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Traffic's Economic Toll Marooned in Christie Bridge Snarl

Governor Chris Christie apologized to New Jersey last week after it was revealed that aides ordered busy commuter highway lanes shut for four days in September to punish a local mayor. The ensuing gridlock paralyzed the town of Fort Lee and, in at least four cases , prevented emergency units from getting to people in need.

The incident has caused moral outrage — for "pettiness and vindictiveness in doses usually relegated to the Facebook pages of Mean Girls," according to Bloomberg View's Francis Wilkinson — and could short circuit Christie's presidential ambitions .

Here's something to consider on the way to work tomorrow: Why is there moral outrage from orchestrated traffic when there's none from normal, everyday traffic caused by car accidents, construction, rush-hour volumes or plain-old bad policy?

Traffic causes anguish and frustration daily for many millions of people around the world, but not scandal. Congestion in the New York region was the fifth worst in the U.S. in the 12 months ending in October, with commuters wasting more than 53 hours each, according to Inrix Inc. , a provider of traffic research.

Congestion wastes economic potential, a point made last week by Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute. He included urban development, and transportation in particular, as one of WRI's stories to watch in 2014 .

"There are many cities in the world where 10 percent of GDP are effectively lost by congestion causing people to sit in cars for hours upon hours," he said.

There are a billion cars in the world today, about four times more than in 1970 and half as many projected for 2030. That's a lot of congestion and, coupled with short-sighted public transportation policy, "the economic loss is huge," Steer said.

Job killer! Help! Somebody do something!

Sitting in cars and losing money doesn't ignite the moral outrage that demands swift justice. We're likely to live through this New Jersey scandal with repercussions for those responsible, but little or none for a fragile transportation system that too often saps work from offices and life from people.

Moral outrage is much more than just anger; it includes heaping disgust, too, according to Jessica Salerno, assistant professor in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Arizona State University, who studies the topic.

Bad transportation policy and incompetence carry relatively little or no offense to sacred values, she said in an email, "and this might explain why you would not expect moral outrage in reaction to traffic from a transportation policy."

"People care about the consequences of a given action (i.e., traffic), but also about whether the act is 'good' or 'bad'," she said.

Evolutionary psychologists are probing why moral outrage needs a bad guy. The rest of us get to struggle with how to fix massive, population-wide problems in which there either is no bad guy or — as with the U.S. federal deficits, climate change, or traffic — we're all the bad guy.

"When there is intention, we attribute evil to it, and can get very upset. This is also why we take so many actions against terrorism, and not so much against global warming," Dan Ariely , the Duke University behavioral economics researcher and author most recently of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, said in an email.

Furor over the Christie episode brings to light one of our finer qualities: The instinct to punish overwhelms the capacity to address wicked problems. It's easier to beat up politicians you find morally repellent, and who might even deserve it, than it is to address the complex failures of massive, systems, like streets and cars.

We could use more of the latter.

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