Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Tragedy of the Commons

Every morning I wake up to the same derisive feeling, loathing myself to wake up for such a task as to get on board a local train in Mumbai. This isn’t a personal loathing towards railways or even the people travelling on them, it’s just a state of contempt upon the whole competition for as scarce a resource as a square foot of real estate which is rightfully mine.

I was listening to Bruce Yandle’s podcast on EconTalk, brilliant podcast, in which he discusses a really cool concept called as the ‘Hummingbird Economy’. It’s so deceptively simple, but to know what it means, we need to jump back to Yandle’s childhood. At their family ranch, as kids, he and his brother used to put up wooden feeding bins for hummingbirds. Since there were too many of those birds around the ranch, they used to have a great time watching them feed while fluttering around each other competing for food.

What he observed was that the feeding began with just one hummingbird hovering around the bin and trying to pick some food up for itself. But as soon as the bird backed off a little bit to make room for some more comfortable hovering, other hummingbirds (who have spotted the food source as well) flocked around the first hummingbird and competed for food and eventually there was a flock of birds trying to do the same thing and the first hummingbird may or may not get his coveted share of food.

This concept is so alarmingly close to what I feel every single morning when I try to board the morning local, especially a fast local train. It isn’t much of a trouble on weekends when the crowd is relaxed. But on a working day, during peak hours, it becomes a hummingbird economy. There is a resource (read one or possibly half a square foot) of space in the train compartment. There are 5 people or possibly more, standing right next to you who are contesting for the same space but with similar or completely out of the box strategy to acquire it. There are many variables at play. The speed of the train as it enters the platform, the speed of the train when your intended compartment approaches you. The density of people standing around and also their luggage. Your luggage and your belongings (phone, watch, wallet, et al). When you factor in all these variables into the decision of getting on board the current train, it all boils down to a yes/no question. Sometimes you need to be brave enough to risk getting bashed against some other person, squashed in the crowd with your neatly tucked shirt desperately trying to give up any physical contact with you.

The whole physics of the situation is simple, your weight, your belongings, your life (metaphorically), & your shirt or even shoes for that matter, are utterly immaterial. You need to be selfless, like a monk, to appreciate the serenity of getting a place right below the small fans that choke out some puff of wind every now and then.

The ultimate lesson from all this is, get up early, catch your train early and leave the crowd behind to fight over what is left. As Yandle explains, it is always advantageous for the first entrant to set up shop, use the resources until others get to know about it and leave before there is too much clutter. Because if you even move to readjust yourself in the crowd by leaving your quasi square foot of space for just a microsecond, some other competitor will replace you and leave you starving for the very same resource which you once claimed.

No wonder why they call it ‘early bird’ prizes.

1 comment:

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