22 September 2011

The Inevitability of Cycling and Taxes

The billionaire Warren Buffet has made some waves this week by pointing out the absurdity, as he sees it, of the situation whereby he pays significantly less tax than many of his far less wealthy employees. He referred to the notion of "shared sacrifice", which boils down to the idea that those with the most should contribute to society to a similar degree as those with the least.

As you might imagine, the right wingers in the USA have really got their teeth into that one - suggesting to many Americans that they should pay more tax is not so much an anathema as a complete and absolute no-go area. It got me thinking about game theory, which is often used to demonstrate how humans can act as selfish individuals rather than working cooperatively, and be worse off as a result. There are several well described "games" that demonstrate how this works.

Game theory also shows us how the framing of an issue can be important. For instance, in a game involving sacrificing some money to a communal pot, the amount donated was significantly higher when the game was called "The Community Game", compared to how much was donated when the game was titled "The Wall St Game". People acted differently according to how the Game was described.

I thought this made an interesting metaphor for those of us campaigning for decent cycling infrastructure in this country. We all know that a significant challenge will be to persuade car drivers (or the agencies that protect their interests) that they should sacrifice some of their road space for others, with the aim of benefitting society at large. It is likely that motorists would conceive of this sacrifice as a tax on a benefit that they currently enjoy i.e. unfettered access to large swathes of our precious urban realm. It is also possible that they might think as "selfish" individuals by believing these sacrifices would make their journey times longer, whereas it could reasonably be said that it might also reduce journey time by reducing congestion. This is a Game Theory classic.

The lesson here for the campaign about cycling infrastructure is that in order to win the game, we need to make the sure game has been correctly framed in the participants minds. If Warren Buffet and President Obama have begun the process of re-branding tax as a worthy sacrifice, then we could jump on that particular bandwagon and do the same when discussing cycling infrastructure.