Fuel-guzzling driving, coal mining and other uses of reverse logic

Readers with a long memory can recall brief, compelling things Fuel shortage in UK of the past few weeks, mainly due to the rush to fill up gas for fear of the pump running out. Some gas stations have imposed limits on how much you can buy – for example £25 of fuel and no more. It seems logical, but a friend of mine (an economist) argues that this is the opposite of what is really necessary. Buy max encourages more visits and more queues. Instead, gas stations should apply minimum purchases: no one is allowed to buy fuel if their tank is more than a quarter full.

One can imagine the trouble and difficulty of implementing this rule, but the principle is very elegant. Queues will disappear, as only those who really need fuel will be allowed to buy. The lack of self-satisfaction will disappear. The solution is not to ask drivers to buy less fuel, but to ask them to buy more.

All of this makes me wonder what other problems we can fix by inverting the usual logic and doing the exact opposite of what one might expect. Here’s a thought: environmentalists should fight climate change by buying coal mines. Coal is the most carbon-intensive of all major fuel sources, so any response to climate change involves closing coal mines. An environmental organization can do this by buying them and shutting them down.

This idea was proposed in 2012 by economist Bård Harstad. Another economist, Alex Tabarrok, recently pointed to a coal mine for sale for less than $8 million in West Virginia. It has reserves of 8 million tons of coal, capable of generating about 20 million tons of carbon dioxide. Preventing emissions of several tons of CO2 for every dollar spent is a great deal. The idea only works if people don’t open new coal mines to meet demand, but why would they? Coal mining is a dying industry. If you can mine for a few years, chances are it will be closed forever.

During the transition to electric vehicles, a similar logic applies to older cars. If you drive, but only a little, there’s something about buying a second-hand gas injector. Better to leave a thirsty old car with 1,000 miles a year in your hands than 10,000 miles a year in someone else’s hands. Yes, an electric car would be better, but until the electric car industry is fully expanded, leave Tesla in the hands of people who will use it every day.

If you want to keep using reverse logic, let’s talk about queues. The problem with queues is obvious: they waste time. Less obvious is that each person in line is getting in the way of everyone behind them. If someone gives up and walks away, everyone behind them benefits. Imagine a row of Christmas market stalls serving up hot chocolate, mulled wine, meat pies and other seasonal treats. People strolled along the row of stalls, wanting to enjoy warm food on a winter’s day. The problem is that every stall has people queuing. One person is served every minute, and people are willing to wait up to 10 minutes. If there are already 10 people in line, they keep walking.

This conventional way of queuing is a disaster. Each queue will be near the maximum length, otherwise people will quickly join it. Every stall was at full capacity, but no one got their mulled wine without waiting for the limit of their patience.

What does the reverse logic tell us about this? Steven Landsburg, author of classics Armchair economist, proposes an alternative rule: the last ones will be the first. Each new entrant in the queue goes first, standing right behind the person being served.

This is, of course, an outrage against reason, intuition, and natural justice. It is also highly effective. If you’re in the next line to be served, but someone shows up and puts their feet in place in front of you, you walk away. The line will be longer and you will always be behind.

Under the Landsburg system, stalls still serve one seasonal meal every minute, but the queues are short. Alas, perhaps the Landsburg rule can only be applied in controlled environments such as amusement parks. But you might consider applying Landsburg’s logic to your own “to-do” list: don’t add a new item to the list unless you’re ready to do it right away. It’s a bit unrealistic, but also realistic. If it’s not important enough, even a top priority right now, it probably never will and it shouldn’t be on your “to do” list at all.

Is there something about economists that makes them particularly attracted to reverse logic? Probably. Two classic ideas in economics are “Things seen and things not seen“And” by Adam Smithinvisible hand“. These ideas dictate how economists think: changes that are clear and direct cause indirect and less obvious consequences. Let the psychologists keep their opposite mentality; we will enjoy our reverse logic.

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