Lawnmowers and $40 nachos

Lawnmowers and $40 nachos April 30, 2011

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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