Who is Being Empowered?
Practically any change has some beneficiaries (why else would it happen?), but a separate question, often with a separate answer is, who does it empower? For examples, expansion of education benefits students but empowers teachers and school administrators, and expansion of health care benefits patients but empowers medical care providers, especially ones below the prestige level of doctors. In both cases, the groups that were empowered back expansion, and at least in the case of teachers, the other side assumes that there are no beneficiaries, hence for example Humphrey’s comment in Yes, Minister that comprehensive education was adopted only because of the teachers’ unions.
The relevance of this distinction is that improvements in public transport mostly have the same set of beneficiaries – current and potential transit riders – but empower different groups of people depending on what the proposed improvement is. This matters, because it’s easier for change to happen if it empowers people who are already important. This is not restricted to politics – a change in how a business is run is easier to accept if it empowers senior management than if it empowers grunt workers, even if the ultimate beneficiary, that is the shareholders, is the same. The upshot is that there are changes in how to run public transportation that empower the already-powerful, and those changes are not necessarily best for the riders.
Politicians and civil servants
Politicians, especially high-level ones, are more powerful than civil servants. It is therefore easier to pass changes that empower them than ones that empower the civil service.
I think the Anglosphere’s fascination with design-build comes from this, at least partially. Traditional design-bid-build procurement means that an in-house team reviews bids and selects separate contractors for design and construction. In contrast, design-build removes power from the civil service. The consultants who get to draw design specs get empowered, but I don’t think this is why governments adopt design-build. Rather, design-build means that high-level politicians get to make big decisions, first since they often have casual ties to the consultants through a revolving door, and second since each bid is bigger (one firm might do everything) and therefore it is evaluated at a higher level.
Consulting in business is a good analogy, since there are some analogies between how the state is run and how big businesses are. The relevant one is the tyranny of the org chart; see some examples here and here by Aaron Renn, and here and here by other consultants. Senior management in the private sector has serious problems with listening to people who the org chart asserts are subordinates, from middle management all the way down. Management consultants often succeed by talking to lower-level workers, getting good ideas from them, and then packaging them to senior management in glossy presentations that look like they came from the consultants, who have nebulous job titles so as to convince senior management that the consultants are their peers. In effect, consultants are a workaround to the fact that senior management is unlikely to adopt ideas that empower subordinates.
The greatest irony here is that the sort of political operatives who are most educated in public choice theory are the ones who most consistently act according to its precepts. They dislike public-sector unions, so they institute public-sector hiring freezes and instead outsource work to consultants. In effect, they empower themselves, as senior political operatives who get to make more important decisions when the decisions are about higher-level things (that is, who gets the work among design-build bidders).
National vs. international comparisons
The issue of outside comparisons depends heavily on what the agency is to be compared to. The difference is that in the United States, managers are well-traveled domestically but not internationally, so domestic comparisons empower them and international ones do the opposite. In Europe, managers are more internationally traveled but largely within Europe, so comparisons to Asia are as problematic for them as comparisons to non-English-speaking European countries are to American managers.
What this means is, a study delivered to Boston or Los Angeles or Chicago that does a domestic comparison will bring up things that top managers and politicians are at least somewhat familiar with. A manager in Boston may have happened to work only in New England, but this is not common, and the manager’s social circle will include people with experience from other parts of the United States. This manager can read a report employing domestic comparison and will have heard about some of the success cases in the report, and if anything is unclear, the manager can call up friends and former coworkers and get clarifications. The manager is thus empowered to implement the report’s recommendations.
An international comparison has the opposite effect. The American manager might be facing a report that brings up case studies from European and East Asian countries, where few Americans have ever lived. The report might mention things that all American transit managers have convinced themselves are impossible, because those managers only ever talk to other Americans. It devalues most of the expertise of the American insider. If anyone within the agency is empowered, it is often a junior planner who has delved into foreign cases out of interest, or perhaps an immigrant whose knowledge is foreign and not just American. It completely upends the hierarchy: the senior manager has no way to contribute to the process and is at the mercy of outsiders and subordinates.
The trick that management consultants use to persuade senior managers to accept recommendations that came from below is not useful here. The report cannot hide its foreign provenance; it screams right there, “your experience as a senior American manager is not as valuable as you think it is.”
Is there a way out?
I believe that there is. I don’t know this for a fact, but I have some circumstantial evidence pointing in a more optimistic direction.
First, not only is the idea of the tyranny of the org chart well-known to consultants, but also a brief Googling revealed a number of different consultants openly pitch their skills to management in how to avoid the problem. That people who get paid to give outside expert advice to corporate leaders believe they can tell to those leaders’ faces, “you need to listen to your subordinates better and here’s how you can do it” suggests that it is possible to get at least some managers to listen.
Second, on an abstract level, managing others is a valuable skill on top of the deep experience managers must possess in the industry they lead, and moreover, general management skills are highly valued in American business culture in the private as well as public sector. This means that even though the use of foreign advice devalues senior managers’ industry-internal skills, and maybe even some precepts that they’ve learned in other industries if they’ve jumped around from industry to industry, it still does not devalue general management skills, not should it.
Third, beneficiaries matter, rather than just the people whose skills are valued more under the changes required to improve American public transportation. This means that a politician who is seen as successfully improving infrastructure will get accolades from the public, because there’s general political consensus that infrastructure is good, and specific political consensus in the parts of the United States with the most public transit ridership that public transportation infrastructure is good. Political advisors may be sidelined by change that relies on knowledge they don’t have, but elected politicians who are seen building infrastructure cheaply become more popular.
And fourth, the situation in the United States in general and New York is particular is so bad that change is possible even while respecting at least some degree of turf. Gradual replacement is possible, if New York implements one change that reduces costs by a factor of 2 while leaving other causes of high costs unchanged, and then the people who successfully shepherded the change implement more such changes. Future changes can devalue the skills of managers who only know how to build and run bad transit and not good transit, but a manager who was responsible to a large cost reduction will get enough internal and public clout that empowering this manager further through further-reaching reforms will be easier for the hierarchy to swallow.
I think your “who is empowered” might explain the cleavage in German politics between subway boosters (generally right wing, except in Hamburg where it inexplicably includes the SPD, but the Hamburg SPD is pretty right wing) and tram boosters (generally left wing). A subway moves public transit underground so it empowers cars, because more space can now be allocated to them.
Of course there are places and situations where a subway would be the better choice even absent cars, but most of those subways have already been built…
This explains so many of the struggles I encounter at my job as a civil servant so well, and also explains why I have had to spend most of my time in the public sector developing the ability to navigate messy hierarchies and package ideas in ways that are receptive to higher-ups, and also at times rely on consultants taking credit for ideas from members of my team for the ideas to gain traction. I won’t go into much more detail publicly, but if you want more, feel free to DM…
There is one other potential point of optimism: Once one or a few local transit agencies successfully adopt a “furrin idear”, that idea can penetrate the minds (and intellectual defenses) of transit managers more easily, because it has now become a “domestic” idea that worked in an American (or German, or European, or East Asian, as the case may be) context, implemented by people the managers of other agencies may actually know, have heard of, or be willing to listen to. An example of this in action is the spread of low-floor buses in American cities (we even have them in Baltimore, whose MTA is not the worst around but not exactly known as a leader), after their adoption by (quick fact-check) Port Authority in the 1990s. Although that had a broadly popular federal law (ADA) nudging things along, which implies one avenue to speed adoption of better practices…
Yes, and this also connects to something I didn’t mention in the post, regarding what R. W. Rynerson mentions in comments from time to time. In the 1970s, the invention of light rail in North America involved learning from what Germany was doing at the time. The context was that there were (and to some extent still are) many American soldiers stationed in Germany, who brought what they saw here to the US; soldiers as a group have decently high prestige, and at the time many managers would have been WW2 vets who might not have positive impressions of Germany or Japan but would listen to younger vets who would describe these countries as thriving American allies against communism. But subsequently American light rail planning has diverged, so there’s a lot of learning from older light rail systems in the US and Canada but no sanity checks with German systems.
WW2 vets took the streetcar to the recruiting office to sign up.
And then when they got discharged they drove a car to the white flight suburb.
…on an Autobahn knockoff
It was that or put out a contract on Grandma to get her decrepit rent controlled apartment.
My maternal grandparents grew up in some rather low quality housing in pre-World War I New York City, especially my maternal grandfather where it was rather close to How the Other Half Lived territory. When my mom was young they moved from the Bronx to a small house in Nassau County that they remained in till they died. White flight played a big part in the growth of suburbia but so did the poor quality and over crowdedness of a lot city housing, especially in the Northeast and Midwest. The suburbs seemed like a minor miracle to a lot of former city and even rural dwellers. People in the Western states, especially California, and the South were already living in the prototypes of post-war suburbia so they didn’t really abandon the city at all.
In much of postwar Europe, the Housing Shortage was so evident, because the war had destroyed so much. So the government provided. Also to house the countless refugees, displaced persons and the new baby boom when returning soldiers finally got to found families they didn’t want to grow up without a father during the war. The postwar consensus included public housing and pretty strong protections for renters.
But then the conservatives found out that homeowners preferred their party and the gig was up…
Germany and US started at different positions though.
Germany had way more trams and urban rail before Germany started to build Stadtbahn and tram-train, no white flight, denser urban core, less car ownership…
Having more trams left is largely a function of a political system that takes ages to make major decisions, such as shutting down tramways.
It is perhaps quite telling that since France opened its first modern tram, only Heilbronn reopened a once shutdown tram in Germany. Saarbrücken qualifies under a ton of asterisks and Kehl or Weil am Rhein are of course Swiss and French “imports” respectively. And Heilbronn only got their tram because Karlsruhe’s expanded…
It’ll be well into the 2020s before the first city builds a fully new tram where none had previously existed (Erlangen, but that too, is an expansion of an existing line) or rebuilds a tram without connection to an existing network (perhaps Kiel, Aachen or Regensburg)
Germany also didn’t have a cultural history of anti-urban bias and a worship for the single family home that the United States did. Most Americans saw the car as the way Americans got around unless they were too poor or marginalized to afford a car or lived in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and maybe Philadelphia (and even then the car was clearly preferred).
Eh… Sorta kinda…
A “Haus im Grünen” is seen as an ideal by many to this day. And Swabia is almost comically associated with having their own house…
But yeah, the decidedly provincial Helmut Kohl was mocked without end by the “urban elites” for being from Palatinate and his hypercorrections (linguistic term for going “too far” with trying to correct perceived errors – like someone who knows “h dropping” is “bad” and says /haua/ for ) indicate that he never quite shook the inferiority complex. Of course Bavaria is aggressively provincial and proud of it, but then the one Bavarian candidate for chancellor to actually face election (Strauß) lost badly. Ludwig Ehrhard never faced election and Fürth isn’t Bavaria…
That said, the rural bumpkins who vote CDU do dominate the political landscape. In 70 years of Grundgesetz, the SPD has only led government for 13 (1969-1982) + 7 (1998-2005) years. All other federal governments were CDU led…
Herbert: “Of course Bavaria is aggressively provincial and proud of it, …..That said, the rural bumpkins who vote CDU do dominate the political landscape.”
That’s interesting and (from my ignorance) explains my own aversion to the CDU/CSU*. At the same time SB must be correct in that surely a wider appeal must be necessary to “dominate” elections (however noting that no party won an outright majority including Bavaria in the last election). But what SB describes as “stability and gets things done”, I interpret as stasis. There’s no denying that it appeals to a lot of human nature but in the medium-term it is often a precursor to decline. I’m too ignorant to venture an opinion but it really puzzles me when claims of “getting things done” are made when all I see is austerity budgets and the same old stasis. This is different to saying Germany has had a good economy over this period but that is not necessarily contradictory (especially when a lot of it comes from a stacked valuation of the DM when transitioning to the Euro etc etc). Most of Germany’s ‘success’ owes to earlier events, principally the EU and the Euro, driving favourable exports, and with China being the cherry on top.
BTW, again excuse my ignorance but when you talk of the CDU, I presume that’s just shorthand for CSU since the discussion is of Bavaria?
*The aversion comes from a lifetime experience of the equivalent in Australia where the minority rural vote has sustained the conservative coalition in government (about 70:30 over Labor), which incidentally is via an unfair voting system that sees them (rural) win 15-20 times the MPs of the Greens despite lower vote share. They aren’t popular with their major coalition partner, for similar reasons: they constantly demand attention and subsidy, blame everyone else (ie. city dwellers, Greenies, latte-Lefties etc) for their usually self-inflicted problems while viciously and implacably blocking legislation that ultimately would benefit them and the nation. Climate change is just one notable example of which we see some of the consequences: prolonged drought and worst bushfires in recorded history, for which they loudly demand endless billions in compensation while always complaining about the lazy urbanist ‘dole bludger’ itself totally untrue in that unemployment is far more chronic in rural areas. They had a serious hissy fit over Labor’s attempt to solve the Murray-Darling Basin water distribution system, yet it was their own leader who totally corrupted it when in power: he demanded, and the coalition gave him, the Environment ministry! (Fox-in-henhouse; it had jurisdiction over water) by selling out to corporate farmers (Big Cotton, Almonds, Rice … yes, in the driest country in the world!) at the expense of smaller family-owned farmers. Yet the bumpkins still vote for them, with the reasoning that they have no alternative but only because they refuse to listen; the paradox is that the Greens have policies much more friendly to rural people including farmers than either their own party or the conservative coalition but rhetoric always wins with this lot.
IMO CDU electoral success comes not from winning the “bumpkin” vote but appearing as party of stability and gets things done.
I mean the sort of people who write opinion people in Zeit are the kind of people who make fun of Kohl for his accent… And they never quite understood how he clung to power for 16 years…
The CSU is just so much the “natural governing party of Bavaria” that the only way they could lose their absolute majority was by “flesh of their flesh” from the rural right (“Freie Wähler” are basically “we are like the CSU, but slightly less corrupt. Promise!” – They don’t win significant votes in the cities, but then Bavaria is psychologically still a cattle farmer)
Old West Germany was more or less politically balanced with a slightly more SPD North and West (NRW, Niedersachsen, SH) and a very conservative south (Bavaria, BW). But then the east came and the SPD just imploded in places like Saxony (which, mind you, had an SPD-KPD government for a hot second in the Weimar Republic)…
Germany is still politically balanced. In the eight elections since unification left-wing parties have had a majority in four (1998, 2001, 2005, 2013). But in two of them this would’ve required SPD-Linke cooperation, which was not acceptable in the West until, what, 2017?
There was no federal election in 2001. Only in 2002.
And Schröder could just as well be in the CDU…
Ugh, yeah, I meant 2002 :-/.
Actually, I have to correct myself there… A Schröder in the CDU would’ve done less damage…
You’re more optimistic than I am. Looking at how the officials in the US and UK react to the coronavirus, and then how their publics react is totally depressing. Not to mention Xi’s move on Hong Kong this week.
The thing is that boomers like me watched the Reagan presidency with a mix of horror and bemusement but expected it was a passing aberration. Then Bush. Now …. And it’s not as if either Clinton or Obama really reversed anything that much, and some argue they both made things worse. It’s true that it is bipartisan with even the progressive acquiescing to the system, Blair and Clinton being the guys who normalized what was previously a right-wing agenda.
What you’re talking about is really managerialism which itself is a tool of neoliberal control. It started gaining momentum in the 80s and had established dominance by the mid-90s. Managerialism is modelled on military chain-of-command in which lower levels are simply not allowed to either deviate from instructions or even question SOP or recommend anything different, under pain of censure (of which an elaborate protocol of enforcement was developed in corporate HR) or being sacked (or worse, the nu-speak of being made ‘redundant’). It really is all about control with all the out-sourcing and consultants being a means to avoid giving competent people within your own organisation any credit or any more power or ability to influence agendas as well as deflecting responsibility to a degree—along with the appeal to authority (all the Ivy Leaguers and elaborate theories and justifications of the management consultants).
That makes it hard to change. It will take a truly massive loss in confidence in leadership to bring change, even incremental change (not that I believe in that approach, it has a terrible track record; Obama is famously an incrementalist and look where that got the US). Boris Johnson’s “success” kind of puts the kibosh on the concept that seriously dysfunctional leadership like his or Trump’s (and our local example, Tony Abbott) is destined to bring a reversion towards the normal and instead seems to have entrenched or emboldened the abnormal.
Some are postulating that this viral pandemic is the Black Swan event that could bring fundamental change to the way we do things. I hope so but fear the worst. It seems to be making the far-right quackery worse and more assertive to the point that aggressively coughing in people’s faces and anti-vaxxing has become an expression of our personal freedoms! I strongly suspect that the US and maybe others are about to experience a serious worsening (a so-called second wave but the first wave hasn’t even broken) and one wonders if that might be enough. I doubt it. (OTOH, I dare not think it out loud but in some ways I wish this virus was worse so that a Gaian effect operated and those who reject vaccines etc reap their Darwin awards and leave the planet better for their ‘sacrifice’.)
On some of your other points (#3 & 4) the timing is against your proposed improvement pathway. ”This means that a politician who is seen as successfully improving infrastructure will get accolades from the public”. Infrastructure takes too long, across many political cycles (or management shuffling—in the UK as I have documented with, say, HS2 the Peter Principle applies with top management staying long enough to accrue some brownie points (towards a knighthood or lordship) before dumping the mess on the next guy. This is why, especially in the Anglosphere, mass transit and many other kinds of infrastructure, gets so neglected: the politician won’t be around to win any payoff yet will suffer all the loss of political capital trying to get it up, and senior management know the game and how to survive it. Then to sometimes see years and years of effort wiped away viciously by the next lot of politicians (sometimes from the same party!). The Europeans and Asians manage because they have broad continuity of policy across the political spectrum and regimes as they come and go, backed by a competent and respected civil service who maintain the institutional knowledge base and practice.
Alas, New York and especially its MTA display all these maladies with no sign of improvement. Any hint of actual real change as feasible by Andy Byford didn’t get off the starting blocks and he was rapidly made redundant by his political bosses. This also serves to send a powerful message to anyone filling his shoes. Despite their widespread perceived incompetence are there any repercussions to Cuomo or Di Blasio? No, they’ll see out their terms and move on to some other lurk (that they prepared during office), Cuomo was even briefly hawked as presidential.
As to the notion that it has become “so bad” that it will induce change, well, that’s what some of us (non-Americans) thought about Reagan …
I like your word ‘bemusement’ regarding Reagan – it captures the idea of harmlessness that seemed to apply then. Ronnie seemed like a pleasant enough guy and a good speaker to boot. It was kind of destined to happen anyway after the whole Iran thing blew up in Carter’s face – just a pleasant interlude with a doddering, but harmless and likable enough guy. It wasn’t until the mid-nineties or so when all sorts of stuff started getting named after Ronnie that I began to wonder what was going on.
It can be comforting to think that things have got to get so very much better once he-who-must-not-be-named is outta the White House, but in light of the sainthood that Ronnie received after he left town, I can hardly imagine, and only in terror, what ridiculous excesses of tributes and honorifics could be forthcoming when this current debacle is rewritten into some demented fairy tale.
God help us all.
It all depends whether Biden – despite virtually all evidence that he can’t – can pull off a surprise win.
Or of course the oddball of septuagenarians dying suddenly…
Biden is the heavy favorite (but still can lose the election).
Also: Hillary Clinton was once “a sure thing”…
….. Hillary did win the popular vote.
It’s only May. The way things seem to be going there will be lots more dead grandmas by late October. And the economy will still be lousy.
The horrible, horrible irony that doubtless continues to give Dems and their strategy gurus nightmares, is that if the Clinton campaign had heeded Michael Moore and deployed Biden (yes, not Hilary but maybe Bill) to those northern rust-belt states, it might just have been enough to turn them.
I’d put the failure down to managerialism amongst all those egghead and party-political obsessives. They only “listened” to official or internal party polls and focus groups while steadfastly refusing to acknowledge the likes of Moore who actually knew what was going on at ground level in those (his) states.
Things can change (and probably will change) but Biden has more higher and consistent lead vs Trump than Clinton vs Trump
I recall there was some talk about Cuomo rushing the SAS and Hudson Yards for political brownie points, but there you have it…
I don’t see much reason to be hopeful that the pandemic will bring about change for the better in terms of reducing the power of the unholy alliance between neoliberalism and the hard-right kookocracy. Heightening the contradictions has been the hope of the hard left for generations but, it has never amounted to anything other than, at best, replacing one despotism with another.
Defeating right-wing parties is extremely difficult because base conservative voters have elaborate psychological defenses that prevent them from blaming the leaders they elect for the hardships they cause. If inept state response to the pandemic kills or impoverishes millions of conservatives, they will not blame the leaders they chose. Instead, conservatives will blame whoever pre-existing conservative dogma has already singled out as the local Emmanuel Goldstein: China, centrists, leftists, minorities, immigrants, and so forth. Conservative supporters will then vote for even more conservative politicians who promise to make the (entirely imaginary) threat go away. Rinse, lather, repeat. Crises only deepen support for conservatism and can never break it.
Conservatives reacting to the failures of conservatism by electing even more extreme conservatives into public office has been the pattern in American politics since at least Reagan. In the eyes of American conservatives, everything that went wrong under Reagan was because he wasn’t conservative enough. Repeat for Bush. Repeat for 43. This will be repeated if conservatives look critically at Trump’s response to the pandemic.
Conservatives are essentially social Darwinists who believe that those they have anointed to the top of their social hierarchy deserve their support even at the cost of their own lives. These beliefs are so deeply held that no degree of governmental failure–in pandemic response or otherwise–will change this.
You sound like the person who sees the tide receding at the North Sea and is buying land in the mudflats.
You are describing a trend accurately that has held for a few decades. It is not a trend that accurately describes the entirety of U.S. history or the history of many other places. Trends can be reversed. And to give just one example of an impossible event that has become inevitable in hindsight, I give you “communist” revolution in the most authoritarian, backwards, religious country in Europe at the time: 1917 Russia…
If US managers hired consultants to tell them the best of foreign practices that could be applicable to their system, wouldn’t that keep the power with the US managers?
No, because the managers’ prior internal knowledge would not be applicable; any person reading the same consultant report would have the same base of knowledge, and a junior worker who happened to have lived in the compared foreign country or know people from there would be at an advantage.
You’re basically saying that consultant reports are only commissioned in order to repeat to managers things they already know?
Well yes, commissioning a report without knowing what will be in there is a major faux pas in political circles.
Do you really think the Tories didn’t know exactly what’d be in Beeching’s report before they asked him to write it?
Not necessarily. But the reports had better make recommendations that play to the managers’ existing toolkits and to their existing biases. “Big changes are needed, you need to reshuffle departments and take greater control of the business” plays to managerial biases well. “Big changes are needed, you need to give every individual worker the ability to stop the assembly line as in the Toyota Production System” doesn’t and 40 years later American automakers still can’t make good enough cars to compete.
A number of German cities commissioned reports in the bad days of trams being shut down. Just in the choice of who was to write the report, they knew what the result would be. They wanted to shut down the tram, but to divert anger from the politicians who actually took the decision, they gave it pseudo-scientific window-dressing…
In US public works it’s even worse than that.
The consultants arrange for their reports to be commissioned, for their recommendations to be approved, and for themselves to be hired to implement their own proposals.
Just say, for example, you’re a vendor of “smart ticketing” systems, and maybe you have some friends who are in the civil engineering and who focus their efforts around high-margin government contracts, and just say some transit agency isn’t spending enough on ticketing and on station building. Well, it turns out it costs just about nothing (barely hundreds of thousands of dollars) to arrange for the transit agency to become very very worried indeed about crime linked to fare evasion, and for the agency to commission a study of fare evasion, and for the study to find that there are people who evade fares, and for the agency to resolve that Something Must be Done, and for the agency staff to just happen to write a very specifically-crafted Request for Proposals that your company and your civil friends just happen to be extremely likely to win.
Or let’s say you’re a large national or international civil engineering consultancy, and of course you have friends who are in the construction biz. It’s really pretty simple to develop a megaproject proposal, pitch it to some small-scale local politicians, throw just a few tens of thousands of dollars at getting the ball rolling, then throw a few tens of thousand at some slightly more powerful local politicial figures to make sure that the proposal is taken seriously. And all of a sudden there’s a public agency that “needs” to “examine alternatives” and evaluate “purpose and need” for a project just like the only you came up with, and it turns out, given your extensive engineering consultancy expertise, that just the ones to be awarded the contracts to study the project, and you happen to have available sub-consultants in all the sub-disciplines (cost estimation fraud, ridership estimation fraud, cost-benefit fraud, specious “standards” creation, astroturf, payola) that are needed to correctly evaluate the project.
At no step are public agency managers in charge of anything, and at no stage, from project conception to construction to endless maintenance and operating cost, is there any representation of any public interest at any level.
So in a sense, the consultants do deliver to management what management already knows That’s because management is paid to want what the consultants are going to deliver, and if they don’t, they’re replaced.
That is the object
I’m not sure if American transit agencies picking up ex-MTRC employees fleeing for the lifeboats would be the solution, but if it works…
There are some really passionate transit enthusiasts there who would probably make a killing as a ~~travelling show~~ consultancy or something in America, but not sure how good their English is.
(possibly quite decent given that they teach English in HK, I know, but you never know what could pose a barrier…)
Do you really think a sector as conservative as American railroading would be willing to learn from Hong Kong exiles?
English isn’t the problem! Note the lack of Dutch and Scandinavian (just for examples — white people almost certainly! perfect idiomatic English guaranteed!) in control or in any positions of influence in the USA. Even British — even English, even Londoner, which is about as far as they’ll ever go looking — speakers of English are rejected unless they fully assimilate to The Way We Do Things Around Here. It’s not like Andy Byford’s lack of proficiency in written or spoken English is the reason he’s no longer working for the NY MTA, after all.
HKers don’t have a chance, even ignoring overt and pervasive racism.
Correct. It reminds me of amusing stories told by some non-American actors who succeeded in the US.
Anthony LaPaglia says when he first went to the US he got so frustrated at being rejected in auditions the moment he opened his mouth, or before if they found out he was Australian, that he adopted the persona of someone from Brooklyn all thru the process. After all he has the name and even looks like a B-grade de Niro. Clearly it worked. As an aside, but germane, shortly after he finished that network show he turned up on an Australian panel show (a serious political one) wearing an outrageous punk-like mohawk haircut. In response to queries about it, he said it was a act of liberation from the Hollywood whitebread hair the part had imposed on him for its 7 years, and a way of shaking off the Americanisms he was forced to adopt for so long.
Hugh Laurie (Brit) tells the story (who knows if apocryphal; they sometimes embellish these things just to have something to fill the space on talk shows) of how he got the job as Gregory House. The producer/showrunner (clearly completely ignorant, in the American manner, of Fry & Laurie or Blackadder) telephoned him about the part, and Laurie says he was playing American in something (maybe Stuart Little?) and kept the persona when he answered the phone. The bloke was impressed with the conversation/audition and told his assistant that he thought he had found the right person, when the assistant struggled to convince him that Laurie was British Heck, he is seriously British being educated at Dragon School, Oxford, then Eton and Cambridge where he met Stephen Fry in Footlights etc.; however Wiki tells me that, astoundingly, he was born in Blackbird Leys a very notorious ‘sink’ housing estate just outside Oxford. In my time in Oxford it was a place of mythical dysfunction and lawless poverty where even the police refused to venture. So he spectacularly broke the English class barriers and this explains his ability to break thru those American cultural barriers too!
To be fair, Laurie was good at “doing accents” in an era when the U.S. TV landscape brought to us travesties like David Boreanaz’s “Irish” accent or whatever the supposed “Jamaican” accent on Buffy was supposed to be.
James Marsters only managed an okay British lower class accent because Anthony Stewart Head gave him lessons on the side after he’d botched something spectacularly early on…
Herbert, it’s a lot more than just accents. He inhabits the role and it’s the ‘secret’. Americans who attempt foreign accents come across as awful as you noted. But it is notable that great American actors seem to cope with ease: Meryl Streep comes to mind (and Gwenyth Paltrow who threw away her potential for serious roles a long time ago).
Hugh Laurie’s critical step was getting into the Dragon School, a famous primary school set up by Oxford academics for their own children and used as a feeder into even more famous secondary schools such as Eton, Harrow, Westminster etc. What this means is that it was proximity that was critical, the fact that Blackbird Leys was next to Oxford. Browsing its Notable Old Dragons list is an astounding roll-call of author-journalists, Nobel laureates, poet laureates, politicians and above all performers. Three of the leads of The Night Manager: Laurie, Hiddleston (also Eton) and Tom Hollander (also Footlights)! Other current-gen include Emma Watson, Hugh Dancy, Tom Ward.
Thankfully in recent times actors and actresses have not been left on their own trying to figure out accents. More and more productions invest in the – comparatively – trivial expense of hiring a dialect coach who knows a thing or two about linguistics and what makes one accent what it is and another what that is.
Look at Brian Cranston as LBJ in “All the Way” to see what good dialect coaching can do…