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Waiting In Line

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Aug 12, 2010

During August evenings in Nantucket, the lines are long at the Juice Bar. Outside each of two doors is a line stretching along the sidewalk. Once you enter the doors into the shop, you can select among (sort of) 6 lines to get to the counter and order your ice cream.

Analyzing the experience, journalist Anand Giridharas says that forming orderly lines had been equated with “middle class behavior”. In India, traditional lines looked like trees with branches as mini lines sprouted next to the trunk and others cut in. Then, though, with the emergence of a middle class, the acceptance of branches and those who cut in was replaced with orderly single file lines. Similarly, when McDonald’s arrived in Hong Kong, they “introduced queue monitors” to replace the traditional chaos around registers.

Perhaps we can view lines as reflections of democracy and the market. Democracy dictates that we are all equal with the same opportunity cost for our time. The market, instead, implies that those who can pay deserve to go first. I guess whenever we fly, we are choosing between a democratic experience (coach) and the market (first class).  

The Economic Lesson

A line represents a transaction cost. Defined economically, cost means sacrifice. Standing in line, we are sacrificing what we otherwise might have been doing. During the business day, the transaction cost of a line can be high. During a summer vacation, the cost of standing in line at Nantucket’s Juice Bar is minimal.

With lines reflecting the dysfunction of the former Soviet Union, the huge transaction costs helped to speed its demise.

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