13.3.11

PAYING TO CUT THE LINE.  Some amusement parks let you do it.  Some toll road authorities let you do it.  Grocery stores don't let you do it.
A few days ago I happened to stop by the local supermarket during the post-work rush. When I was ready to check out all the regular lanes had long lines. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t mind waiting a few minutes, but on this particular evening I had dinner plans I couldn’t be late for. So I shelled out the extra $6 for the express lane so I could skip the lines.
There's a variant of this story, which once appeared in Journal of Economic Perspectives, in which some economists, in a hurry to get some steaks and get them grilled, attempted to bribe the holder of the next number to be served at the butcher's counter, only to make the entire store sufficiently angry with them that they left without purchasing any steaks.
I think there are two reasons that people hate congestion pricing. First, we have strong and sophisticated social norms, cultivated since we were young children, for waiting in lines. This bit of self-organization is extremely important for the smooth functioning of civil society. We see waiting your turn as an obligation we have to one another, and therefore not as an obligation that a supermarket or transportation agency can waive in exchange for a cash payment. I suspect customers would see people using a tolled checkout lane as breaking an implicit social contract.
Social contracts, like other institutions, evolve to conserve on transaction costs. A colleague with whom I talked about the butcher shop story suggested that the economists really had to offer to compensate all the other holders of numbers waiting to be served, as the right to be served goes with the position, not the person. Throw in the marginal delay cost and watch the complications cumulate.

(Via The Transportationist, who notes the presence of peak-load pricing and public suspicion of priority pricing.)

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