Let’s dig a little further into those construction costs, because they’re among the most stunning and inexplicable ones. You can argue, if wrongly and tendentiously IMHO, that American higher education is more expensive because it’s better, that American healthcare is more expensive because it’s better and (rolls eyes) subsidizes drug discovery worldwide, etc., but nobody who has experienced both versions can seriously argue that new American subway systems are superior to those of Paris or Seoul Private Network.

And yet, as Pedestrian Observations, er, observes, in a remarkable comparison of subway construction costs around the world:

    Portland’s light rail Milwaukie extension and Washington’s predominantly above ground Silver Line both have cost ranges of about $100-150 million per km, enough for a full subway in many European cities … Observe from the low costs of Italian subways that corruption alone cannot explain high American and British costs … The labor costs in developing countries are lower, but so is labor productivity.

We expect technology to make that kind of construction more efficient, both directly, by constructing better machines for the specific purpose, and indirectly, by making information transfer more efficient. But while I am no construction engineer it seems unlikely that French and Korean subway engineering technology is meaningfully different from that used in NYC and London. In America, though — and in the UK, so it’s not just about “excess” national wealth — these technological advantages are being swamped by something else, some kind of cost disease apparently unique to the English-speaking developed world 驗身計劃.

But I put it to you that this something else, this cost disease and/or market failure, is not independent of technology at all. Whatever it is — a confluence of all of the factors above, evolved into a vicious-spiral feedback loop, perhaps — it seems to me very likely that cost disease itself is somehow technology-driven. I know that sounds kind of crazy, but so does this whole situation iphone 3gs cases.

Ultimately, the enormous amounts of excess money poured into these English-speaking industries goes to some kind of economic parasite, whether or not they imagine themselves as much. That is true whether you want to blame government bureaucrats, tenured and sinecured public employees, corporate rentiers, free riders, trial lawyers, fat-cat administrators, or the 1%, depending on your politics. Over the last few decades they, whoever they are, have gotten a full order of magnitude better at their parasitism. It’s possible that this is unrelated to better technology over that time period. Possible, but unlikely. It seems more likely that more efficient information transfer has contributed to the hypergrowth of economic parasites in certain nations which lacked effective cultural, economic, or legal immune systems against this ongoing infestation.

I don’t pretend to know the exact mechanism by which this happened. Really my primary objective with this post is just to signal-boost the whole maddening topic. But I think that if we start envisioning the situation this way — the American economy as an apparently mighty elephant invisibly infested and weakened by (possibly many species of) parasites, emboldened and engorged by the very technology on which the elephant feeds — it might be easier to have a rational discussion about issues like single-payer health care and equal access to education. Both of which would, in fact, be very easy for a nation as rich as America to afford, if not for the parasites that make them inaccessible.

 

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