Thursday, January 09, 2014

The Only Evidence in Christie's Favor

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.


At 11:05 AM, January 09, 2014, Anonymous TJIC said...

I did the exact same math (with slightly less conservative numbers) when this scandal first started breaking.

The horrific thing is not the millions wasted here, but the fact that the millions wasted here are well within the bellcurve for the effects of minor decisions made by unelected bureaucrats (not that I think that bad decisions made by elected bureaucrats are in any sense better).

Most of the destruction that government does is hidden because its much further away from consumer visibility. This scandal is unique mostly because it was done in or near public view.

Sadly, the main lesson that government officials will learn from this is to hide their antics a bit deeper.

At 12:49 PM, January 09, 2014, Blogger Fridrikr inn gamli Tomasson said...

Whether Christie was directly informed or not, he should take responsibility for having appointed such fools in the first place and for having created an atmosphere that would cause these fools to think this was humorous or accepted. He has forgotten the precept that President Truman taught us all, "The Buck Stops Here." It's time for Gov. Christie to accept that and pay up.

At 1:14 PM, January 09, 2014, Anonymous Laird said...

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.

Well, that's not really "evidence", is it? More like the dog that didn't bark. But if you're happy with "negative" evidence there's also the fact that Christie's name appears nowhere on any of the "smoking gun" emails.

Still, I agree this is a pretty egregious example of abuse of power. I understand that the US Attorney is looking into it, and since it is reported that someone died waiting for EMS to arrive there could be criminal charges coming here. I hope so. Time will tell.

This particularly striking event isn't "market failure", it's governmental failure. And we see smaller examples all the time, most especially with road crews who leave roads blocked or unusable for unreasonably long periods of time, simply because no one is ever held to account. We also see it in unnecessary (or unnecessarily draconian) regulations, interminable regulatory examinations, etc. With no market discipline there is no incentive to end these abuses, so they continue. It's not likely to change.

At 1:19 PM, January 09, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't see why it's stupid for a politician to believe he can get away with an egregious abuse of power, since politicians nearly always do get away with that.

Remind me: How many people have gone to prison over the IRS targeting Obama's personal enemies, the Justice Department wiretapping journalists, or the routine acts of perjury committed by high-ranking members of the Obama administration?

At 1:21 PM, January 09, 2014, Blogger jimbino said...

Endless scandal.
Endless redistribution.
Endless wars.
Endless invasion of privacy.
Endless individual mandates.
Endless imprisonment.
Endless interference with everyday travel.
Endless spending to keep Amerika safe.

At what point is it fair to declare a nation too offensive and expensive to keep alive?

At 2:17 PM, January 09, 2014, Blogger David Friedman said...

"This particularly striking event isn't "market failure", it's governmental failure."

"Market failure" is one of those technical terms that seems self-explanatory and isn't. In my view it does not describe all ways in which markets can fail and it is not limited to markets. For details listen to one of my talks on the subject, linked to:

At 2:22 PM, January 09, 2014, Blogger David Friedman said...

"I don't see why it's stupid for a politician to believe he can get away with an egregious abuse of power"

It's stupid for several reasons. To begin with, Christie not only is not at the top of the political system, he has lots of opponents with as much access to political and legal resources as he has. Both Democrats and his Republican rivals would be happy to see him look bad.

Beyond that, this particular act imposed large and very visible costs on a very large number of innocent bystanders, costs that lots of other people—anyone who is frustrated with being stuck in traffic—are likely to identify with.

And finally, note that in order for the tactic to work the mayor of Fort Lee and a fair number of other people have to realize that it was punishment. But if the fact that it was punishment becomes at all widely known, as it now has, Christie ends up looking very bad.

As he did.

At 7:33 PM, January 09, 2014, Blogger jdgalt said...

I agree that this incident did costly damage, and I agree that we'd be better off for various reasons if the bridge, or other roads, were privatized.

On the other hand, if the bridge *were* in private hands, I expect that an incident like this one might still take place, and that the end result would be those same two employees being fired. A class action suit by the victims would certainly not be worthwhile, because most of the bill (plus lawyers' fees) would be paid, through increased tolls, by those same people.

At 9:22 PM, January 09, 2014, Blogger David Friedman said...

If the bridge were in private hands, the owners would have strong incentives to avoid this sort of thing happening, since it would cost them a lot of money--in the short term through people not making it over the bridge, in the long term through people adjusting their lives to be less dependent on the bridge. I find it hard to believe that it would have taken them four days to notice the problem.

At 10:07 AM, January 10, 2014, Anonymous ssemans said...

This is the political system most Americans have become accustomed to, where outing government abuses can be a crime, but its converse, abuse of authority, is commonplace and largely unremarked - unless it makes you late for work. Does only the family of the dead nonagenarian have standing here?

At 11:15 AM, January 10, 2014, Blogger Patrick Sullivan said...

A lawyer has already filed a lawsuit on behalf of six clients who were made late to work because of it. Which is pregnant with possibilities.

At 6:52 AM, January 11, 2014, Anonymous Robbo said...

An alternative cost-of-delay calculation:

The average commuter has about 40 years life expectancy left (my guess). That is about 300,000 hours.
If you delay 300,000 people by one hour, that is effectively one life terminated, as would be delaying 100,000 people by 3 hours each.

For extra credit, by this calculus, how many lives has the TSA cost since its inception ?


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