martes, 7 de junio de 2011

The free rider dilemma

There are several types of goods that we humans usually consume. They can be divided into four major categories, goods can be rival or non-rival, they can also be excludable or non-excludable. The typical good is the rival and excludable, for example cookies, if I have a cookie and eat it it means you can't eat it any more. If I have the cookie it means you don't have it. Easy as pie...

But things get more complicated, for example a sunset is a non-rival non-excludable good, if I consume it you can also consume it without it running out. I can't protect you from having access to the sunset so it is non-excludable. Usually you can't make business with this type of good. I love this kind! Roads would fall into this category assuming there is no traffic.

Then you have excludable, non-rival goods, these are interesting, you can only have access to the good if you are member of a "club" but the good does not run out. For example a network of ex-alumni is one example of this type. Going to Columbia university gives you access to an amazing network of people you probably would not be able to access if you did not study there.

And then...

The big problem. Goods that cannot be excluded but that are rival. The common goods. These goods are available to every one but they run out if used in excess. For example: fisheries, pastures, forests, rain or the atmosphere. The problem is that since everyone owns the ressource and it runs out, the incentive in a world of game theory (individualistic, maximizing profit type) the best response is to consume as much as you can. If you don't cut that tree today someone else will and leave you with reduced profit. This idea is recognized by Garret Hardin in his 1968 article "The tragedy of the commons". Climate Change is the perfect example, we share the atmosphere, we release CO2, if I limit my emissions I affect my growth and other countries will still emit, maintain their growth and affect my climate. The "rational" response is to not reduce emissions.

UNDP Intern House. AKA Big Brother Uganda

I will be sharing the UNDP intern house with 7 other people and we are sharing quite a large amount of goods. Water, gas, a bathroom, the fridge, cleaning. The first day in the house I asked the veterans (who usually due to their time in the house have more experience and rights than the rest of us: better rooms, better bed nets, better furniture) what the rules of the house were. The current chief of the house told me there where not rules, everyone just did what he thought would be more adequate, so I asked if they did not fear that the showering schedule would be a problem, or if the limited amounts of water wouldn't be rapidly exhausted if we did not set some limits. Also who would clean the bathroom? The answer is that they did not had any problems before.

I will exaggerate the situation for the purposes of this blog, anyhow if you read this far you are used to my style of writing and now I tend to exaggerate and play devil's advocate.

As a result for the past few days we are all rushing to the toilet from 6:30 to 7:30 to see if we can get the next spot under the shower. A bit inefficient... But what has started to worry me is the water availability, before we came the house had an average of 4 interns at any time, now we are 8. The first day I did the effort of showering in three minutes, turn the water off to put soap and shampoo and tried to wash the dishes with as little water as I could. But I have been observing the water practices of the others and realize that unless we set rules it is not worth to make such sacrifices. So today I took a nice shower of 4 minutes without turning the water to soap and shampoo myself.

This afternoon we ran out of water... A disaster in a toilet for 8 people, especially if it lasts more than a couple of hours. We could not cook, we had to eat out tonight. When we were coming back one of the guys that has been longer in the house mentioned we might want to get a bigger tank of water...

Micro tank of water.
I guess you could either see our situation as anarchy or maybe community management of resources, in any case the free rider threat looms over us now. I have been leaving with roommates for the past four years and up to now it has worked quite fine. But 8 people in the Big Brother house might be a little bit too much for my non-planning strategy. Two experiments under way:
1- Left my toothpaste in the bathroom - let's see if someone else finds it convenient to use it instead of buying their own.
2- I am really intrigued to see who will be the first to clean the bathroom and his motivations to it, as our cleaning/working for others limits are reached by each one of us, I wonder how long will pass until we make a bathroom cleaning schedule. Until then I will be analyzing the free rider dilemma on this aspect.

I am a terrible cook, so I have offered to do the dishes as often as needed (I am not the only free rider in the cooking sector), I hope that my wonderful cook colleagues consider my specialization useful (a specialty that is very hard to defend, computers, GIS and economics are quite useless in this situation, and black humor has little value also).

Oh! The water is back, I hope I can use it, I have to run... Drank too much beer (that it seems we never run out :))

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