The Apartment Chronicles: On Thermostats, Simply Lemonade, and Glue Traps: Resource Dilemmas

The Apartment Chronicles: On Thermostats, Simply Lemonade, and Glue Traps: Resource Dilemmas

(And yes, because it’s my blog I can have a title with two colons.)

This blog is moving in the direction of Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons. But, the resource pool of that book is limited such that the library’s 1 copy that can be checked out is gone, forcing me to wait for it to arrive from another library. I think there is some kind of comment to be made about a resource shortage of a book in part about resource shortages.

In the mean time, a recent shopping trip inspired me to write this post about the “realities” of resource dilemmas. Sometimes, game theory can seem like it is just postulating about mathematical proofs and abstract problems. Game theory becomes particularly interesting to analyze when you start seeing things in your daily life as prisoner’s dilemmas and common pool resource problems. I’m going to start what might be a on-going series about the dilemmas and situations that occur in my 7 person apartment that I live in this year. We’ll begin with

Temperature Dilemma

People have preferences. That’s both a patently obvious statement, but also a fundamental tenet of rational choice theory and game theory, I think.  Some people would prefer a cooler temperature, some a warmer, and others are ambivalent as long as it does not exceed a certain range. For the 7 of us, I think there were 2 people who prefer a warmer temperature, 2 people who prefer a cooler temperature, and 3 people who did not care as long as it was not extreme. Let’s also mention that there is one thermostat for the entire apartment.

For me, I think a temperature of ~72 degrees is pretty good. The “cooler” camp was more of the opinion that 68 was a good temperature. The ambivalent 3 were fine as long as the temperature did not exceed, say, 65 to 75.

What are 7 rational people to do? One answer might be 70 degrees. I’m not sure why, but that was never an equilibrium that we could reach. We didn’t end up doing this, but this was one idea I threw out:

Everyone writes a temperature on a piece of paper and we take the average of all of those and make it the temperature for everyone. What would the outcome have been? I talked about this with one of my suitemates who was in the cold camp. He said that he would just choose 68 . Me, thinking slightly deviously said that then I would pick a much higher number like 78, thus bumping up the average to something closer to my preference. Then the conversation went something like this:

Him: Well then I would pick 50 degrees.

Me: Then I would write 100 degrees.

Him: Then I would put absolute 0!

Me: Then I would put the temperature of the sun!

What’s interesting is how quickly what I thought might have been a game theoretically sound way of determining a fair temperature led us to a situation where if we were not appropriately counter balancing each other, we could have ended up with a temperature of 115 degrees, or -139 degrees. Also, the largest coalition, the moderates, should have been able to at least enforce their will of a reasonable temperature range.

Food Dilemmas

The University requires us to get a meal plan, even if we live in an apartment. So, we all got the smallest meal plan and chose the most cost effective route of shopping off campus and splitting costs. All in all, I am sure we have saved some money, plus had extra choices in what we eat. Plus there are all of the benefits of solidarity etc, and I think overall we have done an admirable job at working through dilemmas. But we have had a few:

What is a common resource?

Different people brought different things at the beginning of the year, some brought enough for themselves, some brought lots of pots and pans, some brought food for everyone, some bought food for just themselves etc. Pots and pans are generally considered to be communal (the term we choose to designate something as freely usable by anyone).  A coordination problem occurred when at one time we had no less than 6 bags of Cinnamon Toast Crunch on the counter. It was just tough to tell whose cereal was whose. A Sharpie fixed that problem.

The real dilemmas came when we were out shopping. In some of our meetings, my advisor and I talked about part of the role of the government being a arbiter of what is and isn’t a common pool resource, like a highway. The same thing applies when you look at buying a two pack of mustard. I don’t like mustard. But, we did buy a case of hamburgers. So, the question was whether or not mustard was like a “fundamental right” that all entering into our food sharing compact should enjoy. Again, would we just vote as to whether or not mustard is communal enough to buy in bulk and spread the cost?

I had to make a calculation of whether or not I wanted to raise an objection to the mustard purchase. As the only one with a Sam’s club membership, I certainly could have used dictatorial powers to reject the mustard. But there were other factors in the calculus.

The two pack of mustard cost about $5. Split amongst 7 people is 0.71. Every time we all go shopping, we all save a lot more than that. But that is only because we buy in bulk. Were I to pull a dictatorial disallowing of the mustard, our compact could unravel. Also, factor in the cost that I would about negative 5,000 cool points which is a valuable social currency.

This problem appears in about 100 other ways. What about the mostly vegetarian? Should he pay for beef? What if one person goes out to eat with their girlfriend one night that is communal dinner night? Should they pay? What if one person wanted to opt out altogether? We had an unspoken agreement that we would all buy food communally, but never put it in writing or agreed to specifics.

Hard to monitor

It is pretty much unanimous that Simply Lemonade brand lemonade is delicious. We would all in fact like to have it. But it only comes in one big bottle at Sam’s Club. But that price at Sam’s is about half the price per ounce as on campus. Yet, lemonade does not make for a good shared resource. Drinks are fundamentally different from say, a case of muffins, in that it is very hard to tell who has had what and how much. You can look at a pack of muffins and see how many are missing, and interrogate people to see who ate the blueberry one. With lemonade, you would have to go to a lot of trouble to monitor that resource. More trouble than the money saved. For that reason, we don’t buy communal drinks.

What if everyone benefits?

A number of non human creatures greeted us on our first day on our apartment: a lot of crickets. At our first trip to Wal-Mart, I bought sticky bug traps. Since the crickets were relatively ambivalent as to which rooms they went into, I put the 4 traps in the front door walkway, hallway, bathroom, and my own room (because I paid for the traps). Those quickly got filled and we needed more. The issue with the glue traps is that it is not possible to exclude people from the benefits that the glue traps bring. If 3 people are perfectly fine with crickets yet 4 vote to buy glue traps, the 3 cannot bring forth an argument that they won’t be using the glue traps. The 4 decided that freedom from crickets was a common wish and the 3 would have no choice but to pay their share of the cricket traps. Luckily we were all in agreement on this one.

What if a flood happens?

This was an interesting situation like all the other ones. Our apartment flooded when the drains outside our door were clogged with leaves and it rained a lot. Luckily nothing was really harmed, just wet carpet. Afterwards, since our door wasn’t really fixed, we talked about what would happen if there were to be a much more massive flood.

The way our apartment is set up is that the area that would be flooded first is the common living room. Then, my room (A) would be flooded, then the hallway, and then rooms B-G. If water was pouring in our apartment at rate where we couldn’t stop the flood but could only rescue items, what would we do? It brings up questions of both coordination and cooperation, but also justice. There are 7 of us, but 8 rooms. So everyone theoretically has a 1/8 stake in stopping the common room property from being flooded. But, some people value their own room more than the common room. And you can’t very well protect the common room and your own room. For instance, 5 out of the 7 people have a television in their own room. But there is also 1 large TV in the common room. So everyone’s interest in what they would protect is divided in a separate way. My room (A) would be the first one to flood after the common room, but I don’t have my own TV in it, so I value the common room slightly more.

We can also add to the equation that it would probably take 4 or 5 people to stop the common room possessions from being ruined. That only leaves 2 or 3 people to save the individual rooms from being flooded.  But since all things are not equal in terms of utility of saving communal versus individual possessions, we would have to quickly coordinate what to save first. If there are 7 of us and 8 rooms, we already have to sacrifice the biggest room, or several individual rooms. Then we also have to decide which rooms to sacrifice, and the criterion to decide which rooms would be saved! A vote? Lottery? Which room has the most expensive stuff? Which rooms will be flooded first? The person who would be worst off if they had their stuff get wet?

TV Rights

There are a number of televisions in our apartment, but the one that gets the most use as defined by the number of people and number of hours (two people watching for one hour is two hours), if definitely the common room TV. Now, you can practically only watch one program at a time. You can switch back and forth between programs, but you end up missing parts of both.

We all like a lot of the same shows. For instance, we all like to watch game shows. If a game show is on, we can form a decision focal point at channel 67. But, if sports and a reality TV show were on, opinions would be split. Or, one person could be watching something, but two or more people could come in and want to watch something else. We usually manage this through informal dispute processes, but I think we could establish formal ones if necessary. But there are a lot of variants on which rules to follow.

You could use a strict majority wins voting system. But who votes? People who want to watch TV? People in the apartment? Friends of people in the apartment? Proxy votes? People who don’t have their own TV? Who breaks a tie? Do people who were already watching a program get priority over those who come in later and sit down? Can you reserve programs in advance? Can you call a television emergency and commandeer the television? Are some programs worth watching while others not?

Just some thoughts! But, they do pose real questions as to what is” just” to do in a flood, can we coordinate a conflict free TV schedule, how do stop free riders, and how do we deal with non exclusive public goods? Perhaps the better question is how have we been able to solve every dilemma informally without the need for a government setup or prolonged fighting? Maybe Ostrom will enlighten us all!

Posted on September 17, 2011, in game theory, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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