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Home / Opinion / Columns /  What a dead economist and live soccer tell us about covid curbs

A decade ago, a retired governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) told me that when it comes to a crisis situation, ‘do nothing’ is never an option, even though in some situations it might just be the right thing to do. Politicians and bureaucrats need to be seen to be doing something.

Nowhere has this been truer than the way in which politicians and bureaucrats have handled public transport systems, including local trains and metro lines, ever since the current pandemic broke out. To prevent the spread of covid through crowding, different limitations have been placed on local trains and metros across the country. At some point of time in some cities, only a certain category of people, like essential workers, were allowed to use them. Restrictions were also placed on the number of people who could sit in a single metro coach. And finally, time limits have been placed, with the last service being much earlier than was usually the case.

These steps, instead of solving the problem, moved it elsewhere. When only essential workers were allowed to take local trains, for example, the city bus service ran jam-packed. There were long lines to get onto buses. When the number of people who could sit in a single metro coach was limited, the number of people waiting outside the metro station increased dramatically. When time limits were placed, the pressure on the earlier train/metro services went up. If the last service used to be at 11pm and if the time is moved forward to 7pm, then the 7pm service gets crowded, instead of the crowd being spread across multiple services.

The French economist Frédéric Bastiat, who lived in the first half of the 19th century, talked about this phenomenon extensively. As he writes in Essays on Political Economy: “The advantages which officials advocate are those which are seen… But the disadvantages… are those which are not seen. And the injury which results from it… is still that which is not seen, although this ought to be self-evident."

The seen effect of putting limits on local trains or metros is that crowding of people on board can thus be avoided. Nonetheless, the unseen effect is that it simply moves the crowd elsewhere.

In fact, this policy of having to show that something is being done to contain infections can even lead to ridiculous situations. I used the Delhi Metro extensively between October and December last year. One announcement regularly made was that while passengers were allowed to sit on all seats, only 30 standing passengers were allowed in each coach.

Every time I heard this message, the following thought came to my head. Let’s say I get into a coach and find that all seats are taken. At one glance, I can’t make out the number of standing passengers. So I start counting. By the time I finish counting, I realize that there are 33 passengers without a seat in my coach.

When I got in, I saw five other people getting on as well. So, who are the three among the six (including me) who are supposed to get off? Of course, by the time I have thought this problem through, the metro is already moving. What am I supposed to do now? Get down at the next station? But what if at the next station, the number of people standing drops below thirty? Of course, I am stretching things a bit here, but I am doing this primarily to show how unimplementable a coach limit of this kind actually is.

So, the question is why do bureaucrats and politicians come up with such requirements? The answer might lie in football penalties. Albert Edwards, global strategist at Société Générale, a French investment bank, made this point in a research note few years ago. While saving a penalty shot, the goalkeeper dives towards either the left or right. Data shows that goalkeepers stay in the centre only 6.3% of the time. Nonetheless, as Edwards writes: “The penalty taker is just as likely (28.7% of the time) to blast the ball straight in front of him as to hit it to the right or left."

So, the point is that football goalkeepers, “to play the percentages, should stay where they are about a third of the time." But they almost never do that. Given that this data is available in the public domain, it must also available to various football teams.

So, why do goalkeepers rarely stay in the centre? As Edwards writes: “Because it is more embarrassing to stand there and watch the ball hit the back of the net than to do something (such as dive to the right) and watch the ball hit the back of the net." Lack of effort is the last thing a goalkeeper wants to get accused of.

Similar logic works for bureaucrats and politicians in many cases, especially when it comes to placing limits on local trains and metros in order to prevent the spread of covid. In the days to come, they don’t want to be accused of not making an effort. They want to be seen to be doing something. Or as the former RBI governor told me, ‘do nothing’ can’t be a strategy.

Hence, it’s important to pay attention to what Bastiat said: “Let us accustom ourselves, then, to avoid judging of things by what is seen only, but to judge of them by that which is not seen."

Vivek Kaul is the author of ‘Bad Money’.

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