Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[politics] Things I learn on airplanes

The air travel experience provides a number of opportunities for gedankenexperiments of various sorts concerning ethical behavior, game theory and social interaction. I observed one such in the first class cabin of an American Airlines flight a month or so.

First of all, let me elucidate the layout.

☚ Boarding door
3A3B 3E3F

There are four rows of four seats, with an aisle running between each seat pair to the left and right.

I got on the plane behind a gentleman who stowed a bag in the bin directly above 3E, then proceeded to his seat in 6F, beneath the empty bin intended for the use of row 6 passengers. It was perfectly clear what he was doing — he stowed his bag at the front of the aircraft to minimize his effort expended in carrying it down the aisle and back up. He also optimized his effort expended on leaving the aircraft (though I may be making the same argument twice here, redundantly).

In social terms, this gentleman was exercising his freedom of choice in an unregulated environment (passengers are not required to stow bags immediately above their own seats) to his best advantage.

The problem with this choice should be obvious to anyone on brief consideration. Where will the passengers in row 3 stow their bags? They are now forced to stow their bags further back in the cabin. This means when the aircraft arrives at its destination, at least one of the passengers in row 3 will be forced to step back against the flow of debarkation to reach a bag they could otherwise have reached without disrupting the line. The gentleman in row 6 has compromised his own debarkation efficiency by forcing the passengers in row 3 to behave counterproductively. If he'd simply stowed his bag at row 6, allowing the passengers in row 3 to use the bins immediately above them, the debarkation process would not be impeded and his own outcome would be improved.

In other words, he made a short term choice for personal gain which disrupted the net social good of the cabin, and in turn penalized him on the (slightly) longer term calculus of the behavior of the cabin as a whole.

This is pretty much conservative philosophy in a nutshell.

A real life example of this is Oregon's Measure 37. This was a ballot initiative pushed by conservatives which asserted that property owners who could demonstrate lost value due to zoning or environmental regulations were entitled to compensation by the state.

This issue arose in the first place largely due to some peculiarities of land use planning here in Oregon — to simplify, we have rules concerning urban growth boundaries which prevent zoning of housing developments or commercial tracts outside a designated border until density within that border reaches a certain target. These laws foster inner city density and redevelopment and significantly retard the kind of urban sprawl so prevalent in most of the United States. It's why we have farmland and dense forests within a 20 minute drive of downtown Portland, basically.

People who happened to own land outside these urban growth boundaries were frustrated that they couldn't cash out like their neighbors up the road. Combine that with the eternal conservative obsession with maximizing land use and deriding environmental concerns — I'm pretty sure Republicans drink the same water and breathe the same air I do, but you couldn't tell it by their policy positions — and you get Measure 37.

The thing is, what makes land valuable and desirable in Oregon is precisely the kind of developmental controls that create these artificial pricing problems. If you defang the urban growth boundary rules, as conservatives have largely succeeded in doing by making them hideously expensive to maintain, you obtain a short term rise in property values for some people, but a long term degradation in the quality of life which drives those property values.

Conservatives are the gentleman in seat 6F. They make short term decisions to maximize personal gain, while being unwilling or unable to accept that social costs are a valid part of the calculus of that gain. The penalty to the gentleman in 6F was readily foreseeable, even by him. Measure 37's penalty to Oregon will be decades in the making, and the folks who benefited from it will have long since taken their profit before the cost settles on all of us here in Oregon.

The anti-tax, anti-government, anti-regulatory rhetoric of Republicans and Libertarians boils down to this argument you are entitled to what is yours, and anyone who takes it away from you is your enemy. This is why I am a liberal-progressive: I don't believe that my immediate benefit necessarily trumps the short- and long-term needs of my fellow citizens.

Tags: personal, politics, travel

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