How Buyer’s Remorse Works
A new USC/Dornsife poll shows that 52% of voters believe HSR should be stopped, a result that the LA Times’ Ralph Vartabedian calls a sign of “buyer’s remorse.”
I actually agree with using that phrase in this context. But it’s important to consider how buyer’s remorse works, which actually explains very well why these poll numbers look the way they do – and why we should not expect those numbers to last.
Imagine, reader, that you are making a big purchase. Maybe a new refrigerator. Your current model is at least 25 years old and has served you well, but lately its age has begun to show. It leaks. There’s a weird funk to it that you just can’t get rid of no matter how much you scrub. The motor is noisy and wakes you up at night. It doesn’t keep food and drink as cool as it used to, and it’s not very energy efficient.
So you decide to buy a new one. You do some research online, read reviews, look at different options. You find a model you like at a price you like, and drive over to the big box store to make a purchase. You take a look at it in person, you’re satisfied it’s what you need. You arrange a date for the store to deliver the new unit and pick up the old one, and you go to the register to pay.
Sometime in the very near future, perhaps as you are standing there at the checkout stand, you’re going to start wondering if this is the right move. Yeah, you convinced yourself you need a new fridge, but now you’re seeing the cost. It’s rung up now. You have paid hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for it. And whether you paid via credit or debit, you know that money is now gone from your hands.
Yet you don’t have the new fridge in your possession. It won’t arrive until Wednesday. And maybe on the drive back home, maybe as you walk in the front door, maybe when you log in to your online banking account and see your balance has changed significantly, buyer’s remorse will set in.
But here’s the thing about buyer’s remorse: it doesn’t last. It exists only in that moment where the costs are tangible to you but the benefits have not yet materialized. Once those benefits become tangible, your remorse quickly fades.
Wednesday arrives and the new fridge is delivered. The old one is wheeled away. In its place is a quiet, clean, cool machine that keeps your beer and your veggies fresh. You’re not assaulted by some unidentifiable funk every time you open the door. It doesn’t leak. And when your next electric bill arrives, you’re pleased to see that it is noticeably lower.
At that point you realize yeah, buying the new fridge was totally the right thing to do. How silly of you that you had a moment of doubt. You could have canceled the transaction before the fridge arrived. And now you realize you’d have been a dumb-ass if you did.
Buyer’s remorse over high speed rail functions in exactly the same way. Right now the costs are tangible, but the benefits aren’t. Construction hasn’t begun yet. People aren’t riding bullet trains, saving money, and fighting global warming. There are no Facebook photos of your friends having a great time on the train. No Vines uploaded to your Twitter stream of people standing near a track filming the train whooshing by at 200 miles an hour. No snarky text messages from your friend in LA saying “I went to House of Nanjing for dinner and was home in time to watch Letterman.”
Of course opposition to HSR is going to have risen by four percentage points since 2008. The media has been full of stories about its costs, its problems, its adjustments, and no tangible benefits have arrived yet. I would not be surprised at all to see a similar polling trend for other megaprojects. When the only thing that is real are the costs and the benefits remain merely a promise, it’s logical for some people to start feeling uncertain and doubtful.
And it is equally logical to proceed as planned. Because those doubts are a product of a specific moment in time, the point between purchase and delivery. It is extremely foolish public policy to quit before construction has even begun just because we’re not far along enough on the timeline to see tangible benefits as well as costs. Take this poll again once the bullet trains are operating and you’ll find that more than 52% – the percentage of yes votes that Proposition 1A received in November 2008 – will support it.
So yes, there’s been a four point swing against HSR between November 2008 and September 2013. That’s actually pretty small, and given how buyer’s remorse works, we know that it won’t last. The fact that the swing is so small is a sign that this project retains most of its supporters and even a relentlessly negative campaign against HSR by the right and the media have failed to erode its support except at the margins.
We can look more closely at this poll to find more good news:
• 65% of respondents agree that the bullet train project will create jobs and help the economy.
• Respondents are very closely split on the question of whether the project is a waste of money, with 51% saying it is and 45% saying it isn’t. That’s a very close number and again suggests that HSR retains substantial support in the state.
Further, there are reasons to question the veracity of this poll:
“Over the last five years, voters have had to tighten their belts, and they feel the government should be doing the same thing,” said David Kanevsky of American Viewpoint, the Republican firm that helped conduct the poll for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and The Times.
Forgive me if I am not convinced that a Republican poll of HSR is going to be completely accurate. I’m not naive either, and I would not be surprised if a Field Poll found numbers similar to this. I know that Californians are split on HSR, especially in this awkward place when money has been obligated but nothing has yet been built. But this poll may well understate the true level of support for HSR.
In addition, some of the respondents clearly have some flawed ideas:
Poll respondent Lara Erman, a Burbank resident, cited those concerns as the basis of her opposition to the project. “Our state and our country are in a lot of trouble right now with the condition of the economy and the job market,” she said. “It would be better served as a private enterprise project.”
This is a very illogical and contradictory position to hold. We are in a lot of trouble with the economy and the job market – which is precisely why right now is the best moment to go spending government money on a project that will create 20,000 jobs in the next few years. Lara Erman, like many other Americans, has been bombarded with messages over the last five years that in a recession, government spending is bad. That message is an outright lie. The best possible time for government to spend billions is during a period of economic weakness.
Bryan Koenig, an aircraft mechanic in Ridgecrest, said he objects to the project mainly because he won’t use it and “the cost is exorbitant.”
I mean no disrespect to the people of Ridgecrest, but it has to be said that HSR is not being built with their community in mind. Ridgecrest is a city of 28,000 located at the junction of Highways 14 and 395 in the far northern Mojave Desert, about 82 miles north of Palmdale. Still, I think Bryan Koenig will be surprised. Once HSR is open, he might just find himself driving down Highway 14 to Palmdale, parking the car and boarding a train that, with a transfer at Union Station, can get him to Dodger Stadium or the beach faster than his car can in the SoCal traffic. Or he might be right and he’ll never use it, but that’s fine, it’s not being built with him in mind.
HSR opponents will cite this poll as more evidence that the project should be stopped, but the reality is that it shows stronger public support than they anticipated at the moment in its timeline when you would expect support to ebb and opposition to peak. Call me Alfred E. Neuman if you must, but I’m not worried about this poll. I’m much more worried about the extremists in the House of Representatives who are about to shut down the US government unless their demands for more destructive austerity are met.