Category: Politics and Society

A Bigger City is a Better City

There’s a tendency among a number of important American YIMBYs that bothers me – they speak of development as a bad thing, a great burden that must be shared equally across neighborhoods. I’ve even seen this take regarding immigration, portraying it as such a terrible burden that Germany must undertake to redeem itself after the Holocaust. The underlying assumption is that growth is bad, and the ideal world is static and has people living in small communities.

But what if growth is good? What if more urban development is good? What if immigration is good, and immigrants are good people individually and collectively?

Growth is good

There’s a “growth for its own sake is the ideology of the cancer cell” meme out there. Well, no. Growth is not for its own sake. It’s for the sake of the things you can do in a society that produces more stuff: live longer, own refrigerators and other appliances, travel beyond walking range, communicate with people beyond travel range, get your own room, eat more interesting food than whatever scraps concentration camp prisoners fight over, wear more interesting clothes than concentration camp prisoner uniform, play interesting games, etc.

What is true is that no single element of these is in perfect correlation with wealth. You can even devise a large subset of these that aren’t, and focus on places that are exceptional relative to their income levels; Kerala is popular for its high literacy and life expectancy relative to its wealth. But usually these early investments then pay off in growth – this was the case in 1960s and 70s’ Korea, which was approaching universal literacy at the start of this period with astonishingly low incomes, and then used its advantage in relatively skilled, low-wage work to industrialize.

Urban development is good

The ability to access more stuff easily is a good thing and there’s a reason both employers and residents pay extra to have it. More and bigger buildings stimulate this kind of access. On the production side, this means thicker social networks for people who work in related industries and can come up with new innovations – this is why the tech industry sticks in San Francisco and environs, and not the bay view or the state of California’s public services. This, in turn, raises wages. On the consumption side, this means more variety in what to buy.

Moreover, this is true down to the neighborhood level. A denser neighborhood has more amenities, because more people is a good thing, because new people stimulate new social events, new consumption, and new opportunities for job access. If more people move to your neighborhood, that means first of all that employers are more likely to site jobs where convenient for you, and second of all that the city is likelier to want to build more subway lines in your direction.

A corollary of this is that private developers, as a class, are good, because they convert factors of production like labor and capital into finished, habitable apartments and offices. Yes, they can individually be terrible people. But collectively as a class their effect is good and the state needs to stop treating them as a source of loot to be doled to sympathetic neighborhood groups.

The most frustrating thing about it is that New York specifically likes to extol its own size as a reason for its supposed greatness. But then the idea that an even bigger city is a better city makes the political system there wince, and therefore the city permitted not many more than 20,000 housing units per year at the peak of the pre-virus economy, about one quarter the per capita rate of the Seoul metropolitan region or Tokyo (the city proper, but I think the suburbs have similar housing growth), and one third that of Ile-de-France.

Immigrants are good

Vancouver is a racist city, and I say this having lived in Israel. I somehow found myself in a room at a meetup where an all-white group of people were talking about black men’s penis size. Anti-Semitism, anti-black racism, Sinophobia, hate for indigenous people: you name it, I saw it there, used casually, by people who didn’t even think they were saying something controversial. The representatives of the people of that city have come across the realization that there is extensive immigration to their city and therefore it may be prudent to choke housing development because it’s all for immigrants anyway.

There’s a weird kind of defensiveness about immigration, even in societies where it’s fairly popular. Germany and Sweden both think they’re shouldering a great burden by taking in refugees, and even Germans who identify as left-wing and antiracist seem scared of diverse neighborhoods that immigrants of all social classes don’t find anything wrong with. But Germans at least have the excuse of not being used to diversity, and I think they’re slowly learning to be more tolerant. Vancouverites are used to diversity and decided they prefer racial purity to growth. Housing growth in Vancouver was healthy before the crisis but a lot of political forces in the city seem intent on making sure this doesn’t happen again, and with the transit-oriented development sites filling fast, the region will soon have to make tough decisions on upzoning single-family neighborhoods 600 meters from the train rather than 100 meters.

For the same reason a bigger city is a better city, the movement of immigrants into a country is an unalloyed good for the recipient country, unless perhaps that country is extremely dependent on primary resources, which Germany isn’t and even British Columbia isn’t.

Developers may be individually bad people but collectively good as a class; with immigrants, the good is both individual and collective. Immigrants as individuals are good, and it’s better for a country to have more of them (us, really): if anyone wants me to babble about all the statistics about employment (even for refugees in Germany), lower crime rates, cultural emphasis on skills and education, etc., I’ll be happy to do so in comments. Immigrants as a collective are likewise good, through introducing more cultural variety to a place and promoting cultural and social ties to parts of the world this place may not have thought to learn much from.

Who is Being Empowered?

Practically any change has some beneficiaries (why else would it happen?), but a separate question, often with a separate answer is, who does it empower? For examples, expansion of education benefits students but empowers teachers and school administrators, and expansion of health care benefits patients but empowers medical care providers, especially ones below the prestige level of doctors. In both cases, the groups that were empowered back expansion, and at least in the case of teachers, the other side assumes that there are no beneficiaries, hence for example Humphrey’s comment in Yes, Minister that comprehensive education was adopted only because of the teachers’ unions.

The relevance of this distinction is that improvements in public transport mostly have the same set of beneficiaries – current and potential transit riders – but empower different groups of people depending on what the proposed improvement is. This matters, because it’s easier for change to happen if it empowers people who are already important. This is not restricted to politics – a change in how a business is run is easier to accept if it empowers senior management than if it empowers grunt workers, even if the ultimate beneficiary, that is the shareholders, is the same. The upshot is that there are changes in how to run public transportation that empower the already-powerful, and those changes are not necessarily best for the riders.

Politicians and civil servants

Politicians, especially high-level ones, are more powerful than civil servants. It is therefore easier to pass changes that empower them than ones that empower the civil service.

I think the Anglosphere’s fascination with design-build comes from this, at least partially. Traditional design-bid-build procurement means that an in-house team reviews bids and selects separate contractors for design and construction. In contrast, design-build removes power from the civil service. The consultants who get to draw design specs get empowered, but I don’t think this is why governments adopt design-build. Rather, design-build means that high-level politicians get to make big decisions, first since they often have casual ties to the consultants through a revolving door, and second since each bid is bigger (one firm might do everything) and therefore it is evaluated at a higher level.

Consulting in business is a good analogy, since there are some analogies between how the state is run and how big businesses are. The relevant one is the tyranny of the org chart; see some examples here and here by Aaron Renn, and here and here by other consultants. Senior management in the private sector has serious problems with listening to people who the org chart asserts are subordinates, from middle management all the way down. Management consultants often succeed by talking to lower-level workers, getting good ideas from them, and then packaging them to senior management in glossy presentations that look like they came from the consultants, who have nebulous job titles so as to convince senior management that the consultants are their peers. In effect, consultants are a workaround to the fact that senior management is unlikely to adopt ideas that empower subordinates.

The greatest irony here is that the sort of political operatives who are most educated in public choice theory are the ones who most consistently act according to its precepts. They dislike public-sector unions, so they institute public-sector hiring freezes and instead outsource work to consultants. In effect, they empower themselves, as senior political operatives who get to make more important decisions when the decisions are about higher-level things (that is, who gets the work among design-build bidders).

National vs. international comparisons

The issue of outside comparisons depends heavily on what the agency is to be compared to. The difference is that in the United States, managers are well-traveled domestically but not internationally, so domestic comparisons empower them and international ones do the opposite. In Europe, managers are more internationally traveled but largely within Europe, so comparisons to Asia are as problematic for them as comparisons to non-English-speaking European countries are to American managers.

What this means is, a study delivered to Boston or Los Angeles or Chicago that does a domestic comparison will bring up things that top managers and politicians are at least somewhat familiar with. A manager in Boston may have happened to work only in New England, but this is not common, and the manager’s social circle will include people with experience from other parts of the United States. This manager can read a report employing domestic comparison and will have heard about some of the success cases in the report, and if anything is unclear, the manager can call up friends and former coworkers and get clarifications. The manager is thus empowered to implement the report’s recommendations.

An international comparison has the opposite effect. The American manager might be facing a report that brings up case studies from European and East Asian countries, where few Americans have ever lived. The report might mention things that all American transit managers have convinced themselves are impossible, because those managers only ever talk to other Americans. It devalues most of the expertise of the American insider. If anyone within the agency is empowered, it is often a junior planner who has delved into foreign cases out of interest, or perhaps an immigrant whose knowledge is foreign and not just American. It completely upends the hierarchy: the senior manager has no way to contribute to the process and is at the mercy of outsiders and subordinates.

The trick that management consultants use to persuade senior managers to accept recommendations that came from below is not useful here. The report cannot hide its foreign provenance; it screams right there, “your experience as a senior American manager is not as valuable as you think it is.”

Is there a way out?

I believe that there is. I don’t know this for a fact, but I have some circumstantial evidence pointing in a more optimistic direction.

First, not only is the idea of the tyranny of the org chart well-known to consultants, but also a brief Googling revealed a number of different consultants openly pitch their skills to management in how to avoid the problem. That people who get paid to give outside expert advice to corporate leaders believe they can tell to those leaders’ faces, “you need to listen to your subordinates better and here’s how you can do it” suggests that it is possible to get at least some managers to listen.

Second, on an abstract level, managing others is a valuable skill on top of the deep experience managers must possess in the industry they lead, and moreover, general management skills are highly valued in American business culture in the private as well as public sector. This means that even though the use of foreign advice devalues senior managers’ industry-internal skills, and maybe even some precepts that they’ve learned in other industries if they’ve jumped around from industry to industry, it still does not devalue general management skills, not should it.

Third, beneficiaries matter, rather than just the people whose skills are valued more under the changes required to improve American public transportation. This means that a politician who is seen as successfully improving infrastructure will get accolades from the public, because there’s general political consensus that infrastructure is good, and specific political consensus in the parts of the United States with the most public transit ridership that public transportation infrastructure is good. Political advisors may be sidelined by change that relies on knowledge they don’t have, but elected politicians who are seen building infrastructure cheaply become more popular.

And fourth, the situation in the United States in general and New York is particular is so bad that change is possible even while respecting at least some degree of turf. Gradual replacement is possible, if New York implements one change that reduces costs by a factor of 2 while leaving other causes of high costs unchanged, and then the people who successfully shepherded the change implement more such changes. Future changes can devalue the skills of managers who only know how to build and run bad transit and not good transit, but a manager who was responsible to a large cost reduction will get enough internal and public clout that empowering this manager further through further-reaching reforms will be easier for the hierarchy to swallow.

Resist the Urge to Start Small

Remember the Ohio Hub? Back in 2009-10, Ohio was planning on running five low-speed trains per day between Cleveland and Cincinnati and branded this exercise as high-speed rail called the Ohio Hub. The Republican victory in the gubernatorial election put it out of its misery (as unfortunately happened to the far better Florida project), but the idea of little facts-on-the-ground kinds of rail investment persists among American advocates who don’t understand how rail operations work. Now that there’s serious talk of infrastructure funding in the United States as part of a stimulus package, I’d like to explain, to prevent the debacles of the late 2000s from happening again.

The central conceit is that public transportation is not cars. It’s a different, more complex system. The road network has fewer moving parts – one just builds roads based on traffic projections. Public transportation has schedules, transfers, and equipment, all of which must be planned in coordination. “This junction gets congested, let’s build a bypass” works for road advocacy, but fails for rail, because maybe speeding up the trains by a few minutes doesn’t really help get to any timed connections and is therefore of limited value to the system.

Rail works when everything is planned together. This makes little additions not too valuable: a small speedup may not be useful if connecting lines stay the same, infrastructure investment may have limited effect on trip times if the rolling stock doesn’t change, etc.

The upshot is that it’s very easy to find 80/20 problems: 80% of the money gets you 20% of the benefits. In addition to examples of lack of coordination between infrastructure, the timetable, and rolling stock, there are issues with insufficient frequency. When frequency is low relative to trip time, the long-term elasticity of ridership with respect to service is more than 1 – that is, running more service makes the trains and buses fuller, as better service encourages more ridership. Thus, service with insufficient frequency will fail, trains and buses getting too little ridership to justify additional investment, whereas if initial frequency were higher from the start then it would succeed.

The Ohio Hub was one such example: five roundtrips a day, starter service. It makes sense to someone who thinks like a manager or a general-purpose activist: start small and build from there. But to someone who thinks like a public transportation planner, it’s a disaster. Already 10 years ago, Max Wyss in comments was warning that such service would fail – the original Intercity brand in Germany succeeded by running trains every two hours, with hourly service on stronger city pairs, often with timed transfers at junctions.

Regional rail projects suffer from a similar urge to start small. Peak-only service will invariably fail – the operating costs will be too high for ridership even if almost all seats fill. This covers just about every American effort at starting up new commuter rail service.

More fundamentally, the issue is that nobody likes failure. Insufficient, poorly-optimized service creates facts on the ground, but these facts don’t lead to any effort toward better service if people perceive what has been built to be a failure. If a handful of trains per day that average 70 km/h are called high-speed rail, then it doesn’t lead passengers to want high-speed rail; it leads them to avoid the train and conclude that high-speed rail is slower than driving on the freeway.

The passengers on such service may not be a great constituency for better service, either. If the train is very slow, then the riders will be the sort of people who are okay with slow trains. Older American railfans are filled with nostalgia for traditional railroading and openly say that slower is better. Such people are not going to advocate for modern high-speed rail, nor for learning from successful Asian and European examples.

Another group of people who ride trains and often advocate against better service is peak commuters on trains serving high-income suburbs. They are used to an adversarial relationship with the state; to them, the state taxes them to give money to poorer people, and they instead prefer hyper-local forms of government providing segregated schools and policing. Representatives of such riders engage in agency turf warfare, such as when state senators from Long Island opposed Metro-North’s Penn Station Access because it would use train slots into Penn Station that the LIRR believes are its property. On social media, people sporadically yell at me when I propose fare integration, on grounds that boil down to viewing any urban riders who would be attracted to lower fares as interlopers.

There’s an ultimate proof-of-pudding issue here. Americans have to a good approximation never seen a working public transportation system. At best, they’ve seen a megacity where people use the trains even though they are dirty and expensive to run because there is no alternative and construction was done 100 years ago when costs were lower. There is no coordinated planning; Americans do not demand it because only a handful of people know what it is, who are often young and have often lived abroad for an extended period of time, both of which make one less likely to be listened to in politics.

The result is that the sort of bottom-up activism people are used to is not useful in this context. In Germany it’s different – enough people have seen what works in Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands and know what to call for. But in the United States, it won’t work – the knowledge base of how to build reliable, interconnected public transportation exists but is too thinly spread and is the domain of people who do not have much political prestige.

It’s critical to then get things right from the start. Do not assume future activism will fix things. Half-measures are much more likely to lead to disillusionment than to any serious efforts to improve things to turn them into full measures. If the choice is between a high chance of bad service and low chance of good service, don’t settle for bad service and make a gamble for good service; bad public transportation is a waste of money and the general public will correctly perceive it as such.

How Climate Change is Like War

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.

Predictions

I have a lot of readers who come from a rationalist or Effective Altruism background, and some more who come from an economics background, and both communities put a lot of stock in the idea of correct predictions about current events. The idea is that scientists have to make testable predictions about the results of their experiments, and therefore social scientists must equally make predictions about the state of the world. It’s become relevant in the corona crisis and is also relevant to my and Eric Goldwyn’s construction cost project in a specific way, so I’d like to talk about the complexities of what it exactly means to get things right.

Recession

Consider the following prediction: the economy is overheated and a recession will come soon. It’s a vague prediction. One can fill in details to make it strictly testable – “the German economy will have >6% unemployment in 2 years” – but what exactly is the point of one detail or another?

The real answer is that different classes of people have different uses for the prediction of recession, and therefore depend on different details. The investor wants to sell stocks near the peak. The Nasdaq went from 2,200 at the beginning of 1999 to a peak of 5,100. To the investor, knowing that there was a bubble at the beginning of 1999 would not have been useful – cashing out then would have meant missing on a stock market doubling over the year. It would take until about the onset of the 2001 recession for the Nasdaq to fall below January 1999 levels. To the successful investor, it is critical to know the exact timing of the peak to maximize income, and in pursuit of that goal it’s fine to miss some recessions, let alone to miss other important details like the length of the recession and the unemployment rate.

In contrast with the investor, the skilled worker has different concerns, like unemployment. In that environment, knowing that there’s going to be a recession is useful even if the timing is vague – such a worker can save more money, delay major purchases, avoid quitting a stable salaried job to start a small business, and maybe shift to a more recession-proof job even if it means taking a pay cut. Knowing how deep the recession will be is important as well, and remains important knowledge even as the recession takes place – the worker needs to know how stressed to be about savings running out if there is prolonged unemployment. All of this is equally valuable to the prospective immigrant who needs to make a decision on whether to emigrate.

The investor-worker duality is especially important for economists, and to some extent to rationalists who try to follow popular economists. They have money to invest, and often work as advisors to finance firms that pay them for investor-relevant information. But they are also researchers, who can respond to an impending recession by acquiring recession-relevant skills, like studying the history of depressions and conducting empirical research about unemployment and anti-poverty interventions. These are such big research programs that the exact timing of the recession doesn’t really matter, whereas its depth and length matter. An economist who can answer questions like “what is the impact of unemployment programs on long-term welfare?” is useful in a general period of economic weakness even if the papers appear a year into the beginning of the recession.

Predictions and construction costs

Before we started our current project, I had been writing about construction costs here, in comments, and on social media going back to 2009-10. I had some theories over the years, of which some would be confirmed by additional data and others wouldn’t:

  • The theory that common law leads to higher costs, based on high costs across the US, Singapore, the UK, Australia, Canada, India, and Bangladesh. I no longer believe this theory holds up; in the developed world, important edge cases disagree with the theory, including Quebec (expensive) and Israel (about average), and moreover Canadian and Singaporean costs only exploded in the last 15 years.
  • The theory that costs are consistent across projects in the same country, especially the same city; I’m pretty sure I brought it up even in the early 2010s, when I was saying Chinese costs seemed pretty average to me, but the starkest formulation is from 2019. This has subsequently been confirmed when thanks to Yinan Yao our knowledge of Chinese costs grew from two lines in Shanghai to more than 5,000 kilometers’ worth of lines across all major Chinese cities.
  • The theory that costs in developing countries are higher in ex-colonies than in never-colonized countries (like China and Iran) and distantly-colonized ones (like all of Latin America). As stated, there are counterexamples: I will report on our ongoing research into Arab construction costs, thanks to Anan Maalouf, but so far this is indicating that costs in never-colonized Saudi Arabia are pretty high. Call it half a correct prediction because Saudi Arabia is atypical enough I would not lump it a priori with China, Turkey, Mexico, or Iran.

With all that said, I am not too worried if my theories aren’t all confirmed by finding additional data. The reason is that this is not an experimental science but an observational one with a small, finite amount of data, so it’s much more important to have coherent mechanisms that can lead to actionable changes than to be able to predict every country’s construction costs from partial data.

In this case, the mechanisms posited in the 1.5 theories that do not stand up to additional data seem useful. The colonial theory is that high cultural cringe levels and weak state capacity lead ex-colonies to privatize planning to first-world (or Chinese) consultants, who use methods that are not appropriate for local conditions. On account of that explanation, I kept saying ex ante that I refused to make a prediction regarding Thailand, because it was never colonized but also has much more cultural cringe than China and uses first-world consultants; Thai costs are higher than Chinese ones but lower than ex-colonial ones. Saudi Arabia is similar – for all its bluster about rejecting Western governance norms, it craves first-world acceptance and the trappings of modernity, and extensively uses contractors from more developed countries. So the upshot regarding the importance of domestic state capacity and methods tailored for local urban geography and wages remains useful.

Likewise, the high costs across the Anglosphere remain a useful fact. Even more useful is the history of Singapore and Canada, which only aligned with British and American costs starting in the 2000s. The cost explosion in Singapore, Montreal, Toronto, and to some extent Calgary and Vancouver is a recent event, in accessible English-speaking cities; Stephen Wickens just wrote a long report about the Canadian cost explosion, which is of value in teasing out what happened. Even better, the persistent low costs in Scandinavia, Southern Europe, and South Korea provide ready-made sanity checks in knowing what to look for.

Timing issues

In one sense, I made a critical error that poses a serious threat to the project: I got the timing of the recession wrong. When applying for this grant throughout 2019, my assumption was that the American economy was overheated and would soon experience a demand-side recession, leading to stimulus – but that the contraction would be slow enough that the stimulus would come in 2021. With a jobs program announced in 2021, preliminary versions of our report would already be out, the full report with detailed case studies would be out later that year in time for agencies to request funding, and there would be enough time for agencies to implement our recommendations by the time of actual construction.

This may still happen, but the timeline is much less certain. People are talking about stimulus with infrastructure money now. I can promise a report with some actionable recommendations in 2021, but I can’t promise what costs I can promise, nor can I promise what investment to focus on. Our report centers on metro tunnels, but if there’s another push for high-speed rail then we’ll need to be able to adapt metro-based recommendations to a somewhat different context, in which high American costs may have different roots.

What’s more, based on what everyone knows in the United States, costs are so high there’s no point in planning for more. Maybe New York thinks it can finagle $40 billion in stimulus money; this can do a lot at Nordic costs, but unless New York thinks right now that this is possible, it won’t even try to plan more than a few lines like Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 and Gateway, each costing more than a full order of magnitude more than it would in Scandinavia or Southern Europe.

I am not that worried in the long run. There is ongoing investment in enough of the US for whatever we come up with to be relevant to at least some extent. And here too, a cost comparison with the cheaper parts of Europe would be instructive to many a German rail advocate or civil servant. I don’t expect to be in the situation of an investor who bet everything on a company that went bankrupt, just perhaps in that of one who missed a big stock market rally. Ultimately, don’t worry about me, worry about the virus this year and the unemployment rate of potentially the entire world in the next few years.

New York Ignores Best Practices for Cleaning

MTA Chair Pat Foye and Interim New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg, have announced that the subway will close overnight in order to improve subway cleaning. For the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, the subway will close between 1 and 5 every night for disinfection. Ben Kabak has covered this to some extent; I’m going to focus on best industry practices, which do not require a shutdown. There are some good practices in Taipei, which has regular nighttime shutdowns but sterilizes trains during the daytime as well. It appears that the real rub is not cleaning but homelessness – the city and the state are both trying to get homeless people off the subway and onto the street.

How to disinfect a subway system

Alex Garcia of Taipei Urbanism shared with me what the Taipei MRT plans on doing in response to the virus, depending on how much it affects the system. As soon as there are any domestic cases within Taiwan, the plan says,

a. Sterilize equipment in each station that passengers might frequently come into contact with. (Sterilize once every 8 hours)
b. Carriages: Cleaning and sterilization before the daily operational departure and again when the carriage returns back to the terminal each day.
c. Place hand sanitizer devices at the information counter of the station for public use.

Moreover, if an emergency is declared, then the frequency of cleaning is to increase:

a. Station :
1. Sterilize equipment that passengers might frequently come into contact with at each station. (Sterilize once every 4 hours)
2. Daily disinfection of public station facilities: After operational hours the whole station, including passenger traffic flow areas and facilities, will be disinfected.
b. Carriage :
1. Sterilize equipment that passengers might frequently come in contact with. Sterilize once every 8 hours when the carriage returns to the terminal station.
2. Daily wipe down of entire carriages with disinfectant before each day’s first departure.
3. Once notified by the health authority about any confirmed or suspected case that have traveled on the MRT, intensify the cleaning and disinfection along the route taken by the passenger within 2 hours.

Moreover, the Taipei plan calls for providing all frontline workers with protective equipment, including masks, goggles, and hand sanitizer, as soon as any domestic case of the virus is detected. Moreover, all staff are subject to temperature checks at the start of the day, to prevent sick workers from infecting healthy ones. This way, infection levels among workers can be kept to a minimum, allowing service to proceed without interruption.

It is noteworthy that the frequent cleaning regimen operates during the daytime, and not just overnight. Sterilizing trains every 8 hours means working around their service schedules, disinfecting them during off-peak periods with lower frequency. Taipei has not cut weekday service frequency, only weekend frequency, and the weekday peak-to-base ratio is low, about 1.5 on the Green Line.

With these measures in place, and similar vigilance across Taiwanese society, the country has gone 6 days without any new case of the virus. There is no lockdown and never was one, and Taipei MRT ridership only fell 15-16% on weekdays.

What New York is doing

Foye and Feinberg announced that the subway would close overnight between 1 and 5 am so that trains could be disinfected once per day. Is daily disinfection sufficient? Almost certainly not, given the spread of the virus around the city. Does it take four hours? Of course not, cleaning can be done in minutes. And must it be done at night? Again no, New York has cut so much service that there’s a large fleet of spare trains, making rotating equipment between service and cleaning easy. It’s likely that it is possible to sterilize trains every roundtrip while they wait at the terminal.

The goal here is not about cleanliness. The subway is dirty and getting worse as cleaning staff get sick and can’t come to work, but a program designed to improve the system would look profoundly different. It would equip subway workers with protective gear, especially the cleaners; it would keep running service; it would look for ways to eliminate fomites like the push turnstiles; it would disinfect trains and stations at short intervals.

The homelessness issue

There are serious concerns with homelessness in New York, as in many other cities. This is aided by sensationalist reporting that blames homeless people for any number of problems, playing to middle-class prejudices about visible poverty. As Ben notes, NYPD swept the subway with cops but not social workers. Hotels are empty all over the city, but there is no attempt at using them for either centralized quarantine or extra shelter space. There are existing shelters, but they are unsafe and people who have been unsheltered for a while know this and avoid them for a reason.

New York is a big, expensive, high-inequality city. It has visible poverty, including homelessness. It could offer homeless people housing – empty hotels would do, employing hotel workers to do work that is already done at shelters by overtaxed volunteers. The problem is that many aggrieved people want medieval displays of police power against people who it is okay to be violent toward; they do not want to solve problems. This issue is not unique to New York: in San Francisco, sanisette installations ran into the problem that one stall had people defecating on the floor, leading the city to decide to staff every sanisette 24/7, turning what was designed as a self-cleaning system for high-cost cities for €14,400 a year per unit into a $700,000/year money sink. American cities spend millions in enforcement to avoid spending pennies on social work.

Who is being empowered?

The broader question is whether the subway is dirty because of homeless people or because of inadequate cleaning, poor training for cleaners, lack of protective equipment, etc. The vast majority of dirt one sees on trains has pretty obvious origins in ordinary if antisocial riders: spilled drinks, gum stuck to the floor, overflowing trash cans, wrappers thrown on the tracks. However, it is convenient to blame homeless people for this – they can’t politically fight back, and many law-and-order voters and political operatives relish the sight of a cop dragging someone off the train.

This leads to the question, who is being empowered by blame? Any explanation of why things don’t work empowers someone, and explanations are easier to accept if they empower local political forces that the mainstream pays attention to. For example, if I say costs are high because of union pensions, then this automatically empowers the Manhattan Institute and other anti-union forces in the city; and if I say costs are high because managers micromanage and humiliate workers too much, then this empowers the unions.

The upshot is that blaming flagging subway ridership on homeless people making riders uncomfortable empowers law-and-order voters and middle-class people who dislike seeing visible poverty, both of which are groups that even relatively liberal political operatives pay attention to. In contrast, blaming flagging ridership on technical issues with speed and frequency empowers technocrats, who are usually politically invisible, and when they’re not, this can lead to a clash of authority, as seen in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s sidelining of Byford, leading to the latter’s resignation.

This cascades to cleaning. Taipei shows how one can clean trains and stations during service. New York should learn, but that means listening to people who are familiar with Taiwanese practices, and maybe synthesize with other clean Asian systems. Shutdowns that force essential workers onto slow buses and taxis are a terrible policy, but they’re a policy the current leadership does not need to talk to people in a foreign country to implement.

Incoming Gantz-Led Government to Invest in Israel’s Infrastructure

Israel’s incoming prime minister Benny Gantz unveiled an emergency government, to take power following an upcoming confidence vote in the Knesset. The last two MKs required to give Gantz a 61-59 majority, two members of Gantz’s own Blue and White Party who were previously resolute not to go into coalition supported by the mostly Arab Joint List, relented after Gantz’s controversial attempt to enter a Netanyahu-led emergency unity government stalled due to disagreements over both security and coronavirus policy. Moreover, following revelations of government failures discovered last week by senior B&W MK Ofer Shelah, the new government announced sharp changes in policy toward both the Covid-19 emergency and broader domestic and foreign policy questions.

Of note, a major reshuffle in the state budget is expected. Some details are forthcoming, but short- and long-term reductions in settlement subsidies are expected. Moreover, reductions in subsidies to yeshiva students have been announced, delayed by a year due to the magnitude of the crisis within the Haredi community, which has 10% of Israel’s population but about half of Covid-19 hospitalization cases. Finally, a review of military procurement will be done due to the influence of the indicted Netanyahu on the process, but analysts expect that with so many former generals in the new government, including former IDF chief of staff Gantz himself, few real cuts to the IDF are forthcoming.

In lieu of these cuts, the new government is announcing a massive infrastructure investment program, funded partly by deficit spending to limit unemployment. Incoming health minister Ahmad Tibi of the Joint List, a medical doctor by training, promised that budget increases will invest in hospital capacity and hygiene, raise the wages of staff from doctors down to cleaning staff, and buy personal protective equipment (PPE) in sufficient quantities for universal mask-wearing. Outside health, energy and transportation are both on the list of budgetary winners. In energy, the collapse of the consortium of Yitzhak Tshuva and Noble Energy managing Israel’s natural gas reserves and the falling prices of solar power mean the state will invest in thermal solar power plants in the desert. In transportation, an infrastructure plan will invest in additional urban public transit capacity.

The situation of transportation is particularly instructive, because of the political element involved. Throughout most of the past 11 years of Netanyahu’s coalitions, the transport minister was the same politician, Yisrael Katz of Netanyahu’s Likud; Katz prioritized highway investments with some rail, and was viewed as the least controversial of Likud’s heavyweight politicians, many of whom find themselves embroiled in scandal following last month’s election. Nonetheless, to signify a break with the past, the new government is giving the transportation portfolio to Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the leftist Meretz party who has called for expansion of public transportation.

While car ownership in Israel is low, this is the result of car taxes and high poverty rates. Activists at Meretz, B&W, and the right-wing secular Yisrael Beitenu party all pointed out to religious laws banning public transportation and other services from running on Saturdays, promising to repeal them within months. Meretz activists as well as independent analysts expect everyday public transportation to encourage people to give up driving and rely on buses and trains more even on weekdays, requiring additional investment to cope with capacity.

Another political element identified by sources within B&W who spoke anonymously is that residents of Tel Aviv and most of its inner suburbs have long felt stiffed by state infrastructure plans; last decade, Mayor Ron Huldai clashed with Katz, demanding a subway in dense, upper middle-class North Tel Aviv. Meretz is especially strong in North Tel Aviv. However, Horowitz said that his priority was socioeconomic equality, and while he did favor subway expansion in and around Tel Aviv and would accelerate construction of the Green Line through North Tel Aviv, the budget would boost rail construction in working-class southern and eastern suburbs.

Several MKs at the Joint List added that there would also be additional funding for connections to the centers of Arab cities. One plan calls for a tunnel through Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab-majority city, which would connect it with Tel Aviv and other larger Jewish cities while also functioning as a regional rail link for the majority-Arab Galilee region. Towns too small to justify a direct rail link would get a bus to the nearest train station on the same fare system with a timed connection. One Meretz member explained, “in unbroken countries of similar size to ours, like Switzerland and the Netherlands, bus and train planning is coordinated nationally and there is no conception that buses are for poor people and trains for rich people.” Members of both Meretz and the Joint List added that there had long been underinvestment in Arab areas, calling past policies racist and vowing to correct them.

Sources at B&W stressed that there’s short and long term. In the short term, the priority will remain the coronavirus crisis, and the state will go into a large deficit in order to invest in health care and limit the death toll. Additional spending on other infrastructure will focus on planning, so that the state can begin construction after the crisis is long over, and will be funded by reducing yeshiva funding; B&W and Yisrael Beitenu plans to also reduce child credits, as Haredi families are larger than secular ones, have stalled due to opposition by the Joint List, as Arab families are poor and larger than secular Jewish ones too.

While Gantz himself stressed the pragmatic aspects of the plan, sources close to him mentioned the spirit of the 1990s. Negotiations with the Palestinians will resume shortly, they promised, and a two-state compromise will be worked out. They further promise that the peace dividend will allow Israel to grow through closer trade ties with the Arab world and reduced ongoing security spending. But other sources within the new coalition are more skeptical, pointing out Gantz and Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman’s trenchant opposition to dismantling most settlements as a red line that may scuttle future negotiations.

Nonetheless, all sources agree that a clear change in foreign and domestic policy is coming. The more skeptical sources say that the end result will be a shift in domestic spending building a more expansive urban rail network and higher-quality health care. But the more idealistic ones are saying that a new Middle East is coming, one in which a thriving Israel will be at the center, with world-class public infrastructure and private entrepreneurship.

Europe and Asia are not Liberal or Conservative America

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.

An example

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.

New York is Shrinking

The US Census Bureau has just released 2019 population estimates by county. Metro New York, after slowly rising for decades more than making up the 1970s losses, went down by 60,000 people, or 0.3% of the population. The city is down 53,000 people.

Why?

The city chooses stagnation and ignorance. In the 1970s, the city was losing an average of 80,000 people per year, but the situation now is profoundly different. Incomes are up: the metro area’s per capita income as a proportion of the US average went from 126% in 1970 to 118% in 1980; but more recently it went from 135% in 2010-5 to 141% in 2018, the last year for which the BEA has data. Crime is down, the murder rate falling below the national average starting in 2013. Rent is up, sending a strong signal: more people want to live here.

But the entire political constellation of the city chooses not to grow. Housing growth is anemic, permits averaging around 21,000 per year in 2010-9, maybe 2.6 per 1,000 New York residents. It accelerated over the decade but not by much, reaching 26,500 in 2019, or 3.2/1,000. In the in-state suburbs, growth is even lower, less than 1 unit per 1,000 in each of Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties. New Jersey has somewhat higher growth rate, around 4/1,000, thanks to the Mount Laurel doctrine requiring high-cost municipalities to approve some affordable housing, which they typically do in the most out-of-the-way place they can find. The metro area overall approves about the same amount of housing as the city proper, around 2.5/1,000.

The most recent data I have for Korea is from the first half of 2019. In six months, Seoul, a shrinking city of 9.5 million, approved 38,000 dwellings, and the metro area writ large approved 129,000 on a population of about 26 million, an annualized rate of 10/1,000 (less in the city, more in the suburbs). This is a suburbanizing region, but suburbanization often means moving to a planned new town built on top of a subway or commuter rail line, like Ilsan, Bundang, and Anyang.

It’s not Tokyo that has high housing growth. It’s Tokyo, and Seoul, and to a lesser extent the metro area of Taipei (more suburbs than city proper), and Paris. In the presence of a strong economy and a state that doesn’t choose stagnation the way rich American regions choose with local empowerment, housing growth in a large city should be high, as more people want to move there to take advantage of its higher incomes and opportunities.

But New York chose differently. It chose stagnation and eventually decline. It chose to be expensive.

Why are they like this?

The US has an unusual system of governance, in which not only is there a separation of federal and state governments, as in Germany or Canada or Australia or Switzerland, but also the states delegate unusual powers to local governments. Education, policing, and housing are largely local responsibilities. Even when states do get involved, there is usually no partisan competition (most states are safe), leading to empowerment of local representatives on what are considered local issues, and even when there is people vote based on national issues.

But even that raises questions. For example, why do locals consider new development bad? Even YIMBY activists let NIMBYs whip them into thinking this way – they talk about sharing the burden, as if new buildings and new people are a burden that everyone must endure for some grand moral reason.

What if the reason people take it for granted that growth is bad is that the people who are most locally empowered are a specific anti-growth lobby? People who work for a living don’t have time to go to a citizen engagement meeting at 3 in the afternoon. They work and socialize with people from other neighborhoods, so they have little interest in neighborhood rags that report individual counts of parking spaces lost to a bus lane. They are far more interested in job growth than in hobby community gardens. A political system that requires very high levels of local social capital for one’s opinions to count will naturally undervalue their opinions and overvalue those of idle people and professional intermediaries.

The high levels of Covid-19 infection in New York are part of this system. The specific cause is not hyperlocalism, but rather the murky authority of the state. The city is plagued by the feud between Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo. Both enjoy unlimited executive power, I think Cuomo more so than de Blasio. Both need it for their higher political aspirations. But neither can have it while the other exists as an independent political entity, nor is there a clear delineation of state and local authority. Thus, they are obligated to sabotage each other’s ideas, to the detriment of the city that has the misfortune to be governed by them. The entire West delayed its reaction to the virus, but New York especially so, as Cuomo and de Blasio tried denying each other credit.

Professional ignorance

I’ve been writing a lot about the role of incuriosity in high construction costs in the English-speaking world in general, and New York in particular – see for example this recent coronavirus-tainted piece, or this more random piece about Metro-North’s executives’ ignorance.

But this can apply more generally, as it did to the virus. Americans are quite provincial when it comes to the rest of the world, and New Yorkers especially so – go ahead, try telling a New Yorker that some other city does something better than New York. The out-of-town comparison, a powerful tool that places that view themselves as more peripheral (like Israel) use to correct errors, dos not work in a place like New York. New York literally made the collective decision to die and not to learn from the rest of the world. Mass death is not making New Yorkers demand the immediate removal of their mass manslaughterers who are their governor and mayor; why would a dip in population?

Part of it is related to local empowerment. Acquiring local social capital comes at the expense of worldliness; those years one spends learning foreign languages, living abroad, and socializing with foreigners are dead years for most political ambitions, including all ambitions that start locally.

But an even greater part of it is that New York self-perceives as the center of the world, which is not true elsewhere. Korea self-flagellates all the time: about its legal system (it adopted a limited jury system in 2009), about its engineering (see e.g. here), about its elevated air pollution levels (it’s adopting EU standards). The United States instead views all variations with the rest of the world as evidence of America’s unique greatness, and New York does the same both internationally and domestically. The city brims with immigrants, and yet it tells them, your home country is deficient and you must become a real New Yorker, that is someone whose world does not extend past city limits, to be a whole person. Until that changes, the government of New York will remain managed by dregs and incompetents and housing, transportation, and as we see health care will earn the mockery of other big first-world cities.

This is not World War Two

Entrenched hierarchies do not like outside criticism, especially when it’s right. They fight off knowledge that they don’t have or can’t control. In a business setting, the main way out is to found a competing company and drive the one that won’t change out of business. But when it’s not possible, the way out involves a massive crisis – something like a total war, in which people can rapidly rise through the ranks through demonstrating success in battle.

I bring this up because the coronavirus crisis in not such a total war. Branko Milanovic compares it with World War Two, contrasting economists who view it purely as an economic crisis akin to the 2008 crisis or the Depression. That comparison is apt when it comes to looking at non-economic aspects of it, namely the need to centrally plan a public health response. But the scale of the crisis is much smaller, it seems. The rich countries of Asia are emerging only somewhat battered, and even in the West some places seem to be over the hump judging by growth rates in the last few days, especially the Nordic countries but possibly also France. This isn’t the next Spanish Flu, a crisis so big that it would force Westerners to reckon with the fact that the West needs to learn from other places. Even in the United States, where things look worse, the solipsistic population looks for internal comparisons (e.g. between blue and red states) more than international ones, let alone international ones with Asia.

A small crisis is not going to nudge the hierarchy in a more open direction. I see this often in public transportation – institutions that feel embattled respond by entrenching and refusing any reform. The standard excuse is “we’re too busy fighting fires,” often by people that fires seem to erupt around regularly. The virus seems to have the same effect so far – less openness, less sanity checking proposals by looking at what works elsewhere, more digging in around traditional social hierarchies.

American nationalists are saber-rattling with the Chinese government, as in the “Chinese virus” dysphemism and Tom Cotton’s blaming the entire death toll on the PRC. But they still do this on the usual American terms, that is without any assurance that Taiwan is a success story to learn from, or even South Korea and Japan, two American allies that unlike Taiwan the US formally recognizes. If a virus that demonstrates to starkly that Taiwan governs itself better than the PRC won’t get American nationalists to start speaking favorably of Taiwan, what will? To people like Cotton, a crisis is a perfect time to proclaim American superiority, no matter what reality is.

Domestically, too, the American response seems to be to repeat old wives’ tales – for example, traditional American hostility to big cities. Governor Andrew Cuomo went as far as saying that New York is too dense; Seoul, a bigger and denser city, has 700 infections as of 2020-3-22 out of a metro population of 26 million, maybe a factor of 20 better than New York. But he’s the governor and he keeps giving speeches and appearing on television, and a few hundred and even a few thousand dead New Yorkers is not enough to make people ask questions about his and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s squabbling. After all, when nearly 3,000 New Yorkers died on 9/11, few asked why Mayor Rudy Giuliani had put the city’s anti-terrorism response center at World Trade Center against the advice of security experts who pointed out the Twin Towers were a likely target; 9/11’s effect on Giuliani’s popularity was an unmixed blessing.

In an environment in which more national pundits say Cuomo is looking presidential than say he should resign in disgrace, it’s unlikely the crisis will lead Americans in a more open direction. The magnitude of the crisis isn’t enough to create a new crop of leaders. It’s a good thing in the sense that the death toll will not be apocalyptic, but it just underscores what I mean when I say this isn’t World War Two.

Budget-cutting administrations, demanding reform before revenue, have not produced any reform. American state building stalled in the middle of the 20th century when various white middle-class interests realized localism could protect them from too much racial and economic equality. Then around the 1980s and 90s it went into reverse, with a continued assault on state capacity through public-private partnerships, outsourcing planning to consultants, and impositions of managers whose experience was in the private sector in unrelated industries. American construction costs were already high beforehand, but in Canada and Singapore, both of which seem to have had the same trend, costs exploded in the 2000s and 2010s.

The question remains: how come the reform-before-revenue mentality never produced any reform?

I bring this up because I believe the answer is the same as what we are seeing right now with the response to the coronavirus crisis. Budget-cutting or timid politicians are not an existential crisis to the civil service. They can scare off ambitious people the way Cuomo ran Andy Byford out of New York City Transit leadership; they can create a hostile work environment; they can force managers to contend with scarcity; they can force the unions to agree to wage reductions for entering workers. But they do not have the power to close entire departments, to stop running schools or public transportation or firefighting entirely, and the managers and workers both know this.

Just as the Covid-19 crisis is not World War Two, all attempts at privatizing the state in the Anglosphere have amounted to much less than a total war of extermination. It’s a cold war. Like the original Cold War, it has the same stupefying effect as a hot war – hierarchs are all too happy to be unaccountable to the broad public and to pretend their cloak-and-dagger politics achieve any results. Unlike a hot war, it is too low-intensity for people who disagree with the hierarchy but are right to demonstrate competence – nor is the other side going to be destroyed at the end.

The construction cost crisis in the United States, particularly New York, might actually be a big enough crisis to have the same effect on the established order as a total war. It’s unclear, but before the virus came to the United States, there was a lot of genuine interest in making things better, though not in every city.

I suspect the mechanism for costs is that they are so high that there must be a significant enough reduction to make a career without screwing some politically necessary constituency. I don’t know; I don’t yet know the drivers of high New York costs in sufficient detail. But the magnitude and breadth of the problem point to many different explanations each increasing costs by a significant but not apocalyptic amount. Moreover, the fact that there must be many causes seems to be accepted in the local political ecosystem. Thus, people can afford to make reforms, perhaps focusing on the politically low-hanging fruits.

This is less cynical than it may sound. A small success story, such as if Ned Lamont had figured out a way to build 30-30-30 or if the MTA manages to noticeably reduce the cost of some project, creates a visible trail of success, creating more pressure to keep the reforms. Nothing succeeds like success.

A New York that can build subways even at $300 million per kilometer, let alone $100 million per kilometer, and builds housing at a pace befitting a rich global city with considerable immigration, is a completely different place from the failed city that it is today. That New York is a dynamic, rapidly growing city in which there is far more kvetching about how it’s sucking in jobs and people from more static places than kvetching about how it’s exporting jobs and people to cheaper places. I’m using analogy here because low costs by themselves do not protect a city from disease (Italy and Switzerland both have low costs and high coronavirus infection levels), but the same kind of public-sector resurgence can presumably be done for public health, ensuring New York will respond to the next pandemic like Seoul or Tokyo or Taipei.