I do not often comment on current political flaps, but this one
is hard to resist. It now seems clear that people close to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie deliberately created a massive traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge on four successive days in order to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, the town on the N.J. side of the bridge, for not supporting Christie's reelection. The only question that remains open is Christie's own role—whether it was done on his orders, not on his orders but with his knowledge, or, as he claims, entirely behind his back.
There is only one piece of evidence that I can see in Christie's favor—the fact that he would have had to be terminally stupid to think he could get away with it.
Of course, that leaves the conclusion that the two people known to be responsible, a high up Christie aid whom he has just fired and the Port Authority official actually responsible for closing down the lanes who has now resigned, both close to Christie, were terminally stupid as well as criminally irresponsible. Prior to this, Christie was the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. A chief executive, whether governor or president, is not just one man but a team. On the interpretation most favorable to Christie, this shows that he is not competent, indeed dangerously incompetent, at selecting people to help him do his job.
One other point is suggested by the story, not about Christie but about the Port Authority and government actors more generally. Average weekday traffic volume eastbound on the bridge, found with a little googling, is a bit over 150,000 vehicles. Assume a third of them got delayed by the traffic jam for an hour each. Assume their occupants value their time at ten dollars an hour. Assume one person per vehicle. On those very conservative assumptions, a single Port Authority official, acting in effect on a whim, imposed a cost of two million dollars on New York commuters and it took four days for anyone else in the organization to notice and do something about it. More generous assumptions could easily push the number up to five or ten million.
What economists refer to as market failure occurs as a result of individuals taking actions whose net costs or benefits are born by other people. I have long argued that, while market failure is a real problem in ordinary private markets where such situations occasionally occur, it is a much larger problem in political markets, where it represents not the exception but the rule. Take this as a particularly striking example.