5 Miles of Economic Illiteracy
By Bryan Caplan
Yesterday I spoke at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center (video coming to local PBS in about two weeks) as well as its Department of Economics. The cost: I had to wake up at the ungodly hour of 7 AM. The unexpected benefit: As I drove west on Route 66, I witnessed the vivid fruit of economic illiteracy – 5 miles of stalled east-bound traffic.
The congestion was not the result of an accident. It’s the same massive waste of time that happens every weekday while I sleep peacefully in my bed. In fact, since this was a Friday, traffic was probably better than average. Morning after morning, Monday through Friday, there are miles of commuters sitting in their cars lamenting their sad fate.
The darkly funny thing about this spectacle is that every economist in the country knows how to fix it!
In case you haven’t heard, here’s the solution: Raise the price when demand is high. To quote The Six Million Dollar Man, we have the technology. High-tech easy passes make it possible to collect tolls without tollbooths, or even slowing down.
Why doesn’t the world embrace the obvious solution? Once again, the blame falls squarely on voters’ anti-market bias. Most people think of tolls as pure transfers, devoid of incentive effects. A politician who proposed the economists’ solution could kiss his career goodbye. (Well, except for this guy – how did he pull it off?)
In short, congestion is a state of mind. Drivers have a slow commute because their minds are stuck in the mud of economic illiteracy. What will it take to tow them out?