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The Economics of Your Roommate Situation

By: Jaclyn Jones Via The Odyssey

In my 3.5 years at college, very few people I have met have actually liked economics. I tell them my major and their face cringes up in a way that reminds me of what I do when people tell me they are doing something like computer science. Well this is for all the ladies breaking into the male dominated field of economics and those that never thought they would like it. I’ll show you one example of how economics affects us on a day to day basis.

Welcome to Econ 101 ladies with your first topic: the Tragedy of the Commons.

This theory states that when the public shares control over an area, there is no incentive to take care of the area and preserve it for future use. All people involved have an incentive to take as much as possible before the resource is drained. They also do not have an incentive to clean up after themselves and act as the free-rider. Have you ever heard the phrase that the power lies with the one that cares the least? It’s pretty applicable here.

Related: Why I Realized I Would Rather Have Male Roommates

Now that you have gotten a taste of the issue, here is the real life example for you… your shared living space, whether it’s on or off campus.

Anyone that has lived with roommates knows what I am talking about; whether you were the one that did all the work or shirked off your other roommates (you know who you are). In my experience, the problem gets worse when the number of people you live with increases. When there is just 2 of you, it is hard to put the blame on others because you either did it or your roommate did, that is it. With 4+ roommates there can be a never ending circle of the blame game.Via Pinterest

In my house there are 2 or 3 of us that clean up after ourselves or take the trash out and the rest free ride off the work that we do. They never take the trash out, clean the dining room table or the kitchen. Their power lies in the fact that we care more about the trash not overflowing so they know someone else will do it. With just 2 people, there is also an added social cost by easily being able to tell who the free-rider is. In my experience, social pressure of not wanting to look bad decreases the shirking so when there is no one else to blame the cost of shirking increases and they are more likely to put in some effort to clean.

There is a reason shared areas are never perfectly clean and that is because no one has full responsibility of it. There are no defined property rights in the dining room where each person would have only a certain amount of space and are responsible for that area. That is not the way most common living situations are. If it was, that would solve the free-riding problem. Even the one that cares the most does not have an incentive to keep it clean since the next person will just come by and ruin it– thus making the time wasted.

Keep this in mind next time you spill something in the kitchen or see the trash overflowing. Be a good roommate and quit shirking off the others… don’t be a Nick.

George Mason Contributor (GMU)

George Mason University '50

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