“Dejar salir es entrar más rápido”

Many of my recent writings on this blog have touched upon the frustrating reality that people in Venezuela have a hard time understanding basic trade-offs. Our collective inability to comprehend that a dollar spent here is a dollar you can’t spend there helps explain, according to this theory, the yawning disconnect between the public policies we need and the ones we have and the public supports.

But can this theory be tested?

One way to do so would be to analyze  what happens when Venezuelans DO understand opportunity costs and the problem of the commons. The case that comes to mind is the early days of the Caracas Metro.

If you’re as ancient as I am, you will remember that when the Caracas Metro opened much emphasis was placed on reminding people how to behave. Slogans and rules were spewed out by loudspeakers at a dizzying rate.

One of the things the loudspeakers were constantly haranguing users with was the phrase: “dejar salir es entrar más rápido.” (“Letting people leave the train means you can enter more quickly.”)

This is a good illustration of the problem of the commons. The space and time available to either get in or get out of the train are a scarce resource. If I were interested in only my own well-being, I would squeeze my way in or out as fast as I could.

This, as we know, leads to chaos, and chaos leads to delays.

What the Metro decided to do was hammer people with the notion that by putting our self-serving instincts aside for the common good and letting people get off before we board, we will all be better off. If letting people leave leads to me getting in faster, the trains will run faster and we are all the better. But if we all try to squish in as a bunch of people are trying to get out, gridlock occurs and the trains run slower.

Amazingly, people complied. The result of this campaign was that, for a few years, the Caracas Metro was a shining example of what Venezuela could be if its citizens behaved civilly.

Crucially, the onslaught created a norm. Trying to “free-ride” by sneaking into the carriage while others waited for departing passengers to get off became frowned upon. It wasn’t unusual to find yourself in the receiving end of an angry co-passenger’s retelling of the official line – “ey, tú no sabes que dejar salir es entrar más rápido vale!” A social sanction against free-riding was established and, for a few years, the Caracas Metro was a shining example of what Venezuela could be if its citizens behaved civilly.

Switch now to one of our most pressing problems: the inability to comprehend that by getting free gasoline, the government is wasting huge resources that it could instead use to, I dunno, increase its police force. Wouldn’t it make sense to hammer the point that by getting free gasoline, you are depriving the State of the resources it needs to raise your standard of living?

The Caracas Metro experience gives us hope that Venezuelans can understand this concept.

8 thoughts on ““Dejar salir es entrar más rápido”

  1. Great post, again.The gas policy is the perfect textbook example of what is unintended consequences. A subsidy that helps those who can buy a car or other vehicle of private transportation. Alas, we have huge traffic jams.

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  2. My guess that the next democratic government of Capriles would not even consider raising the price of oil or the price of public services. Not at least in his presidential terms.

    Keep in mind that Chavismo will become a strong opposition, and they will hold a lot of political muscle, lots of people inside of the army, inside the government, Cubans included. And Capriles promised that they will keep their jobs, that no one was going to be fired etc. etc. etc.

    So that’s why I liked the government plan of Diego Arria, basically his Idea was to remove all the weapons and money that could be used by chavismo to held Venezuela hostage, until they recover the power.

    I think that We need to educate the people, that if you want a good service, you need to pay for it, that there is no such thing as free in the universe, that when you got something “free”, it’s because someone didn’t got paid properly, and is always the weak link in the production chain, or in layman terms “el mas pajuo”.

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  3. The trade-offs, however, are not always intuitive or even simple. Recently, for example, we commented on the trade-off of walking or cycling instead of driving. Or the trade-off of universal/unconditioned versus targetted/conditioned policies. I even mentioned the difficulty unions have had in understanding the advantegous trade-off of accepting bus fare in cash instead of the bus tickets themselves. It would be nice if more cases were as simple to explain as the elevator rule applying to the subway.

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  4. Increasing taxes to pay for security, for example, requires a belief that the money raised would actually be spent on security, and not on someone’s overseas retirement fund. People may prefer money-in-pocket to promises-and-theft. This distrust is related to the unwillingness to believe in opportunity costs.

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  5. “People may prefer money-in-pocket to promises-and-theft.” I know I do.

    “This distrust is related to the unwillingness to believe in opportunity costs.” Not true. I believe very much so in opportunity costs.

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  6. “Dejar salir antes de entrar” worked very well while there were few passengers waiting to enter. With the amount of people there today, “dejar salir antes de entrar” means that if you let out everyone first you will remain out because the operator will try to close the doors as soon as soon as possible to meet his itinerary.

    Although well understood the idea of the article, talking about the “tragedy of the commons” seems a little “halado por los pelos.”

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  7. What struck me was that it was necessary to mount a major campaign to alter the natural tendencies of the Venezuelans to look after themselves first. In a civil society, people would quickly figure this out for themselves and act accordingly, especially since it is also an obvious courtesy to the passengers leaving. Or, at least, they would need only a small reminder, instead of a full-on campaign. In Venezuela, I have seen cases in which a small family crowded into an elevator without letting the other passengers out first. Another of my pet peeves is people crowding around the luggage carousel at the airport instead of standing back a meter or so, so everyone can see their bag first and than step up to retrieve it, without needing to shoulder the other passengers aside.

    The bottom line is that many Venezuelans should probably have their kindergarten report card marked, “Does not work and play well with others.” The real problem is that these are the social skills that citizens of functional societies learn in kindergarten. One has to be concerned about a society that doesn’t seem to have mastered kindergarten level social skills.

    On the other hand, I think that much of this is symptomatic of a society that doesn’t believe in the future. When we live in a world in which we can’t see or anticipate the shape of the future, we lose our ability engage in “delay of gratification” behaviors. Instead of planning and saving for the future, we live for the moment and simply grab for what is available now. Those kindergarten skills I was talking about above are mostly exercises in delay of gratification. But, what is the sense in waiting, when there is no future?

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  8. Social contract mofos. I am not really familiar with the Caracas Metro since I reside in Mérida, the only time I used it was during some trip I made to the capital when I was 10 years old or so, in 2000. By that time it still hadn’t devolved to what is shown in the video.

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