Sunday, November 11, 2007

"Doing Something"

Yesterday, eating dinner at our favorite Italian restaurant, we noticed something new--a sign on the table informing us that, due to a water shortage, drinking water would only be brought to the table if we asked for it. It was the second such sign I had seen recently, so I asked one of the restaurant people if it was some sort of city program. The answer was yes. She didn't go into details as to just how mandatory it was, but the restaurant had been told, I think by the city providers of water, to institute the policy.

When there is a problem, something must be done--more precisely, those deemed responsible must be seen to be doing something. What is needed is some clearly visible action. Ideally one does something that everyone will notice but that will not impose sufficient costs on any reasonably well organized group to cause political problems to those doing it. The policy I observed met those requirements. It might be a minor nuisance for the restaurant and a minor inconvenience for patrons, but nobody was seriously inconvenienced and everyone could see that the water problem was being dealt with.

Unfortunately, one requirement that such policies do not face is that they actually do anything to solve the problem. I suspect that very few restaurant owners or patrons bothered to do the arithmetic to see how important the waste being prevented was in the overall scheme of things. I would not be surprised if the people who instituted the policy didn't bother either.

The calculation is pretty simple. I don't have figures for San Jose, but a quick google produces a figure for U.S. daily water consumption of about 400 billion gallons--well over a thousand gallons a day per capita, most of it used for irrigation or cooling power plants. If we estimate, I think generously, that the average person eats at the sort of restaurant that puts filled water glasses on the table one day out of five, that half of the customers don't want the water, and that the average glass holds a cup, the policy saves about a tenth of a cup of water per capita per day, reducing total demand by about one part in 200,000.

But something is visibly being done, which is the important thing.


jimbino said...

Of course your figures ignore the fact that a lot of water is unfit for drinking but fit for swimming, fishing, and cooling nuclear power plants, and that no nuclear power plant is situated away from a river and smack dab in a desert-city of CA where it would seriously compete for drinking water.

Drinking water has long since been transformed from natural act into a religion, just as throwing out your trash has, all at great expense and little gain. They're so ritualistic and wasteful that they must have a basis somewhere in the silliness of Deuteronomy.

Unknown said...

The economically correct policy seems to be a user fee (or tax) on drinking water with the revenues used to promote water filtration/conservation/discovery to allocate the scarce resource properly.

Would that really create more opposition from lobbyists than imposing some more draconic methods down the road when the water shortage becomes very dire (say, reserve supplies run out)?

David Friedman said...

Vadim writes:

"The economically correct policy seems to be a user fee (or tax) on drinking water ..."

Why just drinking water? Or do you mean "water that could be used for drinking?"

Water actually drunk represents a trivial fraction of total consumption. The economically correct policy is to price water at its marginal cost. That would create very substantial political opposition from agricultural interests that currently get heavily subsidized water.

David Friedman said...

Jimbino writes:

"Of course your figures ignore the fact that a lot of water is unfit for drinking but fit for swimming, fishing, and cooling nuclear power plants, and that no nuclear power plant is situated away from a river and smack dab in a desert-city of CA where it would seriously compete for drinking water."

I don't think fishing is relevant, although the total I quoted does include some water not fit to drink. But with five orders of magnitude to play with, I don't think that significantly affects the argument.

I don't believe San Jose counts as a desert city--were you thinking of something in the adjoining nation of southern California? Back before there was much of a city here the area was known (by realtors) as "The Valley of Hearts Delight" and was largely occupied by fruit orchards.

Anonymous said...

A great deal more water is used washing a water glass than filling a water glass. The policy also reminds people that there is a water shortage, which presumably causes them to be more frugal in watering their lawns, and more likely to swallow their spit instead of hawking it on the sidewalk where the precious moisture would be wasted.

Anonymous said...

It's nice, but there is still a petrol shortage, and millions of people still use an approx 1000 kilogramms vehicle to carry that 80 kilogramms of flesh we consist of around.

Andrew said...

The water has costs aside from the water itself:
- Glasses/pitchers need to be washed, dried
- Ice, lemon
- Labor for bringing out the water, bringing the extra glasses back in

Not all of these are directly related to water conservation, of course, but the water itself is not the only thing consuming resources.

It would make more sense to allow restaurants to charge for drinking water.

Mike Huben said...

It strikes me as very amusing that an economist who goes on and on about prices communicating information doesn't recognize that government policies can communicate as well. As Barak pointed out with his example.

Further, it is a public service communication by the restaurants that saves them a large amount of money as Barak and Andrew suggested: savings on service, cleaning, glasses, ice, lemon, etc.

San Jose has a Mediterranean climate with wet and dry seasons. Almost a desert, and essentially a desert except for the brief rainy season.

Wikipedia: "San Jose lies further inland, protected on three sides by mountains. This shelters the city from rain and makes it more of a semiarid, near-desert area, with a mean annual rainfall of only 14.4 inches (366 mm), compared to some other parts of the Bay Area, which can get up to four times that amount."

David: you have a bicoastal background; I'm surprised you'd make no difference between the average water consumption in the nation and the water consumption in coastal California. San Jose has the kind of water availability of a desert city. Only 10% comes from surface waters, as opposed to NY city and Boston supplies, which are almost entirely surface waters.

Peter Bessman said...

It strikes me as very amusing that


"I am irrelevant."

Beastin said...

They implemented an identical measure in Albuquerque, where I had the identical argument with a friend of mine.

Even in Albuquerque, where lawns are frequently gravel, it's completely ridiculous to claim that three glasses of water per day per person (at most) is at all relevant to the total water consumption of the city.

My suspicion has always been that the measure is, as David said, simply a way for the government to look like it's doing something.

At best, you might argue that withholding people's water is inspirational.

Establishing laws for the sake of inspiration has always struck me as a wonderful path to tyranny.