A curious pattern can be found in subway construction costs around the world, based on GDP per capita. On the one hand, poor countries that have severe cultural cringe, such as former colonies, have high construction costs, and often the worst projects are the ones that most try to imitate richer countries, outsourcing design to Japan or perhaps China. On the other hand, poor-rich countries, by which I mean countries on the periphery of the developed world, have similar cultural cringe and self-hate for their institutions, and yet their imitation of richer countries has been a success; for example, Spain copied a lot of rail development ideas from Germany and France. This can be explained using the development economic theory of isomorphic mimicry; the rub here is that a poor country like India or Ethiopia is profoundly different from the richer countries it tries to imitate, whereas a poor-rich country like Spain is actually pretty similar to Germany by global standards.
What is isomorphic mimicry?
In the economic development literature, the expression isomorphic mimicry refers to when a poor country sets up institutions that aim to imitate those of richer countries in hope that through such institutions the country will become rich too, but the imitation is too shallow to be useful. A common set of examples is well-meaning regulations on safety, labor, environmental protection, and anti-corruption that are not enforced due to insufficient state capacity. Here is a review of the concept by Andrews, Pritchett, and Woolcock, with examples from Mozambique, Uganda, and India, as well as some history from the American private sector. More examples using the theory can be found in Turczynowicz, Gautam, Rénique, Yeap, and Sagues concerning Peru’s one laptop per child program, in Evans’ interpretation of Bangladesh’s domestic violence laws, and in Rajagopalan and Tabarrok on India’s poor state of public services.
While the theory regarding institutions is new, analogs of it for tangible goods are older. Postwar developmental states engaged in extensive isomorphic mimicry, building dams, steel plants, and coal plants hoping that it would transform them into wealthy states like the United States, Western Europe, and Japan; for the most part, they had lower economic growth than did the developed world until the 1980s. The shift within international development away from tangible infrastructure and toward trying to fix institutions came about because big projects like the Aswan Dam failed to create enduring economic growth and often had ill side effects on agriculture, the environment, or human rights.
How does isomorphic mimicry affect public transportation?
The best example of isomorphic mimicry leading to bad transit that I know of is the Addis Ababa light rail system. This is funded by China, whose ideas of global development are similar to those of the postwar first and second worlds, that is providing tangible physical things, like railroads. Unfortunately, usage is low, because of problems that do not exist in middle-income or rich countries but are endemic to Ethiopia. Christina Goldbaum, the New York Times’ transit reporter, who lived in East Africa and reported from Addis Ababa, mentioned four problems:
- Electricity is unreliable, so the trains sometimes do not work. In early-20th century America, electric railroads and streetcar companies built their own power supply and were sometimes integrated concerns providing both streetcar and power service; but in more modern countries, there is reliable power for urban rail to tap.
- Not many people work in city center rather than in the neighborhood they live in. This, again, has historical analogs – there were turn-of-the-century Brooklynites who never visited Manhattan. Thus, a downtown-centric light rail system won’t get as much ridership as in a more developed city.
- The train is expensive relative to local incomes, so many people stick with buses or ride without paying.
- The railroad cuts through streets at-grade, to save money, and blocks off pedestrian paths that people use.
The Addis Ababa light rail system at least had reasonable costs. A more typical case for countries that poor is to build urban rail at premium cost, and the poorer the country, the higher the cost. The reason is most likely that such countries tend to build with Chinese or Japanese technical assistance, depending on geopolitics, and therefore import expensive capital for which they pay with weak currencies.
In India, the most functional and richest of the countries in question, there is much internal and external criticism that its economic growth is not labor-intensive, that is the most productive firms are not the ones employing the most people, and this stymies social development and urban growth. I suspect that this also means there is reluctance to use labor-intensive construction methods, that is cut-and-cover with headcounts that would be typical in New York, Paris, and Berlin in the early 20th century, or perhaps mid-20th century Milan and Tokyo. International consultancies are centered on the rich world and recommend capital-intensive methods to avoid hiring too many sandhogs at a fully laden employment cost of perhaps 8,000€ a month; in India, that is the PPP-adjusted gross salary of an experienced construction worker per year, and if capital is imported then multiply its cost by 3 to account for the rupee’s exchange rate value.
Poor-rich countries are those on the margin of the developed world, such as the countries of Eastern and Southern Europe, Turkey, Israel, to a lesser extent South Korea, and the richer countries of Latin America such as Chile. These are clearly poorer than the United States or Germany. Their residents, everywhere I’ve asked, believe that they are poorer and institutionally inferior; convincing a Spaniard or an Italian that their country can do engineering better than Germany is a difficult task. Thus, these countries tend to engage in mimicry of those countries that they consider the economic center, which could be Germany in Southern Europe, Japan in South Korea, or the US or Spain in Spanish America.
However, being a poor-rich country is not the same as being a poor country. Italy is, by American or German standards, poor. Wages there are noticeably lower and living standards are visibly poorer, and not just in the South either. But those wages remain in the same sphere as American and German wages. The labor-capital cost ratios in Southern Europe are sufficiently similar to those of Northern Europe that it’s not difficult to imitate. Spain even mixed and matched, using French TGV technology for early high-speed rail but preferring the more advanced German intercity rail signaling system, LZB, to the French one.
Such imitation leads to learning. Spain imported German and French engineering ideas but not French tolerance for casual rioting or German litigiousness, and therefore can build infrastructure with less NIMBYism. Turkey invited Italian consultants to help design the early lines of the Istanbul Metro, but subsequently refined their ideas domestically in order to build more efficiently, for example shrinking station footprint and tunnel diameter to reduce costs. Seoul has a subway system that looks like Tokyo’s in many ways, but has a cleaner network shape, with far fewer missed connections between lines. As a result, all three countries – Spain, Turkey, Korea – now have innovative domestic programs of rail construction and can even export their expertise elsewhere, as Spain is in Ecuador.
Openness to novelty
Andrews-Pritchett-Woolcock stress the importance of openness to novelty in the public sector, and cite examples of failure in which bureaucrats at various levels refused to implement any change, even one that was proven to be positive, because their goal was not to rock the boat.
Cultural cringe is in a way a check on that. Isomorphic mimicry is an attempt to combine agenda conformity and closeness to novelty with a desire to have what the richest countries have. But in poor-rich countries, isomorphic mimicry is real imitation – there is ample state penetration in a country like Spain or Turkey rather than outsourcing of state capacity to traditional heads of remote villages, and education levels are high enough that many people know how Germany works and interact with Germany regularly. A worker who earns 2,000€ a month net and a worker who earns 3,000€ a month can exchange tips about how to apply for jobs, how to prepare food, what brands of consumer goods to buy, and where to go on vacation. They cannot have this conversation with a worker who earns 10,000€ a month net.
Within the rich world, what matters then is the realization that something is wrong and the solution is to look abroad. It doesn’t matter if it’s a generally poor-rich region like Southern Europe or a region with a poor-rich public sector like the United States – there’s enough private knowledge about how successful places work, but what’s needed is a public acknowledgement and social organization encouraging imitation and lifting voices that are most expert in implementing it.
And for all the jokes about how the United States or Britain is like a third-world country, they really aren’t. Their public-sector dysfunctions are real, but are still firmly within the poor-rich basket; remember, for example, that despite its antediluvian signaling capacity, the New York City Subway manages to run 24 trains per hour per track at the peak, which is better than Shanghai’s 21. Health and education outcomes in the United States are generally better than those of middle-income and poor countries on every measure. This is a public sector that compares poorly with innovation centers in Continental Europe and democratic East Asia, but it still compares; to try to do the same comparison in a country like Nigeria would be nonsensical.
The upshot then is that implementing best practices in developed countries that happen to be bad at one thing, in this case public transportation in the United States, can work smoothly, much like Southern Europe’s successful assimilation of and improvements on Northern European engineering, and unlike the failures in former colonies in Africa and Asia. But people need to understand that they need to do it – that the centers of innovation are abroad and are in particular in countries that speak English non-natively.
There’s an emerging mentality among left-wing urban planners in the US called “trust before streets.” It’s a terrible idea that should disappear, a culmination of about 50 or 60 years of learned helplessness in the American public sector. Too many people who I otherwise respect adhere to this idea, so I’m dedicating a post to meme-weeding it. The correct way forward is to think in terms of state capacity first, and in particular about using the state to enact tangible change, which includes providing better public transportation and remaking streets to be safer to people who are not driving. Trust follows – in fact, among low-trust people, seeing the state provide meaningful tangible change is what can create trust, and not endless public meetings in which an untrusted state professes its commitment to social justice.
What is trust before streets?
The trust before streets mentality, as currently used, means that the state has to first of all establish buy-in before doing anything. Concretely, if the goal is to make the streets safer for pedestrians, the state must not just build a pop-up bike lane or a pedestrian plaza overnight, the way Janette Sadik-Khan did in New York, because that is insensitive to area residents. Instead, it must conduct extensive public outreach to meet people where they’re at, which involves selling the idea to intermediaries first.
This is always sold as a racial justice or social justice measure, and thus the idea of trust centers low-income areas and majority-minority neighborhoods (and in big American cities they’re usually the same – usually). Thus, the idea of trust before streets is that it is racist to just build a pedestrian plaza or bus lanes – it may not be an improvement, and if it is, it may induce gentrification. I’ve seen people in Boston say trust before streets to caution against the electrification of the Fairmount Line just because of one article asserting there are complaints about gentrification in Dorchester, the low-income diverse neighborhood the line passes through (in reality, the white population share of Dorchester is flat, which is not the case in genuinely gentrifying American neighborhoods like Bushwick).
I’ve equally seen people use the expression generational trauma. In this way, the trust before streets mentality is oppositional to investments in state capacity. The state in a white-majority nation is itself white-majority, and people who think in terms of neighborhood autonomy find it unsettling.
Low trust and tangible results
The reality of low-trust politics is about the opposite of what educated Americans think it is. It is incredibly concrete. Abstract ideas like social justice, rights, democracy, and free speech do not exist in that reality, to the point that authoritarian populists have exploited low-trust societies like those of Eastern Europe to produce democratic backsliding. A Swede or a German may care about the value of their institutions and punish parties that run against them, but an Israeli or a Hungarian or a Pole does not.
In Israel, this is visible in the corona crisis: Netanyahu’s popularity, as expressed in election polls, has recently risen and fallen based on how Israel compares with the Western world when it comes to handling corona. In March, there was a rally-around-the-flag effect in Israel as elsewhere, giving Netanyahu cover to refuse to concede even though parties that pledged to replace him as prime minister with Benny Gantz got 62 out of 120 seats, and giving Gantz cover not to respond to hardball with hardball and instead join as a minister in Netanyahu’s government. Then in April and May, as Israel suppressed the first wave and had far better outcomes than nearly every European country, let alone the US, Netanyahu’s popularity surged while that of Gantz and the opposition cratered. The means did not matter – the entire package including voluntary quarantine hotels, Shin Bet surveillance for contact tracing, and a tight lockdown that Netanyahu, President Rivlin, and several ministers violated nonchalantly, was seen to produce results.
In the summer, this went in reverse. The second wave hit Israel earlier than elsewhere, and by late summer, its infection rate per capita was in the global top ten, and Israel had the largest population among those top ten countries. In late September it reached around 6,000 cases a day, around 650 per million people. The popularity of Netanyahu’s coalition was accordingly shot; Gantz himself is being nearly wiped out in the polls, but the opposition was holding steady, and Yamina, a party to the right of Likud led by Naftali Bennett that is not currently in the coalition and is perceived as more competent, Bennett himself having done a lot to moderate the party’s line, surged from its tradition 5-6 seats to 16.
Today the situation is unclear – Israelis have seen the state fight the second wave but it was not nearly as successful as in the spring, and right now there is a lot of chaos with vaccination. On the other hand, Israel is also the world’s vaccination capital, and eventually people will notice that by March Israel is (most likely) fully vaccinated while Germany is less than 10% vaccinated. Low-trust people notice results. If they’re disaffected with Netanyahu’s conduct, which most people are, they can then vote for a right-wing-light satellite party like New Hope, just as many voted Kulanu in 2015, which advertised itself as center, became kingmaker after the results were announced, and immediately joined under Netanyahu without trying to seriously negotiate.
Streets lead to trust
The story of corona in Israel does not exist in isolation. Low trust in many cases exists because people perceive the state to be hostile to their interests, which happens when it does not provide tangible goods. Many years ago, talking about his own history immigrating from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, Shalom Boguslavsky credited the welfare state for his integration, saying that if he’d immigrated in the 1990s he’d probably have ended up in a housing project in Ashdod and voted for Avigdor Lieberman, who at the time was running on Russian resentment more than anything.
In Northern Europe, perhaps trust is high precisely because the state provides things. My total mistrust of the German state in general and Berlin in particular is tempered by the fact that, at queer meetups, people remind me that Berlin’s center-left coalition has passed universal daycare, on a sliding scale ranging from 0 for poor parents to about €100/month for wealthy ones. This more than anything reminds me and others that the state is good for things other than dithering on corona and negatively stereotyping immigrant neighborhoods.
Such provisions of tangible goods cannot happen in a trust before streets environment. This works when the state takes action, and endless public meetings in which every objection must be taken seriously are the death of the state. It says a lot that in contrast with Northern Europe, in the United States even in wealthy left-wing cities it is unthinkable that the municipality can just raise taxes to pay teachers and social workers better. Low trust is downstream of low state capacity. Build the streets and trust will follow.
If I have a bad idea and you have a bad idea and we exchange them, we now have two bad ideas.
But more than that. If I have a bad idea and you have a good idea and we exchange them, we should both land on your good idea – but that requires both of us to conceive of the possibility that your idea could in fact be better than mine. This is not always the case. In exchanges between Britain and Australia, both sides think of Britain as the metropole and Australia as the periphery, so ideas flow from Britain outward. The same is true in exchanges between either Britain or the United States and Canada.
We even see this in exchanges between the Anglosphere and the rest of the world. Europe knows what the United States is like. We speak English and read American news to some extent. We have occasional sympathy protests with American causes that we feel are reflected at home; I have never seen Americans do the same with people outside North America except for very small protests concentrated among a particular diaspora, such as small groups of Israeli-Americans protesting Netanyahu’s policies in front of Israeli consulates.
And most of us in Europe look at the United States with a combination of denigration and disgust, but it’s not everyone, and in a pandemic, the least responsible members of society set everyone’s risk levels. There’s been some American influence on the populist right in Europe – people who see Trump and think “we would like to be governed like that”; this is still sporadic, e.g. the Gilets Jaunes used French populist language and had no connections to the United States, but the corona denialist protests in Germany have imported some American language like QAnon symbols. And more broadly, seeing other countries fail emboldens the pro-failure caucus at home: the Israeli immigrant who told me 2 months ago that “800 cases a day is nothing” Germany-wide would probably not have said this if Israel maintained its May infection rates. Of course the vast majority of denialists here are not Israeli or Jewish, and many are even anti-Semitic, but they look up to the failure that is the United States and not to the one that is Israel.
The corona example above is specific to Germany and is a bad idea that remains a minority position in Germany, but good ideas from the United States have made it to Europe elsewhere. For example, France made it easier to start a business, to the point that incorporation takes a few days and 4,000 euros in a corporate account, regulations on small business are very friendly, and there is elite consensus in favor of making hiring more flexible and some movement in that direction in the Macron administration. On handling racial diversity, Europe is sporadically importing ideas from the US, some good, some terrible, but again there is little attempt at learning in the other direction even when our cops kill a few dozen people per year Western Europe-wide and America’s kill 1,000.
I bring this up, because in transportation, one sees a lot of learning of practices both good and bad, if they come from a higher-prestige place. I may even speculate that this is why the most culturally dominant part of the world has the worst institutions when it comes to building infrastructure: if New York were capable of building something for one eighth the cost of Paris or one sixth that of Berlin, instead of the reverse, then Paris and Berlin would be capable of learning to adopt New York’s institutions.
To speculate even further, this may be why the cheapest place to build subways in East Asia is not Japan but Korea – if Japan were the best, South Korea would have learned from it. There are extensive similarities between these two countries’ institutions in general and urbanism and transportation in particular, coming from one-way learning of Japanese ideas in Korea more than from reciprocal learning. Evidently, Korea first of all learned from Japan that the primate city should be rail-oriented rather than car-oriented, and subsequently learned Japan’s extensive integration of urban rail with regional rail, its combination of local and express trains, its interest in rail technologies other than conventional subways, and so on. If Tokyo and Osaka were capable of building $120 million/km subways, Seoul would’ve picked that up. Instead, Seoul can do this but Tokyo and Osaka are evidently not learning.
In Europe, the same pattern holds. None of the most culturally dominant countries here has low costs. France and Germany’s construction costs are very average by global standards and on the high side by Continental European ones, and both have serious problems with how long it takes to build infrastructure projects. The stars of high-quality, low-cost construction in this part of the world are Southern Europe, Turkey, Switzerland, and Scandinavia. The first two are ridden by cultural cringe – nobody there other than a few railfans believes that they’re capable of doing better than Germany. And evidently, where Germany and France outperform Spain, for example in high-speed rail ridership, the Spanish discourse understands this and tries to correct the situation.
Switzerland and the Nordic countries are dicier, since they are rich and well-governed and everyone in Europe knows this. People in France and Germany even reference various Nordic models as examples to learn from, and, in contrast, the Nordic countries’ willingness to learn from non-Nordic examples is limited. However, these are all small countries that import culture more than exporting it. The vast majority of German culture is produced in Germany and not Switzerland; people in Germany are aware that Switzerland exists and is richer, but Germany’s size lets it get away with not learning. The Nordic countries, likewise, are small enough that other countries are not as regularly exposed to their ideas and therefore treat them as exotic more than as examples to learn from.
I bring up the issue of size, because it is so flagrant in the United States especially, and also in Britain. The US philosophy that economic or social might makes right is not done on a per capita basis, and practically every comparison to another country elicits the “we’re way bigger than them” excuse. Britain engages in the same excuse-making at every comparison to a European country smaller than Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, whereas these four it dismisses on a case-by-case basis; the Australian cultural cringe toward Britain is evidently not about per capita living standards, since Australia’s GDP per capita has been higher than Britain’s for most of the last 150-200 years, but rather about Britain’s greater size and historic status as a world power.
You may be wondering, maybe this is just a way to theorize around the fact that it really is easier to build infrastructure in a smaller country? But no. Turkey and South Korea and Italy and Spain are not small. Seoul is the second largest metropolitan area in the developed world, behind Tokyo and ahead of New York. The common factor to the lowest-cost countries in the world is not size, but rather their status on the periphery of the developed world, either economically or culturally.
Of course, peripheral status is not enough. Former colonies tend to have high construction costs, perhaps because they learn the wrong lessons from the developed world or from China. Italian wages and capital costs are by global standards approximately the same as German ones, so Italy can adapt German ideas where they’re superior, but Indian wages are so much lower and capital costs so much higher that it cannot blindly imitate Japan and expect success. In the developed world, too, we see failure, when countries learn from the wrong examples, that is Britain or the United States; Singapore has severe cultural cringe toward the Western world, but it finds it easiest to adapt British ideas out of familiarity rather than better Continental ones, in much the same way that reform proposals in the United States look to Britain and Canada rather than to Continental Europe or democratic East Asia.
The way forward must be to recognize this cringe, and know to look for ideas that do not obey the global social hierarchy. Southern Europe has a lot to teach Germany and France, and the Nordic countries are not exotic far north utopias but countries with real institutions that can be adapted elsewhere, and Turkey has a very efficient construction sector, and Korea has a lot to teach its former colonizer as well as the rest of Asia.
More to the point, the most dominant places in the world have very little left to teach others. Everyone knows what New York is like. There are many good things about New York, but we’ve done a decent job copying them. London, same thing. It’s time for New York and Los Angeles and Toronto and London to stop exchanging bad ideas and start learning from places that do not speak English as a first language, and not just from the world’s next largest language groups either.
There’s a quote bouncing around urbanist media, attributed to Fiorello LaGuardia, that there is no Republican or Democratic way of taking out the garbage; see for examples CityLab and Governing. The idea of this quote is, there is no ideology in urban governance, only pragmatism. In this framework, important questions about how to govern a city are assumed away, as is any conflict between different class-based, ethnic, or industry-based interests.
The object-level political questions
There are key political questions about how to provide city services as delegated to the local government by the state. Berlin is a city as well as a state of Germany and thus has especially high levels of autonomy, with lively political debate about housing, education, and transportation. But even cities with less autonomy, like Paris, still have debates regarding land use, public housing, and street usage. These can be any of the following:
- Is this service worth spending more money on, or should the city prioritize other services?
- Should this service be provided directly by the city government, or by the private sector? If the latter, what kind of regulations are appropriate, if any?
- Where should the city prioritize service? For example, in education, should the city prioritize class integration or build segregated schools (“Gymnasien”)? In garbage, which neighborhoods should the city make sure to prioritize in collection?
- Should the workers be unionized? Should the city side more with the unions or with management in industrial disputes?
- How should the service be run? For example, in education, what should the curriculum focus on, how should assessment work, what is the priority for investment, and how big should schools be? In policing, which crimes should get the most resources, should the city side with the police more or with civil rights activists, and which theories of policing should be implemented (broken windows, community policing, etc.)?
The earlier questions on the above list tend to be the same regardless of service, and generally people who like privatizing one service also like privatizing others. But shouldn’t this be an open ideological debate? A multiparty governing coalition might compromise on which services should be municipal and which private, and political parties would have to put their ideas to the test by either crafting a workable privatization contract or competently running service publicly.
The later questions on the list depend more on the service in question, and usually the biggest ideological load is on bigger issues than sanitation, like education or policing, the former of which especially animates the New Right in Germany and white flighters in the United States. However, even with sanitation, there are questions of priorities like what frequency to collect, how much to prioritize low-income neighborhoods, and how much space to make for dumpsters on the streets. New York infamously has open trash on the sidewalks because dumpsters would have to take up space that is currently devoted to street parking, which the most powerful mass groups of voters in the city consider sacrosanct.
The meta questions
Beyond questions of how to run various services, there are even broader questions about what is appropriate to be decided at what level. For examples:
- How big should the city be? That is, should it annex its suburbs for a greater regional government, as in London, Berlin, and Toronto, or remain more local, as in Paris and most American cities? Should local governments outside the city be very fractionalized as in France and the Northeastern United States, or should there be amalgamations of regional municipalities as in most of non-France Europe?
- Which issues are appropriate to be decided at what level? Should local governments have taxing power at all, or should they only have to make do with the budgets given to them by state taxes? Should education, policing, sanitation, transport, parks, electricity, and water be responsibilities of the state, a regional government, or the city?
- What role, if any, should referendums have in budgetary and other political questions?
- Regardless of what services are provided at what level, how should the bodies providing them be overseen? Should there be an elected board, a ministerial appointment, a civil service, or any combination of those three?
These questions sometimes do and sometimes don’t carry ideological load, but even when they don’t, they deserve to be debated and voted on in the open. In France, Sweden, and Japan, questions regarding zoning and housing production are decided at the national level, so in the 2014 election campaign, political parties in Sweden had posters all over Stockholm promising to build more housing to alleviate the country’s severe shortage. In the United States and in Germany these decisions are more local, but it’s completely legitimate for a political movement to demand that decisions be transferred upward to the state level, and to a large extent the YIMBY movement in California argues openly for state-level mandates and against local control.
This is especially important when there is consistent ideological load. Questions of annexation and boundaries between local or regional governments frequently intersect with inequality. In Israel, there are revenue-generating industrial zones in non-urban regional councils adjacent to low-income cities, where local interests agitate for the right to annex these zones to enhance those cities’ tax bases; conversely, the kibbutzes within those regional councils agitate for keeping borders as they are, and have so far succeeded in forestalling any change.
Interaction between different questions
The various object-level and meta questions about how to run city government – or whether to even have much local empowerment in the first place – interact in ways that make the answers to some questions depend on others.
The issue of pragmatism and apolitical government is especially instructive, because if the idea is to reduce the role of ideology in answering object-level questions, then certain meta elements follow. Specifically, if there is no ideological conflict, then there is no need for elected government. Consensus can be formed entirely at the elite civil service level, and in particular the number of political appointments should be kept to a minimum, ideally zero except for the minister.
The analog here is the military, which is depoliticized in every democracy, to the point that a politicized military generally means a country is not fully democratic. The military appoints its own officers, and even when the elected government must sign off on officer commissions, it is a pure rubber stamp, as the decisions are made internally. Only at the highest levels do politicians decide on appointment to provide civilian oversight, such as the IDF chief of staff. The role of the political system is to make decisions on war and peace and allocate the budget, and even then the military gets considerable latitude in internal allocation of funding. What is more, this arrangement is not a cloak-and-dagger affair – the public fully knows what is going on and is supportive, because the public has high levels of trust in the military as an institution, even in times and places with low public support for war.
Pragmatism and excuses
In practice, self-identified pragmatism in politics tends to mean treating certain positions as so obvious that they do not require any further defense. But then the question of what is obvious depends on time and place; for example, in the late 20th century through today, English-speaking governments have assumed that public-private partnerships with multi-decade contracts are obviously the superior way to provide services, whereas the Nordic countries prefer regionwide governance with more ubiquitous but shorter-term contracting and France and Germany keep most services in the public sector.
Most people do not stop to ask whether a foreign way works better. This has nothing to do with pragmatism – people who identify differently do it just as much. However, the lack of political pluralism means that it is not possible for an opposition movement to point out that other places do things differently and use this to come up with concrete proposals for change. This problem occurs often where there is no regular change in government; multiparty elections can ameliorate it by giving people the option of voting for a different coalition members, for example voting Green in Berlin within the dominant red-red-green coalition to express a wish to stop building highways, but even that works less well than the threat of the opposition actually taking over. In cities with no real ideological choice, it becomes completely impossible to adopt new practices, and this should be viewed as a primary reason why local governance in the United States is so bad by European standards.
Democratic consensus as mediation
In contrast with the idea of a leader who stands about mere politics, democratic consensus governance permits debate on different urban questions, including meta-discussions of which questions are most important. The key here is multiparty elections that force coalition governments. This has three benefits.
- It reduces the ability of an executive to engage in an authoritarian takeover, since junior coalition members in nearly all cases have an incentive to defect – if the opposition is destroyed, they are next on the chopping block.
- It widens the space of permissible ideas, since niche groups can take over smaller parties; environmentalism made the jump from street protests to serious politics through green parties in multiparty states. In cases of extremism it’s still possible to form a cordon sanitaire against unwanted parties like AfD, and this puts pressure on parties to behave in socially acceptable ways to avoid being treated as illegitimate.
- It allows junior members to advocate on a specific issue and get the relevant ministerial portfolio to make changes that can succeed or fail in the real world.
This is a set of answers to meta-questions, much more so than to object-level questions. As always, there is interaction between answers: if political parties are the vessel that mediates between individual voters and the state, then the polity size must be large enough to maintain ideological vote and ideological diversity, which argues in favor of more extensive annexation and against very small, homogeneous municipalities like Eastern and Midwestern American suburbs.
There is extensive room for pragmatism here, since this is a governance method that lives on political compromise, denying any single faction a majority. But it’s a pragmatism layered on ideological questions, because different parties will have different ideas about how to run the police, provide sanitation, allocate street space, etc., and this is fine. Different parties will have different ideas about whether to side with workers or management more, and this too is fine. And different parties will have different ideas about how to prioritize the budget and which services to provide in the first place, and that, like the previous points of contention, is also fine.
The military historian Danny Orbach writes about the popular analogy of the Covid-19 crisis to war, and what kinds of lessons from military history policymakers can learn. He of course understands the big differences – he doesn’t talk about tactics or operations, but rather about common issues regarding public support and the price of war. It’s not my intention to talk about the virus in the post, but rather, of an even bigger long-term global crisis: catastrophic climate change. Danny’s insights form a good guideline to why climate action is so difficult.
Popular willpower in crisis
The core of Danny’s post is that the public’s willingness to bear personal costs is limited, and can change during the crisis, usually for the worse. He gives a number of examples from historic wars, and concludes (bold in original),
Thus, the main moral is as follows: if you’re a leader facing a crisis like a war or a pandemic, the public trust must always be on your mind. Remember that it is always limited, and tends to run out much faster than you imagine. Most of the American public, for example, was willing to sacrifice a lot to save South Vietnam and Southeast Asia from communism, but not to pay an unlimited economic and human cost as General Westmoreland demanded. The Viet Cong and North Vietnam did not manage to defeat the United States, only to stall for time and exhaust it until the public trust of the American public ran out.
When fighting a pandemic, like the corona crisis, it’s equally necessary to think about the consequences of each move not just for the fight against the plague but also for the public trust for facing it. The main factor here is time. The more time passes, and the economic damage grows, the more the public trust runs out at an ever increasing rate. For this reason, policymakers must understand that they have limited time, and they must take every step to shorten it: for example, massive and fast increase in testing (even at research labs, which the Ministry of Health harassed for weeks), shortening red tape in obtaining results, handing out masks even at an early stage, and fast contact tracing to replace the general lockdown with targeted lockdowns. In Israel, the Ministry of Health understood this too late, in my estimation because of the public pressure to end the lockdown after Passover. It’s also important to understand that every further tightening wastes the public trust even faster, especially if it looks petty and redundant (the 100-meter limit on out-of-home trips, harassment of beach surfers, cutting the quota of permitted workers per business from 30% of normal to 15%). Finally, so that the public trust will last longer, personal example of the leaders is also important. When the Israeli public saw [PM Bibi] Netanyahu, [President Rubi] Rivlin, [Immigration and Absorption Minister Yoav] Galant, [Health Minister] Litzman, and other policymakers flout their own guidelines, the public’s willingness to sacrifice for a length period of time naturally decreased.
The details are naturally tailored to the situation of Israel, whose infection rates are low by Western standards (but high by democratic Asian ones), but the broad outline isn’t. Capricious rules lead to widespread derision even among people who support the overall program, even in relatively high-trust societies like Germany.
The implications for climate change
If public trust is a limited resource, then climate action has to involve a plan for conserving it. It’s related to plans by political operatives to conserve political capital, but is not the same – political capital refers to the support of political elites, especially elected officials, whereas public trust is broader. Disempowering some local group costs political capital but may increase public trust if it gives the appearance of faster and more decisive action; authoritarian leaders habitually surround themselves with corrupt sycophants who they can publicly remove to popular acclaim.
So how can governments fight climate change while maintaining public support for such measures? Visible green infrastructure helps, which nearly everyone understands, but what people don’t understand so easily is that the program itself cannot have too high a cost. The sort of leftists who propose Green New Deal programs don’t think trillions of dollars in deficit spending is ever bad, but the general public differs; when unemployment is not too high, it’s important to limit the costs. Shortening lead time from when a project is announced to when it opens is important as well.
Good interim measures are helpful, too, but they have a limit. Paris is one of the most polluted cities in Europe, but it is not Delhi; reducing pollution there is helpful but evidently did not get unanimous support. So reducing pollution and car accidents buys some public trust, but not to infinite extent. Building more housing to reduce rents in expensive cities is the same – it helps alleviate the stereotype that dense cities are expensive, but this doesn’t equal universal public patience for programs that abolish mobility by car.
The good news is that the highest carbon tax regime in the world, Sweden, has also had one of the stronger economic growth rates in the first world. So the economic cost of what’s been done so far does not exist. It’s a matter of the cost of further action, which includes limiting flights and cars, directing development to dense transit-oriented cities, etc.
The issue of personal example
Danny brings up the personal example issue among top leaders. I would add that personal example among a broader segment of the population is even more important – the EU plans for a Green Deal call for fairly high (though not Swedish, let alone fully damage-mitigating) taxes on aviation fuel within the EU, a policy that would help with public trust because of perceptions that domestic carbon taxes do not levy the tax on the rich because they do not cover international flights.
Among the literal leaders, the situation is more delicate. The threat model of a national leader, who is a personal target for state-level actors and major terrorist groups, is not the same as that of the ordinary person, who to the terrorist is just a statistic. To the ordinary person, a train has lower terrorism risk than a plane, since a bomb can’t kill the people on an entire train. To the national leader, a train has higher risk, because attacks on the fixed infrastructure (such as bridges) are easier to the group that wants to kill a particular person. When François Hollande traveled France by TGV rather than by plane to lead by example, soldiers had to guard every bridge. In this situation, it is not hypocritical for leaders to fly even when a train is available.
All of this is much easier when national leadership is more distributed and there is no executive president who provides a juicy target to hostile actors. Switzerland’s plural executive does not have the massive security of an ordinary head of government, and its members do take the tram around Bern, which would be unthinkable for a French president.
But even that has a real limit. Populists make up stories of hypocrisy all the time. Emmanuel Macron does not supply any proper scandals, and may be the first leader in the history of France who is faithful to his wife, so rumormongers and fake news sites step in with fake quotes and stories. The point of personal example isn’t to get unanimous consent; repression is not an avoidable aspect of climate action, or for that matter of having a state to begin with. The point is to shrink the opposition to the most risible elements, who the general public won’t mind seeing ignored or repressed if need be.
Climate change as forever war
A more interesting case study of war, not in the original post, is the modern forever war. The US has been in Afghanistan since 2001, in a conflict that has no end in sight; France is likewise in a forever war in its former Sahelian colonies. There’s a lot of mockery about this, but the general public is broadly okay with this situation, because the cost to the public in the US and France is so low. (Afghans, Malians, and Nigeriens naturally do not get a vote.) Even the limited extent of sacrifice the French and American voting publics endured trying to hold on to Vietnam would not be acceptable over such a long time, let alone that of a total war like World War Two. Thus, a forever war cannot be a total war.
The rhetoric about climate change is that of a total war, but that means little – leaders routinely engage in apocalyptic rhetoric in limited wars, like Israel’s cold war with Iran (“the year is 1938 and Iran is Germany” per Netanyahu), the American war on Iraq in 2003 (“we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud” per Condoleeza Rice). Everything else about climate change points to a forever war. The time horizon is far, with discussions of reducing emissions sharply by 2030 and eliminating them by 2050.
So if it’s a forever war, public trust is especially limited. It makes it especially important to make climate action feel like not much of a sacrifice, but an opportunity to live in rich, dynamic transit cities while paying affordable rents. This is not going to be a universal positive feeling, but the point, again, is not to get universal support, just to conserve public trust enough to implement the requires programs successfully.
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.