Please Stand in Queue!

I hate queues! The word in itself is hard to spell (for other people, not me), which is probably why they probably prefer to use the word ‘line’ in the US. If you are like me, queues probably weren’t your favourite topic from Computer Science classes back in school. Queuing theory from Mathematics isn’t particularly endearing either. And don’t even get me started about standing in queues. According to not-entirely-credible statistics available online, human beings spend approximately six months of their lives standing in queues, which works out to something like 3 days per year. They’re a glorious waste of time!

In an episode of the Freakonomics podcast titled, ‘What Are You Waiting For?‘ , Steve Landsburg (an economics professor at the University of Rochester and the author of the provocatively titled book, “More Sex is Safer Sex“) brings up the idea that ‘people are not fully accounting for the damage that they’re doing to other people when they make decisions. And likewise when you get into a line.’ You might think you’re doing other folks a favour every time you join a queue whereas you are actually imposing a cost on everyone who joins the queue after you – by forcing them to wait longer. Have you ever thought of this? No! You only think of yourself! I found this thought mind-blowing because of how counter-intuitive it seemed at first.

Indian moms, including my own, have perfected a strategy to game the system at supermarkets. The strategy is deceptively simple – my mom, my sister and I take our positions in different billing counter queues. In the end, the shopping cart is passed to whoever succeeds in reaching the counter first. Crude, but effective. I was under the impression that the underlying principle behind this strategy was, ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket’. After one year at a business school (during which time, I learned the importance of using jargon to look smart) I looked upon it as a form of hedging.

I reckon that people probably spend less time waiting in queues now than ever before due to advancements such as fast food restaurants, ATMs, services like Amazon Prime & BookMyShow as well as the ability to make medical appointments and restaurant reservations online. Waiting can be fun and even profitable sometimes. For instance, I don’t mind waiting for Domino’s, Faasos, Box8, etc. to deliver my food, as I keep reloading the delivery tracker, hoping against hope that they turn up a little late so that I can get a refund! Food always tastes better after a refund, I can vouch.

Back in November-December 2016, following demonetization, queues even helped significantly bring down India’s unemployment rate. People were being hired to stand in queues outside bank branches and ATMs, as reported in this article by the Indian Express. Take that, all you commie libtards! This is how demonetization helped increase our GDP!

You often hear that ‘good things in life are worth waiting for’, which is what Apple fanboys keep telling themselves as they queue outside Apple Stores days in advance. Royal Enfield enthusiasts can probably relate as well. Not to mention middle-class Indians who waited years to get a landline connection back in the eighties.

When I was younger, my father often told me that I ought to have more patience. Being an insufferable pain-in-the-ass even back then, I used to retort, “I don’t plan on becoming a doctor. I don’t need any patients!” (*cue canned laughter*)

I also learned from the Freakonomics podcast that, according to economics, queues are a very inefficient way of allocating scarce resources. A better way would be to let people pay their way out of waiting in line. The highest bidder at any point would be served first. However, this would seem inherently inappropriate for moral reasons. This is why there are waiting lists for organ transplants, instead of auctions. A queue seems fair, because everyone gets served based on the amount of time they are ready to invest in waiting.

To conclude, I’d like to introduce the concept of a last-come, first-served queuing system. It is a queuing system in which, in the words of Landsburg, “Each newcomer comes to the front of the line and pushes everyone else backward. What that means is that if you are more than three or four places back, you have no hope of ever getting a drink because newcomers are going to arrive at some rate. There is going to be some point in the line where it’s hopeless to wait for your drink. And therefore those people will give up, and that’s a good thing.”

“It means the line will never be more than a few people long. The fountain still gets used because the stream of newcomers assures that. And the few people who are willing to wait in line assure that the fountain will be used even at the moments when no newcomer has just arrived. But not many people would be willing to wait in a line like that. And we want people giving up, because we don’t want them wasting their time in lines.”

“Well, you say it’s not fair but the number of people who get served is the same number that would have gotten served under any other system. And you know, you might think, “Well, this way some people never get served at all.” That’s true. But under the current system some people never get served at all, namely the ones who are not willing to wait an hour. The same number of people are being denied service either way. “

“And the biggest one is that if we were to implement this system you would have to have a way of preventing people from leaving the line and then re-entering at the front. It’s got to be only the genuine newcomer who gets the drink, not the person who was waiting in line and got out and ran up to the front. Enforcing that, I think, would be a nightmare.”

I hope this post has piqued your curiosity a little. For more interesting ideas from the world of economics, you can listen to the Freakonomics podcast. It is available online for free and a new episode is uploaded every Thursday. I’d also recommend the various Freakonomics books, authored by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.

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