I usually won’t post twice in a day (or so I say), but a post entitled, What is it about Polish people and lines?, by Steven D. Levitt, co-author of the uber-popular, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, really got me ticked off tonight! Steven recently went on a trip to Warsaw (and did, rightfully, credit the city as being awesome) and found that Polish people everywhere where cutting ahead of him in line and worst of all, acting as if it was no big deal! Well, needless to say, Steven found this sort of behavior to be quite rude and impolite, considering he was patiently waiting in line and not cutting anyone the entire time.
Now, I wasn’t really upset that Steven called Polish people rude (or to be more accurate, categorized their line-cutting skills as rude); rather, I was upset that Steven didn’t see the basic supply and demand effect at play here! As I explained to my good friend, Lucy, an avid fan of Freakonomics, the demand can be seen by the line formed; in other words, if I walk up to an existing line and see that it is already quite lengthy, I automatically see that there is a high demand for whatever these people are waiting for. If I then hop in the line (without even knowing what I’m waiting for…this better be good), and see that in the short time span I’ve been waiting the line has almost doubled in size, my earlier observation that demand is high and thus the supply must be something good is (somewhat) confirmed. There are other clues to the demand we can gather from the line, such as how impatient or frenzied the people in the line are and the rate of the line’s growth.
The supply in Mr. Levitt’s situation is unknown; the purpose of the line is also unknown. Now a quick history lesson, not too long ago Poland was under communist rule and suffered through logistical problems constantly, such as insufficient supply of necessity items such as food and clean water (as did many communist nations). Under communist rule, and possibly in Steven’s situation, the supply was not known. Thus, everyone has to assume that the supply is not enough to satisfy everyone in the line. Since the true supply is not known, a rational person will assume there is not enough supply to go around, especially considering the apparent high demand as indicated by the long line (or because from past experiences during communist rule, there was never enough supply).
Thus, any reasonably rational person will cut the line as many times as they can in order to increase their chance at getting some of the supply. Having experienced terrible logistics during communist rule, the Poles have simply adapted to getting their share of the supply, by any and all means necessary. If you’d grown up under communist rule, always wondering if you’ll receive your fair share of food, wouldn’t you cut to gain an edge? If you and everyone else in the line believes the supply is rapidly depleting, and especially if it’s a crucial supply, food and water for example, you’d be an idiot to stand idly by while all the cutters get food and water to feed themselves and their family. It’s not just supply and demand, it’s survival of the fittest!
Many of the commenters on Mr. Levitt’s post have also pointed out that the Polish are not alone in their use of cutting; it is a very prevalent practice in much of the world, for example Brazil, China and Italy, and some countries, such as India are just a free for all with nary a line in sight (which makes sense considering the huge population there).
Again, I’m not upset that Steven Levitt called the Polish rude (we’ve been called much worse), but he missed the supply and demand effect here and the effect communism has had on Polish people’s behavior. To Steven’s credit, he does note towards the end of his post that he may have “got the theory backwards. With so many years of shortages, the rewards for becoming an expert line cutter were much greater in Poland than in the U.S. So they did perfect standing in lines — perfection means being able to cut in front of people and feel no guilt.” Still, it seems this note was added as an after-thought just to cover Mr. Levitt in both explanations.
Personally, I think the Polish people have have grown so fond of freedom and are so anti-establishment that they view cutting as a way to express their freedom. So, cut, cut away my fellow country-men; you’ll see me doing the same as much as possible here, it’s a great time-saver!