In Buenos Aires today you can see a very good ballet performance for 150 pesos. There is a catch, however. You will probably have to queue up at the box office for the better part of two hours which is, incidentally, about the length of time that the performance lasts. One might say, disregarding the cost of the ticket, that to qualify for a pleasurable experience lasting two hours, one has to endure an uncomfortable experience lasting approximately the same length of time. This is somehow reminiscent of those religions which hold that all pleasure is sinful and that spiritual grace is attained through suffering, and suggests that whoever is responsible for the queue procedure is probably only trying to get as many people into heaven as he can. Even so, I distrust the precise equating of pleasure and pain which seems to be the basis of the system.
      I am inclined therefore to regard queueing, not as a kind of punishment for the ensuing pleasure, but as the expression of somebody's ideas about the need to take culture to the masses. A ridiculously low admission price is fixed to ensure that nobody will be deterred from attending on the grounds of the expense involved. The only people who might be prevented from attending the performance would be those suffering from varicose veins or people whose working hours coincide with the phenomenon of the queue. On second thoughts perhaps we may disregard the cultural needs of people who have varicose veins. In any case it may be that those responsible for the system had the plight of people with varicose veins compassionately in mind and that, by contriving their exclusion in this way, they were anxious to spare them the feelings of envy and mortification that the sight of the flawless legs of the performers might prompt in them.
      Of course, at this point one may ask why it should be necessary to go about things in this complicated way. It would be much simpler, surely, to remove all the seats from the theatre so that the public could do their standing and watching at the same time. This would make for a considerable capital saving, as also on the wear and tear of expensively upholstered seats.
      From another point of view, of course, queueing may be regarded as a kind of job. The purpose of the exercise would be to demonstrate to the world how cultured those Argentines really are, as shown by their willingness to spend two hours in a queue under a broiling summer sun and all for the satisfactions they derive from watching a good performance of Giselle. But if this were the reason it would then be necessary to ensure maximum publicity for the queues, that photographs of them be taken and distributed in Nigeria, Cambodia, Tanzania and other places where, no doubt, they would be enormously appreciated.
      If the queue cannot be usefully exploited in this way, it seems permissible to consider whether it might not be replaced by some other kind of useful activity, such, for example, as collecting garbage in the streets of Buenos Aires, where it is so plentiful these days, and no doubt makes a very bad impression on the people of Nigeria, Cambodia, Tanzania and other places when the matter is brought to their attention. Two hours of garbage-collecting, for example, might be exchanged for tokens having a value equivalent to two hours of queueing. The fact that some people pay others to pick-up for them is irrelevant. It is always possible to find someone-- literally--to "stand-in," for a consideration, of course.
      And if, pursuing this line of thought, we regard queueing as a kind of job, we may have to consider yet another aspect. The lowest paid job under the minimum wage law gives the worker 100 pesos an hour. Consequently if we rate queueing time at a cost of 200 pesos (two hours) the cost of admission to the theatre is 350 pesos, an amount which should be within the financial capacity even of the lowest paid balletomanes. If such a price had the effect of eliminating the queue or at least of reducing it to those interested in getting the best seats (who would have to pay a surcharge) the problem would be solved, with the added advantage that, in the process, the contribution towards the deficit of the theatre hitherto paid by non-enthusiasts of ballet has been reduced. Indeed it might happen that the increase in box office takings would encourage the theatre management to stage more performances thereby contributing to the spread of culture.
      Obviously, the system could be extended to other activities. A reader writing in the correspondence columns of La Prensa recently complained that he had had to pay 1,680 pesos to a professional "stand-in" to enable him to get a railway ticket for a journey to Bariloche. Apparently the writer was grieved not so much on account of the rate per hour he had been charged, a modest 70 pesos, which is reasonable in relation to the minimum wage established by law, but because he suspected that he had been charged too many hours, i.e., 24. But this is the wrong attitude. He should be thankful that he was not charged double rates for overtime and night work, to say nothing of social service obligations on which, of course, he defaulted.
      Since the railways are being progressively crushed under the burden of an astronomical deficit--a burden, incidentally, that would undermine the economy of any country in the world less bountifully endowed by Nature than ours--nobody should complain if they began charging as much as the traffic would bear, in other words, a high enough scale of fares to get rid of the interminable queues which, at this season of the year, are a not very elegant feature of our main line railway stations.

G. L.

(The Review of The River Plate, 9 February 1966, page 185. "G.L." may have stood for George Lint.)

      Letters to the Editor

Railway Economics

      Dear Sir,---- So there was a man who paid 1,680 pesos to a professional "stand-in" to enable him to get a railway ticket for a journey to Bariloche? (THE REVIEW, February 9, "Some Thoughts on Queueing" by G.L.) If I remember rightly, when I left Argentina in September 1965, the first-class fare for a journey to Bariloche was approximately 1,700 pesos, plus 750 for a "sleeper." Accordingly, this man was willing to pay at least (assuming that he wanted to travel in a sleeping car) 167% of the published fare, i.e., the economic value to him of that service is 67% more than it appears to be, judging by the railway's charges and revenue. In other words, the railway deficit, as usually measured, is grossly overstated since, as this man's behaviour proves, the economic value of the railway service is much greater than it appears to be and is much nearer to what it costs to provide it.
      G L correctly concludes from this that the railways should charge what the traffic will bear. This should be nothing new, it has long since been known that during the summer season people queue up in front of the ticket offices and, what is more, that, over and above the inconvenience of queueing, some even bribe railway officials in order to obtain the desired accommodation. It is also well known that throughout the year, not only during a particular season, the number of goods wagons ordered invariably exceeds the number that the railways are able to supply, i.e., that shippers are always willing to pay more than the railways ask them to (it's the law of demand spelled backwards: if at the going price they want more than is available, then they will take exactly the available amount only at a higher price).
      It is no exaggeration to say that G L's ideas on queueing mark an enormous-- though belated--progress over current thinking on the railway problem. To put it simply, what he suggests is nothing more or less than that the Argentines be a little more consistent; that, if we want a market economy, we should apply the law of supply and demand to the railways as well as to other branches of the economy, that whenever demand increases the price be raised. On the other hand, to put it strongly, he makes nonsense of everything that has hitherto been said or published about the railways. If one looks through the maze of discussion that has been going on in the past ten years or so, one finds that it has always been tacitly assumed--in the face of so much evidence to the contrary--that the railway services are worth only the revenue derived from them.
      Let us hope that the progress in realistic thinking initiated by G L will be kept up, that it will be recognised that the all-too-easy concern about the railway deficit as it shows up in the books is grossly exaggerated and misplaced, and that the greatest contribution anybody can make to the solution of the Argentine "railway problem" is to find out what the demand price for passenger and goods services actually is. Yours faithfully.


      Chicago, U.S.A.
      G.L.'s article and our correspondent's letter show how the "true word spoken in jest" not infrequently makes peculiar sense. Ed. RRP.
(The Review of The River Plate, 22 April 1966, page 79.)