Columbia Nutella incident an example of a tragedy of the commons

Thursday, March 14th, 2013 By

Nutella

An idiotic incident involving Columbia University students and Nutella spread is noteworthy as an example of a tragedy of the commons. Photo Credit: Rainier Zenz/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA

A recent story that basically no one should care about has become news, namely that at Columbia University, students are making off with Nutella in droves. Granted, that “professional” so-called “news” wires picked it up is ridiculous, but it’s a microcosm of a phenomenon called a “tragedy of the commons.”

Nation so bored that Columbia Nutella thievery is newsworthy

More people should take a walk, get a hobby or read a book. It might cut down on the idiotic crap that so-called “news” agencies report. Instead, things like the Columbia Nutella scandal are considered newsworthy.

Columbia University recently began stocking dining halls with Nutella, a chocolate-hazelnut spread which is wickedly delicious. The New York Times – which should have better things to do – reported students were stealing whole jars, putting massive scoops in Tupperware and so on.

It was first reported that $5,000 in Nutella was going missing per week. Later, according to CBS New York, it was found the university only shills out $450 per week, meaning they exaggerated the problem 10 times over.

Regardless, it’s also a miniature example of a phenomenon called a “tragedy of the commons.”

Maybe not in the classic sense, but

Let us assume for a moment that the supply of Nutella was being offered as a complimentary condiment. It isn’t being specified if it’s free or not, but it appears for the moment that it was being provided as a common good.

A “tragedy of the commons” is where a common good or resource for public consumption is, through the rational and natural self-interest of people, overused and ultimately exhausted as they stupidly assumed eternal supply. Typically it refers to natural resources. For instance, according to Dummies.com, website of the “For Dummies” series of books, a textbook example is overfishing in the Grand Banks of the North Atlantic, which nearly resulted in extinction of the North Atlantic cod, a previously vital food fish that hasn’t and will likely never return to previous population levels since the 1960s.

The term was coined in a 1968 essay in the journal “Science” by Garritt Hardin, an ecologist who was arguing for greater conservation of environmental resources and limiting population expansion. The article is available on Science’s website.

The Columbia Nutella debacle isn’t, of course, an environmental collapse but the principle is the same – a public resource is, though clearly not to an alarming extent. Students can use this resource, but through a natural desire for tasty spread, are abusing the resource.

Similar examples

Perhaps a better comparison to the Columbia Nutella thing is benefits fraud. Benefits fraud, such as Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security fraud, is where a public benefit, provided by the government via tax revenue, is where a person or business defrauds the government because they see money and think it’s a free payday. It costs the taxpayers billions of dollars per year, causing reduced benefits for anyone who might legitimately need it. In a sense, that is likewise a tragedy of the commons.

Similarly, a public good – namely benefits – are made available. Scammers abuse the system because like anyone else, they want to make money, but end up depleting a resource that should be for everyone. Likewise, Congress and various White House administrations have borrowed from benefit programs’ funding for pet projects, such as the failed Strategic Defense Initiative.

Sources

New York Times

CBS New York

Dummies

Science: https://www.sciencemag.org/content/162/3859/1243.full

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