The Marginal Revolution Irony

Under the title of Tyler Cowen’s and Alex Tabarrok’s blog, Marginal Revolution, is the saying “Small Steps Toward a Much Better World.”

By and large, Tyler and Alex deliver. I’m about to be critical about a recent item on which Tyler arguably doesn’t deliver, but it shouldn’t mislead you into thinking that I don’t learn a lot from their site. After EconLog, it is the first one I look at in my RSS feed every morning. Also both Tyler and Alex have been generous to me with their help. The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics and, before that, The Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics, would not have been nearly as good as they are without Tyler’s suggestions, for topics and authors, and for content. And Alex has been helpful in recent years in giving me quick feedback when I’m on deadline writing the Wall Street Journal article on the latest winner(s) of the Nobel Prize in economics.

So now to the critique. I’ve already given the background for my critique in my post challenging Tyler about his comments on cars. Recall that he had written that “most cars in operation today are not much better than cars from 1969, and they perform more or less the same functions, albeit more safely.”

I laid out why I disagree and commenters both on this blog and on Facebook gave more chapter and verse to support my view: cars have improved a great deal.

In fact, I’m convinced, based on commenters’ comments, that I’ve understated the improvement. Here are some of the better comments on my post.

Sarah Skwire:

I think something that both you and Tyler have overlooked is the importance of many of the changes to post 1969 cars for women who drive. Power steering has made driving much easier for small and slighter people–who are, in many cases, female drivers. (The first time I drove a car with no power steering I remember thinking, “I bet THIS is why there were so many jokes about bad women drivers! This takes a lot of strength!!) The ability to calibrate seat adjustments more finely means that I can make cars fit me properly. (The first cars I drove, in the 80s, put me dangerously close to the steering wheel in order to reach the pedals, and had seats so far off the ground I couldn’t put my heel down when I pressed the gas.) Many cars “remember” seat adjustments as well, which greatly reduces the aggravation and time cost when a taller person uses my car and I have to return the seat to where I like it. The back lift gate of my Subaru outback opens and closes at the touch of a button on the dash or on my key chain, which is helpful since when it’s open I can barely reach the handle to close it manually. And many mini-vans now have sliding passenger doors that open in similarly automated fashion–making life and errands easier for anyone who travels regularly with small kids and needs to open car doors, manage grocery bags, AND keep a hand on each kid in a busy parking lot.

So I’d add “serving the needs of a wider range of drivers” to the list of post 1969 improvements. We’ve certainly come a long way since the car salesman took care to point out the passenger side make up mirror to women as an incentive to buy!


In support of your third point, and contra Cowen’s semi-dismissal of the importance of entertainment and software, I’ll add this: I just spent three years living with an hour-each-way commute to work. Navigation, hands-free technology, and entertainment are enormously important for people making long commutes. I’d guess that these are strong enough incentives to affect the number of long-range commuters in the workforce. This improvement to the quality of modern automobiles has enabled a more mobile workforce, and thus likely has improved productivity, as people are now able to find better job matches further away from home.

My sometimes sparring partner Alan Goldhammer:

It is really difficult to point to any part of the current automobile that is not better than those of 50 years ago.  One big area of improvement that I mentioned on Tyler’s blog is rust protection.  You don’t see cars rusting through in our area where a lot of road salt is used (Washington DC).  I don’t even know if Ziebart (after market rust protection company) is even in business these days. [DRH note: I checked and, surprisingly, they are. I bet, though, that their business is much smaller.]

Let’s also not forget that tire manufacturing is much better these days.  Over that last 30 years I think we have had only a couple of flats and most of these occurred over night and not on the road while driving.

Charley Hooper:

I remember going on trips and searching for sources of water, such as creeks, to fill our ailing radiator. On another trip in the summer we drove with the heater on to prevent the car from overheating. A trip to Canada left us with a car that couldn’t travel at highway speeds and, due to the slower travel, we celebrated my mother’s birthday on the road.

Here’s what’s better: tires (radials vs. bias ply), brakes (disc vs. drum), cooling systems, emission controls, power, reliability, gas mileage, electrical systems, rust protection, paint, oil consumption, temperature control (heater and A/C), headlights, taillights, electronic entertainment, safety, weatherstripping, suspensions, remote entry/locking, transmissions, maintenance intervals, seating, drink holders, outside temperature readings, tire pressure sensors, and sound insulation. Whew!

S D:

I still remember the deep, hours-long discomfort of being stuck in the back of a 1986 Citroén with no air conditioning. My parents were taking a three-day trip through France in July in 33 degree heat and it was oppressive. (The car also broke down on the side of the road)

With air conditioning as standard in pretty much all cars now, it’s something I don’t have to inflict on my own children.

And, finally, buttressing the point about safety (and so this doesn’t contradict Tyler), J Scheppers:

The death prevention is not complete enumerated.  Emissions reductions in saving years of life are significant.  There is no more lead in your gas and look at these emission reductions as calculated by EPA since 1990.  I remember the smell of cars in 1970 so imagine the clean up from 1960 when we are bench marking these.  Cars are not the only source of improved air quality but it did play a key role.

Nationally, concentrations of air pollutants have dropped significantly since 1990:

Carbon Monoxide (CO) 8-Hour, 77%
Lead (Pb) 3-Month Average, 80%
Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) Annual, 56%
Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) 1-Hour, 50%
Ozone (O3) 8-Hour, 22%
Particulate Matter 10 microns (PM10) 24-Hour, 34%
Particulate Matter 2.5 microns (PM2.5) Annual, 41%
Particulate Matter 2.5 microns (PM2.5) 24-Hour, 40%
Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) 1-Hour, 88%
Numerous air toxics have declined with percentages varying by pollutant

During this same period, the U.S. economy continued to grow, Americans drove more miles and population and energy use increased.


The irony is that a web site with “marginal” in the name and with “small steps” in the description of its goal misses out on some pretty thick margins.