Friday, August 10, 2007

The great escape

Narrowly skirting disaster can be exhilarating.

Okay, let's be a bit less hyperbolic here. Narrowly skirting major inconvenience, annoyance, discomfort, and waste of time can leave one with a feeling of relief and release.

Yesterday afternoon I headed to LaGuardia Airport to take the 5 pm shuttle to Washington DC, where I was planning to attend a meeting early this morning. Economists at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) are doing a whole lot of interesting research projects that are funded by the Social Security Administration, so they have a meeting where outside commentators, including several prominent law profs who share my interest in Social Security, give their thoughts and suggestions about the list of new research proposals that are being funded. Many on the list were quite interesting - e.g., Kent Smetters has a very intriguing one on the political economy of Social Security privatization and pre-funding around the world (not to suggest that the other proposals are less interesting).

Anyway, I was supposed to be at the outside commentators' meeting early this morning, but when I got to the airport last night, I realized that I was looking at many, many hours of delay. Best estimate was that we would board an hour late, sit on the runway for 2-3 hours waiting in line, and then POSSIBLY actually fly to D.C., which I gather was racked by storms.

I was discussing this with an English bloke who was waiting for the same flight but had heard more about what was happening, and who was unhappy because it looked like he was going to miss a Squeeze concert (I saw Squeeze in NYC last Friday but haven't posted about it). "You're screwed," he said amiably, but I realized I actually wasn't. I could simply go home.

How often, when you run into one of those awful travel days at the airport that any regular traveler has from time to time, can you simply check out? As in, not wait at the airport, not try to get to the train station, not try to find a hotel, but simply declare defeat (or victory) and leave. Never when you're on the road, and usually not even when you are trying to leave home. The stakes are often higher, e.g., a meeting you really have to be at, or a conference where you're presenting a paper. But this time I could simply say that I wasn't going to be there - others would anyway, and I could still participate in the meeting by phone.

So I had a pleasant evening at home with The Fam, did the meeting by phone early this morning, and am now idly wondering, as I type at my desk, what exactly I would be going through if at this moment I were trying to return from DC to NYC on the shuttle. In New York it's been raining all morning.

It's all a matter of your baseline. A pointless roundtrip to the airport may seem costly compared to not going in the first place. But it means one got off lightly indeed, compared to going through one (or perhaps more likely two) of those horrible, endless travel days spent sitting at the airport or in a parked plane.

Now that I've learned how to pick the cheery baseline, perhaps I should be making long-term federal budget projections.

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