On the way into Boston from Logan Airport, you pass a cavernous, closed-off tunnel entrance, full of construction vehicles, looking at night like an avant garde set for Siegfried. This is one end of the ‘Big Dig’, America’s greatest civil engineering fiasco, and it offers a useful corrective for the British inferiority complex about competence in large-scale public projects. The news that the facilities for the 2012 London Olympics look set to cost at least £6 billion, rather than the £2.4 billion first quoted, surprised no one this week, and nor did the departure of Jack Lemley, the American chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, who said he was resigning because he did not want to be associated with a project that is doomed to be over-budget and behind schedule. But looking at what has happened in Boston, not to mention New Orleans or Baghdad, we might wonder why a 71-year-old from Boise, Idaho — who, according to Ken Livingstone, had been looking less than perky after recent heart surgery — was picked above the finest talents of British engineering to take charge of our Olympic stadia in the first place? And why do American troubleshooters have such a high reputation over here that, for example, a subsidiary of Halliburton (Dick Cheney’s old firm) was asked to oversee the Ministry of Defence’s ‘future aircraft carrier’ project?
Perhaps the quangocrats involved in these appointments think all Americans are wisecracking ass-kickers like Tommy Lee Jones in his role as federal emergency chief for Los Angeles in Volcano. Perhaps one day Tommy Lee will even star in a disaster-recovery epic called Big Dig. But in reality the three-and-a-half-mile tunnel under the heart of Boston, with its associated works, has so far just been an epic disaster. Six times over budget, it has been under construction for 15 years; the last section finally opened earlier this year, but much of it was closed again in July after a car passenger was killed by a fall of 12 tons of ceiling concrete, possibly caused by faulty anchor bolts. Thousands of leaks have been found in the tunnels, and accusations have been flying of shoddy workmanship and poor quality concrete. Massachusetts authorities are demanding refunds from some contractors and threatening legal action against others — including Bechtel, which was on the short-list for the major London Olympics contract. It would be nice to suggest that the Americans ought to pick British trouble-shooters for their projects rather than vice versa, but the real truth is that both sides might do better to appoint Frenchmen or Germans.
I was in Boston for the annual conference of the British–American Project, this year discussing education. We heard a lot about a school in Chicago — not the school of economists led by Milton Friedman, but Westside Preparatory School in the impoverished district of Garfield Park, founded by Marva Collins, an Alabama-born black educationist who teaches by what she calls the Socratic method, using the great texts of English and classical literature to improve children’s vocabulary and reasoning. Her own speaking style is a bizarre jumble of half-quotations from Shakespeare and Kipling interspersed with pithy aphorisms of her own, but she seems to have produced remarkable results from pupils whose life chances had previously been minimised by exposure to the worst of America’s public (that is, state) school system. She has attracted national attention, not least from corporations such as IBM and Anheuser-Busch who have hired her as a motivational speaker. She refuses to accept government funding — telling President Bush that ‘none of my pupils could have failed without government help’, a remark that might have been scripted for her by Milton Friedman — and unlike most radical British educationists, she encourages positive attitudes to capitalism and entrepreneurship in children of primary-school age. ‘I teach them how the stock market works,’ she declaimed. ‘If they argue over who has the best trainers, I tell them: “Don’t fight over the trainers. Own the company that makes the trainers.”’
Just how good a piece of advice that is was highlighted by an article about shoes in the business section of the Boston Sunday Globe. Retail footwear sales in the US have risen by 19 per cent in the past five years: for women’s fashion shoes, the rise is 17.3 per cent, compared with only 2 per cent growth in clothing sales. American women now buy a staggering 884 million pairs of shoes a year. Why? Because globalisation has made shoes so cheap that fashion-conscious shoppers wear them twice then throw them away; because online shoe-shopping is quick, easy and offers a vast array of choice; but most importantly — so I was told by two Bostonian ladies-who-lunch — because of Sex and the City. ‘Carrie Bradshaw made it OK to have a shoe fetish.’
I have also been back to Bergerac in France where — some readers may recall — I got very excited last year about the idea of launching a cross-border takeover bid for the booming airport café. I was worried at the time that this threatened incursion of Anglo–Saxon business methods was the reason for an otherwise unexplained wildcat strike by the airport fire crew. Now I’m worried that I have provoked a much more serious train of events. On this visit the café was plastered with huge posters declaring ‘Non à l’expulsion!’ and referring in English to ‘a huge political and financial conspiracy’ which is about to terminate the livelihoods of the café’s staff. It turns out that, possibly prompted by me, the local airport authority has finally realised that the huge influx of British visitors on Ryanair and Flybe flights has turned this little business into a goldmine. The present concessionaire took it on in 1998 when the airport handled fewer than 50 passengers a day, the handsome barmaid told me. Now that it handles almost 20 times that number, the sitting tenant is being forced out to make way for ‘un ami’ of the airport’s bosses. Desolé, madame: but it will serve the new tenant right if swingeing green aviation taxes cut the traffic in half next season. That will be my moment to step in with a rock-bottom offer and a promise to reinstate the ancien régime.