Undercover Economist

July 17, 2010 12:29 am

Dear Economist: Should I risk the fine and travel first class?

Should I continue to travel without a ticket to receive all the journeys I could have bought for the Rs258 I paid as a fine?

My daily journey requires a change of train at Mumbai station, which is extremely crowded. One day I was in a hurry and jumped into first class without a ticket.

As luck would have it, the inspector arrived. I admitted I did not have a ticket and paid Rs258 (£3.60) as a fine – hefty compared with an Rs8 one-way ticket.

I have always been a risk taker – I’m an economics student – and now I do not fear the inspector or the fine. I decided I would travel ticket-less for a further 15 days, by which time I would have received all the journeys which I could have bought for Rs258. Should I continue to travel in this way? Do fines work as a deterrent?

Ela Bodas

Dear Ela,

You are channelling the spirit of Gary Becker, winner of the Nobel memorial prize in economics for his application of economic reasoning to non-financial questions. One of Becker’s moments of inspiration came when running late to examine a doctoral student. He realised that he could save time if he parked illegally, quickly estimated the chances and consequences of being caught, and did the deed. His first question to the student was to ask him to sketch a theory of rational crime and punishment. The student passed, and Becker did not get a ticket.

Ethics aside, your actions do seem rational. You save time in queues and receive personal attention from inspectors instead. You save money, and the uncertainty of when you must pay a fine seems not to disturb you. You will make a good economist, if not a good citizen.

I interviewed Gary Becker some years ago, and his first act was to park in a 15-minute space for a two-hour lunch – on the grounds that nobody checked very carefully. You are following in august footsteps.

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