Sometimes, when I write about cost comparisons or public-sector incompetence, I see people make analogies to other fields. and sometimes these analogies are really strained. So I want to make this clear that I am talking about things that are specific to public transportation, and drawing lessons in other fields requires excellent cross-national comparisons within those other fields.
For example, in a Hacker News thread regarding my last post, including some interesting comments and some truly mad ones, someone brought up education, including that overrated word in US business, disruption. For another example, the pseudonymous New York (I believe?) socialist transit activist who goes by Emil Seidel asked me recently why I talk about full workforce replacement at Amtrak but not at American police departments.
So let’s enumerate some features of rail transport, as far as labor and international comparisons go:
- The United States is severely behind, with much less usage than in peer developed countries, especially when it comes to commuter and intercity rail as opposed to subways and light rail.
- The United States is moreover intellectually behind – there is too little academia-industry collaboration, the internal ideas of reform are usually half-baked, and so on, and this again is magnified when it comes to mainline rail.
- Wages are not really above local market rates, but the market rate is pulled up by solvable work conditions problems. Moreover, there is severe overstaffing on mainline rail, though much less so on subways and not at all as far as I can tell on buses.
- The laws of physics are universal, and to a large extent so are those of economics, which means that knowledge transplants quickly between different environments when the recipient place is interested in learning, as Southern Europe is in learning from Northern Europe.
I don’t think any of the above features applies to education. The United States seems worse than Northern Europe and East Asia, and does spend more money, but the money doesn’t really go to teachers. The OECD’s Education at a Glance report finds that among the OECD countries for which there is data, the US ranks last in teacher pay relative to that of similarly-educated workers (PDF-p. 387), and has somewhat more students per teacher than the average (PDF-p. 372). Starting Berlin teachers get paid slightly better than starting New York teachers, Germany having one of the best pay rates relative to wages, enough to overcome New York’s large average income premium over Berlin.
The part about the laws of physics being universal might apply to education, but the upshot is that full replacement leads to a big reduction in quality, because teachers should know the students personally and a contingent workforce of strikebreakers moving around from city to city can’t do that.
It’s plausible that the US is also intellectually behind on education, in the sense of not being aware of trends in Finland, Singapore, the Netherlands, and other high-performance countries. My impression is that individual Americans sometimes acquire such an interest but the school district system does not reward such knowledge, so they remain interested parents who yell into the ether and never become decision makers. But I don’t know to what extent American teachers, curriculum writers, etc. are just ignorant of advances elsewhere, and judging by the quality of comments on this subject, the American commenters who go ahead and assume education works like rail transport don’t either.
Policing, unlike education, does display a glaring international difference. American cops shoot around 1,100 people every year, around 3-3.5 per million people; the European range is 0.03-0.25 per million, to the point that one must rely on multiyear averages to get any reliable rates by country, and the high-income Asian range is so low that in 2018 Japan only had two killings, for a rate of 0.016. This is disproportionate to any difference in crime rates, police racism levels, etc.
And yet, all the other issues apply. The US does not have an overstaffed police by European standards, either writ large or in specific cities. NYPD has somewhat larger strength per capita than the TMPD, by about one third per Wikipedia, but this is not a large difference, and New York has higher crime than Tokyo. The biggest glaring difference to me on the labor side, all from Wikipedia-level knowledge, is that Germany requires years of academy of cops compared with a few months in American cities, but that argues against general replacement. And local knowledge is of paramount importance in criminal investigation.
I’d like to stress, then, that I make assertions regarding public transportation, especially mainline rail. These include the inferiority of North America to Europe and Asia, to such extent that Americans in the field need to view themselves as deficient Europeans or Asians and acquire the knowledge of the global technological frontier before attempting to innovate.
But this, again, is barely even true in other parts of public transportation. In urban transit that doesn’t touch mainline rail, the inferiority is still there but the gap is narrow in operations. It’s really only capital construction and anything involving mainline rail where one sees routine inefficiency by a factor of 5-10, with a commuter train staffed with five or more crew where a similar-size train here would have one, very low maintenance productivity, order-of-magnitude construction cost premiums, and so on. In operations, New York is still inefficient but the factor is 2 and not 10 and some other American cities, like Chicago, have normal operating costs. (Japanese cities, not depicted in the link, cluster around $5/car-km – see report for Mumbai Metro, PDF-pp. 254-261.)
If the point is to look at staffing levels carefully and only then make proclamations regarding the workforce, then it’s natural that the conclusions in different fields may be different. In mainline rail there really is a case for full replacement at Amtrak and some commuter rail agencies in the US, but it’s in context of truly otherworldly costs, an internal culture that is technologically stuck in the 1950s, and high enough staffing levels that pushing the reset button could be worth it. This case is most likely not there for other industries, and, again, isn’t there for non-mainline US rail transit, which needs reforms but often in a direction junior planners already push for.