The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Lawnmower Problem

OK, never mind, for the moment, if lawns are a good idea. Let's consider lawnmowers.

If you have a typical American house, you have a typical lawn in front of it, a lawn that is in need of occasional trimming. Unless you contract out for lawn services, you almost certainly own a lawnmower too. Most likely it has a cheesy, loud, polluting little engine.

You only use this for an hour every other week, or 1/336 of the time. OK, you don't want people mowing lawns at night, so say 1/168 of the available daylight time. So you and your 167 nearest neighbors own 168 times too many lawnmowers. If you could coordinate your lawnmowing, you would need to spend 1/168 as much on a lawnmower. Similar calculations apply to every other household tool you own that you don't use intensively in your work or your principal hobbies.

OK, it's a slight exaggeration for various reasons, but there is no reason 50 people couldn't share a really good lawnmower except for logistics. Less intensive tool sharing is already happening informally in more civilized neighborhoods on local mailing lists. ("Has anybody got one of those really tall pruning shears?") Sure enough, people are trying to build web tools to facilitate more effective sharing. ( H/T @timoreilly )

Though it strikes me as possibly overkill, and that perhaps a local mailing list would be more fun, this sort of thing may move the process of substituting relationship for stuff forward.

Now consider that this would reduce the demand for lawnmowers by 98% over the long term, and create a vast oversupply in the short run.

This is part of the trend to substitution of information for materials. Knowing where to borrow a lawnmower is actually better than owning a lawnmower: it saves you some storage. Substituting information for materials decreases impact on the environment; the impact from the manufacture of 49 lawnmowers in this case.

It will also greatly reduce employment in the manufacture of nasty little two- four-stroke engines. According to almost all economists and almost all politicians, this is a bad thing. Obama has as his first priority re-employing all the people who until recently were diligently employed creating, servicing and financing a huge housing glut. The public agrees. They are wrong.

Economists would argue in theory that if a web site or more reliance on mailing lists or even old fashioned community "bulletin boards" (corkboards and thumbtacks) can replace 98% of lawnmowers with a few pennies worth of information exchange, this amounts to creating value.

But it's value that's very hard to capture: the people putting up the web site will invest a few hundred hours of effort but not much else, and will probably get by on advertising revenues. The vast bulk of the return goes to the people who don't have to get new lawnmowers. So in practice, wealth is moved from the money economy back to the informal economy.

GDP goes down. Employment goes down. Collective well-being goes up a little bit but individual well-being of people who make and market little two-^H^H^H^H four-stroke engines goes down. Crisis is declared.

Yet this is exactly the opposite of the behavior that got us into trouble in the first place: the replacement of community with commerce. Isn't this the sort of "decline" we should be encouraging?

Of course it is no pleasure to lose your main income stream, especially when your savings are crumbling too. The response to this shouldn't be to "revive" the economy, especially the manufacturing sector which has obviously overproduced. The response should be to make it less of threat to be unemployed: public health care, decent housing and food standards provided for everybody. Losing income should not be an existential threat. Calm, underemployed people can be a huge source for creativity and restoration of the social fabric. Desperate underfed people can't.

The answer to past overproduction can't be to bring back the good old days of overproduction.

Don't work too hard to keep your job. Apply your extra efforts to find out how you can contribute to the informal economy.

Don't replace your lawnmower. Meet your neighbors.

Relaxation is progress. Take advantage of the Great Unwinding, and unwind.

Via @timoreilly, here's a discussion of the very topic at hand.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

2 stroke lawn mowers?? Even boat motors are 4 stroke nowadays.

Michael Tobis said...

If you say so...

guthrie said...

Funnily enough I came up with the same idea a few months ago, when I was thinking about DIY tools.
In your average street, nobody uses their drill for more than 30 minutes every year, yet most houses will have one. Moreover, if you spent the 2 or 3 times amount necessary to buy a professional quality one, it will last much longer.

Phil said...

The same argument can be applied to washing machines, cars, and a host of other technological toys much loved by our consumer society.

crf said...

Just pay someone (or a company) to mow your lawn.

This is even more efficient than sharing lawnmowers among neighbours.

Some people like mowing their own lawn though. Sharing would be an option for them.

Michael Tobis said...

Re Guthrie's point about quality, this is very true, though it isn't my main point.

As an example, American suburbanites work hard to maintain a bit of lawn they rarely if ever occupy for any purpose other than to maintain it. (We Texans, at least, use our back yards a bit for barbecue. In Chicago suburbs, the back yard is as pointless as the front.)

By contrast, Parisians have no yard, but they have excellent public transportation and excellent parks. As a consequence they can go to a shared outdoor space that is vastly better than any of them can individually afford. Which they do. What passes for a park in my neighborhood in Austin is, as Pontius Pilate might say, wisible. (It does look vaguely like a park from a moving car.)

Note the placement of the pedestrian bridge with respect to the footpaths, for instance.

David B. Benson said...

Parks are out-of-bounds, since you started off by stating we had to ignore the value/purpose of lawns.

Lawns started with large country estates in England hundreds of years ago. The lawns were the meadows for the sheep; the sheep kept for wool and mutton. No mowing required back then.

Somehow the connection between wealthy and lawns caught on. So we a stuck with lawns.

Of course, you could probably rent a lawnmower from your local rental equipment company.

Anyway, I still have a hand pushed reel mower left over from the days when I still had a lawn. I'm more sensible now: no lawn.

Thomas Palm said...

In a similar vein I have thought about how sites like eBay that makes it much easier to trade used stuff has improved wealth and to what extent economists takes this into account when they calculate economic growth.

guthrie said...

Lawns are also useful for playing on, sunbathing, barbecuing, letting the dog go to the toilet, and separating the flower beds.

Paying someone to mow them all assumes that it works out ok in terms of money exchanged for the job done versus how long it would take you yourself to do it. 1/2 an hour? So would you pay someone 3, 4 or 10 pounds to do it? What about their travel time, national insurance, personal insurance etc etc? Suddenly it makes less sense, especially in todays complex world.

Mind you, I though thats what teenagers were for.

Michael Tobis said...

There are complications to lending as well.

Suppose one person damages a tool in a way that makes it dangerous, and fails to report that fact. Then another person, perhaps not the next person to use the tool, is injured. Who is liable?

Despite the fascination of the subject of lawns, my question here is mostly about the definition of progress, though.

guthrie said...

Definition of progress? I think you'll find that most of us don't disagree regarding the problems with the current/ historical definition of progress, but the difficulty is in getting to where we want to be, rather than defining it precisely.

Calm underemployed people are of course a good resource for society, witness the (stereotypical but yet all too accurate) way that entire villages are run by stay at home wives and spinsters. But the key point is that in "The good old days", assuming you weren't bottom of the heap, the salary of one person (Usually the man, but not as often as you would think) was enough to have somewhere to stay, food, drink, clothes and a bit left over for entertainment and perhaps some savings.
But in world where it is important to make the differences as big as possible, with debt based monetary system and a drive to efficiency in a world with limited resources, things get so bad that in the hypothetical (and stereotypical again) family has to have both parents at work in order to afford what is judged necessary to have a good life, and even just to be able to afford the home and food and clothes.

How do the Amish cope with lack of growth? Or rather, how does the energy flow in their economy?

Mark Long said...

Michael, this is exactly what I see in my suburban neighborhood. I've got a garage with a few tools and thought about all the people with a garage loaded with tools. I know people who have their basements full of "stuff" and their three-car garage so full they can't park in it.

My idea was to allow people to monetize their things and make that lawnmower work for you. Using Crowd Rent I wanted to be able to rent things from people in my area and rent things to them so everyone can make some extra money on the things they already own while reducing the need to buy more stuff.

Michael Tobis said...

Good luck, Mark.

My question is not so much for you as for economists, though. It is obvious that to the extent you succeed you will be providing a valuable service. I am all for it.

Won't you be reducing the GDP, though? Don't efforts like this (not to mention EBay etc.) tend to make "recession" "worse", in the terms usually used in discussing macroeconomics?

Mark said...

Sorry for the slow response but you're absolutely right according to many. I was reading (and writing) about exactly that. The “paradox of thrift” is a term coined by John Maynard Keynes and in an article by the New York Times (My post) they describe how because people are scared they are, as a result, saving at a higher rate. This is in turn reducing spending and exacerbating the exact problem they're worried about.

From my own personal point of view we, as a nation and to a large extent world, have been consuming at a pace which is unsustainable. If we flipped a switch and everyone decided to rent what they needed to a large extent and not buy it would cause a substantial collapse in the economy in my highly amateur economist opinion. However, if we transitioned from our current inclination to consume at a rate beyond our means in many cases to a rental system we could see quite a few positive benefits as well as a smoother transition.

I think the idea is very new but in the next 10 years we'll see a much larger portion of the population embrace the idea. The money will still be there, but it might change hands in a different manner. We can't keep going at this pace of produce-consume. It'll be a slow transition but hopefully it will change the way we use the finite resources we have while still affording people a desired quality of life.

Scruffy Dan said...

I just came here from a Post on the Stoat blog, and this line caught my eye.

"Calm, underemployed people can be a huge source for creativity and restoration of the social fabric."

I was listening to a podcast (if I recall correctly it was TWIT, and Jason Calicanis was making the point), that much of the seeds of web 2.0 were planted right after the dotcom bubble burst. All of a sudden all these incredibly talented and creative people found themselves with a bunch of time on their hands, and because of that we all benefited immensely.

You might be on to something here.

Nosmo said...

Berkeley CA has a tool lending library as part of the regular library system. Comes in very handy for those seldom used tools. They don't provide gas tools but do have electric. I borrow a hedge trimmer every few months. Recently borrowed a 100 lbs roller for a Marmolium floor installation. They even have very common things like hammers and tape measures. I've donated tools that I rarely use just to get them out of the garage.

Also gave away our gas lawnmower after my boss gave us her hand mower when she got rid of the lawn.

Just doing my best to reduce the GDP!

Matt said...

"Supply creates its own demand", but in this case it would be the opposite. Yes, GDP would decline, but I am not convinced that is a bad thing. The collective money not spent on lawnmowers, and therefore not received as lawnmower income would mean that collectively we could no longer afford lawnmowers. The key difference is that now collectively, we're working less, because we're no longer producing these lawnmowers that we don't really need. At a certain point, GDP is no longer an indicator of wealth, but of consumerism.

kathleen said...
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