Enforcing Property Rights: Snowmageddon Edition

In case you hadn’t heard:  the DC area was socked with a boatload of snow over the weekend. We got 27 inches here in Bethesda, and many areas received comparable amounts (pay no attention to the official measure at National Airport which is mysteriously low at 18 inches).

The Washington Post reports on some of the etiquette questions that the snow has created. Being an economist, however, I would describe them as property rights questions. For example, what are your rights if you dig out a parking space?

Boston has codified its citizens’ right to benefit from their backbreaking snow-clearing labor; a city law says that if you dig out your car in a snow emergency, a lawn chair or trash can renders the spot yours for at least two days while you’re away at work. In Chicago, blocking a parking spot is illegal, but city officials acknowledge an informal rule of dibs if you’ve done the digging.

“I know this is public property, but if you spent hours laboring, I mean, come on, I think you have the right to say that is my spot,” said Tanya Barbour, who spent two hours Sunday shoveling free her silver Ford Expedition in the 1500 block of T Street NW. “If someone had clearly taken the time to shovel it out, I would not take that spot because I would not want that done to me.”

Across the District and in the Maryland suburbs Monday, many were not relying on Barbour’s honor system. Some used Boston-style markers — lawn chairs, recycling bins, orange cones, a mattress, even two bar stools with a Swiffer on top — to try to save spots along residential streets.

Keith Green, 37, said he’s heard too many scary stories to slip into a spot someone has blocked off. After the 1996 storm, a man was killed outside New York after a dispute over a shoveled parking spot. In Philadelphia in 2000, it happened again. In South Boston, a handful of assaults, slashed tires and other cases of vandalism end up in District Court each year after drivers are perceived to have broken the code.

In the District, said city transportation spokesman John Lisle, blocking spots is illegal. “We would hope people would work together and clear out several spaces instead of just one, but you can’t block a space,” he said.

In Chicago, Matt Smith, a spokesman for the Streets and Sanitation Department, said the lesson from a more snow-savvy city is that although “staking out a spot may save your space temporarily, it’s bound to create problems with your neighbors.”

Enforcing Property Rights: Shared Refrigerator Edition

In the past two weeks, my students and I have been discussing the importance of property rights. One message: creating property rights isn’t enough. You also need a way to enforce those rights; otherwise, they may be meaningless.

Which brings us to the universal problem of shared refrigerators. At Georgetown, our refrigerator has a big handwritten sign that says, in essence, “Don’t Take Other People’s Food.” I wonder how well that works?

I learned about another solution from many Facebook friends this morning (see also this post by Tyler Cowen): a sandwich bag with trompe l’oeil mold:

The bag reminds me of a sign in a gem/jewelry store in Australia. The entrance was like walking through a mine shaft with all sorts of quartz crystals sticking out of the wall. Rather than ask the customers to please not touch the crystals, the store had a sign that said: “Danger, the crystals contain poison. Do not touch.” When I asked, the proprietor confessed that the crystals were harmless, but they had to fib in order stop customers from trying to break off the crystals.