everyone fights tooth and nail against them.

        The same political trap exists on the NHS. It’s not actually that good, if it was other countries would have copied it. It’s a huge single organisation with no choice for the patient. But is part of the UK’s post war myth of a just society and is therefore untouchable. Any possible change is shouted as wanting to sell it to the Americans and the horror show across the Atlantic is waved around as the only alternative. The Tories have given up trying to change it. The only argument will be about funding. Only the labour party will have political space to change and they won’t as they see it as their crowning achievement.

        But as a correction the UK spend 9.6%vof it GDP on healthcare . In the EU only France, Germany, Benelux, Austria, Denmark and Sweden spend more. (according to Eurostat). The highest is France with 11.5% followed by Germany and Sweden, after that the rest are not that much higher than the UK.

        As to Brexit, the fundamental problem is that Britain is a different political culture, it’s relationship to the EU was transational. a club it should belong to for it’s benefit. It did not believe in the project of ever closer union. It did not suffer the same way during the second world war. ‘It won’. The idea of the EU as important in of itself does not hold here. The UK has been split about europe from the moment it went in. It had a referendum shortly after it joined on whether it should stay in. One Margaret Thatcher campaigned strongly for staying in! I personally thought we should stay, but always knew a point of fracture would come. The UK would not sign up for a common defence policy or taxation or the next levels of integration. Though I thought we’d end up with some form of associative membership.

        Alon I can imagine why John Bull might have he did not care about POP because you are a bit evangelical about it.

        And while I can see it makes things easier to travel. I’m doubtful it makes a huge difference in total public usage of a system, Total funding towards it will drive usage combined with how easy it is to drive instead. Ir could equally be German speaking countries have well funded integrated transit systems. Therefore all aspects of it must equally important. I would certainly agree integration is important and before electronic ticketing a paper system was only way to do that. But now? London did have integrated ticketing in the 80’s with the launch of the travelcard, and that was just a magnetic paper ticket. The UK does fall down on integration of bus and rail systems, outside of London.

        But politics have been changing the new combined metro mayor deals have seen various cities start to draw up plans for their own bus franchising system and the promise (yet again) of integrated ticketing. It’s all going at the usual glacial place but it’s happening at a rate that everyone can pretend the past was not a mistake. Rail franchising has finally died, killed off by the virus in the end as they have all been switched to management contracts. But the writing has been on the wall for that last two years that the franchise system was dieing. Killed off by the ever more insane demands from the DFT mainly.

        Anyway politics has just flexed in the UK and all old certainties have changed. It looks it took the Tories to bury the old Thatcherite consensus and who knows at the moment what is going to change to.

        • Herbert

          In Erlangen “Die Linke” campaign on lowering rents amd stuff like that, but have voted against every single social housing project in 2014-2020, finding some sort of individual fault with every concrete project presented by the SPD mayor…

        • michaelrjames

          But as a correction the UK spend 9.6%vof it GDP on healthcare . In the EU only France, Germany, Benelux, Austria, Denmark and Sweden spend more. (according to Eurostat). The highest is France with 11.5% followed by Germany and Sweden, after that the rest are not that much higher than the UK.

          Yeah, so all the countries the UK would generally prefer to compare itself to …
          Switzerland should be included as it has almost same %GDP spend as France and vies with France as “best in world”.

          See my response elsewhere on this thread.

          • Alon Levy

            Swiss health outcomes are on paper high, but there’s selective migration – healthy workers from surrounding countries move to Switzerland to work, sick and old people move out of Switzerland to retire and die.

          • adirondacker12800

            And the stereotype is that Spaniards move to the U.K. to do work “the british don’t want to do”. Youse free market types should recognize that is symptom that you aren’t paying enough….. I digress. And that rich retirees from the U.K. move to Spain which is cheaper and a bit warmer than the south of France. I’m sure the statisticians have reams of footnotes at the back of the book of their statistics that explain that yes they adjusted for the biases in the sample.

          • michaelrjames

            And that rich retirees from the U.K. move to Spain which is cheaper and a bit warmer than the south of France.

            No, it’s the lower echelon Brits who retire to Spain. The upper-middle and uppers move to France.
            However Spain long ago got a bit weary of its Brits who bring a low culture and impose their poor health on the superior Spanish health system. It took Brexit to shock them into realising how much better their healthcare is in Spain, yet these types are the very same group who would vote for Brexit! Low-information voters who only go to Spain to avoid the miserable weather in Blighty while attempting to recreate all the other miserable Brit things in their adopted home. Seriously, their favoured sites in Spain are to be avoided.


          • adirondacker12800

            The people who retire in place in their council flat think the ones who go to Spain are rich. And they are. I suspect that part of the plan was to fly back and forth between Spain and the U.K. a few times a year. Not take the bus to the train station and go to Blackpool during the week when the room rates are lower. And if you think people who made enough money to retire to Spain are lower echelon who are the people who retire in place in a house they own and drive to Blackpool during the week because the rates are lower?

          • michaelrjames

            They’re really not. They are often somewhat marginal, even in low-cost Spain.
            However, there is often one overwhelming factor in Brits moving abroad: if they owned property anywhere in Blighty it will allow them to upgrade when moving to Spain and rural France. Obviously historically that is a ridiculously overblown property market and an equally ridiculous exchange rate (not so much today).

            I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet these expats in Spain don’t travel much back to Blighty, not least because they no longer have a home there and it would soon be tiresome with relatives. I don’t know what ideas you have but this lot are not the two-home world traveller type. They are not the Tuscany as Chiantishire type, or ditto in the Dordogne (and anyway the history of such house moves is that it either succeeds and they let go their Brit home, or they give up and return; since almost anywhere is better than Blighty most stay, and occasional return visits will only confirm their wise choice). They are not travellers by nature and barely move from their Spanish base, not least because most of them never bother learning the language or customs and most are deeply uncurious. Oh, and you can get Sky throughout Europe.

          • michaelrjames

            I should have added, because perhaps you don’t know, but these expat Brits currently get their Brit pensions and they get to use the superior Spanish healthcare system for free. This is why they are very anxious about Brexit on both counts. It is hard to see why Spain should continue providing free healthcare. To most other countries the British continue to pay pensions to expats BUT they don’t index-link them, thus in a few short years inflation eats away. In Australia, incredibly IMO, the Australian government tops up the British pensions and has done so for half a century (a better option to these retirees living in total penury). UK nationals even get unemployment benefits in Spain.
            These people are living on Brit pensions not any trust funds etc and they cannot afford private health insurance; nor private schooling (in Malaga some 20% of classes are kids of Brit expats).

        • Nilo

          John Bull in said thread, if I’m correctly remembering which one Alon is talking about, basically came out enthusiastically for what felt like an Orwellian Police state. His discussion of Transport for London’s fare enforcement policies was the best argument I’ve ever seen for PoP even if it was unintentional. See said thread

          • rational plan

            No way does that argue for a police state. It was just about the persuading people to pay their fares and how to do it without having to spend too much money. Basically make sure that fare inspections are highly visible and at the busiest times of the day.

  6. RossB

    There are some exceptions. It has become common for U. S. density advocates to mention Tokyo, along with other cities outside the U. S. (

    Bernie Sanders often said his model for democracy is Finland (and odd choice given its size, but one outside the U. S.). This could also explain why Germany’s policies frustrate the American left (the other being the vast amount of suffering caused by the misguided austerity policies). Germany is bound to be successful, assuming it has a reasonable government. If it was ruled by a center-left (instead of center-right) government, it would be a wonderful *overall* model, but alas, the U. S. left has to look elsewhere.

    Picking out various pieces is a reasonable approach, but shallow minds will come up with excuses as to why that wouldn’t work here, or why we wouldn’t want to be like them. But this is also the case within the U. S. You would think that mayors and city council members would borrow from each other. But I’ve read interviews of people running for office in Seattle that said, basically, that Seattle shouldn’t copy anyone — we should go our own way. To be fair, that candidate lost. But that type of attitude rarely loses you votes. It is common for people to believe that Seattle is its own special snowflake, unique to the world, with particular problems that no other city ever faced. This results in crap, of course. For example, I’ve often asked people about Seattle’s transit system and how it compares to those around the world. What exactly is the model that Seattle is following? Either they suggest something extremely different, or just shrug their shoulders and say “I like transit — you must hate it”.

    My guess is that other U. S. cities also believe they are unique, and have little to learn from other U. S. cities, let alone the rest of the world.

    Part of the problem is that political dialogue has regressed in the U. S. It used to be common for people to debate issues on Sunday morning talk shows in a respectful manner. Then it became like professional wresting. Staged events meant to excite your fans. Now this type of talk and TV dominates political discussions — including the most popular news network (FOX). Not only will you rarely hear “Yes, good point, but I will say that …”, you rarely have people completing their sentence. This has increased the political tribalism found within the U. S. Nuance is dead. Barack Obama came up with a health care plan first proposed by Nixon (a Republican) and first implemented by Romney (a Republican). It was an incremental center-right proposal, and yet not a single Republican (including many who would call themselves “moderate Republicans”) voted for it. Not a single one. Bipartisanship is dead. Reasonable discourse and discussion has fallen by the wayside. Is it any wonder that the U. S. political system is so provincial?

    • adirondacker12800

      Real Americans(tm) who will continue to drive everywhere realize that it wouldn’t go over well to say “I ain’t gonna get on a bus” so they come up with an excuse, any excuse. Saying we are exceptional has many charms.

          • adirondacker12800

            Because Real Americans(tm) drive everywhere. The ones who don’t mind being faintly immoral will use airplanes. They realize saying “I wouldn’t be caught dead on a bus/train” is impolite so they find some other reason.

    • Alon Levy

      YIMBYs sometimes cite Tokyo, yes, for which I credit Stephen Smith. That said, the SB 827 and SB 50 proposals barely nod to Japan. They call for mid-rise housing half a mile from a train station or a bus route, with overt references in YIMBY communications to Paris. This is not the spiky density of big Asian cities, which have high-rise buildings right on top of train stations and lower-rise buildings 500 meters to a kilometer away.

    • Herbert

      And yet they’re not discussing about meaningfully different ideas or approaches. Obamacare would be too market based for even the market loving FDP to touch it with a ten foot pole…

      Part of why Bernie is so popular with such a seemingly ideologically incongruous coalition is because he’s completely outside what you hear yelled on cable tv most of the time…

      • RossB

        “And yet they’re not discussing about meaningfully different ideas or approaches. Obamacare would be too market based for even the market loving FDP to touch with a ten foot pole…”

        Exactly. I remember talking with a friend of mine and I referred to Obama as a moderate and he interrupted to say “he isn’t even a moderate — he is a centrist!” to which I agreed. Obama (and Bill Clinton) operated like Dwight Eisenhower. Ike adopted a centrist approach in the middle of a relatively progressive era (for America). Obama and Clinton took a centrist approach in the middle of a very right wing turn for the U. S.

        It is worth pointing out why Nixon’s proposal (essentially the same as that proposed by Clinton and Obama) was rejected by Congress. They wanted a single payer plan, and thought they could get it under the next (Democratic) president. They failed, and the country soon took its right wing lurch, and hasn’t moved back.

        • adirondacker12800

          Republicans spent years touting the wonders of Romneycare. Democrats settled for half a moldy loaf to get fewer dead people. And then Republicans immediately started screeching about how it would turn us all into Communists facing death panels. Their nominee for Vice President loved to say “death panels”.

          • Herbert

            And now the republicans are openly discussing how many dead grandmas .1% stock market growth require…

          • adirondacker12800

            Because they only care about money and if grandma dies there is an estate to be divvied up.

    • R. W. Rynerson

      I think that ideas do come bursting out from time to time. For Portland’s first Light Rail study (1973) I used Edmonton’s costs, plans, etc., and what I had learned in Europe while in the U.S. Army. In turn, Edmonton’s project opened in 1978 was based on Montreal (underground), Toronto (dimensions and signaling), Cleveland (rail ROW and coordinated bus feeders back then), and Frankfurt (rolling stock and possibly the catenary). Concrete ties and spring clip fastener technology came from Britain. POP fare collection came from Germany in 1980 (our Edmonton 10-ride tickets were even the same dimensions as West Berlin’s). K&M trolley coach overhead came from Switzerland.

      I just learned that Denver’s General Manager went on a TRB tour of selected West European cities in 1975, and reading his report I now understand why in Denver between 1978 and 1983 bus lanes were installed, the pedestrian-friendly downtown Transit Mall was built (using German low-floor buses), changes included more non-CBD bus routes, etc. None of this in any of these cities was easy politically, but for various reasons “outside” ideas burst in. In Denver now, all of that generation’s changes are so absorbed that minor enhancements to these projects have been made since 1985 with little uproar.

      In Edmonton, we made a 16mm film about Light Rail and circulated it to other transit systems in the U.S. and Canada. It sounds funny now, but we were afraid that our 14-car fleet of Frankfurt U-2’s might become the only Siemens LRV’s in North America. The Boeing SLRV and the UTDC CLRV were going to dominate the small market.

      I don’t disagree with the general criticism of “not invented here” thinking, but we should also ask how these ideas occasionally are accepted. If I was younger, I think that would be a good MA thesis topic, for the graduate degree I didn’t get thanks to LBJ.

    • Benjamin Turon

      “Reasonable discourse and discussion has fallen by the wayside.” … Try NPR and your local public radio station. BBC covers a lot of US issues in-depth.

  7. Ryland L

    “Taiwan and Japan are fairly similar in most though by no means all respects.”

    It is my understanding, based on what little I’ve read, that Taiwan is significantly more liberal on social issues than Japan or South Korea. For instance, it is the only one of the three countries that has legalized same-sex marriage and has become very progressive on LGBT rights more generally.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, as I said, most though by no means all. The part about lower workforce participation among women over 30 is true in Taiwan too – the same career-or-children-but-not-both dilemma facing women is pan-Asian. I also don’t think Taiwan has as much immigration, but I have even less data on this than I do for Japan.

      • Sarapen

        The career-or-children-but-not-both dilemma seems to be more pan-East Asian than pan-Asian per se, at least according to World Bank data on female labour force participation ages 15+, which shows most Southeast Asian countries have either better numbers than Japan or are at least in spitting distance.

        You can even see it when looking at stats for East Asia & Pacific – the numbers are higher when excluding the high income countries (by one percentage point, but still). Yeah, I know you mentioned women over 30 but I can’t quickly find stats on that demographic.

        • Alon Levy

          The research I’ve read on this (by Paulin Tay Straughan) focuses on high-income countries, esp. Singapore, but it seems to be describing China pretty well. The issue isn’t just low LFR among women, but also the combination of that and very low birthrates (e.g. in China, Thailand, Vietnam, not just the rich countries).

          • adirondacker12800

            Being a housewife without using electricity is a lot of work. If you don’t have electricity you don’t have a lot of time to work outside the household.

          • Herbert

            The lower classes never had the debate about whether the woman in the house should be part of the workforce. The “house wife” is a bourgeois notion…

          • Alon Levy

            A bourgeois notion that the American working class assimilated to in the first half of the 20th century. (I assume also elsewhere, I just haven’t seen time series or read detailed enough social histories.)

          • adirondacker12800

            Because until recently his commute was out to the barn and they all harvested things together. He understood how much work she did because he saw her doing it. Neither of my grandmothers experienced the luxury of central heat or running hot water. Using the coal range in the kitchen for heat, hot water and cooking takes a lot of work. At least it was lit by electricity because even gas light is a lot of work. And they thought they were living in the lap of luxury. They both eventually had a small refrigerator but that wasn’t until their kids had established a career and could buy Mom one. One of them even had a wringer washing machine !

          • Sarapen

            adirondacker12800 If you look at the World Bank data I linked, the poorer Southeast Asian countries (i.e., the ones where more people don’t have electricity at home) have higher or roughly equal female labour force participation as the high income East Asian ones.

            So if the only thing you’re looking at is household electrification rates in regard to female labour force participation, you might even conclude that having electricity at home makes women more likely to stay at home. Clearly it’s not so clear cut as saying not having electricity makes women less likely to work outside of the household.

          • Lee Ratner

            During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Eastern European Jewish women had problems with the American cult of domesticity because in Eastern Europe, Jewish women held jobs outside the home more often than not even if married with children. This was a variety of reasons that didn’t have much to do with women’s rights at all but I’m guessing it contributed slightly to why so many early second wave feminists came from Jewish backgrounds. The sort of ministering angel of the home was never really part of Jewish culture and they found the American domesticity cult chaffing.

          • adirondacker12800

            Third world women aren’t lounging in a climate controlled living room watching soap operas while they wait for the buzzer on the automatic clothes dryer to sound so they can take the permanent press clothes out swiftly. When you take a temporary job to help bring in the village’s harvest you get paid. Even if it’s bartering for tangible goods because cash hasn’t been invented yet. I know how it works. People who don’t know what a wringer washing machine is or how to defrost a refrigerator, there is an art to it, understand that not having electricity might present some hurdles.

          • adirondacker12800

            The goyishe women from Eastern Europe, southern Europe for that matter too, didn’t get it either. It’s a WASP thing.
            Alice Kramden lived in a two room apartment. Well, Ralph was a little child like. I could never understand why she didn’t go out to work.

      • Ryland L

        “I also don’t think Taiwan has as much immigration, but I have even less data on this than I do for Japan.”

        Taiwan may not have a large immigrant population, to my knowledge, but it does have a sizable (pre-Han conquest) aboriginal population. Aboriginal Taiwanese are 2.4 percent of Taiwan’s population (by comparison, Native Americans being 1.6 percent of the US pop and Canada’s First Nations are a little over 3 percent of the country’s pop). Since democratization, there has been a strong aboriginal movement (as in the western Settler Colonies). Also, there is a cleavage between the Hoklo speakers (who take to calling the language “Taiwanese”) and Mandarin speakers, that maps well onto the KMT/DPP partisan divide. Compared to Japan and Korea (the former having a geographically constricted minority population and the latter having none), national identity in Taiwan is more disputed.

      • Ryland L

        Btw, thanks for this series. I have long been dismayed by lack of serious regard for East Asia in US urbanist and policy circles (My interest in public transit was first piqued by my visit to tokyo when I was 10 years old). Keep up the good work!

      • Joseph

        Taiwan has few immigrants and naturalization is not easy, requiring giving up your previous citizenship. On the other hand I have read that 10% of all children born in Taiwan have Vietnamese mothers and there’s probably quite a few Chinese as well, so there is some immigration going on regardless of attitudes. Anecdotally Taiwanese seem fine with immigration from countries they don’t look down on (Japan, the West) or that are culturally similar (Hong Kong, Malaysia).
        In terms of gender, Taiwan has one of the world’s highest proportions of women in its legislature- 40% compared to Japan’s 10%.
        In other words Taiwan seems much more socially liberal than S. Korea or Japan. I would argue though that it’s moving in the wrong direction in terms of transit and urbanism.
        I think this squares with Alon’s point, namely that social liberalism doesn’t necessarily conflate with good urban development (or strong workers’ rights, environmentalism, etc.).

    • Luke

      On the same-sex marriage issue, you can thank Korea’s absolutely bonkers-fanatical right-wing Christians, who talk about homosexuality in the same kinds of death-before-it tones NRA members talk about gun controls. The sad irony is that there is cosmopolitan strain in Korea’s conservatives, looking all the way back to when they were the sort who collaberated with Imperial Japan when it was doing more obviously-sensible things than the government of Joseon did was, which has been happy to import foreign ideas (see Park Chung-hee’s amazement at American steel mills and–paradoxically–modern urban planning, and Japanese highways)–including Christianity. I.e., the internationalist conservatives are beholden to the fundamentalist wackjobs for votes.

      • Herbert

        Korea has some of the largest congregations in the world… While Christianity never really took root in Japan, Korea is more megachurchy than even LatAm and the original megachurch country…

        • Lee Ratner

          Korea had a high conversion rate compared to other Asian countries because the Korean Christians managed to get themselves associated with Korean patriotism during the Colonial Period. Even most of the Koreans that eventually embraced Communism like the Kim family tended to come from Christian backgrounds. Christianity is picking up a lot in China because it is associated with wealth and modernity. In contrast, Christianity was associated with potential foreign conquest and subversion because of what happened at the end of the Warring States period. Plus, the Christian community ran into problems when the Jesuits and the Franciscans started arguing over whether they should do a relatively slow top down conversion, the Jesuit approach, or a much faster bottom up conversion, the Franciscan method.

          • Herbert

            Wasn’t there also debate about whether Christianity should adapt to local tastes like the Jesuits suggested…

  8. Lost Future

    I do disagree a bit, in that unfavorably comparing the US to Europe generally & the Nordic countries specifically is a very, very common trope in the American far left. To be clear these are completely idealized/unrealistic/nonsensical views of how these foreign countries operate, but ‘the Nordics are a social welfare paradise on Earth and the US by contrast is the literal worst country ever’ is an extremely common type of online argument. It’s also been a huge element of Sanders’ speeches, policy proposals, etc. I mean, just the belief systems around how universal healthcare works in other developed countries borders on pure faith.

    The same could be said (closer to your heart) for high-speed rail in Europe, Japan or China- another element of leftist yearning here

    • Alon Levy

      In theory, yes.

      In practice, the amount of interest people in DSA, the Sanders campaign, etc. have displayed in the detail of how things work in Sweden is about zero. Every time I try pointing out something to one of them the response is to close ranks and tell me how Medicare For All will be even better than what Sweden has and not ask me any further questions about (say) health care in Sweden. In effect, people in the United States discuss a fictional country named Scandinavia, which has a weak relationship with the real-world countries named Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland.

      High-speed rail, same thing. Robert Cruickshank eventually got other interests once the idea of HSR as the revival of visible state projects fizzled out. The people who keep writing about it are a handful of immigrants like me and Clem Tillier and Richard Mlynarik, and none of us is connected in any meaningful way to a political faction.

      • adirondacker12800

        Sweden/Scandanavia there is a difference? The right has been telling us that Sweden will be sliding into a poverty stricken hellhole where the only entertainment is group sex, for decades. So people point out that it isn’t. The important detail is that it isn’t a poverty stricken hellhole.

        • Herbert

          It’s also a favorite of the right to criticize Sweden’s supposedly open door policy on migration….

      • Lee Ratner

        American Leftists who want the United States to be more like Sweden are basing their opinions on an idealized form of Nordic Social Democracy that existed right after World War II. They are very un-interested in the changes that started to occur in the 1970s.

  9. Josh

    This article seems to go against the way you generally approach issues. If NIMBYism in the US arises from local control which in turn rises from racial issues not found in East Asian countries, pointing at them and saying they do it better is not going to affect the politics here, which are the way they are. Sure, on a policy level maybe we should just copy South Korean land planning or whatever, but I don’t see anyway to get there on a political level. And actual policy wonks who don’t care about politics probably have neat theoretical ideas for e.g. land planning that are somewhat different than East Asian ideas, which they prefer for theoretical reasons (and reasonably some of them are better, as East Asia has its political compromises as well) which will never get enacted. But neither will copying East Asia (especially since the public doesn’t view them as similar enough, so saying “it works there so it will work here” will get you nowhere).

    • Alon Levy

      The racial reasons were a specific thing that happened around 60 years ago. Today race is a pretty weak predictor of opinions on development in the US, and in particular goes in opposite directions depending on what exactly you look at.

      What’s more, I’m literally staring at an America where people are dying on the altar of local control, especially New York with its competition between mayoral and gubernatorial authority. New Yorkers have noticed that their mayor is terrible at his job, and that their other options in the election weren’t any better.

      • adirondacker12800

        Your love of authoritarian omniscient technocrats is showing again. How many more dead people would there be if we had depended on the central authority of Federal Government whose official position right now seems to be “Be nice to Donald Trump or we won’t even return you calls, much less give you any help.”

      • RossB

        Controlling a pandemic shouldn’t be his job! It is a systemic failure of epic proportions. It would be like the entire medical staff going out to play golf, leaving the janitor to handle the surgery. Are you really surprised it didn’t go well?

        • adirondacker12800

          He doesn’t realize that pandemics don’t care that the fare structure isn’t integrated across jurisdictions and where it spreads ignores them?
          Janitors have their charms. The janitors in my school system know how to correctly add household bleach to water and make effective disinfectant. And may not understand why if it isn’t a small container for their exclusive use on one shift it has to be labeled but they do it.

      • Herbert

        That’s what you get when one party completely abandons urban voters.

        Nuremberg has been SPD governed for all but six years (one natural term) since the post-war years… They just elected a CSU mayor. And most of the time the SPD mayor was a Blairite centrist…

        • R. W. Rynerson

          Mayors tend to slide toward the center, likely because they have to deal with many technical issues and are usually limited to balancing their budgets.

          • Alon Levy

            I don’t think Michael Müller has? The rent laws here are very left-wing, with predictable results (the real estate industry was forecasting a 25% fall in investment a few months ago, not that there’s a way to test that prediction post-virus). Moreover, the infrastructure investment plans here play to the red-red-green love for bike lanes and tramways over U- and S-Bahn extensions, which are favored by CDU alongside more cars and parking.

          • R. W. Rynerson

            You’re right, but that’s the reason I chose to use “slide” – sometimes it takes a while to move to the center as events unfold. And, of course the Lord Mayor of Berlin is in a sense a governor. I don’t follow the borough mayors much, but the two who I met briefly in 2018 were both CDU women who seemed to be centrists. Regarding the CDU: because of (too much?) history, their voting strongholds are skewed toward the West-slanted U-Bahn and the outer S-Bahn lines, so improvements to those networks likely make sense to that part of the electorate.

          • Herbert

            The SPD is the only Berlin party whose electoral strength is somewhat geographically balanced….

          • Herbert

            As for Nuremberg, most of the subway building (as well as the original decision to build a subway, not a Stadtbahn) happened under Andreas Uhrschlechter who left the SPD late inhis term because he considered them to be “too radical”…

  10. Tom

    “Fundamentally, the slave learns the master’s language but not the reverse.”
    Counter-example: England started the 14th Century with the nobility speaking (Norman) French and the peasantry speaking (Middle) English, and ended with everyone speaking… English.
    Of course, this has little to do with the central thesis of you article 🙂

    • Alon Levy

      After a couple centuries the minority assimilated to the majority’s language, sure, but English to this day has a French superstrate as a result of the Norman occupation.

    • adirondacker12800

      It’s Gemanic. My everyday nouns and verbs are Germanic. I live in a house. I eat bread. I drink beer. I pour milk… I swear using Germanic words.. Most of the time. And it’s really odd that I have one name for an animal when it’s still running around in the barn and different name for it after it is cooked.
      I can hazard a guess at the point of this essay without being told it’s subject. It would be gibberish to someone who speaks French.

      The essay itself.

      • R. W. Rynerson

        I have been a teacher’s aide in an ESL class. In discussing the origins of English with immigrants from “French West Africa” who wonder why there are multiple choice words in English we’ve realized that when we want to be diplomatic we use the French-origin word; when we demand action we use the Germanic word.

      • fjod

        Assuming this is what you’re replying to, ‘superstrate’ is a technical term and Alon is 100% correct in using it in this instance. Of course there are a load of cases in history where the higher-status group learns the language of the lower-status group, which is why it’s probably better to leave this idiom as an idiom rather than a statement of absolute linguistic fact.

        • adirondacker12800

          My uncle was a high school science teacher who learned Latin in school because it was so long ago college bound students had to learn Latin. And he spoke English and Pennsylvania Dutch. I took four years of Latin because it was his evaluation that nobody remembers their high school language and Latin is the most useful otherwise. And he knew the Latin teachers, both of them, in my high school and knew they also loved to throw in a lot early Western European history. I don’t have to look up what superstrate means. The topic is “Is English a Germanic language or a Romance language”. It’s Germanic. And a lot of the Norman words are from Latin. Which is why it’s a Romance language.

          • Alon Levy

            Yes, and all Western European languages also have Latin superstrate influence. So learned or abstract words are often directly borrowed from Latin or even Greek, and I’m told on Twitter that German doctors end up having to learn Latin. Likewise the fact that French is a superstrate in English means that words that came from Norman French are for higher-end stuff, like beef and pork and mutton whereas the peasants who grew the cows and pigs and sheep kept referring to them by their English names. Conversely, you can get substrate influence, like some Spanish in English (“no problemo”), Italian and Yiddish in English (capisce, kvetch, etc.), Nahuatl in Mexican Spanish, Hokkien and Malay in Singlish, etc.

            But the point I’m making is that shifting to another language goes top-down – Singaporeans and educated Indians and Nigerians speak English, white Anglos don’t speak Mandarin or Malay or Tamil or Hindustani or Bengali or Marathi or Yoruba or Igbo or Hausa. (P.S. West Bengal also has a Hindustani superstrate and some language shifting, Taslima Nasrin said a few years ago that she worried Bengali will eventually only survive in Bangladesh.) The Norman counterexample involved a tiny minority that left a huge imprint on the language even as it eventually assimilated.

          • Herbert

            Language development is often messy. The fact that we know so much about the ancient Indo-Europeans without yet having a consensus as to their Urheimat tells us that pottery ain’t words…

    • Herbert

      A much better example is Spain, which retains virtually no linguistic traces from three centuries of Visigoth rule…

      The -ez suffix for last names is gothic derived, tho…

  11. Gok (@Gok)

    US international policy ignorance isn’t that deep. Common Core directly takes inspiration from overseas, specifically democratic Asia. Tax policy routinely gets taken directly from other OECD countries. Telecommunications laws necessarily requires international coordination. More in your domain, there is no confusion about the origin of bike lanes or bike sharing programs, or the increasingly prevalent Vision Zero.

    The learning doesn’t always go the way you want, either, by the way. A theme in the alt-right these days is something along the lines of “why don’t we get to have more racism like Korea and Japan?”

    > I have noticed for a few years that most (though not all) Americans denigrate Germany politically…This exists in Asia in much greater intensity…

    You run in an unusual crowd. Japan and Germany both routinely do very well on favorability rankings among Americans.
    > when was the last time an American politician, or an American pundit not named Matt Yglesias, pointed to high housing growth rates in Japan and South Korea and said “let’s be like that”?

    I’m sure Andrew Yang has at some point, but that underscores how bad of a political position it is. “Do housing like Japan” could mean anything to anyone. To one person it could mean lots of TOD and high density zoning; to someone else it could mean excluding public housing from the social security system.

    • Alon Levy

      Common Core has some aspects of Japanese math, yeah. But it says a lot that at no point has a major political force in the US pointed out an enormous difference in that the US governs schools at a hyperlocal level rather than at the state or national level as in just about every other developed country and thus proposed eliminating the concept of school districts. Civil rights advocacy on education in major cities is nowadays all about giving more money to local inner-city schools rather than transitioning to a one state, one law type of system.

      Germany and Japan indeed are popular among Americans. And yet there is complete indifference to how the US can become more German or Japanese in areas where these two countries outperform the US. I have seen this at every level: in fandom (there is zero interest in contemporary Europe or in anything in contemporary Japan that doesn’t get exported via anime, whereas there are tons of LARPs set either in premodern Europe/Japan or in contemporary America), in tech (techies think Japan and Germany are weird countries that don’t sell their transportation policy to Uber as is right and proper), in education policy (Americans have no idea what a Gymnasium is), in transport policy (at least in the last 40 years, as R. W. Ryerson reminds us re the development of North American light rail in the 1970s), or even in the idea that Americans who are disaffected with the US’s direction can emigrate to Germany.

      Vision Zero as a name is cribbed from Nordic countries, yes. And then there is general incuriosity about implementation details. Streetsblog is backfilling a lot of tough-on-crime and surveillance state ideas about how the police should enforce traffic laws, in contrast with the design-centric system in Sweden. And San Francisco’s Better Market implementation had extreme construction costs, multiple orders of magnitude higher than the pedestrianization of Götgatan.

      • adirondacker12800

        Educating all the kids effectively costs money. And if you aren’t measuring performance with the same tests – testing has many problems but what other alternative is there? – nobody can claim you aren’t effectively teaching the poor kids, can you?
        We’ve been talking about education all my life because the Russkies had launched Sputnik and it’s obvious our kids are falling behind… I’m glad I wasn’t a victim of New Math.

        • Alon Levy

          I mean, no country in the world that I know has annual national (or state-level) tests. Singapore has 3 tests, at the end of 6th, 10th, and 12th grade, which are used to sort out kids into tiers (selective vs. non-selective secondary schools, academic vs. vocational junior college, university vs. nope); this is by developed-world standards onerous. Britain has 2, at the end of 10th and 12th grade, which is a lot by European standards, the Continent preferring a single end-of-secondary-school test.

          You do not use external testing to measure things, because you do not have self-governing school districts in which the administration mostly answers to the Celia Hodeses of the world. You have a ministry of education, in which there are professional standards rather than gamable metrics. Individual teachers are evaluated by principals, the occasional inspector, and (maybe?) peer teachers; at least in France and Germany, no idea about Asia, issues with class and racial inequalities are evaluated at the nationwide level rather than school by school, so universal annual testing isn’t needed, just sampled surveys checked against national end-of-high-school results.

  12. adirondacker12800

    We have a Ministry of Education, We don’t call them ministries we call them Departments and Republicans think the Dept. Of Education is evil because here might be some sort of standard that is sorta kinda the same everywhere and it would be harder to argue that the poor kids aren’t doing well. And the Dept. Of Education might start asking questions about you con game with University in the URL. For a fun romp look up the Abbott decisions in New Jersey. Plural, have been going on for decades and probably will.
    We gave it a whirl, for a very short while, No Child Left Behind, proposed by that radical communist George W. Bush and it was rescinded because the rest of his party screeeeeched that it was the Federal Gubbermint imposing something … that might make them put something other than Creationism in biology lessons in their Academies where they can exclude the kids with dark skin.
    Common Core is voluntary. Texas isn’t going to be able to dictate what textbooks in Kansas say anymore. The bat hit insane Real Americans in Texad won’t be able to force the publishers to insert crap anymore and Kansas won’t have to accept it because taking it out would cost too much. But then Real Texans don’t understand the Common Core is a voluntary association of states and think it’s evuuuuuuuuul Dept. of Education forcing things down their throat. Dya ever noticed they seem to have that image come to mind often – forcing things down throats? And the textbook publishers are shitting their pants because they won’t be able to charge as much. …. Really, you don’t think that putting a dozen well recognized high school biology teachers along with education specialist and a few textbook writers could come up with an open source biology text? That is electronic because giving kids five or six expensive textbooks costs more than giving them an almost disposable cheap laptop? ? >? Paper books, how quaint.

  13. Onux

    Why are the Nordic countries a good example of learning from “elsewhere”? They have a combined population of about 27M (similar to the US mountain states from Arizona to Montana), a shared climate/biome, and broadly similar culture. Why is it learning from “another” if a civil servant in Oslo learns from Stockholm, let alone one in Malmo from Copenhagen, but insular if a manager in Phoenix takes cues from Denver, let alone from Seattle, Atlanta or New York? The fact of a different rather than a same country is due to rather arbitrary lines on a map; Denmark and Norway were the same country more recently than the Louisiana Purchase, and Norway and Sweden more recently than Texas was part of the US. If Texas were to succeed or the US split along red/blue state lines, would you suddenly say that the “US” was more curious about “other countries” when someone in Boston took a good idea from Houston?

    Please note I am not suggesting that transit managers in US cities have better ideas or performance than those in Nordic countries, but given the US is similar in population and size to the EU, I am challenging the idea that when EU member states talk among each other, they are being more outward looking or open to ideas from “elsewhere” than when US states do the same. The EU countries may in fact be “closer” (in distance, culture, etc.). The real question would seem to be how much the US and Europe learn from Latin America or East Asia or the Middle East, etc. (and those areas vice versa). From what I gather from your recent posts, Europe seems to be as bad at the US at learning from truly different cultures such as East Asia.

    • Eric

      If you learn from the best, it doesn’t count against you just because the best happen to be near you.

      If you learn from the worse because they are near you and you’re unaware of the best, that’s a failure.

      Your post suggest that Europe is failing by not learning from better Asian practices. That is certainly true regarding COVID19, but is it true regarding any transit practice?

    • Alon Levy

      Europe is less culturally, linguistically, politically, and socially uniform than the US.

      The Nordic countries consciously learn a lot from each other, more than from the rest of Europe, yes. But “more than” does not mean “to the exclusion of.”

      • Onux

        Europe may be more heterogeneous, but the Nordic countries are very similar. How is learning from someplace similar being open to outside opinion? If the Nordic countries were deliberately modeling intra-metro rail systems on the Paris RER, or subway frequencies on Moscow I could see the argument; aside from linguistics I see no reason that Oslo and Stockholm have greater cultural, political and cultural distance than say Salt Lake City and Providence, or Oklahoma City and Portland.

        Eric, I acknowledged that Nordic transit planning and management is far beyond anything in the US, however “learning from the best” is a different concept than “learning from other places.” It could be that the Nordic countries just learn from their socio-cultural neighbors like everyone else, but they happen to be good ones.

  14. R. W. Rynerson


    @michaelrjames asked a good question: “…was there an RER plan in 1969…?” and I tried to dredge up memories. Thanks to trying to sort out old correspondence for an archive I since have found a letter I wrote in April 1970 after visiting Paris. I rode what is now part of the A-Line between Nation and Boissy-St. Leger and commented: “…we rode the new rapid transit line to Boissy-St. Leger. These were the trains that replaced the steam line I rode on last December. We ate at a new restaurant by the suburban terminal and then returned to Paris. Eventually the line will travel across Paris underground for through running with another suburban rapid transit line on the west end of town.”

    So, the name RER may not have been adopted, but the plan was being implemented. The letter had a lot of travel and theater info that is obsolete now, but did include a paragraph on the Dutch railway’s timed-transfer focal-point network, already in place back then.

    It might seem odd today that an American would type an 8-page trip report on a 2½-week trip to Europe, but I was the first person in our Oregon family to go there since 1905.

    I, too, would like to give my thanks to all who participated in this exchange of ideas.

    • Andrew in Ezo

      According to this paper, the initial RER Master Plan was approved in 1965. It delves into the joint SNCF-RATP steering committee visit to Tokyo in 1971, and their observations, especially wrt cross platform transfers.

      Click to access F36_Sato.pdf

      • R. W. Rynerson

        Terrific and it is easy to read, too. It does raise my question in all of this discussion as to why “foreign” ideas burst through what seems to be an impenetrable barrier. I saw DeGaulle in a parade and he looked stern enough that if he wanted cooperation he would have gotten it. That was the same era as Malraux’ clean-up of Paris monuments, so perhaps it was esprit du temps?

        To put 1965 into an American perspective, the Interstate highways were in full construction, with long segments completed. Jane Jacobs had only recently written her influential book. The last interurban electrics in the West had recently shut down. Greyhound schedules were suddenly faster than parallel train times, but on other routes intercity trains were still operating at 100 mph. The Sunday New York Times and the Herald-Tribune were delivered by rail to lunchtime customers in Portland on Tuesday. A young friend of mine ran for Portland’s city council in that period on a platform of revitalizing transit with a rail element and was soundly defeated by the labor Democrat incumbent.

        I was engaged in neglecting my studies while I worked on getting the private Rose City Transit Co. to extend hourly (!) weekday and Saturday service to my college. Previously commuting students had to pay two separate fares, as the suburban operator of commuter trips did not exchange transfers with other companies. (Portland’s Tri-Met district took over both operations in 1969/70.) We were barely on the same planet as the SNCF-RATP.

      • michaelrjames

        Yikes, I even have the relevant bit highlighted in my copy!

        The RER Project
        Construction of the east–west RER A line was approved by General de Gaulle, then President of the Republic and started in the early 1960s under RATP, the organization responsible for public transport in Paris. It started with the two branches out of Paris from Nation to Boissy St Leger to the east, and from Auber to St Germain en Laye to the west passing through the newly developed la Defense business district.
        The project soon ran into enormous difficulties linked to the geology of the area; the solution required new construction methods at difficult sites, causing a considerable increase in costs. Finally, the east branch entered service in December 1969 while the west branch was opened in stages from January 1970 to September 1972. But traffic on these two external branches, like SNCF’s suburban lines, remained limited because the overall work could not demonstrate its true potential until completion of the missing-link section between Auber and Nation through Gare de Lyon, the terminus for suburban lines of the SNCF southeast network.
        Unfortunately, the cost overruns were so huge that the government was questioning the appropriateness of the investment and two debates started:
        • The first concerned the project for the future Châtelet-les Halles Station where the Sceaux Line was to be extended to meet the RER A line; would cross-platform exchange between the two lines be possible?
        • The second was implementation of the RER A line. The government was thinking that construction of the Auber–Nation section could not be justified unless it permitted circulation of some SNCF trains of the southeast suburban lines to pass through the Gare de Lyon and run on new track to la Defense.
        The principal problem was whether operators as different as RATP and SNCF could run mixed traffic, coupled with important technical problems, such as different signalling, platform heights, arrangement of conductor’s cab, operation regulations, and fares.
        As Louis Sato mentions in his first part of this article about the influence of Tokyo’s subway on the concept of the Paris RER, a committee visited Japan in 1971 to confirm the feasibility of station cross-platform connections on the one hand, and the feasibility of through operations by different operators in the same tunnels.
        In parallel, at that time, I was working on the question of interconnection of networks to analyze their limits and constraints. Departing from the Tokyo example, with the fact that the capacity of a metro line is not limited by traffic inside the tunnels but is instead limited by train standing time at stations, it quickly became obvious that by doubling the tracks in the future Châtelet Station, it would be possible to greatly increase the number of trains moving in the tunnel between Gare de Lyon and Châtelet.
        But then what to do with those trains beyond Châtelet Station? We couldn’t dispatch them any further on the RER A line because the Auber and Charles de Gaulle Etoile stations only had one track with a platform in each direction according to the classical model of metro stations.
        Suddenly, a new idea appeared—extending the Sceaux Line north beyond Châtelet and linking it to the SNCF north network lines. A new underground station was conceived, one which could serve two tracks with a platform in each direction.
        When the mission returned from Tokyo, the synthesis of these ideas helped formulate the concept of the new RER network project. The two north–south lines of the 1965 Master Plan (see maps on p. 36) were replaced by only one north–south line formed by the Sceaux Line extended north to airport Roissy CDG.
        On the other hand, thanks to the interconnection, a third RER line could be created joining the SNCF lines of the southeast suburbs to those of the northwest suburbs using the same lines as the east–south RER A line and the north–south RER B line between Gare de Lyon, Châtelet, and Gare du Nord.
        The project was presented to SNCF and the government in early 1972 and approved with enthusiasm in July 1972.

    • michaelrjames

      Thanks for that reply and information. Terrific notes. And thanks to Andrew in Ezo. I have that paper–I’ve even cited it on this blog–but I guess I didn’t read it closely enough. It makes sense for such organisations to have long-range plans and be ready for when the politicians and public come round. In fact the UK/London had plans of something equivalent to RER (CrossRail) in the early post-war years (1948 IIRC) but it took them only 70+ years to act on them! (I might have read that in that same paper? The French were clearly doing their homework.)

      Along similar thought lines, one wonders if Medicare for All might gain a bit more traction now? In Australia, in preparation for us following the pattern in Italy, UK, US etc with covid-19, the federal government has intervened to “takeover” the ICUs of the 650 private hospitals nationwide; but for the privilege they are “compensating” the owners $1.2bn, perhaps for lost income from the cancellation of all elective surgery (on one hand it’s not a lot of money, OTOH WTF?). Over the past decade there has been more and more talk about the future of private med insurance here because it is turning more and more American (very expensive, yet more and more exclusions and higher co-pays etc), plus they actually get a $9bn per year tax payer subsidy thru the ridiculous insurance scheme (the poorer subsidising the richer).

        • adirondacker12800

          Took almost a century to open the first phase of the Second Avenue subway, from one point of view. The initial construction date of something doesn’t mean it was a new idea. I know it wasn’t a new idea because I drove over the corrugated temporary wooden road on Upper Second Avenue in the late 70s. Sometimes projects take a long time to be actualized. I don’t bother to check when East Side Access is going to open, what’s another year or two when the section under the East River was completed in 1972? Running local trains on what we now call the Hell Gate line, in Bronx, can be viewed as service restoration. After a century of it being suspended but a service restoration. They even want to put a station where one of the old ones still is. There may be more of them but I haven’t gone looking.

  15. penguin

    Interestingly enough, both Mike Konczal (Freedom From The Market) and Harvey J. Kaye (Take Hold of our History) have both recently released books arguing that America doesn’t need to look abroad on many issues because we have little known examples right here at home!

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