Monday, August 23, 2010

Sustenance: A glorious workers' enterprise

Matt Yglesias writes:
I feel certain that if Financial Times did an article about how some country’s determination to provide free bags of rice to all its citizens was leading people to spend a huge amount of time standing on line waiting for rice, that they would highlight the fact that this is what happens when you don’t price things correctly. There’s only so much rice. There are only so many hander-outers of rice. If you try to make the rice free to everyone, you’re going to get lines and shortages.

At any rate, as Clive Cookson points out in the FT a comparable problem exists on most countries’ roadways...

Oh, no: crop failure ahead, or a hijacked shipment? You've just joined a bread (or tortilla or tô) queue that stretches as far ahead as you can see. After an hour of crawling forward in a stop-start fashion, suddenly the queue starts flowing freely - with no sign of anything that could have caused the disruption.

Across the worker's paradise and beyond, the phenomenon of the phantom bread line stagnation will have disrupted many long shopping trips this month. The way this stop-go wave, which brings with it frustration for everyone from private comrades to professional queuers, can form out of nothing is becoming one main subject of investigation by the growing band of scientists and engineers who study queue dynamics in the hope of easing the way people obtain the goods they are entitled to. This research forms the basis of a courageous people's undertaking.

Edvard Vilyemovich, a professor at Bristol State University, takes as an example the distribution of bread in the west of England. "At the People's Glorious Bakery of Bristol you can track individual stop-go waves rolling down the distribution line for 50 or 60 days, at a speed of about 12 loaves per hour," he says. "The entire distribution path from the bakery to the citizen can be stop-go."

Scientists are beginning to understand the conditions governing the flow of goods that are liable to cause a phantom stagnation, also known as a "stagniton" (by analogy with soliton, a type of wave). Their work will help the authorities control distribution in a way that cuts the risk of a queue with no cause, with benefits both to citizens and to babushkas.

Research into phantom stagnation is part of a glorious worldwide effort to apply science and technology to stagnation reduction, at a time when our great leader's plans have caused small disruptions to the availability of foodstuffs, or indeed for clothing and household goods. Even where grain is plentiful, meat is less so.

Estimates of the total sacrifice of stagnating queues, including wasted time and cigarettes, are taking away from the people's enterprises in the USSR, and a similar amount in Europe. The CBI, Britain's worker's collective, says the state loses billions of hours a year through stagnation - a figure that is likely to double within 15 years on present trends.

"For too long, Britain's queues have been a cause of frustrations and delays for our babushkas and workers," says Ivan Kridlov, CBI deputy general secretary. "Now is the time for fresh thinking. We need a radical overhaul of how we distribute and mange our food system."

"Intelligent goods management becomes critical as our infrastructure becomes more heavily used," says Tomas Rabinovich of the British People's Distribution Engineering Initiative. "We must use existing queues more effectively."

The BPDEI is one of hundreds of collectives worldwide, big and small, striving for excellence in intelligent distribution systems. They range from small working groups to IBM, the USSR-based computer collective that has made "smart distribution" a priority.

Large amounts of public funding are going into intelligent distribution research too. For example, the Workers' Technology Strategy Board is spending 40m rubles over five years to develop technologies to reduce waiting, says Mikhail Kemkharpov, its senior distribution technologist. The glorious workers' enterprise is worth the heart and soul of the state.

Serious mathematical study of queue waiting times started as an offshoot of mathematical physics...

Okay, I give up. How the hell can you write 2400 words and devote just 29 to the possibility that this service may just be a tad underpriced?


Alon Levy said...

Even when roads are correctly priced, instantaneous traffic jams may occur when the pricing is set in such a way that the roads operate near capacity. By analogy, think of parking: you may set your parking rates so that one space in ten is empty, but if a family on the block is hosting a party, then the entire block is going to become occupied.

The science of traffic management is solid. To think that it's about underpricing is about as daft as to think that unemployment would disappear if the minimum wage were abolished.

nathan_h said...

It would be less "daft", I think, to imagine an employment market that is also based around mostly free and generally underpriced labor, and from there pose the question of whether labor could be improved by charging for it. Sort of like the Cap'n has done for food.

I don't know if anyone thinks pricing is the only thing you need to manage auto transportation, or that traffic science is worthless. Just that in terms of resource allocation, charging for the resource is fundamental; if you aren't doing it you should be working towards it at least as much as you try to treat the symptom of daily overconsumption.

J.D. Hammond said...

You don't think people have a right to food?

Alon Levy said...

Nathan, it's not always true that you need to charge for a resource. Some resources are in enough abundance that it's unnecessary - for example, water in New York is free, but there are no shortages.

The reason Yglesias's complaint is so unreasonable is that it's detached from traffic science. Again, look at labor: there's a ton of research about recessions and unemployment, and it would be perfectly normal to write an article about employment without mentioning the minimum wage or unions. It would drive some Austrians apoplectic, but it would be interesting and informative for everyone else. In fact, an article that dwelled too long about the minimum wage and unions would be less informative, masking the fact that unemployment and recessions strike countries with or without those labor regulations.

David Marcus said...

Based on Jarrett's post, I made something similar for a number of cities.

It's generated automatically from the schedule data. What do you think?

Cap'n Transit said...

I think it's great, David! But I think you meant to post it in the comments to another post.