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The US has forgotten how to do infrastructure (bloomberg.com)
433 points by Typhon on May 31, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 542 comments



I don't know the answers, but as someone who works in the industry (on the design side). I think a big unmentioned factor is probably liability and the prospect of litigation.

If you look at old blueprints for projects in the past, they are a LOT less detailed. They had to be, because it was physically more difficult to produce them since they had to be drawn by hand. A lot was left to the contractor to figure out in the field.

Now, drawings are more detailed and contractors are incredibly reluctant to make even the smallest decisions on their own. They don't want to assume the liability and risk getting sued if they do something wrong, so they push that off on the engineers and architects.

This means every time there's a question, it has to be submitted through a formal process, tracked, answered, documented. And if the change has any cost impacts, the contractor tacks on a hefty premium because they know they can get away with it (and they probably underbid in the first place to win the job). Delays pile up, every clarification becomes an expensive change order, construction workers twiddle their thumbs while designers get around to addressing questions and this all costs money and time.


Anecdotally, having moved to Western Europe, I get the sense that this is the major factor as well.

If I walk down the street and there is a group of workers excavating a road, there's a lot more of a relaxed attitude about fencing, walking underneath construction equipment, etc.

After all - use your common sense - don't fall into the hole. If you do, isn't it kind of your own fault? Nobody's going to sue anybody.

Additionally, it's not a big deal to close or severely impact a road due to construction - just shift around the fantastic public transit infrastructure, and everyone carries along. A bus only needs one lane in both directions. Another thing that would never fly in North America.

Both of these problems are deeply cultural. Lawsuits have become a form of welfare. Sure, you might not have government healthcare if you get hurt or sick, but maybe you can sue somebody and get paid for your suffering?

And America's love affair with the automobile is a well-known abusive relationship that America will never have the courage to leave.


The abusive relationship love-affair is the best explanation I've ever heard of cars in the USA.

Just like a an abusive relationship, the car love affair still produces some good things. It's not all dark and dreary.

"I hate that he comes home drunk and hits me, but he's so loving and apologetic the next morning."

"I hate that I get so stressed from my daily commute, but being able to drive to the countryside on the weekend is so nice."

You can be in a relationship without dealing with abuse, and you can get to work less stressfully and still have the freedom to explore the world.

That's what makes the relationship so sinister; it's Stockholm syndrome.

"How could I ever live without him, even though he hits me sometimes?"

"How could I ever live without driving everywhere, even though the country on the whole is getting more unhealthy, we continue to use up our limited resources, and the ability to walk around and individuals' quality of life is reduced?"

Of course you can live without those negatives. There are ways out. There is a better life possible.


Can we try to get through one thread on HN without frothing at the mouth about how much we hate cars? Message received, you happen to be in a situation where you don't need a car — I am genuinely happy for you, as well as envious. But it is not necessary or helpful for someone to bang on about it in every single thread that has anything to do with building stuff. It doesn't help anything, and it just annoys people who don't have your good fortune and feel like you're agitating to take away something they need.


If people don't bang on about it, nothing will ever change ... seriously, everyone will simply move on and build the next urban sprawl center, and the next shitty road, out to the next desolate subdivision because that's what's easy. No one wants to be agitated. Well, too bad, we _should_ be agitated. Those without the good fortune _should_ raise hell to the city planners, and attend city council meetings, and vote in local elections.

btw, I live in a place that definitely is an urban sprawl, and is in danger of getting worse as more and more people move here (Orlando, FL). So, I'm in the same place as it sounds like you are ... and I wish _more_ people would bang on


>If people don't bang on about it, nothing will ever change ...

It's not going to change anyway. The car haters on HN are in the minority of Americans.


I suspect that part of the reason cities like San Francisco, New York, and Vancouver are so ludicrously expensive in North America are because there are far more people that hate cars than there are cities which are amenable to their preferences.

So, if a minority, then a very under-served one. Those cities are going to stay expensive unless the supply of walkable cities increases.


434,000 people ride Bart everyday in the Bay Area. But 270,000 cars still cross the Bay bridge every day and another 112,000 cross the golden gate. And obviously there's everyone driving up/down the peninsula.

I generally agree though, but to think that SF in particular is anti-car isn't exactly true. Much better than the rest of the country, but not as public transit friendly as it could/should be.


It's difficult to disentangle high priced housing from the availability of high paying jobs. Some of those people are in NYC or SF because that's the only way they're going to make $300k. I would hate every minute of living in either of those cities, but I still might do it for a few years for the cash.


I don’t think so. Besides my weird urbanist friends, and very poor people, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t at least want to have a car.


It's already changing in statistically significant ways:

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/01/the-d...


>It turns out that Millennial behavior during the recession—living in the basement rather than driving to work, and biking and sharing rides elsewhere—did not reflect a preferred lifestyle so much as an accommodation to the longest recession and slowest recovery in modern U.S. history.

>By year-end 2016 road travel had hit an all-time high, north of 3.2 trillion vehicle-miles. Gasoline demand has followed apace, also hitting new highs. So much for peak driving.

http://www.realclearenergy.org/articles/2017/05/29/millennia...


shows clear bias by declaring an all time high and not accounting for population; vehicle miles per capita is still down when measured using fred (the same source as their data).

https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=dWoW


That's an interesting article. It didn't gel with my experience of people's motivations for buying cars in the UK, so I had a skim anyway, because what the fuck do I know about America (answer: I went there on holiday once), and ended up clicking on the link about how millenials prefer SUVs: http://fortune.com/2015/09/09/10-used-cars-millennials-buy/ and finding a list of the top 10 used cars that millenials buy.

Now look at that list of used cars.

No, seriously. Just look. Then come back here, because I want your upvote. Now here's s 3 of them to refresh your memory. 3 out of 10. That's 30%. Nearly a third.

    3. Subaru WRX — 26.4% share
    5. Volkswagen R32 — 25.7% share
    7. Nissan GT-R — 25.4% share
What the fuck is this.

These are not normal people cars. Practicality? Is that what millenials like? That's what the article claims! But judging by this list, all I can say is: my arse. The R32 has a fucking V6. In a hatchback. Are we mocking millenials here? Because if so, let me join the queue. If you want practical, you can find something better. Or are we mocking the article? Well, am I allowed to join two queues? Because count me in if so! These are not practical cars.

Or are we mocking the theory that millenials are buying cars. Well, let me join that queue as well, and frankly I don't care if that's not permitted. Because if the VW R32 is the 5th most popular car sold to millenials, and the 3rd is the Subaru WRX, and the 7th is the Nissan GT-R, then I'll bet that your average ordinary normal millenial is probably not, on average, buying a car. Because these are stupid cars that car people buy. They are not cars that average ordinary normal people go for.

Also: check carsalesbase.com! Total USA sales for WRX+STi were around 100,000 since 2010. The market for second hand examples is probably not very large. The Nissan GT-R? Never sold more than 2,000 per year. There's, like, less than 20,000 in the entire country. And that's the 7th most popular second hand car buy for millenials.

The explanation of course may just be that the snake people are buying a huge amount of Dodge Magna and Chrysler Pacificas. That would make sense - these two cars do indeed look relatively practical. Or maybe that they're buying a lot of new cars, since this is a table of used car purchases. And that would make sense too, since new cars, while a bit expensive, do probably have good fuel economy, good in-car functionality (iPod, Bluetooth, etc.), and don't require much in the way of upkeep.

But as evidence that millenials are buying a lot of SUVs, I do dare to claim that this is bullshit.

(And if you call me out on that, then I will downgrade that to merely saying that it does not follow from the evidence provided - which, in my opinion, is the same thing.)

(One of the other links - http://www.autonews.com/article/20170227/RETAIL/302279963/th... - has a section entitled "Need, not want", which fits better with what seems to me to be the general trend. And over time this will probably result in greater sales for SUVs and family-friendly cars and the like, I suppose, for obvious reasons. But I still suspect there's something of a change here, and that people will be purchasing what 15-20 years ago might have been an aspirational-type vehicle with a minivan-/estate-type mindset. Which, of course, just as how you today think nothing of having the equivalent of a 1980s Cray supercomputer in your pocket, running off battery power, is evidence of progress.)


That list is misleading. Yes "young people buy stupid stuff" but the list is describing "cars with highest RATES of millennial buyers" not "most popular cars millennials buy". If I sold 10 used Deloreans and millennials bought 5, it would be at the top of this list.


That list of cars isn't the list of most popular millennial cars, it's the list of cars that no one except young people will buy. You're right, the GT-R, R32, WRX, IS-F, and Magnum aren't a "normal person cars", they're mostly cheap high performance cars. The other half of the list is cheap, ugly SUVs. That list is a list of unpopular cars that for various reasons sells slightly better to younger people.


OK, yes, that's a worthwhile clarification, thanks. I did realise this, at least at first, but it looks like I warmed to my theme too much, and then promptly forgot, only to remember again towards the end ;)

Still, I stand by my conclusion...


If you have some good ideas about how to solve the problem of transportation in America, absolutely go talk to the relevant authorities. Heck, you might even start a startup around it, because this is a problem that many cities have poured money into with little success.

What is not useful is going into vaguely related threads on Hacker News and posting extended analogies between cars and abusive boyfriends.

Seriously, look at this entire sprawling "I like cars"/"I don't like cars" subthread that has derailed discussion of the actual article and tell me: Has it brought America one iota closer to a solution?


> has derailed discussion of the actual article

Unlike complaining about what people choose to talk about, which has a long track record of success.


I can't wait for electric SDCs. They will be the final nail in the coffin of anti-folks.


What?


I think he means electric single driver cars.


Electric Self-Driving Cars maybe.


Electric self driving cars.


Many people don't just "happen" to be in a situation where they don't need a car, they actively put themselves in that situation by making many lifestyle choices.

I changed jobs (twice) to move closer to home. I used to have a job with a 45 - 60 minute car commute (the train was over 2 hours due to the need to make 2 connections), then took a job that was only about 10 miles away (just under an hour by bike, 12 - 30 minutes by car depending on traffic). I took a bit of a pay cut for that job, but it was worth it for saving about an hour/day commuting.

Then I moved to a job that was 2 miles away (10 minutes by bike or by car). My job also happens to be close to shops, restaurants, etc -- everything I need for daily living. And I get around 1.5 hours/day of my life back compared to when I had the original, longer commute.

But I didn't just "happen" to end up living where I don't need a car, I actively sought it out.


Sounds like you have the luxury of picking and choosing your jobs. Most American's don't.


Slavery has been illegal for over 150 years.

Many people say that they don't have the option to change jobs, yet when they get laid off or the factory where they work shuts down, they find a way to survive even if they have to make sacrifices to do so.


There has to be a name for this-- Godwin's corollary , or something.

FWIW, people living in poor rural areas, the rust belt, Reservations, etc. are surviving, true, but doing so in conditions that aren't quite first-world.


You mean the kind of people that can't afford a car, yet are stuck in decaying suburbia that can't afford to keep up infrastructure and where it's hard to provide social services to a far-flung population?

People for whom the American dream of a car for everyone has left them stuck in one place when they can't afford that car. People that need an expensive car because it's the only way to get to their far-flung job, or get groceries, or go a doctor's appointment? Where even if there's a bus, it only runs a few times a day and may require long transfers to go across town.

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/01/suburbs...

https://www.wired.com/2016/07/cash-strapped-towns-un-paving-...


Yes.


You know that this is a post about _infrastructure_, right? How does it not occur to you that talking about the culture around cars (and its effect on politics/policy) might perhaps be relevant?


Society is not moving away from a car-based infrastructure. The majority of people have no issues with a car-based society.

MORE people need to be making a stink. If this annoys you...sorry not sorry.


Everyone on the planet could weep in unison about the continued existence of cars and it wouldn't improve a thing. If this is a problem you sincerely want to solve, create real-world solutions, not angry Internet rants.


How do we convince home owners in Cupertino, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Atherton, etc that BART down the peninsula won't "bring inner city crime" to their perfect neighborhood? We've already lost that battle; Berryessa BART opens in the next year or so and it runs down east bay, so SJ <-> SF will still be faster driving except during rush hours. Caltrain is an option but neither run 24.7 either. Coming from a rust belt state with a private bus service that frequently didn't show up at all, I understand that we're in a much better public transit situation than the majority of America, which is really sad, but I place a lot of the blame on NIMBYs, mortgage interest tax deduction (a form of welfare that almost no one receiving it argues against), and how home ownership here basically makes or breaks you (if you rent and don't benefit from the credit rating (renting doesn't count toward your credit history or score)): https://www.forbes.com/sites/lawrenceyun/2015/10/14/how-do-h...


Just to be clear, I do not live in a situation where I do not need a car. I am unsure why you think that.

Advocating for something means thinking it's a good idea. That's all.

I have a car and driving it can be fun, but saving many lives and accidents would be even better.


I cock an eyebrow at the car haters too, especially these days.

We're on the cusp of autonomous self-driving cars! A transport revolution, lives saved, traffic optimized, pollution reduced, etc, etc. Why all the drip-drip-drip poison words about cars?

Does GP and our numerous sibling commenters have a case of the premature sour grapes? Are they wrong even after all the pot banging?

Consider cars today: polluting, wasteful in time/money/energy/lives, loud, dangerous killers ... transformed into cars tomorrow: a nimble, safe, convenient, "zero-carbon" (battery-powered), direct and fast conveyance! The old arguments evaporate in a cloud of red smoke!

We who are so blessed to own (or hire) cars can all feel GREAT about avoiding the urban density, travel villages, inconvenient bus routes, foul smelling light rail cars with their stabby/gropey fellow passengers, etc! Soon, we'll travel in comfort, productive and safe in our cars, as we merrily scoot from our far-flung, clean, beautiful, sprawling suburbs to our glittering commute destinations on the other side of the map forever! Smiles everywhere you look!

The above is all just theory. I mean, who knows what is really behind peoples' complaints these days.


The old arguments evaporate in a cloud of red smoke

Only if you exclude traffic congestion as a problem. Self-driving cars can help with some optimization (i.e. closer following distance on freeways, less traffic disruption due to erratic drivers), but they aren't going solve the overriding problem of too much traffic in the city.

San Francisco is already experiencing extra congestion from the precursor to self-driving cars, car sharing [1]

And wide-spread use of self driving cars may make congestion even worse. Instead of the office worker driving to work and parking in the garage all day long, his car will drop him off, then will go drive around and look for someone else to pick up (or will seek cheap parking outside of the city center), so that's an extra car on the road.

And anyone that's tried to drive past a school in the morning or afternoon knows that traffic is going to be a nightmare during commute hours when every office building is surrounded by cars that are dropping off/picking up the 1000+ workers in each building.

Not to mention that your "zero-carbon" (battery-powered)" cars don't exist, even if powered by solar cells (that were created by non-carbon fuel sources), the processes that go into mining materials and manufacturing a car still emit tons of CO2 and we are a long way away from making all manufacturing carbon neutral.

Single occpancy cars are just not very efficient at moving people. A single train can carry 2000+ passengers and deliver them every few minutes. In comparison, car freeway lane carries around 1000 cars/hour.


Yeah, the misconception around solar vehicles is hilarious. I met someone who was otherwise intelligent who thought that they had previously been in a Prius with a solar panel on the roof that powered the car. The option they referred to was only able to help power the hvac in the Prius. They seemingly had no concept of how many watts it takes to drive a car down the freeway versus how many watts a solar panel of that size might put out. http://electrek.co/2016/06/20/toyota-prius-plug-prime-solar-... looks like the new non-US Prius prime might have a solar roof option that could be capable of providing up to 10% of the energy required to drive it. Since this is marketing material, I would be surprised if that's not under ideal conditions. The panels on that roof look to be a few hundred watts max, during the best period of a clear day at the ideal angle.


> "I hate that I get so stressed from my daily commute, but being able to drive to the countryside on the weekend is so nice."

I have truly never understood this line of thinking. These two are not tied together.

I grew up in a car-centric city, but moved away in my teens. I've never personally owned a car and haven't had one in the household since I was 17. I hear this supposed "upside" of cars from my friends who are still stuck in LA, and what no one has ever been able to answer is:

What prevents you from renting a car when you want to drive out to the countryside? I drive out somewhere beautiful on a sunny weekend probably 3x as much as any of my friends who own cars, and I'm still paying less for total transportation than they do (let alone the occasional hassle that owning a car exposes you to). The only actual negative I can think of is the mental friction of having to pay each time, and this is just an irrational speedbump that really isn't that difficult to surmount.


I grew up in a country with dense urban centers, where most people rely on public transit to get around even if they do have a car, because of traffic. On top of that, when I was growing up, car was very much a luxury there - most families had none, and the lucky ones had one.

I live in US now, in an area that is the edge of suburban sprawl, and I can tell you this: owning a car is very liberating on an emotional level. You can go wherever you want, when you want it, without making plans around it or having to share your space with strangers. For the first couple of years, I would go driving entirely on a whim. On a few occasions, my weekends became spontaneous multi-day road trips. It was very enjoyable, and I still rather enjoy driving in general.

I wouldn't switch back.

Yes, I know, cars come with a lot of externalities. That's not my point, though. I just wanted to show that not everyone is in a "love/hate relationship" with cars. Some of us actually do find it all genuinely enjoyable to the point where any associated inconveniences are minor, while the benefits are major. So when your solution involves taking those benefits away, don't be surprised if you get pushback.

Most of all, if you go around telling people that they don't really derive any benefit from their cars, and if only they could surrender their preconceived notions and listen to the voice of reason, it would be better for them in all or most respects - don't be surprised if your argument is dismissed out of hand.

It may well be that we need to give up cars for some important reason. But you'll have to convince me that the reason is important enough on its own merits - not because I don't have anything to lose. I know better.


> What prevents you from renting a car when you want to drive out to the countryside?

Nothing, but it is a barrier. When you own a car, you just get in, make sure you've got gas, and go. When you don't, you need to go out and find a rental place, get there, find a car you want/like, etc.

It's a small barrier, and mostly psychological, but it's there and it affects decisions.


There are a bunch of other small inconveniences too.

I own a car but I've considered renting cars for trips multiple times (you don't have to care as much about a rental car, you don't mind if other people are driving it, it's normal to split rental car expenses but weird to split, say, the depreciation on your car) etc. But it's often a hassle.

Most rental car centers in the city do not open before say 9 am (the best I have seen is 8 am) and close by 5-6 pm. After you do all the paper work and blah blah it's typically 9-10 am before you can leave for your trip. This is just not practical for a lot of weekend trips. The other option is to rent it on Friday (which means you pay for a day more), but since they close by 5 pm you need to rent it on Friday morning at 9 am which means you have to now plan it along with your work day.

The other option is to rent from the airport where the centers are generally open 24/7 but charge more and the airport is far so now you have to take that into account.

The other problem is when you rent for a long trip and have to pay per day when you know you'll actually be driving only on a few of those days.


Yup. I cycle a lot, and when I first moved to USA I tried to live the car rental only lifestyle in the Bay Area. In someways this was easier than I expected:

* Most US car rental price comparison sites let you book a car months in advance to lock in the price, but you don't pay till pick up. There's almost never a penalty for booking and not picking up, so I used to just block book the weekends months in advance, whether I needed the car or not.

* I just used the big rental firms - at the time services like ZipCar were priced to heavily incentivise you to only drive between ZipCar areas and drop off, e.g. use a different car for the outbound journey and the return one. Using them for all-day tripping often ended up being significantly more expensive than a traditional rental. I've no idea if this has improved. Car sharing services appeared to really rely on both your start and end destinations being in their 'coverage' areas though.

* Once I got to know staff at my local rental place, I started getting 'free' upgrades a lot.

However, after four or five months I ended up buying a modest low mileage 3 year old Honda. The cost of running isn't actually all that much more, and now I don't have to factor in travel time to rental place, having to refill the rental before return, clock-watching etc. This is entirely selfish of me of course, but very much caused by the small 'barrier' you mention.


I've generally optimized for convenience: it's easy for me to ignore the expense when I consider my overall transportation + rent budget (the two aren't really fully extricable).


It's a pretty serious psychological barrier. When you already own a car, the maintenance and finance costs are already sunk costs, so the marginal cost of doing a weekend trip is quite low -- pretty much just the cost of gas. When you don't own a car, now you have to throw in the cost of the rental too, which can easily make a $20 trip turn into a $120 trip or more (it costs $100 per day to rent a car near me, so an weekend camping trip jumps up to $220). Even if the total cost with the occasional rental is less, the marginal costs are structured in a completely different way, which ends up negatively incentivizing it.

Hell, I live in Manhattan and I now don't do a lot of things I used to do when I lived out in the suburbs and had a car, for precisely this reason. Instead I do a lot more things on my bicycle, including long weekend trips -- it's basically become to me what my car used to be to me when I lived in the suburbs. Except using it actually improves my health.


Right, this is the mental speedbump I referred to. I just get tired of people pretending that you're precluded from easily driving out away from cities, instead of the much-lesser inconvenience of "having to get used to the minuscule additional mental barrier". In my own personal experience it took me about three trips before this latter issue vanished.

The difference between the magnitude of the two ways of stating this "downside" are vast, and I hear people conflate them constantly.


In Canada, renting a car when you're under 25 years old is pretty annoying. It's usually an extra $25 a day and that's what turned me off to renting. Some rental companies won't even let you get a car if you're under 25. It's actually a function of age, so I'm currently 24 and in theory, it should be cheaper now.. so let's do some blanket math to entertain your idea.

- I drive my car only on weekends, so Friday - Sunday

- It tends to break down every 3 months, at around $1000 a repair each time(BMWs have expensive repairs.) That's $4000 a year

- Insurance is about $1750 for a year

- Looking at rates at www.enterprise.com for my city, it's about $100 CAD for a rental car for 3 days (pick up at 7:00AM Friday and drop off at 4:00PM on Sunday.)

- $100 CAD * 4 is about $400 a month for a rental

- $4000 (repairs) + $1750 (insurance) + $120 (stickers) is about $489 for owning

It looks like using rental cars on weekends is not a great investment still and that makes me sad. I only save $89 a month and have to deal with picking up and dropping off the car and also not using it through the week. $1068 in yearly savings is not worth it!

Note: Gas is not included because I have to pay for gas for both cars, I guess it might be a little cheaper for the rental cars since they tend to be gas efficient, but I still don't think it's huge savings.


> It tends to break down every 3 months, at around $1000 a repair each time

That's really not good. Even BMW's are not that expensive to maintain, something is really wrong with your vehicle. Unless it's a classic and you're using it as a daily driver.


Former E46 3 series owner here, roughly 10 years into the life of the car. It was expensive.


An easy way to improve your situation is to sell the BMW and get a more practical and reliable vehicle. Granted, that works more in favor against the rental car.

I also don't think it's a given that you'd need a rental car every single weekend. If you need a car every single weekend then owning one yourself clearly makes the most sense. It's when you only need the car occasionally that it would make more sense.


$4000 in repairs a year? What kind of clunker are you driving?


A BMW apparently. Isn't it well known that these are the most expensive cars to maintain?


What about something like Zipcar?


The only actual negative I can think of is the mental friction of having to pay each time

Don't underestimate this. People will pay a large premium for unlimited internet, for example, just to relieve themselves of the mental burden of maybe, possibly, once a year going over and getting hit with $5 or $10 in overage fees. Companies know this. They exploit the hell out of it!


Meh, public transport also sucks. I have a daily commute a bit over an hour each way on a tram. I'm near the end of my line, so I'm 'lucky' enough to get a seat for that time. I'm not the one who gets squished in during peak hour, or has to watch overfull trams just pass by. If they're not overdue, that is (a famous problem with public transport). I'm also lucky in that where I live and work are on the same line. I do, however, have to walk a moderate distance at both ends - it's not end-to-end transport - and I'm limited to having a small amount of things I can personally carry; no carting much extra stuff to work to do things afterwards for me. I'm also tall, which means that public transport vehicles aren't built for me (seats too small, hit my head on things if I'm standing, etc) and there's nothing I can do about it. Then if it's raining, not all stops have shelters for the proles, and the floors can get slippery. Or perhaps its winter, and that press of people on the vehicle is a haven for colds and viruses to spread.

Public transport is a good thing overall, but I do get tired of people talking about it like it's heaven 'if only it were more available'.


you can apply this analogy to literally anything with benefits and drawbacks.


> And America's love affair with the automobile is a well-known abusive relationship that America will never have the courage to leave.

It's pretty much impossible to leave this relationship unless you live in one of the larger US cities. If you live in a suburb, rural area, or city that's not in the top 10-15 in terms of size there's literally no other option that exists or that could easily exist.


This is an extremely simplistic view of the situation. In reality, many of the largest cities are almost entirely unusable without a car while many small cities (in the extreme case, most college towns) have excellent walkability and public transit because of their dense layout. I have personally experienced these. This is not a problem of urbanization to large cities, but of overall urban design.


You assume those that live in small cities work there as well. A large number of people living rural areas or small cities drive to big cities to work. There are very few "small" cities on the coasts (<10,000 people) so perhaps that is what you are referring to by small cities for which this works.


If a large number of people all have to go in the same direction at a similar time, isn't that what public transit is for?

Cars are more useful when people need to go to random places at indeterminate times.


> If a large number of people all have to go in the same direction at a similar time, isn't that what public transit is for?

Yes, and in a sane nation, this would mean that people could live in small cities, take transit to work, then take transit back. But there are many, many places where this is not the case.

I lived on the outskirts of Dallas; it took ages for the rail system to approach usefulness, and individual cities along the route could opt out of having stations (and therefore, opt out of paying for them.)


They're all going to the same place, but all coming from different areas. Arranging for them to get to a common point to even board the public transportation you're offering would require them to take a car, since density makes and sheer time makes it prohibitively expensive. If buses did stop in convenient locations for the widely dispersed people in small towns, it'd take hours before they'd even approach their destination after having spent half the day just picking up people from all over.

The only way to fix the problem is to encourage people to move out of the suburbs and small towns and live in denser regions.


I don't even understand the need of physically being at the same place, for information workers at least (until remote surgery and hairdressing catch up). Working remotely is good for the environment!

I like cars, but I'd never want to use one for commuting. Random places at indiscriminate times — this is what cars are for indeed.


I recently wrote a lengthy counterpoint to that:

https://likewise.am/2017/05/19/in-response-to-the-cult-of-re...


I am a consultant in a small team of professionals, right. However, for me, "learning on the job" comes mostly from solving problems, not talking to people. Which is why I steered to consultant / R&D positions. And I had no problems in acquiring said knowledge (in trading systems) on my own.


If you are an independent and highly skilled professional who knows the business, you can definitely work remotely. Good for you!

But that's a far cry from, "Why do information workers need company offices at all, ever?"


For me, the need for commuting is such a great nuisance that I worked the hardest I can to get rid of it.

I agree that it might be a transitional phase, or something necessary to acquire the skills needed, but it needs to be rid of at the first sight of an opportunity.


While the normality of office work is responsible for a lot of oppressive commutes, it doesn't follow that commutes must necessarily be long or that this in itself negates the benefit of working in the office.

For what it's worth, I have zero tolerance for long commutes, and always lived close to my jobs. It took considerable expense, and relied on life situation flexibility I no longer have, but my patience for driving is maybe ten minutes.


>> If a large number of people all have to go in the same direction at a similar time, isn't that what public transit is for?

Public transit only works when people live in high density areas. It makes no sense to have a transit stop where very few people live in walking distance of it. People with cars don't really want to drive to the bus stop and then catch a ride downtown, though some do. But most companies are spread out just as much as peoples homes, so business isn't even high enough density to warrant public transit in most cases.


Build public transit, then build high density residences, then profit. This simple formula is applied extremely well in Japan.


Japanese zoning restrictions also contribute heavily here. It's not just that higher-density residences are available, it's that you can put them nearly anywhere. According to http://urbankchoze.blogspot.ca/2014/04/japanese-zoning.html, not only are there vastly fewer zones (12, nationally), Japanese zoning laws specify only the "maximum use", instead of exclusive uses. So anything zoned for commercial use, for example, could also have neighborhood stores and residential.


Yeah, there are some even more extreme cases of office parks where it's illegal to walk on the roadside, illegal to walk near the road, illegal to walk on the road, illegal to walk on the surrounding property. Basically places where it's illegal not to be on at least a bicycle, and more likely in a car.


One thing I miss about my college days is the commute. I lived about 300 feet from the math department. Sometimes I would refuel my car about as often as I would change its oil. (I still needed a car as I lived an hour from 'the city'.)


That's a self-inflicted problem though. Nobody put a gun to America's head and forced us to make our cities sprawl out. We collectively decided to do it that way because we thought it was better.

And for a few things it IS better. But there are a whole lotta costs, too, with the top 3 being being actual financial cost, grinding on the faces of the poor, and making us fat.



It was done for a very rational reason: making country more immune to a nuclear attack, especially the retaliation to its own nuclear attack (i.e. a nuclear attack that is coming in convenient time of day and week because you chose the time). It works perfectly to that purpose: it is whole lot better to keep all relevant population in separate houses with basements, with little combustible material around, than in multimillion cities with no way out of them.

If U.S. launched its missiles while all these people just came home from jobs say at 11pm ET/8pm PT, and people in the Soviet Union were on the way or at their factory jobs during Moscow morning on Siberia mid-day, it would be a slaughter for the Soviet Union and an easy win for the U.S.


Have a source for any of that?

Sounds like a completely made-up justification after the fact.

Surely someone would have raised the point that the soviet union could just launch it's missiles in the middle of the work day.

Also, Moscow is tremendously sprawled out.


Ah, I just did Google on it, and lo and behold:

"... While it is true that various factors contributed to phenomenal growth of the suburbs between 1945 and 1960, historians have thus far paid little attention to policymakers' fears of atomic attack as a significant factor in population dispersal. ..."

The Reduction of Urban Vulnerability: Revisiting 1950s American Suburbanization as Civil Defence K. Tobin, Pages 1-32 | Published online: 06 Sep 2010

I work in tech/finance. I am old enough to remember that, after the 9/11 attack in 2001, banks were required to set up their datacenter/DR sites at least 50 miles away from their main offices to avoid a complete wipe-out in case of nuke attack.


I'm going to recount this in person someday and get the "he's a nutter" response.


To me the simpler theory is that the US has been quite wealthy since World War 2 and has lots and lots of space.

Which doesn't mean that building sprawling subdivisions is a great idea, but space is a pretty easy thing to sell.


Those things enable sprawl, but they don't force it.


Moscow is also tremendously dense. It's sprawled out because it has so many people in it, but the vast majority of those people are packed into apartment buildings. The same goes for all other major urban centers. A typical Russian (or rather, ex-Soviet) cityscape looks like this, and can go for miles:

http://images.e-flux-systems.com/2014_04_Bric-III-Yugo-Zapad...

Now imagine an airburst nuclear explosion over this, just low enough to maximize the blast wave.

There's a reason why Soviets heavily invested into protecting the populace from such attacks - the entire Moscow Metro system doubles as a nuclear bomb shelter, complete with blast doors.


Federal Highways in the US are designed to increase national security. The best example is certain bridges are in certain places so that their destruction would cut off the easy path for mobilized enemy armor. They're designed to be easily blown up on purpose.


You got any credible sources on that? It sounds like one of those urban legends that people like to repeat. The Eisenhower interstate system was built in a post-nuclear world, and in a post-nuclear world it's hard to imagine there ever being a mainland invasion of the United States. The bombs would be flying before that, and there wouldn't be anything left worth invading (on any side in the conflict). Being able to utterly destroy the other nation and its military forces within minutes by launching thousands of ICBMs is a much more credible plan of war than blowing up some random bridges on your own turf, and indeed that is the logical course of action that we did go down.


I don't know about the bridges specifically, but that the interstate system had an explicit national security purpose is not just well-documented, it's literally right there in the name of the law that created it: National Interstate and Defense Highways Act.


My issue with the bridge thing is that it's easy enough to blow up bridges, especially as you're retreating from the territory they're in, regardless of their location or construction. It could cost billions of extra construction dollars to unnecessarily site a bridge in anything but its obvious ideal location (e.g. the shortest possible span).


My understanding was that it was created to mobilize the military and transport resources across the continent, not to make it easy to cut off enemy routes.

But likewise, I have no references either.


The military purpose of the interstate is moving friendly troops around (logistics).


Now this is a lot more true, and the military value of having good transportation within the boundaries of your own land has been known since at least Roman times, and likely much farther back.

It doesn't explain the bridge blowing up thing, however.


> The best example is certain bridges are in certain places

And you cannot utter their names or locations because?


I had never considered this and something else about it makes perfect sense to me.

It also explains the "white flight" of the time. What we now call the "inner city" was allowed to remain black and brown with the expectation that the country would be alright if they were incinerated while the more -valuable- people had been relocated to the suburbs.

The Soviets would be able to get their retaliatory body count while eliminating people that the US didn't really value in the first place.


There was a serious attempt to do that in the 1950s, although it didn't have great impact. It is, however, why IBM corporate headquarters moved from Manhattan to Armonk, NY.


'easy win' = the people in the area die more slowly rather than in the initial blast? Apart from the now-radioactive work centers (that are the wealth of your country), take out your city centers and industry, and you also take out your transportation network. Hello, famine.


Seems like Japan didn't get that memo having been bombed twice.


Ah, that's a good point. Still, it seems the design pattern has outlasted the attitude that created it.


It's probably not even a decision so much as a probable consequence of having a much smaller population and opening of new frontiers to settle over the course of the country's history, ending up today with about half the population spread across about the same total area, and not uniformly. What has been our decision is to respect individual and local preferences (NIMBYism) and to ignore certain infrastructure improvements.

Given that sprawl is not a new phenomenon but obesity is I don't see how you can claim this is responsible for making us fat.


Sprawl IS a new phenomenon, though. We didn't see the kind of suburban sprawl that we see today until after WW2, when cars became THE way to get around. It became more and more dominant and entrenched as the interstate highway system developed.

Remember, we're talking about relative density within a metro area, not how close each metro area is to the others. If you look at cities that were more or less fully developed prior to WW2, like Boston, you find that they're more compact, as opposed to, say, LA or Phoenix.

That said, I don't think it's the only thing making us fat. But I do think it's one contributing factor.


True, but even in Boston they can't get public transportation and infrastructure right. Boston is almost certainly one of the most vibrant economic hubs in America and one of the most compact cities, but the subway absolutely sucks, is completely outdated, and can't adequately service proximal cities like Somerville. The city is also desperately in need of further tunneling and infrastructure expansion to service the Cambridge / Somerville area as well as the Sea Port but I can't see that ever happening. It's taken us over five years to fix a single small bridge with two lanes in each direction...


When I read about proposed public transit projects in Boston that were never built, most of them had actually been _court mandated_ by the Big Dig mitigation lawsuits, but they still didn't get completed. Very mysterious.

To be fair about the 'single small bridge', it seems like smaller projects suffer proportionately larger delays due to being considered low priority, ridiculously lax work scheduling, etc. Although the financial scales are completely different, it takes my city (Toronto) approximately the same time to build a subway extension as to renovate the bike trail that runs near my house.


This single small bridge, the Longfellow Bridge, is a crucial artery connecting Boston with its surrounding cities and towns across the river. I should have emphasized in my initial comment that it is a high priority project.


The patterns of the LA basins development was set by the Pacific Electric Railway, in the 20's and 30's - the freeways if you look almost all parallel former PE lines.


How can we better quantify the costs? That's where, I think, many people have a blind spot.


Don't have an authoritative answer for you, but I thought this chart was pretty great; it shows the profit/loss for the local government (so, taxes vs spending) for different neighborhoods for a city in Lousiana: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/1/9/the-real-reason...


You don't think people in Europe live in suburban or rural areas?

The difference is networks of buses and trains that the countries and cities invested in over decades.

America went in another direction, and looks no closer to changing it's mind.


Most of Europe doesn't live in what Americans would call suburbs, but villages. They're dense where people live and have train and bus service conveniently, because in postwar Europe there were a lot fewer cars. They also zone such that there's a dense living area surrounded by farmland - when that farmland becomes all housing thenyoull have American style suburbs, but few in Europe want that because it's harder to get where you want to go.


You'd better update your knowledge.

Suburbs now spread for miles around towns and even former villages, for ten or twenty miles around major cities.

And small towns and villages lost their railways and stations 40 to 80 years ago.


Not in a lot of Germany, or Austria from what I saw driving the countryside for a week


This is pretty much the norm in orher places such as China and Japan.

New developments havebeen getting more sprawl in China though, as cars have become more popular.


Post-war Europe didn't have cars and cities are surrounded by farmland? Nope.


Even in San Francisco, widely known for its public transit system, not having a car some of the time sucks. It's much more convenient to get around by car. That's why Uber and Zipcar are ultra popular here.


Is San Fran really known for its public transport system?

New York, sure. Everyone's heard of their subway.

The first time I'd ever heard of BART was when I visited briefly, and in doing so I learnt 2 things:

1) BART is pretty bad: noisy and a small network 2) Talking to people during my short stay made it pretty clear San-Fran and the bay area was considered 99% car territory, and traffic/congestion/commuting around SF was a significant problem commensurate with that fact.

Edit: understand this is a genuine question asked as a foreigner who has only formed an impression from short visits.


The first time I'd ever heard of BART was when one of it's officers killed Oscar Grant.

I couldn't see myself ever wanting to take that mode of transportation.


Those rural towns only exist because they are subsidized by everyone else through taxes. Close the loss-making post offices and roads servicing those towns and everyone would be forced to move. Problem solved.


Taken for a ride - https://youtu.be/p-I8GDklsN4


It can be changed by collective action lke rezoning and legislating incentives. People can move.


And America's love affair with the automobile is a well-known abusive relationship that America will never have the courage to leave.

From what I have read, Millenials are putting noteworthy pressure on this aspect of American culture.

Also, I gave up my car years ago. With the magic of the internet, I work online. I mostly walk everywhere and occasionally take public transit.

I think we can change this substantially.


I woke up to a flat tire about two months ago. Don't know why, but that was the breaking point for me.

Since then, I haven't driven a single day. I walk, take the metro or get an Uber.

I haven't been happier. Driving was easily the worst part of my day.


I have two sons. At the time that we chose to go carless, we were living in an apartment complex with endless speed bumps. Driving over the speed bumps into and out of the complex daily was about 3 minutes of torture that we were completely thrilled to give up.

Humorously, we have had occasion to put me on a bus for some reason while they walked to the destination in question. I would get ahead of them, then the bus would get stuck in traffic and they would get ahead of me. We all arrived at the spot in question within a couple of minutes of each other.

Unless you are driving quite a long distance and/or on the open highway, car travel is not as much faster than foot travel as some people seem to believe. Short local trips don't see as much gain in speed as Americans seem to imagine. I think this belief persists in part because so many people just don't walk anywhere at all. They drive everywhere, even if they are only going 1/4 mile or something silly like that.


Unless you are driving quite a long distance and/or on the open highway, car travel is not as much faster than foot travel as some people seem to believe.

I'm going to have to disagree on this one.

I can drive to my local Wal-Mart in about 5 minutes. It would take me 30 minutes to walk there. I can drive there. Do my shopping, wait in line, pay, cart my stuff back out to my vehicle and drive home in less than the amount of time it would take to walk there.


Mz is clearly referring to urban (civilized) areas.

The closest WalMart to me (checking...) is 13 miles away.


If that's the case, why the reference to open highways?


I've lived in multiple cities of different size where I had multiple grocery stores within 5 minutes walking. In dense-for-US SF where I need to drive for 10 minutes to get to the closest Safeway.


> Unless you are driving quite a long distance and/or on the open highway, car travel is not as much faster than foot travel as some people seem to believe.

The average speed limit on municipal roads in Ontario is 50 km/h, which means that anywhere within 5km will take 6 minutes and, within 10km, 12 minutes.

Running 5km takes me 18 minutes, and running 10km takes me closer to 40 minutes. Humans walk at about 5km/h, which means that 5km would take about 1 hour, and 10km would be 2 hours or more, since exhaustion starts to factor in.

Car travel is unimaginably faster than walking. I don't know anybody who wants to spend 2 hours on a round-trip to a grocery store 5km away when they could do it in 10 minutes in a car.


You're not wrong, and even though I dislike cars, I can't help but feel like you're arguing against someone living in an alternate reality. Unless you live in a dense urban core there's no possible way that walking saves more time than driving. The main reasons I don't have a car is that it's very freeing not to have to worry about owning one (from a theft/maintenance/risk perspective), and also because I'm now living in Manhattan, where owning a car is a huge additional hassle above just parking it in the suburbs where I used to live. I'd either have to pony up for an expensive garage or go fight to find free public parking multiple times every week, all just so I can drive in traffic that's horrendous during the entire day. No thank you.


If I had the choice to go live in Manhattan and not have a car vs. live somewhere else and be obligated to own a car I would choose Manhattan in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, I can't do that (and even if I could, most people cannot).


I'm curious as to why you truly can't do it. Obviously not everyone can, but most individual cases likely can. It's more that you choose not to, which is still perfectly valid.


Can’t live in Manhattan? Because NIMBY housing policies prevent Manhattan from growing.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/05/19/upshot/forty-...


I don't disagree that zoning policies need reforming, but that just makes living here more expensive, not impossible.


If there are fewer places to live than people who need to live there, then having a place for everyone is impossible. In a shortage, all housing is luxury housing.


No one's talking about everyone though, just one person who is a HN reader.


I'm not American, sadly. I'm from Ontario. You're right, it's not literally impossible but it's way more effort and time than it would be worth.


You are not doing speed limit on average in most cities. You slow down for turns, you wait for red light, you wait for other cars, you are parking. Most importantly, shortcuts available to pedestrians are not available to cars that have to take longer route.

I do groceries by walk and it never took 2 hours. The store is not 5km away pretty much from anywhere. You have to be out of city or in the middle of night for it to be that far. Unless there is some kind of law to prevent it, stores with what you need daily pop up around cities everywhere.

In any case, 5km is still nothing on bicycle which I might take for that distance. Just to kill two birds with one stone and get a bit of exercise.


Counterpoints:

* Slowdowns, sure, but many drivers also exceed the limit, and the walking:driving ratio is still massively lopsided.

* Pedestrians are not immune to red lights.

* While there are certainly pedestrian shortcuts that are faster than driving, this is definitely not the case for most combinations of start and end points. Far more often, while the pedestrian might gain distance, the car is still literally 10x faster.

* In fact, unless you live in an extremely dense city, it's highly unlikely that there will be a grocery shop, book store, electronics retailer, Italian restaurant, furniture store, etc. less than 5km from your house. Plus all of the people who you might want to visit, your school, place of work, and so on.

* A bike is not walking. Most bikes are for one person, so if you're in a group they're not much use.

* Carrying purchases home is a pain. I should know, I did this for two years.


>* A bike is not walking. Most bikes are for one person, so if you're in a group they're not much use.

My favourite part of visiting Amsterdam was the excessive bike usage. Pretty much everyone has 1 or more of them, you just ride together in a group or catch a tram, even out of the city everyone would either catch a train or simply ride on the side of the highway between villages.


> Unless you are driving quite a long distance and/or on the open highway, car travel is not as much faster than foot travel as some people seem to believe.

I actually got to test this. My office was about 8km from my house. If I was to leave around my usual time, it would take me about 55-65 mins minimum to reach home.

One day I hadn't taken my car and couldn't find a cab. So I said screw it and decided to walk home.

Reached home in flat 71 minutes. Would have been faster had I taken detours that cut the distance by a kilometer or so.


> With the magic of the internet, I work online

Which is great for us developers, but not so much for most service industry workers.


I'm not a developer. You can have an HN account without being a developer.


But you're also not working at a Starbucks or a Chipotle. This is what your parent was talking about: a lot of the jobs in our economy require physically being where your customers are.


I am aware that many jobs require physically being there. That is not at all what the reply to me said.

I am a writer. I am quite poor. In fact, I am currently homeless. I have been bitching via blog here recently about my frustrations with the widespread attitudes that writers don't deserve to be paid dirt, never mind that people online expect good quality writing to be readily available on the internet. Somehow, that high quality writing should magically appear without paying anyone for it in any way.

I don't make much money. I wish I had a better income.

I am really glad I can make money online at all, but, no, I am not part of some privileged elite with money, power, mobility, etc. I do have mobility. I do cherish it and it enormously enhances my life.

But life is a great deal more complicated than those who have ALL the bennies and those who are nothing but crapped on in every way imaginable. This isn't even a case of shades of grey. Life is incredibly Technicolor and varied.

I think it is completely legitimate to give some push back against the enormous amount of assumption in both that reply and yours.

I would like to see us come up with better solutions than we currently have. That will not happen if we blithely tolerate what amounts to classist assumptions dominating any and every supposed intelligent discussion.


I think you're reading too much into our comments. From your parent comment:

> most service industry workers

Those are folks that predominantly need to be physically present. We weren't assuming anything about your membership in a privileged elite, just pointing out that lots of people still need to transport themselves to work.

Good luck with your writing! I agree that we need better business models to reward it.


You are confused. That is not from any of my comments.


It is from the comment you were replying to when I originally replied to you.


I know exactly where you got it. But you referred to the comment as "your" parent comment. Perhaps you meant something different by that from what that sounds like to me.


Sorry, you're right, that was confusingly worded, I meant "the parent of your comment".


What do you do for work online, out of curiosity?

I know there are a lot of options for basic online work that isn't developer based, but I'm not sure what is available that truly pays a decent living wage.


I'm a writer. I do freelance writing for an online service, I sometimes edit resumes and I blog.

I can make better than minimum wage in fits and spurts, but I currently don't have much earned income. A large part of this is rooted in my medical situation. The details probably aren't really of interest to you.


You're free to live how you choose, but don't force others to live how you see fit.


Exactly. Folks who prefer public transit have been forced to live in car culture by folks who fund roads at the expense of pretty much every other form of transportation. In many cases very unethically so.

Due to the societal and environmental effects, I think it's pretty clear roads should be in no way subsidized like they currently are. If the "suburbs" had to carry their full economic costs, they would be unaffordable.


There have been several great articles that have floated to the top of HN in recent years about how practically no city in the US can afford to maintain its own road networks because of the extreme subsidies in the past.

It is a combination of population density being artificially lowered through cheap road subsidies, constant pressure to eliminate taxes, and gutting alternative transport meaning roads need to satiate all human mobility and thus need huge capacity.


Mass transit is so heavily subsidized that if had to carry it's full economic costs, it would be unaffordable.

The light rail lines in my state (MN) don't even make enough from fares to cover their day-to-day operating costs, much less maintenance, and of course tax payers were 100% on the hook for initial construction - with a large chunk of the money coming from automobile taxes.

So yes, I would be fine with the costs of roads coming more directly from the people using them, but then we are going to do the same with transit. Deal?


Agreed. America's forced dominance of the automobile is pretty grossly unethical. Freedom means the ability to make meaningful choices, and if biking is incredibly dangerous, transit is slow and infrequent, and nothing is within walking distance, then those are hardly meaningful options, are they?

Building to support multiple modes of transportation is the freedom-loving thing to do. Want to walk? Go for it! Transit? Sure! Biking? Why not? Driving? Works for me!


"Freedom" doesn't mean living wherever you want and having every option available to you. It means choosing to live in places that offer the amenities you desire.

Want walkable, bikeable, mass transit, etc? Live downtown. Want bigger homes, yards, quite, etc? Live in the suburbs.


> "Freedom" doesn't mean living wherever you want and having every option available to you.

Obviously there's a limit to how reasonable multimodal transportation is. Nobody's expecting decent transit among rural farmland. But we could do better than we're doing now -- MUCH better.

> Want bigger homes, yards, quite, etc? Live in the suburbs.

The biggest problem with this is that in the US you usually have to choose between one of two extremes which dovetail with your examples. You're either in a big ugly apartment block downtown (or in a downtown-ish area) or you're in a super low density suburb where Cars Are Law.

Plenty of countries manage to have more of a gradient, where you can have, say, suburbs of middling density, where driving is easy, but so is walking, biking, and taking the train to the city. I live in Munich at the moment and the suburbs nearby fit this mold perfectly, but in the US such towns are extremely rare.

There are still plenty of cars in Munich proper, for that matter. There are just lots of other options too.

* Also in most American cities even the downtown still isn't very walkable, definitely isn't bikable, and has crappy transit. There really are only a handful of cities in the US where these things all work reasonably well.


Biking is not "incredibly dangerous". It plenty safe. It is healthy. It however sometimes slows down cars and some drivers are then motivated to frame biking as dangerous activity to stop it.

But really really really, biking is not incredibly dangerous.


I've bike commuted to work. In a very bike friendly area.

Everyone I know has been in an accident of some sort. Hit & runs, side swipes, doored, pushed (deliberately), etc.

After better infrastructure, the most effective way to improve safety is to have more cyclists. I think we're in a rough transition period, but things are definitely getting better.

One of my bike buddies thinks things will really change once moms start cycling en masse. That'd change the perception from gonzo bike dudes to totally uncool in a heartbeat, evoking much less hostility.


I live in the Netherlands (16 million people, 23 million bikes). I went to San Fransisco a few months ago, one of the most bike-friendly US cities from what I've heard. Riding a bike there made me want to make sure my will was updated.


Biking in the US is way more dangerous than in countries where it's more popular, like the Netherlands.


I have several coworkers that have stopped biking to work here in sunny, liberal SF because of near-death experiences commuting on a bike.

These are both avid riders with professional-grade equipment taking a short Mission-FiDi route.

Regardless of its "project zero" marketing, SFMTA has bikes last on its priority list. It has to be pushed by guerrilla infrastructure groups to do anything meaningful.


In some areas, it is quite dangerous due to a lack of bike infrastructure and the driving habits of locals. My ex husband sometimes commuted to work by bike and often bitched about this.


I live in an area with good roads, good cars. We get a bike fatality a few times a year. At dusk I find even the well-lit bikes a little hard to discern. We also have some bad drivers. In the most recent fatality the lead rider of a bunch riding on a road was decapitated.

I used to ride bikes all the time as a kid but I would not make a habit of riding on our roads. It's too much of a gamble.


Diverting some of the cheddar from highways to public transit is hardly depriving anyone of their cherished way of life.


In many areas, just removing outright hostile barriers to pedestrians would vastly improve walkability in the US while possibly going entirely unnoticed by drivers. I once walked to a shopping center with a fence partway around the property that forced me to go far out of my way to go in using the car entrance. A small gap in the fence next to the cross walk would have done wonders for me and most drivers would not have noticed the difference.


I don't see where you get the idea that I am doing anything or have any goal to force anyone to do anything. That seems like a huge and unwarranted leap of logic.


>I think we can change this substantially.


I don't see how that in any way suggests what you are saying. There are a lot of people who currently feel forced into long commutes who hate them. There are a lot of people who are trapped in the situation of they need a car to get to work, they need a job to afford a car because a car is often the second biggest household expense after housing itself.

I am talking about opening up options, not putting a gun to anyone's head and forcing them to give up their car. We currently have many people who feel they have a gun to their head in terms of being forced into needing a car they don't want. Where is your sympathy for their right to choose?


They have right to choose to limit their standard of living, as you have done, and move to an urban core and be completely dependent on transit for transportation.

Only one of us wants to "change this substantially."


Many people are genuinely trapped. Just because I have been able to pull this off does not mean other people are simply free to choose.

Urban cores are often insanely expensive and not necessarily where someone wants to live just because they don't want a car. I am wholly unimpressed with your hypocritical comments here that boil down to "Don't tread on ME or interfere with my right to own a car and drive all over the place while the world bends over backwards to make that convenient, but your lifestyle preferences? Oh, fuck you."


You're replying to a comment where I made clear that I want you to be able to make your own lifestyle preferences.


They have right to choose to limit their standard of living, as you have done, and move to an urban core and be completely dependent on transit for transportation.

This is dismissive, insulting of my preference to live without a car and rather hostile. If you were intending to say that you support my right to choose, you failed to communicate that. It came across as contemptuous and is in no way sympathetic to the fact that walkable neighborhoods and public transit are not hostile to drivers the way the current car centric American landscape is hostile to pedestrians.


Only a minority of the country lives without children where a car is necessary. And who's rich enough to live in an urban centre with 2 children? More importantly who would!


I wish. Then I wouldn't get woken up by little brats every Saturday morning. I live in one of the densest, most expensive neighborhood in the US outside of SF, and there's still a bazillion little kids and screaming babies all over the place living in lofts with no green area in sight, and even though the nearby schools are terrible.


People can't really though, because of zoning and government planning. Like even if you wanted to make an area more walkable by inviting, say, a corner grocery store to set up shop in your neighborhood, usually you can't, because of single-use zoning.

And before you say, "well then just move to the city center!" perhaps you should consider that we're talking about a very common urban form across the world that is strikingly uncommon in the US due to government forces? Not exactly "people making their lifestyle preferences", more like "government imposing lifestyle preferences", and it's mostly just due to cultural momentum at this point.


>They have right to choose to limit their standard of living, as you have done, and move to an urban core and be completely dependent on transit for transportation.

As opposed to being completely dependent on public roads for transportation? Or out away from the "urban core" do you just get around on four-wheelers and snowmobiles? If so, maybe we can stop spending so much of our taxes building roads out to wherever you want to live.


Is your argument against "forcing others to live how you see fit" as in your original comment, or against change from the status quo as in these follow on comments? These are not the same thing.


They don't have that freedom now because of zoning that restricts the development of urban-core-like development and because of subsidies that favor sparsely populated suburbs over the urban core.


Have you tried carrying 10 shopping bags a couple of miles with screaming toddlers and young kids?


I used to walk to the grocery store in Germany six days a week with a toddler and an infant and a backpack for my groceries. I was in American military housing.

After I moved to Kansas, I ran into a soldier I did not remember, but he clearly remembered me. The soldiers who knew what it was like to carry a 60 pound ruck sack had all kinds of respect for me.

It can be done. Not by everyone and I am not saying you are required to live that way. But giving other people options doesn't preclude you from driving everywhere. And that's the entire fucking point here.

Feel free to drive. But I like walking. I liked walking even when I was carrying groceries home in a backpack with an infant strapped to my chest and a toddler sitting on my shoulders.


Yes, just like we can live by subsistence farming with manual labor, living in huts.

It can be done, but most of us want to progress.


There you go, insulting me again.

Preferring to walk in no way makes me some undeveloped savage. Maybe you haven't noticed, but I am online. I spend a lot of time online. I make my earned income online.

For the last time: My desire to see more walkable environments and better public transit in the U.S. in no way bars people from driving. Busses use the same roads that cars use. This is in no way whatsoever a situation where we must choose one or the other.


well by choosing to drive yourself to work every day in a wasteful petroleum burning vehicle you are forcing the rest of us to live with your pollution


I drive a Civic hybrid. My decision to not have kids has had a far greater environmental impact.


And that's why electric cars will the death of anti-car sentiment.


The lead batteries make them less "clean" than many people imagine. Lead is a hazardous waste, batteries do not last forever and car batteries are quite large.



I know you couldn't resist injecting an anti-car barb in there but it makes no sense - the problem in the US isn't our "abusive relationship" with cars, it's insufficient infrastructure. Your magical public-transportation future will be ever bit as bad or worse than cars today if the government similarly underfunds it. Which they will.


As a counter-example, Japan is one of the best in the world at infrastructure while at the same time being incredibly thorough about safety and external impacts. They can do a complete overhaul of the busiest train station in the world with zero downtime and solid walls around all construction.


Those liability problems exist in every advanced Western country. It's true that litigation is more costly in common law countries, in some cases twice as high, and that this cost can be internalized in the ways you suggest. But those costs only account for single-digit percentages overall.

What you describe could also be understood as an inefficient way of organization that is peculiar to the United States, and a by-product of American business and economic logic. Firms (i.e. vertical integration) exist to reduce the comparative inefficiencies of having separate, independent entities. Most other countries still have huge conglomerates (e.g. Japan, Korea), or contractors enjoy closer and longer-term business relationships.

With rare exception (Berkshire Hathaway, Elon Musk, etc) Americans have systematically shifted toward looser organization of smaller, independent business entities. One of the downsides is the exploding cost of orchestrating these entities for big projects, and the loss of knowledge about how to manage such projects.


No not really, once you study the legal system of other advanced countries you will realize the US system is completely insane. The verdicts are wild, and we use juries for complex civil litigation. A bunch of regular Joes are supposed to understand torts and then even calculate damages! The result is trial lawyers succeed by playing on emotion, class, race, playing a character, etc., and a bunch of bored confused Joes and Janes sees an injured person and thinks "Okay, this sucks, give them $50 million."


There are several recent studies that have attempted to quantify the costs. I don't have the time to locate and paste them here, but the TL;DR is that 1) yes, common law countries have much higher litigation costs; 2) the U.S. is the highest of all; but 3) while significant the differences are nowhere near enough to explain the enormous differences in infrastructure costs.

As for direct liability costs, I can't remember if I've read any recent studies of those. But I went to law school (I'm not an attorney, though) and several of my family members are tort lawyers, and I can tell you from everything I know and have learned that liability costs are overblown. The fact of the matter is that every society will force negligent businesses to internalize the costs of their negligence. Some countries (esp. common law countries) emphasize the ability of individuals to seek compensation for actual damages. Other countries emphasize prevention and enforce a much stricter regulatory regime. Either way the costs can be considerable, but in any event the U.S. doesn't stand out among developed countries AFAIK.

I just watched the Wizard of Oz this past weekend and in one of the opening scenes Miss Gulch, who was bitten by Toto, threatens to sue Dorothy's Aunt & Uncle for everything they have, taking away their farm. Point being, Americans have always had a somewhat irrational fear of litigation. It's a cultural thing. That same fear existed back in a time when building big infrastructure projects was cheap.


This accounts for trial lawyers reputed aversion to engineers during jury selection: not easily manipulated by emotional appeals, too likely to think about where that $50 million came from and will go to. I've been on the voter rolls for 35 years, and not once called in.


I've been on the voter rolls for 35 years, and not once called in.

That's luck of the draw, not anyone's aversion to having engineers on a jury.


I don't know the solution but I would be super hesitant to take jury trials away (even for civil suits like described here).


For civil suits I absolutely would. It's a waste of people's time.


But those costs only account for single-digit percentages overall

How do you know that? It seems like a really difficult number to account for like the cost of medical lawsuits. Sure, you can look at malpractice insurance, legal fees, and damages awarded to plaintiffs - but how do you properly count the extra tests, procedures, pharmaceuticals, man-hours, etc. that result from the increased defensive posture of doctors and hospitals?



Perhaps also Back In The Day, Big Picture things were over-engineered.

I guess also, ever do a home renovation on a house > 40 years old? You usually walk into a disaster of things not up to code. These days, it would just be done correctly, just as cheap as possible, and not built to last. Most recent housing developments near here are just ways for developers to make money and run, as the infrastructure (housing, not utilities, etc) is not going to last all that long. The developers don't care - they'll be enjoying their profits States away, as the city that is home to their developments are quickly crumbling.

Not that I'm bitter on the changing landscape of my city, or anything. But a housing boom has dark sides.


To be fair, houses and engineering projects in the olden days probably suffered from exactly the same problems. I've read multiple accounts of people complaining about just this in the late 1800s in the UK...


>This means every time there's a question, it has to be submitted through a formal process, tracked, answered, documented.

I don't know why you think proper change control is a bad thing. In both software and systems engineering you submit change requests that are tracked, reviewed, assessed for risk, approved and documented. You do this to create an audit trail to identify "how we got here". Any concerns? It's documented in the ticket.

Now when it comes to civil engineering projects, where bridges can collapse, you should WANT that kind of rigorous change control of tracking, approving, and documenting.

Yes, documenting change control requires more work, but it also saves lives and creates an audit trail in case of a grave error.


I'm not saying changes shouldn't be documented. I'm saying the people on the ground doing the work should be more empowered to use their judgement. They can do that and still document what gets changed.

As it stands now, some unforeseen circumstance in the field will necessitate a minor modification to the design. The contractor knows perfectly well what needs to be done, but instead of simply doing it, they will ask the designers to tell them to do it, so they aren't the ones responsible for it. The designer of course can't simply rubber stamp whatever the contractor says, so they have to spend time figuring out what the issue is and whether the contractor's solution is adequate. All that adds up.


>As it stands now, some unforeseen circumstance in the field will necessitate a minor modification to the design. The contractor knows perfectly well what needs to be done, but instead of simply doing it, they will ask the designers to tell them to do it, so they aren't the ones responsible for it.

You always want peer review, even for a minor modifications. We have a similar process called code review.


I think you're misreading his comment.

It's not bad, it's just more expensive than not doing it. Thus, infrastructure built today costs more.


I think he read the comment mostly right, and you're both missing there is a gaussian distribution to the effectiveness of change control


OP points out the costs of this. You point out the benefits.

Both true. But the interesting question is if and when the costs outweigh the benefits.


Well and perhaps even more interesting is the effect on delayed fixes has on TCO and safety of aging roads. Not to mention reduction in jobs sites across the Nation also reduces the individual performance of infrastructure construction companies except for a lucky few. Lots of push and pull from all directions.


Delegating responsibility down to the coal face is usually a winner for speed, and when time is money speed is important.


> I think a big unmentioned factor is probably liability and the prospect of litigation.

There was an article shared to HN some time ago arguing that the kinds of cost overruns that we see so often on infrastructure projects in the US are almost endemic to common-law countries, and radically less prevalent in civil-law countries.

I haven't been able to find that article again, but its conclusion has come up in many similar discussions since.


Isn't Louisiana Civil/Napoleonic law? They could be compared against other states to check that theory.


Louisiana's notorious corruption issues are probably going to be an issue in drawing meaningful conclusions from such a comparison.


The case-study of the Hyatt Regency collapse might a major root cause of the bureaucracy you're describing. The change that caused the issue was approved by the engineers in that case, but I think made us a lot more instituionally cautious: * https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyatt_Regency_walkway_collapse * https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnvGwFegbC8


This reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend some years ago. My friend comes from a family of home builders. None of them do it professionally anymore, but they all spent every summer growing up helping dad do everything from digging the hole to putting in the carpet.

From time to time, each of the siblings has built a new home, and they just do it themselves in their spare time. My friend was telling me about helping his sister with her home. His sister has moved into a very rural community in the western U.S. When the family showed up to pour the footings, they asked for a copy of the footing plans. Their sister handed them an 8.5x11 sheet of paper with a hand-drawn floor plan.

"Where's your official plans? The plans you submitted for your permit? The ones with the footing details?"

"That is the paper we submitted for our permit. See the stamp that says 'Approved'?"

All the other siblings live in Clark County, Nevada. The permitting process there is excruciating. They looked at the paper, looked at each other, shrugged, then built the house. They know how to build a footing. They know how to frame. They know how to build a house. The sister's house was built with the same quality as the other siblings' in a fraction of the time.

But if one of the big builders tries to put in a subdivision in that little town, I hope the municipality watches them like a hawk. Big builders don't build homes. They cheat and connive and do everything to push product at the lowest possible cost.

In a world without trust, you cannot afford to let people self-manage.


There is two problems with this theory. The first is that governments have immunity from litigation. They can only be sued where they consent to the lawsuit. The second is that in most states, employee-related injury claims must proceed through a worker's compensation system outside the normal litigation channel where the costs are much less.

I always say there are not too many lawsuits, but too many laws. Legislatures think they are making something better by passing more rules, regulations, and laws. But, for every rule, regulation, or law, you have an opportunity for a lawsuit. Use more common sense? Sure, but then don't pass a multitude of laws regulating the subject.

Why are infrastructure projects' costs higher here? I don't know really. My guess would be that compared to say Germany and Japan, everything here is the U.S. is huge. I mean probably 10-30% larger in size than those other countries with the resulting higher costs. But, this is just my personal observation.


The government and its workers are not immune from litigation either, both have been sued, and successfully held responsible for damages.

Actual construction is performed by contractors, corporations that are contracted by the government. In the US, it is rare for a construction project to be built, or even be designed, by government workers. These corporations and their workers can be sued, and take on additional liabilities due to the contracts and laws that apply specifically to them.


Since my dad worked as an engineer for the Federal Government I have skewed ideas how things work compared to most people.

Which is to say, you are spot on. Most of the work government engineers do is oversight. Oversight is really important.

I've constantly read that in the US due to ideological reasons the agencies that handle oversight are chronically understaffed which results in delays and inefficiencies. Delays are a big problem in the US. The slower a project is done the more it costs. Without proper oversight, you have an inability to efficiently manage design changes leading to delays and or less efficient construction.


> But, for every rule, regulation, or law, you have an opportunity for a lawsuit

What? Two women suing McDonalds because they got fat from eating too many cheeseburgers is not a regulatory issue. A canoe company being sued for not having lifeguards posted every mile of the river they serve is not a regulatory issue. Parents suing a city because their idiot kid fell off a slide is not a regulatory issue.

America is lawsuit-crazy. Anybody can sue anybody for anything, regardless of whether regulation surrounds the issue or not. If anything, regulation acts as a legal protection against lawsuits, and many regulations are enacted in response to frivolous lawsuits from assholes who think the world owes them something because they can't take personal responsibility.


The government is not the entity that would be sued, this is not about personal injury claims. The contractor or design engineer would be the one who gets sued for design flaws or implementation flaws that lead to costly re-work. They would be getting sued by the government or the owner in the case of a building.


This is an interesting theory, but any attempt at explaining why the US in particular is bad at large-scale infrastructure also has to explain why other countries are so much better at it.

The litigousness argument seems to be interesting from that perspective, but I'd be hard-pressed to believe that France or Germany are less detail-oriented in their planning, given that the same tools that allow better blueprinting are available everywhere.


American exceptionalism might have a place in the discussion, as the USA is exceptionally big. Furthermore it is notable that the only countries that are likely to have similar quality infrastructure with lower population density are the Nordic ones.


I think even in Sweden, Norway, and Finland the population is concentrated in the warmer south part of the country.


That's the American Way, though. America abhors regulations, and instead we allow the courts to sort it out.

Europe is less litigious, mainly because they have massive government oversight and regulations.


I don't think I've seen any evidence that the US has any less regulations than Europe. On the contrary I get the impression that the US has far more detailed regulation than, e.g. Sweden. Americans seem to love being a NIMBY, and corporations have a lot of power to get regulation in place to lock out competition.


The US is the only major country that does not have the English Rule

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_rule_%28attorney%27s_f...


This is an argument for vertical integration in the construction industry, which I suppose might even include state-run construction companies. If the architects, engineers, and construction workers are all working for the same entity, then there's no troublesome legal issues to deal with at the boundaries between entities, and everyone can simply do the right thing as efficiently as possible.

In summary, end contracting and subcontracting.


You have identified a incentive towards vertical integration. But then we might ask ourselves what is stopping it. Is there some counter-incentive that causes the hierarchy of contractors? Is there some regulation that forces it?

You might claim that there are no state-run construction companies because of free-market ideology or some such bogeyman. But that doesn't explain why the private contractors don't integrate vertically.

My own guess is that even a vertically integrated entity would be risk averse and have to create expensive, slow, internal sign-off procedures.


My guess is regulatory capture, corruption, and knock-on effects from corporations being granted the rights of people, including money equaling free speech (see Citizens United). There's more money to be made if there are lots of different contractors and subcontractors that can all take a cut, and so the politicians are paid off through campaign contributions to allow the inefficient system to continue. Everyone involved makes lots of money, more than if they were vertically integrated and did construction efficiently, except for us taxpayers who are footing the bill, of course. It's basic rent-seeking by the construction industry.


This is correct. I wonder if anyone has tried doing "design and build" contracts where this becomes an internal cost center instead of a profit driver, and would theoretically get optimized out.


I am on the developer side on a project with a design-build contract with a major contractor. the architecture side and contractors are pitting against each other internally, because the architect is still liable for his drawings being correct, and the contractor is still liable for the work being complete to the contract documents. Seeking to align efforts to minimize detailing costs is a recipe for very costly mistakes down the road when something doesn't satisfy fire code, building code, ADA, insurance, lender requirements, hotel brand standard (in my case). Theoretically, I suppose you would only see streamlining if the Owner-Architect-Engineer-GC-Regulator was one entity, like a government maybe.


So much compliance, that's the problem.


>Now, drawings are more detailed and contractors are incredibly reluctant to make even the smallest decisions on their own.

I also wonder about the effect of building codes, etc.. It might be interesting to plot construction costs and number pages of building code vs. time for the U.S., Japan, France, etc., and see if there are any correlations. That type of plot seems like it might almost be doable.


The people onsite know the codes as well.


This is very interesting.

So basically in digital terms it went the opposite way from HTML where everything is more relative to each other to print where everything is exact.

I wonder if there is some underlying principles hiding in this. Have to think about it some more but thank you so much for your insightful comment.


Litigation can be covered with insurance. So, unless the actual injury rate is higher, litigation shouldn't make projects cost any more.

Now it could be that litigation pays for medical costs, whereas other countries pay medical costs separately from project costs.


That's all about the culture of modern management. Relentlessly chasing pennies while setting dollars on fire.

Design/build raises the level of dumb even higher by giving all parties powerful incentives to build the cheapest, minimally viable slop possible.


The United States is consistently ranked as a top 5 most litigious country by various metrics. This may not be the main cause of the problem, but it certainly doesn't help.


Sounds like the future of software development to me.


Depends on the software. In general infrastructure has a much higher liability associated with it, as a failed bridge, road, or building, will quickly kill/injure those making use of it. I could see a similar situation arise for, say, embedded software for medical devices like pacemakers etc.


A lot of contracts are design build though. One company bids to design and build the bridge. The cost overruns are back on them.


those contracts often cost more to the owner though since there is less risk for them.


Design-Build does not necessarily cost more, because each entity carries the same risk as if they were separate (architect and GC). However, with a Design-Build GMP, which is what we typically use on our developments, that costs a premium, but its a cost we can be comfortable with on the front end, so I will (and do!) gladly pay a premium for a guaranteed cost of construction, particularly since the contractor has the significant information advantage on dealing with problem that arise.


Yeah but the bureaucracy makes a lot of money for itself and grows ever larger. Basically you want to treat the people executing the plan as smart adaptable agents rather than dumb robots.


  That suggests that U.S. costs are high due to general
  inefficiency [...] Americans have simply ponied up more
  and more cash over the years while ignoring the fact that
  they were getting less and less for their money.
There's a general effect in political systems, that if a law takes $20 from 1,000,000 people and gives $100,000 to 200 people, the people who lose money won't have enough incentive to put up a big fight; but the people who receive money will have more than enough motivation.

For example, if a big irrigation project will force taxpayers to subsidise corporate farms, the corporations have a big incentive to spend on ads and campaign contributions. Or if you have to give $60 to a private company for tax filing software, they have a big incentive to lobby and make campaign contributions to keep the tax system complicated.

I'm sure construction projects are subject to the same pro-waste incentives.

I'm not sure what the solution to this is - campaign finance reform, perhaps?


>campaign finance reform, perhaps?

Abso-fucking-lutely. I think in order to run at any levels of office, you should be using public money. For simplification, let's say if one wants to run for president, they can only use whatever is in the FEC public coffers. In return, we levy a federal FEC tax to boost it way higher than its current rates. We replicate a similar tax at state and local levels. Completely remove private donations and PACs and all that shit from the lawbooks. A fuckload of people want to run for president? Well, you better get creative with your tiny slice of the pie. Show us how fiscally responsible you really are.

People would scream and holler about it not being American, but it's one of the only ways, I think, to really take a large stab at our chronic corruption.


Expecting Washington to determine who is a serious candidate (and then policing their use of federal funds) is a major conflict of interest, because policymakers will almost certainly set standards that benefit the two entrenched parties. I've toyed with an alternative concept, though, that might achieve the same effect with less required oversight.

The idea is a sort of non-partisan "un-PAC" -- a fundraising organization explicitly dedicated to combating corporate political donations. If a presidential candidate or his affiliated PACs recieved eg. $5MM in fundraising from oil executives, the un-PAC would spend $5MM on negative advertising linking him in the public's mind with that industry. If the un-PAC raised enough money, eventually a large multiple of corporate donations could be spent counteracting them, and at some point it would become uneconomical for politicians to accept those donations at all.

We spent about $6B on the 2016 federal elections (https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/cost.php). That comes out to about $20 for every American. That's a big number to beat, but not impossible, and every bit along the way helps.


I had an idea somewhere along the lines of your un-PAC. However, the one I imagined would hire lobbyists who would shmooze politicians to pass anti-lobbying laws. The PAC's job would get harder and harder the more successful it was.


Something like this?

https://mayday.us/the-plan/


If businesses have a hundred different ways to gain special market advantages by simply having political influence then 100% their money should not be able to influence politics.

This should be more obvious in US (and Canadian) politics than it is. But politicians are rarely willing to admit their malleability when it comes to both businesses and non-profit organizations (or special interest groups) influencing them. So the problem persists.

This is a big thing many small-government conservatives seem to miss. They think that capping financing of political parties is anti-business. But in reality it's only incumbent businesses who fleece the government for contracts or exploit government policy to create barriers of entry for their competitors who back ending these policies.

Even though small/medium business represents 60%+ of employment they are largely ignored policy-wise. Then when big-corps exploit market dynamics then ever more regulation are put in place that only hurts the small businesses rather than the big corps (see: minimum wage).

So those of us who support small-government, we're often left with only choosing between big government liberals who are indifferent to the ROI of ever-expanding government power/tax base or small government conservatives who let corporate influence in politics run free. It's difficult to tell which one results in the most abuse these days.

Even if this stops being a problem it has existed for decades and these 'gray' connections between politics and business is everywhere in North America. It would take decades to reverse their influence which is a shame because it's very existence is self-reinforcing (much like those organizations whose very existence depends on the continuation of government financing as opposed to depending on their utility to the public).


I'm not doubting that money buys influence, but it's not even necessary. There are enough potential politicians with enough different viewpoints that all you need to do is find one already pushing your agenda, and back them.


That still would limit the number of politicians who appreciate your niche political issue. Especially considering the cliche politician is a lawyer from a well known private school who gives preference to friends or friends of friends.

Eliminating money from that scenario reduces the tiny number of companies who currently influence politics and push it closer to 'interesting' or 'popular' issues rather than ones backed by incumbent connections and wealth.


>For simplification, let's say if one wants to run for president, they can only use whatever is in the FEC public coffers.

What in particular would they not be allowed to use private money to do?

Would individuals that aren't running be allowed to use private money to do those things?


Countries that have limits on pre-election advertising spending generally include any and all public advertising expenses in that - TV, newspapers, online media, billboards, public space, physical mail campaigns, sponsorship of events/teams/whatever, etc. Pre-election ads by other people is limited - small amounts per person are exempted, but you can't simply buy a $10k radio ad praising whatever candidate you like, nor can a radio station do it on their own.

Also, in the pre-election time mass media have to offer equal conditions for all parties - if you own a TV station and run ads for one party for $1/minute, then you have to offer the same ad slots for the same price to all other parties as well.

I mean, it's not simple and it does require some limitations of what the people and media can do - which might conflict with USA 1st amendment, but in general the problem is somewhat solvable, it's somehow done elsewhere and so you can look at worldwide experience to pick out the bits that work best.


>but you can't simply buy a $10k radio ad praising whatever candidate you like

Can I buy a $10k radio ad supporting some particular issue that the candidate also supports?

Can I buy a radio station and hire talk radio hosts that argue in favor of the candidate or issues the candidate supports?

>but in general the problem is somewhat solvable

I think that depends on what you count as "solvable". The systems which address the problem probably work better for some people and less well for others. Which people do you have reason to believe are beneficiaries of these systems, and what reason do you have to believe that?


On one hand, the beneficiaries are the smaller parties, since it allows somewhat effective participation in elections without requiring that much money - they get some free airtime (gov't funds a specific amount of airtime in largest TV & radio stations for election coverage, allocated equally for parties; I'm not sure whether all applicants or all those who got some minimum number of votes in previous elections), and if you have an active volunteer force, you can get your message out without being overwhelmed by a massive campaign of the established parties. This also makes it practical for new parties to get started and get some seats whenever some voter group or key issue gets ignored by the parties in power.

On the other hand, it has some advantages for the established politicians as well, after all they set the rules for this system - in essence it avoids an arms race. Lifting the limits would give them some advantage over the smaller parties and upstarts, but nothing over their real competition, but that would mean that all the major players would suddenly need to raise many times more money, making everyone more dependent on donors.

Who are the losers in this case? Probably the very wealthiest individuals (not "the 1%" but the top 10-100 richest people), since it limits their influence. At any one point of time one or another party (not necessarily the largest one) may have an advantage in financial support and would be happy to lift or raise limits so that they could buy more votes, but if something like that happens, then it motivates everyone else to not let that happen.

Regarding your questions - it depends, that's more a question for the lawyers. IMHO ads supporting some issue would be fine but talk hosts arguing in favor of some (any) candidate would be prohibited in pre-election campaign time window - e.g. all mass media interviews with candidates during that time would be only in the scheduled slots or as advertising. Sure, if you control important media or people then the limits can and do get bent quite a bit beyond their intent, but it still sets a limit. I mean, if the stated limit is 10 then everybody might push it to 11 by various means, but you can't really do a meaningful large scale money-influence campaign without it being obviously illegal.


>Who are the losers in this case? Probably the very wealthiest individuals (not "the 1%" but the top 10-100 richest people), since it limits their influence.

I would guess the opposite is probably true. The top 10-100 likely have very strong influence over the media, either due to just owning media outlets or due to business relationships (e.g. buying advertisements not related to politics). If people without those relationships can't buy advertisements, then the people who influence media in other ways benefit.

>IMHO ads supporting some issue would be fine

So it would be fine for someone to spend a few million on anti-immigrant ads a few days before an election where immigration is a key point of disagreement between the two front-runners?

>Sure, if you control important media or people then the limits can and do get bent quite a bit beyond their intent, but it still sets a limit.

Why exactly is the existence of a limit relevant? People will receive information about the candidates, and many will decide how to vote based on that information. I don't see how it matters whether the information comes from paid advertising or from control over the media. Some individuals will decide what information the masses will see. Those people have enormous influence over the election. I don't see how it matters if they got that influence by paying for it directly or indirectly.


I never really fleshed out the idea too much in my head. It may indeed be impossible to completely get rid of private money. With shit like super-PACs and all the different shell entities that exist solely to funnel money through, all those should be struck from the books. Private donations of $3500 or whatever the limit is? Sure, keep those.


>With shit like super-PACs and all the different shell entities that exist solely to funnel money through, all those should be struck from the books.

In regard to promoting political candidates, what in particular should individuals unaffiliated with the candidate not be allowed to spend their private money on?

For example, should I be allowed to spend my own money to buy a computer which I then use to post comments on message boards which argue in favor of some candidate?

Should I be allowed to spend my own money on a computer which hosts a website which argues in favor of some candidate?

Should I be allowed to buy a newspaper and then selectively hire journalists who I believe are biased in favor of the candidates that I prefer?


I'm running for president, fund my trips around the country, and my ads on TV.

Nobody in their right mind would elect me, but I have yet to see a fair way to exclude me.


I'm a private company (or private billionaire). I like your opponent. I put ads up on TV for them using my money. How can anyone stop me without it being a First Amendment violation?

And while it isn't giving that politician money, there are plenty who will recognize that my paying for their add is giving them a service that is worth money. It isn't quite as direct as donating, but the effect is the same.


>I put ads up on TV for them using my money. How can anyone stop me without it being a First Amendment violation?

How can we even decide whether an ad is for some candidate? If it doesn't mention them by name, but is plainly obviously talking about them, would that still count? What if it's less obvious? What if it doesn't have anything to do with the candidate, but promotes some policy that the candidate also happens to support? All seem to fall under the category of 'giving them a service that is worth money'.


I'd impose a 72 hour pre-election silence to give the public time to process all the campaign noise.

I believe such a ban would be in keeping with existing reasonable constraints on free speech, and help contextualize paid messaging in general.


What is the test for reasonable constraints on free speech? And what will be the penalty for breaking the ban? If it is just a fine, you have basically just made it so the rich can pay more to have a stronger voice. If it is jail time... well we already know how well the legal system goes after the rich. A law would benefit those who have the power to break it while harming those weaker.


There is a substantial body of case law to consult when deciding reasonable constraints on free speech.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_Supreme_...


Reading some of the cases, especially the ones where the court has yet to directly rule otherwise on, are quite chilling in their potential application.


Or do like every sensible country does, cap individual donations, forbid companies from donating, create a government entity whose goal is to ensure donations are respecting those rules, candidates having to deliver their list of donors to said entity. Make it actually illegal to get private money from PACs and other complex setups. And eventually reimburse part of the campaign past a certain percentage of votes.

But that requires to unfuck the entire american political system and weird fascination for corporations being people, so this might take a while.


Almost all of those things are already implemented in the US.

> cap individual donations

Direct contribution cap for individuals is $2,700

> forbid companies from donating

Direct contributions are not allowed, although PACs can give up to $5000.

> create a government entity whose goal is to ensure donations are respecting those rules

Aka the FEC

> candidates having to deliver their list of donors to said entity

Already required for federal elections, also candidates must detail how they spent the money as well.

> Make it actually illegal to get private money from PACs and other complex setups.

PACs aren't complicated and for the most part are a positive step towards fair elections (that's why they were created in the first place).

> And eventually reimburse part of the campaign past a certain percentage of votes.

Federal elections already have public funding and the system in place is much better than reimbursement after the election.


They're implemented, but the rise of the SuperPAC after Citizens United more or less makes the regulations pointless. I can't contribute more than $2700 to a campaign, but I can contribute $27,000,000 to a PAC that requires only the thinnest imaginable separation from the campaign. Basically, as long as the candidate isn't on TV personally endorsing my check, we're good.


What is your alternative to the Citizens United ruling?


I wasn't suggesting I had one. I'm just pointing out that SuperPACs get around pretty much any meaningful prior attempts at regulating campaign contributions.

I don't think there is an alternative. What is needed in order to solve the problem is a complete overhaul of how campaigns are financed, including making quite a lot of currently protected speech illegal. And that cure may be worse than the disease. Without it though, politicians will continue to require massive quantities of private cash, and I don't see any way to make that not suck for the country as a whole.


What can possibly be done about media outlets, whose owners choose what news gets reported and what slant it takes on so on? The more you restrict the ability of people to pay for advertisements, the more control the media has over what people see.


Like I said, probably nothing can be done that isn't ultimately likely to be worse. Short of people spontaneously becoming smarter, you'd effectively have to outlaw news outlets deemed to be "too slanted", and even if you could do that (you can't), I'm not so naive as to think a government in control of the press would be in any way better.

Basically, it's all fucked, I guess would be my considered opinion. Democracy just doesn't work when half or more of the population can be trivially manipulated into believing anything you want them to believe.


The exact opposite of it: money isn't speech, so restrictions on campaign financing aren't infringements on your free speech rights. Not letting you spend millions on campaign ads is not an equivalent of silencing your political opinion - you can still speak, write etc as a private individual, same as any other citizen.


Can I create a video and post it on my private youtube channel, as a private individual?

Can I spend $10 million creating the youtube video, if I have that much money as a private individual?

Can I organize a group of 10 friends to each spend $1 million on the youtube video?

Can I organize 1 million people to spend $10 each on said video?

Note that under McCain-Feingold (which is the law that was at issue in Citizens United) the answer to the second question is "yes", as far as I can tell: the law instituted restrictions on corporations and unions, not on rich individuals.

Whether the answer is "yes" for the second and third question would have depended on whether youtube counts as "broadcast, cable, or satellite communication" as well as whether a gofundme campaign should fund under the law, and so forth. So it's really not that hard to come up with loopholes around this stuff, if you want to allow spontaneous grassroots production of political youtube videos.

(Also, one person's "political ad" is another person's "documentary", often enough; this goes in both directions.)


>Can I create a video and post it on my private youtube channel, as a private individual?

Yes.

>Can I spend $10 million creating the youtube video, if I have that much money as a private individual?

Yes. However, if it turns out that those ten million were gathered from other friends, explicitly in the goal to make this video without disclosing your donors or ignoring the caps, you should be fined and be made unelectable for multiple years.

>Can I organize a group of 10 friends to each spend $1 million on the youtube video?

Not if that video is part of your campaign, because then the amount each person can donate is capped.

>Can I organize 1 million people to spend $10 each on said video?

Yes.

The only real problem in those four is the third. Because it is infinitely easier to organize only ten friends to donate one million to your campaign than to organize one million people, especially if you're already in the category of people that can afford to blow ten millions like that.

As a bonus, at least having one million people donating to you demonstrates that you actually have people following you.


This was apparently not clear: in all those questions the "I" posting the video is not the person running. That's the context of the Citizens United decision.


Then you are more than welcome to blow as much money as you'd like on your favourite candidate! And since it's on Youtube, noone is "forced" to watch your video, they can always switch to something else.

However, TV and cable channels (as well as press) should have strict equality rules when it comes to candidates for a given period until the elections. What good will your ten million dollars video do on CNN when they are legally obligated to give every candidate the same amount of air time? But of course, you could skirt around it, and make your video subtly hint about said candidate, never mentioning him. But if countries with civil law can manage to make that work when it comes to respecting the spirit of the law, I have no doubt a country with common law will have no issues realizing that this is quite obviously violating the spirit of the law.


There is absolutely no principled difference between youtube and cable channels that I can see; people are easily able to "switch to something else", as you say, in both cases. Or indeed, shut off their TV. Doubly so if we're talking long-form content like that in the Citizens United decision, as opposed to 30-second ad spots.

Why do you think that there is a difference here?

> But if countries with civil law can manage to make that work when it comes to respecting the spirit of the law

For what it's worth, said countries typically have nothing comparable to the constitutional free speech protections the US has, and have no problem with the government imposing all sorts of speech limits that would get laughed out of court in the US.

And as mentioned elsewhere in this thread, speech that is not "for" any particular candidate but "against" a particular candidate is not trivial to apportion in an "equal time" regime.


Most laws have loopholes, just as most software has bugs. You try to anticipate them when you write the law, and you keep an eye on them and amend the law as necessary.


It's not that simple in this case, because for my first question the answer really needs to be "yes" as a clear First Amendment matter: individual political speech is clearly protected, and video is a common "speech" medium nowadays. So that's a "loophole" that is pretty much required by the Constitution.

It's really not clear to me how one can draw a sane line between the first and second question, for this case, unless you want to forbid any political video that actually takes time/effort/money to do research for (see "documentary").

And then the problem becomes that either you privilege the political speech of rich individuals over non-rich ones even more than we already do, or you have to allow non-rich individuals to pool resources to speak.

The "loophole" is then.. what exactly? What form the pooling takes? Whether the pooling is voluntary? Something else? I see a lot of people who are unhappy with the Citizens United decision, but not many proposals for what the law on this should be apart from "political speech from organizations I disagree with should not be allowed". For example, I see lots of "corporations shouldn't be able to engage in political speech" but very little of "unions shouldn't be able to engage in political speech" from Citizens United opponents. Amusingly, I see a fair amount of "unions shouldn't be able to engage in political speech" from people who support the Citizens United decision. And I have met absolutely no one who opposes the Citizens United decision and also thinks Michael Moore shouldn't be allowed to create movies in election years. Though I expect such people do exist; there just aren't many of them.


>corporations shouldn't be able to engage in political speech

Corporations should be able to engage in political speech, as long it is done through their CEO or anyone that represents them officially, who then would be nothing more than just another citizen who happens to own a company, defending its interests. By all means, have an interesting debate, explain your point of view, reason as to why you'd like X or Y.

Money is _not_ speech. By allowing those citizens to contribute financially, in an effectively unlimited way through superPACs and other setups, you are throwing away the very foundation of democracy and equality amongst citizens when it comes to being represented.

>unions shouldn't be able to engage in political speech

Go ahead, same thing, debate! Make yourselves heard, in the streets or on television. But, once again, money can fuck right off.


>you are throwing away the very foundation of democracy and equality amongst citizens when it comes to being represented.

There is no such foundation. You're lying to yourself. At the very least, the owners of media outlets have far more influence than other citizens due to their ability to set the conversation. There is literally nothing you can do to achieve your ridiculous ideal of equality, or to even come anywhere close to it. All you can do is change what rich people have to do to get what they want, and maybe make it more expensive. And by the way, making it more expensive just means the richest get even more of a say.

>money can fuck right off.

So I can't pay someone to build a website that (directly or indirectly) promotes a candidate?


Or maybe your terrible political system has made you jaded and not realize that democracy is still a thing of the people ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Yes, whoever owns CNN can use up all his airtime telling you that X is the greatest vandidate that's ever lived and yes, he will reach more people than I ever will. Yet, his vote has the exact same value as mine.

Impose limits, educate people. You'll see that things will improve. Yes, it's expensive. Yes, it takes some time. But you can either do that, or slump in your apathy and watch your country descend ever lower into the depth of intelligence and be the butt of everyone's joke even more than it is right now.


>Yes, whoever owns CNN can use up all his airtime telling you that X is the greatest vandidate that's ever lived and yes, he will reach more people than I ever will. Yet, his vote has the exact same value as mine.

Interesting logic. Let's try applying it to the completely obvious parallel:

"Yes, whoever owns boatloads of money can use up all his money buying TV ads telling you that X is the greatest candidate that's ever lived and yes, he will reach more people than I ever will. Yet, his vote has the exact same value as mine."


You are kind of ignoring the second paragraph, which goes hand in hand with the first.


Nothing goes hand in hand with the first. The first is a failed attempt at rationalizing away the fact that there will always be people that have vastly more influence over politics than others do, and that there is no such thing as equality in politics.

The second paragraph as far as I can tell boils down to "educate people" as the answer. Who should be doing the educating?


I think you just ignored my questions about how the specifics of this work. Again, say the CEO decides to create a video to explain his point of view. Is that a problem? Is it a problem if he pays for production of that video? Is it a problem if he gets several people together to pay for the production of that video? Where do you, personally, draw the line?

Making yourself heard on television commonly takes the form of TV advertising, which is all about money, unfortunately.


>Making yourself heard on television commonly takes the form of TV advertising, which is all about money, unfortunately.

Like I answered in your other post, equality of air time for each candidate. I know, you've had twenty something candidates, and it would be hard to make that work. Tough luck, that's the price to pay for a fairer election.

I don't envy your ridiculous two year long campaigns, but at least you'd get some diversity, unlike your two-candidates-blow-100-million-in-total-and-bombard-you-for-months current way of doing it. And who knows, that might even bring you to reform your woefully outdated political system.


> equality of air time for each candidate

Where "air time" means "time across all possible cable channels", right?

And presumably equality of "youtube time" too? How do you even measure this?

Seriously, we're way past there being 5 broadcast TV networks and nothing else where you could try enforcing some sort of mandate.

Keep in mind that Citizens United wasn't even "for" some particular candidate. It was against a particular candidate and wanted to show its movie at a point in time when it wasn't even clear who the candidate's opponents would be. Assuming you imposed the "equality of air time" doctrine in this situation, who's air time would the movie come out of, exactly?

It's easy to just claim the system is broken; figuring out how to fix it sanely is much harder.

(And for the record, I agree that the current campaign lengths and costs in the US are ridiculous. What I don't see is how to make them less so without imposing some pretty totalitarian speech controls, which would immediately get coopted by those in power to completely shut down anything resembling third party candidates.)


Air time means "you wanna talk about candidate X on your channel? Sure, you're just going to match every single minute you spoke about him with every other candidate.". That usually excludes legal trouble because that doesn't exactly count as campaigning for said candidate. I feel like you are seeing it as having an allotted amount of time for each candidate, where every single minute is counted and taken out of their time counter, when the idea is more to be to allow the channels to organise how they wish, but ultimately, in a 24 hour period, they have to fit the same amount for each candidate. (In practice, you do that over a week or a month, but the concept is the same).

YouTube time is different because there's not one single place controlling your entire feed, noone dictating what you are going to watch. You can decide on your own to watch ten hours of your favourite candidate and ignore every other, because you made that choice and noone imposed it on you.

The Citizens United question is a bit tricky indeed, but two things:

- Ultimately, it is the TV channel's responsibility to have aired such a video, and as such should match any time campaigning for a candidate with others. But, like you said, it was more an attack then anything else. Which brings us to our second point:

- Straight up outlaw such clips that are an attack on a candidate. It serves no purpose other than to drive down the level, it makes the campaign absolutely worthless and is a danger to democracy. It is the most basic level, the dark depth of political life. It kills every debate, destroys every effort made to educate people, because ultimately attacks are cheap, entertaining and efficient. It truly makes society worse as a whole, and people stupid. Yes, that's maybe an attack on free speech. I believe keeping a higher level of debate is a tad more important than being able to take a dump on someone you don't like on live TV.

Let me give you examples of where I live, France, to alleviate some of your fears.

We have a council that ensures what is aired is either nonpartisan, or matched, with the ability to shut down entire TV programs if needed. It has not been done in decades, and most of it ends up being fines. The shitstorm that would happen if they did cancel an show would be quite the sight. Attacks are forbidden. Total campaign funds are capped. Campaign clips are of fixed length, are aired something like four times a day, randomly ordered, shown for all candidates. Public TV has an obligation to give financial and material aid for smaller candidates to ensure they can have a clip. You cannot start officially campaigning on TV and in the press before a set date. You could say we have some rather intensive speech control.

This previous election has seen the two traditional parties (LR & PS) failing miserably. The socialist party, one of the most important parties in the country and previous president's party ended up with a pitiful 6.5% of votes. REM, the new president's movement was born out of nowhere barely a year before the elections. FI managed to crystallize the leftist electorate and reach 19%, barely a percent below the traditional conservative candidate. The FN, as much as I despise them for everything they stand for, is not a traditional party. We have communist candidates. Yes, multiple, because the only thing harder than herding cats is getting communists to agree. We have one that intends to go to Mars. Every election, we have a dozen candidates. Every election, debates are held. They're even rather polite, usually. This year, Fillon has been bogged down in embezzlement affairs, Le Pen too. Aside from one deliciously satisfying bash during one debate, an which lasted 3 minutes over a 3 hour long debate, things stayed civil.

And that's just an example of how we do it here, and I definitely not believe it's perfect. Our political system has issues. Plenty of them. Look at other countries, look at how it's done. Improve on it, and take the best from each.


> because there's not one single place controlling your entire feed

That's true with cable too.

> Straight up outlaw such clips that are an attack on a candidate.

What constitutes an attack? Is a clip pointing out that a candidate is wrong on some matter of fact an attack on that candidate? What about a matter of almost-fact (i.e. one where disagreements exist but the preponderance of the evidence is considered to be on a certain side)? This is a serious question; people disagree vehemently on this very matter. As a concrete example, can one point out that a candidate's policies will likely lead to increased atmospheric CO_2 levels? Can one point out that a candidate has not been trustworthy in the past?

I think pointing out potential problems with candidates is _critical_ to democracy functioning. The _tone_ is a separate matter, of course, and I agree that the tone it's often done in is not good for democracy.

I would really like to understand what you consider an "attack" vs "not an attack" and how those definitions match up with how you'd have to define them sanely for an equal-time regime.

> Let me give you examples of where I live, France, to alleviate some of your fears.

France is pretty bad on freedom-of-speech issues, I know; not just in this area. That doesn't mean the US should follow France's lead down that lane.

> We have a council that ensures what is aired is either nonpartisan

Really? And they do this while ignoring their own political biases, including unconscious ones? I am dubious, but it's possible if there is enough of a tradition of doing so that people would be embarrassed to show even implicit partisanship in this situation.

> Attacks are forbidden

"Attacks" defined how?

> Campaign clips are of fixed length

Defined how? Are Michael Moore movies considered "campaign clips"? Should they be in the US?

Again, I agree that the way US elections work is far from optimal. I've just had a hard time finding things to change that would not cause more harm than good, including starting down some seriously slippery slopes to things we have consciously moved away from in the past (e.g. government control over the content of what can be aired on TV).


You're 100% right. What I'd say is that we as a society have to make a choice between preserving the full range of protected speech we all enjoy and curtailing the degree to which the democratic process has been corrupted by the unlimited need for private money to run a campaign.

I'm not personally convinced I know which of those two options is preferable, but those are the options. I am fairly well convinced that you can't do the latter without the former.


>same as any other citizen.

Hardly. Some citizens own media outlets and can hire and fire journalists based on their political leanings. Some citizens pay millions of dollars to media outlets for non-political advertising and can adjust their purchases depending on the reporting of the media outlet. Are you going to tell media outlets they can't talk about politics? Or do you disagree that media outlets have influence over elections (at least, more than I do)? I'd guess they have more influence than paid advertisements.


Milton Friedman: "The beneficiaries are concentrated, and the payers are diffused"


kinda like facebook.


FB is free last I checked. Unless you speak of other costs? Loss of privacy, attention sinkhole/Productivity loss?


Or literally any business?


Consumers of a product are beneficiaries. The general criticism is for state programs, where the people that get the benefit are few, and those who pay taxes cant fight for the few cents taken away from them.


The only meaningful campaign finance reform would require a constitutional amendment, because SCOTUS has said a corporation is a person and persons have free speech and money is free speech therefore corporations can spend any amount of money on behalf of a candidate. So you'd have to rip that up with an amendment. There are two paths to an amendment, via 2/3rds agreement by both houses of Congress, or 2/3rd of the states calling for a consitutional convention (which has never happened). There is no chance such an amendment gets proposed by this or a foreseeable future Congress. Both of the major parties prefer the existing system.

Which leads to the other possible amendment, up ending the monopoly the political parties have on the primary voting system. One way that sounds nice, but is specious, is destroying the political parties - simply disallow their existence. Probably better is to change the voting system:

a. Range or preferential voting in a single election rather than the current tribal primary system which is not controlled by law but by each political party. Primaries encourage members of the tribe to vote in a reactionary way, the extremes of each party tend to win.Range or preferential voting is better than runoffs, it's basically an instant runoff system.

b. Get rid of the Electoral College. The idea it will keep us from getting incompetent presidents is pretty much proven wrong, plus it's been broken again by the two political parties who have gotten states to enact laws that require electors explicitly to not vote their conscience, under penalty. So it doesn't at all do what it was designed to do; and it comes from our racist slave history, the southern slave states wouldn't ratify the constitution without this provision. So get rid of it. The only thing worse than tyranny of the majority is tyranny of the minority.

Anyway, it's not going to fix itself. People will have to want to fix it.


If the explanation is some fundamental law of economics/politics as you seem to be suggesting, what is the reason the USA is afflicted more by the problem than other first world nations, or than the USA of a century ago?


The U.S. political system is remarkably vulnerable to pressure from interest groups because power is so fragmented. We have three branches of government at the federal level, with a bicameral legislature, and 50 individual states, each with three branches of government and plethora of local governments. And you need them all on board to do anything big.

Imagine that you are the Sierra Club and you want to block construction of a new highway. You can lobby:

* The President, who signs the appropriations bill * EPA, Department of Transportation, and any other three-letter federal agency that gets to weigh in on the project * Congressmen and Senators of affected regions/states, and remember that Senators can filibuster legislation to make it require a super-majority * State governors * State legislators * Local governments whose land the road will pass through * Indian tribes, if their land is affected

And if above doesn't work, you can sue in federal/state court.

All that adds to the time and cost of a construction project, assuming that it will be even approved. And once its approved? You still have a million ways to delay/obstruct the project through lawsuits and lobbying the bureaucratic process.

That's why there are no 'shovel ready' projects. We'll never be able to build another Hoover Dam or the Interstate Highway system.

Obviously other countries have division of power too. But the effect is much less pronounced.

EDIT: As for why the U.S. of a century ago wasn't as paralyzed, well, that's partly because of the growth of the administrative state (bureaucracy), growing importance of interest groups as sources of campaign funds, more regulations in general (which makes lawsuits possible), and fragmentation of party discipline.


I don't believe the Hoover Dam should be replicated. It's a marvel of engineering but I'm opposed to damming any rivers.

Damming our rivers like that has had such terrible and unforeseen environmental and economic consequences that I can only hope we un-dam wherever possible.


There's a trade off. I'll take a dam that disrupts a local river ecosystem to coal fired power plants that throw millions of tons of CO2 and other hazardous material into the air impacting a much larger area. In the case of the Hoover Dam it's roughly 4 coal plants to produce the same power generation capacity.


Depending on how long the river has been dammed up, tearing it down can have reverse ecological consequences now. It only takes about a decade for the downstream to adapt to the limited water flow (or the alternative interpretation is everything dies off within a decade) but after that to reintroduce the full flow would destroy new life that has settled the new environment produced.


@iamatworknow

Sure but there are better alternatives to either coal or hydro-electric.

I think even a modern natural gas plant would be better until we can build a smart grid that can store during off-demand and handle peak-demand loads.


This is a feature of democracy. The solution is not campaign finance reform, it is reform of democracy itself. Place additional separation between the people/corporations and the purse-strings of the treasury, and you will reduce this problem. Alternatively, you can take power & responsibility away from the government so that market forces come to bear upon the issue.

Democracy is, after all, a system in which a determined voting majority can use the hammer of the state to extract wealth from the rest of the population. Many people vote in self-defense.

I know that arguing for smaller government and less democracy is an unpopular position, but it is the only way to achieve long-term success. The areas of the economy with the most government involvement and regulation are where we find costs ballooning out of control: healthcare, prisons, infrastructure, student loans, military. Continuing on the present course is not sustainable.


> The areas of the economy with the most government involvement and regulation are where we find costs ballooning out of control: healthcare, prisons, infrastructure, student loans

Come on. Really? Healthcare is heavily regulated, yes, but a lot of that comes from regulating a fucked up mix between public and private institutions along with insurance companies thrown in the mix. Single-payer would absolutely lower these costs substantially. That's the opposite of less regulation.

And prisons? We have private prisons...as in, corporations that have a financial incentive to put more people in prison. Not just that, they lobby the government to create more laws or have stricter penalties to keep more people in prison. You can't seriously tell me that's too much regulation.

Infrastructure? Absolutely needs to be government run. Private companies have no incentive here, unless heavily subsidized by the government, in which case they would just balloon costs as much as possible in order to squeeze as much blood from the stone as they could.

Student loans...if a dog put on a pair of glasses it could get a student loan. That's a lack of regulation. The only real regulation making it balloon out of control is that bankruptcy doesn't absolve your loan debt (whether it should or shouldn't, that's another issue).

Military, I agree with you on! Less military spending! We can use the money for (public) schools and make sure our country isn't made up of complete imbeciles in 20 years.


This problem still occurs in countries that are far more stringent in their fundraising and campaign spending regulations. While I wouldn't say that campaign finance reform is a bad thing, it doesn't really fix this problem.

The US has the most money in politics per capita in the western world, and yet, given how much a company can get per dollar spent, lobbying and donations are an absolute bargain. Handing money to a politician directly is very effective, but in practice, even a lobbying group that didn't spend a dime in elections would still be worthwhile for industry groups.

The dynamics of collective action don't even need government to be true: You see the same behaviors in large corporations, where departments can cause a lot of overall damage to a company by causing small inefficiencies to everyone else: Not enough to organize against. Having worked in government and in big enterprise, if anything government is better, as the lobbying and the cajoling is far more visible.

The solution to the general inefficiency problem in infrastructure in other countries is, against what you would think, is to align goals empowering government vs contractors. The places where we have more inefficiencies is where we are trading not money fork work, but knowledge for expertise: The more layers of expertise we borrow, the harder a contractor is to replace, and thus the higher the final markup.

There's a great study on this regarding the Madrid subway. The subway authority has a budget, and in practice it will go up if they have more ridership. It's in their very best interest to have a large, high quality network, so to keep costs down, they do most of the planning themselves, have a lot of the engineering in house, and most of what they farm out is basic construction and drilling: They'll go as far as to give different contractors different sections to drill, because different sections of tunnel are easier to handle with different techniques and machinery. It's not as if Spain doesn't have insane infrastructure inefficiencies overall, but in this case there's enough goal alignment, and enough decision making outside of the political arena, that they save an order of magnitude per kilometer and per station than the US equivalent, while typical highway construction, decided at the political level and handed to big contractors, aren't really any cheaper.

In software terms, it's the difference between handing the work to a small startup that lives and dies by its runway, or handing a project to big software contractors, healthcare.gov style: The big project handed to the big contractor will very rarely work right, and it will be incredibly expensive.



This sounds like an excellent description of US politics for the last 30+ years.


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