The Symmetry of Rival and Anti-Rival Goods

In DC over the last few days, it was frequently the case that the side-walks were cleared and the roads were not. Yet the roads are plowed by paid contractors driving massive machines while the sidewalks are usually shoveled by residents working for free (or neighbors paid by the residents individually.) What gives? Why do the paid, centrally managed snow removal contractors work so much slower than the the ordinary, non-professional residents?

Put another way, why was I able to convince my neighbors we could (and should) shovel our street out when the plows didn’t come? When they realized that others were doing it, they realized that rather than clear out the whole street, they’d just need to do their small part. They were even willing to shovel the few stretches of homes whose owners didn’t join us, because we couldn’t traverse that territory without helping the slackers.

I’d argue that this is a classic case of common pool resource management. But a shoveled sidewalk is a strange sort of common pool resource: it’s not like fisheries or irrigation where the more one person uses the resource, the less there is for others. That is, it’s not precisely “rivalrous,” one of two conditions required for a common-pool resource to flourish.  In fact, the more people shovel their sidewalks, the better off each individual with a shoveled sidewalk is. This is what economists call “anti-rivalry” and is frequently linked to network effects: the more people use email or Facebook, the more useful email or Facebook are.

Types of Goods

The other condition for a common-pool resource is that the resource must be “non-excludable.” Shoveled parking spaces in DC are frequently protected in this way: a chair or a trash can signals that by dint of shoveling the spot it has become my exclusive property for the duration of the snow.

saved parking

Parking spots are excludable (even if only through threats) and they’re rival: only one of us can park there at a time. Thus, the standard matrix analysis calls them private goods. This is tricky: the street below the snow was a public good, usually, but the act of shoveling seems to give someone the sense that they have a private ownership interest in it. (I mixed my labor with it!) Yet there’s never enough parking spots unless we share them, and short-term visitors are in an especially difficult situation.

You’d think that rivalry and anti-rivalry would be as opposed as that “anti” suggests. But from the perspective of the structures of ownership and distribution, it does seem like anti-rival goods work on the same model as other common pool resources that are rival: thus Lawrence Lessig used anti-rivalry to argue for free open source software, which is how much of the backbone software of the internet was developed. Rather than apportioning a scarce resource, an anti-rival network has to distribute it as widely as possible to realize maximal benefits:

It’s not just that code is non-rival; it’s that code in particular, and (at least some) knowledge in general, is, as [Steven] Weber calls it, ‘anti-rival’. I am not only not harmed when you share an anti-rival good: I benefit.

This continues to produce the standard insider/outside dynamic of a common-pool resource management system, but replaces exclusivity with evangelism. The plow system is just another version of what Elinor Ostrom called “crowding out”:

Citizens are effectively told that they should be passive observers in the process of design and implementation of effective public policy. The role of citizenship is reduced to voting every few years between competing teams of political leaders. Citizens are then supposed to sit back and leave the driving of the political system to the experts hired by these political leaders.

Some of what makes anti-rival goods work is peer pressure: when we were shoveling the street, a few parents came out and confessed apologetically that they couldn’t leave their children alone to come help. The tone of their apologies suggested that there was some guilt involved. But a lot of it was that a simply impossible job became imaginable if each neighbor was able to see that they’d personally benefit: as the shoveled portion of the street expanded, the neighbors in the middle of the block came outside to shovel still farther, since they’d only have a little bit more to do to enjoy the benefits.

The plows came Wednesday afternoon and expanded our cleared lanes. But we had already escaped!

Mead Quote

A Paradox to Savor: A High-Quality, Free Economics Textbook

The economist Paul Samuelson once wrote, “I don't care who writes a nation's laws—or crafts its advanced treaties—if I can write its economics textbooks.” 

What a pleasure to learn that an insurgent team of economists, The Core Project, is about to rewrite the nation’s laws.  The new introductory economics textbook is called The Economy.  It is surely the most daring, cosmopolitan and empirically driven textbook since Samuelson’s tome was unleashed on undergraduates in 1948.  It is also packed with innovations worthy of our digital age. The Core Project’s sardonic tagline says it well:  “Teaching economics as if the last three decades had happened.” 

This is not your grandfather’s econ textbook.  Nor is it an exercise in ideological spin or neoliberal bashing. In both style and substance, Core-Econ (the name for the Core Project's website) shakes off the dreary norms of conventional economics and embraces the critical intelligence of the real world. 

Savor the delicious paradox that The Economy is published as an interactive ebook available for free downloads (pdfs) and printing. It is published under a Creative Commons Attribution, NonCommercial, NoDerivatives license, demonstrating that a free lunch is entirely feasible (at least for non-rival goods like books).

So far, ten of the twenty-one planned teaching modules have been published online; the remaining ten modules are expected to be completed by the end of 2014. At the moment, the online version is available as a “beta” release, which means that anyone can submit feedback and suggestions to improve the text before its release.

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Derek Wall’s “The Commons in History”

For many people, the commons exists as some sort of Platonic ideal -- a fixed, universal archetype.  That’s silly, of course, because commons are so embedded in a given place and moment of history and culture, and therefore highly variable.  Derek Wall takes this as a point of departure in his new book, The Commons in History:  Culture, Conflict and Ecology (MIT Press).  At 136 pages of text, it is a short and highly readable book, but one that conveys much of the texture of commons and enclosures as paradigms -- and the implications for ecosystems.

Wall is an economist at Goldsmith College, University of London, so he knows a few things about the biases of conventional economics.  He is also a member of the Green party of England and Wales, and therefore knows a few things about corporate power and oppositional politics. 

As the author of a recent intellectual biography, The Sustainable Economics of Elinor Ostrom (Routledge), Wall has a subtle mastery of Ostrom’s approach to the commons, but he is not afraid to wade into the political aspects of commons.  He notes, for example, “most commons have not been found to succeed or fail on the basis of their own merits.  Instead, they have been enclosed, and access has been restricted and often turned over to purely private ownership or state control.”  He adds that “commons is a concept that is both contests and innately political in nature.  Power and access to resources remain essential areas for debate.”

It is entirely appropriate, then, that Wall goes beyond the familiar Hardin-Ostrom debate on the rationality and economic value of commons, to explore what he calls “the radical case for the commons,” as outlined by E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill, among others.  While Marxist criticisms of the environmental effects of capitalism so often hit the mark, Wall points out that “the commons is not utopia.  A common-pool property rights do not guarantee a free and equal society.”  

That’s partly because a commons is not a unitary model, but only a template with highly variable outcomes.  People may have common rights to use “usufruct rights” on privately owned land, for example, authorizing them to gather fallen wood.  This can be considered a type of commons, albeit not one as self-sovereign and robust as those with communally owned and controlled land.  Commons may also coexist with hierarchical power relationships – a reality that also militates against a radical equality.

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Sustaining the Commons, a Textbook Overview of Ostrom’s Research

For newcomers to the commons wishing to acquaint themselves with Elinor Ostrom’s work, it can be a hard slog.  Her scholarly treatises, while often quite insightful, can be quite dense in delivering their hard research results and refined insights.  It is a real pleasure, therefore, to greet Sustaining the Commons, a new undergraduate textbook that has just been published.  The book provides a general overview of the intellectual framework, concepts and applications of Ostrom’s research on the commons. 

Best of all, in a refreshing departure from most academic publishing, the authors of the 168-page book decided to make it available for free as a downloadable pdf file.  Just go to the book’s website and blog,

Sustaining the Commons is by John M. Anderies and Marco A. Janssen, both associate professors at Arizona State University and directors of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity, which is the publisher of the textbook.  Both authors worked with Ostrom from 2000 until her death in 2012.  Although Ostrom’s name is mostly associated with Indiana University, where she co-founded and ran the Workshop on Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Ostrom was also a part-time research professor at ASU from 2006-2012.

Anderies and Janssen taught a course at ASU on Ostrom’s work, with a special focus on her books Governing the Commons (1990) and Understanding Institutional Diversity (2005).  Out of that teaching arose the idea for this book.  Ostrom herself saw and approved of the first draft of the book in April 2012, shortly before her death. 

The book is a lucid, logically presented introduction to the key concepts of Ostrom’s research.  There are chapters on “defining institutions,” “action arenas and action situations,” and “social dilemmas.”  There are also a series of case studies on the management of various types of common-pool resources – water, forests, domesticated animals – and a review of “design principles to sustain the commons.”  

There are a number of chapters on human behavior as it is studied by social science.  How do people make decisions about collective matters and how do they develop trust?  How are these behaviors studied in the laboratory?  What sorts of rules and social norms matter? 

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