Tony Downs, Economist Who Studied Why People Vote, Dies at 90

He explored democracy, traffic congestion, race relations and bureaucrats through the prism of an economist.,

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Anthony Downs majored in political theory along with international relations at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., but by the time he graduated in 1952 the most enduring lesson he had learned about democracy had come from his fellow students rather than his professors.

A dexterous debater, Mr. Downs was elected president of the Carleton Student Association at the end of his junior year. During his term in office, he delivered on all of his campaign promises. But, as he later wrote, the other 2,000 or so Carls couldn’t have cared less. He concluded that their indifference was completely rational because his platform as president was “mostly irrelevant to their lives.”

That insight into why people vote, and for whom, propelled Mr. Downs toward his doctoral thesis, which became the foundation for the first of his two dozen books, titled “An Economic Theory of Democracy” (1957), and shaped his career as a iconoclastic economist.

He died at 90 on Oct. 2 in Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md. The cause was sepsis, his daughter Katherine Downs said.

Mr. Downs (not Dr. or Professor, he insisted) belied Thomas Carlyle’s classification of economics as the dismal science by applying it to unexpected subjects, like traffic congestion, racial discrimination and rent regulation.

He also applied academic rigor to weaving humor into his speeches. Drawing from his stash of some 200 joke books, he would inject, on average, one witticism into his prepared remarks every six minutes. (He was so precise that before technology consolidated time-keeping functions in a single wristwatch, he wore two extra ones — one to act as a stopwatch and the other as an alarm clock.)

In his work on politics, Mr. Downs concluded that most voters, while not completely self-interested, decide whom to support on the basis of what he called “utility income.” He defined that as voters’ perception of which candidate would best preserve or increase the benefits they received from government.

But Mr. Downs also said that voters make up their minds on the basis of “rational ignorance.” By that he meant that people often vote without taking the time to study the issues or candidates because they doubt that their individual votes will count, and because they have no economic incentive to understand the role of politicians.

“The behavior of voters may be ignorant,” Stanley Kelley Jr., a political science professor at Princeton, wrote in his introduction to Mr. Downs’s “An Economic Theory of Democracy,” “but that is not equivalent to its being irrational.”

Simply put, R = P x B — C. In other words, the rationality of voting (R) equals the perceived probability that a ballot will make a difference (P), multiplied by the benefit of victory by the voter’s preferred candidate (B), minus the costs of voting (C).

Mr. Downs took a somewhat brighter view of candidates and public officials. He wrote that “politicians in the real world sometimes act as they think best for society as a whole even when they know their actions will lose votes” — although, he also noted, most huddle near the center, because most voters are moderate.

That analysis, which was formulated in the 1950s, might seem almost quaint today given the ferocity of party primaries and the chasmic polarization of the electorate ideologically and politically.

Mr. Downs moved away from politics in his books “Stuck in Traffic” (1992) and “Still Stuck in Traffic” (2003), in which he postulated “Downs’s Law,” applying it to roads without tolls: “On urban commuter expressways, peak-hour traffic congestion rises to meet maximum capacity.” He attributed the congestion to what he called “induced demand.”

He argued that the best way to reduce traffic is to impose a fee, toll or other form of congestion pricing during rush-hour, an idea that has gained currency in recent years in congested cities like New York.

Mr. Downs also applied economic theory to matters of racial equity. In “Urban Problems and Prospects” (1970), he warned that tensions between Black and white people would worsen and that labor shortages would encumber the economy unless government guaranteed equal opportunities for employment and eliminated zoning restrictions that inhibit affordable housing. (In New York City, he said, more affordable housing would be built if rent controls were lifted when apartments became vacant.)

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James Anthony Downs was born on Nov. 21, 1930, in Evanston, Ill., and grew up in Park Ridge, Ill. His father, James Chesterfield Downs, founded the Real Estate Research Corporation, a consulting firm. His mother, Florence (Finn) Downs, was a homemaker who translated books into Braille.

After graduating from Carleton, Mr. Downs received his doctorate in economics from Stanford University in 1954.

He served in the Navy as an intelligence officer, joined his father’s consulting company in 1959, taught at the University of Chicago from 1959 to 1962 and was hired in 1963 by the RAND Corporation, where he wrote “Inside Bureaucracy” (1967).

In that book, he identified five categories of bureaucrats, all of whom, he contended, were governed by self-interest: climbers, conservers, zealots, advocates and statesmen.

He moved from Chicago to Washington in 1977 to join the Brookings Institution, where he researched housing and traffic issues. He retired at 82 and lived in McLean, Va.

In 1956, he married Mary Katherine Watson, whom he had met at a high-school prom; she died in 1998. He married Darian Dreyfuss Olsen in 1999. She survives him along with his daughter Katherine as well as two other daughters, Carol Downs and Christine Mann, and two sons, James Jr. and Paul, all from his first marriage; three stepchildren, Howard and Spencer Olsen and Jennifer Yeamans; 13 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Mr. Downs had an abiding commitment to racial justice.

He was a consultant to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, which was chaired by Gov. Otto Kerner Jr. of Illinois. The so-called Kerner Commission reported in 1968 that “white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto.”

“White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it,” the report said.

Mr. Downs wrote a pamphlet in 1970 for the United States Civil Rights Commission which declared that opposition to busing to achieve school integration “is clearly racist in nature” because of the “high proportion of white students in rural areas, suburbs and Catholic big city school systems who have used buses for years to get to school — and still use them — without arousing any such complaints.”

That same year, though, he cautioned a Senate committee that integration could not be achieved until the nation recognized that white resistance was often rational, prompted by fears of increased crime, lowered property values and loss of educational quality. It “is not merely the result of foolish prejudices or immoral selfishness,” he said.

In 1967, Mr. Downs stirred the all-white Commercial Club of Chicago by declaring in a speech that “our entire social structure is fundamentally racist” and “shaped by a pervasive anti-Negro prejudice that influences almost every one of us in this room far more than we care to admit.”

One week later, the club voted to admit its first Black members.

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