The Issue of Curiosity

We’ve been talking to a lot of Americans in positions of power when it comes to transportation investment about our cost reports, and usually the conversations go well, but there’s one issue that keeps irking me. They ask good questions about corner cases, about some specific American problems (which we do want to revisit soon), about our prognosis for the future. But they don’t usually express curiosity about the non-American cases – and even journalists who write investigative pieces sometimes insist on only using London and Paris as proper comparanda for New York. This is not everyone, and I do know of some civil servants who are interested and have made sure to read the Italy, Stockholm or Istanbul cases. But it is a large majority of Americans we talk to, including ones who are clearly interested in doing better – even they think acquiring fluency in how things work in low-cost countries is irrelevant and are far more passionate about all the barely relevant groups that can block change than about how Stockholm, Milan, and other such cities build cost-effective infrastructure.

Incuriosity and consultants

I recently saw a transit manager in North America who I’d previously had tepidly positive opinion of tell me, with perfect confidence, that “The standard approach to construction in most of Europe outside Russia is design-build.”

To be very clear, this is bunk. Design-build is not used in Southern Europe or in the German-speaking world. Ant6n has only been able to find one such contract in Germany, for the signaling of Stuttgart 21. There’s more use of design-build in France, the Low Countries, and the Nordic countries, and the tendency is toward doing more of it, but,

  • The process of privatization of the state is in its infancy in these countries – for example, Nya Tunnelbanan is mostly procured as build contracts
  • Costs in the Nordic countries are rising rapidly, albeit from very low levels, and this also seems to be happening in France – this minority of Europe that uses design-build (which, again, correlates with other elements of state privatization) isn’t seeing good results
  • As a consequence of the above two points, the current and former civil servants in those countries that I’ve spoken with are familiar with the more traditional system of project delivery and don’t generally think it is inferior to alternative systems that reduce the role of the state and increase that of private consultants, and thus they are familiar with how to do traditional project delivery well
  • Even with the ongoing privatization of the Nordic and French states, more institutional knowledge is retained in the public sector, to ensure it can supervise the consultants, in contrast with the American and British models, where the consultants are supervised by other consultants and the in-house public-sector employees lack the technical knowledge to do proper oversight

So why did this person think design-build is standard, where the majority of Western Europe by population does not use it?

The answer is incuriosity. This person is a generalist Anglo consultant. What they know of Europe is what Anglo consultants know. They never stopped to think if perhaps places that build infrastructure cost-effectively publicly would ever have any reason to be legible to international English-speaking consultancies. Why would they? Infrastructure construction is almost entirely at the level of countries, not the European Union; the weakness of cross-border rail planning is so notable that I know a green activist devoted specifically to that issue. If you’re building in and for Germany, you have no real reason to publish in English trade journals or interact with British or American consultants. Another consultant that Eric and I spoke with had the insight to point out, when we asked about a comparison of High Speed 2 with the TGV, that their company gets no work in France since France does it in-house, but the transit manager who shall remain unnamed did not.

The good ones

I am sad to say that, for the most part, the mark of a good American transit manager, official, or regulator isn’t that they display real willingness to learn. Too few do. Rather, the mark is that they don’t say obviously false things with perfect confidence; they recognize their limits.

This is frustrating, because many of these people genuinely want to make things better – and at the federal level this even includes some political appointees rather than career civil servants. The typical cursus honorum for federal political appointees involves long stints doing policy analysis, usually in or near the topic they are appointed to, or running state- or city-level agencies; I criticize some of them for having failed in their previous jobs, but that’s not the same as the problem of a generalist overclass that jumps between entirely different fields and has no ability to properly oversee whichever field whose practitioners have had the misfortune to be subjected to its control.

The good ones ask interesting questions. Some are easy to answer, others are genuine challenges that require us to think about our approach more carefully. And yet, three things bother me.

They are not technical

Traditional American business culture looks down on technical experts, treating them as people who will forever work for a generalist manager – and this is a culture that treats working for someone else as a mark of inferiority.

The most innovative American industries don’t do this – software-tech and biotech both expect workers to be technical, and the line workers do not often respect managers who are technically illiterate; tech and biotech entrepreneurs likewise have a technical background (Mark Zuckerberg coded Facebook’s prototype, Noubar Afeyan is a biochemical engineering Ph.D., etc.), and Elon Musk, one of the less technical ones, still has a physics degree, wrote code in the 1990s, and goes to great pain to affect being part of the culture of tech workers.

However, the government at all levels does do this. The overclass comprises lawyers and public policy grads; engineers, architects, and planners can be trusted civil servants but are expected to lower their gaze in the presence of an elite lawyer (and one such lawyer told us, again with perfect confidence, something that not only was wrong, but was wrong about American law in their field).

The upshot is that even the good ones don’t ask technical questions. I don’t remember having had to answer questions from even the most curious American officials about grouting, about egress capacity, about ventilation, about construction techniques. It’s rare to even see economic questions about managing public-sector risk, about the required size of an in-house construction agency, about how one implements traditional project delivery effectively; we volunteer some numbers but I don’t remember being asked “how many engineers does RATP employ?” (the answer is around 1,200 across all fields combined).

They nudge and do not do

The American federal government is uncomfortable with the notion of doing things directly. One is supposed to make general rules and nudge others. Even regulations take a nudge form – often instead of direct compulsion (say, installing a safety system), the federal government would nudge private actors by threatening to withhold funds or other support if they don’t do it.

One consequence is that federal agencies don’t really try to learn how to do things themselves. I caution that one official who I spoke with and have a good impression of reacted well when I pointed out how, in Sweden, there’s mobility among the civil servants between state and county governments, so some of the people who built Citybanan working for the Swedish state are now building Nya Tunnelbanan for Stockholm County. This official said they were working on a program that doesn’t quite do this but does something similar, which stands to be successful if done well; I don’t know if it will be done well but there was not enough time in that conversation to get enough detail and I reserve judgment even on the aspects I am more pessimistic about until I know more. So it’s possible that this criticism I have of the federal government is going to do away in the next few years, and if so, I do expect better federal infrastructure investment, perhaps for intercity rail on the Northeast Corridor, which is a federal-led program.

This is not purely an American problem. The EU has the same problem, which is related to the poor state of cross-border rail; even when the European public wants more integration (see, for example, polling on an EU army), eurocrats respond with soporific abstraction, not out of political fear of backlash, but because none of them can actually do anything more than a light nudge – the doers remain at the member state level. The difference between us and the US is that member states like Germany do have some doers around, whereas New York can’t do anything.

They still only look inward

This is the part that I am most worried about in the future. I’ve had to take interesting questions about policy from people who, again, I think well of – if I didn’t, I’d speak of them the way I do of the official in the section on consultants above.

And then none of these questions is about, say, how Italy has set up its bureaucracy for protection of monuments, ensuring there is no risk to millennia-old Roman ruins under the aegis of professional archeologists and historians rather than third-party lawsuits. There’s ample interest among Americans in how to do better, reaching the highest levels among the people I’ve directly talked to, but so far it’s based entirely on internal thinking. Foreign examples can inform them but are not to be investigated as closely. I do know of some officials who’ve read the non-American reports we’ve put out, but it’s not common even among the good ones.

The problem, I think, is twofold. First, Americans are used to being in charge in their interactions with foreigners, and Western Europeans are about the least impressed people in the world by American pride. Why look up to a country that we know has worse public transportation and is, on net, probably about comparable in overall living standards? (Yes, Americans, I am aware that your SUVs are larger.) The average Western European doesn’t think about the United States much and when they do they’re not awed, so the American who asks questions puts themselves in an inferior position, and this is hard to handle.

The second issue is that the public sector draws from within the country’s borders, in almost all cases. The pipelines into working for Deutsche Bahn are completely different from those into working for any American outfit. This means that an official in a country has weak ties to other countries. This, again, is also a European problem – there’s too little knowledge of France in Germany and vice versa, too little curiosity about Southern Europe in higher-cost Northern Europe, and too little curiosity about Asia with disastrous results. But the European railroads have exchange programs among them and even with Japanese railroads, and Americans don’t participate in either; the insularity I see in Germany when I mention the capabilities of high-speed trains in France and Japan is considerably less bad than what I see among the worst Americans and Britons.


  1. Benjamin Turon

    Well from a personal view, when I serious became intrested in high-speed and intercity rail, I looked at buying books from overseas because there is almost no serious literature in the United States. Unfortunately, I am limited to books and magazines in English (I have a few books and magazines in French, Germany, and Japanese — but they are of limited use) but I have found some English language sources that cover high-speed rail development in Western Europe and Japan, online there are PDFs covering various rail tops that can be interesting. YouTube is also a good souce of info — DB and Trafikverket have a lot of videos online. You can also get a feeling for these foreign rail services from cab videos and travelogues.

    • Eric2

      I suspect some form of this is the norm for young railfans. Why are transit managers different? Because they’re older and less flexible? Because they choose their careers for “normal” reasons rather than instinctive love of trains?

  2. James Green

    “The American federal government is uncomfortable with the notion of doing things directly. One is supposed to make general rules and nudge others.”

    I think this is a key insight. It’s certainly something that has taken hold here in New Zealand. Government is enamoured of the idea of doing as little as they can directly, always opting for outsourcing and nudges when they think they can get away with it. Project design is outsourced. Recently, even policy development has been outsourced with huge spending on consultants who themselves aren’t even specialised.

    • Alon Levy

      I don’t think it’s the same issue. New Zealand privatizes the state based on the Anglo model that we call the globalized system in our report: design-build, performance-based contracts, privatization of risk, outsourcing of planning to consultants, etc. The US does the same and also has a federal government that doesn’t do but only nudges: it doesn’t manage a project like Gateway (owned by federally-owned Amtrak) but instead funds state and interstate authorities to do so.

      • Onux

        To be fair there is a serious scale difference at play in comparing the US as a country to individual European countries. Gotthard base tunnel was a project conceived, managed and funded by Switzerland (did any Euro organization chip in?) not the EU; why shouldn’t NJ (with a slightly larger population and 70% the GDP) be able to handle the much shorter Gateway?

        Same logic to saying “the Spanish government plans HSR directly, but the US leaves it to California” – California has 85% the area and pop as Spain with twice the GDP, why would it need federal control versus doing things itself.

        Note I am challenging the conceptual basis to this particular criticism; I recognize fully NJ, California and many others have made a mess of projects like ARC, CAHSR, etc. but see no reason why direct federal control would do better (absent other reforms you mention like in house expertise, etc.)

        • adirondacker12800

          Why should New Jersey spend money so New Jerseyans can pay taxes in New York? New Jersayans pay Federal taxes too. Lots and lots and lots of Federal taxes. The Federal government can spend money on them just like the Federal Government spends money on the Real Americans(tm) out in the hinterlands.

          • Eric2

            So that New Jerseyans can earn New York salaries, which are much higher.

          • adirondacker12800

            No they aren’t. If New York doesn’t facilitate workers getting to jobs in Manhattan, the jobs will move.

          • Eric2

            Nope. The whole reason Manhattan exists is that jobs can’t just move, because agglomeration requires scale. Or in other words, moving to NJ gains you NJ workers but loses you more NY workers and you can’t compete with only NJ workers.

          • adirondacker12800

            Whole industries have moved to the hinterlands or out of the country.

          • Eric2

            Industries move to poor places where labor is cheaper. Or where natural resources are available. Or the like. In the process they lose the ability to choose from the best and most numerous workers, but sometimes the cheap labor or natural resources make it worthwhile anyway.

            Unless NJ wants to turn itself into a third world country or coal mine, employers aren’t going to want to move their offices there.

          • Henry Miller

            Industry rarely moves quickly as they have to move all their skilled workers with them. Even if there are more than enough people in NJ looking for a job, you cannot move there without affecting the current NY workers: either you lose their experience, or you pay their moving expenses (remember many of them have family reasons to not want to move and will quit thus losing their experience). Best to figure $50,000 per employee in costs to move them.

            They will open branch offices, and move a few skilled people to that office. If there are enough people in the new location that will over a few decades move operations to the new office. Though more likely the branch office is always a second class to the main office using cheaper people to do easier tasks, but the real power remains at the main office. Companies will also move the C suite when a new CEO doesn’t want to live in the headquarters city, and this in turns means upward looking people will figure out how to get to the new city, leaving the headquarters city – even if the new city is objectively a worse place for the company headquarters.

            Of course sometimes you have no choice. NJ may not have any skilled workers of the type you need and so you cannot risk moving. Or maybe they don’t live in NY or NJ and so you have to move to some other city (many smaller cities have found some niche where they have a near monopoly on employees in that industry)

          • adirondacker12800

            They didn’t ask you either and do it anyway. Whole industries.

          • Eric2

            @Henry Miller why are we engaging with a troll who doesn’t even seem to be reading our comments.

        • Alon Levy

          The EU and Switzerland came to an agreement in which Switzerland can fund the Gotthard Base Tunnel partly out of truck tolls, paid almost entirely by EU truckers crossing Switzerland.

          The difference between Switzerland and New Jersey, and between Spain and California, is that Switzerland and Spain are countries and Jersey and California aren’t. Think what it means politically: Spanish politicians are under constant pressure to produce results, and if they don’t, they lose reelection. Swiss politicians can likewise be embarrassed by referendum. California has no such pressure – the opposition runs campaigns that in theory capture the median US voter and not the median California voter, and in practice, because no such campaign can possibly win in California, the sort of people who are interested in running such campaigns are selected for incompetence and repulsiveness. Instead of democratic politics, most American states have court politics. No wonder nothing gets built – none of the courtiers gives a shit.

          • Onux

            “The EU and Switzerland came to an agreement in which Switzerland can fund the Gotthard Base Tunnel partly out of truck tolls”

            This seems to be the definition of “nudging” by the higher political entity that you say works so poorly in the US. The EU didn’t fund the tunnels directly, collect the tolls, pick the route, or hire the engineers, it just offered an incentive so Switzerland could do all of that.

            “Spanish politicians are under constant pressure to produce results, and if they don’t, they lose reelection.”

            This makes no sense. US States don’t hold elections for governor and legislatures? You can point to California currently being a single-party state, but the Social Democrats held the government in Sweden for 40 continuous years during the time that the Stockholm metro was planned and built – California has had Republican governors and voted as a state for Republican presidents several times in the past 40 years, although not in the past 20 or so.

            If Swiss politicians are under such pressure to produce results, how come Lotschberg base tunnel only has one-and-half bores complete?

            Also the post was in relation to all-of-the-US versus all-of-Europe. There are many states in the US with highly competitive elections for state government, just as there are countries in Europe where governments become safely ensconced with no chance of loss for a time.

            US states are not countries, but they have far more power than basically any sub-national unit in the world. They have independently elected legislatures and executives, they can set their own tax rates for their own budgets, pass their own laws and enforce them with their own courts. And of course, as I mentioned many of them have a size and economy equal to or greater than many European countries.

            Once again, I am failing to see why lack of engagement by the US Federal government affects infrastructure projects by US states when the EU has the same lack of engagement vis-a-vis constituent countries. Various US states basically have the power and economic base of almost all European countries outside of the Big 3 (Ger, France, UK).

            Once again, none of this is to suggest the US or its states actually *do* any transit infrastructure as effectively as anyone in Europe, just that “the feds don’t do enough” isn’t a reason.

          • Alon Levy

            The Swedish Social Democrats had to rely on coalition partners or ad hoc alliances in minority rule with either the Farmers’ League (currently the Center Party) or the communists. The elections in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s were split extremely narrowly between left and non-left forces; in no way were the Social Democrats so secure in their rule that they could waste any money.

          • Onux

            Saying that the Social Democrats had to rule in coalition with the communists is like saying the Democrats don’t control California because Scott Weiner and Gavin Newsom are both Democrats. The elections from the 30’s (not 50’s) to the 70’s were not exactly split narrowly since in every single one the SD’s had a higher vote share than at least the next two parties combined, and twice (in 1940 and 1968) the SDs won an absolute majority (>50%) of the vote, something very rare in multiparty systems and the only times it has ever happened in Sweden. Although there were coalition governments (again, not much of a coalition if it was with the even-farther-left communists) Hansson, Erlander, and Palme all formed governments at some point that were SD-only. I mean Erlander was PM for 23 straight years and Hansson before that for 14 straight except for a three month interregnum and you want to claim that the SDs were barely hanging on to power?

          • Alon Levy

            No, it’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying it’s a combination of things:

            1. The Social Democrats had to rule in formal or informal coalition – yes, with communists, but note that Erlander’s foreign and military policies were highly not-communist.
            2. The Social Democrats and communists had, between them, bare majorities, or sometimes not even majorities, requiring coalitions with the Farmers’ League. Erlander had to constantly deliver results or the liberals, conservatives, and farmers would use their majorities to enact more right-wing legislation, which they eventually did.

            California is formally one-party. If you don’t like the Democrats, you can’t defect to another center-left or left-wing party; even in San Francisco, prog vs. mod appellations are fluid, to the point that YIMBY, five years ago a solid mod issue, is at this point prog. You can try to primary the candidate, but that’s not an easy democratic process in which there are clear ways to signal you want more left-wing or less left-wing policy. If the governor fucks up, say by dining indoors with a donor after having signed an indoor dining ban, the entire party will back him up, which is rare among coalition parties – if SPD fucks up, the Greens aren’t going to downplay the scandal. And the Democrats win by 20+ points, so there’s no real alternative – and the Republicans have internalized this and nominated dead-enders.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            The EU didn’t fund the tunnels directly, collect the tolls, pick the route, or hire the engineers, it just offered an incentive so Switzerland could do all of that.

            I don’t know where you live or who you are, but this is reality-unthethered commenting-just-because-nobody-can-stop-me typing of words.

            Do you seriously believe the faceless unaccountable bureaucrats of Brussels (indirectly!) directed poor isolated impoverished landlocked referendum-beset Switzerland to undertake a decades-long transportation megaproject against its naïve provincial interests?

          • Onux

            “Do you seriously believe the faceless unaccountable bureaucrats of Brussels (indirectly!) directed poor isolated impoverished landlocked referendum-beset Switzerland to undertake a decades-long transportation megaproject”

            Not at all, just the opposite, I believe Switzerland did it basically all by itself, which completely undercuts Alon’s argument that transportation projects fail in the US because the federal gov’t is not involved. Switzerland is much smaller than many US states in population, GDP, etc., so if it can do these projects alone than US states can and the lack of direct federal government isn’t the issue.

            It was Along that gave the example of the EU allowing truck tolls after I stated my belief that the EU did nothing at all. Problem for Alon is that “an agreement to fund party out of truck tolls” is exactly the kind of not “doing things directly” Alon claims is a failure point for the US, when it appears to have worked just fine for one of the largest and most significant transportation projects ever where the higher level of government (EU) did the nudging while the lower level (Switzerland) did it directly.

            Rereading my comment I see how “incentive to do all of that” could be read as me claiming the EU was the driving force. I should have said “incentive to do what Switzerland wanted to do that the EU agreed with” since that would be more accurate.

          • Alon Levy

            Right, because the issue is that Switzerland is a country whose government is accountable to its population, and therefore has a civil service that can do this. California is not; the reason it put hacks in charge of the High-Speed Rail Authority isn’t lack of scale but lack of accountability.

          • Matthew Hutton

            The court politics argument makes a lot of sense to me. It’s not like the US Green Party can win even in San Francisco – whereas the UK Green Party does run Brighton and Hove City Council for example.

            To be fair if California high speed rail was merely as incompetently managed as HS2 they’d be building Oakland to Sacramento. And HS2 is probably Europe’s worst high speed rail project.

            And while that isn’t super perfect it is at least better than nothing and will get some ridership.

          • Onux

            I’m very open to the argument that the issue is lack of accountability due to the US electoral process (for example single member districts instead of proportional representation, or political appointees favored over a technical civil service) however, that is not the argument you made. You started out saying the issue WAS one of scale, by criticizing the federal government as not doing things directly and leaving it to the states. The federal government has the same issues as US states regarding accountability, so there is no reason to think it should do better just because it is larger, and no reason to think well-run US states cannot provide infrastructure the wall similar sized well run European countries do.

            One could further attack your argument by pointing out that California is in many was the state most accountable to its population. It famously uses direct referendum much more than any other state, although not as often or as formally as Switzerland. CAHSR stated as a citizen referendum, not a court politics backroom deal passed by the legislature; it wasn’t thrust upon the population. Also, California uses recall more than any other state and Gavin Newsom faced a recall specifically over the issue of Covid restrictions and the fact that he violated his own stay-at-home/masking orders. California also has “jungle primaries” where the top two candidates in the primary appear on the ballot, which often means a progressive vs a moderate democrat, instead of a progressive “not-representing-the-majority” democrat guaranteed to win against a hard right “not-representing-the-majority”.

            The issue seems to be that people in California keep voting for ineffective Democrats despite the fact that they are failing, not a systemic lack of opportunities to oust them (jungle primaries, recalls, etc.).

          • Alon Levy

            The referendums in California differ from those of Switzerland in non-obvious but important ways. The most relevant to high-speed rail is that the referendum only included 20% of the funding that was believed to be needed at the time: $9 billion where the project was budgeted at $43 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars (the $33 billion figure mentioned at the time was in 2008 dollars, and American budgeting is always done in nominal YOE dollars). This made the project rely on magic asterisks from the start; it was by coincidence that the economy got so bad in late 2008 that a federal stimulus was even in the cards – in 2007 and early 2008 the Democratic Party’s ideology was still pro-budget balancing, e.g. restoring pay-as-you-go after the 2006 midterm. Swiss referendums are for the whole budget of the project instead, which means that failure to build is embarrassing and cannot be deflected to outside actors.

            The opportunities to oust failed Democrats in California don’t really exist, because no opposition institution can really exist in that environment. There are no state parties. Voters vote for state legislators based on national partisan affiliation, and state legislators know this and have no real incentive to perform well at the state level. Governors are an exception, but in a safe state there’s only competition if the minority party governor is willing to make exceptional compromises, as when Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan publicly refused to endorse Trump, and then the national party will punish them. The Northeast has enough of a tradition of moderate Republicans that Baker and Hogan could exist, but the West’s tradition is New Right populists who are still bummed over losing Prop 6 in 1978, and Kevin Faulconer went nowhere.

          • Onux

            California referendums may be poorly structured, but that is an different argument than “California is run by court politics.” Court politics would be CA politicians deciding to spend billions on HSR in a backroom deal, not putting it before the voters.

            Switzerland has its share of poor referendums, unless you think you can get a building permit for a minaret in Zurich.

            You cannot possibly say opportunities to oust failed democrats “don’t really exist” when there was literally an statewide election held out-of-cycle specifically on the question of whether to oust a failed democrat on exactly the issue you yourself highlighted as representative of the problem (Newsom and The French Laundry). That California voters chose to keep him, or didn’t see him as failed, is an issue with the electorate, not the system.

            California voters did once recall a governor over perceived failures (Gray Davis and the rolling blackouts of the early 2000’s). Other recalls have occurred locally (Chesa Boudin was recalled as SF District Attorney because his super-progressive policies were seen as contributing to a surge in crime).

            You can’t say voters only vote on party affiliation when CA’s jungle primary system means both candidates can be from the same national party. In 2016 California voters chose progressive Kamala Harris for Senate over the centrist Blue Dog democrat Loretta Sanchez. In 2018 they picked mainline democrat Feinstein over outspokenly progressive Kevin de Leon. In 2022 a quarter of CA Assembly seats featured an election that was not D vs R (not counting seats with no-one challenging the incumbent). This included D vs D, R v R and races with independents or libertarian party candidates.

            An interesting political science question is that CA voters regularly vote for policies to address the state’s one-party problem (term limits, jungle primaries, ranked choice voting in some jurisdictions) yet they keep electing the hard-left politicians instead of moderates (Sanchez didn’t beat Harris, no block of moderate democrats to check the democratic legislative super-majority, Boudin won a ranked-choice election, etc.)

            Finally, we have been talking a lot about California vs Sweden/Switzerland, but your original claim was that US states needed federal intervention to get projects done. Much more of the US lives outside of CA than in it, and some of that is highly competitive while federal politics are even less responsive to the electorate than state elections (no recall or public initiatives at the federal level). There is a lot of Europe outside of Switz./Sweden and you praise much of it for low costs (did Spain have a citizen initiative over its HSR system? can the French National Assembly hold a no-confidence vote and remove the president from office due to loss of coalition support, or can the president dissolve the Assembly and force new elections for it?). There is just no support to the argument that greater federal involvement in US transportation would have an beneficial effect.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            Yes, Alon’s rather huffing their own supply in this take on California.

            The reality is that truly appalling transportation projects have been conceived approved and constructed, with immense cost overruns, and abysmal utility, for decades, including the 1980s and 1990s when it was anything but a “one party state” ruled by “court politics”.

            The depressing reality is that the US population as a whole, and across whatever tiny “spectrum” of political views there exist (Onux’s comment above referring to very-very-right-of-centre-anywhere-else local candidates as “hard left” is totally risible, but goes along with the other Overton Window nonsense about ranked choice voting etc), is thoroughly conditioned to expect government to fail and so thoroughly brainwashed it will even ignore unambiguous government successes (eg “Operation Warp Speed” mRNA vaccine delivery.)

            Major projects are simply patronage. Nobody expects them to deliver what is promised. Everybody is seeking earmarked expenditure. Shit-for-brains “transit advocates” are sometimes useful idiot greenwashers for putting 50cm of ballast and rails on top of a bunch of concrete instead of 50cm of asphalt, but it simply doesn’t matter how much anything costs, how many decades late and how many hundreds of millions over budget anything goes, how dismally the project performs compared to the “projections” used to secure earmarks. It just doesn’t matter. There is nobody, anywhere, at any level of government, of any political affiliation, who expects pork barrel projects to be anything but delivery of earmarked funds to a particular jurisdiction and a particular set of private contractors.

            Government projects are expected to fail, bigger earmarks are moar moar moar than small earmarks, comparative analysis versus foreign examples doesn’t make earmarks bigger, earmarks aren’t increased by retrospective analysis of project choice, or design parameters, or contracting competitiveness, or agency capacity, or cost/benefit, or uncovering and rectifying costly mistakes for the future.

            It doesn’t matter. Every politician at every level wants money delivered. Nobody cares what happens after that. Nobody. The “rail advocates”, not that they matter, are happy to go along with this. The small government assholes are happy to use non-functional public agencies as fronts for massive public-private wealth transfer. The dipshit “progressives” are happy to see non-functional public agencies “receive” massive amounts of money to “solve congestion” or “more trains” or whatever. It doesn’t matter.

            Success is not an option. Nobody cares. Nobody here has even seen one successful large public works project and there’s no political language to even describe what those of here might think of “successes” or “failures”. Sure some of people have ridden the TGV on their holiday on France or whatever, and they want TGVs and airport rail connections (always with the airport rail links), but they don’t know and don’t care what went into anything, or what wasn’t built, or how what was built was built, or at what cost. They don’t even have the vocabulary to talk about what works and what doesn’t work.

            Nobody cares.

    • Tunnelvision

      Its because projects are managed at a State Level, each State has its own rules on procurement for example. The Feds issue regulations that say “you must have a procurement manual” and the States produce them. There are wide differences between States. Each State licenses Engineers and each State requires contractors etc. to be registered there as well. Gateway fin NY for example is being managed by the Gateway Development Corporation, but the procurement is being managed between Port Authority of NY/NJ, NJ Transit and AMTRAK. Funding comes from NY , NJ and the Feds both through FTA and FRA each of which have different remits. Ultimately it will be handed over for operational reasons to AMTRAK but until then its a clusterf***

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  4. Borners

    It was interesting dipping into the Anglophone military commentariat over the last year, while much of the same assumptions were there, that they were on top of the world etc. But the level of curiosity, awareness of other countries and discussion on cost effectiveness was an order of magnitude more sophisticated that of Anglosphere public transportation. It makes a certain institutional sense, Anglo military forces are expeditionary militaries that spend a lot of time overseas, and have to measure themselves up to potential threats. Railway operators can stay home and suck. And in the US DoD and UK MoD* for all their problems are unusually powerful bureaucracies with technically experienced professional distinct from generalist mainstream.

    Curiously Alon, this discourse on force structure/cost effectiveness Italy came out looking very good, since it has made hard choices to become a Mediterranean maritime specialist unlike the Great Power wannabees (UK and France) or the duds (Germany and Taiwan).

    *Yes I am aware that putting UK and US in the same sentence is too generous to the UK. If HS2 was managed as badly as the Royal Navy’s capital ship building programs then it would be overtime and over budget but it still would be going to Leeds and Sheffield.

    • Alon Levy

      Reading a lot about the military has been really clarifying, because the same social assumptions underlying it also work for civilian governance.

      So, ad generalists vs. specialists, the US military has a culture that promotes generalism in several ways:

      * Officers train as officers first and choose arms in descending class rank (cf. the IDF, where officers train as tankers, infantry, etc. first and then as officers)
      * Officers are rotated between types of unit in operations – for example, an infantry officer may end up commanding tankers
      * Units employ combined arms at a low level – armored battalions mix tank and armored infantry companies, and in tactically, platoons are moved around so that the companies are themselves combined arms teams with tank and infantry platoons
      * Senior officers are expected to have a joint inter-service appointment as part of the cursus honorum of making general
      * Soldiers with specialized technical skills are not usually given officer rank, but only warrant officer, and this even includes helicopter pilots – they may be respected within the unit but they have to call a fresh out of ROTC second lieutenant “sir”

      All of this is supposed to lead to less siloing between different arms and different services, whereas for example at SVR, first of all tank units only combine arms at a much higher level (I think regiment or even division), and second a tank regiment commander will have only served in and commanded tank units. Of course, we’re seeing SVR fail to conquer a smaller, poorer country than Russia, to the point that it’s spinning Bakhmut as a major strategic soon-to-be win. This makes the American Blob, which up until the invasion started was sure Ukraine was not going to be able to defend itself well, more confident in the American way.

      I bring this up because all the same arguments about silos are evident in the reports extolling design-build and in the way Americans justify putting a technically illiterate overclass in charge of professionals. And the point is that just as SVR’s failures should lead everyone to discount the Russian way of doing things in the military, the United States’ inability to build infrastructure should lead everyone, chief of which Americans themselves, to discount the American way of organizing its civilian government, and learn from cultures that do build infrastructure successfully, such as Southern Europe.

      • Astro

        What other military structures do you see that go against the grain of the American model and find success?

        In particular, the US military’s structure (for all that it surely promotes generalism) leads to parallel leadership tracks. Those senior warrant officers/NCOs are a role that fundamentally does not exist in quite a few foreign militaries, and is frequently described as one of the ‘strengths’ of the way the US military operates due to distributing leadership wider than a officer-only strict hierarchy structure (Russia is an example of an antithetical model).

        I don’t have a read on if the US military does a good job compared to what it could be doing. Just curious if there are specific examples you like to point at for people who would be good role models.

        • Alon Levy

          Continental Western Europe is evolving toward the American model, but its Cold War model was different. There was conscription, but it was for a short period, around two years, so there was no point in doing as extensive training as is common in the volunteer-only American (and British) army. Conversely, long-service volunteers who were not officers were NCOs. This led to, instead of the American two-class system, a three-class system, with enlisted conscripts, volunteer NCOs, and officers. For example, tank commander would be (and I think still is) a direct-entry job, for volunteers, who train in it for a year, while the other tank crew were conscripts. Officers can be direct entry or not; in the French Army today, Wikipedia says half the officers are mustangs, and I vaguely remember reading the Bundeswehr is the same.

          For tanks, this system in a way makes more sense than having veteran sergeants and direct-entry lieutenants. NATO tanks fight in sections of two, a main commanded by the platoon commander or platoon sergeant, and a wingman commanded by an NCO of squad leader rank. So it’s more important for the main to be commanded by an experienced soldier than for the wingman to be so commanded, and the system of direct-entry tank commanders who are then promoted to officer rank by merit and experience works.

          Then there’s the IDF system, in which for the most part everyone undergoes the same training and then the best performers are invited to volunteer for additional years and go to officer school. (The IDF’s direct-entry officers are pilots, Sayeret Matkal operatives, and degreed professionals like doctors and engineers – ordinary unit commanders all came up through the ranks, it’s just merit-based and doesn’t require years of enlisted service.)

          It’s hard to exactly compare because for example the Cold War Continental system is useful for one specific type of warfare whereas the American system does something different. Then there are other confounders like “European militaries are underfunded, laughably inefficient, and often run by people who prefer the country were run by Vladimir Putin.”

      • Onux

        Once again your ignorance of how the US military works is high, and leading you to false conclusions.

        First, I believe @Borners was referring to how the US DoD works as a bureaucracy not as a fighting force. In this respect he is correct, the Pentagon and its civilian leadership are much more technically oriented than other parts of the government. It is common to have leaders with military or foreign policy experience (including related agencies such as the CIA) and the common degrees are not law or MBA but political science and history (which if war is “an extension of politics” I suppose counts as a ‘technical’ degree). I believe three Secretaries of Defense have even had degrees in hard physics and electrical engineering, compared to three with law degrees and 2-3 with MBAs – compared to the frequency of JD/MBAs vs physics PhDs this is significant. Compare to Pete Buttigieg (PPE from Oxford – the “British generalists degree”) being made Secretary of Transportation instead of a civil engineer, or Ben Carson, the best neurosurgeon in the world at one point, being made Housing Secretary not Health Secretary.

        In regards to officers, you are completely wrong on your first several points.

        Only the Marine Corps trains officers generically first, before assigning specialty. It is not done in order of class rank anymore but by a computer program that seeks a best fit among student preferences (“if he gets his #3 she gets her #2…) and a requirement to distribute different fields across the class, so there are some supply officers from the top, some from the middle, and some from the bottom. Even then, the Marine Corps admits pilots with the guarantee they will go to flight school. Other services absolutely choose their arms before school. At West Point cadets get to pick their future unit in class rank, but their branch is assigned to them based again on a preference ranking (there is a big ceremony where they all open envelopes to find out their branch). The Army runs a separate school for infantry officers at Fort Benning, for artillery at Fort Sill, for engineers at Fort Leonard Wood, etc. The Navy trains pilots in Pensacola, surface ship officers in Newport, and submarine officers in New London. Submarines is even more specialized in that all sub officers have to go to nuclear reactor training and pass before being assigned to sub school – the technical is supreme.

        The internal criticism of the US military this way is actually that it is too specialized, not too general. Many point to the Marine Corps method of officer training before branch training as producing logistics officers who know how to fight, compared to the Army maintenance convoy that was ambushed and resulted in all US POWs during the Iraq invasion. The US submarine focus on nuclear power first is compared unfavorably to the British Navy, where the “Punisher” course for future submarine captains focuses on tactics, not engineering.

        Officers do not rotate among unit types for their tactical career. Although there are inter-branch transfers and exceptions, infantry officers will command infantry units, tankers tank units, etc. up through battalion command (about 15-20 years of service). At brigade level and higher this is no longer the case, but that is because units of 5000+ have a mix of infantry/tanks/artillery/logistics so you cannot have a commander with experience in all component parts. But at that level the lack of specialization does not equal a generalist focus. Andy Byford was not a poor choice to head TfL because his early background was in trains while TfL also runs busses and regulates taxis. He still has a background in transportation if not taxis or bus maintenance. In the same way, the US military is not hiring MBA graduates to command battalions and ships, or giving division command to post-IPO silicon valley CEOs – an infantry officer given command of a division with tanks is still coming in with 25 years of military command experience (although notably at that level they are not an infantry officer anymore, Army Generals symbolically remove their branch insignia upon being promoted to general).

        US combined arms is a plus, the days of Napoleon’s putting all artillery in a “Grande Batterie” or having all his cavalry units charge together is outmoded. Your comparison to the Russian Army proves this, as its organization method of tank only battalions/regiments is failing badly. Indeed, part of their failure in Ukraine was that the Russians recognized this and tried to solve it with the crude practice of organizing almost entirely as Battalion Tactical Groups instead of the US practice of combined arms across the spectrum of company/battalion/Brigade Combat Team/division. Another example of why combined arms is better even if it leads to some “generalization” during operations comes from the Israeli Army, when during the 1973 War the initial all-tank counterattacks on the Suez crossings failed badly in the face of Egyptian anti-tank missiles – the Israeli tanks operating without infantry or artillery support were chopped up.

        Even within the US combined arms approach there is still a degree of specialization. As I mentioned officers command within their branch to the battalion level so an infantry battalion command assigned a tank company will have those tanks commanded by a tank officer who was previously a tank platoon commander. The battalion commander will not randomly replace the experienced tank company commander with an infantry officer (or a supply officer, or a signal officer, etc.) because of “generalization”. Its also worth noting that the infantry battalion commander as an infantry company or platoon commander may have been assigned for a time to a tank battalion or company, so he is still operating within his specialty of “ground combat” instead of say given command of a Patriot missile battery for air defense.

        The requirement for joint service prior to making general is again a plus. Broader experience at higher levels of command is not a symptom of being a “generalist” the way most US organizations will hire an MBA regardless of prior industry experience. The US military during Vietnam was highly specialized and compartmentalized, with not only inter-service competition between Army and Navy or Army and Air Force but much inter-branch infighting within each service. The bitter failures of Vietnam and the Iran hostage rescue attempt showed the need for a better way, and much of the spectacular military success of the US in the past 30 years can be attributed to things like a single Air Component Commander directing strikes from Navy aircraft carriers as well as Air Force bombers, or a Marine general giving orders to an Army general who was commanding Marine units. By analogy, the fact that Andy Byford worked for private mainline rail companies after his initial jobs with the London Underground wasn’t a negative to his later executive roles with TTC, NYCT and TfL, it was probably a plus.

        • Alon Levy

          The internal criticism is based on American culture, so pointing out how in civilian infrastructure the American system of generalists is a complete disaster and needs to be uprooted matters. I’ve even seen some people suggest that some business elites be recruited directly as senior officers, breaking the system in which the entry-level rank is OF-1.

          Re unit rotations: I don’t think the interservice appointments are bad. There’s a separate tradition of breaking silos through requiring specialists to spend some time interacting with other specialists first; the CTA used to do that, and was considered to be successful at that to the point that other American transit agencies would send planners to train there. What I mind is the subordination of the specialist to the generalist.

          Re infantry commanders: the specific thing I’m thinking of is when an infantry officer who was previously in command of light infantry gets to command a mechanized infantry company and, in practice, a company team including tanks. I can’t find the link – it was in a trade publication – but the captain in question talked about how, having previously served at IBCTs, he found himself having to command tanks, and based on the experience gave suggestions to future officers in this situation.

          The Marines have a generalist culture, yeah, but also have a culture in which a lot more officers are mustangs, which is not common in the rest of the US military. A lot of military-oriented pundits treat the class system as sacrosanct to the point that one proposed that police departments adopt it as a solution to police brutality and underperformance (it goes without saying, such a system does not exist here and our cops kill about as many Germans a year as NYPD kills New Yorkers and solve 90%+ of murders).

          The all-tank system in the IDF is a problem, yeah. Internal IDF reforms – as opposed to the creeping Americanization of the NCO system – generally focus on this and a few other things:
          * A weird regimental system in which infantry brigades work like British regiments, but in other fighting arms, the entire arm (e.g. armor) counts as a regiment
          * Many small units, e.g. tank platoons have three tanks and I think have recently transitioned to two, with an otherwise NATO- rather than Soviet-standard tank doctrine; this exploits Israel’s advantage in education against its rivals, except that it is still trying to fight the Egypt of 1973 and not the Iran of 2023
          * No permanent combined arms formations, as noted above
          * Relatively unformalized officer training doctrine – for example, officers are not required to have a university degree until they make major or lieutenant-colonel, I forget which
          But nobody is calling for the introduction of a class system into the IDF.

          And finally, it doesn’t matter what Buttigieg’s background is. The minister is a politician. Below the politician, there are civil servants in healthy systems, and webs of political appointees in unhealthy ones.

    • Matthew Hutton

      The other difference between HS2 and a defence project is that approximately zero swing voters care about overspending on a defence project.

      And to be fair even if you did HS2 my way you would still have more opposition to it from swing voters than for a defence project.

  5. Bill

    It is so interesting from the perspective of someone who works in the software industry. Although there is periodic backsliding and there are some exceptions, as you say the notion that technical people run companies is very deep seated within the industry. As an industry we tried the other route and it failed over and over again. From my perspective it is hard to remember that other industries don’t have that world view.

    • wiesmann

      I work in the IT industry, and while the domain is certainly technical, the moment you move out of core IT, you hit the same lack of curiosity. So I had US people tell me with a straight face you need a DUNS to open a bank account for a corporation in Europe, or that wire transfers are unreliable and expensive (never heard of SEPTA) or that GTIN (barcodes) are used less in Europe, or that same day delivery shopping is an innovation in 2020…

  6. Tunnelvision

    I’m not sure your entirely correct about Design Build not being used in Southern Europe. Might not be a Metro project but the recently completed Dardanelles 1915 suspension bridge and associated motorway in Turkey were procured under a PPP arrangement with COWI as the bridge designer for the constructor, which sounds like Design Build to me. Even the oversight was undertaken by (local) consultants. Similar funding and procurement options are happening for other road projects, tolled infrastructure is very common in Turkey and a lot of its is procured under PPP. So its not like Design Build is unknown but it may be that its not used so much for rail transit projects where return on investment from tolls are not as easy to achieve.

    Your comments about Anglo consultants are a little off. I work for a UK company and we have offices in multiple countries including France, Germany, Czech, Poland, Turkey, Spain, Italy, Holland. Its fairly simple for me to find out what is the predominant procurement method in any of those countries simply by asking my colleagues in these offices. Lack of curiosity and understanding of our markets is really not something you can level at most global consultants these days. Whether Clients want to understand is a different question. Having worked with MTA in NY for around 10 years there were a number of staff with “countdown clocks” on their desks showing how long to retirement. One issue that arises frequently in the US is that procurement rules are generally geoverned by the State not the Feds and there are/were some States where for example DB was not even legal until fairly recently (not that its necessarily a good thing) but most clients in the US adopt a “where has this been done in the US before strategy”, which applies to design as well as procurement which stifles innovation and improvement on both of those areas.

    • Alon Levy

      Turkey uses des-bid-ign-build: two contracts as in design-bid-build, but the first contract is only 60% design and the builder may make modifications. And in general, what we’ve found is that Americans are even less interested in learning from Turkey than they are in learning from Italy and Sweden.

      And yeah, a lot of consultants get work in non-Anglo countries, but those projects are often pretty unusual, which is where a transit manager gets the idea that design-build is standard in Europe where in the majority of Western Europe it is used rarely to never. Those workhorse metro, high-speed rail, rail electrification, and similar projects here are just not visible to global consultancies.

      • Tunnelvision

        It’s still a form of design build….that’s all I was saying.

        In terms of us working in non Anglo countries, we generally hire and use local staff and build a local business. But most our work is not on design, as you say many agencies do their own design. For example in Turkey we don’t work for contractors, too much risk, but we do a lot of work with Lenders who are funding the PPP projects. My point is that as consultants we should know what we can do and where and having a knowledge of the local market and it’s procurement process is key to this.

        • Alon Levy

          Depends – in New York people perceive des-bid-ign-build as a design-build variant because it partly melds together design and construction, but in Boston the people I’ve talked to perceive it as a design-bid-build variant because there are two contracts and not one.

  7. R. W. Rynerson

    I’ve found that in my fields (service planning, marketing, operations) that people in similar work in other countries are glad to share experience with an American or Canadian, especially if they are not in a major tourist destination. But taking advantage of that requires either doing it at one’s own expense or finding employment with an agency that is open minded.

    For example, I was able to attend InnoTrans in Berlin a couple of times and a conference in Karlsruhe another time because my agency permited doughnut-shaped vacations (going back to work in the middle of a vacation). Some agencies would not be able to cope with that. When the APTA Operations workshop was held in Montreal, there were Americans whose agency prohibited foreign travel for budget reasons.

    At the Karlsruhe conference in 2005 there were five Americans and no Canadians present, out of about 250 people. The Americans were: two from Seattle (King County Metro), one from Champaign-Urbana (on a doughnut vacation), one from Denver (also a doughnut shaped vacation). A speaker was from NYCTA.

    There are some legitimate barriers. In Karlsruhe there was a simultaneous translation into English — British English. I put down the headset and did better with the original German. In Montreal, the first French presentation was about a subject that I was familiar with, but couldn’t make sense of it in either French or English. Later, at coffee, I learned from my Quebec colleagues that it was a mediocre speech by an engineer who had been conscripted to speak at us. And there are international payment convolutions. I belong to an academic association that requires payments by international bank transfers that cost almost as much to process as the dues themselves.

    One other pitfall to satisfying curiosity. If more than the superficial board of directors tour is desired, it helps to have some knowledge of the local language and/or to have read about the city beforehand. There are some obvious conveniences, but I think that it is easier for an otherwise well-meaning person to dissemble or evade answers in a second language.

    • Henry Miller

      I think transit agencies should pay extra for fluency in languages. English and Spanish (in the US) should each be worth $5000 per year (almost all potential hires will have at least one) each. Languages that are spoken by any other minority in the city $2000, and other languages $1000.

      Everyone in the office (including mechanics) should by policy be allowed to go to one one week conference in their area anywhere in the world, max $7000 per year. The first is you can just tell your boss you are going, no further permission needed. Bosses should be rated on their reports covering as many different conferences as possible so they encourage going to different ones.

      You need to avoid silos by talking to peers who have different ways of doing things and bringing them back.

    • Alon Levy

      The more vegetarian way to handle the issue of agencies that don’t fund foreign conferences is to redefine planner and engineer job requirements to include regular foreign conferences, to be absorbed into the overhead rate. The less vegetarian way is to ask the decisionmakers at selected large agencies why they don’t approve foreign conference travel, and whenever they give any answer justifying the practice, fire them on the spot (they either believe what they’re saying or are ass kissers; neither group is useful to have around), and then redefine the job requirements.

  8. michaelj

    Elon Musk, one of the less technical ones, still has a physics degree, wrote code in the 1990s, and goes to great pain to affect being part of the culture of tech workers

    Not according to:
    Someone has to say it: Elon Musk has lied for 27 years about his credentials. He does not have a BS in Physics, or any technical field. Did not get into a PhD program. Dropped out in 1995 & was illegal. Later, investors quietly arranged a diploma – but not in science.
    All sources are at

    Summary of contradictions:
    Besides the fact we have Elon’s blank diploma, Elon Says:
    -that he had degree/s from Penn in 1994 (false, 1995 (false), or 1997 (true).
    -that he had to stay in school to get a degree to get an H1-B visa (but he didn’t)
    -that one Penn degree was in Physics (false) or Computational Physics (doesn’t exist)
    -that he moved to CA for a PhD program at Stanford, but also that he moved to find investors
    -that he started a PhD at Stanford (false), then that he deferred (also false), 2 days into the program (impossible) but before paying tuition (he wouldn’t have paid)
    -that the department was Materials Science and Engineering, or Applied Physics, or Physics (all different) or “Applied Physics and Materials Science” (doesn’t exist)
    -that he was going to work with Bill Nix, also that he would work in Physics on “capacitors and batteries”. Those are different fields; Nix worked on neither in 1995; Nix is in MSE.
    -that Stanford’s Dean of Graduate Studies wrote him she had reviewed his records and that he’d been admitted (but she filed a legal statement that no records were found)
    -that Stanford would let him finish his undergrad after the PhD, or during it (both unheard of).

    It seems he doesn’t have any meaningful tertiary qualifications. By itself that may not be a big deal but his dishonesty about it and his total self-belief as if he is an expert in various things, and in nutty stuff (tunnel boring, hyperloop, Twitter) and readiness to take credit for other people’s work makes one very sceptical about everything he does or claims. One wonders if he ever coded because he just doesn’t seem the type to apply himself to something so tedious. His amateurish demands for printed pages of recent coding by his workers doesn’t suggest much first-hand knowledge.

    One cannot but observe that the rise to the very top by people like Musk and Trump and Boris (and dog help us, Scott Morrison a marketer) may represent the triumph of the death of expertise. The total disdain for actual specific expertise because one can simply substitute drudges (consultants etc), but who mustn’t be allowed too close to actual decision making. The Pareto principle normally suggests a ratio of 80:20 of those who actually do the meaningful work versus the time wasters but, in the US/Anglosphere at least, it seems more like 99:1 trending to 999:1. Politicians and political staffers who appear increasingly to have no real expertise in anything, with entire careers solely in politics focussed solely on politics rather than national interest, and CEOs who are mostly in finance, the outsourcing of all technical work, and commissioning Clayton’s reports (to confirm preformed opinions/outcomes) but inability to arrive at sensible workable solutions.
    To cite Dylan from Idiot Wind, it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves (the UK is approaching that point).

    • Matthew Hutton

      The big mistake in UK politics in recent time is a big misunderstanding about the nature of the Lib Dem voters at/after the 2010 election.

      Fundamentally they were primarily left wingers as opposed to right wingers.

      This meant that Labour promoting continuity Brownism/Blairism after the 2010 election was completely fine electorally – because a majority of the population preferred it to the Conservatives at that election. This also means Labour should have expected to get ~40% at the 2015 election – so when Miliband was polling below or barely above that mid term he should have been replaced.

      Cameron then offered the EU referendum to shut up his back benchers when the scenario where he won enough seats to stay as prime minister but have to go into coalition with the Lib Dem’s who’d block the referendum was extremely narrow.

      After this the labour members chose Corbyn as leader who was less economically conservative. However he also supported leaving the EU and was much too left wing for Conservative remain voters to switch to en-mass.

      The reason why this happened is probably tribal. Labour didn’t want to accept that they were very similar to the Lib Dem’s for tribal reasons.

      • michaelj

        The big mistake in UK politics in recent time is a big misunderstanding about the nature of the Lib Dem voters at/after the 2010 election.

        I have written about that here and elsewhere. In fact it is not so much about the LibDem voters but their leadership. The decision to form a coalition government with the Cons was beyond belief and revealed a profound lack of understanding of political coalition building (dare I say “eurostyle”) and that the voting results overwhelmingly supported a Lab-LibDem alliance; I have never accepted Nick Clegg’s claim that the numbers couldn’t support that alternative (even with the FPTP distortions favouring the Cons). Where NC ended up (President for Global Affairs at Facebook/Meta) kind of reinforces the suspicion at the time, that it was all about him and his elite background (toff family, Westminster School, Cambridge etc) being more comfortable with Cameron and chums.

        But the thing is that there was/is no single thing but a whole series of them that led to the UK’s current lamentable state. Outsiders like me could see it 4 decades ago.

        • Alon Levy

          The issue is that in 2010, Labour and the LibDems didn’t have a parliamentary majority; they’d need to scrounge SNP and Plaid Cymru, and Brown and Clegg didn’t want to deal with such a coalition (and then each blamed the other for the failure of the plan).

          It’s not exactly about where Clegg ended up afterward. Tony Blair became a crypto shill (for SBF, even); this didn’t prevent 1990s Blair from being oppositional to the Tories.

          • michaelj

            Sadly, you’ve been listening to too many loser/defeatist Brits willing to give in without a fight, or even a whimper (well, plenty of whingeing but about the wrong things).
            Actual results of 2010 election: together LibDems + Lab had 315 seats, more than Cons 306 seats, but ok still short of 326 seats needed for absolute majority. However Labour could draw upon another 20 (needing only 11) alliance MPs.
            But this also ignores the disproportionality, ie. grotesque unfairness, of the UK electoral system: the LibDems won 23% of votes but only 8.77% of seats; ie. the LibDems had the moral right to decide a hung parliament. Cons got 10.7m votes, Lab+LibDem got 15.4m votes, 4.7m, 44% more than Cons. Exceedingly few of the 6.8 million LibDem voters would have wanted to give their vote to the Cons.

            The fact that such a government may not have been perfectly comfortable, well, that’s just situation normal. Clegg should have done the right thing, by the voter’s clear and overwhelming intentions (for a centre-left government. Worse, Clegg didn’t even use the power he possessed as the junior coalition partner to prevent or moderate any number of astoundingly bad policies (like university student loans, directly against long-standing LibDem policy, and running down the NHS), not to mention the mother of them all, Brexit.

            Further, there was also the potential of the LibDems getting another nation-changing bit of long-standing policy: a PR electoral system. In this context, a minority government would have been a blessing and fantastic opportunity –because Labour would have always had to be dragged kicking and screaming to such a change, even though they would be the major beneficiary. That is, it will only be as a condition of forming a government that the old parties would accept PR (and the Cons never, because they will always be the big losers.) That could have literally saved the UK. If a Lab-LibDem coalition proved not sufficiently stable that would have been justification for another election, possibly including the promise to introduce PR. Of course those f-wit Brits rejected alternative-vote in a referendum so there is no guarantee they would have made the right choice. But this is/was a very rare scenario by which it could have happened.

            None of this is particularly unique or insightful, at least to outsiders and even some UK citizens (most of all LibDem voters). I wrote about it at the time, from the perspective of Australia too needing to change its toxic two-party system precisely at the time a Lab minority government (supported by Greens & 2 Indies) was replaced by the disastrous Tony Abbott conservatives:

            The crisis in governance in two-party systems
            by Michael R James Friday, 3 September 2010

            [Crikey is the online newspaper currently being sued by Lachlan Murdoch, attempting to bankrupt them. There are big hopes Murdoch can’t win this one, especially given recent revelations from Rupert himself.]

          • Matthew Hutton

            The Conservatives plus DUP had 314 seats in 2010, so it would have been very tight.

            Probably still with hignsight the politically smarter play for the Lib Dem’s would have been to go along with a very tight coalition with Labour.

          • michaelj

            with hignsight the politically smarter play for the Lib Dem’s would have been to go along with a very tight coalition with Labour.

            Not just politically smarter but morally correct, and reflecting what the voters wanted (overwhelmingly by % voters, also by seats). But the real question is how could a party founded by former Labour luminaries David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Bill Rogers do anything else? Also, clearly it is what would have happened if it was happening in Europe, and though sometimes these things take time it would have probably been announced on election night it was so bleedin’ obvious, innit?

            Seriously, it was the most f-ed-up thing I’ve seen in British politics (yes, including clown Boris, crazy Liz and Brexit itself–because Brexit would never have happened without this ridiculous decision). This is why it was considered such a betrayal, at the time and even more so as the Cameron austerity government implemented so many anti-progressive policies, and led to Brexit.

            IMO, it was a manifestation of the toxic British class system that overwhelmed Nick Clegg’s veneer (it turns out) of progressivism (his wife is European, he speaks about 4 European languages, worked in Brussels etc). That old-school tie (Westminster is second only to Eton), Oxbridge and that circle of ‘friends’ from that formative stage of life.

          • Matthew Hutton

            It all depends how you classify the Lib Dems!

            Even if you treat all the other nationalist and minor parties other than the DUP, UKIP and BNP as left wing excluding the Lib Dems that only comes to 33.2% left wing vs 41.9% right wing.

            I think Clegg was always a (minority) right wing Lib Dem so he felt they were a pure centrist party able to deal equally with either side.

          • michaelj

            I don’t know what you could mean.
            The official results are clear enough.
            Lab plus LibDems got 52% of the primary vote.

            2010 UK election results:
            Primary votes….10,703,754…………..8,609.527…………….6,836,824

            The real obscenity is that the LibDems won 23% of votes but only 8.8% of seats, ie.about three times the vote needed to elect a LibDem member. If votes were counted closer to equality then there really could have been only one outcome.
            The fact that Brits to this day don’t seem to get this shows how confused they are on what democracy is. As also shown by the referendum that rejected an attempt to change the obscene FPTP system –though for the Alternative Vote system rather than PR; possibly because AV is the “Australian” system (first jurisdiction to use it in political elections, though described by Condorcet centuries ago) which may have been considered more acceptable than PR which is used by those horrid continentals. Though again Australia’s upper house uses PR which is why it is rare that a single party controls it, eg. currently Greens have 12 senators and hold BoP (balance of power, ie. needed to pass legislation unless the Cons and Lab agree.)

    • Alon Levy

      That thread is pretty garbage. For example, it completely glosses over the fact that it’s completely normal in the United States for the formal date of degree to be later than the date of the last classes and exams, usually by months, sometimes by more, and neither grad schools nor the immigration authorities consider people in this situation to not have graduated. I was a few hours from being in that situation – I defended on the last day I could have while still getting a May degree date, and deposited with around half an hour to spare, and if I’d missed the deadline, it would not have impacted my employment or immigration status one bit. The thread also pretends Penn doesn’t list Musk as a physics grad; it actually does.

      By the way: I would not list Trump and Boris together. Boris is a generalist who thinks he knows better than everyone else because he has a first from Oxford. Trump is a toff who turned a few hundred million dollars into bankruptcy and might not even have had positive net worth in 2016.

      • Matthew Hutton

        According to Garius Boris had a good team working for him as London Mayor to handle the graft too.

      • michaelj

        So now you are upgrading Boris’s academic record too!

        … Johnson was awarded an upper second-class degree,[78][79] and was deeply unhappy he did not receive a first.[80]

        He may well have been capable of it; just getting into Balliol is an achievement that one cannot fully ascribe to his Eton background (or to his father who was at Exeter College). But like Trump, Boris is lazy and preferred all kinds of distractions at Oxford including the wild partying of the Bullingdon Club. He would like to imagine himself in the company of many noted journalist-philosopher Balliol alumni, for example like Christopher Hitchens but his clownish reportage and distortions about the EU (BJ was a correspondent in Brussels for years) won’t support such claims. Just like his prime ministership, he believes his evident brilliance should be enough without troubling with the detail or actual work. Something one cannot say about Hitchens though he actually achieved only a Third from Balliol. (But it may be that a certain hubris that can accompany Balliol men also infected Hitchens and his rather weird final trajectory.)

        The situation re Musk’s Penn record remains murky.

        Certificates of both a Penn economics degree and an alleged physics degree are included in documents filed as part of the O’Reilly and Eberhard lawsuits. While the economics diploma filed as evidence specifically indicates the academic discipline, name, and other details involved in the degree, the physics diploma appears to be a largely blank diploma and indicates no specific concentration: (reproductions of diplomas).

        Of course Wharton is notorious as a credentialisation machine for the lazy and fickle spawn of the rich. Like Donald J. Trump and Donald J. Trump Jr, and Ivanka!
        These retrospective awards had absolutely nothing to do with expectations like:

        The Elon Musk Public Lecture is made possible through a generous endowment gifted to the Center for Particle Cosmology in 2009 – its inaugural year. Mr. Musk is an alumnus of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Penn, and a proud advocate for the preparation that a physics education provides in many different careers.

        Anyway we shouldn’t spend more time on Elon Musk, except to repeat my original intent: that these examples show the degradation or “death of expertise” from the apex of the power pyramid.

  9. Pingback: Links 3/21/23 | Mike the Mad Biologist
  10. Jsb (Andreas)

    In public transport, Western European arrogance and superiority towards the US might be warranted, but there are many areas where this is not constructive at all (e.g. military or energy security)…

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