Modernizing Rail 2021 just happened. Here’s a recording of the Q&A portion (i.e. most) of the keynote, uploaded to YouTube.
As more people send in materials, I’ll upload more. For now, here are the slides I’ve gotten:
- Grecia White’s master’s thesis on gendered perceptions of safety at bus stops.
- Robert Hale’s presentation on New York-New Haven trains, speed, and track maintenance productivity.
- Michael Cornfield’s intro to integrated service planning as done in Central Europe, pitched to Southern California.
- RailPAC’s Paul Dyson’s presentation on Southern California (unfortunately running against Michael Cornfield’s despite the synergy), with supplementary materials by RailPAC’s Brian Yanity including a long article on the subject and two short letters.
- Elif Ensari’s presentation of the Istanbul case for the Transit Costs Project, with full report to be released soon.
A bunch of us tweeted the talks using the hashtag #ModernRail2021, including some that were not recorded.
The bipartisan infrastructure framework (BIF) just passed the Senate by a large margin, with money for both roads and public transportation. Unlike the 2009 Obama stimulus, the BIF has plenty of money for high-speed rail – not just $8 billion as in the 2009 bill, but a total of $66 billion to be spent on mainline rail. The Northeast Corridor program gets $24 billion out of this $66 billion in a dedicated program and another $6 billion out of another program within this bucket dedicated to Amtrak. This is $30 billion, which should be more than enough for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor. Together with other buckets for other parts of the US, it can even build some non-Northeastern lines, for example serving Chicago or Los Angeles.
I say should because the current plans are to waste the money. But better things are possible, so at the Transit Costs Project, we’re planning to embark on a project to write a report on how to do this better. The construction cost report will be done in early 2022, but we can overlap to some extent. A one-year program, to debut in early 2023, will include a Northeast Corridor proposal; a two-year one will also include tie-ins and starter lines elsewhere, such as Chicago-Cleveland/Detroit or Los Angeles-San Diego.
But for this, we need funding. We’re a good deal of the way there, I think around two-thirds for the two-year option – and this isn’t quite enough for the one-year option, some of the money needs to be matched. This is not the same as my Patreon in either scale (the difference is more than an order of magnitude) or scope (my Patreon funds the blog and vlog, which are way more general); if you know grants for such projects, please let us know, we can send a fuller proposal.
What’s the project’s scope?
Lots and lots of analysis, for one, like what we’re doing for subways. Intriguingly, high-cost countries for high-speed rail tend to also have high subway costs and vice versa, and this remains true even as it is easier to explain high-speed rail costs in terms of unnecessary scope and leakage. But this is not the dominant part of the project – rather, we are going to be synthetic and make a proposal. We’re not committing to an investment figure; my guess is that in 2021 dollars it should be around $15 billion to cut Northeast Corridor trip times to about 1:45 on each of New York-Boston and New York-Washington, but some variation is possible in either direction.
If there’s $30 billion for the Northeast Corridor, and high-speed rail is doable for half that, then the other half should be spent on tie-ins, for example improving regional rail in all four major metropolitan areas. Naturally, this should only include useful spending for rail operations and connections, but the Northeast doesn’t lack for those; New York can spend $17 billion on new tunnels and that’s at the per-km cost of Citybanan, one of the cheaper city center regional rail projects in our database.
We are happy to announce that on Sunday the 29th of August we will hold this year’s Modernizing Rail conference, on the heels of the success last year.
Please register using this form. And please give details on what you’d like to see, and if you’re willing to lead sessions – the schedule of the breakout sessions is still up in the air depending on popular demand. Even the number of breakouts depends on how many registrants we get, compared with the about 200 we had last year. Perhaps the news of the infrastructure bill will tilt the demand toward more political sessions regarding how to ensure what is built is good and less toward technical best practices.
Our keynote is certainly political: Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), who represents the northern suburbs of Boston (6th district) and for years has been pushing the North-South Rail Link. He will give brief remarks at 16:00 Eastern time, or 22:00 Central Europe Summer Time, to be followed by a Q&A; if you have a question that you’d like to hear an answer to, you can mention it in the registration form, or email the organizing committee at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will be taking questions throughout the conference, which will start 11:00 Eastern, so if your questions depend on what you hear at the breakouts, you’re in luck.
Separately, because of Noah Smith’s opinions about high-speed rail, today there is going to be an event featuring me and him in which we are going to discuss the issue in an American context, alongside a presentation of the database and what lessons can be drawn from it. You can register here; it’s at 13:00 Eastern US Time, or 19:00 Berlin time.
A few notes regarding our database, because I’m being asked on Twitter, and also because it’s relevant for our research:
This is a well-studied topic
Literature on comparative HSR costs already exists, and some of our internal cost references are to studies on the subject. This is not like subway costs, where the biggest databases I know of prior to ours are a Flyvbjerg paper and a Spanish analysis each with a number of items in the teens. This should not in a way be surprising: the costs and impact of megaprojects are analyzed more than those of smaller projects, and subways are megaprojects of greater size than surface transit or street reconstruction but HSR is of yet greater size. Thus, subways are significant enough that we have been able to find largely complete costs from trade and mass media and government reports, which task is far harder for bus lanes or bike lanes, whereas with HSR, not only is it possible to find complete costs, but also there is extensive public debate and analysis.
I believe our contribution to the discussion, then, is not the database itself, but two new points:
- Contrary to the World Bank report on the subject (see here, starting printed page 39), China does not build HSR especially cheaply. Our findings are not too different from the World Bank’s for lines built up to the publication of the report measured in yuan per km, but we adjust for PPP and therefore the cost in dollars per km is higher, and, moreover, the more recent lines appear to be more expensive. In fact, Chinese costs are higher than European ones. The reason is that China builds its HSR almost entirely on viaduct, whereas in Europe, viaducts are rare, and segments that are not in tunnel are built at-grade or on earthworks.
- There is positive correlation between a country’s HSR costs per km, net of tunnels, and its subway construction costs. This is not perfect correlation, but one can see Britain, the Netherlands, and Taiwan perform poorly in both areas. France and Germany are in the middle. Spain is very cheap. The exceptions are notable: Italy has cheap subways and expensive HSR, which Paolo Beria, author of one of our source papers, attributes to overbuilding and overdesign, with extensive tunnels and freight-friendly grades.
We only include under-construction or open lines
This contrasts with lines that are only in early design and may not yet have a cost – for example, Frankfurt-Mannheim will only publish its cost estimate next year, in a parliamentary budget setting in order to decide whether to proceed (for which the answer is certainly yes, as the benefits to the network are intensive). This also contrasts with canceled and indefinitely postponed lines, such as California High-Speed Rail and the Portuguese lines killed during the Great Recession’s austerity. Canceled lines are upward-biased: the state is likelier to cancel or choose not to build a line if it is more expensive than the average, as we can readily see with California, and therefore we do not wish to compare built with unbuilt lines.
The above analysis is equally true of our subway construction costs database – if a line is canceled, it is purged, even if design or even physical construction began. Gateway for example is under active design and engineering and is therefore included, even if they are still seeking funding, but if it is canceled it will be purged (but if it is rebooted, as I hope, then the sunk cost will be included, as with the Green Line Extension in Boston).
The difference is that our HSR cost database is more historic. It is close to complete for France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Korea, and complete for single-line Taiwan and the Netherlands and for the UK. This is because it’s just easier to find historic data for HSR than for subways, where I wish I could get a complete historic series for big cities with big systems like Paris, Madrid, and Berlin, but can’t even find 1970s-80s costs for any of them. Conversely, ongoing projects make it surprisingly difficult at times to find tunnel and viaduct percentages, and the escape path of going on Google Earth and OpenStreetMaps and measuring is not available.
What is included?
As far as possible, costs are for civil infrastructure, systems, stations, and overheads, but not rolling stock or financing charges. Austria’s Koralmbahn has two sets of numbers, differing by a factor of 2, with one source claiming that it is about whether financing is included. It is my belief that, owing to the high profitability of HSR if cost of capital is ignored, it is best to think in terms of returns on investment and not try to incorporate debt or finance charges into the actual cost.
The importance of avoiding viaducts and tunnels
The Asian tendency to build on viaduct where the line is not in tunnel leads to high costs. Likewise, the use of shallow grades and low superelevation for mixed lines or even for some dedicated lines (the Shinkansen, without any track sharing, hews to 1.5% grads) raises construction costs.
Netting out tunnels is still useful when trying to figure out itemized costs and cost control that is not about what to build, for example about labor or procurement. It is also useful when comparing lines in the mountainous terrain of Austria, Japan, Korea, and Switzerland to the easier North European Plain. But at some point, it is necessary to treat the tunnel percentage as endogenous to the planning system. The viaduct percentage, moreover, is absolutely endogenous.
France in this context does well by keeping lines at grade as much as possible. The only country with less tunneling than France is Morocco, which builds its urban and high-speed trains as if it were France, and, thanks to France’s extensive presence in the Maghreb, French contractors are intimately familiar with the local situation and build cheaply. France and Germany have similar unit costs, but Germany tunnels a lot more, less because of the terrain and more because of either politics (that is, the Erfurt detour for Berlin-Munich, forcing the line to go through thicker mountains) or a misguided attempt at building mixed lines in the 1980s and 90s.
The United States’ high projected budgets for proposed lines that never go anywhere thanks to their extreme costs come from overbuilding more than high unit prices. For example, in Baltimore, a two-track tunnel project designed for exclusive electric passenger train usage turned into a four-track tunnel with enough room for double-stacked freight with mechanical ventilation for diesel locomotives. The scope creep raised the projected budget from $750 million in the late 2000s to $4 billion in the mid-2010s.
There was a conference I got invited to, consisting of three talks, two about state capacity by me and by Tyler Cowen, and one by a Canadian extramural Conservative politician named Ginny Roth (she’s a columnist but her talk was about how Conservatives could use the insights of state capacity to win elections, hence my appellation). It was run by entrepreneurs named Chris and Matt Spoke, doing a series of online meetings trying to introduce fresh ideas to what they hope will be the next crop of Tory leaders; there’s going to be one on housing in the future, and the YIMBY comments I made seemed popular with the crowd.
Here is a link to my slides. They shouldn’t be too surprising given my usual talk on construction costs and what I said before about the growth in Canadian costs. But I made sure to put the increase in costs in Canada all together in two slides, one about Toronto, sourced to Stephen Wickens, and one about the rest of Canada, sourced to both our database and to a comparison of Calgary’s costs through the 2000s with Calgary’s West LRT costs.
The organizers are in Toronto, so I didn’t talk too much about the situation in Vancouver. I said a few sentences about how I can see there was a real increase in costs from a difference between the half-elevated Canada Line and the 87% underground Broadway subway under construction, but I didn’t go into the history of the Canada Line’s cut-and-cover method or the cost estimates from the early 2010s, which had the Broadway subway costing C$250 million/km. I talked more about Toronto, where the increase in costs is larger; Vancouver, even with the cost increases, remains North America’s lowest-construction-cost city, since the other cities have had even bigger increases, including Toronto, Los Angeles, and Seattle.
I want to highlight, as I brought up 1.5 years ago, that while Canada has American (i.e. bad) mainline rail, and Americanizing construction costs, it is YIMBYer than both the US and Europe. I worry it won’t last for long, because the style of Canadian redevelopment is at fairly small radius from an arterial or a subway station and those will eventually run out, forcing upzoning of large swaths of single-family land for the benefit of everyone except the handful of aggrieved homeowners who dominate municipal politics. (There was not enough time to talk about the importance of high-level decisionmaking, that is at the provincial level and not the municipal one.)
People are sharing various maps of the high-speed rail network the US could build if it were interested in alternative transportation, and I promised I’d make one myself. I did this on camera on Twitch a week ago but was not finished, so I streamed it again just now – this is going to be a regular occurrence, always at 18:00 my time every Saturday. There’s a recording, but Twitch is being weird about letting me upload it, so it might make it to YouTube instead.
Here is the map:
A full-size image can be found here. Red lines are high-speed rail. Blue lines are marginal lines: New Haven-Springfield and Milwaukee-Green Bay are good legacy lines that may or may not work as full HSR (the former probably better than the latter), while Nashville-Memphis, the Pacific Northwest system, and Phoenix-Tucson are marginal between no service at all and HSR.
Florida High-Speed Rail
I did the calculations for Atlanta-Florida on camera. I was surprised that it turned out to work out well, even with semi-decent return on investment based on my Metcalfe’s law formulas, around 3%. The rub is that Orlando is pretty big, and even though it is sprawl hell, it is also an unusually strong tourist destination, and the rail line would serve Disney World and Daytona Beach. This makes me more confident in a formula trained on Japanese and European cities with public transit than a connection between two random no-transit medium size cities like Cleveland and Cincinnati.
This itself is an example of Metcalfe’s law in action: the Miami-Orlando-Tampa system by itself only returns 2.2% per the formula, and an extension to Jacksonville 2.6%. I also have more certainty in the figures for the larger system, because the impact of sprawl on mode choice is smaller when distances get longer, because it doesn’t affect the air/rail mode choice as much as the car/rail mode choice.
Even at medium distances, observe that the South Florida urban area is linear, around 20 km wide but more than 100 long, which makes intercity rail service more reasonable. Every county can have a stop, and if the 0.8 exponent in the gravity model formula is applied to counties separately, then the sum rises to 6.1, whereas 7^0.8 = 4.74, which means that this refinement provides a 28% boost to ridership. Orlando is not linear, but its subsidiary metro areas, Lakeside and Daytona Beach, could get stops as well.
I drew the system in a zoom level 7 on OpenStreetMap, which is too high-altitude to see individual railroads. I tried to approximate existing rail alignments that are worth using, but it’s not perfect, so please do not take the map as any assertion about pixel-level alignment, and even some station decisions can be quibbled with.
However, please do take the map as a definitive assertion about macro-scale alignments. The Northeast Corridor should go via I-95 and not via Hartford. This decision is fairly close and could go either way, though the benefits of HSR in the Northeast are so great that the absolute magnitude of such decisions remains momentous. Elsewhere, the Chicago-Minneapolis line could go along I-94 via Eau Claire or via a more southerly route via Rochester and the Mayo Clinic; I’ve gone back and forth on this, and it’s a second-order question, but I think the Mayo Clinic generates more trips, probably. The Albany-Montreal route could be entirely in the state of New York or take a slight detour through easier terrain in Vermont, which is likely cheaper. Toronto-Ottawa could go via Kingston or Peterborough, but the Peterborough route looks more direct. Chicago-St. Louis is sometimes proposed to detour via Champaign rather than go straight via Bloomington, but the benefit of serving UIUC probably doesn’t justify the extra cost. North Carolina HSR could go via the Triad or direct from Raleigh to Charlotte, but the model says the benefit of serving Greensboro is much greater than that of slightly faster trips coming from bypassing the Triad. Texas is a compromise route extending the under-construction line to Downtown Houston and creating a new leg connecting this system to Austin and San Antonio.
The most contentious questions are in California. HSR there should go via a partially high-speed coastal alignment from San Diego up to Los Angeles, then up the Grapevine and Tejon Pass, then across Altamont Pass and a Dumbarton tunnel. None of these decisions is close, and the official alignment decisions to detour via the Inland Empire and Palmdale and to go via Pacheco are all bad and played a role in the failure of the project. Los Angeles-San Diego is in a way the most frustrating: it was left to a future phase, but a medium-speed rail alignment along the coast could be done relatively quickly with electrification and some strategic investments, speeding up trains to about 1:45.
I talked about frequency a little bit in the video, but not in much detail. The biggest problem is that Philadelphia is set up poorly: ideally trains coming from New York should branch to either Washington or Pittsburgh, but instead, 30th Street Station requires New York-Pittsburgh trains to reverse direction. This can be handled through actual reversal, as is done today at Frankfurt, with 4-minute turnarounds (cf. 10 at Philadelphia), or through having New York-Pittsburgh trains skip Philadelphia, as was historically done, with a stop at North Philadelphia instead.
With that in mind, my best guess, based partly on the model and partly on intra-metropolitan fudge factors like New York-New Haven, is as follows:
- 8 tph New York-Boston, 4 New York-Springfield
- 8 tph New York-Washington, 4 New York-Pittsburgh-Cleveland, 4 Washington-Philadelphia-Pittsburgh-Cleveland
- 8 tph New York-Albany, 4 short Boston-Albany, 8 Albany-Buffalo (4 short), 4 Buffalo-Toronto, 4 Albany-Montreal, 2 short Buffalo-Cleveland
- 2 tph Cleveland-Detroit, 4 (2 short) Cleveland-Chicago, 2 Chicago-Detroit, 2 Cleveland-Louisville
- 4 tph Chicago-Milwaukee, 2 Milwaukee-Minneapolis
- 2 short tph Chicago-St. Louis
- 4 tph Chicago-Indianapolis, 2 Indianapolis-Cincinnati, 2 Indianapolis-Atlanta
- 2 short tph Nashville-Memphis
- 6 tph Washington-Richmond, 2 Richmond-Norfolk, 4 Richmond-Charlotte, 2 Charlotte-Atlanta
- 2 short tph Miami-Tampa, 2 Miami-Atlanta, 2 Atlanta-Tampa
- 2 short tph Houston-DFW, 2 short DFW-San Antonio, 2 short Houston-San Antonio
- 2 short tph Vancouver-Portland (at best)
- 4 tph Los Angeles-San Diego, 2 Los Angeles-Phoenix, 2 Los Angeles-Las Vegas
- 2 tph Los Angeles-San Francisco, 2 Los Angeles-San Jose, 2 Los Angeles-Sacramento, 2 San Francisco-Sacramento
I’m going to stream on Twitch at 18:00 tonight my time (UTC+1). This is usually intended as a platform for streaming playing video games, but can also be used for other things, such as discussions that would benefit from video and screen sharing. This may turn into a regular feature, covering a different topic every time – probably monthly, I don’t see myself having enough time to do this weekly unless it’s extremely impromptu.
Today’s topic is crayons:
- How I make maps such as these ones: how I grab the base map, how I draw lines, etc.
- Good tips for how to figure out which lines are useful, including very rudimentary cost-per-rider analyses.
- An example of making a map, probably a US-wide high-speed rail map based on my Metcalfe’s law posts but maybe something else if there’s popular demand.
An online conference just concluded in which I gave a half-hour presentation about construction costs. Instead of giving my usual spiel, showing parts of our growing database and pointing out patterns, I spent a lot of time on why this is important. I’d written about this before, twice, but I’ve since looked more carefully at an example of two countries that are similar enough in their rail and public transit tradition that their large difference in costs must be the primary reason one has a bigger and more successful urban rail system than the other. I focused on developed countries, that is countries that manifestly have high incomes, good public health, good education, and so on; however, I believe the importance of costs is also a big reason behind delays in public transportation in high-cost developing countries like India.
You can read the slides here; this was recorded, and I’ll update this post with a link when it gets published.
I’ve periodically written about consumption and production theories of cities – that is, whether people mostly move to cities based on consumption or production amenities. The production theory is that what matters is mostly production amenities, that is, jobs, and this underlies YIMBYism. Consumption theory is that people move for consumption amenities, and, moreover, these amenities are not exactly consumption in the city, for example good health outcomes, but consuming the city itself, that is neighborhood-level amenities in which who lives in the city matters. The latter theory, for example promulgated by Richard Florida, is that jobs follow consumption amenities like gay bars, and not the other way around. It is wrong and production theory is right, and I’d like to give some personal examples from Berlin, because I feel like Berliners all believe in consumption theory.
The situation in Berlin
Berlin is an increasingly desirable city. After decades in which it was economically behind, the city is growing. Unemployment, which stood at 19% in 2005, was down to 7.8% last year. With higher incomes come higher rents, and because Berlin for years built little housing as there was little demand, rents rose, and it took time for housing growth to catch up; on the eve of corona, the city was permitting about 6 annual dwellings per 1,000 people, up from about 1 in the early 2000s.
This is generally attributed to tech industry growth. There are a lot of tech startups in the city. I don’t want to exaggerate this too much – Google’s biggest Germany office is by far Munich’s, and the Berlin office is mostly a sales office with a handful of engineers who are here because of a two-body problem. But the smaller firms are here and the accelerator spaces are very visible, in a way that simply didn’t exist in Paris, or even in Stockholm.
Berlin’s production amenities
I might not have thought that Berlin should attract so much tech investment. My vulgar guess would be that tech would go to cities with many preexisting engineers, like Munich and Stuttgart, or maybe to Frankfurt for the international flight connections. But Berlin does make sense in a number of ways.
The city is mostly fluent in English. Jakub Marian’s map has France 39% Anglophone and Germany 56%, which doesn’t seem too outlandish to me. But Paris seems in line with the rest of France, whereas in Berlin, service workers seem mostly Anglophone, which is not the case in (say) Mainz or Munich.
The global tech industry is Anglophone, and good command of English is a huge production amenity. Other English-dependent industries seem to favor Anglophone European cities as well, for example various firms fleeing Brexit moved their European headquarters not to Paris but to Amsterdam or maybe Dublin.
The federal government is here. This is not relevant to tech – the startups here don’t seem to be looking for lobbying opportunities, and at any case German lobbying works differently from American lobbying and firm-level proximity to the capital is unimportant. However, the government stimulates local spending, which has increased employment. The government’s move here has been gradual, with institutions that during division were spread all over West Germany slowly migrating to Berlin.
The quality of infrastructure in Berlin is very good. The urban rail network was built when Berlin was Western Europe’s third largest city, after London and Paris, and has even grown after the war because the West built U7 and U9 to bypass Mitte. This means that commute pain here is not serious, especially on any even vaguely middle-class income. Moreover, Berlin has benefited from post-reunification investment, including Hauptbahnhof and two high-speed rail lines.
Consumption theory and the counterculture
The queer counterculture that I am involved with in Berlin tells a different story. To hear them tell it, Berlin has a quirky, individualistic, nonconforming culture, unlike the stifling normality of Munich. Artists moved here, and then other people moved here to be near the artists, paying higher rents until the artists could no longer afford the city. This story is told at every scale, from Berlin as a city to individual neighborhoods like Prenzlauer Berg and Neukölln. A lot of the discourse about Berlin repeats this uncritically, for example Feargus O’Sullivan at CityLab/Bloomberg Cities writes about the cool factor and about gentrification of old buildings.
It is also a completely wrong story. This is really important to understand: nobody that I know in the sort of spaces that are being blamed for gentrification, that is the tech industry and its penumbra, has any interest in the counterculture. I go to board games meetups full of tech workers who are fluent in English and often don’t know any German, and they have no connections at all to the local counterculture. They interact with immigrant culture spaces, not with the 95%+ white counterculture as defined by queer spaces in Neukölln that complain about gentrification in a neighborhood undergoing white flight at the rate of postwar New York (compare 2019 data, PDF-pp. 25 and 28, with 2016, PDF-pp. 28 and 31). Occasionally there are crossovers, as when an American comedian hosted live standup in February and then there were tech workers and said American also interacts with the counterculture, but a standup comic is not why Berliners complain.
Nor do I find foreign tech workers especially interested in German minutiae comparing Berlin with Munich. By my non-German standards, Berliners already jaywalk at indescribably lower rates, and I gather that Munich is stuffier but that’s not why I’m here and not there, the rents and the language are.
We’re not even particularly oppositional to the counterculture. I personally am because seeing queer space after queer space host indoor events during corona without masks was a horrifying experience; I went to a queer leftist meetup in late October in which people huddled together maskless and I was the only one with a mask on, except for one trans Australian physicist who drank a beer and then masked after finished. But the rest? They don’t care, nor should they. The counterculture is not the protagonist or the antagonist of Berlin’s story; it’s barely a bystander. Consumption theory is just what it promotes in order to convince itself that it’s important, that it spreads ideas and not viruses.
550 new coronavirus cases in Berlin yesterday. 7,000 in Germany. 110,000 in the European Union, which at 240 per million people is even higher than the US, which is at 200/million. French hospitals are flooded with corona patients, and the state expresses its grave concerns but will still not set up quarantine hotels or universalize the use of surgical masks or do anything else that Taiwan did in less time. This is the second wave, and seven months after Taiwan showed the way how to deal with this and ended up being the only country this year to have positive economic growth to boot, Europe (and the US) still stays in its comfort zone of mass death.
It’s worth discussing the excuses, because so many of them port well to the realm of public transportation, where Europe is not so bad (there are even things East Asia can learn from us); Europe’s real disaster compared with rich Asia is in urbanism and its resistance to tall buildings. But the United States is horrific on all matters of transportation and urban redevelopment and the excusemaking there is ensuring no infrastructure can be built.
Excuse #1: the restricted comparison
The Max Planck Society (MPG) put out a statement three weeks ago, with some interesting insights about the need for a multi-pronged strategy, including contact tracing, hygiene, and social distancing. But it kept engaging in these silly intra-European comparisons, praising Germany in contrast with Britain. At no point was there any engagement with East Asia, even though we know that Taiwan has not had community spread since April, and that in Korea and Japan the current rates are about 2 and 4 daily cases per million people respectively.
Excuse #2: bullshit about culture
I’m told that there is general understanding within Germany that Taiwan and South Korea are doing far better. However, people keep making up cultural reasons why Europe can’t have what East and Southeast Asia have. This excuse unfortunately is not restricted to people who are totally unaware: a few months ago, Michel Bauwens, a Belgian degrowth advocate who lives in Thailand, talked up Thailand’s corona suppression, but attributed it to a communitarian, collectivist culture. The Thais are mass-protesting their autocratic government’s state of emergency (while wearing masks, unlike Western anti-regime protesters); what collectivism? The actual policy differences – mandatory centralized quarantine for people who test positive, mask wearing mandates – were not mentioned.
When I bring up the necessity of centralized quarantine, and even the fact that Israel used corona hotels to nearly eradicate the virus in the first wave (the second wave came from mass abandonment of social distancing – MPG is right about multi-pronged strategies), Europeans and Americans keep making a “but freedom” line. It’s strange. Yes, Thailand is autocratic. But Taiwan and South Korea are not – and they had authoritarian governments within living memory, and both are currently run by political parties that emerged out of democratic opposition to autocracy in the 1980s and 90s, and that far from becoming autocrats themselves, ceded power peacefully when they lost reelection in the past.
Excuse #3: the fake tradeoff
Many aspects of policy involve genuine tradeoffs. But many others don’t, and corona protection is one. Taiwan is the only developed country that is projecting positive economic growth in 2020. South Korea is projecting 1% contraction, the smallest contraction in the OECD, of which Taiwan is not a member. There is no economy-death tradeoff. Plowing through with reopening before the virus has been suppressed just means mass closures later and a weaker economy. The only major suppression country that is seeing economic contraction is Thailand, whose economy is based heavily on tourism and therefore more sensitive to crises outside its borders than are the industrial export-based economies of Taiwan and Korea.
Excuse #4: learned helplessness
I write occasionally about the importance of state capacity, but centralized quarantine is not some specialized technique only available to the most advanced states. It was routine in developed countries until the 1960s, when the incidence of infectious disease had fallen to a point that it was no longer necessary. The same is true of social distancing – Nigeria for example has used it and appears to be successful, with semi-decent test positivity rates and lower per capita confirmed infections than Korea.
However, various leaders keep saying “we can’t.” This is not about technical matters. Rather, it’s about political ones: we can’t established corona hotels, we can’t ban indoor dining and drinking, we can’t scale up surgical mask production like Taiwan did 8 months ago and require people to wear surgical masks in public. The only thing Europe seems capable of doing is prohibiting travel from countries that at this point often have less corona than we do.
This is learned helplessness. Risk-averse politicians who know on some level what needs to be done are still too spineless to do it, even knowing very well that successfully suppressing corona is an amazing crowd booster.
The connection with infrastructure
All of the above problems also lead to disastrous infrastructure projects. This is to some extent a problem in Germany, where “we can’t” is a common excuse for surrender to NIMBY opposition; this is why certain key high-speed rail segments have yet to be built. But it’s a truly massive drag on the English-speaking world, especially the United States. I have seen advocates engage in internal-only comparisons within the last 24 hours; the other excuses, I saw earlier this week, and many times in the last few months, with so many different American transit managers incanting “it’s not apples-to-apples” whenever Eric and I ask them about costs. One literally said “we can’t” and “it’s not possible” and is regionally viewed as progressive and forward-thinking.
In the same manner Europeans discount any knowledge produced outside of Europe and the United States, Americans discount everything produced outside their country. Occasionally they’ll glance at Canada and Britain to affirm prior prejudices. They treat foreign language fluency as either dilettantism or immigrant poverty and not as a critical skill in the modern world right next to literacy and numeracy. They’ll flail about as they die of corona and blame one another when, just as the EU flag today is twelve yellow coronaviruses on a field of blue, the US flag is fifty white viruses on a field of blue with red and white stripes.