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.