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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Of sunroofs & motor scooters”

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My column for the June 27th, 2007, issue of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review was inspired by a trip to Paris [2]. You can read my column beneath the fold.

Of sunroofs & motor scooters

PARIS

Like many people who visit this city, I’m spellbound by it. Paris is gorgeous, sensuous, inspiring and full of history.

On the bus ride from Charles de Gaulle Airport to the hotel at Montparnasse, in the heart of Paris, I looked out on the cars passing just below me. After a few minutes I noticed that very few cars — even very few new cars — had sunroofs. My rough guess is that I saw well over 1,000 cars on that ride (it was during the morning rush hour) and yet I counted only 11 that sport an amenity that today is quite common in America.

I noticed something else about Parisian traffic: It’s full of lots of small motorcycles. Many of these motorcycles were driven by those wearing business suits, obviously on their way to their offices.

So here we have two apparent facts: First, Parisians have fewer cars with sunroofs than do Americans; second, a greater proportion of Parisians commute to work on motorcycles than do Americans.

I call these facts “apparent” because it is important to recognize that casual observation often gives mistaken impressions. But let’s assume here that my impressions are indeed accurate.

How to explain these facts? Like any fact, each of these has many possible explanations. For example, Parisians might simply have no taste for sunroofs on their automobiles. Just as Parisians happen to use the word “eau” for water (while Americans use the word “water”), so, too, do Parisians happen to have no particular desire to let sunshine in through the roofs of their cars.

Or perhaps Paris’s weather is generally worse than weather in America, so that sunroofs in that city are less worthwhile than they are in America.

Or maybe there’s a government regulation or special tax on sunroofs that make them unnecessarily costly.

Any one (or a combination) of these — or other — reasons might explain the relative lack of sunroofs on Parisians’ automobiles. But this economist doesn’t find any of these explanations to be the most plausible.

I suspect that Parisians have fewer sunroofs on their cars because Parisians, on the whole, are less wealthy than are Americans. A sunroof is a luxury. It improves neither the reliability nor the safety of the car. Like an in-dash CD player, however, it makes car rides more enjoyable.

A very poor person buying a car will care most about how reliably the car will get him from point A to point B. He is unlikely to spring for leather seats and a tilt steering wheel, preferring to conserve his scant income for more vital purposes such as fuel, food and decent housing.

But give this same poor person a wealth windfall of $1 million and the likelihood increases that he will buy a fancier car.

The large number of Parisians riding motorcycles makes me more confident in the conclusion I draw from my observation of sunroofs. While Parisians might simply like motorcycles more than Americans like them — or while Paris weather might make motorcycle riding more practical than it is in America, the most plausible explanation for Paris’ relatively large volume of motorcycle traffic is that Parisians are less wealthy than Americans.

Motorcycles cost less than do automobiles. So, in general, the poorer a population, the greater is the proportion of drivers who will commute by motorcycle than by automobile.

So, my casual observations of Paris, combined with some basic economic understanding, give me reasonably strong reason to believe that ordinary Parisians are less wealthy than are ordinary Americans.

You might ask, “So what?” I reply, “Plenty.”

First, sound reasoning requires that different facts be squared compatibly with each other. Someone who would explain Parisians’ lack of sunroofs as caused by poorer weather in Paris than in America could not, then, use Paris weather to explain Parisians’ abundance of motorcycles. Poor weather might well make sunroofs less attractive but it also makes motorcycles less attractive.

Second, to explain observed differences in consumption patterns as being the result of different “tastes” is lazy. I don’t deny that tastes do differ across individuals and across cultures; nor do I deny that differences in tastes result in different patterns of consumption. But no good economist — no good thinker — jumps first to differences in tastes as an explanation for observed differences in behavior patterns.

Other, less-vague explanations are pursued first.

Sound thinking — about economics or any other matter — requires a determination to avoid lazy explanations as well as the humility to understand that even the best explanations might be incorrect.

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