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Metaphors on Self-Interest

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There is an interesting, if possibly somewhat misleading, article in Scientific American this month ostensibly about self-interest and traffic control, but which seems to tend off toward creating metaphors on economic regulation and deregulation. The article notes that when the city fathers of Seoul, South Korea, removed a major six-lane highway into central Seoul the result was an increase in traffic efficiency! Counter-intuitive as this may seem, the article goes on, removal of traffic lights in another city also increased efficiency. It reads like a fable or metaphor on the current controversy over what to do or not do about our economy. The first blush is that when you provide easy travel into the center the users out of self-interest in short commutes will flock to the six-lane highway and in short order bottle it up, thus thwarting their own self-interest. The metaphor notion arises that if you widen Wall St. to "six lanes" easing the financiers' way toward self-interest they will all choose their self-interest and screw things up irreparably. But then the question of removing traffic lights, qua regulations, arises. How could things improve with fewer regulations, you ask? The answer is that people who chose to negotiate the more chaotic downtown areas drove with less confidence and more caution, more slowly, getting to where they were going, but with more attention to the common risk. What the article's author leaves out is a picture of the remaining infrastructure post six-line highway and post-traffic lights. Obviously, there was some kind of infrastructure in Seoul and it functioned and it forced people to be less self-centered about their commute decisions. Easing the way for Wall St. to be Wall St. does not force the financiers to be less self-interested when their mantra and ethos is that self-interest is the name of the game. The removal of traffic lights is not the removal of regulations. Stop signs replaced those lights and the pulse of traffic through intersections became the uncertain pattern of the driver on the right at a four-way stop having the right of way ... overturning the self-centered ethos. We have a feeling that the basic story of traffic control is correctly stated in the article, but that the metaphor for our economy is wrong or incomplete. The important point is that the full story in both cases must be elaborated. Skipping the details is missing the point. JB
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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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