Lawnmowers and $40 nachos

For the same reason that everyone asks for their own check at the restaurant.

That’s my answer to Atrios’ recent question, “Why Does Everybody Own Their Own Lawnmower?

I know there is a fairly obvious answer to this question. There’s a cost of organizing and coordination. But, yet, in the aggregate an immense amount of money is likely wasted because of this coordination failure. Surely there could be just one lawnmower for every 10 households (I just made that number up of course), there could be a modest hourly rental fee, with a weekend premium, and an online reservation system.

But, OK, yes, there is a genuine cost to organizing such a system, and maybe lawnmowers don’t cost all that much. Still in my time in the burbs I don’t remember anyone ever simply suggesting sharing a lawnmower between two neighboring households, a rather simple arrangement.

It ought to be a rather simple arrangement, and the idea does make an enormous amount of sense — particularly now when household budgets are strained by a combination of flat wages and increasing expenses. (I don’t mean inflation — I mean the new fixed costs due to technological change: cable, Internet, wireless, ID-theft protection rackets, etc.)

A situation in which everybody has to have their own everything is going to be far more expensive for all concerned than a situation in which at least some things can be shared. And lawnmowers — a necessary item used regularly but not constantly — seem like a reasonable candidate for sharing. (My own household doesn’t have any formal arrangement, but we share the mowing, if not the mower, with the good folks next door.)

Duncan actually describes two different sorts of arrangements. The first — with rental fees and reservations — sounds more like a business model for something that could probably work on a small scale. The second “sharing a lawnmower between two neighboring households” is much more informal. But in either case, such arrangements require either a substantial healthy relationship — a neighborly friend-ship — or its contractual equivalent, with documents, rules and some enforcement mechanism.

In either case, for this arrangement to be more help than hassle, all parties would need to exhibit some altruistic virtues that are not always easily cultivated in the same suburban soils in which America’s largest crop — lawn grass — is often grown. Sharing, whether out of neighborliness or by contract, requires all sides to be magnanimous, generous and deferential. Or, in other words, the arrangement would only be worth the potential savings if nobody was a jerk — if nobody was the sort of advantage-seeking jackwagon who never refills the gas can or who tries to get others to pay more than a fair share of maintenance costs.

If people insist on being jerks, then sharing can’t work. And we’re swimming upstream here, because sharing, by its very nature, tends to reward jerks who try to exploit the system. (That may be part of why Ananias and Sapphira were punished so harshly in the earliest Christian community, in which “All who believed were together and had all things in common.”)

You’ve experienced this. More than once. You’re at a restaurant with a large party of friends or co-workers or castmembers or — riskiest of all — people from church, and everybody is on one tab. The bill gets passed around the table and the money gets piled up in the middle and you wind up $20 short — not to mention the tip. “Who didn’t put in?” No one says anything. Everyone insists they paid more than enough for their share, with plenty of extra for the tip, but you’re $20 short, so somebody is lying. More than one somebody, probably. But since no one fesses up, you end up tossing in way more than you should have had to and those $5.99 nachos wind up costing you $40.

That’s the sort of experience that makes it seem easier and even cheaper to just buy your own lawnmower.

Or think of a more substantial experience of sharing — the experience of having a roommate. That word likely conjures up a host of connotations and emotional responses based on your past experiences both good and bad. Those good experiences are a reminder that such sharing arrangements can be pleasant, cost-effective and mutually beneficial. But those bad experiences are a reminder that such arrangements can also be a nightmare.

That kind of nightmare — finding oneself bound in an interdependent relationship and/or contract with others who are never magnanimous, generous or deferential, with others who seek to take advantage, who cannot be trusted to pay their share of the bill when your back is turned — is intolerable. The risk of finding oneself in such a situation will, for most people, outweigh the potential benefits of any proposed sharing arrangement.

Everyone having their own everything is a ridiculous and expensive arrangement. But every alternative to it requires either a base-level of virtue and trustworthiness that cannot be reliably expected, or else the contractual regulations that would be needed in lieu of such trustworthiness and virtue, which may well be more burdensome and expensive than the original ridiculous Hobbesian/Randian consumerism.

All of which, I suppose, is just to say that our lives would be a lot cheaper and easier if we were better people.

The interesting question to me is which costs more in the long run — occasionally being taken advantage of by advantage-seeking jackwagons? Or being so vigilant against such exploitation that we all have to have our own everything?

Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. And always chip in enough to cover your bill plus a generous tip.

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  • Anonymous

    I’ve seen this principle at work too. In fact, I have a little aphorism that I use to sum it up

    Conservatives are afraid that somebody is going to get something they don’t deserve. Liberals are afraid we’re all going to get exactly what we deserve.

    I think this dynamic comes down less to “I want to help” vs. “I want to punish” or even rational economic analysis (otherwise, it would be no big deal convincing people that catching welfare / foodstamp cheats is a perfectly valid way of dealing with system fraud.) I think it comes down to the ability to imagine yourself as someone else. The question that gets posed is along the lines “Would I take things from other people to help myself?” Not necessarily “Would I cheat welfare?” but “If I was starving and I found a rich guys wallet, would I return it?” Taxation IS a form of coercive giving – I mean, you DO get in trouble if you don’t pay your taxes to help with (what little there is.) social spending.

    To my mind, most conservatives suffer from this weird sort of moral false-conciousness where they THINK they’d return the wallet. (Maybe they would, I don’t know. To me this tends to make them either totally irrational zealots, or sitting atop a steaming pile of self-deception.) Liberals on the other hand, I don’t think they have this problem. They know that if push came to shove, the rich guy isn’t going to miss the hundred bucks they stole out of his wallet. But, you know, they still STOLE it, so they don’t really concern themselves so much with some sort of imaginary perfect justice, because they’re aware enough to realize than in such a world, we’d all be well and truly screwed.

    Again, this leaves me in the spot where I am incapable of understanding how the phrase “Conservative Christian” is not considered an oxymoron of the same ironic magnitude of the “email-only” support option from my ISP, or the mythical Braille driving test.

  • Anonymous

    Well, I have noticed another related issue, where conservatives seem to misunderstand the psychology of human behavior (including their own behavior), and therefore they tend to grossly over-estimate the power of threat of punishment. This is in support of my previous theory. You see it everywhere, from Randroids believing that everyone makes purchases on a perfectly rational basis, to parents who think that spanking is effective, to certain religious types thinking that people can’t be good without the threat of Hell, to people who like the government to do symbolic but useless gestures as a way to “send the right message”, to Republicans who think that giving food to hungry people make them lazy.

    It really seems to me that conservatives believe everyone bases their behavior on a simple risk vs. reward model, and they want to make risks higher for behavior they disapprove of, assuming that it will have a linear effect. They never stop to think that maybe their assumption is wrong, which I find highly ironic because even their own behavior isn’t determined this way. So they think that if a few people can game the system and cheat a soup kitchen out of a little bit of food, everyone will suddenly start doing it because there will be nothing to stop them.

    The reason that I’ve never stolen money is because I’ve never needed to. Even though there have been plenty of times when I could have easily gotten away with it (being white, female, and affluent), I have still never stolen anything. Most people haven’t. Even the conservatives who think punishment is all-important would probably not steal even if they were guaranteed to have no punishment in this life or after it. But they don’t realize the motivation for their own behavior.

  • And then there’s (more traditional) Chinese families/friends, whose custom is to take turns paying for the entire meal rather than going Dutch.

    A fantastic approach, and I’m sure it works with a large number of families. It’s not jerk-proof, however. I had a great aunt would “generously” pay for my mother’s lunch at McDonald’s, only to turn around that night and suggest that my mother cover that night’s dinner at the steak house in return.

  • VilleVicious

    I think that problem can be healped a bit by having the person/couple whos turn it is to pay choose the venue where the group eats. This won’t distribute the cost eavenly, but it should help people choose places that reasonably priced for their budget and nobody has to pay more than they can afford. I’m planning on using this type of system in the future when I’m dating.

  • Monala

    My own thought (one that used to be said frequently by Christians), is “there but for the grace of God go I.” So if I were homeless and starving, would I want there to be soup kitchens around to help me? Since the answer is yes, why wouldn’t I want that for people currently in that situation?

  • Daughter

    A friend of mine who is Chinese said there is also a tradition of giving your family presents on your birthday: you’re thanking them for your life.

  • Amaryllis

    The New York Times Magazine ran a story recently profiling a system of “wet houses,” residences for chronic alcoholics. These are the guys who haven’t been able to stop drinking regardless of 12-step programs or hospital stays or jail terms, and who’d otherwise be homeless. They get room and board, medical care, cable and internet, and a small allowance that, yes, most of them spend on booze. They aren’t required to stop drinking, but it’s counted as victory if they’re able to cut down.

    The houses are supported partly by Catholic Charities and partly by public (state of Minnesota) funding, on the calculation that it costs less to support the “hopeless” cases in a controlled setting than to pay for the emergency medical, social and legal services that they’d be using, or causing other people to need, if they were living on the streets. Are they “jerks” working the system, getting their living for nothing? Or people with a life-threatening disease receiving social support?

    Predictably, there are those that are outraged that tax money, or even charity money, is essentially being used to support jobless addicts at a minimum level of comfort while they, to be blunt, drink themselves to death, and the financial cost-benefit calculation doesn’t seem like any justification. But I guess, if I were a chronically homeless alcohol addict, I’d be grateful for such a place.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart


    Conservatives are afraid that somebody is going to get something they don’t deserve. Liberals are afraid we’re all going to get exactly what we deserve.</blockquote

    That doesn't fit with the extra-US understanding of the term 'liberal'. In my part of the world, for example, liberalism is, in essence, a philosophy of limited government intervention–it's not the opposite of conservatism; it's a point on a different scale. So someone who identifies as liberal generally prefers nature to run its course in social and economic matters rather than having government try to prod things towards one end or other. I imagine that if you held this belief you'd be likely to expect things in their natural state to work out well for yourself*, and you'd probably reason that this is because you deserve it. When the natural state of affairs works out badly for other people, I imagine you'd have to rationalise that either they deserved it, or the world is inherently unjust and you're fine with that.

    So no, I don't think liberals, as in people who hold to the philosophy of liberalism, fear getting what they deserve. They expect it, and expect that they deserve good things.

    *As it happens, in my part of the world liberals tend to be people with relatively high power and privilege, so nature left to run its own course does tend to work out well for such people.

    this leaves me in the spot where I am incapable of understanding how the phrase “Conservative Christian” is not considered an oxymoron

    Depends on your understanding of conservatism. I like Waleed Ali’s description of conservatism as a philosophy that is inherently anti-revolutionary. Conservatives believe any social change should occur gradually, and naturally if possible. He makes it clear that conservatism is not the same thing as nationalism, politicised nostalgia, xenophobia, the economic right wing or a reactionary position to social change, although these have tended to be bedfellows in the political shift marked by the start of the Reagen/Thatcher era.

    Anyway, viewed through this particular lens, it is possible for someone to be a conservative who believes in justice, has empathy for the poor etc. etc. So a Christian being a conservative is not necessarily as absurd as it seems in the modern political context of conservativism.

    As it happens, I am not a conservative under this narrow definition because I believe that the injustices against the most marginalised in society are so severe that gradual change is not sufficient. Justice delayed etc. I’m also a Christian who thinks that the gospel is radical and revolutionary, so personally I don’t think anyone following in Christ’s footsteps would be a conservative by any measure. So, yeah, “Christian conservative” is still an oxymoron to me, but in a more philosophical, les stark sense than I think you were getting at.

  • Calvinism lets you change even “There but for the grace of God go I” into an expression of entitlement and self-satisfaction.

  • FYI, the problem you’re describing is known to political scientists and economists as a collective action problem. Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom went so far as to say that political science was the study of collective action problems.

    The small-scale examples you describe here are structurally identical to larger scale collective action problems like overdrawing of water from aquifers and rivers, overfishing ocean fisheries, etc.

    The interesting question to me is which costs more in the long run — occasionally being taken advantage of by advantage-seeking jackwagons? Or being so vigilant against such exploitation that we all have to have our own everything?

    That’s one of the fundamental questions explored by scholars like Ostrom. The simple, and not so helpful, answer is “it depends.” The smaller the group, the more likely (although not with any certainty) that it’s cheaper to allow oneself to occasionally be taken advantage of. The value of the good plays a factor, too–if it’s really expensive, having your own may not be worthwhile; on the other hand, if the benefit that it provides is really valuable and you risk losing that benefit, it may be worth buying your own even if it’s an expensive item. Social factors play a big role here, too. Tight-knit groups with clear social rules about how to behave are more capable of sharing than less cohesive groups or those that haven’t developed clearly social rules (and means to enforce them).

    It’s a fascinating area of research that helps define the line between self-governance and top-down government. One of the conclusions I’ve drawn from it is that government–while unfortunately necessary at times–represents a failure of self-governance, and sometimes an unnecessary subversion of self-governance.

  • I find sharing working reasonably well in my extended circle of friends. It is strongly a matter of community: There is generositiy and agreement, but there is also control. When it comes to putting one’s part of the pizza money on the table, no one will look politely away. However, if someone is seen not paying, everyone will assume absent-mindedness and politely remind them and help them check the numbers, so no one will lose face.

    Similar with lawnmowers, cars, power tools, camping gear, kitchen gear, what-have-you. One element to make everyone agreeable is that there’s an easy way out for everyone. Don’t want to borrow, buy your own. You’ll be no worse off than if you had bought your own from the beginning. Don’t want to lend, or not to that person, don’t. As long as everyone is allowed to keep face, conflict stays minimal.

    I see the lending and borrowing of things also as an exchange of status which is, if it works, win-win. (Which is why “keeping face” is an important element). The lender gains status as the owner of good stuff worth of usage, the borrower as being thrifty and trustworthy. Even though some people have for more usefull stuff to lend out, the scales balance.

    And along the way, people do not only save money, but spare themselves the clutter.

  • P.S. If anyone’s interested, I commented on the subject in my own blog. /shameless self promotion.

  • Could someone please tell me about threading/quoting guidelines here?

    ako: People have a horror of being taken, and even when it’s cheaper to occasionally get ripped off, most people aren’t going to shrug it off and go “Eh, I’m still saving overall.”

    I try for, “I can afford to be generous, and people who feel they have the need to sponge have enough problems without me adding to them.” I reserve my anger for thos who I cannot afford to be generous to because they spend more in a day than I make in a month.

    Chris: If I stiff people on my share of the bill when we go out to dinner, […] Now, if the group of people are co-workers that I’m not particularly fond of, well, that’s [not getting invited] not much of a consequence.

    Not getting invited isn’t. But while your friends might know you and still love you, if you become known as an unrealiable freeloader in your place of work, and you are inviting trouble.

    Sgt. Pepper: In my work example, non-union members benefit from the safety laws, pay rises and conditions negotiated by union members acting together.

    Fun thing, in Germany only union members are legally entitled to union-negotionated benefits. Most employers are very careful to pay everyone union wages and benefits as to avoid mass unionisation. Occasionally, one isn’t, and the union notices a sudden increase in membership…

    chris the cynic: I wouldn’t be surprised if the relationship between communism and/or socalism and Christianity hadn’t suffered as much elsewhere.

    Socialism was atheist because the churches had long aligned with power, becoming powers in themselves and enacting and supporting reactionary politics, up to and including sponsoring coups. When you want to build a better henhouse, you don’t get a fox for an architect. Also, the promise of consolation in the next life as a prize for submission and obedience in this one was not useful for socialist ideas. And finally, socialism built on what workers had in common. Which wasn’t religion.

    hidden_urchin: Unfortunately, my explanation didn’t take.

    I vaguely remember that statistic that every unsatisfied customer will tell 12 (?) other people. People love to tell stories about rude and stupid people and organisations. One should avoid to become the antagonist in such a tale.

  • Caravelle

    Could someone please tell me about threading/quoting guidelines here?

    As far as I know threading is disabled; when you click “reply” your reply ends up at the end of the comments, with “in reply to X” next to your name, and X when clicked on gives the post you’re replying to. So that’s convenient.

    I don’t know if there’s an actual consensus on best practices yet. What I do is click “reply” to whatever I wish to reply to, type directly what I want if I’m replying to the whole comment, blockquote selected extracts the usual way if I’m not. Sometimes I also reply to others in the same comment, in which case I name and quote them the way I usually would.

  • Indygal

    Living in the midst of an urban hardwood forest, we have shared a leaf collector with a neighbor for 13 years. The arrangement may actually outlive the equipment itself.

  • Indygal

    Oh – and another neighbor uses our extension ladder in exchange for us using his fertilizer spreader.

  • When we’re all sharing our mowers, won’t the mower industry complain that mower-sharing is killing lawns?

  • Alp1022

    I remember my dad and a couple of neighbors going in together for a tiller. It seemed to be more a case of all of them wanting one but not wanting to pay so much for something that they would only use once or twice a year. The only “freeloading” type issue I can remember was my parents telling one of the co-owners that they couldn’t deliver it–he would have to come get it.

    In response to TheRealAaron “the cost of catching cheaters” is not an either/or proposition. There is a point where the cost exceeds anything that might be saved from preventing cheating. We had some incidents recently of a crook robbing a certain newspaper machine. Very petty theft, though harmful to the person who sold the newspapers and the customers. But one of the reasons any jerk can put a few coins in one of these machines and take, in theory, more papers than you paid for is because they aren’t worth taking more to protect. And frankly it would take a real jerk to steal newspapers–they have little resale value and a limited shelf life.

    What we seem to do in our attempts to stop the “cheats” and the “undeserving” from benefiting from “government benefit” programs or charity is the equivalent of stationing a 24-hour guard around a newspaper machine. Or we make the application process so complicated that people just give up (or complain about the government bureaucracy). There doesn’t seem to be much of a cost- benefit analysis to the “fraud” prevention. I am inclined to agree with whoever said a lot of it was about not wanting to feel used.