Pundits Wanted: No Life Experience Necessary (Updated)

One of the things that bugs me most about the various professional pundits (from the Hindi, payndit, a learned man) nowadays is how little life experience they seem to have. For example, take the posts on infrastructure and the value of time from Gary Becker, economist, and Richard Posner, jurist. Both are, apparently, upset at how much time they waste in commuting. Dr. Becker, for example, wonders why more work isn’t done at night (when it wouldn’t interfere with his commute as much):

I have been bothered for many years by the tendency of local and state authorities to repair roads only during weekday daylight hours. Presumably, that saved money through the avoidance of overtime and double time pay for night and weekend work, but it usually added many hours to travel times because of the huge traffic jams that were created during the most congested times. Even modest estimate of the value of the time of those caught in traffic holdups would have easily exceeded the extra pay required to have work at night and during weekends when traffic is much slower. Fortunately, recognition of the importance of the value of time has apparently increased in recent years since much more repair work now takes place at night and on weekends.

I agree that Judge Posner’s and Dr. Becker’s time is valuable. Why don’t they live closer to their offices at the University of Chicago? Once they’ve made the decision to commute it is they who have discounted the value of their time not the city, county, or state. The cost in their time is a sunk cost. If they have made poor decisions, should we indemnify them against the costs of those decisions by increasing the out-of-pocket costs of driving even on the part of those who don’t commute which privatizing the roads would certainly do?

Further, is it really less expensive, even including the value of time lost, to do road construction at night? They present no evidence of that. I think there are good reasons to believe they’re wrong. For one thing, more fatal accidents occur when road construction is done at night. Productivity is almost certainly lower.

And, using Chicago as an example since both Dr. Becker and Judge Posner have Chicago connections, the Dan Ryan, the Stevenson, and the Eisenhower (the major highways closest to the University of Chicago) are all heavy with truck traffic at night. Indeed, having driven the Dan Ryan at 3:00 in the morning, I can tell you that the traffic then is heavier than it is most of the day. If road construction goes on solely at night more truck traffic will take place during the day, further slowing their commutes.

I have a bit of a problem with making all roads toll roads or, even worse, privatizing them anyway. The events of the last century have gone something like this. Empowered by the automobile those with the wherewithal have moved ever farther from city centers. That means that either they must commute to their work or they must move their work to their homes in the suburbs. If they elect to do the latter their servants, employees, and contractors must commute to them. Increasing the costs for the servants, employees, and contractors will make life harder for them without changing the behavior of those who’ve moved out to the far ‘burbs much.

I think the problem of infrastructure maintenance is somewhat different than the way it’s portrayed by Dr. Becker and Judge Posner. I think the problem is that by federalizing such expenses you reduce the likelihood of getting a dollar’s worth of benefit (or more) from a dollar’s worth of expense. Further, it tends to infantilize and reduce the scrutiny on local governments, the natural place for such evaluations and decisions to be made.


Something additional just occurred to me and it’s especially neat since it supports my central claim so handily. Unless you’re self-employed or have an employer that doesn’t monitor the actual amount of time you spend on the job particularly closely, e.g. college faculty, by definition the value of the time you spend commuting is zero. That would mean that the governments are right and the central claim of Becker’s and Posner’s posts is wrong. Arguing that productivity would be higher if less time were spent commuting would be an interesting and different argument which I doubt would withstand scrutiny. For most jobs productivity is determined by the job not the individual.

8 comments… add one
  • Outis Link

    Even modest estimate of the value of the time of those caught in traffic holdups would have easily exceeded the extra pay required to have work at night and during weekends when traffic is much slower.

    Even if one assumes this is true in the theoretical sense, there is still the question of who actually pays for it. It doesn’t do the government entity (GE) any good if they double their costs to increase the value of time for U of C professors. Are the professors going to contribute additional money to the GE to pay for it, or will the GE just have to raise revenues, typically by taxes that affect a much larger group of people than those whose valuable time is saved?

  • PD Shaw Link

    I’m not sure your argument is persuasive as applied to judges. Judges are usually required to reflect some sort of geographic diversity. There are various reasons for this, but one of them is certainly to encourage different background experiences. That includes not just people who commute to the Courthouse on the same public transportation.

    Also at the appellate level, courts are only in session a few times a year, several weeks at a time. I think the expectation is that they go back to their communities; they lecture, speak, travel, read and examine briefs and petitions in their offices. I guess one question would be whether a judge is more efficient in an office located where he is comfortable than in one with the shortest commute time.

  • Outis:

    I’m not certain it would actually be cheaper and neither Dr. Becker nor Judge Posner supply any evidence to prove that it’s true. They merely assume it’s the case. I’ve provided several reasons it might not be true: more lives will be lost, insurance will probably be higher, productivity will probably be lower, strictly speaking, the time lost has no value or its cost has already been discounted and, at least in Chicago, there is no light traffic period. It just looks that way to people who don’t drive the Dan Ryan in the wee hours of the morning. The burden of proof requires that Dr. Becker or Judge Posner prove their cases, not I.

    PD Shaw:

    Is Judge Posner primarily a judge or primarily an academic? Additionally, I wonder whether the situation is different for federal judges vs. state and county. In Cook County anyway judges stand for election and for good or ill I suspect we get a different cast of characters than if there were a purely appointed judgeship.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I think he’s primarily a judge. According to the UC website he’s teaching a three hour seminar on Law and Science in the Fall. Through the year, he also teaches Shakespeare and the Law which meets “twice in each of the three quarters, alternating between Posner’s home and Nussbaum’s. Our last meeting will be an informal play reading, with casting done by students (though the professors are willing to act!).” Yes, Dave, he’s making his students go out to Posner’s home for class.

  • Outis Link

    I’m not certain it would actually be cheaper and neither Dr. Becker nor Judge Posner supply any evidence to prove that it’s true.

    Sorry, for my point it doesn’t even matter if it would be cheaper in aggregate. The question is: Will it be cheaper for the organization actually paying for the work? In this case clearly not.

  • Your point is sensible, Outis, since it treats the incentives that people have rather than the incentives they should have.

  • Outis Link

    [I]t treats the incentives that people have rather than the incentives they should have.

    You would think an economist would get that point, regardless of life experience.

  • That comes back to a problem I’ve commented on several times here: economics is a science of human behavior. It is valid only insofar as it relies on observation and it is able to make correct predictions. It is not mathematics.

    Unfortunately, over the period of the last 50 years or so economics has leaned more towards mathematics, tending to become increasingly unmoored from its origins in observing human behavior.

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