Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Non-Coercive Environmentalism

Now, this is the way it should be...partnerships between businesses and environmental groups, instead of heavy-handed, destructive government edicts.

Think of what a "market" is comprised...individuals and businesses exchanging value for value. Each player participates in the exchange because they both believe they will be better off for it. This is exactly the same principle that is at work here. Businesses exchange what environmentalists value for what businesses value. In the end, both are better off than they were before. Environmental groups make progress toward their goals, while businesses receive the "green" seal of approval and improve their reputation with consumers. It's win-win...value is created for both parties.

On the other hand, government edicts destroy value by forcing businesses to exchange something of more value to the business, for something of lower value. Businesses expend resources reducing pollution, with nothing to show for it. As if that weren't enough, the cost of enforcing the edicts takes money from the hands of consumers that could be put toward more environment-friendly products. It's a lose-lose. As in nearly every other case, government inaction has been a good thing. It has allowed the market to respond by creating value, which is what markets are good at.

The holdouts who claim that environmental groups are "compromising too much" will forever be unable to come to grips with this reality. Markets are all about compromise. Any time you spend money on something you compromise whatever else may have been bought with those funds. By giving up one thing, you have gained something of greater value. The Sierra Club may not have gotten its hearts' desire of a complete ban on pollution of any kind, but rather than spending resources lobbying for this or that legislation, perhaps fruitlessly, they have actually accomplished something through compromise. Let's hope they keep it up.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Isn't MORE Recycling the Whole Point?

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's a crime to recycle in some major U.S. cities. Or it soon will be. With the market prices for recycled goods actually reaching a level that makes recycling profitable, bands of entrepreneurs have rushed onto the scene to make a buck by "stealing" recyclable materials from trash cans. A few major cities are cracking down on these trash thieves, in a bid to ensure that recycling remains a government monopoly.
"California lawmakers are also considering legislation that would make large-scale, anonymous recycling more difficult by forcing scrap and paper recyclers to require picture identification for anyone bringing in more than $50 worth of cans, bottles or newspapers and to pay such individuals with checks rather than cash."
So, let me get this straight...state and city governments supposedly want people to recycle, right? Most people believe that recycling is a good thing, which is not untrue. The problem with recycling to date has been that it wasn't profitable, so the only way it could be sustained was if it was subsidized by taxes. Now, suddenly it's profitable to recycle, so more people are doing it. You would think this is a good thing, right?

Well, the government obviously doesn't think so, and neither do their monopoly contract holders. Why not? You might think that a waste collection company could care less, and may even be thrilled that private individuals are doing a portion of their work for them. After all, refuse theft means less they have to pick up and less they have to dump into a landfill. It would save space, time, and money. So why would they condemn the practice and lobby for laws prohibiting it? Because it threatens their monopoly on recycling...plain and simple. If private recycling becomes a profitable enterprise, the subsidized government bureaucracy loses its raison d'etre, since its only reason to exist is to provide a service that supposedly couldn't or wouldn't be provided by a free market.

Now, I certainly am not one to advocate theft, and you could make the argument that refuse left by the curb to be picked up by a collection company belongs to either the producer (the resident disposing of the refuse) or the company. And, of course, stealing newspapers out of the rack in order to recycle them would rightly be considered theft...except that we're talking about "free" newspapers.
"The free weekly The East Bay Express, which covers Oakland, Berkeley and other Bay Area cities, hired an ex-police detective to stake out thieves and began retrofitting curbside newspaper racks to make them theft-resistant because thousands of fresh copies go missing some weeks.

"We don't want to be spending all our energy printing papers that people take directly to the recyclers," said Hal Brody, the paper's president.

Mike Costello, vice president of circulation at the free San Francisco daily, The Examiner, has taken to doing stakeouts of his own." (emphasis added)
These newspapers are probably free because they're paid for by advertisers, so the argument could definitely be made that the recyclers are stealing from the advertisers themselves. However, the fact that they're being stolen specifically for recycling would seem to indicate that they're more valuable as recycled material than as actual newspapers, which should probably inspire the advertisers to rethink that particular marketing choice.

But why should a homeowner care who takes possession of his or her trash once they place it next to the curb for pick-up?
"Every Wednesday night, Bruce Johnson dutifully puts his garbage and recycling on the curb for pickup, and every week he fumes as small trucks idle in front of his home and strangers dig through his bins stealing trash they aim to turn into treasure."
In most cases, residents don't pay for their trash pick-up directly. Rather, it's paid for via taxes or homeowners' dues. The same is often true of recycling (although in some rural areas homeowners must actually pay to have recyclables picked up separately). One would think that if someone was willing to pick up a portion of a homeowners' garbage for free it would spur competition among waste collection companies for contracts. This is, of course, precisely what the government monopolists don't want.

So here we are, at a point where one can actually turn an honest profit while "saving the planet", but rather than embracing the benefits that this newfound profitably would bring in a free market, bureaucracy is fighting it tooth and nail, as it threatens its very existence. Surely we all see the irony herein. Government wants you to recycle, but only so long as you use government to do it. All else is verboten. Honestly, were I a homeowner who witnessed my garbage being ransacked for recyclables I would probably feel more inclined to sort the recyclable items into a separate container to speed up the process of undermining the government monopoly on recycling, thereby doing my part to save the planet by encouraging the free recycling market to flourish.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Rants on Corporate Culture - Treatment of Rule Breakers

Let's face it...unless I strike out on my own and start my own business, I'll probably always be a corporate employee. It's just the nature of my job. What I do isn't cheap, and lots of resources are required to attract and keep people like me. So, the best pay, benefits, and growth opportunity for DBAs can generally be had only in a larger corporate environment. I accept this willingly, particularly since my understanding of economics and free exchange provide me with the appropriate perspective to be able to appreciate the benefits that working for larger corporations provides. This is my bed, and I'm happy to lie in it.

Every now and then, though, some things about corporate life get under my skin. The one recent example is something I'll call "Group Remediation". It occurs when one person makes a mistake or abuses some privilege, but rather than discipline that particular person for his or her infraction, the corporate mindset inevitably requires that EVERYONE be trained, counseled, or otherwise made to suffer for it. It's as if, unless something is done quickly, the irresponsible person will infect everyone around him or her with some vile disease, and so we must ALL be inoculated immediately with mandatory group training sessions, policy awareness surveys, and other such corporate vaccines.

It would be one thing if we were talking about a new policy, in which case it makes sense that human resources (HR) would want to make everyone aware of it. Too often, though, it is a knee-jerk reaction to the violation of an existing policy. They call it "proactive prevention", but it's really just a spreading around of punishment, although any HR department member will deny that this is the case even unto their deathbed.

So whence does this mindset originate, and what are the effects thereof? I suspect that the origin of the mindset has something to do with the general tendency to ignore individual responsibility, for which bureaucracy is well-known. Rather than view a policy infraction as a lapse in individual judgment, it is seen as some sort of systemic problem, and must be treated as such. That is not to say systemic problems don't exist, but these are typically a case of twisted incentives directing individual behavior, such as the way a system of government inevitably rewards departmental failure.

The effect of Group Remediation is to alert individuals in no way associated with the infraction that someone in their midst is a rule-breaker. The identity of the irresponsible person is almost never revealed, leaving the responsible individuals to wonder who has caused them all to suffer through this particular instance of corporate hell. The rule-breaker, however, has the pleasure of knowing he or she has cost coworkers time that could have otherwise been spent productively, and wondering who knows it was them. Perhaps this is exactly the drive home the consequences of individual actions by dragging everyone around the individual through the mud, hoping that doing so will spur responsible individuals to "police their own". What a shitty way to treat people.