It’s rather nice of the Bangkok Post to ensure that we get a regular dose of capitalist economics through a biweekly op-ed from the Thailand Development Research Institute, a corporate-funded think tank that can be trusted to think corporately.
A recent contribution by researcher Natcha O-charoen deals with traffic safety. This is in the longstanding professional tradition in economics that since economists were unable to predict (or even explain) the last global financial collapse, i.e. had proved themselves incompetent in their own field, they have earned the right to claim competence in other fields.
And from a researcher with impressive qualifications in the number-crunching side of economics, one’s confidence is not helped by the figures she quotes. Annual road deaths in Thailand in 2011-13 averaged ‘about 22,000’. But the last New Year and Songkran holidays saw these fatalities ‘soar’ (her word) to 478 and 390 respectively.
Now the counting of road accident deaths is in fact a little fuzzy. Media reports count only those who die instantly or very soon after. But there are cases where injuries lead to death after days, weeks or even months. The international practice is to use 30 days as a cut-off.
Khun Natcha’s figures for the holiday periods seem to be taken from the media, so may be
tad on the low side. Her annual figure, however, based on data from multiple sources,
is more likely to be robust.
Now 22,000 deaths a year translates into just over 60 deaths a day. The New Year and Songkran figures are for 7-day periods, where, in the normal run of carnage, we would expect about 420 deaths.
So last New Year’s 478 deaths is something of an increase. But, given the corresponding unquantified increase in road use, festive alcohol consumption, and the blasé Thai attitude of ‘sod you I’m on holiday and not stopping’, this is not perhaps a ‘soaring’ increase. And the 390 for Songkran actually shows a decrease on the regular road anarchy.
But as an economist, Khun Natcha isn’t so much interested in counting corpses as in counting something that econometrists can manipulate in all sorts of clever ways. Like money. But, you may be asking, how can put a price tag on dead bodies?
Ah-ha. Little do you know of the ingenuity of economists.
TDRI went to do research in Tha Luang district in Lopburi and Kaeng Khoi in Saraburi. (And I wonder if the TDRI researchers were aware how apposite their choice of Kaeng Khoi was. The name is a local corruption of ‘raeng khoi’ meaning ‘the vultures are waiting,’ a reference not to the homicidal Mittraphap Highway that it straddles but to an earlier time when attempts to cross the malarial forests that separated the Central Plains from the Khorat Plateau sometimes ended in death.)
TDRI questioned the inhabitants (or ‘locals’ as the intellectually, economically and socially superior Natcha correctly calls them) on their ‘Willingness to Pay’ to reduce road casualties. This yields the nice kind of numbers to which the researchers could apply their extensive foreign-degree expertise.
See, economists have learned to shy away from putting their own monetary value on dead bodies and amputated limbs and such. Irreverent and un-indoctrinated commentators like me tend to pour scorn of their efforts. So they get someone else to do it for them.
So TDRI asked their informants how much they were willing to pay to reduce deaths or injuries on the roads.
This was an interesting question to ask because economics offers an alternative question which would also yield numbers they can play around with but which TDRI seemingly rejected. This is ‘Willingness to Accept’ and asks informants how much compensation they would demand for the same misfortunes.
But the 2 questions are subtly different. The first assumes that one has no automatic or natural right to safe roads and must instead pay for the privilege. The second assumes that there is such a right and compensation is due if that right is violated.
Also, any answer to the first question, willingness to pay, is limited by ability to pay. And if the population that you ask is financially strapped, they won’t be able to afford much, and so the ‘value’ of a life or a whole body will come down. Willingness to accept has no such limitation and typically yields higher monetary values than willingness to pay.
And am I the only one to wonder why the TDRI technocrats assumed no rights and exploited the poverty of their informants to get their data?
But even if the exercise is riddled with illogicality and a lack of respect for rights, what good does it do in the end? Ultimately we all want to end Thailand’s ranking as the world’s second most deadly place for road accidents. When Khun Natcha has carefully added up the ‘waste’ of a year’s road casualties (545 billion baht or 6% of GDP in case you’re interested), what do we do with that?
Well, it seems we use it to ‘raise awareness’.
Because, damn me, no one has any idea that Thailand’s roads are unsafe, do they? Not the government, not the police, not road users, not traffic accident victims, nobody.
But assume, as in TDRI’s fantasy world, that awareness really is the problem and that publicizing make-believe figures will raise it.
Does that mean we won’t have to change driving tests from a sort of fairground act? We won’t have to make the police actually enforce the highway code, instead of using selective bits for shakedowns while they break the law themselves? We won’t have to stop designing roads solely from the point of view of 4-wheeled vehicles when 80% of road deaths involve motorcyclists who might benefit from differently drawn curves and corners?
So we don’t actually have to do anything, right?