Saturday, August 18, 2012

Doing Well by Doing Good: Motel Version

The motel room I'm staying in has a note explaining that, in order to serve the environment by reducing the waste of water for washing things, it only changes linens every other day. In many other motels that I have stayed in, the corresponding note tells you how to signal, by where you leave your towels, whether you want them washed or are willing to reuse them.

I have no objection to the policy—we don't, after all, change our sheets at home every day. But I find it amusing to see the motel using a "we are good people doing good things" justification for a policy that saves them time and money at a (usually very small) cost to their customers.

Which makes me wonder what other examples there are of people doing things in their own interest which others might object to, and justifying them as serving some greater good.


jimbino said...

The major thing that folks do for selfish reasons while claiming that it serves the public good is all that breeding.

None of the breeders has ever consulted me about the wisdom of their breeding, or of the wisdom of mutilating their kids' peckers, brainwashing them to convert them from the atheism they were born with and mis-educating them, at great expense to me, in public schools.

All the while they must know that there is hardly a serious world problem that would not be ameliorated by putting a cork on the breeding, such as war, species extinction, scarcity of water, of arable land, offine hardwoods and so on.

No, rampant breeding is a supremely selfish act that damages society more, and at greater expense, than anything else.

Daublin said...

Attending political rallies. People claim that the rally is important for some larger good, but if you talk to the individual people involved in it, they are almost universally there for the fun experience of being in a crowd of people on the same team.

Joey said...

Sure. Human extinction would solve the problem of war, in the same way that sterilizing Earth would solve the problem of famine.

But assuming you are just talking about lowering the rate of increase (to, say, r=0):
There is no inherent problem with there being more humans, just like there is no problem with other people working 16 hours a day, rather than 8. The only problems that are immediately obvious are like you said, public schooling, welfare, and crime. Those are problems explicitly created by government policy, or by poverty (mostly). And even so, these people, on net, may produce more than they cost the gov't.

Oh, and if you think water scarcity is an issue, then you should be for deforestation, for fossil fuel use, and against population control. Decomposition, combustion, and animal metabolism all turn organic material into water.

jimbino said...

Actually, Mr Miller, I have already cast a vote for human species extinction, and I have no investment in the future of the human race, just as I have no investment in the future of Facebook.

I feel that those who do should bear the costs of continuing the enterprise, not charging ME for advancing their private selfish interests under the guise of benefiting society.

The crazy thing is that I have been accused of being selfish for not breeding! Talk about adding insult to the taxation injury.

Furthermore, even apart from the youth crime, I don't have any interest whatsoever in having children underfoot and I seek out places, like bars, where children and dogs are denied admittance. Of course, I make a point of not patronizing places where children are given free admission or discounts. If I opened a movie theater or restaurant, I'd charge children more for the ticket or the plate--a policy that is evidently perfectly legal, since "age discrimination" laws do not cover favoring or disfavoring minority status.

MikeP said...

what other examples there are of people doing things in their own interest which others might object to, and justifying them as serving some greater good.

Apart from serving in government?

brenoalmpq said...

Here in Brazil they stopped giving grocery bags at the exact same excuse.

Joey said...


I respect your decision, and I also don't think that you (or anybody else) should be unnecessarily burdened by other people's choices. Or taxed. But I don't think having a large population is necessarily a problem. Anyway, I guess the difficulty with voluntary extinction is that you've got evolution working against you. I mean, how many Shakers are left?

Now to get this back on topic, that expensive "fair trade" coffee is one of those certifications that purports to be performing a social service. In reality it probably just ensures more sales for richer coffee-bean growing companies and more profit for the store that sells the coffee.

RKN said...


As in, "Vote for me because I'm less worse than my opponent, and it is unpatriotic to not vote."

jimbino said...

Mr Miller,

Evolution has produced physicists like David and me, and we physicists have produced the tools to end evolution "as we know it."

Indeed, I would like to invite physicists to dedicate themselves to Pied Piper projects like development of a universal contraceptive for the world's water.

That would solve almost all world problems in one stroke.

Glen Whitman said...

Restaurants and bars install hand dryers in their restrooms just because they're cheaper than hand towels. But the hand dryers invariably have labels indicating that their use saves trees.

Of course, it's highly questionable from an economic standpoint whether hand dryers actually save trees. By reducing the demand for wood, they almost assuredly reduce the total number of trees under cultivation. But that doesn't stop the dryer companies (and restaurants that buy their products) from claiming to save trees. World Dryer puts a green tree on every installation.

Bruce Yandle's "Baptists and Bootleggers" model of regulation is based on the idea that "true believers" can provide ideological cover for the bare self-interest of other parties. One present-day example: alcohol wholesalers justify restrictive state laws -- which create a protected market for middlemen like themselves -- by appealing to the publicly minded goal of preventing children from getting access to booze.

Anonymous said...

"I have no objection to the policy—we don't, after all, change our sheets at home every day."

I'm pretty sure you don't have strangers sleeping on them every day either :)

Unknown said...

Another instance that I'm conscious of is the use of the statement:

"Please consider the environment before printing this email".

I can accept that if there has been any observed decrease in stationary or paper expenses for a firm - it likely came from internal behaviour changes of its own staff.

I can see how staff may have decreased printing as a result of this, effectively saving firms on printing expenses. The question I guess is whether or not there are any increased costs associated with this.

Terramar GM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Fast said...

Jimbino dislikes having children around. Therefore, his decision not to have children directly benefits him. He claims he is doing this for the good of society. Q.E.D.

jimbino said...


I like having children around, provided they haven't been sexually mutilated 8 days after birth, have been potty trained, and are ready and able to mow the lawn.

Funny that only Mexican kids seem to qualify.

Shocked! said...

You're personally confirming the lack of sexual mutilation of Mexican children that work on your yard??

jimbino said...

Well Shocked!,

Here at the nudist camp I manage it's pretty hard to pretend not to notice.

Eli said...

Cheaper plastic on water bottle caps. Says, "saves 18% plastic" on the bottle.

Eli said...

Water bottle says, "cap uses 18% less plastic!". Cap is also noticeably flimsier than that of other water bottles.

Plastic cup sleeves on Tim Hortons Cups, or lack there of. Every time I get a coffee I have keep juggling it between hands when I drive because the cup is so hot. They claim their doing it for the environment. Of course, any economist would tell you that they're almost definitely doing it for profit.

Question is, market failure or market virtue?

Anonymous said...

^Low plastic water bottles are terrible. They deform from pressure differential while drinking and spew water out with a fountain when you stop drinking.

Hernan Coronel said...

David, isn't this the story of humanity both in the capitalist world: unions, minimum wage, state run law enforcement, bureaucrats in general, etc. and communist: the state/party owns everything (for the people's good) only to allow partisans to be rich and wealthy?

Anonymous said...

I had a grade school teacher who almost every day would tell us that if we behaved well and did our work, she would either extend recess or let us watch a movie for the rest of the day. I realized eventually that it wasn't for motivational reasons or some kind of bribery because even when we didn't behave, we still watched the movie. Our teacher wanted movie-time more than we did. It gave her a chance to grade papers or meet with other teachers or just take a break. She didn't say that the movie would make the world a better place or something vague like that, but she definitely never suggested it was in her interest. I think a lot of things we tell children fall into this category. And of course, isn't it the basis of politics?

Anonymous said...

I think it was JP Morgan who said for everything that happens there are two reasons. A good reason and the real reason.

AMW said...

Here's a case where a firm is doing well while only appearing to do good.

My university campus has color-coded waste bins: white for trash, blue for recycling. Today I was told that the color-coding is just there to make the students happy. The contents of both bin types are shipped to the same dump, because it's more cost effective.

Gil said...

Lots of sites want you to switch from paper statements (that they would have to pay to print and send) to email/online statements and claim it's to help to environment.

Tony P. said...

But I find it amusing to see the motel using a "we are good people doing good things" justification for a policy that saves them time and money at a (usually very small) cost to their customers.

"Job creators" like to be praised for "doing good things" when in fact they only hire anybody when it's in their own best interest. But let that pass.

What's interesting to me is the too-obvious-to-mention fact that saving energy equals saving MONEY. Saving WATER equals saving money. Saving ANYTHING that costs money equals, well, saving money.

Conservation and efficiency are what frugality is made of, and you'd think "conservatives" would approve of frugality, wouldn't you?


Rebecca Friedman said...

What's interesting to me is the too-obvious-to-mention fact that saving energy equals saving MONEY. Saving WATER equals saving money. Saving ANYTHING that costs money equals, well, saving money.

Conservation and efficiency are what frugality is made of, and you'd think "conservatives" would approve of frugality, wouldn't you?

Not necessarily. Suppose you're building a house, and want to spend less money doing it. One way is to shop very carefully, make sure you only buy exactly what you need, be careful with your work so you don't ruin things and need to replace them. That kind of thing. Another way is to get low-quality materials, which are less expensive because they're less valuable, and build a house which, while it works, is more likely to fall down given sufficient provocation (earthquake, flood, hurricane, simply aging, pick your own problem). Both methods save money, but I would expect conservatives to consider the first desirable, and the second not necessarily so - because the second is resulting in a lower quality product.

(Not to say the second may not be worth doing, on occasion. But that's another discussion.)

Or in other words, I think you're missing "at a (usually very small) cost to their customers", here.

(Note: my guess at what a conservative would think may be somewhat off, not being one myself. But I still think lumping all forms of frugality together is a mistake, just in terms of the logic of the argument.)

Tony P. said...


You are perfectly right: there is such a thing as false economy. In the motel case, for instance, saving money on laundry at NON-negligible cost to the customers could easily LOSE money for the business.

I still say, however, that there's something bizarre about the usual attitude of "conservatives" toward energy conservation and energy efficiency. The impression they give is that Americans should be frugal when it comes to, say, medical care, but it's practically UN-American to save money on, say, gasoline.

Some people (I'm not saying who) talk as if:
1) Humans live in The Economy and not in The Environment; and
2) Money is finite, but fossil fuels are not.
I'm pleased to hear you say you're not one of THOSE people :)


Rebecca Friedman said...

Speaking as a libertarian - I would make a distinction between being frugal with -your own- money, and -other people's- money. In the motel case, they are saving themselves money and expecting to get moral credit for it, which seems a little odd. They already have a reward, specifically the money they saved.

The issue with medical care may be that programs like Medicare are specifically spending -other people's- money. Gasoline is (in general) spending -your own- money. The point of view may be that in the second case, you are paying the cost of your decision, while in the first case, you are imposing it on other people.

Most people are much more willing to impose costs on others than themselves - especially when those others tend to be nameless masses. Speaking strictly for myself, I think you will find a general pattern there - that people are much more likely to get an efficient amount of something they pay for themselves than something they are supplied with for free.

This only works if prices are allowed to correctly reflect the market, of course. Whether they do or not, as regards gasoline, I can't say.

Timothy Hall said...

It’s always possible that relevant policy-makers have altruistic motives for reducing water use. That is to say, more fully, that the policy might well have a mixed motive: officers aim to reduce water and washing costs to the company and they also aim to reduce water use more broadly. (It’s not unlikely, given the distribution of the opinion, that the relevant decision-makers believe that the reduction of water use is some kind of good beyond the water customer’s own benefit.)

The fact that the company will only implement the policy when the two goals converge isn’t, by itself, a good reason to think the relevant officers lack both motives. It is, though, a good reason to think that the reduction of company cost is somewhere in the neighborhood of a lexically prior motive to the serving of what officers might believe is a broader good.

Perhaps the motel’s mention of only an altruistic goal— stated, in my experience, by the cardboard tents left in the bathroom informing me of the policy, a mention of only conservationist goals, and accompanied by pictures of owls or trees-- might cause a natural eye-rolling response in worldly guests.

Then again, the material found elsewhere in the room expressing the company’s heartfelt desire for my comfort is similarly circumspect about the full motives at work. I’d say it’s a bit too cynical to conclude from those incomplete statements that the company officers don’t actually get satisfaction from knowing they have provided me with a comfortable night’s stay.

Anonymous said...


Motels may save their own money doing this, but it is a very competitive business, so in the end it will be passed on to the consumers as lower rates.

So in doing good for themselves, motels may serve a higher good. After all, most people would be willing to exchange a change in linens for lower prices.

Ideally, motels should charge more if you demand a linen change, but there must be a reason they don't do this. I wonder what it is.

Rebecca Friedman said...


In theory, you should be completely right. So why isn't it already happening? Why do motels need to explain they're helping the environment? Why not just charge more for extremely clean linens... or else have some motels that explicitly clean the linens every night, and are a bit more expensive (part of the 'upscale place' package), and others that don't and are less expensive? If most people are willing to exchange a change in linens for lower prices, why don't most motels do exactly that?

My guess is that 1) the difference in price - the savings per individual customer - is sufficiently small that the trouble of keeping track of it would outweigh the gain, transaction costs not being zero, which is why you end up with a default instead of adjusting for individual preferences, and 2) that the majority preference is for clean linens (since that's the default we observe) but not a very strong one (since the excuse/reason of helping the environment is enough to let motels switch defaults without a lot of objections). But that's just a guess.