Sunday, June 04, 2006

Tragedy of the Howe Commons

The Howe Commons was trashed. The garbage cans were overflowing with lunch litter. The floor had ketchup stains and morsels of soybean burgers. One of the cafeteria workers was emptying a 55-gallon sack of trash out the can. The sack looked like a body had been stuffed into the sack. I was wondering if the bag would rip. The worker regripped and pulled the body of trash out of the can. As she twist tied the plastic sack shut, she said, “Look at this place. It’s a mess. Kids today are just lazy. They won’t pick up after themselves. What are they going to do when there’s no one to pick up after them? What a tragedy.”
William Frank Lloyd, a political economist at Oxford University, commented on the devastation of common grazing grounds over 150 years ago. “Why,” Lloyd asked, “are the cattle on a common so puny and stunted?” The reason is that a resource that is common to all has the tendency to be overused. Farmers in England were acting economically when they used common grazing grounds to the point where their marginal cost was equal to their marginal benefit. Since their cost was nearly zero, the grazing grounds were overused. The same problem that England was experiencing in 1850 is the same problem my coworker was experiencing. The Howe Commons was free to all students so it was overused. The trash that was stuffed into the bags and laid on the floor was an external cost that was imposed on the cafeteria worker.
In 1968, Garrett Hardin described the tendency for a common resource to be overused as the “Tragedy of the Commons.” When a common resource such as the lunch area is nonexcludable but rivalrous in consumption, the resource becomes overused. As in the case of the Howe Commons, the incentive to clean up is minimal. No one owns the area so there is a missing market. If students would have to buy space in the area, they could sell the space or they would have the incentive to keep it clean.
Students today are no different than the farmers 150 years ago. They just need incentives to induce them into keeping a common area clean.