Monday, August 05, 2013

The world is sloped

There's a resilient talking point among a certain genre of cosmopolitan American pundit that the rest of the world -- and specifically Western Europe and East Asia -- are more technologically advanced and better at delivering modern services, especially ones consumed by said pundits, than the USA. A selection of examples from arch-exponent of this view, Thomas Friedman:

[2007] Look at our infrastructure. It’s not just the bridge that fell in my hometown, Minneapolis. Fly from Zurich’s ultramodern airport to La Guardia’s dump. It is like flying from the Jetsons to the Flintstones. I still can’t get uninterrupted cellphone service between my home in Bethesda and my office in D.C. But I recently bought a pocket cellphone at the Beijing airport and immediately called my wife in Bethesda — crystal clear. I just attended the China clean car conference, where Chinese automakers were boasting that their 2008 cars will meet “Euro 4” — European Union — emissions standards.

[2008] It actually started well, on Kau Sai Chau, an island off Hong Kong, where I stood on a rocky hilltop overlooking the South China Sea and talked to my wife back in Maryland, static-free, using a friend’s Chinese cellphone. A few hours later, I took off from Hong Kong’s ultramodern airport after riding out there from downtown on a sleek high-speed train — with wireless connectivity that was so good I was able to surf the Web the whole way on my laptop. Landing at Kennedy Airport from Hong Kong was, as I’ve argued before, like going from the Jetsons to the Flintstones. The ugly, low-ceilinged arrival hall was cramped, and using a luggage cart cost $3. (Couldn’t we at least supply foreign visitors with a free luggage cart, like other major airports in the world?) As I looked around at this dingy room, it reminded of somewhere I had been before. Then I remembered: It was the luggage hall in the old Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport. It closed in 1998.

He has since made this into a more general theme that America needs to invest more in infrastructure.

Now, that may be true. But if the motivating examples are, as they appear to be for him, airports and wireless communications technology, they need more elaboration. A lot more. Here's a European Commission report from just over a week ago:

As European holidaymakers head to the beach and mountains for their ritual summer holidays, new figures show virtually none of them will have 4G access when they arrive. Three out of every four people living in the EU can’t access 4G/LTE mobile connections in their hometowns, and virtually no rural area has 4G. In the United States over 90% of people have 4G access.

And here's a nice Wall Street Journal article on airport efficiency:

Asian airports have something in common with airports in Europe: they’re far less efficient than their American counterparts. That’s according to Tae Oum, lead author of a new airport efficiency study by The Air Transport Research Society at the University of British Columbia. Compared to those in the U.S., Asian airports have a lower productivity ratio, use more employees and pass more costs onto consumers and airlines, he says.

Of course, "efficiency" is not the same thing as "looks cool" and it's definitely not the same thing as "flashy lounges available to globe-trotting pundits." But that former notion of efficiency probably corresponds a lot more to the cost/quality bundle of a typical airport passenger than the Moustache travelling experience. So which one should the country be basing policy on?