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Tragedy of the Commons

There are many hackneyed sayings about the cynics being the only true romantics. Most of them revolving around some variation of “the reason many people are cranky is because their optimism is constantly challenged by the seven deadly sins of those around them”. I’ve also been doing some reading about the cyclical nature of human attention and interest and there are many patterns that emerge. One recurring theme is the Tragedy of the Commons. The basic idea is that if there’s stuff out there for free, it’s going to get ruined. In fact, you might want to check out that article before reading on, as it’s something that you should become familiar with if you haven’t already.

The tragedy makes some bold points – without attaching economic cost, you begin to have problems. As much as it goes against our charitable nature, it’s important that things have cost attached to them, and in fact, that cost needs to be high enough to discriminate between other ways to deploy or purchase resources.

A good example – a couple of months back there was some hype about Starbucks paying 2 cents a day or some other pittance to coffee farmers. The not-so-huddled masses gathered and said they should be paying a “fair” wage. Granted, the poverty level in many countries is one of the most important problems we have to face, but throwing money at it will not solve anything. Coffee prices are low because there’s too much of it on the market, paying more for coffee nobody wants will only entice more people to grow coffee, making the situation worse.

A similar problem – standing on the side of a busy intersection with a sign asking for money can be a profitable venture. For the first time I saw two people fighting over turf by the Alewife T Station during the rush hour. I’m not saying that the homeless should be ignored, I’m saying that throwing money at them will probably not change anything for the better.

So, what got me on this rant? A post yesterday about people making death threats against other bloggers. When there’s no cost to doing business in the commons, eventually neighborhoods will get run down. There will still be many great places to spend your time, but there will also be parts of town you don’t want to be seen in.

For me, this is the end of my Golden Age of the Blogosphere.