One frustrating thing coming from telling Americans to be more like democratic Asia, or even more like Europe, is that it is a) a political claim, that b) doesn’t neatly map onto partisanship or even intra-partisan political factions. Demographically, it appeals to more educated people, and to people who identify with more educated political movements (which in the US is solidly the left half of the spectrum), but ideologically, it doesn’t hit the main political cleaves well.
I want to emphasize that the fact that Asia is Asia rather than a neat image of any Western political faction is not by itself why Asian ideas don’t percolate to the West in time. Of note, the Nordic countries specifically have implemented most of the agenda of the center-left in the English-speaking world, and are economically successful. Canadian interest in importing Nordic policy ideas is limited, and American interest is even smaller, confined just to platitudes about health care followed by proposals developed without any curiosity as to how the health care system in Nordic countries actually works. That said, American interest in importing Asian ideas is noticeably even more limited than in importing Scandinavian ones, and European interest is very weak as well. So this lack of ideological load definitely plays a role.
Let us list some relevant public policy practices in South Korea, based on major Western political cleaves. Taiwan and Japan are fairly similar in most though by no means all respects; I bring up Korea for the prosaic reason that I have more reliable immigration data there, whereas in Japan the figure tracked is foreign nationals (excluding naturalized citizens) rather than all foreign-born residents.
Labor: unions exist and go on strike, especially the historically anti-militaristic-regime KCTU (there was extensive industrial action in the early 1990s), but overall union density is low, only 10%, and a total of only 12% of workers are subject to collective bargaining. The effective minimum wage is around $10/hour, average to above average by first-world standards and very high relative to labor productivity ($40/hour, cf. $60-75 in the US and European core).
Government spending and inequality: government spending is among the lowest in the OECD, 30% of GDP at all levels combined. Inequality is somewhat above OECD average but not unusually so and is well below American levels; there appears to be extensive predistribution, that is compressed pre-tax incomes, which is also the case in Switzerland and Japan, whereas in (for example) the Nordic countries pre-tax inequality is high but an extensive welfare state brings after-tax-and-transfers inequality down to low levels.
Military and foreign policy: there is conscription for men, and the military is 2.6% of GDP, more than most NATO members (though less than the US). Foreign policy oscillates between strict Atlanticism under right-wing governments, which the liberals criticize as obsequious to the US, and something like Ostpolitik but toward the North under liberal ones, which the right criticizes as obsequious to China and North Korea.
Immigration and race: only 5% of the population is foreign-born, and much of that is ethnic Koreans migrating from China. But the immigration rate is rising steadily – per Wikipedia the rate is up by about 0.3% of the population per year in the 2010s, slightly more than the growth in the US in 1990-2015, which averaged about 0.25% (cf. 2010-9 Sweden at 0.54%). Immigrants do not naturalize easily, and their children have no automatic right to Korean citizenship. There is extensive racism against Chinese people, who form about half of immigrants to Korea by citizenship (less by ethnicity), especially from the political right.
Feminism and gay rights: there is no gay marriage, open gay service in the military, or a national anti-discrimination law, but the last one exists in many cities, including Seoul. Sex reassignment surgeries have onerous conditions (minimum age of 20, no children), but ID change is subsequently allowed. Women face one of the most severe gender gaps in the developed world, and have low labor force participation, though in the 25-29 age group the rates are practically equal.
Environmentalism: greenhouse gas emissions per capita are on the high side by Western European standards, but low by North American or Australian ones. Electricity comes from coal and nuclear power, but the liberal president wants to replace both with natural gas. Transportation policy discouraged car ownership until the 1980s, and has since involved extensive construction of all infrastructure, specifically building a huge rapid transit network in Seoul and sizable ones in the secondary cities; motorization stands at just below 500 vehicles (not just cars) per 1,000 people, one of the lower figures in the developed world, but rising at 2.5-3% per year.
Crime: the crime rate is very low. A Google search for killings by police finds a mass shooting in 1982 but nothing recent; Wikipedia’s list by country has no Korean data but gives a fairly low rate for Taiwan by European standards (let alone American ones) and an extremely low one for Japan. There is capital punishment on the books and a large number of condemned, but in practice it is no longer used. The incarceration rate is normal by Western European standards (and low by American ones) relative to population.
What this means
To the person who wants to understand where democratic Asia shines (public cleanliness standards, math education, transit-oriented development, metro-regional rail integration), it doesn’t mean much. Success is success. There’s no real connection between how a country does TOD and (say) whether it has gay marriage, a practice that did not exist in any country until 19 years ago. There isn’t even much connection with cultural aspects of high-income Asia that are not exactly about political cleaves, such as the long working hours among salaried professionals or the high social distance between hierarchs and subordinates.
However, all these differences provide ample excuses for people who do not want to understand. I have noticed for a few years that most (though not all) Americans denigrate Germany politically either way, liberals viewing Germany as a land of austerity and conservatives viewing it as a land of open immigration rather than the reverse. This exists in Asia in much greater intensity: it is sexist, racist, closed to immigrants, and stiffly hierarchical – or bureaucratic, unitarist, anti-gun, hostile to small business, and stiffly hierarchical. Who wants to learn from that? Free Westerners don’t need to learn from Asiatic despots and their hiveminds, never mind recent anti-authoritarian mass movements in South Korea and Hong Kong or the state of civil liberties in Japan.
The lack of partisan load within Western politics means that small-minded people who have little interest in learning can easily excuse their disinterest. No broad political movement will say “let’s learn from Korea” because Korean government policy and practice do not match any Western movement well. For the same reason there is no learning from France or Germany in the Anglosphere; from Scandinavia there is a little, but it’s halting, stymied by the lack of a dedicated social democratic party that can propose a coherent program.
In such an environment, learning from elsewhere is a powerful tool, but not for broad party politics, which is how most people politically identify. Rather, it can be used in the following more limited ways:
- By civil servants, bureaucrats, and issue activists who are not formally affiliated to a political faction. (Of note, TransitMatters is pretty heavily Democratic, but Massachusetts is not a state with much interpartisan competition, nor one with coherent factions within the Democratic legislative caucus.)
- By politicians promising a specific solution on a specific issue, which from time to time does happen in the United States with respect to Europe, just not Asia (for example, YIMBYs in the Bay Area are trying to import the building typology of historic Continental city centers, relying on pleasant connotations of these cities among Americans who visited them as tourists).
- As a potential toolkit, especially for people who identify as worldly or educated, without a direct political load. The analog here is that Nordic countries learn from one another at all times, across the entire political spectrum, which means that a left-loaded policy in one Nordic country will inspire the left in the others while acting as a cautionary tale to avoid for the right and vice versa. No such learning happens from Asia anywhere I’ve seen in the West, not in mass politics – when was the last time an American politician, or an American pundit not named Matt Yglesias, pointed to high housing growth rates in Japan and South Korea and said “let’s be like that”?
Is there a future for learning from other places?
Yes, absolutely. I’ve said in interviews that one of my motivating examples for this blog was Ezra Klein’s international comparisons of health care systems in 2005, which he called The Health of Nations. He covered a few countries, writing maybe 2 pages about each, but with American health costs high and rising, this was enough to raise him to superstardom. I’d already been thinking comparatively before because that’s how Israelis think with their cultural cringe, but 2005-6 was when I finally saw an American do that and succeed.
Of course, The Health of Nations was in an extremely politically-loaded context – all countries Ezra surveyed have universal health care paid mostly (but never exclusively) by the government. Moreover, in 2007-9, the work done that created Obamacare was purely domestic, with little interest in the details of implementation in peer countries, such as the Jospin cabinet’s universal health care bill from 2000 or the second Rabin administration’s from 1995.
And yet. I think a comparative approach has a future, looking both at politically-loaded countries like Sweden and unloaded ones like Korea. Just as the fact that American health care expenses reached about 15% of GDP in the mid-2000s while the rest of the first world was happy with about 9% motivated the efficiency arguments behind The Health of Nations, the fact that New York can’t expand the subway and other American cities can barely build any transit motivates looking into countries that are capable of building better infrastructure. Similarly, the total lack of a good example of transit-oriented development in the United States (though not in Canada – Vancouver is pretty good), with accordant rent explosions in just about every urban neighborhood with sidewalks and a semi-reasonable crime rate, is motivating YIMBYism.
Fundamentally, the slave learns the master’s language but not the reverse. The US, so long the self-styled master of the world, is slowly learning to live in a world in which it cannot look down on everyone else. It’s taking at least a generation, possibly two, but a growing minority of Americans notice this – they notice that other countries are sometimes better, and that there is nothing in American history that they can look back to wistfully, forcing a forward and sideways look.
I’ve seen far too many people in the English-speaking world attack Germany repeatedly for its closure of nuclear power plants, for a variety of reasons. So as a public service, I would like to explain why Germany is like this. This may be relevant to other related issues concerning the politics of the green transition, including transportation and urbanism.
Electricity in Germany
There’s easy-to-search data on the electricity mix in Germany by source on Clean Energy Wire and the Working Group on Energy Balance (AGEB); on the latter site, Stromdaten gives the overall mix. In 2019, 40% of German power generation was renewable, and 12% was nuclear. The renewable share of German power consumption was slightly higher, 42.6% – Germany is a net exporter of electricity. The biggest contributor to renewable power is wind, but solar has recently been growing as well. Hydro power counts with renewable energy here, but is not a major factor, as German population density is high, unlike in Canada, Sweden, or Norway.
Over the decade, there was a large reduction in nuclear power generation. Nuclear power generation is down by slightly less than half, and a full phaseout is expected by the end of 2022. This has created a lot of criticism from pro-nuclear advocates as well as from trolls who enjoy attacking Germany, the green movement, and German greens specifically. Here is one typical example, a 2013 Telegraph article warning German economic growth might fall and saying utilities were turning to coal. But coal production fell in absolute numbers even more than nuclear power, down over the decade from 42% to 28%.
Why is Germany like this?
It’s still worth asking, why did Germany cut nuclear production, where it could have instead reduced coal production even further?
The answer can be found in the following Cold War joke:
Q. What is a tactical nuclear weapon?
A. Anything that lands on Germany.
West Germany built some nuclear plants in the 1960s and 70s, as did many other developed countries, like the US and France. But it faced New Left protests early and often, and this has to be understood in the context of the association between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. In Japan, such popular opposition happened even earlier, going back to the 1950s; the state kept building nuclear plants anyway, but slowly, without anything like France’s rapid buildup in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis.
Nuclear power advocates get frustrated when people compare nuclear power with nuclear weapons, but peaceful use of nuclear power always involved this association, often by supporters too. In the US, physicists proposed using nuclear bombs for infrastructure purposes. In the 1960s there were plans to use nuclear bombs to built I-40 as well as straighten the Southern Transcon; eventually I-40 was built by conventional means, and the Southern Transcon was not straightened. This was always a solution looking for a problem – the atomic age was the hallmark of modernity, so why not use nukes for more purposes than just war?
In France, too, the reasoning for the buildup of nuclear energy in the 1980s was justified on national security grounds – “in France we have no oil, we have ideas.” Germany and Japan, which do not have the global superpower pretensions of France, did not have the same justification to expand nuclear power at the same time.
Nuclear power and the modern greens: costs
On the eve of the Fukushima plant closures of 2011, German electricity was 23% nuclear, French electricity more than 70%. The origin of this difference is not about modern greens but about whether the national consensus viewed nuclear weapons positively or negatively in the 1970s and 80s, at which time nobody thought climate change was a serious problem.
The 2010s and 20s are not the 1970s and 80s; today, people do understand just how important climate change is as a global environmental problem. The green movement has adapted, if not as radically as pro-nuclear advocates would like. The German environmentalists I talk to either don’t care about nuclear power or are in favor of keeping it around. I tried to explain to the Breakthrough Institute’s Ted Nordhaus that at the big Fridays for Future protest on the 20th of September, there were hundreds of anti-coal power sign and just one anti-nuclear sign, held by people visibly older than most of the millennial and postmillennial attendees; he replied, “Greta is anti-nuclear.”
What is true is that nobody except Breakthrough calls for the construction of new nuclear power. But nuclear power is expensive with modern safety standards, while the costs of renewable energy are falling, those of onshore wind in Germany already lower than those of any other source, even coal. A 2009-11 analysis claims onshore wind costs $1.75-2.40 per watt to install (source, PDF-p. 25). A 2018 comparison within Europe finds a range of €1-1.50/W for onshore wind and perhaps €1.50-2.50 for offshore wind (source, PDF-p. 24), with noticeable correlation between a country’s wind power costs per watt and its urban subway tunneling costs per kilometer. Breakthrough has a cost comparison of nuclear power plant construction, where South Korea, which they praise for its low-cost construction, builds plants for about $2.50/W after PPP adjustment.
The cost comparison suggests strongly that people interested in green energy should be fine with retaining existing nuclear power in the medium term but not call for new capacity – it’s more expensive than renewables.
There are people who are against nuclear power categorically. There are people who want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is a clash between these two propositions, but it is not a total war. Before Fukushima, German power was 23% nuclear, and nuclear power costs were already higher than wind power costs, so decarbonizing the German electricity sector meant incentivizing more renewable power, not building more nuclear power. Since there was no point in dying on the nuclear hill – it was too small a share of power generation to be worth defending as in France, and too expensive to be worth expanding – the NIMBYs got their wish and nuclear power is being phased out early. Nonetheless, the majority of German electricity is generated by carbon-free sources, and the growth in renewable power has grown its scale to make it economic.
In France, the calculation is different. After Fukushima, there was no chance of a phaseout, only plans to reduce the share of electricity coming from nuclear power from the 70s to 50%. But the Macron administration has extended the lifespan of existing plants and pushed back plans for plant closure. In France, the nuclear power share is high enough because of decisions made in the 1970s and 80s that defending what exists is important, and thus the state can postpone mass installation of solar and wind energy until costs fall further. But in Germany, with an imminent need to install renewable power anyway, the political compromise went in another direction.
The formation of a de facto anti-nuclear political consensus has to be seen in this context. By the time the political system got serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, roughly in the 2000s and 10s, the costs of renewables were more favorable than those of nuclear power. Thus, to people who do distinguish nuclear power from nuclear weapons, think the plants are safe, and harbor no NIMBY opposition to new construction, nuclear power was an acceptable political sacrifice. It wouldn’t be the first choice to close these plants, but as a second choice combined with extensive renewable construction, it was fine.
It’s important to think in terms of goals – decarbonization, improving public health, reducing housing costs, etc. Breaking down these goals further – decarbonizing the power sector, reducing air pollution, etc. – can be desirable for specific solutions. But the goals are still too important for activists to be wedded to a specific solution and convert it from a means to an end. If the relative costs of different solutions change, it’s important to recognize this fact and switch support to the cheaper solution.
I wrote a post about American moral panics about fare evasion two months ago, which was mirrored on Streetsblog. I made a mistake in that post that I’d like to correct – and yet the correction itself showcases something interesting about why there are armed police on trains. In talking about BART’s unique belts-and-suspenders system combining faregates with proof-of-payment fare inspections, I complained that BART uses armed police to conduct inspections, where the German-speaking world happily uses unarmed civilians. BART wrote me back to correct me – the inspections are done by unarmed civilians, called ambassadors. The armed cops on the trains are unrelated.
I’d have talked about my error earlier, but I got the correction at the end of November. The American Christmas season begins around Thanksgiving and ends after Sylvester, and in this period both labor productivity and news readership plummet; leave it to Americans to have five weeks a year of low productivity without giving workers those five weeks in vacation time. With that error out of the way – again, BART conducts inspections with unarmed ambassadors, not armed cops – it’s worth talking about why, then, there are armed cops on trains at all, and what it means for fare enforcement.
The answer to the “why armed cops on the train?” question is that among the broad American public, the police is popular. There are hefty differences by party identification, and in the Bay Area, the opinions of Republicans are mostly irrelevant, but even among Democrats; there are also hefty differences by race, but blacks are at their most anti-police divided on the issue. A Pew poll about trust in institutions asks a variety of questions about the police, none of which is “would you like to see more cops patrol the subway?”, but the crosstabs really don’t scream “no.” Vox cites a poll by Civis Analytics that directly asks about hiring more police officers, and even among black people the results are 60-18 in favor. In New York, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill had positive net approval among all racial groups shortly before leaving office, the lowest rate being 43-28 among Hispanics.
The crosstabs only go so far, and it’s likely that among certain subgroups the police is much less popular, for example black millennials. It’s normal for a popular institution to still generate intense opposition from specific demographic, class-based, or ideological groups, and it’s even normal for a popular institution to be bad; I should know, Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker is one of America’s most popular governors and yet his do-nothing approach to infrastructure planning makes him unpopular at TransitMatters. But this doesn’t change the fact that, as a positive rather than normative statement, the police enjoys consensus support from the urban American public.
What this means is that there are cops on the subway in New York and on BART not because of an inherent necessity of the fare collection system, but because in the eyes of the people who run these systems, crime is a serious concern and having more cops around is the solution. Evidently, BART layers cops on top of two distinct fare enforcement mechanisms – fare barriers and the ambassadors. In New York, too, NYPD’s justification for arresting people for jumping the turnstiles is that a significant fraction of them have outstanding warrants (many of which are about low-level offenses like being behind on court payments).
I bring this up because there’s a growing argument on the American left that public transportation should be free because that way people won’t be arrested for fare-dodging. This argument slides in an assumption, all too common to socialists who are to the left of the mainline liberal or social democratic party, that there is a leftist majority among the public that is just waiting to be activated by a charismatic leader rejecting neoliberal or otherwise moderate political assumptions.
But in the real world, there is no such leftist majority. The median voter even in a very left-wing area like New York or San Francisco may not support the more violent aspects of tough-on-crime politics, but is mostly okay with more police presence. The average self-identified leftist may be more worried that having police patrols will lead to more brutality than that not having them will lead to more crime, but the average self-identified leftist is not the average voter even in the Bay Area.
In this reality, there are cops on the subway because a lot of people worry about crime on the subway and want to see more police presence. The cops themselves, who are well to the right of the average voter pretty much anywhere, may justify this in terms of fare beating, but what matters is what voters near the median think, and they worry about ordinary property and violent crime. Those worries may well be unfounded – for one, New York is very safe nowadays and has been getting steadily safer, so the recent binge of hiring more cops to patrol the subway is a waste of money – but so long as voters have them, there will be police patrols.
The upshot is twofold. First, fare enforcement and the politics of criminal justice have very little to do with each other. Cops patrol crowded public spaces that require payment to enter, like the subway, as they do crowded public spaces that do not, like city squares. If public transportation fares are abolished, cops will likely keep patrolling subway stations, just as they patrol pieces of transportation infrastructure that are fare-free, like the concourses of major train stations.
If the left succeeds in persuading more people that the police is hostile to their interests and the city is better off with less public police presence, then cops will not patrol either the subway or most city squares. In the future, this is not outside the realm of possibility – in fifteen years the popularity of same-sex marriage in the US went from about 2-to-1 against to 2-to-1 in favor, and the trend in other democracies is broadly similar. But in New York and San Francisco in 2020, this is not the situation.
And second, fare enforcement can be conducted with unarmed inspectors regardless of the political environment. Multiple Americans who express fear of crime have told me that inspections have to be done with armed police, because fare beaters are so dangerous they would never submit to an unarmed inspector. And yet, even in San Francisco, where a large fraction of the middle class is worried about being robbed, inspections are done without weapons.
I’ve recurrently told American cities to tear down the faregates. BART’s belts-and-suspenders fare enforcement is unnecessary, borne of a panic rather than of any calculation of costs and benefits to the system. But what BART should get rid of is not the ambassadors, but the faregates. The most successful transit city the rough size of San Francisco – Berlin – has no faregates and leaves most stations unstaffed to reduce costs. Berlin encourages compliance by making it easier to follow the law, for example by offering cheap monthly passes, rather than by hitting passengers in the face with head-level fare barriers.
If cops patrol the subway because most voters and most riders would prefer it this way, then there is no need to connect the politics of policing with the technical question of what the most efficient way to collect fares is. There is a clear best practice for the latter, and it does not involve faregates in a rapid transit system with fewer than multiple billions of annual riders. What the police does is a separate question, one that there is no reason to connect with how to raise money for good public transportation.
There’s an interesting discussion on Twitter, courtesy of Adam Batlan, about federal subsidies for capital funding versus operations. It’s become a popular reform proposal among American public transport advocates, who are frustrated with the status quo of federal funding for capital but not for operations. Unfortunately, the proposed change to the status quo – federal funding of operations and maintenance – is even worse than the status quo. The hazards of outside funding sources for operations are considerable and unavoidable, whereas those of outside funding for capital expansion can be mitigated by defining expansion appropriately, to the exclusion of ongoing maintenance.
Why federal funding should only go to expansion
Public transportation has ongoing operating expenses, and capital funding. Ongoing expenses can only change gradually – rail service in particular is dominated by fixed costs, like maintenance, and service changes have little effect on operating costs. This argues in favor of steady funding for operations.
Can federal funding be this steady? The answer is no. The federal government is where politics is. People with serious differences in opinion over issues including the overall size of federal spending, spending priorities, and how sensitive spending should be to economic conditions contest elections, and if one side has a majority, that side will get its legislative way. Nor is this some artifact of two-party majoritarianism. In consensus democracies the salience of a majority is if anything higher – there are big differences in policy, including transportation policy, between the various parties of Switzerland or the Netherlands, as the parties have to deliver results to attract voters rather than relying on polarization and partisan identity.
This kind of politics is very good when it comes to debating one-time capital projects. A center-right government committed to austerity with little attention to climate change, for example Germany since 2005, will not spend much money on rail expansion, and railroads will formulate their plans accordingly. The key here is that planning around maintaining current operations without expansion is not difficult, whereas planning around sudden cuts in operating funding is.
The issue of ongoing capital expenses
Current US policy is for the federal government to fund capital expenses, but not necessarily expansion. Normal replacement of equipment and long-term maintenance both receive federal funding. This is bad policy, because the way agencies respond to changes in funding levels is to defer maintenance when the federal government is stingy and then cry poverty when the federal government is generous.
The most extreme case of this is the state of good repair (SOGR) scam. The origins of SOGR are honest: New York City Transit deferred maintenance for decades, until the system collapsed in the 1970s, leading to a shift in priorities away from expansion and toward SOGR in the 1980s and 90s. There were tangible improvements in the last era, raising the mean distance between failures on the subway from about 10,000 km in 1980 to 250,000 in the 2000s. But this process led to a trend in which agencies would deliberately defer maintenance, knowing they could ask for SOGR funding letting them spend money without having anything to show for it.
By the 21st century, New York’s SOGR program turned into such a scam. The MTA capital plans keep having line items for achieving SOGR, but there are no improvements, nor does the backlog appear to shrink. If anything, throughout the 2010s service deteriorated due to slowdowns, until Andy Byford began the Saving Precious Seconds campaign. The same scam appears elsewhere, too: Amtrak deferred maintenance in the 2000s under political pressure to look profitable for privatization, a Bush administration priority, and when Obama was elected and announced the stimulus, Bush-installed CEO Joe Boardman began to talk about SOGR on the Northeast Corridor as a way of hogging billions of dollars without having to show increases in speed.
The forward solution to this problem is to credibly commit not to fund maintenance, ever. The fix-it-first maxim is for local governments only. The maxim for outside funding should be that any request for funding for maintenance or replacement is a tacit admission the agency cannot govern itself and requires an outside takeover as well.
The issue of frequency
The problem the thread linked to at the beginning of this post sets to solve is that some cities get money to build a light rail line but then only run it every 20 minutes. This, however, is a problem of incompetence rather than one inherent to the incentives.
A long-term revenue-maximizing agency, confronted with an urban rail line that runs every 20 minutes, will increase its frequency to at worst every 10 minutes, secure in the knowledge that the long run elasticity of ridership with respect to frequency in this range is high enough that it will make more money this way. This remains true even for a dishonest agency, which has no trouble maximizing long-term revenue by deferring maintenance and then asking for SOGR money when funding is available.
This fact regarding frequency is doubly true if the trains already run frequently at rush hour and only drop to 20-minute frequency off-peak. Fleet costs are determined by the peak, and large peak-to-base service ratios require expensive split shifts for crews. Therefore, a bump in off-peak frequency, especially from such a low base as 20 minutes, will increase ridership for very little increase in operating cost.
The thread does not mention the issue of connecting bus service much – I got yelled at for proposing half-hourly local buses timed with commuter trains – but there, too, the rule of only subsidizing expansion rather than maintenance or operation leads to good enough incentives. In Seattle, light rail expansion has led to bus service changes designed to feed the trains, increasing bus ridership even as rail service replaces the most crowded corridors.
The bus cuts of (for example) San Mateo County in response to rail expansion should then be put in the same basket of pure incompetence with the light rail line that runs every 20 minutes off-peak. The incentives line up in one direction, but due to such factors as unfamiliarity with best practices and managers who do not ride the trains they run, management goes in the other direction.
The forward solution here is to stick to funding by expected ridership. If the service plan involves low frequency, this should show up in the ridership screen and penalize the project in question, while urban rail lines that run every 5 minutes get funded.
Every year that passes, climate change becomes a more urgent problem to solve: every year that emissions do not fall means that future emissions will have to fall even faster to avoid catastrophic global warming and ocean level rise. This aspect makes climate change different as an issue from air pollution, health care, education, etc., all of which can be solved tomorrow in approximately the same way as today.
Transportation is an increasingly important aspect of climate change. In the 1990s activists could focus on electricity generation, due to the prevalence of coal power in developed countries. Today, when coal has terminally declined in most of the developed world, and is controversial in China and India because of its severe air pollution emissions, the share of transportation in greenhouse gas emissions is higher, and still rising (see e.g. US data on PDF-p. 32 and UK data).
As the biggest challenge of urbanism and transportation shifts from local public health to global climate change, the need for mechanisms that enable rapid demotorization and reurbanization becomes more urgent. I wrote a lot about consensus urbanism in 2011, and a lot of what I said still works if the aim is long-term improvement of democratic decisionmaking through inclusion; in essence, the consensus process spends time on buying goodwill from various groups instead of money (through open or de facto bribes) or political capital (through controversial coercion). But if the goal is to prevent catastrophic climate change, then the value of time is high and will grow as the years go by and no action is taken, and thus the consensus process loses a lot of its appeal.
In lieu of slow attempts at consensus, there are two ways to implement policy fast: market pricing, and top-down coercion. In cultural theory terms, consensus is egalitarian, market pricing individualist, and coercion hierarchical; the fourth cultural bias, fatalism, is not really associated with any system, but rather with the government by exception that characterizes populism, and does not proceed in a particular direction.
The upshot is that governments should aim to spend money and political capital instead of time, and use governing mechanisms that facilitate rapid change. In areas where the market supports green decisions, for example urban real estate construction, it is necessary to remove restrictions on market activity. Where it cannot, for example any question of infrastructure, it is necessary to reduce delays, for example by removing the ability of individuals to sue over environmental reviews – decisions about environmental impact should be taken internally through a civil service.
Learn to say no
One of the biggest loci of opposition to the green transition is a culture war by an old guard that clings to a postwar vision of the good life that centers car ownership and either the suburbs (in the US and parts of Europe) or a small town that turned into a suburb (in the other parts of Europe). Waiting for the old guard to die off or otherwise slowing down the process of change to make it more palatable may work for other goals, such as reducing urban housing costs, curbing air pollution, and providing better mobility for people who already don’t drive. It does not work for climate change.
The upshot is that there are two valid strategies to deal with literally hundreds of millions of first-world citizens who stand to lose income, wealth, or social or cultural status from the green transition. The first is to buy them off, or at least buy off those who can be bought off without bankrupting the state. The second is to tell them no. No, we are not going to accommodate you: saving the planet is too important a goal, and turning your 20-minute car commute into a one-hour three-seat ride by a bus because you kept voting against trains is a price we are willing to pay, and even if you’re not willing to pay it, we don’t need you to vote for us.
This is easier in Europe than in the United States; Canada is somewhere in between. If NATO-Europe gets into a war with Russia tomorrow and bans personal car use the next day to conserve fuel for tanks, people will for the most part be able to adapt; the trains will get more crowded, but outside Paris and London, the main constraint on train capacity is rolling stock, which is cheap to make more of even in an environment of total mobilization. If the United States gets into a shooting war, it will not be able to do so – at most it may be able to organize car-sharing clubs as in World War Two, but even then, many weak-centered cities would cease to function.
Climate change is urgent but less urgent than a total war starting tomorrow, which gives some time for expansion of transit. There’s about a generation’s worth of time; in the same timeframe, Vancouver has turned itself from a postwar suburban hellscape into something resembling a transit city. However, two important caveats make a public works-only green transition impossible. First, there is political opposition to transit, especially cost-effective transit (for example, buses taking freeway lanes from cars rather than adding lanes to freeways). And second, without some combination of transit-oriented development and coercive taxes on fuel, public transport remains underutilized – a number of American cities have built ample urban rail but have far lower ridership than comparable European and Canadian examples. Rail expansion makes confrontational green politics more palatable; it does not remove the need for confrontation.
The one saving grace of this need for confrontational, risk-taking politics is that the status-anxious opposition is the same to everything: to urban redevelopment, to public transportation, to raising taxes on cars, and often even to a consensus-based process if this process empowers the wrong social classes or ethnic groups. Quite often this opposition is exceptionally loud and connected, but running against it, while risky, is not political suicide. California voted against expansion of rent control last year, congestion pricing proved popular in London and Stockholm after the initial controversy of implementation, carbon taxes in Sweden keep going up and emissions keep going down, the German Christian Democrats’ road warrior tendency is conservative rather than reactionary. The green movement should expect to lose battles; it should not expect to lose the war.
How France builds high-speed rail and how Spain builds subways
France and Spain have opposite approaches to cost containment. France spends time rather than money: informal political opposition in rural areas is hard to break – what the state will let the police do to suburban Arabs and blacks who protest brutality it won’t dare let it do to rural whites who protest trains despoiling their romantic Provence views – so the state painstakingly negotiates with the landowners. The resulting construction costs are reasonable: the 106 km LGV Est phase 2, with 4 km in tunnel, cost €2.01 billion euros in 2008 prices. However, the process takes a long time: in Provence, where placating the NIMBYs proved impossible, the resulting alignment is tunnel-heavy and expensive, and even though public debate goes back to 2005, the line will likely open well into the 2030s.
Spain takes the opposite approach. In the view of Manuel Melis Maynar, time is money, and the faster a project is completed, the cheaper it will be, as there will be less time for problems to accumulate. Madrid Metro awards contracts based on how fast construction can be completed as well as on the budget, and its internal planning process is designed around fast decisionmaking.
Spain builds infrastructure more cheaply than France, but that by itself is not enough to argue in favor of the Spanish approach. Spain does many things to curb costs that France does not, and the question of whether time and money are substitutes or complements occurs in many industries with different answers. In tech, there may well arise situations in which code can be written cheaply or quickly and ones in which delays add costs within the same project.
That the time or money question is delicate means that infrastructure builders need to cultivate enough expertise to be able to know when it’s one or the other and when it’s both or neither. However, that, by itself, has nothing to do with urgency; “work on building infrastructure more cheaply” is a good principle regardless of whether everything needs to be in place in 10 years or in 100.
What the urgency of climate change does mean is that there should be a bias against delays. In situations in which it is certain that time and money are substitutes, agencies should prefer to spend money, for example by buying off property owners and paying above market rates. In situations in which it is unclear, agencies should act as if time is money and aim to complete projects quickly even at the cost of budget overruns, rather than to complete them on a prescribed budget even at the cost of schedule slips.
That Spain has lower construction costs than France suggests that acting as if Spain is right and France is wrong is not likely to have too many drawbacks. It may require some internal cultural changes in how infrastructure builders think, and possibly regulatory changes streamlining environmental reviews, but it’s likely to either save money in the long run or only cost a little more.
The expression democratic deficit is most commonly used to refer to the European Union and its behind-the-scenes style of lawmaking. I’ve long held it is equally applicable to local politics, especially in the United States. With the EU election taking place later today, I am going to take this opportunity to zoom in one a key aspect: who gets to vote informedly? This is a critical component of the local democratic deficit. After all, there is universal franchise at the local level in modern democracies, same as at the national level, and when election dates coincide the turnout rates coincide as well. EU elections have had low turnout, but this has to be understood as a consequence rather than a cause of the democratic deficit.
This does not exist on the national level anywhere that I know of. In federal states it may not exist on the state level, either: as far as I can tell, Canada and Germany offer voters clear choices on the province/state level, and it’s only in the United States that the democratic deficit exists in the states.
On the EU level, the problem is slowly solving itself, since a highly salient issue is growing, namely, the legitimacy of the EU itself. People can clearly vote for parties that hold that the EU as it currently exists is illegitimate, such as right-populist parties under the ENF umbrella; for parties that offer continuity with the EU as it is, that is Christian-democratic, social-democratic, and liberal parties; and for various reform parties, that is greens and the far left on the left, or whatever remains of the Tories on the right. For what it’s worth, turnout so far has inched up from 2014 levels.
But on the local level, the problem remains as strong as ever. The main consequence is that local elections empower NIMBYs, simply because they have the ability to make an informed choice based on their ideology and other groups lack that power. The interest groups that benefit from housing shortages naturally get more political powers than those that benefit from abundant housing. In transportation, too, transit users tend to be politically weaker than drivers relative to their share of the electorate, but the problem is nowhere near as acute as that of general NIMBYism.
What is informed voting?
Informed voting does not mean voting the right way. A voter may be able to make an informed choice even for an uninformed position; for example, people who think cutting taxes reduces the deficit have an economically uninformed belief, but still count as informed voters if they recognize which parties they can vote for in order to prioritize tax cuts. Informed voting, at least to me, means being able to answer the following questions correctly:
- What are the political issues at stake?
- Which positions on these issues can plausibly be enacted, and how difficult would such enactment be?
- Which organs of state undertake the relevant decisions? Is it the entire legislature, a specific standing committee, the courts, the civil service, etc.?
- Which political groups have which positions on these issues, and how much they’re going to prioritize each issue? Which political groups may not have strong positions but are nonetheless potential allies?
National elections exhibit the most informed voting. For example, in the United States, most voters can identify that the key issues differentiating the Democrats and Republicans are abortion rights, tax rates (especially on higher incomes), and health care, and moreover, the abortion issue is decided through Supreme Court nominations whereas the others are in Congress with the consent of the president. Additional issues like foreign policy, environmental protection, and labor may not be as salient nationwide, but people who care about them usually know which party has what positions, where decisions are made (e.g. foreign policy is decided by the president and appointed advisors, not Congress), and which factions within each party prioritize these issues and which have other priorities.
This does not mean all voters are informed. This does not even mean most swing voters are informed. In the United States it’s a commonplace among partisans that swing voters are exceedingly uninformed. For example, here is Chris Hayes reporting on the 2004 election:
Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief–not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.
But the low levels of information among undecided voters, while important on the margins, come from a context in which a large majority of American voters consistently support one party or another, and over the generations the parties have perfected a coalition of interests ensuring each will get about half the vote.
This situation is not US-specific. Israeli voters are highly informed about the relevant issues, led by the control over the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They know which parties are prepared to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, withdraw from the settlements, and recognize an independent Palestinian state, and which will do no such thing, and vote accordingly. Parties for the most part announce in advance which bloc they are to be part of; even parties that would be fine cooperating with either side in order to get money for their special interests, such as the ultra-Orthodox parties, are compelled to announce in advance which side they’ll back (the right), and so far they have not deviated from it. Every single party in Israel’s most recent election had an obvious bloc, left or right; in 2015, every single party did but one, Kulanu, which was a member of the right bloc but at the time pretended to be undecided.
The European democratic deficit
The democratic deficit occurs when it is not possible for a large majority of voters to know in advance what the issues are and how to vote on them.
The European Parliament suffers from a democratic deficit, despite having strong, coherent political parties, because of its tradition of behind-the-scenes government by consensus of EPP and S&D. It is difficult for a voter to know what exactly the difference would be if S&D were somewhat stronger and EPP somewhat weaker. Europe Elects’ latest projection has a tight race for whether ALDE and the parties to its left will have a majority, making ALDE the median party on the left-right scale, or whether they will come just short, making EPP the median. And yet, I have no idea what it would mean, despite the fact that there are important issues, including climate change and immigration, on which there is a cleave between ALDE-and-leftward parties and EPP-and-rightward parties.
I am planning to vote for the Green Party rather than for the Social Democrats, since the Greens here opposed Article 13 whereas the Social Democrats expressed concern but mostly voted for it. But I genuinely do not know whether a stronger G/EFA and weaker S&D would matter much for digital freedom, nor do I know whether behind the scenes a stronger S&D and a weaker EPP would’ve resulted in a different law.
I found myself in a similar situation in the previous (and first) time I was enfranchised, in the Swedish local and regional elections of 2014. Thanks to EU reciprocity laws, I could vote in the local and regional elections but not the coincident national election. I had some knowledge of the salient political issues at the national level from reading the news, looking at slogans on street signs, and browsing party platforms, but had no idea what this would mean within the context of Stockholm County; lacking much of a local social network, I listened to my postdoc advisor’s advice to read the national platforms and vote based on the one I liked most, and voted Green (which, judging by my advisor’s reaction, was not what he would have preferred). Put another way, EU laws let me vote for a mayor and city council whose name I did not even know, but not for the Riksdag, where I had a decent idea of what the difference between the Greens and Social Democrats was.
The extreme right in Europe has ironically improved democracy, because it has given people something to vote against. I may not know how the EU would look different if EPP lost a few percentage points of its vote share and S&D and the Greens gained a few each, but I definitely know how it will look if ENF and parties that aren’t part of ENF but should be, like Hungary’s Fidesz, gain power. When the very existence of a multiracial EU is at stake, it is easier to figure out which parties are firmly committed (G/EFA, S&D, ALDE, and to a large extent EPP) and which aren’t, and on what grounds (GUE/NGL from the left, the Tories from the mainline right, ENF from the extreme right). That the pro-European parties will certainly win a huge majority of the vote among them is less relevant – the point is not to get more votes than ENF but to completely delegitimize ENF, so the margin of defeat counts.
The American democratic deficit
If in Europe the problem is the disconnect between voting for a party at the non-national (or non-state) level and seeing policy results, in the United States local government has no parties at all. Cities of primaries like New York, and cities with nonpartisan elections like San Francisco, make it exceedingly difficult for voters to know which politicians are likely to enact their local ideological agenda.
Knowing what the salient issues are is the easy part in the United States – education, crime, and housing tend to be the main issues across a variety of cities. The hard part is knowing which politicians will take which positions and have which priorities. Occasionally, one-party cities and one-party states have consistent factions, one moderate and more progressive or more conservative, but even then the factional identification is fluid.
David Schleicher has proposed to resolve this problem by forming state parties aiming at capturing about half the voters, on a similar model to that of Canada, where most provincial parties are distinct from federal parties, with ideological cleaves decided by provincial rather than federal voter preferences. Cities like New York and San Francisco would not have informal factions under this system but formal party institutions, one progressive and one moderate with perhaps some cross-party appeal to Republicans, and the parties could even compete in federal Democratic primaries for Congress.
Without parties, collegial institutions can create feudal results. Schleicher gives the example of councilmanic privilege, in which single-party city councils defer on local issues, such as housing, to the member representing the locality in question. Another possibility is standing committees with powerful chairs, as is the case in California today and as was the case in Congress before Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution of 1994. Despite widespread support, the YIMBY political priority SB 50 was recently frozen by fiat of one committee chair, Anthony Portantino, who represents a NIMBY suburb of Los Angeles; SB 50 passed two committees by majority vote but needed a pro forma vote from Portantino’s appropriations committee before the final vote in the entire State Senate. At the federal level, powerful postwar committee chairs tended to be Southern Democrats, who blocked civil rights law that enjoyed widespread support in Congress.
Empowerment for whomst?
Without political parties, the people who can make informed voting in local elections – that is, the people who know the salient issues, the reasonable positions, and who will prioritize what – are from specific demographics. They must have very strong social ties within the locality – they may well know the candidates personally, or know people who know them personally. They must have lived in the locality for a long time to have had these ties. There is no way I could have these ties in Berlin – I moved here three months ago, and socialize largely with foreigners.
Even though there is universal vote among citizens (and even among EU citizens here), people who lack these ties may not be able to vote informedly. Thus, their (our) vote may be completely random; in Berlin I have enough of an idea of what the difference between the left-wing parties and CDU is on transportation, but the Green-SPD difference is still subtle and unless I see more in the next few years in advance of the election I’m likely to vote based on other cues, such as which party has a more diverse slate of candidates.
With people like me not really having much political power even when enfranchised, local politics becomes the domain of the specific socioeconomic classes that do have access to information. These are typically retirees and small business owners. If you own a store, you almost certainly know all the little details of your neighborhood because that’s where your clients are located. If you work for a big business, your social network is much wider, as your coworkers are likely to commute from a wide variety of places, so even though your income is similar to that of the shopkeeper you are much weaker in local elections.
With much more power than the rest of the electorate, retirees and the petite bourgeoisie can create a political culture in which their situation is considered more moral than that of the rest – hence the use of the word transient as a pejorative.
The relevance to housing and transportation is that people with mostly local ties tend to be consistently NIMBY. They usually own housing rather than rent – if you live in one place for a long time you benefit from owning more than the average person. They have real local political power, which redevelopment may disrupt by introducing a large cohort of new people into the neighborhood. They have the ability to extort developers into providing community amenities in exchange for getting a building permit. Not for nothing, the vanguard class for YIMBY is working-age people who work for other people and have national social ties rather than local ones.
In transportation, too, the favored classes in local politics with a democratic deficit tend to be pro-car. Part of it is that enfranchised voters drive more than the disenfranchised – in the United States (per census data) and the Netherlands, immigrants drive less and use transit more than natives. Even within the electorate, the groups that have higher turnouts, such as comfortable retirees, drive more than groups that have lower turnouts, such as students. The petite bourgeoisie in particular drives a lot – if you own a store you probably drive to it because your store is on a local main street with a single bus line, whereas salaried workers are likelier to work in city center and take transit. The latter are less empowered in local politics, especially American politics, so their preferences count less than those of people who can show up to meetings during business hours and complain about bus lanes.
Democratic consensus, not democratic deficit
Tories like to use the real problem of democratic deficit at the EU level as well as the local level to argue in favor of strong unitary nations. But there are better democratic mechanisms than voting for a party once every four or five years and letting an internal party hierarchy decide everything in the interim.
Germany and Canada have strong democratic institutions at the state/province level as far as I can tell, Germany through a multiparty system and Canada through provincial parties. Canadian leftists like to complain about Rob Ford and Doug Ford, but the voters of both Toronto and Ontario knew what they were voting for. It’s not like when Donald Trump ran on promises about immigration and trade that he couldn’t keep and then cut corporate taxes.
There are glimpses of real democracy in the largest cities, at least the mayoral level: Rob Ford, Bill de Blasio, Sadiq Khan, Anne Hidalgo. This is not every city of that size class (Chicago has no such institutions), but mayors of large enough cities can at least be familiar to large enough swaths of the electorate that more than just retirees, retail landlords, and small business owners can express an opinion. In smaller cities, it may be completely impossible to have such democracy – too many residents work outside the city, or work in the city alongside suburban commuters.
Forced amalgamations of cities are likely required in the US as well as France, on the model of Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands, or any other European country with postwar municipal consolidation. Below a certain size class, moreover, it is not possible to have a professional full-time legislature; smaller US states have very small districts (New Hampshire has 400 Representatives for 1.3 million people, paid $100 a year each), leading to hobbyist legislators and bills written by lobbyists.
Referendums are an important component of democracy as well, provided precautions are undertaken to ensure they are more like Swiss ones and less like Californian ones. It is appropriate to vote on individual spending packages, such as a high-speed rail project or a subway, by a simple majority; it is not appropriate to vote on part of a project, as California did for high-speed rail, and put the remaining funding sources in a magic asterisk.
Democracy and housing
Even when homeowners are the majority, as in nearly every first-world country, there is no general interest in a housing shortage. Only homeowners in the most expensive and constrained areas as well as homeowners who look down on people who move frequently have this interest. These two groups can win thanks to a sustained democratic deficit on the local level.
This is why higher-level decisionmaking is consistently more YIMBY than local decisionmaking. At the national or even state level, homeowners can easily form a housing cartel and restrict construction – and yet, higher-level decisionmaking, such as in Japan (national) or Canada (provincial) is associated with higher construction rates. At the state level, interest groups like that of NIMBY homeowners have to share power with other interest groups, including middle-class renters, organized labor, and real estate; in California the NIMBYs just scored a win thanks to control of a legislative committee, but a full legislative vote might well go the other way. But at the local level, the NIMBYs have stronger local ties than the rest and can keep outsiders out, and even manipulate local interest groups, offering them scraps of the extortion money from developers in exchange for loyalty.
In accordance with the observation that higher-level decisionmaking yields YIMBYer results, France and Sweden have recently accelerated housing construction in their expensive capitals, both by force of national power. In the 2014 election, party posters on Stockholm pledged to build more housing, and after winning the election, the Social Democrats set a target for national housing production. Local NIMBYs still maintain some power in that housing production in Sweden has come from finding new brownfield sites to redevelop rather than from replacing smaller buildings with bigger ones, but construction rates in the last few years have been high, especially in Stockholm County; The Local describes the overall rental situation in Sweden as “cooling.” In France there has been acceleration in housing production as well, powered by both national and regional concerns, over the objections of rich NIMBY suburbs over social housing mandates.
The United States has continued devolving housing decisions to hyperlocal organs, with predictable results. YIMBYs in California may not have fully theorized this, but they understand the implications enough to focus on getting the state to override local control to permit mid-rise transit-oriented development. Whatever reasoning has led to this, the praxis of state preemption is solid, and activists in the United States should work to weaken local governments until and unless they begin solving their democratic deficit problems.
In advance of next month’s European Parliament election, several sources at the major mainstream parties have said that there are plans to coordinate a carbon tax, paired with investment in green infrastructure. Representatives of the European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats group (S&D), the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), and the Greens-European Free Alliance group (G/EFA) have agreed on an outline, to be passed after the election. The unaffiliated La Republique En Marche, which is expected to be the largest party in France in the coming election, is in on the agreement as well, and has been a key driver of the deal under the leadership of President Emmanuel Macron. As the four parties as well as LREM are expected to have a large majority of the seats among them, the deal should not have difficulties passing.
At heart is an attempt to unify different national approaches to climate change. One source specifies that after frustration with the slow pace of decarbonization in France, in large part due to the Gilets Jaunes’ street riots against higher fuel taxes, Macron sought a Europe-wide approach. While the left in France was skeptical, green and social-democratic parties in the rest of Europe were supportive. Italy’s Democratic Party (S&D) was especially interested, citing worries that France’s lower fuel taxes were causing motorists in western Liguria to drive over the border to fill up in the nearby French Riviera. The Social Democrats in Sweden, under the leadership of Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, have been supportive as well, and several sources agree that they played a role in persuading the entire S&D group to support a strong carbon tax law.
Obtaining the consent of EPP was more difficult due to its skepticism over tax increases. There is no first-hand on-the-record reporting for how this was achieved, but a large number of second-hand sources agree that Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed in order to appeal to German Green Party voters, as the party is rising in the polls in the European as well as German elections and has popular state-level leadership.
The deal will impose a minimum carbon tax starting at €50 per metric ton of CO2-equivalent in 2020, rising gradually to €200 per ton in 2035. The tax will include border adjustments for the carbon content of imported goods, a clause that is said to have come at the insistence of union-affiliated S&D leaders who worried about competition from outside the EU. Controversially, the language of the draft deal permits individual member states to give industries credit toward exports.
The tax will be collected entirely at the member state level, like existing taxes on fuel and tobacco and VAT, where the EU mandates minimum floors (such as 15% for VAT) and monitors compliance but does not collect the taxes itself or redistribute the proceeds. Sweden’s existing carbon tax, currently €120 per ton, will therefore stay where it is. The EU will ensure member states collect the tax and do not give undue exceptions to industrial users; only exports and fuel for extra-EU flights and shipping may be exempted from the tax.
Simultaneously, the parties agreed to accelerate spending on EU-wide green infrastructure. As with the tax, member states will have considerable latitude, in order to mollify concerns among some Greens that the EU will stealthily mandate the construction of new nuclear power plants, as well as concerns among most EPP and ALDE parties that government spending would rise too much. Germany, in particular, has plans to reduce taxes on businesses: the Merkel cabinet has had to resist the business community’s demands for tax cuts, arguing that it is in growth times like this year that is is most tempting to engage in fiscal profligacy. There will also be additional spending on urban rail, motivated by the projected mode shift away from cars as a result of the new tax, but people close to the key decisionmakers say that massive federal spending in Germany is unlikely.
In France, the plan is to use the proceeds to invest in transportation alternatives, including a roster of new urban rail lines in Paris as well as most secondary cities. Macron is said to be in favor of accelerating the construction of new TGV lines connecting the entire country to Paris within at most 4 hours, as well as orbital lines connecting provincial cities to one another.
The timing of the leak is unusual. One source speculated that it is timed for the eve of Brexit, to nudge Britain to revoke Article 50 and stay in the EU to avoid finding itself fighting another EU bureaucracy if it left without a deal. While the spokespeople for the British Conservative Party who were contacted for this story oppose the climate agreement, the agreement can pass the European Parliament even over the party’s objections.
Nonetheless, euroskeptical forces have used the leak as an opportunity to portray the EU in conspiratorial terms, particularly ones affiliated with the far-right Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) and Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) groups. The Italian Lega (ENF), expected to emerge as the single largest national party after the election, attacked the EU for dictating to member states. France’s National Rally (ENF), the party of the Le Pen family, said that Macron is immiserating France, that carbon emissions are caused by corporate shipping and not by driving, and that Europe would not have any environmental problems if it did not have population growth due to immigration. The UK Independence Party (EFDD) added that it’s not even clear if climate change is real, and said that this is why it always backed Brexit.
Nonetheless, the polls are stable enough that all observers expect ENF and EFDD, and even the UK Conservatives’ European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, to lack the power to defeat or even weaken the proposed legislation. In response to threats by the Gilets Jaunes to call a massive nationwide rally next Saturday, the leader of the opposition Republicans (EPP) threatened that perhaps France should declare martial law to forestall riots.
Both Macron and Löfven have since taken political ownership of the agreement, calling it an example of pan-European cooperation to solve global problems. After the agreement leaked, Macron touted the plan as a way forward for France as Europe’s leader in high-speed rail, and promised that French industry would manufacture the trains, wind turbines, and solar cells while combating the country’s Western Europe-leading air pollution levels at the same time. He referenced the slogan from the 1970s’ oil crisis leading to the construction of the TGV and nuclear plants: “in France we have ideas.”
In Sweden, sources close to the Löfven cabinet point out that the country’s long-time moral leadership is paying off, as there is an extensive clean industry in Sweden, including rolling stock as well as engineering professional services. A spokesperson for the Swedish Greens added that this was also an example of European moral leadership, which would exercise soft power in order to convince other big countries and blocs to follow suit, such as Japan and South Korea. But when pressed on the issue of the US and China specifically, sources demurred.
As this article goes to press, no national politicians in the United States from either party have commented, despite multiple attempts to reach out and ask if they were willing to implement a similar policy in America.
Lately I’ve seen some very aggressive people on social media assert that high American transit construction and operating costs are the fault of unions, and thus, the solution is to break the unions using the usual techniques of subterfuge and breaking implicit promises. A while back, maybe a year ago, I even saw someone argue that gadgetbahn (monorails, PRT, Hyperloop, etc.) is specifically a solution to union agreements covering traditional transit but not things that are marketed as new things. This is an incorrect analysis of the problem, and like many other incorrect analyses, the solutions that would follow were this analysis correct are in fact counterproductive.
American costs are high even without unions
The majority of American transit construction occurs in parts of the country with relatively strong unions. This is for historical reasons: American cities with large prewar cores are both more unionized and more densely populated than newer Sunbelt cities. Thus, a table with cities and their subway construction costs, such as what one might get cobbling together my posts, will show very high costs mostly in cities with American unions.
However, American cities with weak unions build transit too, it’s just unlikely to come with subway tunnels. We can look at above-ground urban rail construction costs in a variety of American states with right-to-work laws. There is one recent above-ground metro line in a right-to-work state, the Washington Silver Line in Virginia, and another proposal, an extension of MARTA. Let’s compare their costs with those of other mostly at-grade urban rail lines in unionized West Coast states:
- The second phase of the Silver Line cost $2.8 billion, or about $150 million per km.
- The proposed MARTA extension is projected to cost about $110 million per km.
- Portland’s Milwaukie MAX extension, which Wikipedia says cost $1.5 billion for 11.7 km, or $130 million per km.
- San Diego’s mixed elevated and rail right-of-way Blue Line extension is currently budgeted at $2.1 billion, or $120 million per km.
- The canceled BART extension to Livermore in a freeway median would have cost $1.6 billion, or $180 million per km.
We can go lower than this range by looking at street-running light rail lines, which are popular in such Sunbelt cities as Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, and Charlotte, but then we can compare them with light rail lines in Minneapolis, which has no right-to-work laws.
- Dallas’s Orange Line cost either $1.3 billion or $1.8 billion, or $2.8 billion, so either $58 or 80 million per km.
- Houston’s Green and Purple Lines together cost $1.3 billion, about $80 million per km.
- Phoenix’s light rail extension to Gilbert Road is $186 million, about $60 million per km. A canceled extension to Glendale was projected to cost $900 million to $1 billion, around $90 million per km.
- Charlotte’s light rail extension cost $1.1 billion, about $75 million per km.
- Minneapolis’s light rail extensions, the Blue Line extension and the Southwest LRT, are $1.5 and $2 billion respectively, or about $75 and $80 million per km.
Let’s also look at commuter rail. Dallas’s Cotton Belt Line, a diesel line in a disused freight right-of-way, is projected to cost $1.1 billion for 42 km. The cost, $26 million per km, is within the normal European range for greenfield high-speed rail without tunnels, and more than an order of magnitude higher than some German examples from Hans-Joachim Zierke’s site. In Massachusetts, the plans for South Coast Rail cost around $3 billion for 77.6 km before some recent modifications cutting both cost and length, about $40 million per km; this would have included electrification and right-of-way construction through an environmentally sensitive area, since bypassed to cut costs.
Finally, what of operating costs? There, the Sunbelt is unambiguously cheaper than the Northeast, Chicago, and California – but only by virtue of lower market wages. The cost ranges for both sets of states are wide. In Chicago and San Francisco, the operating costs of rapid transit are not much higher than $5/car-km per the NTD, which is normal or if anything below average by first-world standards. Light rail looks more expensive to operate in old unionized cities, but only because Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco’s light rail lines are subway-surface lines with low average speeds, which are more expensive to run than the faster greenfield light rail lines built elsewhere in North America. The lowest operating costs on recently-built light rail lines in the US are in Salt Lake City, San Diego, and Denver, and among those only the first is in a right-to-work state.
Non-labor problems in American transit
I urge everyone to look at the above lists of American transit lines and their costs again, because it showcases something important: high American costs are not a uniform problem, but rather afflict some areas more than others. Commuter rail construction costs are the worst, casually going over European levels by a full order of magnitude or even more. Subway operating costs are the best, ranging from no premium at all in some cities (Chicago) to a factor-of-2 premium in others (New York). Light rail construction costs are in the middle. The variety of cost premiums suggests that there are other problems in play than just labor, which should hit everything to about the same extent.
When I’m asked to explain high American construction costs, I usually cite the following explanations:
- Poor contracting practices, which include selection of bidders based exclusively on cost, micromanagement making companies reluctant to do business with New York public works, and design-build contracts removing public oversight and encouraging private-sector micromanagement.
- Poor project management: Boston’s Green Line Extension is now budgeted at about $1 billion for 7.6 km, but this is on the heels of an aborted attempt from earlier this decade, driving up total money spent beyond $2 billion.
- Indifference to foreign practices: Americans at all levels, including transit agencies, shadow agencies like the Regional Plan Association, and government bodies do not know or care how things work in other countries, with the partial exception of Canada and the UK, which have very high costs as well. The area where there has been the greatest postwar innovation in non-English-speaking countries, namely commuter rail, is the one where the US is the farthest behind when it comes to cost control. Explanation #1 can be folded into this as well, since the insistences on cost + technical score bid selection and on separation of design and construction are Spanish innovations, uncommon and obscure in the English-speaking world.
- Overbuilding: extra infrastructure required by agency turf battles, extra construction impact required by same, and mined stations. Other than the mined stations, the general theme is poor coordination between different agencies, which once again is especially bad when commuter rail is involved for historical reasons, and which in addition to raising costs also leads to lower project benefits.
Labor is a factor, but evidently, the intransigent BART unions coexist with low operating costs, as do the Chicago L unions. American unions are indifferent to productivity more than actively hostile to it, and in some cases, i.e. bus reforms in New York, they’re even in favor of treatments that would encourage more people to ride public transit.
But union rules force transit agencies to overstaff, right?
In the Northeast, there are unambiguous examples of overstaffing. Brian Rosenthal’s article for the New York Times found horror stories, and upon followup, frequent commenter and Manhattan Institute fellow Connor Harris has found more systematic cases, comparing the ~25 people it takes to staff a tunnel-boring machine in New York with the 12 required in Germany. The unions themselves have pushed back against this narrative, but it appears to be a known problem in the infrastructure construction industry.
So what gives? In Texas, the unions are too weak to insist on any overstaffing. Texas is not New York or even California. Without knowing the details of what goes on in Texas, my suspicion is that there is an informal national standard emerging out of mid-20th century practices in the cities that were big then. I see this when it comes to decisions about construction techniques: features that came out of the machinations of interwar New York, like the full-length subway mezzanine, spread nationwide, raising the cost of digging station caverns. I would not be surprised to discover something similar when it comes to staffing. Obvious economies like running driver-only train are already widespread nearly everywhere in the US, New York being the exception. Less obvious economies concerning maintenance regimes are harder to implement without very detailed knowledge, which small upstart Sunbelt transit agencies are unlikely to have, and if they invite consultants or other experts, they will learn to work in the same manner as the big American transit agencies.
The reality that the entirety of the American transit industry is used to doing things a certain way means that there needs to be a public discussion about staffing levels. There are jobs that look superfluous but are in fact crucial, and jobs that are the opposite. The cloak-and-dagger mentality of anti-union consultants does not work in this context at all. Experimentation is impossible on a safety-critical system, and nothing should be changed without double- and triple-checking that it works smoothly.
Anti-union explanations are harmful, not neutral
While union overstaffing does drive up tunneling costs in the United States, there are many other factors in play, which must be solved by other means than union-busting. By itself, this would make union-busting either neutral or somewhat positive. However, in reality, the politics of union-busting wreck government effectiveness in ways that make the overall cost problem worse.
The people who try to tell me the problem is all about the unions are not, as one might expect, Manhattan Institute hacks. Connor himself knows better, and Nicole Gelinas has been making narrow arguments about pension cuts rather than calling for sweeping changes to leave unions in the dust. Rather, the loudest anti-union voices are people who either are in tech or would like to be, and like using the word “disruption” in every sentence. The Manhattan Institute is pretty open about its goals of union-busting and race-baiting; in contrast, the people who tell me gadgetbahn is necessary to avoid union agreements insist on never being public about anything.
The rub is that it’s not possible to solve the coordination problem of public transit agencies without some sort of public process. Adding gadgetbahn to the mix creates the same result as the XKCD strip about 14 competing standards. The more the people building it insist that they’re disruptive synergistic innovators inventing the future with skin in the game, the less likely they are to build something that’s likely to be backward-compatible with anything or cohere to form a usable network.
Nor is it possible to assimilate good industry practices by cloak and dagger politics. The universe of industry practices is vast and the universe of good practices isn’t much smaller. The only way forward is via an open academic or quasi-academic process of publication, open data, peer review, and replication. A single consultancy is unlikely to have all the answers, although with enough study it could disseminate considerable knowledge.
There needs to be widespread public understanding that the United States is behind and needs to import reforms to improve its transportation network. This can happen in parallel with a process that weakens unions or for that matter with a process that strengthens them, but in practice the subterfuge of managers looking for union-busting opportunities makes it difficult to attack all cost drivers at once. Whatever happens with conventional left-right politics, there is no room for people who reduce the entirety or even the majority of America’s transit cost problem to labor.
American progressive media is talking about the possibility of a Green New Deal, which involves spending money in a way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. So far details are scant, and most likely no real plan is likely to emerge for a number of years, since the proposal is pushed by the Democratic base, which is no more supportive of cooperation with President Trump than I am. Because the plan is so early, people are opining about what should go in it. My purpose in this post is to explain what I think the main priorities should be, and to leave to others the politics of how to package them.
The primacy of transportation
The main sources of greenhouse gas emissions are transportation, electricity generation, and industry. In the US this is in descending order, transportation having just overtaken power generation; the reduction in coal burning and the collapse in solar power production costs are such that in the long term, electricity generation should be viewed as a solved problem in the long term. Lingering issues with storage and base load are real, but the speed of progress is such that ordinary taxes on carbon should be enough to fix whatever is left of the problem.
Transportation is the exact opposite. American transportation emissions fell in the 2007-8 oil price spike and ensuing economic crisis but are now increasing again. Newer cars have higher fuel efficiency, but Americans are buying bigger cars and driving more. Electric cars, the favored solution of people who think spending $50,000 on a new car is reasonable, are still a niche luxury market and have trouble scaling up. Scratch an American futurist who looks exclusively at electric cars and denigrates mass transit and you’ll wound a solipsist who looks for excuses to avoid the humiliation of having to support something where other countries lead and the US lags.
The upshot is that the primary (but not the only) focus of any green push has to be expansion of public transportation. This includes ancillary policies for urban redevelopment and livable streets, which have the dual effects of buttressing public transit and reducing residential emissions through higher-density living. Overall, this turns any such program into a large public works project.
Spend money right
It’s paramount to make sure to avoid wasting money. A large infrastructure program would run into an appreciable fraction of federal spending; money is always a constraint, even when the goal is to spend funds on economic stimulus. The first lesson here is to keep construction costs under control. But an equally fundamental lesson is to make sure to spend money on transit expansion and not other things:
Don’t spend money on roads
A large majority of American public spending on transportation is on roads. Adding in subsidies for cars makes the proportion go even higher. It reflects current travel patterns, but if the goal is to reduce the environmental footprint of driving, the government can’t keep pumping money into road infrastructure. Accept that in developed countries the generally useful roads have already been built, and future construction just induces people to suburbanize further and drive longer distances.
Congress spends transportation money in multi-year chunks. The most recent bill passed in 2015 for five years, totaling $300 billion, of which $50 billion went to public transit and $200 billion went to highways. Raiding the road fund should be the primary source of additional transit funding: most of the line workers and engineers can build either, and even the physical act of building a freeway is not too different from that of building a high-speed railway. In contrast, outside of a deep recession, increasing total spending on transportation infrastructure requires hiring more workers, leading to large increases in costs as the program runs up against the limit of the available construction labor in the country.
$60 billion a year on public transit is a decent chunk of money for a long-term program, especially with expected state matches. Over the next decade it would be $600 billion, and around a trillion with state and local matches, if they are forthcoming (which they may not be because of how political incentives are lined up). That is, it’d a decent chunk of money if the federal government understands the following rule:
Fund expansion, not maintenance or operations
The sole legitimate source of regular budgeting for public transit is regular spending at the relevant level of government, which is state or local in the United States. Outside infusions of money like federal spending are bad government, because they incentivize deferring maintenance when the federal government is stingy and then crying poverty when it is generous. Amtrak did just that in the 2000s: faced with pressure from the Bush administration to look profitable for future privatization, Amtrak fired David Gunn, who wouldn’t defer maintenance, and replaced him with the more pliable Joe Boardman; then in the economic crisis and the stimulus, it discovered a multi-billion dollar backlog of deferred maintenance, permitting it to ask for money without having to show any visible results.
If the federal government credibly commits to not funding state of good repair backlogs or normal replacement, and to penalizing agencies that defer maintenance and giving them less money for expansion, it can encourage better behavior. Unlike ongoing maintenance, capital expansion is not necessary for continued operations, and thus if funding dries up and a transit agency stops expanding, there will not be problems with service cancellation, slow zones, frequency-ridership spirals, and other issues familiar to New Yorkers in the 1970s or Washingtonians today.
One potential way to change things is to federally fund expansion without expecting much if any local match, provided the agency commits to spending the required operating funds on running the service in question. This separation of federal and local responsibility also reduces the political incentives to grandstand by rejecting federal money in order to make the president look bad.
Build the rail lines that are appropriate
Each region in the US should be getting transit expansion money in rough proportion to its population. However, the meaning of transit depends on the local and regional geography:
- In big cities it means rapid transit expansion: new lines for the New York City Subway, the Chicago L, etc. In somewhat smaller cities with light rail-based systems it means light rail expansion, which may also involve upgrading at-grade light rail to full rapid transit: Dallas is considering a downtown tunnel for its light rail network and Los Angeles is already building one, and those could lead to upgrading capacity elsewhere on the system to permit longer trains.
- In suburbs and some smaller cities with large mainline rail networks, it means commuter rail. It’s especially valuable in the Northeast and secondarily in the Midwest and the odd older Southern city: cities like Milwaukee and Cincinnati don’t really have compelling corridors for greenfield urban rail, but do have interesting S-Bahn corridors.
- In periurban and rural areas, it means longer-range regional rail, transitioning to intercity rail in lower-density areas. In some smaller metro areas, it means actual intercity rail to bigger cities. Examples include Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, both of which can be connected with Denver, and Hans-Joachim Zierke’s proposed regional rail line for Medford, Oregon.
I focus on rail and not buses for two simple reasons: rail has higher capital and lower operating costs, so it’s more relevant for a capital program, and rail gets higher ridership for reasons including better right-of-way quality and better ride quality.
Transmit knowledge of best practices
The federal government has the ability to assimilate best practices for both limiting construction costs and designing good transit networks. Local governments can learn the same, but for the most part they don’t care. Instead they run their transit systems in manage-the-decline mode, only occasionally hearing about something done in London, hardly the best-run European transit city.
The best practices for network design are especially important given the magnitude of the program. The US is not spending $60 billion nationwide a year on transit expansion. The NTD says annual spending on capital among the top 50 American transit agencies was $14.6 billion as of 2016 (source, PDF-p. 11), and a lot of that (e.g. most of the MTA’s $3.5 billion capital expenditure) is the black holes that are state of good repair and normal replacement. $60 billion a year apportioned by population is on the order of $2 billion for New York City annually, which is $20 billion over 10 years, and the city doesn’t necessarily know how to spend that money even at today’s construction costs, let alone rational construction costs.
At least New York has an internal bank of enthusiasts at the MTA and at shadow agencies like the RPA who have ideas for how to spend this money. Smaller cities for the most part don’t. Does Cleveland have any idea what it would do with $5 billion over ten years for regionwide transit expansion? Does Tampa? The federal government has to play an educational role in giving regions sample zoning codes for TOD, network design guidelines, and procurement guidelines that help reduce costs.
Start planning now
A large infrastructure bill planned for 2021 has to be planned now. Its proponents do not intend for it to be a regular jobs program based on existing local wishlists: they intend for it to represent a shift in national priorities, which means that each item of spending has to be planned in advance, mostly from scratch. It means the political work of aligning various interest groups toward the same goal has to start early, which seems to be what the proponents are doing; even the name Green New Deal evokes progressive nostalgia for olden days before neoliberalism.
But alongside the political work, there must be good technical work. Regional planning agencies have to be aware this may be coming and have to have solid ideas for how they’d like to spend a few billion dollars over the decade. Simultaneously, organs including federal offices like the GAO, transit agencies, shadow agencies, and thinktanks have to learn and transmit a culture of good operating and capital practices. A government that plays a bigger role in the economy or in society has to become more competent; managerial competence is required for any program that allocates money with any precision, and very good cost control is a must to make sure the available budget goes to a green transition and isn’t wasted on red tape.
After the midterm election 2.5 weeks ago, there began calls for an infrastructure deal. The details, as always, were always vague, but the idea is that congressional Democrats and President Trump will agree on a bill to spend about a trillion dollars on infrastructure. What infrastructure is at stake is not specified, except that some New York-based commentators (and Senator Schumer) are calling for federal funding of the Gateway project; whether to pay for the program with deficit spending, tax hikes, or cutting other spending is not specified either. The good news is that such a deal isn’t likely to happen, for roughly the same reasons such a deal would be a bad idea in the first place. However, just in case some people reading this blog might like the idea of such a grand bargain, I’d like to spell the reasons why such a deal would be a waste of money.
What is the purpose of an infrastructure deal, anyway?
Given around a year of something approaching full-time work, I could identify a trillion dollars’ worth of useful public transportation investment in the United States. Given that I’d also look for ways to cut construction costs (which I’m almost certain Congress has not seriously tried), and given that there are other infrastructure priorities than transit, it should not be hard to come up with a long-term 13-figure program.
However, I’m fairly certain there hasn’t been any serious attempt to list infrastructure projects that should be covered under this plan. The main clue is that if there were any, the people trying to sell the public on such a deal would mention them as concrete benefits. This has happened with Gateway: people around the New York area are desperate for federal funding to cover the project’s extreme cost, and do not shy from mentioning it as a beneficiary of a grand bargain. But with anything else, there’s nothing.
For example, nobody in California has said anything about federal funds for the state’s flagging high-speed rail project, even though it would be a natural candidate for a bipartisan deal between Trump and congressional Democrats (the state’s Republican delegation opposed the project, but much of it was wiped out in the midterm). Elsewhere, there are both road and transit projects in red state cities that are hungry for funding, some of which were on the Trump administration’s list of projects to fund last year, in one of the interminable Infrastructure Week pushes that went nowhere. Nothing comparable has surfaced this month.
The lack of detail about the plan suggests it’s not really serious policy. It’s a trial balloon – one that’s failing because of the political situation. But in the event anything comes out of it, it will be a half-thought plan, created for the purpose of spending money and doing something that gives the appearance of bipartisan consensus.
The US economy is not in a recession
The point of a Keynesian stimulus is to prop up the economy during recessions. The American economy right now has 3.7% unemployment, which is more or less full employment, and 2.5% inflation, which is a hair above target. Additional spending would be great for me – it would strengthen the dollar, personally helping me as someone who earns dollars and spends euros. But for the putative target of the bill – the American people – the only effect would be fiscal constraints. The country needs to think about reducing the deficit, not about increasing it in a show of bipartisan unity.
Worse, the stimulus effect of new government spending comes from the net change in annual spending, whereas the deficit effect comes from overall annual spending. A big infrastructure bill would only act as economic stimulus in the earliest phases, when the spending rate would ramp up. Subsequently, it would have no effect on growth or on employment. David Dayen made this point regarding the 2009 stimulus: it had a big effect on American economic growth in 2009, but as the spending rate reached its maximum in 2010, the net effect of federal spending on growth turned negative in the third quarter of 2010, even before the Republican victory in the midterm, long before most stimulus funds were actually spent.
This does not mean that infrastructure funding is out of the question. A serious bill that is crafted to be deficit-neutral in the short as well as long term could do good; it is also close to impossible. Some Democratic pundits have trolled the conversation by proposing pairing it with repealing Trump’s tax cuts, but the probability of a grand bargain that raises taxes to pay for extra spending is approximately zero. Cutting other spending is extremely unlikely as well – unlike state and local governments, domestic federal spending doesn’t have enough waste to fund a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, and what waste does exist is locked up in Medicare, which is politically untouchable.
The state of the American economy is such that it’s a great idea to design an infrastructure bill, to be deployed at the next recession. There could be a list of priority projects for public transportation (or other forms of infrastructure) chosen for a combination of cost-effectiveness and nationwide spread. While designing this plan, the federal government would make the process open, to let local and state governments know what is happening and offer them the opportunity to submit their choice projects for consideration. The federal government should also insist that they not defer maintenance now hoping to score state of good repair money later – for example, I would propose to credibly commit to only funding expansion but not maintenance, and to defund projects run by agencies that defer maintenance (such as Boardman-era Amtrak). The plan would be funded, with deficit spending, at the next recession, which analysts expect to start in the next few years.
The federal government is unusually corrupt
If the above plan of coming up with a measured infrastructure plan, with incentives to encourage good behavior among state and local governments, sounds like science fiction, it’s because the federal government today doesn’t have the capability of carrying out such a program. Part of it is generic public-sector weakness within the United States, making it hard to make long-term plans; the civil service is weak, and politicians make capricious decisions, so nothing like the TGV, Grand Paris Express, High Speed 2, and Crossrail – all bipartisan projects within their respective countries – can happen.
But there’s a bigger problem now: Trump. Trump himself is corrupt in ways that go far beyond the affairs of scandal-ridden past presidents like Clinton and George W. Bush, and this affects how people think of infrastructure. The US has a public transportation cost premium of nearly a full order of magnitude over comparable countries. Such a premium must have multiple causes, but one cause is corruption: we’ve already seen how political interference by Schumer helped double the cost of Amtrak’s rolling stock procurement. Trump’s scandals easily surpass Schumer’s.
This goes beyond partisanship. Atrios has been a partisan Democrat since his blog’s early days, and yet he’s called for SUPERTRAINS (always in caps) since mid-2008, when the idea of stimulus became part of the American public conversation. At the time Obama was ahead in the polls, but he was not guaranteed to win, and years of Bush had gotten the Democratic base used to opposing anything a Republican president did; and yet, center-left writers like Atrios and Matt Yglesias (at the time transitioning from the Republican bloggers’ favorite Democrat to a conventional partisan liberal Democrat) were fine endorsing an infrastructure program in an uncertain partisan climate.
In theory, the extent of Trump’s corruption is small compared with the magnitude of the program. It’s billions of dollars at worst versus a trillion. In practice, the presence of the current president at the helm of any program screams at contractors, “make an effort to stay at Trump hotels and Mar-a-Lago, not to make a cheap and technically sound bid.” The extra cost coming from contractors slouching in the bidding and construction phases can easily soak up hundreds of billions of dollars out of the trillion: in Brian Rosenthal’s article about high New York costs, contractors quoted a premium of about 25% just from MTA red tape, and Trump’s personal corruption is probably on the same order of magnitude.
Ultimately, it’s fine to wait
In late 2008 and early 2009, the American economy was spiraling into the deepest recession since 1946; in that climate, rushing the stimulus was desirable. The situation today is not like that at all. There’s time to develop an infrastructure plan based on one’s combination of political preference and belief about the future (e.g. will Trump be reelected?, and who will control Congress after 2020?). There’s no point in passing a plan that exists purely to spend money and to show that Congress can enact big policies.
Since there’s no rush, and no need to deficit-spend right now, there’s grounds for demanding better of the government. Any infrastructure plan should be based on clear needs: that is, a national blueprint (such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or spreading infrastructure funding to poor states, or a similar political goal), a list of items designed to maximize cost-effectiveness within the blueprint’s parameters, and a federal civil service that can implement the construction of these items with maximum efficiency.
The incompetent and the corrupt should have no role to play in this program, and this begins with the current president. If it’s not possible to remove deadwood from the federal government, it’s fine to indefinitely postpone any big federal infrastructure plan. Nothing there would be indispensable; if Congress wants to deficit-spend money to create jobs, it can choose policies that are less sensitive to public-sector competence, such as tax cuts, unemployment benefits (not a big factor today but by definition a big one in a recession), and aid to states. With infrastructure that most of the developed world laughs at the US still manages to be one of the richest countries in the world; filling in the gap in public transportation is desirable, but the country won’t collapse if the gap persists.