Market Failure 4: Collective Action Problems (Tragedies and Catch 22s)

“From now on I’m thinking only of me.”
Major Danby replied indulgently with a superior smile: “But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way.”
“Then,” said Yossarian, “I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?”

Joseph Heller, Catch 22

In Part One, I extolled the virtues of the market as a coordination tool. It is very hard to get a large number of people to work together on the same problem. Any organization with a large number of people will inevitably have a significant fraction of its staff whose sole function is to make sure everyone else is doing what they should be. The market avoids this need by bundling a signal with an incentive – the price both tells you what you should do and gives you an incentive to do it. This is the essence of Adam Smith’s famous / infamous metaphor of the Invisible Hand.

So far, I have discussed what happens when the price leaves out a crucial piece of information, or what happens when the market cannot adjust to a given signal. But there can be problems on the incentive side too. Sometimes the invisible hand points people in the wrong direction as far as collective wellbeing is concerned. These situations are called collective action problems.

Often the best way to talk about collective action problems is to use game theory, which models the decisions of individual agents to figure out how a group of rational, self-interested agents would act. Without question the most famous game in game theory is the prisoner’s dilemma, but while it is a collective action problem, for our purposes I’m going to use a different game: the public good game.

The textbook version has 4 players, each of whom makes a simultaneous decision to commit up to 5 units of resources to a common pool. The total contributions to the pool are doubled and then split evenly between the players regardless of how they contributed. The payoff for each player is the amount they keep for themselves, plus half of the total contributions to the total pool. The total payoff for all players (which is the measure of overall social welfare) is the total amount each player kept for themselves plus double what is contributed into the total pool.

What this means is that the players are collectively better off if all 4 players put all their resources in, but each player does best by keeping their resources to themselves and benefiting from the contributions of the other players. The problem is that if everyone thinks that way, then no one contributes. So while the socially optimum behavior is for each player to contribute 5 units and receive a payoff of 10 (total social payoff of 40), the equilibrium for the game is for each player to contribute nothing and receive a payoff of 5 (total social payoff of 20). In other words, in this game following incentives cut everyone’s wellbeing in half.

While the public good game is not particularly realistic, introducing real world considerations doesn’t make the problem go away. While people who play this game for real don’t hoard all their resources and do contribute something to the common pool, they don’t contribute as much as is optimal. Adding more people to the game makes it worse – as the number of players goes up, the average contribution goes down. This is especially unfortunate since collective action problems in the real world can involve thousands or millions of people, not just four.

The key characteristic that makes this game go wrong is that there is a disconnect between the allocation of benefits and costs. In normal market transactions the benefits follow the costs. If you buy an apple, you pay the cost of the apple and receive the benefits of the apple. If you don’t buy it, you get no benefit and pay no cost. But if a large number of strangers were to all club in together and buy apples, then each buyer may decide that it won’t matter if they chip in a little less. After all, there’ll still be plenty of apples to go around, right? And if you think everyone thinks that way then of course you’re not going to contribute much.

This is not merely a blackboard curiosity – there are goods whose benefits are diffuse even when their costs are not. We call these goods public goods because the public nature of their benefits makes it very difficult for the market to create them in the socially optimal quantity. The key characteristics of a public good are that it is non-rival (adding extra consumers doesn’t use up the good) and non-excludable (you can’t stop people using the good). A good example is street lighting. One more person on the street doesn’t increase the cost of providing the lighting, and you can’t stop people from benefiting from the lighting even if they didn’t help pay for it. Perhaps on a small street a sense of community feeling (and informal social pressure) would be enough to get the residents to pay for street lighting, but the more street users there are, and the less cohesive a community they are, the less money each resident will be willing to pay. On a larger scale, goods like a justice system, military defense, and some public health interventions would qualify as public goods.

This may be a good point for a quick digression on terminology. The definition above is the policy economics definition of public good, but this is not necessarily how the word is used by the general public. In my experience, non-economists use the term public good in up to three ways:

  1. The same way economists use it.
  2. To suggest that society is better off if more of a good is consumed or produced, without the good being non-rival or non-excludable. Economists would call this a positive externality, which we covered in part 2.
  3. To suggest that people themselves would be better off if they consumed more of a good. This could be an alleged case of irrational behaviour (which we’ll cover in Part 6) or a belief that there are higher-order preferences that should be prioritised over market decisions. The normal economics term for this is a merit good, and it may not reflect a market failure at all.

While ultimately you use can use whatever labelling system you want, I prefer the way economists label these phenomena because they are actually different things. When someone calls something a public good it can be hard to work out exactly why they think government intervention is called for and since the proper intervention is different in each case, it’s very hard to engage with proposals backed by vaguely-worded policy arguments. Worse, sometimes people don’t realise that there are potentially three different phenomena at play here, which leads to the policy arguments themselves being fundamentally confused.

For public goods the prescription is public funding (though not necessarily public production). By collecting revenue through involuntary taxation and purchasing the public good directly, a government can defeat the coordination problem and deliver a socially optimal amount of public goods. Note however the word “can” in that last sentence. There is no guarantee a government will automatically reach a socially-optimal amount of the good as it doesn’t have access to the feedback mechanism of market pricing. Governments should carefully consider how much of a public good they should provide and try to account for the preferences of voters, as well as their own ability to deliver the service. Also, governments should think about what aspects of a particular good are actually public goods. A vaccination campaign and emergency medicine are both healthcare, but only the first has a public good quality to it. Also, public goods whose benefits are limited to small, cohesive communities may not require any government intervention.

The other major type of coordination problem is the public good game in reverse – where benefits are private, but costs are shared across the community. Consider a lake that has fish living in it. If too many fish are caught, the fish population will dwindle, harming future yields for everyone who fixes the lake. However, each fish caught is only of direct benefit to the one who catches it. This gives fishers an incentive to overfish. If one entity owned the lake, then they would have an incentive to control fishing so as to maximize the value of their asset, but without some entity acting as a gatekeeper, the fishery is at risk of being depleted.

This problem is most commonly referred to as the tragedy of the commons, after William Forster Lloyd’s paper that first identified it. But this is not actually a very good description. Aside from being a trifle melodramatic, common ownership is not actually the problem here. As political scientist and economics Nobellist Elinor Ostrom has shown, there are any number of ways common ownership can manage a depleteable resource effectively through traditions and social norms that limit individual extraction and prevent entrants who do not abide by those norms. For another thing, corporations are a kind of common ownership, and they can also be used to prevent overuse. The real problem is when anyone can take whatever they want from the resource, and for this reason the common academic term for the problem these days is the open-access problem.

As the problem is open access, the solution is to restrict access. This can be achieved through many ways – licensing restrictions are a common type of solution, but a lot of these are not particularly smart. Equipment or season-length restrictions can turn into an arms-race between regulators and the regulated with farcical results. By contrast, a tradeable quota system (such as New Zealand’s Individual Transferable Quota system) turns the right to use the asset into a valuable property like any other. This ensures that extraction will tend to be done by those who can extract the resource most efficiently, as they will be able to pay the highest prices for quotas.

Another solution would be collective management. For a localized resource like an aquifer, set up a body to own and control the resource. The body can be controlled by the people with a claim to the resource. By imposing rules that are binding on all users, the coordination problem can be overcome.

Our next part will be on the limits of peoples’ knowledge, and the implications for market decision-making. BYO lemons.


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James is a government policy analyst, and lives in Wellington, New Zealand. His interests including wargaming, computer gaming (especially RPGs and strategy games), Dungeons & Dragons and scepticism. No part of any of his posts or comments should be construed as the position of any part of the New Zealand government, or indeed any agency he may be associated with.

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67 thoughts on “Market Failure 4: Collective Action Problems (Tragedies and Catch 22s)

  1. I’m confused. If in the Public Good Game the resource contributed are doubled, then why are there any common resources to distribute when none of the players contribute any of their resources? Or are there 20 common resources to be distributed no matter what?

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    • In that case the “payoff of 5” that the players receive is their starting 5 resources out of which they contributed no resources to the common pool. Think of “payoff” as being the total resources they have on hand at the end of the game rather than what they get back from putting into the pool.

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      • What North said. If no one contributes to the common good, everyone still gets to take home what they started off with: 5 unites each.

        It’s worth looking at the example where one person does choose to contribute everything to the common good. Then, hier five is doubled to 10 and that 10 is then redistributed across all players including him. So, her take is then 10/4 = 2.5. The other players meanwhile have the 5 they started off with, and they get the 2.5 from the publicly-minded person. So, they go home with 7.5. So, the person who did the “right” thing for the group is worse off than everyone else and worse off than if she had just held on to her 5 to begin with.

        That Catch-22 James leads off with can’t be topped.

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        • I think it’s a failure of the writing. Everyone starts with 5, if nobody contributes, everyone ends with 5, so there is no profit. In the equilibrium of the game everyone has 5, nobody contributes, and everyone’s profit is 0. If only 1 person contributes 1 to the pool, then 3 people get a 0.5 profit and the person who contributed takes an 0.5 loss from starting position.

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          • Yes, sorry I should have been clearer on the definitions. When this game is studied in t he lab, the 5 units of currency are provided by the researchers, so any money the players have at the end is a net plus. If you were studying the situation when each player is paying out of their own pocket, you’d use a different baseline.

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          • I don’t doubt this. I just prefer the problems with a central roll over the problems with a privatizing act of Enclosure that benefits the already rich and capital-heavy.

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            • More seriously, I guess it depends on what you mean by central role. If we’re talking something like a pure (or approaching pure) command economy, then I’d say even a series of private Enclosure Acts is better, although still unjust. If we’re talking about coordinating use rights or imposing quotas, etc.–which I presume is close to what you actually meant–I’m more on board. But whether the optimal locus for the role is “central” or more “local” might depend on the issue or the resource at stake.

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          • Agreed, I always come at it from an Eastern Canadian background. Generally we witnessed laisse faire economics annihilate the eastern fisheries with government taking a more interventionist position only at a very late juncture. With some commons the resource is so vast that a state makes the most economic sense for enforcing quotas or restrictions. For a private entity to try and claim, apportion and enforce ownership rights over the grand banks fisheries would be flat out uneconomical. Tunas are busy merrily swimming down the path to commercial extinction for basically the same reasons as much of their habitat lies in international waters; a true stateless environment.

            So yeah I think the state has an important role in preventing the tragedy of the commons. But I grant that without market feedback mechanisms they’re always going to be chunkier and less “efficient”.

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      • From the OP:
        Equipment or season-length restrictions can turn into an arms-race between regulators and the regulated with farcical results.

        This is how sport hunting & fishing is done across the country & elsewhere. Seems to work well enough, so I’m curious of the farce aspect.

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        • I think your question answers itself. “Sport” fishing doesn’t adhere to the same economic laws because it’s functionally a service or an experience industry rather than a resource extraction industry. The sports fisherman’s marginal utility is not directly connected to the number of fish they collect* the way a commercial fisherman’s is.

          *I mean if they don’t catch any fish they’re going to be pissed, but after they’ve caught a certain relatively modest number they’re not getting a lot more enjoyment or benefit.

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          • Sport fishing doesn’t have to ban highly technological rods or gear, because the sport fisher is still not trying to take all the fish in the pond. Commercial fishing needs to ban things like drift nets because otherwise one person can come in and take up not just 100% of the fish stock but a lot of endangered species and other bycatch. That does immense ecological damage.

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        • I remover hearing of a commercial fishery (I think was in Alaska) where fishing was time limited. Fishers responded by investing in bigger boats, so the season was further shortened. The whole thing ended in a one-day fishing season.

          Sport hunting / fishing tends to have a lower impact on the resource, and equipment arms races are less likely to occur with hobbyists. Also, there can be other reason for imposing a limited seasons, like protecting juvenile animals from hunters.

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          • The sane response in that situation would be catch limitations attached to the license and allotted from an overall pool of how much it was deemed safe to take from the water. I would hazard a guess that the fishery in question didn’t have licensing limitations and allowed a functionally unlimited number of people to participate in the fishing season for some reason.

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  2. James,

    Would I be wrong to say that the English Acts of Enclosure were early attempts at trying to forestall the Tragedy of the Commons?
    They also had the effect of taking away game and farming land from the people and giving it to the already wealthy and landed aristocracy.
    How do you avoid the Tragedy of the Commons without also enriching the already rich?

    Do you see the same issue with when biodiverse ecologies are replaced with monocultures because of market demand? For example,
    rain forests becoming just palm trees because of the unending market demand for palm oil. How do you prevent private companies
    from taking their land and turning into monocultures? Wouldn’t you need “common land”* to encourage biodiversity?

    *I consider a public/state park to be a variant of common land.

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    • Isn’t state ownership different from being in the commons? After all, when a park is in the commons, no one can tell anyone to get out or not dig up the grass etc. But when the state owns it, they can close the park for maintenance, or tell people to stay off certain patches of grass or not pee in the lake etc. The ability to exclude is an important feature and what remains is divvying up those exclusion rights. Depending on how we want things to work out, and depending on what the situation on the ground is, the set of people who are said to own something can be larger or smaller.

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        • In theory, you could just allocate the resource randomly. Or give it to the poorest of your society as a form of welfare. Once a single owner is responsible for it, the problem goes away, regardless of how it ended up in the hands of that owner.

          One example is water in California. We have an oddball way of allocating it by historical accident which currently makes no sense, but it if turned out to be easy to trade water credits (within the limits of water transportability, of course), that initial stupid allocation doesn’t affect the ultimate efficiency of the allocation. If you have a huge water credit and don’t need all of it, you just sell it and it ends up somewhere where it can be put to better use.

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            • I’ve suggested that instead of carbon cap and trade, what we should do is divide up the amount of carbon we’re willing to put in the air by every single adult citizen, and then let them indicate on their taxes if they want it auctioned by the government the next year, and they get the money back on their taxes that year.

              Or, alternately, they can keep ‘their’ allowed carbon emissions(1), and get a certificate back with their tax refund saying they’re keeping theirs.

              It gets even more interesting if environmental groups start *buying* those certificates. Not via the auction system, although obviously they could do that already…but if the auction was constantly giving, say, ~$50 a person-unit, the Sierra Club might offer instead, for example, a year membership and a tote bag if you give them your carbon emission permission, which they will do nothing with. (Think of it sorta as non-profits offering a lower bid, to get people who might not be willing to get *nothing* for their carbon emissions.)

              1) Please note this would have nothing to do with the actual amount of carbon *people* emit, which generally is not regulated.

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    • One of the reasons why I’m not keen on “Tragedy of the Commons” as a name for Open Access problems. Common ownership isn’t really the problem.

      Consider the issue of an overused village common. Enclosing it and giving it to a wealthy landowner certainly fixes the inefficiency, but it may not be to your tastes from a distributional standpoint.

      Other alternative include:
      1) Enclose and auction off the commons and giving the proceeds to the villagers who used the common.
      2) Enclose the common and transfer it to a newly-formed corporation. The villagers who use the commons would be given equal shares in the corporation.
      3) Introduce a permit system restricting on how much each family can use the commons.
      4) Institute a village council empowered to restrict use of the commons to a sustainable level.
      5) The villagers could establish norms as to what an appropriate use of the commons is, and use shaming or other social pressure on those who abuse the commons.

      You’ll note that some of these solutions involve common property and some don’t, but all of them close access to the commons in some way.

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  3. Lots of public goods are rivalrous. Off the top of my head: roads, schools (also excludable), parks (also excludable), libraries (ditto).

    Do public utilities provide public goods? Are things like water, power, and sewer just monopoly goods (that can have enormous externalities) or are they properly conceived of as public goods?

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    • “Public good” has a specific technical meaning, namely that it be neither excludable nor rivalrous. It’s not just another way to say “Thing I want the government to pay for.”

      Also, note that private roads, schools, parks, and libraries do exist, and function quite well.

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      • Yes. All these things exist and some do function quite well. That does not negate the need or morality/ethics and good for
        public schools, public libraries, public roads, public parks, etc.

        There are also public schools, libraries, roads, parks that exist and function quite well and are major attractions and destinations such as the New York Public Library, Central Park, Golden Gate Park, Cal, UCLA, UVA, UWashington, etc.

        There is a small number of radicals that would ban all private schools and the like. Liberals are merely arguing that there is
        good in also having public schools, libraries, and parks.

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        • That does not negate the need or morality/ethics and good for
          public schools, public libraries, public roads, public parks, etc.

          That’s not a real thing.

          I know you loves you some redistribution, so I’m not going to argue that, but that’s entirely orthogonal to the question of how these things are provided. There really is no compelling reason to have them provided directly by government. Government gives people money/vouchers to buy privately provided food, clothes, medical care, housing, and so on and so forth, and no one really questions this, because that’s the way it’s always been done.

          But since we have a long history of having government provide education directly, then to a certain kind of person it’s unthinkable that we should do it any other way. Except at the university level. There it’s okay. Again, because that’s how we’ve always done it.

          There are also public schools, libraries, roads, parks that exist and function quite well and are major attractions and destinations such as the New York Public Library, Central Park, Golden Gate Park, Cal, UCLA, UVA, UWashington, etc.

          That’s all well and good, but totally irrelevant to the point at hand, which is that these things are not public goods. The fact that government provides something does not make it a public good.

          Technically private provision does not make something not a public good—they can be provided on a philanthropic basis, for example—but in general the fact that something can be provided privately and supported by usage fees is a sign that it’s probably not a public good.

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          • Ah, turning liberals into conservatives! What a great rhetorical tool.

            Yes, “the way thing’s have always been done” is not great logic some of the time but that doesn’t mean it is always bad logic or thought. There could be very good reasons why something was always done a particular way. In this
            case, public provided parks, libraries, schools, etc. do provide the most universal access.

            They are also relatively historically recent in my opinion.

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      • If being non-rivalrous is an essential element of public goods, then there are very few public goods.

        For example, the judicial system is both rivalrous (courtroom time has to be allocated somehow) and excludable (there exist mandatory private judiciaries, eg arbitration).

        Is a police force rivalrous? Seems to me that it is — patrolling one neighborhood deprives the other neighborhood of the benefits of the patrol.

        Perhaps it is useful to have a definition of goods in which the sole qualifying good is national defense. But I have not been persuaded.

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        • Innovation is a public good (copyright and patents make it excludable, although it becomes public again when it enters the public domain). In-the-clear broadcast media is a public good, although encryption can make it rivalrous. Clean air is a public good. The classic example is a lighthouse.

          Also, some goods have a public-good component without being completely public. Vaccines, for example, are private goods, but the herd immunity that they create is a public good.

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          • Just for the sake of argument,

            IP protection around invention is an exception so large as to swallow the rule. There is a time value to invention and a lot of people think that 20 years is way too long.

            Broadcast media is very much rivalrous, or FCC auctions wouldn’t be necessary.

            Air that is so clean (and water so pure) that no one is sickened appears to fit the definition of public good (and justify the existence of the EPA!), but do we risk getting into definitional fights over the use of the commons vs the provision of public goods, as opposed to debating the science?

            My very limited point, fwiw, is that I think that imposing such a strict definition on public good may impede rather than promote useful conversation.

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            • IP protection around invention is an exception so large as to swallow the rule. There is a time value to invention and a lot of people think that 20 years is way too long.

              Yes?

              Innovation is a public good (neither excludable nor rivalrous), so we create the IP system to make it temporarily excludable. This supplements an application of the solution proposed by the OP, which is government funding of innovation via, for example, the NSF.

              Basically, following the warning in the OP about governments not knowing exactly what the optimal solution to the problem is, we make some of what would have been a public good into a market good. The principal is sound, although the practice is a bit screwed up because times have changed and regulations have been captured since the system was set up.

              Also, broadcast media is not rivalrous. Anyone can pick up your signal. However, it is excludable, because any band you broadcast on will interfere with a rival company’s attempt to broadcast on that same band. Thus they will not rationally compete with you if you manage to capture all the bandwidth.

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                • But will they be able to do anything with it? Back in the days when content was simple analog, there were limits to how much it could be concealed and still be useful. Now that things are digital, there are a number of strong encryption schemes with fancy key management and device enabling that make decryption in real time not impossible, but prohibitively expensive. Unless you use one of the approved devices for decrypting the signal.

                  Sirius broadcasts on known frequencies using known modulation schemes, so it’s pretty easy to access the bit stream. Doing something useful with it is a much harder problem.

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            • Regarding IP, what Guy said. Innovation is a public good. Public goods are problematic because they tend to be undersupplied by market actors, so patents and copyrights were created to solve that problem.

              Use of the broadcast spectrum is rival, but consumption of the broadcast is nonrival. When you tune your radio to a particular station, that doesn’t weaken the signal for everyone else.

              Correction: I said encryption can make broadcast media rivalrous. I meant excludable.

              My very limited point, fwiw, is that I think that imposing such a strict definition on public good may impede rather than promote useful conversation.

              Why? Public goods have certain characteristics that cause them to be undersupplied by market actors. Goods that don’t have these characteristics aren’t public goods, There are also club goods (excludable but nonrival) and commons (rival but non-excludable), but these are different from public goods, and have different problems with different solutions. It does no good to conflate them. If there aren’t a lot of public goods, then there aren’t a lot of public goods. If so, that’s a good thing, because neither markets nor governments are good at providing the optimal amount of them.

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        • The police and judiciary are not simply providing patrols or courts, they are providing a region of reduced violence – that is the real point of police and court systems. Adding one more person will not increase the cost of providing that bubble of relative safety, and in economics its cost at the margin that is important.

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          • Adding one more person doesn’t increase the cost, but only because the impact of one more person is too small to measure. If we add, say, a thousand people, that should have a measurable impact.

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    • None of those qualify as public goods in the economists’ definition. Several have positive externalities (sewers have particularly large positive externalities), but all of them are both rivalrous and excludable.

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    • Francis: Lots of public goods are rivalrous. Off the top of my head: roads, schools (also excludable), parks (also excludable), libraries (ditto).

      Why do you classify these as rivalrous? If roads are rivalrous, they are only weakly so. If I use the road, it only very slightly impairs your ability to use them. And even when a whole lot of people are using the roads at the same time, it rarely prevents you from using them at all.

      Rivalry does exist on a continuum, but roads definitely are on the non-rivalrous end whereas, say, pants are on the other.

      Similarly, I can go to a school, park, or library even if you were there before me.

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      • Vikram:

        Schools, parks, libraries, road and especially roads in Southern California fill up. They are limited resources which present significant allocation issues (frequently but not always solved by congestion).

        If a public good is defined as a good for which there are no allocation problems (which is another way of saying non-rivalrous), then none of those goods are public goods.

        If there are degrees of strength in public goods, with national defense at one end and Los Angeles freeway system at rush hour at the other, I have no quibble with that approach. But that’s not the definition given either by our gracious host or by B. Berg above.

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    • Schools, parks and libraries are not public goods. The argument for the government getting involved in them is more about positive externalities than Public Goods. Note that this does not give government any particular reason to run them directly.

      Public utilities and roads are more like natural monopolies, which could justify government ownership.

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      • Martin Shkerli has all the signs of a lonely man. I know this from personal experience as a lonely man with less money. Lonely men are always looking for a thing or action that will magically make them less lonely. I’ve done much less expensive things myself with a similar motivation though.

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      • I don’t know if “blame” is the right word. Look, hip-hop has always been about getting paid. And as artists, they were also making a statement that their art has value. Lots of pieces of art are one-of-a-kind, and sell for millions of dollars to the super-rich. What the Wu did was unusual, and could have been a bad business decision for them, but it’s not inherently blameworthy.

        The fact, though, that the BUYER turned out to be someone who is notorious for having said “this thing that I have to sell is rare and has great value, and I will charge the maximum the market will bear for it, so I can get paid, y’all” is delicious, delicious irony. Yes, he was doing it with a lifesaving drug, and that’s different from a piece of art, but still.

        The buyer was ALWAYS gonna be some rich dude. They just didn’t realize it was gonna be THIS one.

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  4. As the problem is open access, the solution is to restrict access.

    Now we just have to figure out the best way to pick access restriction enforcers.

    I recommend my brother-in-law, my uncle, and my third cousin (twice removed) to be put in charge of making sure that nobody who shouldn’t be using this resource tries to steal from it (and, by extension, us as a society).

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  5. I was thinking about this idea of “cooperation” recently while riding the subway. Ideally, if everyone plays by “the rules”, riders will file all the way into the middle of the train and newly boarding passengers will stand away from the doors until all disembarking passengers have cleared the train. If EVERYONE does this, the system works better: more people on each train, easier loading and unloading of passengers, and a more efficient system. But all it takes is a few self-interested players and the system goes to shit. You have the guy who stands right in front of the door and shoves his way on the moment the doors open. You have the woman who boards the train and then stands right by the door, forcing others to squeeze around her to access the open middle. And sometimes that middle stays relatively empty even as people pack like sardines near the doors… because people are afraid they won’t be able to get off… because others aren’t cooperating.

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    • A high-collaboration/high-trust system can be effed up PDQ by a handful of people attempting to game the system in a visible way.

      As such, it’s easy to move from high-whatever to middling- (or low-) whatever.

      How to move from lower to higher?

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      • I hate to say it, but lower-to-higher probably requires the judicious application of at least some authoritarianism and/or shaming.

        At my daughter’s preschool, convenient parking is kind of at a premium. So some people (and full disclosure: I was sometimes one of them) would often park on this one area that was clearly painted with diagonal yellow NO PARKING lines.

        It was never really clear to me why this area was painted this way, there was plenty of clearance for cars to get around it, and it represented enough “wasted” convenient parking space for about 4 cars.

        Problem is, pretty shortly after some of us started using this area this way, people started parking willy-nilly randomly anywhere they could get reasonably close to the building, in areas of the lot that ARE difficult to get another car around – and in fact they will now completely block one driveway/lane that really should remain clear, so now people have to drive a longer way around, to exit the lot.

        Maybe I’m ascribing too much responsibility to us early cheaters, and this would have happened anyway; but it does seem a bit like a ‘broken windows’ thing, and IMO the only thing that would easily correct it now would probably be the preschool having someone out there, monitoring and scolding.

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