Problems for Any Future Progress: The Escalator Problem

Escalators are great and efficient, and they can help you get up stairs almost twice as fast! Unless, like almost everyone, you stand on them, in which case they are slightly slower than climbing the stairs, and also they are more expensive to install and maintain than stairs, and also you got no exercise today.

I’m not a fool, and I know that some people need escalators. Eliminating escalators would make the subway inaccessible to plenty of riders, and a hardship for many more. The point is that many people who could easily take the stairs coast their way up an escalator instead, and if you thought it happens a lot in New York, try going to another city.

But the actual point is not about escalators, but that any time you make things easier, a good percentage of the population puts their feet up and coasts.

This is nothing new. King Sihanouk (of Cambodia) noted that when agricultural consultants taught his people better farming techniques, they didn’t grow more crops — they grew the same amount of crops and took longer vacations. Max Weber makes this a central point in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: as farming techniques improved, Protestant, specifically Calvinist, countries produced more. Everyone else just coasted.

If your goal is to create more leisure time, then this is not a problem. Similarly, if you’re going to build twenty-story walk-ups, escalators are going to be key. But if your goal is to invest in technique or infrastructure to increase productivity, then every person you see standing idly on the escalator — not the pregnant lady, not foot-in-a-cast, not gramps; all the other people — is plotting against you.

Sometimes you hear someone say, “Give the poor welfare and you just make them lazy.” You may respond that this is unfair, and much of the time you’re right; even a heartless pragmatist would acknowledge that it makes sense to invest in an unfortunate segment of the population in order to make people into productive citizens later on.

Unless that population chooses to stand on the escalator.

As we’ve already noted, some people need to stand on the escalator. I’ve been in this position myself, with an injured foot or an illness. And some days I’m just tired, or lazy. And if enough people are tired or lazy, the escalator clogs up and no one can walk at all. We are all borne along, by someone else’s effort, at a steady and immutable rate.

I don’t have a solution to this problem, but it’s still a problem. In fact, it’s called the escalator problem.

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