Last month, my class decided that we should get a fridge for the class study room. This brought up an important question: how would the fridge be cleaned? I thought this was an interesting problem and deserved some discussion, both from a practical and a theoretical standpoint.
Description of problem
The problem with cleaning a fridge obviously isn’t the actual cleaning process, but rather construction of a system to assign cleaning duties to a variety of people. It is a difficult problem for the following reasons:
- Since each person only utilizes a fraction of the fridge, they naturally don’t feel responsible for cleaning the whole fridge. So it is unlikely that people will spontaneously clean it (or at least people might be reluctant to).
- Some people use the fridge different amounts: one person might never put anything in it, and one person might store several weeks’ worth of food. These people shouldn’t have equal fridge-cleaning obligations.
Because of this, we thought that a solution to the fridge cleaning problem must have the following properties:
- Distribute the workload over a large number of people (i.e. don’t assign a permanent fridge cleaner)
- Only obligate people who use the fridge
- Be decentralized (i.e. not rely on some sort of “leader” to assign the jobs and check to make sure it is done).
- Be failure-resistant: if the job isn’t done properly, there should be some sort of mechanism to make sure it is done properly eventually.
The solution put forth by the group was to just put a volunteer list on the fridge, and people would sign up for a cleaning week. This solution would work if people using the fridge were mature enough to volunteer for a week. It is also distributed, self-running, and doesn’t obligate people who don’t use the fridge. For this reason, it was very popular with the rest of the group.
Free Market Solution
I thought of a more interesting solution: why not create a market for cleaning, and use the principles of market economics to keep the fridge clean? The problem with a volunteer-based solution is that people’s only incentive to volunteer is a sense of decency and common good: a sense that not everybody has. Instead, if motivated by money, then that gives people a tangible incentive to do work.
For this solution, I envision a donation jar for a “fridge cleaning fund”, that would be used to pay people to clean the fridge. Each week, a “cleaning job” would be posted at a designated price, and somebody interested could do the job and take the reward. The price would probably be just enough to buy something at the campus coffee/doughnut shop ($1-2), which means a cleaner could get a tangible reward of their choice for their cleaning efforts. If nobody volunteers to clean it (maybe because it is really messy), then the price of the cleaning job would be increased until somebody is willing to take it. Thus, the free market is used to determine the difficulty of the cleaning job via its price, and the cleaner is fairly compensated for their work at the market rate.
This novel solution would satisfy all the criteria because it distributes the workload over all those who are willing to do it, doesn’t obligate anybody (they can freely choose to accept the job), is decentralized (the market runs itself), and resists failure because of its natural mechanism to raise the price of a difficult cleaning job. The main downside however is that in the end, it depends on people’s decency to donate to the fridge cleaning fund. If not enough people donate, then the fund won’t be able to pay people properly. Moreover, the prices and price increases would have to be carefully planned: they must be high enough to motivate people to do work, but not so high as to drain the fund too fast.
Collective Punishment Solution
This solution is inspired by the military, where if a squad as a whole fails, they are often punished as a whole. This solution would require a centralized leader, but their responsibility would be fairly minimal. A requirement would be set out that the fridge has to be cleaned every week, and if nobody does it, the leader throws everything in the fridge in the garbage, and unplugs the fridge for a week (so nobody can use it). People who want to use the fridge will not want to lose access to it and get their stuff thrown out, which will motivate somebody or a group of people to do the cleaning, because the cost of not doing so is very high. It essentially forces self-organization to avoid a very undesirable fate. This solution is interesting from the organizer’s perspective, because no organized list has to be created, but unfortunately does require a central leader to coordinate it.
In the end, the class representatives chose the volunteer solution, because we think our class is fairly mature, and it is conceptually the simplest system. However, I do really like the free market solution, because of all the neat properties it has (like a self-adjusting price). It felt like something straight out of an ECON 101 textbook. Hopefully the volunteer system will stand the test of time.