Liberals, Conservatives and the Office Refrigerator

Not all Liberal and Conservative is political.  The terms also apply to how you look at your material surroundings.   And it also is a way to look at how people relate to each other as work mates and house mates.  Do you think the well being of the group is best served in a given moment by pointing out problems as you see them or letting them go?   I think of each person with a place on a continuum of liberal and conservative both in the material and the mental realm.  And you can be liberal in one way and conservative in another.  Maybe you don’t mind a messy house, but if there is a tense feeling in the room you feel a need to bring it up.  Or the other way around.  Don’t care if people get noisy or pouty but can’t stand it when they don’t clean up their dishes.  Not to overly categorize myself or anyone else, I find liberal-conservative material-mental to be a useful model to remember when people get up close and personal with each other and they try to get their relative styles and ways of being into social equilibrium.

One thing I have noticed everywhere I have worked and in every group I have lived with, the common refrigerator is always a mess.  What is up with that?

And I saw something similar back when I lived on the Farm in TN.  By the mid 70s we had several hundred people living together on our land and we had a big fleet of vehicles.  For several years there I worked in the shop that maintained them.  I could digress in many ways about the amazing camraderie we had back then in the shop and also at large for the whole community.  There were several years then where I was so invested in living on that land with those people that anything else was out of the question.  Communal living for a stretch of time was something we all loved doing - with each other.  So I enjoyed woking with the gang in the motor pool as well as with whoever came in to get a vehicle serviced or whatever.  It was all funky - we never had much money - but the vibes were really good there for a period of some years.

But I kept noticing something.  We had a lot of cars.  Picture 50s and 60s six-passenger american cars with big bench seats.  Chevys, Fords, Buicks…big cars.  We always had people who needed to go into town for some reason, often doctor visits so several times a day one of these big cars would head off with all six seats filled.  And we had cars and pickup trucks that someone had more exclusive use of in service of the job they were doing.

With such heavy use they would all soon come back to get fixed.  Every time a car came into the shop, the ones that were managed by an individual were pretty clean and the totally communal town run cars were always full of litter all over the floor.  Empty bottles, wrappers, little bags.  It never failed.  Even a group with that level of commitment and fellowship had things fall into disorder if there was no steward.  It doesn’t mean everyone is a slob. And no doubt many of those people were tidy with their litter.  But many were not. And no doubt many of the people who were tidy didn’t say anything to the less tidy ones.

But since I was the one who cleaned many of them up, I came to see that those cars belonged to everyone but they didn’t belong to anyone.  And the more stewardship they had, the longer they lasted.


What about pre-emptive “ruling”?

Interesting story about the Farm fleet. I have less experience with physical assets, but I imagine some version of the “make a rule early, be stern about it early, then things will more or less fall into place” applies. The key is what the office refrigerator is going to look like in the first three weeks. Or?

Try it and see

what happens…!

We did (on a small scale)

And it worked well. We actually levelled up, not down, on tidiness. But we are talking 4-6 people, not several hundreds. With the dozen or so in the unMonastery also it looked good, though maybe I did not spend enough time to really test it.

I noticed something similar in Russia

John said: “I came to see that those cars belonged to everyone but they didn’t belong to anyone”. I had the same thought when I lived in St Petersburg in the mid 1990s. The beautiful buildings had fallen into disrepair. In theory they belonged to everyone - in practice, no one felt a sense of ownership. Once they were privatised, (as happened not long before I arrived) renovation work started and the city has been transformed. Of course, private ownership can easily go the other way - the property owners can exploit and exclude the non-property owners.

Stewardship is an appealing third way. I wonder to what extent Elinor Ostrom’s design principles for managing a commons are applicable? See here. 

Have fun!

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We have to move into sci-fi

To the best of my knowledge, economists have two ways to think about this.

  1. The orthodoxy speaks of tragedy of the commons. Policy implications: assign private property rights, it does not matter who. 
  2. And then there is Ostrom, as @Patrick_Andrews points out. I don't recall her actually using the word "stewardship" in Managing the Commons, but she has an institutional economics approach. Policy implications: build and maintain a rather complex system of institutions. Beware: it's fragile. 

That’s it.

In the past five years, I have become frustrated with the inability of modern economics to paint plausible blue sky scenarios for economic systems. Imagining utopias (or dystopias, like in the case of Swift) was big in the 1700s and 1800s; but then, as economics diverged from moral philosophy, this kind of exercise faded out. Marx was probably the last pre-divergence giant: both an economist and a philosopher, and by God he went out and imagined a completely new system, for which he attempted to cross all the ts and dot all the is. Not a very good one in practice, it turned out, but the intellectual thrust was there.

I have found a contemporary vestige of this kind of thinking in very few science fiction writers. There are recognizable bits of economics in William Gibson (especially Pattern Recognition and The Peripheral), Neal Stephenson (especially Snow Crash and The Diamond Age) and Peter Watts (especially Maelstrom). But the main guy is Cory Doctorow. Doctorow is consciously doing economics. Years ago, I wrote an economist’s reading of his novel Makers, on 3D-printing and digital fabrication. This year, Doctorow released a novel called Walkaway, where he tries to imagine a society where a big component (say, 10 to 30% of population) has left the standard economy and lives on a grid of its own, one based on abolishing artificial scarcity. Think of it as a 22nd century, scaled-up version of @Matthias 's Open Village vision. I would love for you guys to read it, so we can have a discussion, maybe at the October gathering. I know of at least one seminar on it, and the author wrapped it up in an essay explaining Walkaway is about exploring a family of equilibria of the Coase theorem, those that do not involve command-and-control aas a coordination device. I am re-reading the novel, and just today I found a quote that applies to John’s vehicle fleet:

“The reason to clean up after yourself was you respected your housemates and wanted a place where anyone could walk up to anything and use it, without having to put away someone else’s shit first. When spots were consistently under-maintained, the solution was to figure out why it was hard to get that spot reset, not figure out how to shame people who weren’t doing something that inevitably turned out to be more of a pain in the ass than it had any right to be.”


I’ll order the book

I’m up for reading it and discussing.

Excellent quote by the way.  That is the right spirit.  Plus the not shaming as the solution.  That is where overly conservastive people can get themselves worked into a real snit.  On the other hand, making it so that it is hard for others to work or operate in the commons is a selfish act by definition.