This morning I had a great chat with Michael Harrity, one of the Selectmen of Weston. When I used to run the farm out there, he was a big supporter, and we also collaborated to help get the Weston Climate Group going. I always enjoy networking with him about real estate and we inevitably talk about Weston politics, which I actually still enjoy.
The local bagel shop that serves as a de-facto town square. You bump into everyone there, and with Michael, it’s like holding office hours. The topic was the recently rescinded program to have residents pay a fee for each garbage bag they dispose of at the waste transfer facility. Folks were up in arms. It isn’t American. It costs too much. The Town shouldn’t be able to fleece people $2 for a bag that costs less than ten cents. It’s amazing how people will hold onto their impressions without exploring the facts. Lots of energy in the situation, and there’s more to the story, but not for here.
I love exploring the balance between collective and personal responsibility in society. The tragedy of the commons is when common resources are abused because the incremental cost of one party’s added use is less than their benefit. As when you add an extra sheep to a community pasture: the pasture is somewhat diminished but you get a whole extra sheep’s worth of wool and mutton. If a community doesn’t have a good system of feedback to regulate this effect – to pass on the costs to the responsible party – a common resource can be overwhelmed and damaged as all parties pursue their individual goals. Some people find private property rights as a way to ensure feedback. If you and only you own a portion of pasture, you’ll be sure to manage it the best way. Sometimes society has to help people figure this out with various laws and regulations to codify that feedback and help people stay prudent.
Edward Glaeser has a good discussion of this dynamic in today’s Boston Globe. His focus is on highway spending by the federal government. He argues that Washington should not spend billions on highways, but rather, the users of the roads should pay for them. Government money could be better spent to improve communities, improve the economy, and help people who need it most. I agree. Users should pay for services, and in this day and age we actually can use technology to help us assign costs to users of highways – like toll transponders and vehicle mileage inspection calculations.
Glaeser pulls out the nuts & bolts economics citing a paper by one of my old LSE professors, Giles Duranton: building highways does not reduce congestion, and actually increases miles driven and carbon emissions. He goes on describing investment in public transit as also not reducing congestion and automobile use, also empirically proven. I don’t always agree with him, and there are some loose cannons on the deck of his opinion piece, but I’m with him on reigning in federal spending on highways.
He doesn’t take user-responsibility logic to the larger carbon pollution issue. The atmosphere is another common resource that we have abused because we haven’t had good feedback on the results of our using it as a dump for burned carbon. Some would say we are getting the feedback in crazy weather, others will just show you the graph of the parts-per-million. People do make better choices when they have to pay for the results of their actions. Organizing a carbon tax or discharge quotas to give people feedback on their pollution will be a positive step for our society. The more we agree to assign costs to perpetrators, the less we abuse people in the social contract. Responsibility leads to peace and justice, and pleasant neighborly greetings at the bagel shop.