Learning Worst Industry Practices

If I have a bad idea and you have a bad idea and we exchange them, we now have two bad ideas.

But more than that. If I have a bad idea and you have a good idea and we exchange them, we should both land on your good idea – but that requires both of us to conceive of the possibility that your idea could in fact be better than mine. This is not always the case. In exchanges between Britain and Australia, both sides think of Britain as the metropole and Australia as the periphery, so ideas flow from Britain outward. The same is true in exchanges between either Britain or the United States and Canada.

We even see this in exchanges between the Anglosphere and the rest of the world. Europe knows what the United States is like. We speak English and read American news to some extent. We have occasional sympathy protests with American causes that we feel are reflected at home; I have never seen Americans do the same with people outside North America except for very small protests concentrated among a particular diaspora, such as small groups of Israeli-Americans protesting Netanyahu’s policies in front of Israeli consulates.

And most of us in Europe look at the United States with a combination of denigration and disgust, but it’s not everyone, and in a pandemic, the least responsible members of society set everyone’s risk levels. There’s been some American influence on the populist right in Europe – people who see Trump and think “we would like to be governed like that”; this is still sporadic, e.g. the Gilets Jaunes used French populist language and had no connections to the United States, but the corona denialist protests in Germany have imported some American language like QAnon symbols. And more broadly, seeing other countries fail emboldens the pro-failure caucus at home: the Israeli immigrant who told me 2 months ago that “800 cases a day is nothing” Germany-wide would probably not have said this if Israel maintained its May infection rates. Of course the vast majority of denialists here are not Israeli or Jewish, and many are even anti-Semitic, but they look up to the failure that is the United States and not to the one that is Israel.

The corona example above is specific to Germany and is a bad idea that remains a minority position in Germany, but good ideas from the United States have made it to Europe elsewhere. For example, France made it easier to start a business, to the point that incorporation takes a few days and 4,000 euros in a corporate account, regulations on small business are very friendly, and there is elite consensus in favor of making hiring more flexible and some movement in that direction in the Macron administration. On handling racial diversity, Europe is sporadically importing ideas from the US, some good, some terrible, but again there is little attempt at learning in the other direction even when our cops kill a few dozen people per year Western Europe-wide and America’s kill 1,000.

I bring this up, because in transportation, one sees a lot of learning of practices both good and bad, if they come from a higher-prestige place. I may even speculate that this is why the most culturally dominant part of the world has the worst institutions when it comes to building infrastructure: if New York were capable of building something for one eighth the cost of Paris or one sixth that of Berlin, instead of the reverse, then Paris and Berlin would be capable of learning to adopt New York’s institutions.

To speculate even further, this may be why the cheapest place to build subways in East Asia is not Japan but Korea – if Japan were the best, South Korea would have learned from it. There are extensive similarities between these two countries’ institutions in general and urbanism and transportation in particular, coming from one-way learning of Japanese ideas in Korea more than from reciprocal learning. Evidently, Korea first of all learned from Japan that the primate city should be rail-oriented rather than car-oriented, and subsequently learned Japan’s extensive integration of urban rail with regional rail, its combination of local and express trains, its interest in rail technologies other than conventional subways, and so on. If Tokyo and Osaka were capable of building $120 million/km subways, Seoul would’ve picked that up. Instead, Seoul can do this but Tokyo and Osaka are evidently not learning.

In Europe, the same pattern holds. None of the most culturally dominant countries here has low costs. France and Germany’s construction costs are very average by global standards and on the high side by Continental European ones, and both have serious problems with how long it takes to build infrastructure projects. The stars of high-quality, low-cost construction in this part of the world are Southern Europe, Turkey, Switzerland, and Scandinavia. The first two are ridden by cultural cringe – nobody there other than a few railfans believes that they’re capable of doing better than Germany. And evidently, where Germany and France outperform Spain, for example in high-speed rail ridership, the Spanish discourse understands this and tries to correct the situation.

Switzerland and the Nordic countries are dicier, since they are rich and well-governed and everyone in Europe knows this. People in France and Germany even reference various Nordic models as examples to learn from, and, in contrast, the Nordic countries’ willingness to learn from non-Nordic examples is limited. However, these are all small countries that import culture more than exporting it. The vast majority of German culture is produced in Germany and not Switzerland; people in Germany are aware that Switzerland exists and is richer, but Germany’s size lets it get away with not learning. The Nordic countries, likewise, are small enough that other countries are not as regularly exposed to their ideas and therefore treat them as exotic more than as examples to learn from.

I bring up the issue of size, because it is so flagrant in the United States especially, and also in Britain. The US philosophy that economic or social might makes right is not done on a per capita basis, and practically every comparison to another country elicits the “we’re way bigger than them” excuse. Britain engages in the same excuse-making at every comparison to a European country smaller than Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, whereas these four it dismisses on a case-by-case basis; the Australian cultural cringe toward Britain is evidently not about per capita living standards, since Australia’s GDP per capita has been higher than Britain’s for most of the last 150-200 years, but rather about Britain’s greater size and historic status as a world power.

You may be wondering, maybe this is just a way to theorize around the fact that it really is easier to build infrastructure in a smaller country? But no. Turkey and South Korea and Italy and Spain are not small. Seoul is the second largest metropolitan area in the developed world, behind Tokyo and ahead of New York. The common factor to the lowest-cost countries in the world is not size, but rather their status on the periphery of the developed world, either economically or culturally.

Of course, peripheral status is not enough. Former colonies tend to have high construction costs, perhaps because they learn the wrong lessons from the developed world or from China. Italian wages and capital costs are by global standards approximately the same as German ones, so Italy can adapt German ideas where they’re superior, but Indian wages are so much lower and capital costs so much higher that it cannot blindly imitate Japan and expect success. In the developed world, too, we see failure, when countries learn from the wrong examples, that is Britain or the United States; Singapore has severe cultural cringe toward the Western world, but it finds it easiest to adapt British ideas out of familiarity rather than better Continental ones, in much the same way that reform proposals in the United States look to Britain and Canada rather than to Continental Europe or democratic East Asia.

The way forward must be to recognize this cringe, and know to look for ideas that do not obey the global social hierarchy. Southern Europe has a lot to teach Germany and France, and the Nordic countries are not exotic far north utopias but countries with real institutions that can be adapted elsewhere, and Turkey has a very efficient construction sector, and Korea has a lot to teach its former colonizer as well as the rest of Asia.

More to the point, the most dominant places in the world have very little left to teach others. Everyone knows what New York is like. There are many good things about New York, but we’ve done a decent job copying them. London, same thing. It’s time for New York and Los Angeles and Toronto and London to stop exchanging bad ideas and start learning from places that do not speak English as a first language, and not just from the world’s next largest language groups either.


  1. michaelrjames

    In exchanges between Britain and Australia, both sides think of Britain as the metropole and Australia as the periphery, so ideas flow from Britain outward.

    I’ve been saying that since forever. Well, since 4 decades ago when I moved to study in the UK and immediately was disappointed (and yes Alon, had it all confirmed by moving to France proving it wasn’t just othersidergreenism). In fact that was a very common Australian expat reaction in the post-sixties world. So the only caveat I’d add is that while your statement still applies for the political and business and most of the media class, it doesn’t any longer apply to others who have experienced the “motherland”. This difference is due to the direct experiences and self-interest involved. The politicians and business types are always on sponsored trips, ie. funded and organised, often short-term and so their experience is close to the ruling elite there (even though that elite will sneer at them it is enough to induce what Christopher Hitchens described in his progessive mother who, in explaining that despite his modest family background fought for him to get into Eton: if her son was going to compete with this elite then she was damnwell going to make sure he got the same training in how to be one of those elites). Thus they only experience the privilege, while the majority of expats experience the other side, the more normal and majority experience of the miserable class-ridden society, and the shocking second-rateness of almost everything.
    Then there is the growing segment of Asian-Australians who one hopes have no reason for any nostalgic devotion to things Brittanic. Though, despairingly, the whole world falls for this royalty shtick, especially the millennial royals and their privileged brats-in-arms. They fail to understand that the adorable old queen lies at the very apex of this toxic pyramid.

    I once wrote a spoof revolving around our absurd inability to break away from the UK and form a republic, by suggesting we adopt a new flag replacing the union jack with the Danish cross, because after all the Danish dauphin’s wife is Australian. Yes, we already have an Australian nordic princess! Except for the recent Meghan incursion, this was a far more modern people’s monarch much better suited to us (if we have to worship one at all, or put another nation’s flag on ours, ffs).

    Here is a recent book urging us to turn Nordic:

    Northern Lights : The Positive Policy Example of Sweden, Finland, Denmark & Norway
    Andrew Scott, Monash University Publishing 2014, ISBN13 9781921867927
    [blurb] The nations of Scandinavia and Finland, or Nordic Europe, continue to provide living proof that economic prosperity can be combined with social equality and environmental responsibility. This book, written from an Australian perspective, explores previous outside policy interest in the Nordic nations and outlines some lessons which the English-speaking world, in particular, can learn now from the achievements of the four main Nordic European nations. In terms of income distribution these countries are still much more equal than Australia, Britain, New Zealand and Canada and nearly twice as equal as the United States. Workforce participation rates are high in the Nordic nations but working hours remain within reasonable limits; enabling genuine work-life balance. Sweden has played a leading role in improving wellbeing, and lowering poverty, among children. Finland has achieved stunning success in schools since the 1990s. Denmark invests in comprehensive skills training as part of providing security, as well as flexibility, in peoples employment lives. Norway’s taxation approach ensures that natural resources are used sustainably for the entire nations long-term wealth. All of these achievements are relevant to the policy choices for the future which Australia, and other English-speaking countries, can now make.

    • rational plan

      But other than that, you like the place! Not sure what class and royalty has to do with high construction costs. I mean the US is the opposite to that so therefore. ahh. I agree to a myopia and not bothering to learn from non Anglophone countries. Problem is to truly tackle high construction costs requires the willingness make many difficult and long term changes and with so many other problems it never seems to be anything anyone is willing to spend political capital on.

    • michaelrjames

      I had forgotten, or maybe never knew, that there is a Nordic Policy Centre in the progressive think tank The Australia Institute. It was founded just last year. Of course that doesn’t mean many are listening, especially politicians. Here’s a piece today from them on the currently proposed (and due to pass parliament this week, maybe today) tax cuts of which 80% of the benefit flows to the top 10% of earners. This conservative government is attempting to squash flat our progressive income-tax system. Of course Deloitte have issued their analysis that all this progressive thinking about cut taxes for the wealthy is all wrong. (We can judge how much Deloitte’s theoretical analyses should be given weight by their ongoing 7 month long screw up on test-and-trace in the UK.)

      ‘An investment in society’: Higher taxes drive higher incomes, research shows
      Tax cuts are often touted as a boon for the economy, but research suggests the opposite could be true.
      Killian Plastow, 30 Sept 2020.
      Next week’s federal budget is widely expected to bring forward income tax cuts to put more money into Australians’ pockets, but fresh research claims they will drag down the economy.
      In a report released on Thursday, The Australia Institute’s Nordic Policy Centre found countries with higher taxes also have higher average incomes, lower rates of inequality, and better levels of economic wellbeing.
      Australia Institute senior economist Matthew Grudnoff said the findings put paid to “persistent claims” that taxes were a burden on the economy.
      With the federal budget due to be released on October 6, Mr Grudnoff said Australia must have a “serious, fact-based conversation” about tax rates.

  2. rational plan

    As to the UK, things tend to trundle on until a crises point is reached and then things are done (sometimes). The UK has high construction costs. Some of it can be to do with a high health and safety culture. The UK’s death rate per 100,000 workers for construction has fallen from 2.1 in the 80’s to 0.5 now, where it has been flat for the last 5 years, though there is a big 0 death initiative amongst the big contractors. Germany 0.63, Italy 0.91 Spain at 1.31 and surprisingly France at 3.31 (all 2016 figures). Certainly the health and safety regime was hived and made much more onerous when the railways were privatised. Many argue this is part of the reason for a big increase in the cost of construction on the UK railways since then, but on the other hand there has been a massive decline in worker deaths in the UK on the railways and the UK has of the big railways in Europe the safest railways in Europe. “Britain’s railways are the safest of the top ten biggest railways in the EU, with 1.4 fatalities per billion train kilometres, (Spain is highest at 89.2, Germany 11.4, France 7.2, EU average: 24.2) https://www.rssb.co.uk/en/what-we-do/insights-and-news/News/Britains-railways-still-safest-in-Europe#:~:text=The%20latest%20Annual%20Health%20and,and%20motorcycle%20over%201%2C500%20times.

    Stats in 2018/19 were
    10 people died in incidents at stations (excluding trespass and suicide), 7 of these were at the platform edge, but these did not involve boarding or alighting trains
    22 people died trespassing on the railway
    2 members of the rail workforce died in accidents at work – 1 of these was struck by a train on an unprotected line after he had finished laying possession equipment at Stoats Nest Junction.

    Interestingly when looking at the stats the biggest difference is the near zero railway worker deaths. (What is going on in Austria?)

    This is obviously not something that should be tackled.

    It’s not as if anyone is not interest why costs in the UK are high, loads of reports.

    Here is a summary for the UK. (there is no simple reason).

    The report breaks down the higher costs into three issues:

    Policy and systemic issues
    Funder/client issues
    Supply chain delivery issues
    Policy and Systemic Issues:

    Urban Density: The report indicates that high urban density coupled with high land costs has driven up the price of infrastructure in the UK, however it says that it does not adequately explain the whole problem.
    Planning and consultation process: Inconsistency between how planning works with different areas of the country as well as general constrains placed on the early planning process has been marked as a key driver of higher costs in the UK than Europe.
    Regulatory Compliance: The report indicates that high environmental and safety regulation has led to what some contractors call “not cost effective”. However the report also mentions that the UK has the best safety record in Europe. So it would be a tradeoff to lose such regulations.
    Wider construction market issues: The UK has the smallest construction market of the big five countries in Europe which has seen a shift from fixed to variable resources. This means there are less firms investing in construction which leads to higher levels of subcontracting and supply chain specialisation. The report argues that this leads to higher transaction costs along the supply chains.
    Funder and Client Issues:

    Stop and start investment: The report makes a very interesting argument here whereby it says that the UK’s short term investment plan compared to Germany and Frances long term investment plans, allows the latter countries to reduce costs. This is because it allows for opportunity for innovation and the ability to plan work more efficiently. As well as the fact that it generates investor certainty as the projects are more long term.
    Poor governance and ineffective incentisation of cost control: The report argues that the tender process is not focused on cost minimisation and there are not enough ways to incentivise it. As most projects work through a quoted budget as opposed to aiming for the lowest cost for a required performance.
    Poor asset information and cost data: The report argues that lack of information about infrastructure costs makes for poor decision making.
    Commercial issues and procurement processes: The UK relies heavily on bespoke specifications and contracts, where out of the box solutions would often suffice. Many western European countries have the nature of these contracts codified in law, whereas the UK doesn’t.
    Insurance: More expensive in the UK
    Supply chain delivery issues

    There is poor supply chain integration in the UK
    There is high fragmentation among construction industries in the UK leading to inefficincies
    Large skills gap
    Lower productivity

    “There is no single overriding factor driving higher costs. However, the investigation has identified that higher costs are mainly generated in the early project formulation and pre-construction phase”

    Lessons for the UK should be long term planning, But with Network does have a long term project planning it has 5 yearly control periods where it has a long list of projects it is supposed to do. But quite often these projects have ended up spiralling out of control. A variety of reasons have been looked at but sometimes quite ridiculous standards engineering standards have driven costs out of control. For example electrification standards means that it costs almost 3 to 4 times the European average. There was going to a big push on electrification 10 years ago, after opposition to it from the DFT was finally worn down, then Network rail borked it all up with the schemes ending up being hideously late and vastly over cost, which ended up with the current schemes cut back. On the engineering side the criticisms within the railways press have included excessive clearance requirements for electrification requiring wholesale demolition of bridges and very large support structures. You should see the size of the supports along the Great Western, you could support a road bridge on them.

    The main criticism of Network rail is everything seems gold plated, and costs of quite simple station re openings have soared over the last 20 years.

    There maybe movement on this on trying to shift to a long term rolling electrification programme (big decarbonisation strategy at last), and lots of muted change to how network rail does projects, but we shall see.
    There is another attempt for better infrastructure with the new Infrastructure Planning Authority, but will it work is of course the question.

    • Matthew Hutton

      To be fair the UK is trying to electrify a railway with 250km/h running potential (the great western mainline) and to also increase the loading gauge to the European standard so freight can run better. So you’d expect it to cost more than other projects.

      That said that doesn’t apply to high speed 2.

  3. Frederick

    1. It is difficult enough to learn a new language, let alone a new culture. Learning the working practices of another culture is not as easy as you made it out to be; it requires intensive study, communication, and collaboration, which brings us back to the language problem.

    2. People are not throwing out “the big picture” just to shave billions off their construction bills. Really, are we going to give up our workplace culture in order to have more public transit? Are we going to change our law system, say, from common law to Nordic law, in order to build more tunnels and bridges?

    3. Let’s say some people are brainy enough to overcome the language and cultural barrier, and are humble enough to change their own culture. I would really like them to spend such effort in more important sectors like healthcare and education, instead of something more trivial like public transportation.

    • Alon Levy

      1. The Nordics all speak English, and the US has a large minority group that speaks Spanish fluently.

      2. The Nordic countries are a lot more institutionally similar to Britain than Hong Kong is. So why does Jay Walder bounce around between London and New York and Hong Kong whereas nobody bounces around between London and Stockholm? Executive wages in the Anglosphere are indescribable higher than on the Continent, middle managers at the MBTA earn almost as much as the head of RENFE or ADIF. So why has there not been more of an effort to hire away from Continental Europe? Or from democratic Asia, where wages are lower than in Europe?

      3. Nobody in the US or UK is particularly interested in adopting Continental or democratic Asian models for health or education either. The level of incuriosity I saw among Americans in 2008 when I was telling them how health care worked in France was astounding. Didn’t they profess to want universal health care? Weren’t they interested in a model from a country that a) had universal health care, b) but only since 2000, and c) had a base layer rather similar to the pre-ACA American system? In terms of health care, France was a lot more comparable to the US case than Britain and Canada were, both having built their systems before most people got private insurance. And yet, there was total indifference.

      Education, same thing – Britain occasionally checks itself against Northern Europe and East Asia mostly to assure itself that its system still works (but would never, say, notice how much more it tests students – and Americans test even more, with annual standardized tests), but doesn’t really import educational ideas from there. And Americans stare at me like I’m a lunatic when I tell them the rest of the developed world, including Canada and such, does not have school districts. I mentioned in the post how Europeans are learning American ideas of race but not the opposite; well, we (inc. Canadians) don’t have segregated school districts, and even Germany, with a lot of class segregation between Haupt-/Real-/Gesamtschulen and Gymnasien, does not have racial segregation beyond income differences by immigration background. And yet Americans 100% close ranks when I say things like “local control of schools is bad and the state should run all public schools.”

      • fjod

        No, Britain quite frequently checks itself on testing against European neighbours to the point where it actually changes policy. A huge part of the abolition of AS-levels (exams taken by 17-year-olds) was because education advisors thought British students were overtested compared to other comparator countries. ‘Free schools‘ were based off Sweden. British education reformers thesedays bang on about Germany; you can find a zillion articles on this premise in the guardian, the times etc

        If the UK could just learn mainland European rail/bus timetabling practices…

        • rational plan

          Then they have to admit they were wrong about the last 30 years. But COVID is proving an excuse to accelerate what had already been started. Franchising will switch over to direct management contracts and something will have to take it’s place. Need to prise the dead hand of the DFT off the rail system.

        • michaelrjames

          ‘Free schools‘ were based off Sweden.

          That was almost by accident and purely opportunistic, as Sweden was going thru its hard-right phase. Sweden’s friskolor policy (privately run schools funded by public money) subsequently crashed and burned, possibly before the Conservatives adopted it:

          “… between 2000 and 2012 Sweden’s Pisa scores dropped more sharply than those of any other participating country, from close to average to significantly below average. In the most recent Pisa assessment, in 2012, Sweden’s 15-year-olds ranked 28th out of 34 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries in maths, and 27th in both reading and science, significantly below their Nordic neighbours.”

          ‘It’s a political failure’: how Sweden’s celebrated schools system fell into crisis
          International ratings have plummeted and inequality is growing after raft of changes including introduction of voucher system
          Sally Weale, Wednesday 10 June 2015

          Swedish free school operator to close, leaving hundreds of pupils stranded
          JB Education schools are to be sold or closed after private equity group owner pulls plug, raising fears over UK policy
          Richard Orange and Richard Adams, Friday 31 May 2013

        • Alon Levy

          There was a human rights lawsuit involved in test abolition, no? In the 2000s people had to go to court complaining that British schools tested so much more than their Continental peers. (And Americans test far more than that.) Did the lawsuit get filed only in British courts or did they go to pan-European bodies?

          And re free schools: plans for voucherization of schools go back to the 1960s in the US – that was the original policy proposal that came out of then-new public choice theory. Maybe Britain used Sweden as a crutch to rely on, but it’s not the same thing as actually learning, just as the mass of right-wing protesters in the US in the spring who said “be like Sweden” had already decided corona was a myth and then pretended that Sweden did nothing as they’d have liked to, rather than learning from the actual Swedish approach and recommending that.

          • fjod

            I don’t recall that court case but that’s not to say it didn’t happen. Either way, the creeping introduction of more and more tests was acknowledged as a failing by the end of the 2000s (and part of this acknowledgement was comparing to other European countries), and as a result multiple levels of testing were abolished between 2010 and 2015. It certainly is not the case that the UK never notices that it continues to test a little more than the rest of Europe; again multiple articles in papers and journals do exactly that.

            wrt free schools, the UK fully cribbed the policy from Sweden rather than using it as a crutch. David Cameron and then-education minister Michael Gove literally acknowledged it as such. British free schools are very closely aligned with their Swedish counterparts in their ownership, governance and funding. But they are not like US charter schools (for the most part obviously – my understanding is that charter schools’ organisation varies from state to state), because the UK does not learn education policy from the US. As for the merits of this policy: it’s crap and has failed repeatedly. But it was quite unambiguously learnt from extensive study of Sweden.

      • adirondacker12800

        The level of incuriosity I saw among Americans in 2008
        All their lives they had been listening to people screech how government getting involved in healthcare would turn us all into Communists facing death panels. Single payer versus private insurance. Free for everyone versus progressively taxed. Ad nauseum. And that nobody had done anything in all that time. Just because you hadn’t grown weary of it doesn’t mean they hadn’t.

        • Alon Levy

          Yes, that’s on the right. But on the left, I saw even more stunning indifference, because they were busy saying half-correct things about Canada (remember Nate Silver’s post on the difference between Canada and Britain, ca. 2009?) or adding Medicaid expansion to the Heritage plan and decided there was no time to learn from a country that had had a similar experience literally that decade.

          • adirondacker12800

            They had months and months of hearings. Many of them had been around when there were months and months of hearings that resulted in Hillary care. People grow weary. We’ve been talking about since at least 1948 when the mayor of Minneapolis gave a almost anodyne speech, listening to it today. that called for universal health care. The one that made the Dixiecrats walk out. Just because they decided that nothing was going to be done before you started to pay attention doesn’t mean they were weary of it years before you noticed it.

          • adirondacker12800

            People who are indifferent don’t defend anything.

      • michaelrjames

        Re point 3. It may not be fair to say there is total indifference. I don’t know how much influence it provided but is it accidental that the only US state that has succeeded in introducing universal health care was Massachusetts under a French-speaking governor, Mitt Romney, who spent two years of his youth in France? (None of which he could ever admit in public, of course.) I feel some credit should be given to Hillary in the 90s who may have spectacularly failed, but did try (and whose failure influenced how Romney set about introducing his system to his state).

        But yeah, ok, Americans show immense indifference to the rest of the world. Or even how Massachusetts manages it.

        • Alon Levy

          MassHealth has nothing to do with either Romney or France. To wit:

          – It has a mandate and community rating, like Germany and Switzerland and unlike France.
          – The plan was developed entirely by the Democratic state legislature, which had a supermajority and could pass it over Romney’s objections if he vetoed it.
          – Romney himself never once showed curiosity about learning from France on any other issue, even issues where French policy is in agreement with the US conservative program, like nuclear power or the lack of affirmative action (cf. the West Wing’s expy for McCain and Romney, Arnold Vinick, who campaigns on nuclear power and talks up France’s program).
          – MassHealth is rather similar to thinktank-developed plans from the 1990s, which built on the remains of Hillarycare, which centered the individual mandate. In the 1990s Americans were even more globally incurious than they are today – jokes about how Americans don’t travel abroad come from then, whereas today the American passport possession rate is decently high (might be higher than France’s!).

          • michaelrjames

            So, Romney looks like he will support Trump & McConnell’s perfidy on appointing a SCOTUS replacement of RBG. I was a bit hesitant to accept your somewhat revisionist history of Romneycare but now I do; or perhaps simply have given up caring. There remains no doubt about just how slimy and amoral he is. OTOH, this also shows up how the Dems bring this crap on themselves. For years, decades really, I have been gobsmacked by the US’s irrational and anti-democratic habit of having incumbents continue forever, and until they die in office. It was always abundantly clear–and this is not retrospective wisdom–that RBG should have retired in Obama’s last term if not his first. Her reasons for not doing so were extremely lame and purely self-serving, and will considerably stain her history. It looks like it will be Amy Coney Barrett who is a Stepford wife “conservative” (typical American misnomer, really a reactionary and a braindead originalist) it will set back the court and progressivism (or just plain common sense) for 4-5 decades because she is so young. Seriously, the only glass-half-full is that this surely must provoke more voters trying to convince themselves that the checks & balances will right the ship, that no, it won’t. That they need to vote for actual change and give up hoping it will all just pass naturally. Should the Dems win the Senate as well as the presidency, the progressives need to hold the feet of the Dem nomenclatura to the fire or they’ll just wimp off any meaningful reform. Like the sainted RBG who on one of the most critical issues (her own replacement) was a selfish Augustinian.
            As to a mandate, is it really any different? I mean, Switzerland has an individual mandate but if you fail to buy insurance then the state will garnish your salary to pay for it. So little different to the French direct tax. It’s really just a lame sop to “individual choice” though Switzerland ends up paying almost identically to France on a per cap national basis; and Romneycare didn’t reduce costs etc.

            More Americans have passports today largely because previously they didn’t need one for Canada or Mexico, and being burnt by the sun down in Mexico still accounts for 40% of American journeys “abroad”. Though for both those borders, many journeys are day trips to buy drugs they can’t afford to buy in the US.

        • adirondacker12800

          And the Massachusetts legislature didn’t come up with this themselves. They used a template from those radical Commies at the Heritage Foundation. Republicans thought it was the bestest greatest thing ever. Until the Democrats decided that half a loaf is better than none and enacted it with some tweaks. It then became Communism and death panels. And ten years later they don’t have an alternate plan. They like the “get better or die” plan that they have had in mind forever.

      • CJ

        ” [T]he rest of the developed world, including Canada and such, does not have school districts” will come as a surprise to Canada, which absolutely does have school districts — indeed, it often has multiple, overlapping districts based on language or religion.

      • Herbert

        Well Germanies 16 states are pretty local and they control the schools, including funding

        • Alon Levy

          Yeah, but control and funding are at the Land level and not at the Kreis level – teachers get paid at the same rate all over Bayern I believe, whereas in the US Ingolstadt would be able to pay teachers way better than Fürth and such.

      • Lee Ratner

        Many Americans need the magic words Medicare for All usurped. A Democratic politician can have a plan that is Medicare for All but doesn’t use the magic words and that will set the American left off because they didn’t use the magic words. Another thing is that many American liberals basically see their utopian United States as their platonic image of an idealized Canada but with a better climate and hundreds of millions of people. So this creates a big single payer or bust attitude among universal healthcare advocates because that is what Canada has.

    • michaelrjames

      to spend such effort in more important sectors like healthcare

      Yeah, that would be nice if they could. Funny, how the two leading Anglosphere countries are struggling to cope with Covid-19. The UK being one of the worst in OECD and the USA being the worst of all. In response to rational plan’s query about how class and royalty influence these things, you might take a look who has been given responsibility for the test-and-trace program in the UK, which 6 months deep into this health emergency is still a farago of incompetence. No less than Dido Harding, a.k.a. Baroness Harding who happens to be a close friend of Boris’s from Oxford (and who made her a baroness, just as he did his own brother, Jo). She appointed Deloitte to manage the program (!) and Serco (!) to manage the actual collection and implementation. What could go wrong? Everything, and it still is:

      Covid-19: UK test and trace ‘barely functional’ as 11 million face lockdown With local lockdowns set to spread, report shows 90% of tests are failing to hit turnaround target
      Denis Campbell, Ben Quinn, Sarah Boseley, Josh Halliday, Robert Booth, 18 Sep 2020

      Typically, she was such a self-evident success in managing this program that Boris promoted her to Chair of the National Institute for Health Protection.

      • Oreg

        The most obvious examples for how a posh background and elite education breed a severe lack of judgement and sincerity paired with unparalleled arrogance are Boris Johnson himself and David Cameron, together pushing Britain over the Brexit cliff.

        • michaelrjames

          Though there are two omissions from your comment: one is in the joke:
          “Oxymoron is moron from Oxford. Trioxymoron is three Oxford morons in a row as PM.
          [Cameron, May, … Boris Johnson]”

          All three from Oxford though May wasn’t really “one of us”, while Boris and Cameron were both Eton educated, then Oxford and both members of the notorious U Oxford dining club Bullingdon.

          The second is Nick Clegg, now Sir Nicholas Clegg former leader of the LibDems and then Deputy PM under Cameron’s coalition government. His history and role in enabling the Conservatives in some of the worst policies since Thatcher (education, continued NHS destruction but most of all Brexit) is immensely saddening and frustrating. Unlike these others he was a genuine intellect with a considerable career as a eurocrat who spoke 4 European languages etc. He had a slightly different route to the heights of UK politics but not so dissimilar in essence; he also went to one of the premium private schools, Westminster, literally hard up against the cathedral and House of Parliament, then on to Cambridge instead of Oxford. My main issue with him was his very decision to form that coalition with the Cons–which were mortal enemies of the LibDems going back to their founding by the Gang of Four Labour breakaways. It was also a final nail in the coffin of my opinion of the f-witted modern Brits. The twisted and quite technically wrong rationale in forming that coalition was beyond the pale. He argued that because the voters didn’t give Labour (under Gordon Brown at the nadir of his unpopularity) a majority that therefore the Brits really had wanted a change and had “effectively” voted for a Con government! This is the toxic partisan binary thinking in the Anglosphere where any alternative or anything beyond two-party thinking is impossible; yes, the irony coming from a third party! I forget the precise figures but the progressive left-ish side of politics (Labour + LibDems) had a clear majority, and of course almost no LibDem voters would ever consider voting for the Cons. Yet, this f-witted logic gave the country a Cameron government that then proceeded to destroy the very things most LibDems held precious (probably no more than education it being the great leveller of class-ridden UK).
          Being a career European (languages, working in Brussels, Dutch mother, Spanish wife), having written books on the EU it is bitter irony that his main legacy is Brexit (though the edu & NHS debacles are up there) because he should have stopped it ever emerging from the mouth of David Cameron when Clegg was deputy PM and actually had some power. All of this clusterfk emerged from that inestimably stupid decision to form a coalition government with Cameron. In some ways progressives (and LibDem members) put more blame on Clegg. We didn’t expect anything better from the likes of the Trioxymorons but Clegg actually knew better and still allowed the disaster.

  4. Gok (@Gok)

    I’m going to ignore the ever-evolving grand unified theory of societies but to get back to transit construction cost, do we have real evidence that any country actually learned how to do construction cheaply from outside? It seems more like some places start out with the ability to do cheap construction, and within that group some places become expensive (and then never stop being expensive) while some stay more affordable.

    • Alon Levy

      There’s a lot of evidence countries learned to build subways from outside, and even more evidence for learning between cities in the same country (for example, Delhi Metro consultants advise many other Indian cities). So we see for example British engineers design the early Moscow Metro, leading to the latter’s radial layout and deep tunneling, and later Line 4’s cut-and-cover format was inspired by Khrushchev’s visit to New York.

      Learning about cost control is harder to track, because for one approximately nobody seriously engaged in this. That said, the history of the Milan Method is roughly “Milan got the idea of cut-and-cover metros from richer European countries than Italy and then its engineers came up with a way of making that work in a city with narrow Renaissance streets.” I also know that the Eastern European EU members have adopted a lot of EU norms re government procurement and contracting, but I don’t know directly how it affects subway construction. Russia, too, is slooooooowly trying to do cost control by looking west – Railway Gazette reports that it’s interested in doing more cut-and-cover for stations to reduce costs; the country size issue may matter there, in that Moscow’s removal of the trolleybuses makes sense as a kind of external learning if all the examples Russia thinks of when looking west are big countries or big cities rather than smaller ones like Zurich.

      • Dexter Dugar Jr

        Don’t forget, the original IRT subway design was chosen after visiting various cities with subways. The winner? Budapest. And if you notice, the original 28 stations look very similar to Metro Line 1 in terms of design. They took what they learned and beefed it up.

  5. Joseph Shupac

    Very interesting article. Do you think maybe part of it has to do with terrain? Spain, Italy, Turkey, South Korea, Switzerland and Scandinavia (or at least, Norway) are mountainous; perhaps the need to be good at tunnelling, and maybe also other techniques needed in constructing infrastructure in mountains, has had some impact on transit building in these countries? This could also add a bit of a wrinkle to the culture cringe factor, since mountainous countries have tended to be more peripheral in general

    • Alon Levy

      Okay, this is definitely something I’m going to have to ask people in Sweden (not mountainous or tunnel-heavy, but tightly integrated with Norway, which has a lot of these little road tunnels to outlying islands) and Switzerland (very tunnel-heavy despite attempts to reduce tunneling through clever timetabling).

      • Herbert

        Tunnels are easier to keep stable in hard rock than in lose sediment. Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and to some extent Spain are full of hard rock. River floodplains or glacial remains are full of lose sands and gravel.

      • Richard Mlynarik

        My perception is that there is a civil engineering culture that tunnelling is “no big deal” — we know how to do it, we’ve done it before, we have a healthy and competent geotechnical sectors both in public agencies and private contractors, we have an good range of experienced and competitive civil engineering companies who will bid, we have professionalized workers in both white collars and flourescent safety outfits.

        Basically there’s a bunch of Hoch- und Tiefbau firms out there who just do it, there are trade and engineering schools who produce workers who know how to do it, and there are people in the civil service with both engineering technology expertise and with public service ethics (ie “costs need control”.)

        No different from non-tunnelled rail stuff: in Germany or Sweden or Spain or where-ever if you want build some new tracks next to, under, over, or around an existing and highly-trafficed rail corridor and then tie them in, you just do it, because you know how it’s done and there are plenty of mid-sized firms that can do it. In the Anglosphere, you make excuses, you outsource planning to rent-seeking incompetents, you waste years, you disrupt and shut down everything for months, and you shovel endless amounts of money into the same pockets, and in the end you get one freight-quality turnout in a location that creates a bottleneck.

        And yes, incidents like the Rastatter Tunnel collapse can still happen even when the perfidious Anglo-Saxons aren’t in charge.

        • Herbert

          Or the Cologne city archive collapse (but then Cologne is nationally famous for corruption)

  6. James Green

    Very good overview of this theory you’ve been developing, I think it explains a lot.

    One thing to be wary of is that it’s all too easy to start thinking it explains *everything*. There are a hundred reasons and one for what makes any given state more or less efficient than another and this is only one of those reasons, albeit likely a leading factor. I’m sure you are already aware of this trap but I thought I’d mention it anyway.

  7. Herbert

    The Deutschlandtakt is a Swiss idea that filtered into Germany via German railfans, so there’s that…

  8. Andrew in Ezo

    Alon, re. lower costs for S. Korean construction vs. Japan, studies have been done, mainly in the context of winning overseas contracts, primarily in SE Asia and the Middle East. A MLIT study from 2015 highlighted the structure of S. Korean economy, mainly the dominance of the chaebol groups (which constitute close to 70% of the economy, of which 20% is Samsung alone). The construction companies (i.e. Samsung Engineering, Hyundai Engineering, GS Engineering & Construction being the biggest) are part of one the big conglomerates or formerly part of a conglomerate (Samsung, Hyundai and LG respectively in the example previous), and as such all work is done in-house- presumably this realizes considerable savings. On the other hand, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) constitute 99% of the Japanese economy, and as such, construction and engineering firms are very specialized, and covering a large project involve many stakeholders with their own interests in mind. Of course there are many other factors involved-for example, perhaps the Korean “pali pali” culture may help to keeps costs low by valuing expediency while in Japan projects tend to be done very deliberately leading to delays and cost escalation.

      • Andrew in Ezo

        Let me rephrase that- SMEs constitute *99.7% of the businesses* in Japan, and provide 70% of the employment. In the case of large companies, the top 10 companies in Japan had sales in 2017 that constituted 24.6% of GDP. S. Korea’s top 10 companies had sales making up 44.3% of GDP. The U.S. figure was 11.8%.

  9. AJ

    I’m new-ish to the blog … so what, specifically, are the best practices we all should be learning from the lower cost countries? I’m reading a lot of what not to do, but not on what do to.

    • Alon Levy

      I do not yet know, I only know common practices to both low-cost and medium-cost countries, but not yet what distinguishes Turkey or Sweden or Italy or Spain or Korea from Germany or France or Japan or Austria :(.

  10. Pingback: Low- and Medium-Cost Countries | Pedestrian Observations

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