The Agenda

Alon Levy on Politicals vs. Technicals

Alon Levy is fast emerging as one of the best writers on transit, and indeed on public affairs. In “Buy America is a Scam,” he demolishes the arguments deployed by Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Henley in favor of Buy America provisions for public spending:


Buy America’s purported role is to create American jobs. But let’s examine the costs.Amtrak’s Sprinter locomotives, compliant with both FRA regulations and Buy America, cost 30% more than the European locomotives they’re based on, and 50% more than competitor products built only for passenger trains rather than also for freight trains. A 30% premium works out to an extra cost of about $100 million, providing 250 jobs. Since the income earned by skilled workers is normally around $100,000 or less rather than $400,000, we can conclude most of the premium doesn’t go to workers. Or, for an even more egregious example, but without job numbers specified, look to SMART’s DMUs, at twice the cost of comparable European trains.

In other words, it’s a scam. Blocking parallel imports ensures only a select number of vendors can bid, driving up prices. Usually there’s a small sop to American labor, well-publicized in the media with photo-ops of people in hard hats – e.g. the 250 jobs heralded for the Sprinter order – but the bulk of the extra money goes elsewhere. It creates makework for consultants and lobbyists. It increases vendor profits, since fewer companies, typically the largest and most global ones, can bid. (This also goes for regulations: Caltrain applied for its FRA waiver in consultation with the biggest train manufacturers, potentially locking out Stadler and other small up-and-comers.)

The rest of the post is excellent. My only objection, and it is minor, is that I wish Levy had addressed the case not just for parallel imports, i.e., imports from other developed countries, but from developing countries as well. 

As I perused Levy’s blog, which I’ve only visited occasionally in the past, to my detriment, I came upon an insightful post from late June on a dividing line that separates transit activists, namely the separation between those he calls “politicals” and “technicals”:

Politicals are the people who tend to trust the transit authorities, support a general expansion of all rail transit projects, and believe the primary problem is defeating oil-funded anti-transit lobbies. Technicals are the people who tend to distrust what the authorities say, and prefer their own analysis or that of technically-minded activists; they support transit but are skeptical about many projects, and treat agency inertia and turf wars as the primary obstacles for transit revival.

After an illuminating discussion of this divide, Levy ends with the following:

Ultimately, the two camps are on the same side when it comes to supporting a transit revival. However, the strategies are diametrically opposed. Ask Clem Tillier or Systemic Failure’s Drunk Engineer how to do it and they’ll propose modernizing the regulations, minimizing community impact through smart engineering to reduce NIMBYism, and making sure to build the most cost-effective projects in order to appeal to fiscal conservatives. Ask a political, such as Bruce McF, and he’ll propose to build locally popular projects and spread money around until there’s a critical mass of train riders willing to lobby for more cost-effective regulations. The two camps’ goal is the same, and there can be agreement on individual issues such as the need for FRA reform or support or opposition for specific projects, but the general strategies have the opposite sequences of steps.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I wonder if Alon Levy’s politicals vs. technicals divide can be applied to a wider range of political antagonisms beyond transit policy. Levy writes:

Although transit activists of both groups tend to tilt left of center, the political distribution in the two camps is different. The politicals’ emphasis on being part of the progressive fight has attracted many down-the-line progressives, who write for Daily Kos and attend Netroots Nation. In contrast, the technicals’ emphasis on mistrust of authority has attracted both radical leftists and right-wingers: the complaints about train overstaffing and government incompetence appeal to conservatives and libertarians, while the unfavorable comparisons of the US with Europe appeal to anti-American leftists such as Richard Mlynarik (see e.g. here).

This certainly doesn’t map on to debates over, say, tax policy and health policy, though of course one could argue that among conservatives and libertarians, there are disputes between “politicals” and “technicals” in a number of domains. 


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