Get Rid of Failed Leaders, Publicly

Richard Mlynarik is too nice. He uses expressions like “we’re doomed” and “inexplicably not indicted” and “grossly corrupt,” but I get the feeling that it’s not quite as heavy a grudge as it should be.

The problem with retaining failed leaders and failing projects, you see, is that they exercise soft power. This is seen repeatedly for American rail projects, from BART to San Jose to California High-Speed Rail. But it’s not just infrastructure and not just the United States.

Anders Tegnell’s mass manslaughter

Sweden infamously rejected the typical European approach to corona, which included lockdowns of various levels of intensity and mask mandates. Its chief public health bureaucrat, Anders Tegnell, believed the only solution was herd immunity, that is infecting everyone under retirement age in order to produce herd immunity protecting high-risk populations. None of this happened: no herd immunity was achieved despite his false claims to the contrary, and the virus got into Swedish nursing homes. I computed excess deaths through the beginning of May of this year (and the death toll since has not been high enough to matter); Sweden’s amount to 16.1% of its annual death toll, compared with about 2.5-6% for Norway, Finland, and Denmark, its Nordic peers.

And because Sweden never publicly drew a line and removed Tegnell for his gross incompetence, he gets to keep peddling his denialism, globally. Early on, he was even trying to get Finland not to engage in any lockdowns, explicitly in order to infect more people and reach herd immunity; Finland wisely did not listen and became, together with Norway, the closest thing Europe had to a corona fortress. Sweden enjoys good reputation in the world, which Tegnell abused domestically and in developing countries, counseling a strategy of mass infection in Brazil and India.

The imprimatur of Sweden has enabled him to keep making excuses. He and other defenders of Sweden’s failure say that Sweden has had fewer deaths than the US or Southern European countries; in reality, 22.4% of Swedes age 18-34 lived with parents in 2019, which proportion is similar in other Nordic countries, but in Italy it’s 69.4% and in Spain 64.5% – as with much else, Southern Europe is poor, rather than poorly-governed. He’s even taken to making racist excuses, saying that Sweden has an unusually difficult problem with immigration compared with Norway – but the two countries have similar immigration levels, Sweden just thinks it’s exceptionally open and blames its various social problems (high rape rates, detriorating schools) on immigrants. But the arguments are not what’s relevant. They are weak, but so long as he stays, they seem serious, because a person with a serious position makes them. Sweden is not only mass killing its own residents very day it fails to remove this deadly failure, but also exporting mass death through force of argument.

Excuses in transportation and the people who make them

The head of the Federal Transit Administration is Nuria Fernandez, formerly of San Jose’s transit agency, VTA. This is not the job Fernandez should have. The ideal job for Fernandez is none. She has a record of failure – the San Jose extension of BART, planned and built by VTA and not by BART, is seeing prices skyrocket, currently $9.1 billion, or $950 million per kilometer in an easy environment that is not even 100% underground, only 83%. Fernandez herself, I am told, signed off on questionable design decisions, namely the use of a large-diameter single bore (as in Barcelona’s L9) with oversize station halls (unlike Barcelona) to avoid cut-and-cover construction.

And there’s the rub. One could make arguments why VTA is bad. Richard has made them in comments for many years, foreseeing that the San Jose extension was beeing built without regard for its utility. The engineering decisions are clearly unusual and indefensible; the Barcelona method’s use case is for lines slaloming under older metro lines, not for a city’s first subway, especially not one going underneath wide streets. But as long as the project keeps going, and as long as the FTA is led by a political appointee who came from VTA, the full power of the federal government screams “this is okay.” It doesn’t have the global cachet of Sweden, not in infrastructure, but domestically it sets the tone.

In theory, she could accept that she had failed and work to be better. But she hasn’t. Quite to the contrary. At Eno’s symposium about construction costs and project delivery, she gave the keynote, which decision I had already been suspicious of, but her talk was even worse. While Eno’s experts talked about the need to minimize costs at many panels and about how to do it, she talked about balancing costs with environmental impact (as if there are no environmental protections in Southern Europe) and community needs. It was a boilerplate talk, unrepentant about the fact that she is the wrong person for the job – in fact any job in transportation, management, or government.

The system and the person

The need to remove failures is true at both the level of morally repugnant incompetents like Tegnell and Fernandez and overall systems. At California High-Speed Rail, moral offenders like Quentin Kopp and Rod Diridon are long gone. But their influence persists, as does the basic structure of a politicized board using the project as other people’s money (OPM) for local priorities.

And once again, the survival of the project exerts toxic influence. The state paused it on “let’s be real” grounds during the Trump era, even as Governor Gavin Newsom (himself morally loathsome for flagrantly breaking his own lockdown rule and dining indoors with donors) insisted the project would go as planned and connecting Bakersfield with Fresno was a worthy achievement. So the project was in effect mothballed, but not officially, and so all planning has operated under the assumption that bad decisions from 15 years ago are set in stone and, more importantly, the process that produced them is an acceptable way of building infrastructure.

The need for harshness

People do not exert effort in a social vacuum. They do so for any number of personal or social reasons:

  • A sense of personal achievement and ambition
  • The desire for peer approval
  • The desire for broader social status
  • Money

The higher up they are the managerial hierarchy, the weaker all these reasons become. They are paid too well to be curious of other organizational cultures, especially ones they’ve been brought up to believe are inferior to their own, like Southern Europe to both the US and Northern Europe. Their personal success is testimony to them and to their peers that no fluency in peer organizational cultures is necessary for one’s career, and their retention in important positions affirms that society views their contributions positively.

This is why quiet change is not possible. Sweden adopted mass masking in late 2020, but by then it was too late. Moreover, it keeps Tegnell around, which sends everyone in Sweden a message: we did fine, and as a public health bureaucrat you should aspire to be like Tegnell. A street criminal can be gotten rid of quietly – in some cases having his mother shame him is enough, no legal punishment needed, because said street criminal inspires nobody. A failed official of high public stature cannot, because said official inspires followers, unless removed loudly, clearly, and humiliatingly by a higher authority. In extreme cases like Tegnell’s (but not Fernandez’s), prosecution and lengthy imprisonment are ideal to communicate the gravity of the offense.

And this is equally true at the systemic level, that is that of the project. A small project, like a particular train station rebuild or a short tramway extension, can be postponed quietly. A megaproject cannot – a visible hulk still inspires people who argue in favor of the authority of the state, which de jure keeps the project on the books, and who invent excuses why the project is in fact good and its particular decisions are defensible. It can be built as is, or it can be formally canceled with all the humiliation that implies for the agency involved and the state, or it can be formally canceled and immediately restarted with the implication that all prior decisions are subject to review (as happened with the Green Line Extension in Boston).

There’s always thee temptation to walk back things slowly and quietly. Someone in a high position of power, or a project with symbolic significance for the state or a political movement, is deemed too important to be thrown away. But that’s precisely why throwing failures away is so important. Anyone deemed too important will never challenge themselves or grow, and end up occupying a seat someone with better understanding of the modern global situation should have; anything deemed too important will likewise systemically stagnate and acquire cruft, raising cots and reducing utility. It’s an error to make such people and such projects safe, and in some cases the failure to acknowledge and punish failure can kill tens of thousands.

180 comments

  1. Phake Nick

    Brazil and India didn’t lack lock down. What they lack is the ability to enforce them strictly without their population dying from hunger caused by not being able to work.

    Mask mandate is much less useful than actually educating the people why masks are helpful and make them wear it themselves. People are going to resist mandate being placed upon them, but they aren’t going to resist judgement being made in their mind after being provided sufficient information, especially for such thing that require self discipline, and for masks to be effective, there also needs education on how to wear mask to properly filter the air you inhale and exhale instead of just let them in side way, or even worse exposing your nose while wearing the mask completely defeating the purpose, and there should also be explanation while filter-free cloth masks aren’t going to be very effective. Most western countries have done none of these and simply tell people they should wear masks to prevent it spread.

    • Tom the first and best

      On the contrary, there are plenty of only sensible option but voluntary activities that plenty of people don`t do. Hence compulsory seatbelts, compulsory voting (in some places only), compulsory masks, etc.

      Having said that, some nuance in the fines for not wearing a mask would be sensible. Half-sized fines if the mask is only covering one of the mouth or nose, would be a good idea.

      • Phake Nick

        Compulsory seatbelt isn’t effective at getting passengers wearing seatbelt, here minibuses passengers are mandatorily required to wear seatbelt but I have literally never seen anyone wearing them except on cross-country routes.
        Compulsory voting help force everyone vote, but some of them would simply vote by tossing coins to determine which candidate is better, and thus isn’t helpful
        Compulsory masks, likewise, make people want to drop their masks when there aren’t any presence of force nearby, and is not able to force people into wearing it correctly. Hence it’s less useful than actually making your population understand usefulness of masks.

        Also, half-fine covering only either mouth or nose, make zero sense, because no matter from source reduction perspective or from filtering inhaled air perspective, such half wearing are just as good as none.

        • Tom the first and best

          Compulsory seat belts have increased seatbelt use. Less so on buses, admittedly.

          The proportion of voters who vote without reference to who they are actually voting for is low. Compulsory voting largely brings out people who do have political views but wouldn`t otherwise be voting. It creates a culture of voting.

          The people who drop their masks away from the police, shopkeepers, etc. are much more likely to not wear a mask voluntarily than be educatable into voluntary mask wearing. The masks will thus be worn more inside and in crowds, where it is more important to wear a mask.

          • Phake Nick

            Compulsory seat belts won’t be used this much unless they learned about benefits

            Compulsory voting doesn’t guarantee the people coming out would actually be voting the way they want to. Creating a culture of voting doesn’t mean much. North Korea also pull everyone out to vote but then what.

            >The people who drop their masks away from the police, shopkeepers, etc. are much more likely to not wear a mask voluntarily than be educatable into voluntary mask wearing. The masks will thus be worn more inside and in crowds, where it is more important to wear a mask.

            You haven’t even tried educate them before claiming failure

          • Tom the first and best

            North Koreans don`t have a choice who they vote for. In democracies with compulsory voting, voters do have a choice.

            Some people won`t do things that are voluntary, in spite being aware of strong of evidence that it is the best course of action, but will obey rules when forced to. These are the people bans are for. With masks being as much about not exhaling virus on other as not inhaling it, compulsion needs to be in place when the risk of infection is enough to justify it. Do run good mask value education campaigns, but have the compulsion as well, where it is needed.

          • Phake Nick

            @Tom

            I mean, the mask-wearing rate in Asia compared to Europe completely shows that awareness are much more efficient at getting people wearing masks than regulation.

    • Alon Levy

      To be very clear, I don’t blame Tegnell primarily for Brazil and India. Both have head-in-sand political leaders who delayed action even though they were perfectly capable of it; Brazil is of comparable wealth to Thailand and India to Vietnam, and both Thailand and Vietnam were corona fortresses in 2020, Thailand only falling after delta came in via Burma. The trick, not used anywhere in Europe, is centralized quarantine, a common tool until the 1960s and 70s, when falling first-world infectious disease rates made it no longer needed. The use of medical rather than cloth masks is important too – Europe was on cloth masks until the fall of 2020, and I saw Germans keep Eurosplaining to me why medical masks were okay no matter what Asian practice was and what Australian health authorities were saying (and then within a few months Germany started mandating medical masks and they all switched; state signaling matters).

      But Tegnell was there consulting with them recommending inaction; the excess death count in India is in the millions and that’s not counting the export of delta, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

      • Tom the first and best

        Air travel replacing sea passenger travel was another reason that quarantine disappeared. That is a major why Australia closed its port quarantine stations, leaving it to largely rely on hotel quarantine for the pandemic (effective by international standards but relatively leak prone compared to much better ventilated detached cabin type quarantine).

      • Charlie

        Central quarantine is a restriction on freedom of movement, like what the Chinese did. A recipe for authoritarianism. Even in Taiwan and South Korea they are used to accepting restrictions on freedom that would be unacceptable in a country like Sweden.

        • Alon Levy

          In the actual Taiwan and South Korea they are used to taking to the street to overthrow authoritarian governments; both countries are run by political parties that came out of these protest movements. The idea that there’s some kind of despotic element in democratic Asian culture is exactly the kind of prejudiced bullshit that prevented non-Aus/NZ Western countries from learning how Taiwan became a corona fortress and within Europe is preventing NEurope from learning what France and SEurope are doing.

          • Charlie

            I’m not talking about whether they are democracies or whether people protest. I’m saying that the expectations people have for what the state can do to interfere in matters of daily life are just different.

          • Alon Levy

            And I’m saying that this is bullshit; it’s one of those unthinkable-until-it’s-done-and-then-it-becomes-obvious issues. Same way Germans told me I’m blowing smoke when I said medical masks > cloth masks not long before RKI switched its official position and Germany started to mandate medical masks. Same way everyone in France treated anti-vax riots as a fact of life until the state started mandating vaccine passes to general public accolades.

          • Matthew Hutton

            One difference between Europe is that we have lots of roll on roll off trade between the various countries, plus in continental Europe people will have friends in different countries and preventing people seeing them if they live close to the national borders is very hard.

            All the Asian countries plus Australia/new Zealand that did a good job are (effectively) islands with the exception of Vietnam and they will have little cross border roll on roll off trade.

            And with south east Asia how much travel there is across Myanmar I’m not sure, so if Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Singapore all controlled international flights and had little Covid then pre-delta it probably wouldn’t spread.

        • Tiercelet

          Have you spent much time in either of these places? Which state-mandated restrictions on freedom in Taiwan and South Korea are you referring to?

        • Onux

          Central quarantine of *sick* people (or people positive for the infection at hand, or possibly infected travelers from abroad) is restriction of movement for a relatively small number with a clear reason for restriction (you are or may be infected).

          It is the lockdowns and other travel restrictions that are the real authoritarian measures, as they affect the whole population. They also cause hugely unnecessary disruption. C.f. kids in Australia cruelly separated from their parents because they happened to be at their grandparents’ house for a day in one state when their home state suddenly closed its borders. Or San Francisco spending absurd money to house homeless people in hotels for “lockdown” and “distancing” while other businesses went bankrupt for lack of visitors while people positive for Covid were told to isolate at home with no oversight (instead of being forced into those same hotel rooms to ensure they didn’t spread).

          I don’t know why so much of the world seemed to abandon the notion of actual quarantine in favor of much more authoritarian measures. A hallmark of the Uniformed Public Health Service is (was?) that the rank (i.e. the Surgeon General is the admiral) gave authority to order people into quarantine much as a police officer can make an arrest. Why wasn’t this power used widely early on instead or ordering the sick and healthy alike into their homes so they could lose their job and still catch or spread the virus to housemates or people they met at the supermarket?

          • adirondacker12800

            There aren’t enough hotel rooms or caretakers to staff them? People who are sick need a lot of care. You do understand that many people who are infected get very very sick?

          • Eric2

            @Onux

            Unlike with most viruses, people infected with covid are often contagious for a couple days before experiencing symptoms. So lots of sick people don’t even know they are sick. If you only get knowingly sick people to isolate, the virus will still spread via unknowing people.

            Also, I don’t see why it’s “more authoritarian” to force everyone to isolate than to force specific people, I would rather think the reverse. Forcing everyone to isolate is inherently limited in duration because of the huge economic costs and the practical frustration which crosses the political spectrum. Forcing specific people to isolate does not have these limitations, it can go on indefinitely at little cost to the regime, and therefore it is a much more useful tool for the regime to intimidate individuals or groups it doesn’t like. In practice, we see that universal measures like curfews and blue laws are relatively common in democracies, while confinement of individuals is considered intolerable (except in cases of criminal conviction and dangerous illness).

          • Alon Levy

            My understanding is that historically, centralized quarantines fell out of fashion in the first world in the 1960s and 70s as the burden of infectious disease fell to imperceptibly low levels. On the eve of WW1, something like 1/6 of France’s mortality rate was from tuberculosis. By the 1960s all of this was in the past, so the focus of public health shifted to other things, including non-infectious diseases (hence the CDC’s mission creep to stuff like crime) and then a pandemic STI for which quarantines are worse than useless and fighting the stigma is important.

            Third world health departments kept having to deal with acute epidemics and have retained centralized quarantine capacity to some extent; Mumbai used that at one point. But between worse-than-useless leadership (Tanzania’s president denied corona until he died from it), leaks (Thailand got reseeded with delta via the Burmese border), and undertesting, most of them haven’t done well. Bangladesh seems to be doing extraordinarily well right now, but it’s pretty rare unfortunately.

          • Onux

            @Adirondacker: Very sick people end up in the hospital either way. The question is what to do with all of the people who are infected but not sick, or no more sick than with a cold/flu. Right now they are told to quarantine themselves, but in reality some stay home, others do not. During lockdowns, EVERYONE was told to stay at home, with greater supervision, even though for many the only result was to lost their job or suffer mental health problems from isolation. Letting the infected go about while hurting the non-infected majority is an inversion of how this should work.

            @Eric2: You are incorrectly assuming the only way to find positive cases is via symptoms. During the early stages of the pandemic the primary way should have been aggressive contact tracing and testing, with people isolated until results are back and anyone testing positive required to quarantine for a full duration. After testing ramps up widespread availability and test requirements (everyone entering the country, everyone visiting an ER, etc.) can similarly identify cases before symptoms.

            It would seem to me that forcing the “total” population to give up their rights to free movement, free association, free speech/protest, attend religious meetings, plus suffer economic, mental and physical pain from lost jobs, isolation, and deferred medical procedures is far more . . . what’s the word . . . TOTALitarian than forcing people who can actually infect others to quarantine until they are healthy and safe. There is a clear nexus between being infected/infecting others and quarantine which is not found in locking down the whole population. By your logic it is less authoritarian to put all of East St. Louis in camps to lower its murder rate, rather than convicting and imprisoning actual murders.

            The idea that isolating everyone is of limited duration is laughable given the history of the past 20 months. “Just two weeks to flatten the curve” right?

            That quarantine *as a measure* may last a long time does not mean quarantine *for an individual* can be indefinite. There can be strong safeguards to ensure quarantine is not abused (strict time limits, re-testing to weed out false positives, access to internet/personal phones, etc.). As a parallel, arrest as a measure lasts indefinitely, police can arrest someone any time a crime is committed, but that doesn’t mean free countries use ordinary arrest for political oppression, since probable cause, habeus corpus, trial by jury, appeal, etc. serve as checks. Once again the empirical evidence runs the opposite with Covid, in Australia the government is using lockdown as an excuse to break up protests against lockdown, then sending police to the homes of people posting anti-lockdown messages on social media to harass them.

          • adirondacker12800

            You can be very sick without needing to go to a hospital.

          • Tom the first and best

            https://pedestrianobservations.com/2021/10/31/get-rid-of-failed-leaders-publicly/#comment-115813

            Locking down at the first sign of Covid in the community, not waiting for high case numbers, allowed for speedy local elimination (at least before Delta). This allowed (an in some lucky cases where it is still being kept out, still allows) very low levels of local restrictions, of benefit to the vast majority of people who got locked down. Waiting for a significant curve to flatten only extends the lockdown.

            Quarantine can`t just be for people who are already infectious, contacts of infectious people, who may be incubating the virus and may soon become infectious, have to quarantine as well. Prompt lockdowns (at the first sign of cases) provide time and low enough case numbers to trace the infectious people and their contacts to get them into quarantine. The lockdown can then be short, in some cases (where it is from an inbound traveller quarantine leak and the contact tracing system is fully functional) only a few days.

            Incubation periods are also why inbound travellers need to be quarantined (in proper individually externally ventilating quarantine dwellings) until vaccination is widespread.

            Work from home has been very successful in keeping many jobs operating in lockdown, making lockdowns more effective and more viable. For jobs that cannot be done at home and have to be stopped because they are non-essential, government payments and firing bans are necessary, many of these workers (e.g. waitstaff at restaurants/cafes) would be at higher risk of infection through exposer to the public.

            Electronic association and electronic speech have not been curtailed in democracies. The people arrested for posting on the internet were allegedly* organising illegal protests, not just saying they didn`t want a lockdown. Anti-lockdown protests have also cause spikes in case numbers, almost certainly because people violating infection control laws are more likely to be infected through taking fewer precautions. Religious gatherings have also known places of transmissions events.

            * I don`t know if any of these matters are still before the courts.

          • Onux

            @Adirondacker: If you are very sick and don’t need to be in a hospital (i.e. be taken care of at home) then you can be very sick in centralized quarantine and taken care of in a hotel room – by someone wearing proper PPE, who is regularly tested, so you don’t spread it to your family member who goes on to spread to to someone else like if you are very sick at home.

            @Tom the first and best: I agree quarantine may be required for people not definitely positive (close contacts of cases, travelers from abroad) while waiting for test results, this is still quarantine (i.e. of the sick/possibly sick) not a lockdown (of everyone).

            I also agree that a short initial lockdown to get a handle on things and set up the quarantine system may necessary. New Zealand’s first lockdown was probably the model for this: it was very strict, had a defined end date, and the reopening phases were announced before the lockdown began. Everywhere else has been mostly a disaster: exemptions for essential businesses (or in LA politically connected ones, i.e. Hollywood), repeated extensions, changing goalposts (is the metric case count or ICU capacity?), etc.

            Work from home has made lockdowns very tolerable for wealthy white collar professionals. It is not an option for blue collar and service workers, which is why lockdowns have been a disaster for them.

            One could argue that electronic association and speech are certainly being curtailed by Facebook, Twitter et. al. removing or banning Covid misinformation. The fact that some of this is absolute bunk (nanobots in the vaccines) doesn’t mean it isn’t curtailed speech. Saying Australia didn’t arrest people for online gatherings, but that they arrested them for planning a physical gathering online seems like a distinction without a difference.

            Blaming anti-lockdown protests for spread is not defensible when absolutely no health authorities criticized the protests against police brutality last summer for being Covid transmission risks. Both types of protests saw people in close proximity, some people unmasked, and people yelling/singing yet somehow doctors and epidemiologists looked the other way (or intentionally violated their oaths for their political views, or went along with the crowd and were afraid to speak up at what they knew was wrong). Combined with the repeated hypocrisy of leaders around Covid restrictions (Newsom at the restaurant as Alon noted, Hollywood at the Oscars, Obama at his birthday party, Schumer in Puerto Rico) the breakup of protests against lockdowns should be viewed extremely skeptically as a violation of freedom of speech and assembly – even if it using health restrictions to silence one viewpoint was allowing others wasn’t intentional, the past year and a half have certainly shown the risk of such abuse is there.

          • adirondacker12800

            very sick in centralized quarantine and taken care of in a hotel room
            By who? People who usually work in hospitals that were being and are being overwhelmed? Early on the people in the hospitals were using makeshift PPE and access to N95 ia still difficult.
            We don’t have replicators like they have on Star Trek and the real world doesn’t fit your fantasy.

          • Onux

            @Adirondacker
            “By who?” – By anyone hired to do the task. By your own definition we are talking about sick people not sick enough to be hospitalized, so it doesn’t need to be people who usually work in hospitals. If the alternative is these very-sick-but-not-sick-enough-for-a-hospital people to be cared for at home by family members then any unskilled labor will do. The central governments that would be running this centralized quarantine also have things called Public Health Services, Emergency Management Agencies, and Police/Militaries just full of people who can be mobilized for this task, as they are for disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes.

            “Early on the people in the hospitals were using makeshift PPE” – Then early on the people running centralized quarantine would have makeshift PPE too. This would still be a better situation than widespread lockdown because a) Caretakers would be subject to monitoring/testing to prevent spread instead of home caretakers who would not b) the number of caretakers possibly exposed would be fewer for a given group of sick people than the number of people exposed at home (the entire household for each sick person) and c) asymptomatic people would not be wandering around freely infecting anyone.

          • adirondacker12800

            It’s a pity no one paid attention to your clairvoyance in October of 2019 to hire all these people and give them minimal training. It is difficult to test asymptomatic people if there aren’t enough tests to check symptomatic people.

      • Phake Nick

        Thailand and Vietnam were coronavirus fortress with strict rule against inbound travellers and strict lockdown wherever few cases were found leaked into the country. Such measure is no longer tenable when Delta variant hit, which demand much greater length of lockdown to suppress its hyper transmissiveness, and cannot be beared by either countries.

        India got this earlier as India got Delta earlier in early 2021, and Gamma have been in Brazil since 2020. That’s why they face such scale of outbreak earlier, and that was also the time when vaccines still weren’t available.

        Of course, leader measures also matter, but variation in the virus itself also need to be taken into consideration.

        • Tom the first and best

          The effectiveness of Covid-zero fortresses depend on the quality of and adherence to quarantine. Poorly ventilated hotels for quarantine leak much more than detached cabins. Islands are in a much better position than places with land borders in mountainous jungles, as their borders are easier to enforce.

          A Delta variant leak may have been containable in a wealthy country, if it did not get loose in a poor urban area, with an immediate hard lockdown, but that would have been a close call.

          • Charlie

            With the Delta variant, covid zero is not viable unless your country speaks Chinese. At this point it’s just Taiwan (Communist China has been consistently faking their numbers for the past two years and covering up millions of deaths). Good luck getting Americans to lock down again. It’s time to finish vaccinating the vulnerable and get on with returning to normal.

          • Tom the first and best

            Australia and New Zealand were keeping Covid out (and some states still are) until it leak in via New South Wales, the least restrictive state government who wasted any chance of stopping Delta. Had NSW locked down the whole of Sydney at the first sign of Delta, they may have stopped it.

            Everybody exposed to Covid is vulnerable, to a greater or lesser extent. Everyone who can be vaccinated, currently 12+ (except for a very small proportion of the population with certain medical conditions preventing them from being vaccinated), needs to be vaccinated with 2 doses to suppress transmission. Fortunately, vaccines for 5-11 are on their way as well.

          • Eric2

            “Communist China has been consistently faking their numbers for the past two years and covering up millions of deaths”
            That is an incredibly unlikely conspiracy theory. If millions of people were dying, that would be evident from overflowing hospitals and funeral homes, massive changes to government policy and travel plans, and so on. One of the millions of Chinese with foreign VPN access would have reported it abroad, and signs would even be seen on satellite imaging. But in reality none of this has happened.

            “vaccines for 5-11 are on their way as well.”
            They are already approved for 5+ year olds.

          • Tom the first and best

            1 jurisdiction has given 1 of 2 approvals for the rollout of a vaccine for 5-11. The rest of the world is still waiting.

          • Phake Nick

            “A Delta variant leak may have been containable in a wealthy country, if it did not get loose in a poor urban area, ” I am not sure why wealth of an area is a factor here when we are talking about wealthy country

            Wealth is a factor in those mid-income countries mentioned before because livelihood of those residents depends on working and long-lockdown will cut that off, but in wealthy countries the governments should be able to provide sufficient helps to the affected.

          • Onux

            “ Australia and New Zealand were keeping Covid out (and some states still are) until it leak in via New South Wales”

            How could NSW be responsible for Delta getting into New Zealand? That’s like saying Covid got into Ireland because Budapest didn’t lock down enough, or blaming a Covid outbreak in Cuba on Colombian policies.

            If the some of the strictest lockdowns and restrictions on earth didn’t keep Delta out of Aus/NZ that’s a good argument that zero Covid is a chimera (as eliminating any highly contagious highly asymptomatic infection like other corona viruses/cold/flu is) and rather than pushing for stricter and harsher lockdowns and mandates to eliminate cases we should be studying to see what measures were successful at reducing serious injury/death (such as aggressive testing and quarantine of the infected versus lockdowns of all, or providing sufficient medical masks instead of absurd “wrap a scarf around your face at the door then take it off when you sit down to dinner” masking rules).

          • Tom the first and best

            The delta in New Zealand came from NSW (there was genomic testing). NSW was very lax compared to other states with their delta outbreak for several weeks. Other states would have gone with a hard lockdown much sooner, when there may have been a chance at

            Covid zero bought time for vaccines to be created and distributed. The more places that succeed with Covid zero, the less likely a variant like Delta was to have been able to evolve. Covid zero not being widely pursued has cost at least hundreds of thousands, in not millions, of lives.

          • Phake Nick

            Many prefectures in Japan are now hitting zero coronavirus cases despite Delta have already become themajor strain there.

        • adirondacker12800

          The head line is that the FDA has approved a second vaccine for 5-11 year olds. And is about to approve a third. I didn’t read the article because I’m too busy deleting emails from my providers telling me they will call me, not to call them, to tell me if I’m eligible for a third shot.

        • Nathanael

          Brazil had the most notorious Covid denier in the world as President (Bolsonaro), which accounts for why they did even worse than the US under Trump.

    • shakeddown

      Mask wearing has a fraction the value of vaccines. The US government made it illegal for anyone to get vaccinated for nearly a year, a failure made only slightly more forgivable by the fact that most other countries were as bad or worse.

      • Alon Levy

        At mass scale, what matters is vaccine production rates, not whether a handful of people with gray market access could have gotten a shot in 2020.

        • adirondacker12800

          Vaccines don’t do any good unless people get vaccinated.
          At this moment CNN is reporting that John Hopkins University’s numbers are 340 deaths per 100,000 for Mississippi, 320 for Alabama, 315 for New Jersey, 313 for Louisiana. New York and Arizona are tied at 291. Vaccine has been freely available for anyone 18 or older, in the U.S., since May.

          • Alon Levy

            Yeah, and Macron did a very good thing in requiring vaccine passes, which are now spreading to other countries that look up to France (like Italy and even Ukraine) but not ones that look down on France (like Germany or the US).

          • adirondacker12800

            My vaccination record is a piece of paper that could be easily forged. Blank counterfeit cards are available. You have to get out more. The usual conspiracy theories have been in full flower when it comes to vaccinations and record keeping.

          • Alon Levy

            Oh shit, there are no digital passes in the US yet? Shit.

            (Here we have QR codes that are supposed to be valid throughout the EU, and as of this month, indoor events are required to check the QR code and cannot accept just a printed booklet, in order to deter forgers.)

          • adirondacker12800

            There are three versions of I.D. the Dept. Of Motor Vehicles issues in New York. A drivers or non-drivers license, the same with Real Id markings on it that I can use to get on an airplane or an Enhanced Drivers license which may or may not be good enough to cross the border with Canada, Mexico and a few Caribbean islands. I can’t get a Real Id or Enhanced because I don’t have mail with my street address on it. The clerk at the DMV concedes that is quite common in rural areas. And that I produced all the documents required when I applied for a driver’s license in New York. That’s not good enough and that we can’t do anything about that. I could walk across the hall with a passport application, to the County Clerk’s office and get a passport mailed to my P.O. Box. I have the birth certificate issued to my parents when my birth was registered. I had to get a new one issued because the original one doesn’t have “security” measures on it.
            ….. you were expecting things in the U.S. to make sense?

          • Alon Levy

            By the way, on the subject of mask availability… see here. The asshole got reelected earlier this year, which means he’s won more elections than Angela Merkel.

          • Charlie

            My experience in showing proof of vaccination in the US is that a bar bouncer or restaurant host looks at the photo of the vaccine card on my phone. Sometimes they ask for my ID too so they can confirm the name matches. New York has a digital system it’s not the only form of proof that’s allowed. I understand that it’s illegal in some states like Texas and Florida for businesses to request proof of vaccination.

          • Sascha Claus

            Why would a German forger rely on the printed booklet if you can “convert” it into a valid, cryptographically signed QR-Code for free at any German pharmacy? It’s not even forbidden to falsify your yellow booklet.

        • Nicholas Decker

          Speed of production is exogenous. Of course they’re able to hurry up and go faster – but why should they, when they know they won’t be approved for a while, they won’t be paid more to go faster, and they’ll incur higher marginal costs for doing so?

      • Onux

        “ The US government made it illegal for anyone to get vaccinated for nearly a year”

        The time taken to approve the vaccine looks bad in hindsight because it is so successful, but the lesson of Thalidomide is that pharmaceuticals shouldn’t be widely proscribed or rushed to use without safety trials. Even the Covid vaccine process isn’t a total success: GlaxoSmithKline received the largest vaccine development contract from the US but didn’t deliver because of a dosing mistake, Australia’s vaccine program failed. Should we have released all of those failed vaccines without testing in Spring of 2020 along with Pfizer and Moderna?

        • Eric2

          Pfizer’s Phase II results, indicating the safety of the vaccine, were published in mid-October 2020. At that point, there was no excuse not to allow vaccination for those who wanted it – whether or not the vaccine was effective, it was known to be safe. This could have substantially mitigated the winter Covid wave, in which 400k people died in the US, 60k in Germany, etc.!

          (Also, unpublished preliminary results from the Phase II trial were reported on July 1 2020, so it is possible that the vaccine could have been released much earlier than October, although this is more complicated because it’s not immediately clear how definite these results were, how much peer review could be sped up, and so on.)

          • adirondacker12800

            Other than the excuse that a Phase II trial doesn’t have enough participants to be Phase III trial.

          • Onux

            @Eric2: There is absolutely a reason (not an excuse) to not allow people to be vaccinated at Phase II results – what if the vaccine didn’t work! Again, this decision looks bad in hindsight because we know the vaccines did work, but allowing people to receive a vaccine that didn’t actually protect them is irresponsible. False security from an ineffective vaccine could lead to more cases and deaths if people took unnecessary risks (sure you can visit the nursing home with your cough, they’re vaccinated!). Worse, the fallout from a failed vaccine rollout could impact attempts to get people to take a later vaccine that actually worked.

            See below for how an adoption of challenge trials could have sped up results on effectiveness after safety was determined.

      • Nathanael

        In addition to the other debunking people have done of your nonsense, the best studies to date (South Korea) say that if everyone wears masks it reduces transmission of Covid-19 by 93%. This is more effective than the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines are 8 months after the second dose, and the other vaccines are worse.

        So, masks are more effective than vaccines, but only if everyone wears them. Next question?

  2. shakeddown

    Instead of condemning Tegnell, you should be condemning the FDA bureaucrats who took nearly a year to allow anyone to take a vaccine that was developed in two days. Tegnell’s failure is minor in comparison.

    • Matthew Hutton

      No one would have taken the vaccine if it hadn’t gone through the proper trials.

      • Eric2

        They could have done challenge trials in a couple weeks that would have provided the same information as all the trials they did do.

        • Henry Miller

          If the vaccine had turned out to be harmful – it actually made your more likely to catch and die of COVID – you would change scream about how stupid those challenge trials are. At least with regular trials we get a chance to isolate people once we realize how bad things are. Medical trials are halted all the time when the thing in question turns out harmful (not normally vaccines, but we need to always leave this open).

          • Eric2

            No I wouldn’t. I would be disappointed, but I would still believe that the possibility of saving millions of lives (people who did not choose to be infected) outweighs the possibly of killing a handful of challenge trial volunteers (who chose to accept the risk).

          • Onux

            That’s not how challenge trials work. Challenge trials don’t study vaccine safety, those safety trials come first with animal testing preceding human, and the small isolated groups you refer to to minimize side effects.

            Challenge trials study vaccine *effectiveness*, they involve vaccinating (very healthy) people then deliberately infecting them with the virus (“challenging” it). While a standard randomized controlled trial involves both vaccinated and placebo recipients going about their lives for months and then comparing symptom rates at the end, a challenge trial (theoretically) produces results in weeks since any infection/symptom rate significantly below 100% for the participants means success.

        • Matthew Hutton

          And if it had had massive unexpected side effects then vaccine hesitancy would be much higher than now and you’d risk people being much more hesitant about the childhood vaccinations that save millions of lives.

          • Eric2

            If a vaccine had massive unexpected side effects, it would be abandoned after a small number of volunteers had suffered the side effects. This happens all the time with medical treatments, and doesn’t scare anyone away from medical treatments.

      • shakeddown

        That’s an argument against mandating vaccines. The FDA made it ILLEGAL TO TAKE A VACCINE until they approved it. Stop and think just how completely insane that is.

        (And this is beside the issue that no, they could have done proper trials on an accelerated basis that gave them all the information they got from the full year in about three months, if they’d been willing to make an actual real effort to stop the pandemic.)

        • adirondacker12800

          Congress made it illegal to distribute things before they are approved.

  3. SB

    I’m not sure what you are advocating people to do here?
    Have the Swedish readers write to their politicians to demand Tegnell’s dismissal?
    Start a protest demanding replacement of top FTA officials?

    • Alon Levy

      If I lived in Sweden I’d emigrate and make it very clear that Tegnell must be removed and prosecuted.

      In the US, it’s necessary to remove political appointees from the federal government – ideally all of them, but Fernandez’s record is so abnormally bad even by the usual standards that she’s a good person to start with, even more so than Stephanie “you can’t compare different projects” Pollack.

      • Eric2

        I mean, I think on Twitter you recently described all European and North American countries as horrible places to live, “plague ridden hellholes” or something like that. But I don’t see you moving to any of the East Asian countries you think are better run.

        • Nathanael

          Ever checked immigration requirements? While Alon knows multiple languages and has many professional skills, that does not guarantee that he can get into the country of his choice.

          I myself would love to be living in New Zealand, but they wouldn’t let me immigrate; I don’t qualify.

          • Nathanael

            Correction noted. While Alon knows multiple languages and has many professional skills, that does not guarantee that they can get into the country of their choice.

  4. Patrick Jensen

    How do we make sure applying the Darth Vader school of leadership doesn’t lead to the proliferation of do-nothing civil servants?

    • Alon Levy

      The trick is to remove people based on outcomes. This is a big Fernandez-Tegnell distinction: Tegnell made an unusual decision that he took responsibility for (though not for its consequences), whereas Fernandez just mismanaged the project, letting butthurt business owners make diktats like no cut-and-cover station. Removing the Fernandezes and other do-nothing civil servants incentivizes letting the more ambitious junior folks rise rather than retaining do-nothing behavior. Likewise, doing deep cleaning in New York of anyone who lied to carry water for Cuomo incentivizes taking risks and challenging political authority, by sending a message that keeping your head down and lying as told would not save your career.

      • Patrick Jensen

        This does nothing to address the incentives these people and organizations are responding to. Making all decisions a rock and a hard place is setting an organization up for failure.

        • Alon Levy

          It’s better to put people in an impossible situation than to put them in a possible situation in which the most career-rewarding move is to do bad work. Creating norms in which the best thing one can do in face of petty politicians making impossible demands is resign is a good thing; it creates norms around doing good work rather than bootlicking. A positive recent example of this is the resignation of the UC Santa Barbara architect when central admin foisted the Munger Hall design on him by billionaire fiat (Charlie Munger put $200 million on condition his windowless design be followed, the uni is putting another $1.3 billion; the complex is 156,000 m^2 of built-up area).

          • yuuka

            Yeah, what’s going to happen is that all the good guys leave and you’re stuck with the bootlickers.

            Letting the resistance get rid of themselves is a perfect way to allow aforementioned greedy politicians to rebuild agencies in their own grotesque images. Just look at Cuomo’s MTA.

            Unless, of course, you want precisely that to happen so people sit up come election time. Did a fat load of good in getting rid of Cuomo.

          • Patrick Jensen

            Can you provide some examples of agencies where high-profile firings have led to a marked improvement in professional integrity? Without them, this post looks like an exercise in rampant fundamental attribution error.

            I would also like to hear, what makes you believe someone else would have made different choices for the BART extension, given California’s extensive legal empowerment of NIMBYs through CEQA and associated acts? Obviously assuming the hypothetical train czar isn’t able to somehow magically ignore all that.

            As for Tegnell, I would like to hear your thoughts on the following proposition: the problem in Sweden isn’t so much Tegnell, but that there was no override.

            In Denmark and Norway, rule of law is rooted in royal prerogative and there is a strong tradition of ministerial intervention in decisions, for better and worse. By contrast, Sweden and Finland have a more parliamentarian tradition of letting the civil service do their job without political meddling, but also makes them slow to respond to a unforeseen crises. The crucial difference is that this firewall is a bit weaker in Finland and the country also has crisis management legislation, rooted in wartime conditions, that allows decision making to be quickly centralized, overriding civil servants if needed.

          • Alon Levy

            A good example of this is the restart of the Green Line Extension in Boston. The project was restarted after a billion dollars of waste out of a total projected cost of about $3 billion; that billion was sunk but the rebooted version cost $1 billion, and that’s despite problems introduced by the delay like doing construction at the peak of the market. In the reboot, a lot of prior agreements went away in the descoping, especially betterments like the Somerville Community Path (=$100 million 3 km bike path) and the signature stations.

            This should be the path forward for California HSR and for BART to San Jose; BART to San Jose even has a ready-made alternative alignment using the conventional method of twin bore tunnels and cut-and-cover stations, which was studied in the environmental impact statement alongside the chosen large-diameter tunnel, so there’s no need to redo the EIS for this. So the CEQA lawsuit threat is even weaker than the usual (and the usual is pretty weak, California HSR beat the Peninsula NIMBYs). Fernandez should do just because she’s bad at her job and she keeps advising people to be bad at their jobs judging by her Eno keynote.

            The intra-Nordic differences are interesting, but also, my understanding is that in the non-Sweden countries it wasn’t a parliamentary override so much as that the public health heads always engaged in conventional European policy, i.e. escalating social distancing leading to some kind of lockdown and also some kind of mass masking. It wasn’t that they were all potential Tegnells but were stopped ministers as I understand it but that they did what everyone else did whereas Tegnell, just like Boris and his advisors, decided he knew better and is now claiming vindication.

          • Eric2

            I mean, technically, the entire Green Line Extension, all $3 billion of it, was waste. Every new station is next to an existing commuter rail line, which could have gotten an infill stop for virtually no cost. Saving 1/3 of the cost is missing the point when they could have saved nearly the entire cost.

          • Patrick Jensen

            So, who got fired in Boston and why did the rescoping require it?

            As for the Nordic handling of the pandemic, I’m most familiar with the Finnish situation and I can state that there was definitely a political override in the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

            The Finnish Health Agency’s chief epidemiologist’s recommendations stuck to the conventional wisdom of the moment, i.e that the pandemic should not be allowed to overwhelm the healthcare system, but that it could not and should not be stopped completely. The Finnish government started ignoring these recommendations by April 2020 and expanded testing and tracing against the agency’s chief epidemiologist’s recommendations.

            The Danish government was similarly told by the Danish health agency’s chief epidemiologist that expanded testing and mandatory quarantines were unnecessary. Again, he was overridden by the government.
            https://sundhedsmonitor.dk/nyheder/art7732812/Regering-og-myndigheder-var-uenige-om-coronavirus-fra-start
            https://www.berlingske.dk/samfund/nye-detaljer-afsloerer-dyb-konflikt-mellem-soeren-brostroem-og-mette

            It seems quite clear to me that the key difference between the Nordic countries is that Sweden decided to trust the conventional wisdom of the local expert, while the others looked abroad (S. Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand) for a second opinion.

          • Alon Levy

            The decision to keep going with GLX instead of regional rail was bad, but at the level of project management, things improved markedly and people I trust propose that the project manager, John Dalton, be retained for future MBTA capital investment.

            No high-profile firing was involved, but that’s because there was no high-profile civil servant associated with the failures of GLX the way Tegnell is with Sweden’s corona response or even Fernandez with the San Jose extension. The parameters that raised costs came in part from Governor Deval Patrick, who wanted to mollify all community concerns by giving every local group what it wanted, and the restart happened after Patrick left office and Charlie Baker beat Martha Coakley to replace him (Coakley, as a side note, is a professional election thrower – she also threw a Senate seat in the 2010 special after Ted Kennedy died). The analog here is less what I’m proposing re Fernandez’s career path and more what I’m proposing for California HSR and for the San Jose extension, i.e. a restart; California HSR in particular has already gotten rid of the worst incompetents through retirements but sticks to the decisions they made because of its misguided desire for continuity to avoid embarrassment.

            Re non-Sweden Nordic response, this sounds like there was some political pressure, but the pressure was never against Tegnell-style herd immunity approaches but against bend-the-curve approaches that were popular at the time elsewhere in Europe and among non-Trumpy Americans.

          • Nathanael

            “A good example of this is the restart of the Green Line Extension in Boston. The project was restarted after a billion dollars of waste out of a total projected cost of about $3 billion; that billion was sunk but the rebooted version cost $1 billion, and that’s despite problems introduced by the delay like doing construction at the peak of the market. In the reboot, a lot of prior agreements went away in the descoping, especially betterments like the Somerville Community Path (=$100 million 3 km bike path) and the signature stations.”

            It’s worth noting that the new bids came in SO MUCH LOWER on the rebooted version that they still built the Somerville Community Path (still a crazy-expensive elevated bike path) and added many of the niceties back to the stations, using the extra money

            The key effect of the reboot was the following. Seeing the old, corrupt contractor fired and blacklisted caused an entirely different set of contractors, *who hadn’t even been bidding before*, to bid on the project. Now that they knew that the “fix wasn’t in” and that the corrupt guys weren’t going to win.

          • Nathanael Nerode

            Important point. The GLX reboot had one major feature: the corrupt, chiselling contractor was fired and blacklisted. This sent a signal to other contractors. A completely new group of contractors bid on the rebooted project. The bids came in so much lower that they actually built the expensive elevated Somerville Community Path and most of the station “betterments” using the extra money.

        • Matthew Hutton

          The flaw with the argument here generally is that if you want the public sector to make better decisions you need to not get rid of people for mistakes as mistakes are how we learn in complex systems.

          What you want to sack people for is gross incompetence.

          • Sascha Claus

            As long as we learn from other peoples mistakes instead of making them again …

          • Matthew Hutton

            Yeah the learning is definitely the most important bit!

  5. Eric2

    I would think that describing incompetent people as being evil people is not actually a useful or productive way of framing things. (Ironically, if this is correct, it would indicate that you are evil)

    • Alon Levy

      It’s not all incompetent people. It’s these two specifically. Fauci is incompetent and should have gone long ago but does not rise to the same level of loathsomeness as Tegnell. Likewise, there are tons of capital construction heads in the US who have failed to rein in costs but who do not shrug off the issue as irrelevant the way Fernandez does. (Of note, I’m conflicted on Janno Lieber, who does not exhibit that moral failure, but who hasn’t really been doing much.)

        • Alon Levy

          Delayed masking, ignorance of centralized quarantines (because his expertise is AIDS, not respiratory infections, and in AIDS quarantines a) are completely pointless and b) were used as a demagogic excuse by homophobes). The highest-ranking fluent English speaker at CECC or KCDC should have been hired.

          • Eric2

            I think “his expertise was AIDS so he was clueless about respiratory viruses” is overly simplistic. A more thoughtful critique, which I saw in an article somewhere, would be that his priority is advancing his career, which prevented him from doing unpopular but necessary things which might hurt his career.

          • Alon Levy

            Yeah, and that’s not a good explanation; he was anti-mask in February of 2020 in private conversations.

          • Charlie

            What career did Fauci have left to advance? He was already head of NIAID.

          • adirondacker12800

            I think “his expertise was AIDS so he was clueless about respiratory viruses” is overly simplistic.
            Yes it is but complicated doesn’t work well in the fantasy where the benevolent dictators are omniscient and omnipotent.

          • Eric2

            @Charlie
            *Staying* head of NIAID. Dealing with Trump must have been hard enough. I think the policies Alon advocates were outside any US politician’s Overton window at the time.

          • Phake Nick

            @adirondacker12800 Better comparison would be like Hong Kong, which the government didn’t do anything to help acquiring medical masks, and Hong Kong being a financial and logistic-centric city there isn’t even any significant amount of factory production capability of any kind, and that is while the tradition majority source of medical mask in Hong Kong being from China Mainland which have implemented an export ban on mask at the time, but everything from political parties to property developers to venture capitals to bus operators in the city all rushed to acquire and build mask manufacturing facilities as the demand surge, and in a month or so the capacity is there already.
            No excuse for lack of mask after the first wave.

          • Matthew Hutton

            The thing is post SARS in Asia people probably had masks at home. Especially also as Asians wore masks generally when they were ill and needed to go out (which I will do going forward as well).

          • adirondacker12800

            Telling people to wear “medical” masks, whatever they are, is pointless unless they are able to get them. Why is that so difficult for people to understand?

            I have no idea what the specification is for “medical” is or if there is one. N95 masks are useful in all sorts of occupations. They are still difficult to find in the U.S. for regular people who don’t have a need. I can get things marked KN95. Who knows if they actually meet specifications. They smell like they are filtering stuff out but who knows. I washed and bleached the ones made out of t-shirts and vacuum sealed them. How well does three layers of t-shirt do compared to medical masks? Whatever they are/

            Masks that meet a specification take a very long time to get approved. The things New Balance came up with were sophisticated complex constructions. They were using home style sewing machines in some of the process because they weren’t able to get industrial machines. The news reports about the sail maker in Maine who pivoted production to masks was definitely using the wrong kind of machine, he admits it and they were running out of fabric and elastic.

            There was another report about the pizza parlor that checked with the glazier in town. They decided that yes they could come up with 5.000 face shields a week. And did. They wouldn’t have been able to do it if the glazier didn’t have the right kind of plastic in stock.

            In the fantasy world where the benevolent dictator is omniscient and omnipotent having the skilled operators appear and having the production line in place along with supplies may happen. In the real world it isn’t that easy.

          • Phake Nick

            @adirondacker12800 My point is, no one tell them, so there’s no demand, so there’re no rush in ramping up production of like surgical mask, instead people just go to get cloth masks
            And again, all the masks are being in production in Hong Kong before the summer have obtained certification from either the US and EU despite no pre-established production facility in the city.
            That you isn’t even aware of what is the specification is for medical mask or if there is one, even now, is the high light

          • Alon Levy

            The thing is post SARS in Asia people probably had masks at home. Especially also as Asians wore masks generally when they were ill and needed to go out (which I will do going forward as well).

            They didn’t; Taiwan scaled up manufacturing by a large factor at the beginning of 2020 and rationed them among the population. What’s true is that SARS primed people to learn that they should wear masks, but note that Japan did the same (I asked people who were there and by mid-March 75% of subway riders were wearing masks) without having gone through SARS whereas Canada had had SARS but didn’t. Australia used medical masks as well – to the Germans who told me cloth masks are fine in September of last year because RKI says they are, I sent a link to Australian public health authorities saying medical > cloth.

            Telling people to wear “medical” masks, whatever they are, is pointless unless they are able to get them. Why is that so difficult for people to understand?

            Medical = surgical, N95, or KN95/FFP2. Surgical masks were widely available in Germany by late summer of 2020, at cheap prices (something like 0.50€/piece). FFP2s were harder to obtain, but then in December of 2020 when all of Saxony and Thuringia’s retirees were dropping dead and the federal government started (very mild) mandatory quarantines and medical mask mandates they appeared in sufficient quantities at all retailers, for around 1-1.50€/piece. In fact one of the reasons CDU got booted is that the minister of health, Jens Spahn, was caught in a scandal in which the feds were paying 6€/mask for subsidized distribution of masks to vulnerable people through pharmacies, done through a company run by Spahn’s husband.

            Don’t forget, in Germany, unlike in New York (but like in Florida and such), we had a mild first wave. Excess deaths were around 1% of the annual death toll from the beginning through late summer of 2020, and then we got hit by the second wave and went up to 12% excess by the spring of 2021, nearly all of which was vanilla corona and not variants. Right now we’re fourth-waving hard, thanks to full reopening at insufficient vaccination, currently 69.4% first dose/66.7% second, among the lowest in WEurope, only ahead of Switzerland, Austria, and Greece. So the vast majority of the problem here isn’t bad public behavior in the fog of war, it’s people keeping doing bad shit long after the solutions were clear. Sweden, same thing, except it not only ignored all the lessons of Asia but also ignored all the lessons of the rest of Europe.

          • adirondacker12800

            I find it difficult to shop in Hong Kong.

            https://www.fda.gov/medical-devices/personal-protective-equipment-infection-control/n95-respirators-surgical-masks-face-masks-and-barrier-face-coverings
            I don’t see a definition of “medical” face masks in there. I can’t get medical masks because I have no idea what they are. You didn’t answer the question about whether or not they are more effective than three layers of t-shirt. Epidemiological evidence seems to suggest that what we are using is effective. Perhaps not as effective as possible, but effective.

            I’m not going read ASTM F3502-21 or 21 CFR 878.4040. I cannot get N95 masks. I’ve worn them in the past, doing dusty work. Many many people outside medical or dental fields use them. The KN95s I am able to get, smell the same. Well they lack-smell the same. I haven’t attempted to purchase surgical or dental masks because I don’t expect anyone to be squirting blood at me. Nor have I checked a used KN95 to see what it’s liquid resistance is.

            What are they using in Australia? Australia and Florida have similar populations and the death rate in Florida is 50 times what Australia’s is.

          • adirondacker12800

            Medical = surgical, N95, or KN95/FFP2.
            N95 and KN95 have very very similar specifications. Surgical masks, in the U.S., which is where I buy things, have a different specification.

          • Phake Nick

            @Alon Levy Second wave across the globe was caused by variants which feature D614G mutation. It wasn’t being named, as when WHO started naming alpha beta gamma, such mutation have already became the baseline/background

  6. Henry Miller

    I assume this is about repeated failure. Everyone makes mistakes. Smart people learn from them. That makes it hard to figure out who is incompetent, though I agree with the idea. Nobody should have got as far as these did though – how did they get promoted to this level without knowing how to avoid most of those mistakes? Are not previous results considered at all?

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, and my point is that Tegnell does not perceive himself to have failed and neither does Fernandez.

      As for how they got promoted: Tegnell, like all other public health experts, did not get promoted based on his ability to handle a respiratory pandemic, because nobody thought it was a possibility (except in places that knew what SARS was through either direct experience or connections with places with direct experience). I don’t know the Swedish details well, but in the US, the CDC had spent the last two generations expanding to all manners of things that are not infectious diseases, like obesity and crime, where it has done good work, promoting people who are expert in public health problems that are not acute emergencies and are not particularly infectious.

      So everyone failed, and due to Western solipsism, there was no course correction. Tegnell just happen to be unusually despicable, which I suspect is partly Sweden’s oversize national ego on all kinds of social issues (again, sexual assault – go ahead, try telling a Swede that a) Sweden ties for Europe’s highest rates and b) this has been the case for 25 years and therefore is not the fault of recent immigrants).

      Fernandez got promoted because Americans don’t promote transit managers by success. They promote them by obedience to petty politicians at all levels to avoid crating the appearance of conflict. Huge cost overruns are usually acceptable, and huge absolute budgets always are, as long as someone doesn’t write letters to the editor accusing bureaucrats of being tyrants. The political appointees I’ve talked to are uninterested in any technical aspect of transit but light up when talking about the different interest groups that block things – interest groups that to be very clear are paper tigers and go away when the state tells them to shush.

      • Eric2

        I thought that Swedish law had a broader definition of rape/sexual assault than other European countries? At least people said this when the Assange case came up.

        In any case Sweden’s history of eugenics is also repulsive, and directly related to their covid policy.

        • Alon Levy

          Swedish law on sexual assault is more expansive, but apples-to-apples surveys reach the same finding (link). Another important thing that came out during the Assange case is that Sweden, alongside Finland, Norway and Denmark, has among the lowest conviction rates as a proportion of reported rapes; here is a recent Amnesty report on this. The problem is that the left half of Sweden denies how much worse Sweden is than (say) SEurope and the right half blames it all on immigrants; neither side can say “our culture encourages sexual violence and we need to change it.”

          Purely on the level of lit crit, you can see this culture in the Millennium books. Every sympathetic woman in the series is sexually available to the protagonist except for his own sister and Mimmi Wu. Saying no is the domain of squares and dweebs. Lisbeth herself is a Joss Whedon female protagonist, i.e. the sum of the sexual fantasies of the male author. And this is a series written by a far left anti-fascist in which the villains’ main crime is violence against women.

          • Eric2

            Re your first link, do you mean the graph on page 45? It has Sweden roughly tied with Finland (with large variation by year), somewhat higher than Finland, Norway is not listed. It also notes that women in more “progressive” societies might characterize a broader range of activities as “sexual assault” meaning that the low rates in south/east Europe are not necessarily comparable.

            Re your second link, apparently conviction rates have risen drastically since the 2018 law.

            BTW the graph here suggests that even if rape sexual assault was relatively high before refugees, it has skyrocketed since refugees came.

          • Alon Levy

            Norway is not listed but Denmark and Finland. The comparison is with other places like France, which, contra Swedish stereotypes, is doing a lot to combat sexual assault stigmas and I’m not especially surprised to see it that low.

            The surveyed sex crimes rate is out of control in Sweden but it doesn’t really match any immigration story (and unfortunately Sweden’s domestic survey lumps too many things that are not sexual assault under sex crimes, like exposure); Sweden had high refugee immigration levels in the 2000s too, none of this matches the surveyed rate tripling in 2014-7.

      • Nathanael

        My favorite example of “transit manager who kept getting more jobs when he should have left the field entirely” in the US is Thomas Downs. Alon, I’m sure you know his long career history, going from leading one disaster to another disaster at many agencies; most recent was WMATA, first I know of was DC Union Station renovation, with Amtrak and NJT in between. I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice guy but he should never have gotten another job in public transportation after his first major failure.

      • Nathaanel

        “Yes, and my point is that Tegnell does not perceive himself to have failed and neither does Fernandez.”

        This is probably the most important point. It’s one thing when someone screws up but learns from it — like Fauci who believed the medical establishment orthodoxy about droplets and therefore didn’t think masks were important. Once the aerosol scientists started doing their major publication campaign, Fauci admitted that he’d been mistaken and corrected his position going forward. That’s fine. That’s science. You learn more, you change your mind.

        It is the intransigent insistence on repeating failure which is dangerously corrosive and which requires a public firing, or at *least* a firing. It is not acceptable for that sort of incorrigable incompetent to leave their job with polite recommendations which allow them to get into a new position where they can cause more trouble, such as happened to Thomas Downs who “failed upward” through multiple transit agencies.

  7. sethxhaberman@gmail.com

    Saying nothing about Swedish policies in general, they are certainly not comparable to Norway or Finland. Closer to Denmark, but in immigration, network dynamics, and a population close to Switzerland and parts like Germany.

    Northern Sweden looked like Norway for most of Covid.

    • Alon Levy

      In household overcrowding, which is what’s driven the NEurope vs. SEurope and EEurope difference, Sweden is similar to the other Nordics; France and Germany have less crowding; Southern and Eastern Europe have the most, and people leave home well into their 20s or even 30s.

      • Herbert

        I think the decision of when to move out from the parents’ place is almost always driven by both economic and cultural factors.

        In LatAm hotels that rent by the hour have a very reliable revenue source in horny young people who don’t have anything approaching privacy at home… Often the first house not of her birth family a woman moves to is that of her husband. That’s both due to roommates being less common for cultural reasons and the obscene wealth inequality and (first order approximation) lack of social housing, particularly in big cities…

        Spain didn’t suddenly get more conservative during the crisis, but those who couldn’t move to the countries extracting the wealth during the crisis mostly moved in with their family of origin…

  8. Frederick

    The problem isn’t why, but how. Can you sue them? Can you shoot them? No, the most you can do is to rant about them in your blog.

    It’s not about individuals like Fernandez; the whole institution needs a revamp.

    • Sarapen

      Yeah, this feels to me like saying the solution to a bad king is replacing him with a good king instead of getting rid of absolute monarchy. Which is to say the deeper problem is political and systemic and the solution also needs to be so.

  9. R. W. Rynerson

    Alon’s outline is correct.
    A sense of personal achievement and ambition
    The desire for peer approval
    The desire for broader social status
    Money
    It even applies to smaller scale things that add up to big totals. In Edmonton, a city that had traditionally been frontier-thrifty, almost comically cheap, the energy boom of the 70’s and early 80’s corrupted the top levels of management. They portrayed themselves as carrying out city council policies but subverted them or failed to communicate their problems for the reasons Alon outlined.

    This came to my attention gradually in the course of doing my work. The “high point” was a study conducted by a traffic engineer who recommended that we scrap the approved expansion of the trolley coach network — that was already underway — in a city with an air pollution problem. I met with the Acting General Manager, an Australian paving engineer, and showed him the major economic flaws in the study. His response was “So?”

    Subsequently, I had to draw the outline maps of improvements with the help of an intern because our staff electrical engineer was afraid to be identified with the project. (I have a B.A. in History!) He was willing to perfect the drawings and calculate the needed hardware items but could evade responsibility for the concepts.

    Then I discovered that our print production specialist in Marketing was sitting on completed artwork for a trolley coach network map meant for posting inside the buses, He had been told that it would be hard on his career prospects if it went ahead,

    Then Service Planning was moved from Transit into Transportation [Roadway] Planning and I was in effect offered the job as Supervisor of Service Planning — IF I believed that we could save money by getting rid of the timed transfer focal point net [takt] planning and go to what the industry calls “bastard headways”. The timed transfer service design had been officially adopted and had been in some parts of the system for two decades. It was part of what attracted me to moving to Edmonton. Bastard headways are constructed by adding running times to labor rules minimum recovery time, so the headways on a surface line vary with traffic conditions. The operators get stressed out because there never is an easy trip. It seems that elected officials had been promised big savings if buses did not sit around waiting for transfer connections, big savings that could only be obtained if Service Planning was moved to make a bigger staff for the promoter of the move.

    There was more but these examples are enough. In each case the internal policy communicated through word of mouth among the brotherhood wearing the Quebec Bridge ring was at odds with the publicly adopted policy. In the case of the trolley coach system and the well-established timed transfers, the public fought off the proposed changes for a generation. Time and money were wasted, in particular in running the half-complete trolley coach network with its literal “overhead” costs distributed over less service than planned.

  10. Lee Ratner

    You have to get enough of the population to care to get them to elect politicians that will not nominate bad bureaucrats. I think we have plenty of evidence that small-d democratic poltics doesn’t work this way. Good policy doesn’t always lead to electoral success and bad policy doesn’t straight forwardly translate to massive electoral defeat. The people of Maine renominated Susan Collins to the Senate because they didn’t like the fact that the Democratic nominee was born far away in the distant exotic land of Rhode Island while Collins is a native of Maine. As a result Manchin and Sinema are basically frustrating the Biden administration at every turn they get.

    • Alon Levy

      Voters do care about results to some extent. (To some extent = Solberg did get booted.) In both Israel and Germany, polling starting in the second wave tracked how well the government was dealing with corona relative to baseline. Here, the second wave here and the revelations that Spahn was kicking back money to his husband’s firm ruined CDU’s popularity, then the decline of the third wave with vaccination coincided with CDU recovery, and at the end the party that’s running the incoming government is not the one that was in opposition all this time but Merkel’s junior partner, which used its status as such to argue that it represented continuity better than Laschet. In Israel, likewise, polling between the summer of 2020 and the election tracked whether there was a corona outbreak or suppression.

      • Herbert

        Laschet also said some either stupid or dangerous things about Covid while the most prominent SPD face on the Covid issue is and was Harvard educated epidemologist Karl Lauterbach who very obviously has subject matter expertise far beyond that usually found in politics with other SPD members wisely shutting their pie hole on the issue…

        In general the 2021 SPD campaign is a great case study in how far “stay on message and shut up otherwise” can get you even if (or maybe especially if) you have a Hanse city born centrist with the charisma of cardboard as your Lijsttrekker (the cities of Hamburg, Hanover and Lübeck have five out of post-war Germany’s nine [counting Scholz] chancellors who’ve ruled for 36 years)… That’s somehow even stronger than Rhenish and Bavarian Catholicism, which is usually said to be the “natural ruling party” of Germany…

        • Herbert

          And yeah, I know Brandt and Schröder are the exception to “charisma of cardboard” (maybe their biographical similarities? Growing up post war dirt poor without a dad in a conservative country that views such thing as worse than war crimes?) But despite Brandt’s reputation as a leftie, by the time he was a local political figure in Berlin, he was to the right of even the likes of Reuter or Schuhmacher who already had the distinction of abandoning most of the remaining “Marxist worker party” branding the SPD had somehow carried thru the Weimar Republic and the war…

        • Nathanael

          Hamburg, Hanover, Lubeck? Mercantile centers. Unequivocally the leading mercantile centers of Germany. Historically, mercantile centers are usually the source of government leadership, particularly in democracies.

          The rural landowner interests generally take a hostile view of the mercantile centers and are more “conservative”, but they’re also typically substantially more incompetent at government, which means (especially in democracies) government tends to land back in the hands of the merchants, who are just better at management. I do not currently have theories as to why, though others do.

  11. Herbert

    If publicly humiliating people for “failure” was the answer, authoritarian regimes would thrive. Because that’s kinda their jazz.

    You might argue they frequently do that to people who actually didn’t do the thing, but then how do you make sure it only happens to those actually guilty? And more importantly: how much effort should the blame-seeking consume?

    Look, I don’t think people particularly like failing. Unless “failure” is somehow a question of different policy preferences (e.g. A car lobbyist viewing a “failure” of a rail project positively) but then that’s not what this is about, is it? This inherent tendency leads to both good (trying to avoid failure) and bad behavior (covering up stuff when mitigation would still be possible, blame seeking instead of mitigation). We should look for policy approaches that encourage the good while reducing the bad.

    In aviation the official culture of leading accident and incident investigation boards has been the “blameless post mortem” for decades. And with good reason. In complex systems there’s virtually always multiple points at which the disaster or near-disaster could’ve been avoided. And seeking blame – especially blaming dead people – is not getting the problem fixed. Furthermore one of the fundamental aspects of crew resource management is encouraging a culture of “uh, boss, I don’t think that’s right” even among those usually cowed into timidity and silence (lower ranked people, “green” employees, women, etc.) And the only method of motorized transportation with a better safety record than commercial aviation is high speed rail in some countries and guess how their railway accident and incident investigation boards work?

    After Eschede a lot of blame was to go around and many fingers could be (and were) pointed. There were even lawsuits against pretty low level people for reasons I still don’t fully understand. But what led to such events no longer being thinkable (well, yeah, Bad Aibling crash notwithstanding) was the investigation of the multiple points of failure that led to the implementation of a flawed design, the ignoring of warnings from other users of similar wheels, the usage of the specific wheel that failed on that specific day despite it way exceeding acceptable values I screening and a toughening of the EBA. I’m sure China had a lot of heads roll after Wenzhou (and in China, that sadly isn’t always a metaphor) but who exactly got one iota safer by the public humiliation of any of the involved, be they guilty or innocent?

    • Alon Levy

      Authoritarian regimes thrive on using those incompetents as key intermediaries. Often this is deliberate, as with communist Czechoslovakia’s preference for Nazi collaborators in the party – the collaborators had proven themselves morally flexible as needed and could always be blackmailed if they showed too much independence. In China, there’s severe corruption at the local level and the national party knows this, hence its focus on the hardest-to-fudge metrics like electricity production (which then incentivizes building cheap coal plants, against national policy of decarbonization) – but actually fixing the problem means promoting people who are expert rather than red, and Xi is too totalitarian to do that.

      Leaders who engage in or attempt democratic backsliding are similar – they’re all incredibly corrupt and surround themselves by people with similar characteristics while pushing away the competent ones. Netanyahu surrounded himself with low-ambition yes-men rather than with decent-to-good right-wing pols like Bennett, Saar, and Kahlon, the first two notably defecting to the Change Coalition this year. Trump did the same and had to be goaded into even picking a normal vice president in Pence – he wanted someone appropriately venal like Giuliani; his top ministerial picks were bizarre and incapable of controlling their departments.

      The issue here isn’t really finger-pointing. Individual accidents are low-probability, high-impact risks, so looking for heads to sever is not appropriate. But more routine problems like a year and a half of deadly gaslighting by Tegnell, or high and escalating costs under an agency head whose take on construction costs is “they should be balanced with environmental and community concerns” as if the Hispanosphere doesn’t have environmental protections, do get better if the chief malefactor is removed from office. Tegnell’s case is special because of how brazen he is, but Fernandez is precisely the sort of potted plant manager who didn’t want to ruffle any feathers, and so removing her and looking for a Byford in her stead sends the opposite message of what you fear would happen.

      • Herbert

        Let’s for a second assume the best in people. What would the new person do after the previous one is fired for – por ejemplo – too high construction costs? Imho the first question would be “okay, but why?”

        So the postmortem has to be done either way. Heck, it’d be a troubling sign if the new person just says “I’ll do things differently” but never actually shows an interest in finding out what went wrong to produce the mess…

        As for authoritarians surrounding themselves with yes-men… That’s partially a function of character. But as far as we know of Stalin or Mao, the most famous “purge everyone around them eventually” types, they started out actually relishing in debate and trying to convince others or test their own beliefs… The way their systems were designed seem to have changed their characters… Certainly there were many instances where the leaders might’ve acted differently had they had more accurate information from their subordinates…

        Toeing official regulations and trying your damnedest not to stick out (even if positively) is such a common feature in badly run systems (not always necessarily authoritarian) because humans assume that if excrement hits the rotor blades, those who followed the rules and the instructions are less likely to be punished than those who deviated, even if the deviation is eminently reasonable. And if a problem is blamed (accurately or not) on “someone not following the rules”, those who made suggestions to change the rules will likely be the easiest scapegoat…

        You’ve often explained how much competence mid level people have even in incompetent agencies – sometimes especially in them. And the quiet competence gained by experience of the humble “salt of the earth” grunt is an all too well worn trope itself.

        But to access those treasures of knowledge in ways other than off the record chats with transit bloggers or a conversation over a pint after the shift, there needs to be a culture of people lower in the hierarchy being listened to, being willing to speak up and being rewarded for honesty, even if the news are bad or inconvenient.

        There are people who spend millions of dollars trying to achieve such a culture. I know of none who say “the key is to very publicly and loudly fire the guy or gal at the top”. In some cases “not under this leader(ship)” is of course true, but whether they are gotten out via guillotine or golden parachute does not appear to make much of a difference. If anything both extremes seem counterproductive for different reasons…

        • Alon Levy

          The point I’m making is that making the top people’s careers less safe if they fail has the outcome of empowering junior and mid-level people who know what they’re doing. There exist people in the ecosystem of BART, VTA, etc. who know what the problems are, but the system in which the manager needs no operational experience and is next to God disempowers them.

          The other issue is that I’m very rooted in outcomes. This is why I don’t talk about this in the context of accidents – you can’t judge someone accurately by outcomes over low-probability events like crashes. But when it comes to costs, outcomes are a valid way of judging and people who have successfully built things cheaply or at least made things better should be hired in lieu of people who’ve presided over high and growing costs.

          Stalin and Mao were infamously paranoid about their own deputies, but Hitler for example ruled via incredibly venal subordinates (Göring and not just him). There’s this long tradition of ineffective reformers who convince themselves that the dictator doesn’t know what’s going on, leading to Germany’s “if only the Führer had known” reaction to the Holocaust in 1945-6 or the uncritical Western media reporting on MbS. More effective ones like the various color revolutions and united opposition tickets in EEurope center both corruption and the dictator or would-be dictator’s personal responsibility for it.

          • Herbert

            The performance of that one French revolutionary army which more than once had the sequence “failure on the battlefield, general recalled to Paris, they found his tent empty / public execution for a million crimes and one” notably only improved after they stopped taking their heads.

            Also: getting rid of leaders can be as simple as saying “aren’t you old and tired and wish to go home now?” That’s kinda the purpose of that one award for retired democratic African leaders… Heck, even Robert Mugabe would probably seem a much better figure if he’d retired after five or ten years in office. But if you are sufficiently authoritarian and/or rule a sufficiently volatile place, there is no such thing as “guaranteed peaceful older statesman retirement”, so many desperately cling to power because they know what they did to get/keep power, leading them to suppress dissent more violently, making them even more convinced their fall would be bloody, making them more desperate to cling to power…

          • Alon Levy

            In the US Civil War the history is that they had terrible generals who weren’t aggressive enough and wouldn’t take casualties to attack Richmond, and eventually Lincoln got Grant, who was and would. One of those terrible generals, McClellan, even ran against Lincoln in the 1864 election on a “we can’t win, let’s just let the Confederacy be” platform.

            The difference between a Mugabe and a Tegnell is that Tegnell is not sovereign. His power comes from a position in which there are people above him, i.e. the elected government, who can remove him – and no political power will object to the removal and prosecution of a public health official who presided over 15,000 deaths while the three other Scandinavian countries had 4,000 combined.

            The point is, this requires the state to publicly acknowledge its error (which Löfven to some extent did, re old age home deaths). Once the elected government says “we erred, herd immunity led to mass death, we’re taking steps to ensure it won’t happen again,” suddenly Tegnell stops having authority. His authority comes from his position in the state, but that can be revoked. Swedes have excessive trust in their government and society, which is why they keep defending Tegnell to me and blaming immigration for all of their problems, but once the higher power within the same government acknowledges the error, that trust then turns not to defense of Tegnell but to attacks on him.

            The elder statesman retirement in this context leads to real problems. It’s common enough to invite such people on television to complain about how the present-day party has forgotten its roots; Obama has had a bad post-presidency on exactly those grounds, and Tony Blair has likewise had a terrible post-PMship (better than his actual PMship but only because he can’t invade Iraq again). It creates a gerontocratic tendency in politics and overrates the opinions of people whose knowledge is 20+ years out of date and often wasn’t even that great 20+ years ago.

          • Borners

            Yeah but the Labour party is such a decrepit organisation that Blair’s recent interventions have actually been comparatively sensible. “lets stop trying to kill the Liberals it hasn’t done us any good and we’ve failed anyway” is actually good advice for Britain’s greediest party. Certainly smarter than Browns “lets carve up the most psychopathically unitary nationality in Europe into Scotland sized chunks, that’ll make them happy” commission that Starmer put him in charge of.

          • Herbert

            The respect Germans had for Helmut Schmidt borders on insanity…

            Given that background, it was perhaps for the best that the donation scandal and the Gazprom job ruined the post-office reputations of Kohl and Schröder….

          • Herbert

            But whatever damage a retired politician can do; the damage they could do in office is far greater…

            Incidentally Japanese history is full of political figures “retiring” in order to exercise real power and iirc at the end of his career the Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had retired from everything but his Bridge (the card game) club…

      • Eric2

        Sort of off topic. Why “Hispanosphere”? Spain obviously has good construction costs as well as first-world environmental standards. But what about the rest of the Hispanosphere, i.e. Latin America? My impression is that (excepting Chile) Latin America’s costs are not low and the amount of rail built grossly insufficient to the need. And in Mexico City, the line that was built recently was built to low standards and failed lethally. And I have no idea how seriously they take the environment.

        • Herbert

          I think (and I may be wrong on that) that LatAm for partially understandable historical reasons does not look to Spain for ideas on modernizing very often and instead looks to the US, which per the theory on cultural cringe this blog advances would seem to point towards high costs…

          But one of the things LatAm does badly (weirdly different from Spain, I might add) is undervaluing rail both urban and intercity and trying to do stuff with buses that buses aren’t optimal for (“BRT”, sleeper long distance “luxury” buses)

          • Eric2

            The bus thing is, or was, understandable on the basis that labor costs are much lower in LatAm, so it is affordable to spend more money on bus drivers. But obviously, the economy tends to grow with time, which means that this becomes steadily less of a solution.

          • Alon Levy

            It depends on the country; Quito used Madrid Metro as a consultant for building the metro, and Santiago has notable parallels as well like having the system be run by an engineer (but when I asked, Eno didn’t know if they formally looked up to Madrid). Brazilians on Twitter tell me that in Brazil the prestige attached to engineering is very high, rather like here or in SEurope, although evidently Brazilian costs are a lot higher than Portuguese ones…

          • Nilo

            Yeah Quito metro was basically built by Spaniards. The design and feasibility studies were done by Spaniards with an assist from RATP.

            Brazil cultural often looks to France more than Portugal on these things. Take at the extreme end that the University of São Paulo until the 60s? used to be conducted in French.

          • Herbert

            Anecdotally, Nicaragua seems even more title obsessed than Austria… In Nicaragua a title can replace your last name in formal settings (meaning introductions may well go like “ingeniero, ingeniero, abogado, señor Chamorro, abogado”) and the title “ingeniero” is so respected, it’ll even show up in utterly unrelated places such as “here ingeniero Ramirez gave his life for freedom in the heroic assault on Somoza’s prison dungeon”…

            I’m not sure German politicians with a doctorate have that doctorate mentioned often outside the most formal contexts and when they are in hot water for having plagiarized…

  12. Herbert

    For something completely different, the city of Lübeck in northern Germany (the biggest municipality whose municipal boundary once coincided with the German-German border not named Berlin) is https://www.luebeck.de/de/rathaus/politik/pil/bi/vo020.asp?VOLFDNR=1011291 considering ordering a study done about light rail. The wording repeatedly insists that the study is supposed to answer the question “once and for all” which is a bit odd and will make the question of which company gets to do the study particularly interesting, but there are other interesting tidbits both in the flowing text and in the tables, including cost comparisons of both realized and planned tram projects (the divergence by a factor of 2 in per km cost in a single country appears remarkable but may be due to stuff like bridges or the difference between Rasengleis and “railway style” gravel ballast track and “buried” track integrated into asphalt rather than incompetence or silver plating) and a discussion on ridership gains in France (and to a lesser extent Denmark, the closest and most culturally similar foreign country to Lübeck)…

    I think there is a decent chance of trams in Lübeck being tied in their fate to those of Kiel. Both cities are of similar size and constant rivals with state politics often overshadowed by “Lübeck vs Kiel” posturing trumping partisan animosity (which is unusually bitter in Schleswig-Holstein). SH is also one of two German states with no trams whatsoever (the other being neighboring Hamburg which however has an U-Bahn) and if there’s ever going to be a tram service in the state, it’ll serve Lübeck, Kiel or both or else it’ll be some sort of cross-border extension. (And to be fair, Herrnburg in MV is not the worst place to extend a potential Lübeck tram to).

    There is however a lot of hemming and hawing about cost (Lübeck is in many ways a rust belt town with the budget woes to go with that) and frankly ridiculous scaremongering regarding the UNESCO World Heritage listed old town (which, mind you, was bombed in the war and had tram service run without issue for roughly half a century) because apparently tram vibrations will destroy the buildings or the UNESCO will withdraw the status if a rail line runs thru the site or I don’t know what… To me it sounds like looking for an excuse to put the kibosh on the idea rather than a genuine problem…

    Anyway, watch this space…

      • Tom the first and best

        With the Fehmarn Belt Tunnel under construction, the Schleswig-Holstein state government could build Danish minority schools in Lübeck to attract Danish immigration.

        The Fehmarn Belt Tunnel also increases the argument for Hamburg S4 to go to Lübeck for the extra track for segregation stopping and express/freight trains.

        • Herbert

          It’s usually the better idea to build the extra tracks for the faster trains rather than the slower ones as the calculus has changed since legacy rail construction – back then the marginal cost of going x amount straighter was much higher than the cost of building any line at all. Today in part due to regulations, in part due to land availability, in part due to advances in technology, the cost of building any line at all is already a pretty high fraction of building a line with nice bells and whistles (double track, straight, electrified). The only thing that tends to have costs explode (besides plain old corruption and ineptitude) is trying to go both straight and flat through hilly densely settled NIMBY heavy terrain… Guess what Germany did on most of its HSLs? It’s almost a minor miracle anything at all got built so “fast” and “cheap” (the first time a federal minister of transportation in Germany spoke of HSR, Willy Brandt was chancellor. The first revenue service ICE ran after reunification)…

      • Herbert

        Why?

        The Lübeck Hamburg line already has pretty dense traffic, calling it an S-Bahn doesn’t change much. Plus there are/were plans for a “Lübeck S-Bahn” (including, among other things, the line to Büchen)

        • Frederick

          Currently, the Hamburg S4 is planned to terminate at Bad Oldesloe. Do you know how many stations are there between Bad Oldesloe and Lübeck? One.

          It won’t be bad to do some infill and improvement work to extend S4 to Lübeck. Moreover, it’s the Hamburg S-Bahn, so Hamburg would probably pay for a part of it.

          By the way, as Tom mentioned, the Hamburg-Lübeck line will see even more traffic after the Fehmarn Belt project. It’s really the best time to plan now.

          • Alex Cat3

            Probably worth it to extend it just so that it doesn’t get nicknamed the Bad Old n’ Slow Line 😉

          • Herbert

            And as I pointed out, it’s better to build two new fast tracks rather than two new slow tracks…

    • Sascha Claus

      […] (the divergence by a factor of 2 in per km cost in a single country appears remarkable but may be due to stuff like bridges or the difference between Rasengleis and “railway style” gravel ballast track and “buried” track integrated into asphalt rather than incompetence or silver plating) […]

      If you’re referring to Ulm, the clue is in the name: “Route 2”. According to Wikipedia, the route network almost doubled (route 1: 10.2 km; route 2: 9,3 km; with a short common section). 34 mio. € were for new vehicles, 21 mio. € for an extension of the depot and 20 mio. € for a new bridge diagonally across the main station throat, leaving “only” 195 mio. € for 9 km, still expensive.

      […] and frankly ridiculous scaremongering regarding the UNESCO World Heritage listed old town […]

      Given the hubbub the UNESCO made about the Koblenz cable car, whose sole intrusiveness could be fully mitigated by painting the pillars green like the surrounding trees, one should prepare for the worst. Strangely nobody feels bothered by the big car park along the northeastern edge of the Lübeck old town.

      • Herbert

        I mean…

        Dresden was repeatedly warned about their dumb bridge, yet they built it anyway… But then the bridge doesn’t even make future provision for a tram line and we all know, there’s one set of rules for car infrastructure and another for rail…

        By the way, the fact that the city council of Dresden deemed a tram at that crossing point unnecessary shows to me just how superfluous the bridge is was and remains…

  13. Paul

    Also, stop naming things after failed leaders. There is both a Diridon Station in San Jose and a Quentin L. Kopp freeway (I-380).

    In general, I dislike the American habit of naming things after politicians. Almost anything else would be preferable: artists, writers, Nobel prize winners, etc.

    • Herbert

      Now, if by that you mean quadruple tracking the existing line, yeah, sure, but I wouldn’t do that with two additional slow or worse yet third rail electrified tracks but building an HSL on a new alignment (A1 is right there) with the eminently reasonable target of getting the ~60 kilometers done in half an hour and giving Lübeck a proper Takt ICE, with onward service to Copenhagen if possible…

    • Herbert

      There is an interesting monologue by Neil deGrasse Tyson about 1990s era European money (some countries still do it, but most now have the euro) having scientists and their work on the money. Like the 1990 series 10 Deutsche Mark note had Gauß and his bell curve. I was ten when that note ceased being legal tender, I still got an idea that that weird shape was somehow related to that dude and was important.

      Why not put the kite on the note with Franklin? Or speaking of failed leaders, Appomattox on the note with the guy who took the surrender of the failure there?

        • Herbert

          By the way, I’m not patriotic in any sense of the term and I am very much in favor of the euro but the 1990 series of the Deutsche Mark must’ve been one of the most inspired banknote designs ever (the coins, not so much, but eh, German coins were always a bit meh). They managed gender parity, east German representation, Lutheran/Catholic parity (they even included a prominent Jew) had clear distinguishability between notes at a glance or a touch (try figuring out which usd note you’re holding in dim lighting… Now imagine you are visually impaired…) and the “add a symbol of who they were and what they did” principle makes them way more pleasant to look at than “well, here’s another dead dude your parents tell you is important”

          Yeah sorry the Holsten gate from the pre 1990 series had to go, but it had it coming…

      • Alon Levy

        Israel puts dead politicians and poets on the currency, and the latest series even includes their poems on the note, but Israel is rather German in how it gives far higher prestige to science and engineering than to the humanities.

        • Herbert

          Depending on how you assign math (the 10 DM note with Gauß) only one of the persons on the 1990 series of Deutsche Mark notes was clearly a scientist; Paul Ehrlich on the 200. There was also architect Balthsar Neumann on the 50, but the rest was all poets, literates and even a pair of linguists on the 1000. (Brothers Grimm, known for their fairy tales but far more important for their contributions to linguistics)

          This is all the more remarkable since “German Nobel laureates” alone could probably fill two series of bank notes easily… Incidentally Ehrlich is the only one to get a Nobel among those on the 1990 DM notes in part due to the fact that all the others were already dead and buried when the first Novel Prize was awarded…

      • Sarapen

        Probably safest not to put people at all on money, too high of a chance they did something terrible that was considered acceptable at the time but is now highly problematic (sexism, eugenics, owning slaves, etc).

    • Herbert

      Eh… That train left the station the moment the first monument for traitorous losers went up…

  14. Coridon Henshaw

    The criteria for success and failure are often radically different for the entities which select leaders than for those of us who value useful and efficient public services.

    The people who mismanage American public transport (and housing policy, and health policy, and domestic security policy, and defense policy, and — the pattern should be obvious) keep their jobs because their criteria for success is how much money their agencies channel into the right pockets rather than how effectively their agencies serve the public. Leaders who do not deliver effective public goods are impossible to remove because they are doing what the political culture requires of them.

    Creating a political culture that values effective public services over elite enrichment, such that non-useful leaders can be removed, is a virtually insurmountable problem that has only been fleetingly solved a few times over the span of history. Replicating the fleeting successes of pre-neoliberalism Scandinavia in extractive societies, such as the United States, does not seem realistically possible.

    • Luke

      Insofar as political problems are epiphenomena to sociological problems, discussing the right methodology for removing “failed” leaders seems to be beside the point, but maybe that’s beyond the scope of the discussion, here.

    • Herbert

      Revolution in the imperial periphery will be crushed by the might of the core or devolve into “state of siege authoritarianism” to avoid being crushed and Revolution in the imperial core is deemed impossible because the revolutionary subject seems absent, so where to start?

    • Nathanael

      When extraction stops being profitable, it becomes possible to put competent people in charge to work for the public good.

      (This is why mining, coal, oil, gas are always corrosive to a society.)

  15. Tiercelet

    Reading through this discussion, it seems to me that the real challenge is less failed leaders–as people have pointed out, getting rid of people is difficult and unpleasant and will meet resistance, and can create an environment of fear in which even good people are encouraged not to be noticed.

    The bigger issue is getting rid of bad *ideas*: regularly revisiting the base assumptions of a project to make sure that they still make sense, and being willing to change even foundational terms if the end result will show appreciable practical improvements. Of course this can go too far the other way too–you don’t want to rearchitect everything every six months–but the problem is less bad leaders than bad ideas which are allowed to continue unquestioned forever. And the above discussion lists several examples of how the dead hand of failed leaders can continue holding the reins on an organization even long after the leaders themselves are gone.

    We need a culture that has no fear of admitting when it is wrong–that is willing to acknowledge failure while there is still time for course corrections to save the project. Publicly cashiering people for being wrong, as viscerally emotionally appealing as it may be, is probably counterproductive to this goal.

    (Of course, somehow creating a culture that can admit to being wrong is even more insurmountable than finding ways to fire people. But out of the crooked timber of humanity…)

    • Alon Levy

      getting rid of people is difficult and unpleasant and will meet resistance

      No it won’t, when Cuomo removed Helena Williams for opposing Penn Station Access on bullshit grounds, LIRR opposition to PSA vanished and nobody spoke her name again. This isn’t like when he removed actually competent Byford.

      • adirondacker12800

        Threads on railroad.net filled with wild foamer speculation aren’t reliable sources.
        https://nypost.com/2014/04/30/mta-fires-lirr-president-helena-williams/
        ……”The president of the LIRR was fired on Wednesday to be replaced by someone with a stronger mechanical background in running trains, sources told the Post.”
        https://www.liherald.com/stories/williams-fired-as-lirr-president,54755
        ….”In a news release announcing both Williams’ departure and Nowakowski’s appointment, Prendergast mentioned no specific reason or incident that prompted this change in leadership, later stating that it was not a reflection of Williams’ performance during her tenure. ”
        You really should put your mind reading skills to better uses.

      • Tiercelet

        I’ll happily amend my previous statement to “usually” or even “far too often” meets resistance.

        But I think Cuomo’s [notoriously vindictive and tyrannical approach](https://nypost.com/2021/02/17/cuomo-threat-to-dem-you-havent-seen-my-wrath-you-will-be-destroyed/)–coupled with the (generally unquestioned culture of bullying)[https://nymag.com/intelligencer/article/andrew-cuomo-misconduct-allegations.html] he engendered, and was able to sustain, as the (at the time) unassailable heir to a political dynasty, make him instead the rare outlier where the rule doesn’t apply. And if it takes an absolutist tyrant like Andrew Cuomo, Duke of New York, to make a public firing pass without comment, that seems like embracing a huge problem to solve a minor one. It’s burning down your house because you don’t like the carpet.

        Byford was an exception because he had such unprecedented visibility and popularity–whereas if I stood around in Penn Station and asked people to name the head of the LIRR, paid you $20 for everybody who knew and you paid me a dime for everybody who didn’t, I’d still come out ahead. And even so, the only voices of any consequence that I saw criticizing Byford’s being forced out were from city politicians (for whom DiBlasio could be trusted to act as the lightning rod for Cuomo’s vindictive ire, and who find improved local reputation more valuable than state-level reputation anyway)–not state-wide politicians or anybody in the MTA (at least not on record). So I think the general principle still holds.

  16. Patrick Jensen

    Not only do I think this recommendation is based on gross fundamental attribution error, but it fails to understand and respect the fact that the criteria for “failure” are not universal, but depend on who you ask.

    Anyone who wants to say something practically applicable about this topic should read Bent Flyvbjerg’s seminal Rationality and Power. One of the key observations in his work is that rational debate is only possible when power relations are stable. Thus, you make a rational objection to some policy an open confrontation if and only if you are also the more powerful party, because power trumps rational arguments.

    Making everything into a highly visible personal vendetta or turf battle is an excellent way to ensure that your opponent cannot be reasoned with, which makes this terrible advice.

    • Alon Levy

      Tegnell and Fernandez have shown time and time again that they cannot be reasoned with. (To be fair, it’s not just Tegnell).

      Stability of power relations is great for a successful society – but the US isn’t on most governance matters, and Sweden isn’t specifically on matters of public health. Tegnell is not on trial – his guilt is beyond doubt. Sweden is on trial: can it get rid of him? That it can’t informs my perception of Swedish society, in conjunction with what Turkish contractors who work there tell me about how infrastructure works there; so far, the Nordic system looks inferior to the Southern European (including Turkish) system, just not by enough of a margin that it’s worthwhile setting society on fire. But 15,000 corona dead compared with 4,000 in the rest of Scandinavia is enough of a margin.

      This is the same really with any other malfeasance investigation against a figure of great power: the defendant is obviously guilty, and it’s the system that’s on trial for whether it can reach the known conclusion. Clinton was not on trial for sexual assault and harassment, the US was – and the US failed; Trump was not on trial for rape and insurrection, and then again the US failed. Italy in contrast did better in the mani pulite process: it managed to destroy the social relations that produced the tangentopoli, and at the time this looked bittersweet because Berlusconi is as corrupt as the old DC and PSI system (and here Italy is failing – it took the EU to even get him out of the prime minister’s chair), but on hindsight corruption levels went down and transparency levels have gotten rather high, and inflation-adjusted infrastructure costs in Italy are half what they were in the 1980s.

      What’s true is that the kind of trolls today who speak about rationality and debate tend to put stability of power (because they themselves have power) above all else. You end up with people who claim to represent Enlightenment values while their favorite 18c thinkers are counter-Enlightenment ones like democracy opponent Edmund Burke. You end up with people who speak of infinite progress and how the world keeps getting better while scourging the young who have those better-world values than 60-somethings who long internalized the values of the worse world of 40 years ago. This way you get debate trolls whose favorite subject to debate is “are racial minorities inferior to us for genetic reasons or for cultural ones?”.

      • Nathanael

        Bingo. I would add that the Kentucky “justice system” was on trial for the murder of Breonna Taylor, and it proved itself guilty. The Wisconsin “justice system” is now on trial for the murders committed by Rittenhouse.

        New York State’s legislature and government went on trial when Cuomo’s pervasive sexual harassment was exposed. They passed the test.

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