Saturday, March 02, 2013

The utility of the commute

Interesting article in The Guardian by John Lanchester, examining the meaning of commuting and experiencing an Underground trip starting before 5:00am. His conclusion about why we commute and whether it is worth it is worth noting. You should read it for yourself but this little snippet summarises one argument - "So you commute, which is a drag, in order to have the house and holiday and lifestyle that makes you happy " and he goes on to invoke the theory of utility. Now this is something I know a bit about, because utility is a technical term used by economists and I studied this benighted subject at a world-leading institution. (U. of Cambridge if you must know) [Kilburn Tech was good enough for me, actually: Ed]  and Mr Lanchester doesn't quite get it right. He opines that the theory must be wrong because "happiness studies" show that commuting, trading off the cost and effort of the daily journey to afford a better house in the suburbs, does not make people happier. Well,  the theory of utility is a wonderful piece of circular reasoning. It is based on an unprovable axiom that people behave rationally when making consumer choices. Therefore choosing to commute must increase utility because people choose to do it and therefore they must be happier (you know, really, deep down) This is genuinely what the great economists of the past - Marshall, Pigou, Pareto, Walras and others who worked in this field - thought. By this argument the theory cannot be wrong.

Actually the theory of utility, a major plank in the theory of markets, has nothing to offer when considering commuting. We do it because there are only so many places in the centre of cities to live and therefore most of us must live away from them albeit many of us have jobs which are in the centre of the cities. How far you choose to live is perhaps up to you, trading off cheaper house prices with the increased time and cost of travelling in, but few of us have any choice about the fundamental decision to use a public transport network to get to work in the first place. Choice is at the heart of utility theory so it really should not be used in this instance. Like almost all of classical economics, it is irrelevant to the way we live today (and was just as irrelevant when it was formulated at the end of the nineteenth century). The theory is right in a particular sort of economy but nobody on this planet has ever lived in it and nobody ever will because one of the fundamental requirements is that there is no future, only a continuous present.  If you would like to know more, you know how to get in touch [Careful, this could open the floodgates: Ed]

Anyway, Lanchester's observations on how people behave on the Tube are well worth reading so I commend his article to you.

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