Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Economics of toilet cleaning

This is the second installment in our continuing series on the Economics of toilets. After the issue of whether the seat should be left up, let us discuss toilet cleaning. We have all seen this: the toilets on your floor are a mess, the person in charge is gone for the day, and one cannot leave the restrooms in such a pitiful state because they are an embarassement. What is going to happen?

Marc Bilodeau and Al Slivinski have the response: the person who cares the most will end up cleaning, even if this is the department chairman. I concur, as I have seen this happen in two separate departments... Their argument is based on the all too familiar search for a volunteer for a job nobody wants to do: it is a war of attrition, were the one person who cares the most relative to the required effort finally gives in. Knowing this, this person volunteers right away. Interestingly, the authors show also that even if people care how well and by whom the job will be done, the outcome is not changed.

Such situations are not limited to toilet cleaning. In fact, department chairing itself is often a thankless job with a positive externality on everyone. When a new chairperson needs to be found, there is a war of attrition until a good soul volunteers, "because it is my turn" or "I owe it to the department." And if it turns out that the person who cares the most, taking into account how much effort it entails for this person, is the one that volunteers, we have another example of comparative advantage leading to an optimal outcome.

4 comments:

VIlfredo said...

When you live in a multi-ethnic environment, it is interesting to see how those that value order more consistently end up cleaninp up.

Kansan said...

So you are comparing chairing a department to cleaning toilets. That is going to motive more people to volunteer...

T-Bone said...

The toilet needs to be cleaned and everyone benefits. Maybe in most situations, someone will do it. But in other situation, the situation will deteriorate until more problems arise... Sickness, people avoid the area, conflict breaks out, and so on. Damn libertarians...

Marc Bilodeau said...

Thank you for posting a link to the paper on toilet cleaning. Just as a point of clarification, our model predicts that the individual with the highest benefit/cost ratio of doing the job will volunteer immediately in a subgame-perfect equilibrium. I suppose one could interpret "having the most to gain" as equivalent to "caring the most", but this latter expression seems a little fuzzier. No big deal anyway.

You might be interested in another paper I co-wrote on the same topic with Jason Childs and Stuart Mestelman, Volunteering a public service: an experimental investigation, J.Pub.E 88 (2004) 2839-2855. We tested experimentally the predictions of the toilet cleaning model and found that individuals did not behave as predicted. It seems that figuring out what other players would do at every point in the game (necessary to determine the subgame-perfect equilibrium) was too complicated for the test subjects, so they used a simpler decision rule: choose a waiting time as if other players were unpredictable.

Marc Bilodeau, Associate Professor
Department of Economics
IUPUI