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The AirTran subsidy and its unseen effects

Writing from Natchez, Mississippi

In a June 16, 2006 column, Wichita Eagle editorial writer Rhonda Holman again congratulates local and state government for its success in renewing the AirTran subsidy, and for getting the entire state of Kansas to help for it.

We should take a moment to understand, however, that while the allure of the subsidy is undeniable, it may eventually extract a high price on Wichita. Currently, the legacy airlines provide service to Wichita and other small markets partly because they feel a duty to provide comprehensive, nationwide service. But that may be changing. In an article titled “Major Airlines Fuel a Recovery By Grounding Unprofitable Flights” from the June 5, 2006 Wall Street Journal, we learn that this may change:

The big carriers, which for decades have doggedly pursued market share at any cost, now are focusing just as aggressively on the profitability of each route and flight.

The so-called legacy carriers — those like American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, with big pension and other obligations that predate the industry’s deregulation in 1978 — have abandoned many of the tactics that have led to their cyclical weakness. They are increasingly unwilling to fly half-empty aircraft to stay competitive on a given route just for the sake of feeding their nationwide networks.

As I have written before, if AirTran — one of the newer airlines without the baggage of high costs that plague the legacy airlines — can’t earn a profit on its service to Wichita, it may be that other airlines are not, either. This article tells us that we may be in danger of losing the service of the legacy airlines. And, as I have written earlier, there are a great many destinations you can’t get to on AirTran.

(The same article also tells us that during much of the time of the subsidy, airfares were falling nationwide anyway: “… the Air Travel Price Index, a quarterly measure of changes in airfares, rose 9.1% in the fourth quarter of last year from a five-year low a year earlier.” So we might have had lower fares even without the subsidy. Of course, we can’t know that, just as subsidy advocates can’t know how much we’ve saved from the subsidy, no matter what they may say.)

Our local government leaders simply do not have the knowledge needed to successfully run a planned economy, which, in essence, is what they are doing when they apply price controls to the airfare market in Wichita. That’s right. The subsidy is a form of price controls. After all, if the subsidy didn’t serve to reduce the price of airfare, what would be its reason for existence?

No government has ever been able successfully impose price controls without the people suffering harmful consequences. As economist Thomas Sowell wrote in a 2005 column:

Prices are perhaps the most misunderstood thing in economics. Whenever prices are “too high” — whether these are prices of medicines or of gasoline or all sorts of other things — many people think the answer is for the government to force those prices down.

It so happens there is a history of price controls and their consequences in countries around the world, going back literally thousands of years. But most people who advocate price controls are as unaware of, and uninterested in, that history as I was in the law of gravity.

Prices are not just arbitrary numbers plucked out of the air or numbers dependent on whether sellers are “greedy” or not. In the competition of the marketplace, prices are signals that convey underlying realities about relative scarcities and relative costs of production.

Those underlying realities are not changed in the slightest by price controls. You might as well try to deal with someone’s fever by putting the thermometer in cold water to lower the reading.

Municipal transit used to be privately owned in many cities, until local politicians’ control of fares kept those fares too low to buy and maintain buses and trolleys, and replace them as they wore out. The costs of doing these things were not reduced in the slightest by refusing to let the fares cover those costs.

All that happened was that municipal transit services deteriorated and taxpayers ended up paying through the nose as city governments took over from transit companies that they had driven out of business — and government usually did a worse job.

The immediate effect of the subsidy is a drop in airfares. The long-term effects, the effects that we can’t really see right now (even though the number of daily flights to and from Wichita has decreased in the last year) are unknown, but are likely to be quite bad for our town. These unseen effects of a policy are important, and, being unseen, are hard to spot, even if you’re looking. Frederic Bastiat, in his pamphlet titled “That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen” http://bastiat.org/en/twisatwins.html said this:

Between a good and a bad economist this cons
titutes the whole difference — the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee. Now this difference is enormous, for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favourable, the ultimate consequences are fatal, and the converse. Hence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come, — at the risk of a small present evil.

Henry Hazlitt writes of the fallacy of unseen effects, but realizes they are often obfuscated by “the special pleading of selfish interests.”

Economics is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man. This is no accident. The inherent difficulties of the subject would be great enough in any case, but they are multiplied a thousandfold by a factor that is insignificant in, say, physics, mathematics or medicine — the special pleading of selfish interests. While every group has certain economic interests identical with those of all groups, every group has also, as we shall see, interests antagonistic to those of all other groups. While certain public policies would in the long run benefit everybody, other policies would benefit one group only at the expense of all other groups. The group that would benefit by such policies, having such a direct interest in them, will argue for then plausibly and persistently. It will hire the best buyable minds to devote their whole time to presenting its case. And it will finally either convince the general public that its case is sound, or so befuddle it that clear thinking on the subject becomes next to impossible.

In addition to these endless pleadings of self-interest, there is a second main factor that spawns new economic fallacies every day. This is the persistent tendency of men to see only the immediate effects of a given policy, or its effects only on a special group, and to neglect to inquire what the long-run effects of that policy will be not only on that special group but on all groups. It is the fallacy of overlooking secondary consequences.

We must hope that the legacy airlines choose to continue their service to and from Wichita, in spite of our government’s action.

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