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Posts Tagged ‘Tragedy of the Commons’

Creating property rights has helped protect fisheries while making the fishing industry more efficient, according to a nice blog post by Eric Pooley of the Environmental Defense Fund (ht: Dick Thaler). Writing at the Harvard Business Review, Pooley notes the success of the “catch share” approach to fisheries management:

The Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery, for example, was on the brink of collapse in the early part of the last decade. Fishermen were limited to 52-day seasons that were getting shorter every year. The shortened seasons, an attempt to counter overfishing, hurt fishermen economically and created unsafe “derbies” that often forced them to race into storms like the boats in The Deadliest Catch.

This short window also meant that all of the red snapper were being caught and brought to market at the same time, creating a glut that crashed prices. Many fishermen couldn’t even cover the cost of their trip to sea after selling their fish.

A decade ago, the Environmental Defense Fund began working with a group of commercial red snapper fishermen on a new and better way of doing business. Together, we set out to propose a catch share management system for snapper.

Simply put, fishermen would be allocated shares based on their catch history (the average amount of fish in pounds they landed each year) of the scientifically determined amount of fish allowed for catch each year (the catch limit). Fishermen could then fish within their shares, or quota, all year long, giving them the flexibility they needed to run their businesses.

This meant no more fishing in dangerously bad weather and no more market gluts. For the consumer, it meant fresh red snapper all year long.

After five years of catch share management, the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery is growing because fishermen are staying within the scientific limits. Boats that once suffered from ever-shortening seasons have seen a 60% increase in the amount of fish they are allowed to catch. Having a percentage share of the fishery means fishermen have a built-in incentive to husband the resource, so it will continue to grow.

Please read the rest of his piece for additional examples in the United States and around the world. Catch shares don’t deserve all the credit for fishery rebounds (catch limits presumably played a significant role), but they appear to be a much better way to manage limited stocks.

One small quibble: Pooley refers to catch shares as an example of behavioral economics in action. That must be a sign of just how fashionable behavioral economics–the integration of psychology into economics–has become. In this case, though, the story is straight-up economics: incentives and property rights.

For another fun take on property rights and fish, with a very different slant, consider the fight against the invasive lionfish.

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Bluefin tuna are swift, gigantic, tasty, and increasingly endangered.* Those last two items go together, of course, with tuna’s high market value encouraging over-exploitation of many populations.

But markets can also encourage creative efforts to preserve threatened species. Jason Kottke points to one example: bluefin farming in Japan. This 5-minute video raises a host of important questions, including the source of baby bluefin and the resource costs of their food. And, full warning, it doesn’t shy away from the bloody reality of bluefin harvesting:

On a closely related note, Felicity Barringer of the New York Times News Service writes about Utah’s market in hunting licenses for deer, elk, moose, and pronghorn.

The auction or sale of scarce licenses inevitably means that some will to well-heeled hunters, often from out-of-state, rather than typical residents. For some, that raises concerns about the marketplace intruding on what was once a natural resource held in public trust. On the other hand, by allocating some licenses to landowners who provide habitat, the program encourages conservation:

Here is how it works: The state has enticed ranchers with an allotment of vouchers for lucrative hunting licenses that they can sell for thousands of dollars as part of a private hunt on their land. Many used to complain bitterly to state officials about elk and other game eating forage meant for their cattle.

The vouchers for hunting licenses, handed out for more than 10 years now, give them ample economic incentive to nurture big game on their land and not get frustrated with ranching and sell their land to developers.

Both the video and the article are great fodder for a discussion of markets and wildlife conservation.

* Note for tuna enthusiasts: There are three species of bluefin (Atlantic, Pacific, and southern) that differ in size and degree of endangerment; see Wikipedia).

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The incomparable xkcd on incentives, morals, and TripAdvisor:

 

Here’s another favorite.

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So many fascinating economic issues, so little time to blog.

Here are some of the fun items that I would have discussed in recent days if I had infinite time:

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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As regular readers know, I am intrigued by animals in weird places (voles in the Rose Garden, grey whales in the Mediterranean) and quirky discussions of property rights (guacamole, overhead bins, snow shoveling, office lunches). So imagine my delight when I opened the Food section of the Washington Post to discover an issue that brings them together: the battle against the lionfish.

The beautiful, venomous lionfish is native to the Indo-Pacific, but back in 1985 it started showing up in a weird place: the east coast of the United States. Today you can find the spiny critters along the eastern seaboard, through the Caribbean, down to Belize, and over to the Azores. That’s bad news since the lionfish often crowds out (or consumes) native species.

So what to do? According to Wikipedia, some places have offered bounties for killing them (but, one hopes, not enough to induce breeding and importing) or have established kill-on-sight policies. Another strategy, as the WaPo reports, is to move them down a notch on the food chain:

Federal officials have joined with chefs, spear fishermen and seafood distributors to launch a bold campaign: Eat lionfish until it no longer exists outside its native habitat.

The genius of this approach is that it harnesses a classic economic pathology–the tragedy of the commons–to serve a greater good. No one has any property rights to these interlopers, so all we need to do is create enough market demand for their tasty flesh. Once that reaches critical mass, we can sit back and watch fishermen and -women overfish the Atlantic lionfish into oblivion. Or so goes the theory.

I wish them good luck–and look forward to seeing Atlantic lionfish on the menu soon. I am skeptical, however, that it will actually work. But if it does, maybe the seafood alliance could then turn their attention to the new Potomac snakeheads?

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Last week Spirit Airlines announced that it would start charging fees for carry-on bags this summer. Spirit described the benefits of this move as follows:

“In addition to lowering fares even further, this will reduce the number of carry-on bags, which will improve inflight safety and efficiency by speeding up the boarding and deplaning process, all of which ultimately improve the overall customer experience,” says Spirit’s Chief Operating Officer Ken McKenzie.  “Bring less; pay less.  It’s simple.”

As I’ve noted in previous posts, carry-on bags have become a problem on many flights. With advances in roll-aboard technology and in the face of new fees for checked luggage, more passengers are bringing baggage on board, sometimes overwhelming the capacity of the overheads. Airlines need to find a solution to that problem. Spirit’s fees are one possible answer.

I’m sure Spirit expected that some passengers and passenger advocates would object to these fees. I wonder, however, whether the airline ever suspected that it would incur the wrath of Washington?

Over the weekend, New York Senator Chuck Schumer denounced the proposed fees and sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner asking that he stop them. He’s also threatening legislation to prohibit them.

If you are like me, your first reaction should be to wonder why the Treasury Secretary–rather than, say, the Transportation Secretary–is the lucky recipient of Schumer’s letter. This being the middle of April, however, the answer shouldn’t surprise you: taxes,  specifically the taxes that are levied on airline tickets (but not on some other fees associated with flying). The narrow issue is whether the carry-on fees should be subject to the tax. The broader issue is whether carry-on fees should be allowed separate from the ticket price.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, wasted no time in denouncing the proposed fees as well, saying:

I think it’s a bit outrageous that an airline is going to charge someone to carry on a bag and put it in the overhead. And I’ve told our people to try and figure out a way to mitigate that. I think it’s ridiculous.

So watch out Spirit Airlines; your experiment in pricing scarce overhead capacity may not be welcome in Washington, even if it does lead to lower fares and faster boarding.

P.S. The tempest over the baggage fees is temporarily overshadowing a much more interesting and important issue: the transparency and intelligibility of airline fees. Secretary LaHood touches on this in the interview linked to above, as does this article over at Philly.com’s Philadelphia Business Today. Given the panoply of fees and taxes on air travel–thanks both to the government and to the airlines–there’s a real question about whether consumers understand the full costs of flying when they make their purchasing decisions. And some airlines–most notably Spirit with its “penny” and “$9″ fares–seem to be playing on that.

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As any frequent flyer knows, the competition for overhead space is tight. As I noted a few months ago (“The Warped Economics of Carry-On Luggage“), the situation has only become worse since airlines started charging fees for checked luggage. Budget-conscious travelers caught on quick and started carrying on more of their luggage.

In economic terms, the basic problem is a lack of property rights to overhead space. Without those rights, there is a tragedy of the commons as travelers try to grab space before their fellow travelers (just as some guacamole eaters compete for appetizers). Particularly egregious? The passenger in row 35 who brings on two over-sized roller bags and stows them in the overheads around row 15. No, I’m not bitter.

One solution to this problem would be to create property rights to overhead space. But that would be hard to operationalize.

Another possibility–which Spirit Airlines announced today–would be to charge for carry-ons. Spirit announced:

In order to continue reducing fares even further and offering customers the option of paying only for the services they want and use rather than subsidizing the choices of others, the low fare industry innovator is also progressing to the next phase of unbundling with the introduction of a charge to carry on a bag and be boarded first onto the airplane.

The carry on fee ranges from $20 to $45, the same or more than the fees for a single checked bag (fees for multiple bags may be higher). Personal items (i.e., the things you put under your seat) remain free.

Note how Spirit frames this as helping the airline reduce fares. In the future, I hope some enterprising economist studies the different bag pricing approaches that the airlines use to see to what extent higher bag fees–checked or carry on–translate into lower fares and either more or less crowded overhead compartments.

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One of the themes of this blog is that economics is everywhere in daily life. Property rights, for example, are at the heart of everyday battles over overhead bins, shoveled-out parking spaces, and food in shared refrigerators.

Continuing in that vein, a friend recently sent me a link to an amusing piece about sharing guacamole. I hesitate to link to it, since this is a family oriented blog, and the piece is decidedly R-rated and NSFW. So I will hide the link under the fold. The basic set-up is that a sort-of-advice columnist named Chris provides humorous answers to reader questions.

In slightly edited form, here’s the bit about sharing guacamole:

[Dear] Chris: My fiancée makes amazing Guacamole, but it leads to the following problem: she only makes one bowl of it, which we then share. The issue is, I like to utilize small amounts of Guac on each chip in order to maximize the amount of time I get to enjoy the sweet green stuff, while she likes to heap massive amounts on each chip, in an effort to eat less chips (which [...] I find laughable). This drives me crazy as I always end up with the short end of the Guac stick, and so lately I have been separating the Guac into two equally-sized bowls once she’s made it, in an effort to preserve my fair share. She thinks this qualifies as me being [a jerk] and says I “must have failed sharing in Kindergarten”, but on the contrary, I think it’s her poor sharing that’s lead to the whole situation.

[Dear Letter-Writer:] Well, the obvious solution here is for her to make MORE guac. The other solution? Ask her the recipe, and then begin making it yourself. As head chef of the household, you are in full control of when that guacamole will be presented for consumption. I cook for my wife because it allows me the freedom to eat half of what I’ve made before it even reaches the table.

Furthermore, the strategy of using less guac per chip is fatally flawed. It’s guacamole. All guac is first come, first serve. You must heap as much guac onto one chip as humanly possible (as your fiancée does), only do it at a much faster rate. Think guacamole isn’t a race? IT IS. The faster you eat, the more you get. That’s how it works. And it’s a crucial strategy to exploit when dealing with guacamole, nachos, pizza, wings, and other shared food. Do not hesitate. Don’t even [...] chew. You inhale [...] until there’s nothing left for her. That’s what I do.

If you were out to eat with your guy friends at a Mexican restaurant, and you ordered guacamole for all to share, would you get [mad] at your friends for digging in too quickly? [Heck] NO. That guac is chum, and you are the sharks. ATTACK ATTACK ATTACK. Never play defense with appetizers.

There you have it, the world’s best explanation of the tragedy of the commons. Garrett Hardin eat your heart out. Let’s just hope we never find ourselves at a Mexican restaurant with Chris.

The letter-writer deserves kudos for endorsing the standard (and effective) economist solution to this problem: well-defined property rights. And his fiancée? Maybe she’s a fan of recent Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom.

(more…)

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I just got home from a quick trip to Denver, where I spoke at a Concord Coalition event on our nation’s dire fiscal outlook. That’s a big, complex problem, but today I’d like to share some thoughts on an even more vexing problem: the warped economics of carry-on luggage.

As you probably know, most major airlines now charge fees if passengers want to check luggage. Many travelers object to these fees in principle (as you can easily confirm by surfing around the blogosphere), but what’s most interesting to me is how people respond to them.

Based on my travels, I see three related issues.

1. If you charge fees to check bags, passengers will bring more and larger carry ons. Like everyone else, airline passengers respond to incentives. So if you make it more expensive to check bags, they will bring more carry-ons. The overheads thus fill up more quickly and are often at capacity before everyone has boarded. More travelers thus get to experience the ignominy of losing the carry-on equivalent of musical chairs (and flight attendants have to waste time removing bags and checking them).  (This observation is hardly new; my student Kerry mentioned it to me last week, for example, and others have written about it.)

2. This effect may get magnified when airlines offer to check bags for free at the gate. As I was waiting to board my flight to Denver, the gate agent announced repeatedly that customers could check bags for free if the overheads ended up being full. I presume that the airlines do this in order to avoid adding insult to injury for the passengers who lose at musical bags. (Imagine the flight attendant telling you: “Sorry, the overheads are full; please give me your bag and $35.” ). This does have the side effect, however, of encouraging even more customers to bring their bags onto the plane to see if they will fit. The worst case (financially) is that they end up avoiding the fees for checked luggage.

The increased competition for overhead space is worsened by the lack of property rights. Just as competing boats can over-exploit a fishery, so do airline passengers overexploit overhead space. In econ-speak:

3. There is a tragedy of the commons as passengers compete for overhead space. Without enforceable property rights, travelers engage in all sorts of inefficient behavior to gain overhead space (e.g., fighting to be among the first in their seating group to get aboard). Perhaps the most galling is when passengers seated in row 35 bring on two over-sized roller bags and stow them in the overheads around row 15. They then saunter, unencumbered and without shame, to their seats in the back of the plane, while the unsuspecting souls in row 15 (who usually board later) face a major nuisance: what to do with their bags. Let me tell you, it’s not a pretty sight when the folks in row 15 have to stow their luggage in the overhead space back in row 35 — if there’s any left at all.

The fees worsen this tragedy of the commons, of course, since even more bags are competing for the limited resource of overhead space.

So what’s the solution?  Well, one option would be to create property rights in the form of assigned overhead space. One roller-bag sized space could come bundled with each seat, for example, or perhaps the airline could sell spaces separately. Maybe there could even be a secondary market in which passengers buy and sell spaces among themselves. Row 35 person: If you really want this space over my seat in row 15, how much are you willing to pay?

OK, that vision is a bit fanciful, and there are a host of challenges (e.g., different size bags and the transaction costs of running a real-time overhead bag space market) that may make it impractical. But it is fun to dream.

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