I’m irritated most times I fly by a common experience. At most airports, there’s a line drawn around the baggage carousels to encourage travelers to stand back a bit. It makes it easier for everyone to see the bags and safer when someone actually has to pull a bag off the carousel. But I can’t ever recall a situation where everyone didn’t press right up to the carousel, blocking everyone’s view and making the retrieval of bags a rather dodgy experience.
It’s the tragedy of the commons. If just one person steps forward, they get a slightly better view and no one is unduly troubled. But as more and more people step forward for that better view, no one sees anything.
So my modest proposal is to try to improve the situation and do a little impromptu economics education. Instead of those signs in the middle of the carousel explaining all the contraband you shouldn’t carry in your baggage or ads that jet-lagged travelers don’t find appealing in any case, why not have a little explanation of the tragedy of the commons? I doubt it would prevent very many people from stepping over the white line, but it might increase knowledge just a little bit.
I thought about the carousel in response to reading Robert Frank’s The Economic Naturalist. It’s a delightful, thought-provoking collection of what he calls “everyday enigmas” with an economic explanation. Frank believes that most people learn from stories rather than equations and graphs. He’s surely right. I’ve been regaling my 11-year old son with some of Frank’s little economic puzzles at bedtime and he can’t get enough of them.