Anticommon Sense

This is the fiftieth post in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. (Volume L contains the introduction, reader’s guide, and general index, and will therefore be addressed out of order in the final post of the series.) Volume LI: Lectures

Consider a town with a plot of land dedicated to grazing sheep. Every townsperson has free access to the land, and may graze as many sheep as he has. As ideal as this may sound, the town soon runs into a problem; the grass, it turns out, is a finite resource. The townspeople each realize that they individually reap the benefit of grazing their sheep on the public land, while the cost of doing so (in the form of depleted grass) is borne by everybody. This leads to overgrazing, if only because someone will conclude that overgrazing is inevitable, so he might as well beat his neighbors to it. In the end, the common resource that could have been advantageous to everyone is ruined.

This problem is known as the tragedy of the commons, and is familiar to most people. Because people see what the want to see, it has been used to justify policies ranging from privatizing natural resources, to nationalizing them.

One possible “solution” results in another problem: the tragedy of the anticommons. Suppose the townspeople, worried about overgrazing, change the rules for using the commons. Now, any use of the commons requires unanimous approval from the townspeople. They soon find that some people favor changing the commons from sheep pasture to cattle. Others prefer that the land be used for goats. The town vegans form a bloc to oppose all animal husbandry on the commons. Because there are so many stakeholders, it becomes a practical impossibly to negotiate any use for the commons. Rather than the land being overused, it is now underused because no consensus can be reached.

The Gordon Lightfoot song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is an example of the tragedy of the anticommons. When a television producer approached Lightfoot about using the song in an episode of his show, Lightfoot only agreed on the condition that the producer also get the approval of all of the families of the victims of the shipwreck. The producer quickly realized that the transaction costs associated with tracking down and negotiating with 29 families would be prohibitive. Because too many people had a say in the conditions under which the song would be used, the producer wrote a similar song, and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald did not get used at all.

Beer of the week: Edmund Fitzgerald Porter – This brew from Great Lakes Brewing Co. is anything but a wreck. The aroma is similar to Guinness, but the flavor and mouthfeel are both more substantial. The beer is a little bitter, a little sweet, and a lot delicious.

Reading of the week: Law and Liberty by Roscoe Pound – The lectures included in the Harvard Classics set are almost entirely by then-contemporary Harvard professors. Roscoe Pound was a professor of jurisprudence at the time, but went on to become dean of Harvard Law. As a prominent educator and as a thinker who deeply engaged with the history and philosophy of the law, Pound would arguably have a case for inclusion if the Harvard Classics were to be updated today. This essay discusses the history of law and personal liberty in a way that may be helpful for understanding the conflicting individual and social interests at stake in the case of the commons.

Question for the week: Would a best solution to the problem of the commons include some sort of payment to those townspeople who do not have sheep and, therefore, do not use the commons? Or would would payments to non-shepherds amount to an undesirable incentive to not raise sheep?


Roland in the Deep

This is the forty-ninth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLIX: Epic and Saga

If you need help, ask for it. Help is out there. To be sure, there is plenty of value to doing things for oneself. Self-sufficiency is a tremendous virtue. But so much unnecessary struggle and pain comes from people not asking for help when they really should. And it often comes down to pride.

In the epic poem The Song of Roland, the titular hero refuses to ask for help. With the great Saracen army bearing down on his position, Roland’s wise adviser Oliver repeatedly exhorts him to blow his horn and call for reinforcements. Roland, out of a sense of pride, declines time and again. Oliver, in an effort to respond in kind, responds, “I deem of neither reproach nor stain” to ask for help. Of course, that appeal is of no avail.

The worst part of people refusing to ask for help is how often others get hurt because of it. If Roland wants to make a heroic, suicidal last stand, that is well and good. But why should he subject his men to unnecessary danger and hardship? After Oliver fails to convince Roland on a point of pride, he points out the harm to his men. “Were the king but here we were spared this woe… Where standeth our doomed rear-guard the while; They will do their last brave feat this day, No more to mingle in mortal fray.” Predictably, Roland’s response is to call Oliver a coward. All Roland has to do is swallow his pride and blow his horn. To do so would not only improve the odds of victory, but would a probably also reduce the number of casualties. Instead, he insists on satisfying his pride, even at the cost of his men’s lives.

Relatively few people are put in the position of Roland, but everybody needs a little help from time to time. And refusing that help can hurt more than just oneself. So take care of yourself, and ask for help if you need it. For everybody’s sake.

Beer of the week: Krankshaft – “Kölsch” is a protected geographical indicator, meaning that beers brewed more than 50 km from Cologne, Germany may not use that term. (Enough has been said already about protected geographical indicators.) Hence, this brew from Chicago’s Metropolitan Brewing is called “Kölsch Style Beer”. Whatever it is called, it is smooth and malty. It is pale in color with a fluffy head. The yeast imparts a some nice sour notes to this very enjoyable beer.

Reading of the week: The Song of Roland – This excerpt is from the prelude to the battle, and ends just before the fighting begins. You will be glad to know that Roland does eventually blow his horn to summon Charlemagne and his men. However, he does so only after it is too late for the reinforcements to reach him. And, for good measure, he blows the horn so hard that he ruptures his own temples. What an ass!

Question for the week: Is there an important distinction between refusing help when offered and not asking for help? Is one worse?


Impostor Syndrome

This is the forty-eighth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLVIII: Thoughts, Letters & Minor Works by Blaise Pascal

The Galaxy Song by Monty Python contains the advice: “remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure, how amazingly unlikely is your birth.” Blaise Pascal put the concept slightly differently: “you find yourself in the world at all, only through an infinity of chances. Your birth depends on a marriage, or rather on the marriages of all those from whom you descend. But upon what do these marriages depend? A visit made by chance, an idle word, a thousand unforeseen occasions.”

The point (to Pascal, if not Python) is that we have no particular “right” to anything we have. Although it may be possible to earn things, we already won the existential lottery simply by being born. Consequently, our own merit accounts for relatively little of what we’ve “accomplished.”

As important as that understanding is, it is vital not to be overwhelmed by it. In the face of such a realization, one may be tempted to give up every effort and ambition on the grounds that an infinity of conditions beyond our control may crush us at any time. A more commendable reaction is to try harder to be the best that we can be. As Epictetus recognized, even though we are subject to an infinity of forces beyond our control, what we can control is our reactions to those forces.

Beer of the week: Creeker Double IPA – Through an infinity of chances, I happened to visit the Ithaca Beer Company recently. This IPA from that small brewery is hazy and yellowish, with plenty of head. The aroma is replete with citrus and tropical fruit notes. The flavor follows. And despite the fact that there is relatively little malt flavor, the beer does have a nice, full body. And at 9% alcohol by volume, it packs a punch.

Reading of the week: Discourses on the Condition of the Great by Blaise Pascal – In this essay, Pascal is particularly interested in the chance that makes one man an aristocrat and another man a commoner. Perhaps he should have focused on the when and where of people’s births; everybody who reads this post almost certainly has a higher standard of living than any of the nobility in Pascal’s day.

Question for the week: What is the biggest factor in an individual’s success: station of birth, education (if that can even be distinguished from station of birth), or something else?


Beer as Water

This is the forty-seventh in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLVII: Elizabethan Drama 2

“Let the wine be plentiful as beer, and beer as water. Hang those penny-pinching fathers that cram wealth in innocent lamb-skins.” Thus Simon Eyre, the mayor of London, opens the feast at the end of Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday. But very few coffers are deep enough to long sustain such a prodigious flow of libations, and the play is somewhat ambiguous on the virtue of thrift.

Earlier in the play, before Eyre was mayor, he promised his workmen a dozen cans of beer. But when he placed the order, he slyly told the errand boy to purchase only two. When the delivery came up ten cans short of the promised dozen, Eyre feigned surprise, but was clearly glad to get twelve cans’ worth of good cheer from his workers for the price of two.

At the beginning of the play, another character relates how his nephew wasted a veritable fortune, reveling his way across Europe:

A verier unthrift lives not in the world,

Than is my cousin; for I’ll tell you what:

’Tis now almost a year since he requested

To travel countries for experience.

I furnished him with coins, bills of exchange,

Letters of credit, men to wait on him,

Solicited my friends in Italy

Well to respect him. But to see the end:

Scant had he journey’d through half Germany,

But all his coin was spent, his men cast off,

His bills embezzl’d, and my jolly coz,

Asham’d to show his bankrupt presence here,

Became a shoemaker in Wittenberg,

Of course, the time spent as a shoemaker ends up serving the young man very well, but one can hardly argue that carousing to the point of bankruptcy is sound policy.

If The Shoemaker’s Holiday has a lesson regarding thrift, it seems to be that one should be willing to spend money for the sake of enjoyment, particularly the enjoyment of others, but not to live beyond one’s means. Lacy was wrong to waste so much of his uncle’s money in Europe, and Eyre was arguably justified in buying his men less than the dozen beers he promised. But once Eyre’s fortune was made, he quite laudably spent a great deal of it on feasting the shoemakers.

So let the beer be as plentiful as water… so long as you can cover the bar tab.

Beer of the week: Broegel Bock Beer – One way to stretch the beer budget is to buy “store-brand” beer. Aldi grocery stores sell a few beers that appear to be “knock-offs” of better known (and slightly more expensive) beers: Kinroo Blue (Blue Moon), Independence Harbor (Sam Adams)Cerveza Monterey (Corona). Based on the label of Broegel Bock, I assumed that this was simply Aldi’s version of Shiner Bock. The packaging is extremely similar. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Broegel is brewed by Brouwerij Martens NV, a prominent white-label brewery in Belgium. The beer is dark amber with a tan head of very large bubbles. The aroma is of bread and caramel. The flavor matches the smell, with sourdough notes to go with the sweet dark malt. This is a much better beer than Shiner Bock.

Reading of the week: The Shoemaker’s Holiday by Thomas Dekker – To be a minute late to this play would mean missing some very important plot points. The opening conversation establishes the forbidden relationship that drives the action of the play.

Question for the week: The balance between quantity and quality is difficult to establish. Is an $18 six-pack really twice as good as a $9 six-pack?