6/30/2004

What's in YOUR trash?

So in an article from the Washington Post, which can be accessed from the article "Consumption Tells All" at www.cornersolutions.com, I read some interesting stuff about measuring consumption! Basically, two French photojournalists have spent the last fifteen years going through famous people's trash, organizing what they have found in a "display" and selling it. The article claims that this may be a better way to get to know a star than the National Enquirer or Star magazine!

I could see that. I mean, I have always said that you can tell a lot about people by what's in their wallets and purses, but I never thought about looking through their trash. The rationale is that you can find all sorts of things that describe a persons consumption preferences, which likewise describe their personality, such as what they like to eat, new clothes tags, bad habits, pets, papers, etc. So we are talking about a good way to measure consumption here. We could probably approximate the utilites Britney Spears gets from smoking by the amoung of cigarette cartons in her trash. Or in the civilian world, we could measure the amount of utilities Darcie gets from eating cookies by the number of cookie wrappers in her garbage.

What are the economists thinking? If they want to know what people's consumption preferences are, just go through their trash! Although, I think I would be to scared to go through Christina Aguilera's trash, but watch out Dr. Tufte!

7 comments:

Dr. Tufte said...

The first thing that popped into my mind reading this is that in New Orleans - because Mardi Gras is a wide open street party with lots of people staying with friends, sleeping in cars, camping, and so on - there is no reasonable way to gauge success or attendance. So every year they announce the how many tons of extra garbage they collected!

To be honest, other than thought, I think this is the post about which I can add the least concrete economics. I'm sure that someone has done something on the economics of trash or even disposability, but I haven't heard of it.

So that Darcie doesn't feel picked on I'll note that I have a candy bowl in my office to lighten things up for students during office hours ... and the other professors are the one that hit on it the most. They have a strong preference for chocolate over hard candy. One professor is so conflicted over this that he asked how I can have the self-control not to eat the all candy. I responded that I would be much weaker if it was a big bowl of chips. Now he brings chips to the office to tempt/tease me (the salt and vinegar ones yesterday were delicious).

By the way, my trash isn't usually full of anything interesting ... I've always been a pack rat, and to deal with that I've gotten better at not acquiring stuff in the first place.

Dr. Tufte said...

I finally did think of something economic to add.

It isn't quite the same, but economists tend to view what people do, instead of what they say they do, as being most important. Searching garbage would fall into that category. The field of microeconomics concerned with figuring out peoples' preferences are based on what they bought is called revealed preference. It's complex enough that it is barely mentioned in principles courses, but does get some time in Managerial Economics (ECON 3010).

Cedar Girl said...

I like the idea you have of attempting to measure units of utility by the items that are present in an individual’s garbage can. I am sure it is also possible to ascertain which income bracket the person was a part of by digging through their garbage as well. For example, if the individual had a lot of luxury item garbage, it would be reasonable to assume they were a part of the Upper-class. This assumption comes from the economic premise that as an individual’s income increases, so does their purchase of luxury items. This being said, it would be reasonable to assume that a person with a garbage full of empty; caviar cans, wine bottles, and designer perfume bottles was a part of this upper-income bracket. Another indicator of a person’s financial position would be transaction and bank receipts. A well-to-do person’s garbage may also be void of ‘inferior goods’ which are not purchased as often by affluent people. Looking through a person’s garbage provides a way to look into their lives and see where they fit in society. So next time someone stiffs you on a debt, go through their garbage and prove with compost evidence that they can afford to shell out the money to you.

anonymous said...

I think you make an interesting connection with the concept of utiliy. In the textbook the author emphasizes that assigning numerical values to the utility we get is not an exact science. In going through someone's trash you can get a sense of what products they like, how much of those products they use, and perhaps make a general statement of how wasteful they are. If a person's garbage is full of diapers does that mean that they get a lot of satisfaction from diapers? Diapers are used for babies, and we hope the person finds satisfaction in being a parent. The trash in my apartment has many paper towels in it as my roommates and I seem to go through them at warp speed. I think our trash has more paper towels than food-related items. Does that mean we get more utility from the paper towels?

When I think about utility I find it difficult to apply to human relationships. The author gave an example of comparing utilities in deciding who to date. Can we say one person has more utility than another? This reminds me of the "ends justify the means". In assigning utility to another person we are essentially saying that person is a means to our ends. We value them for what they can do for us. Thinking about babies. They are wonderful and bring joy into lives, but as babies they cannot contribute much. They are dependent. So would a baby have less utility than the person who cuts our hair? I don't agree, but I am interested in the concept of utility and the extent of its applicability beyond the market.

anonymous said...

I think you make an interesting connection with the concept of utiliy. In the textbook the author emphasizes that assigning numerical values to the utility we get is not an exact science. In going through someone's trash you can get a sense of what products they like, how much of those products they use, and perhaps make a general statement of how wasteful they are. If a person's garbage is full of diapers does that mean that they get a lot of satisfaction from diapers? Diapers are used for babies, and we hope the person finds satisfaction in being a parent. The trash in my apartment has many paper towels in it as my roommates and I seem to go through them at warp speed. I think our trash has more paper towels than food-related items. Does that mean we get more utility from the paper towels?

When I think about utility I find it difficult to apply to human relationships. The author gave an example of comparing utilities in deciding who to date. Can we say one person has more utility than another? This reminds me of the "ends justify the means". In assigning utility to another person we are essentially saying that person is a means to our ends. We value them for what they can do for us. Thinking about babies. They are wonderful and bring joy into lives, but as babies they cannot contribute much. They are dependent. So would a baby have less utility than the person who cuts our hair? I don't agree, but I am interested in the concept of utility and the extent of its applicability beyond the market.

Dr. Tufte said...

I have a personal take on Cedar Girl's post. Like all couples, my wife and I argue about money. I have made the point that the evidence that we spend more than we ought to is in the fact that our trash can (the one required by the city) is often overflowing. Yet other neighbors, who have bigger families, or who know make more money, do not have overflowing trash cans.

I have a few thoughts about anonymous' comment too.

I think if there are diapers in your trash it does in fact mean that you get a lot of utility out of them. I'm wondering if the point of confusion is that diapers may not deliver the same utility to the same person all the time. I've gotten a lot more utility from diapers over the last 5 years than I ever did before I had kids.

But, there are limits to this argument. I don't think that the presence of paper towels in anonymous' trash indicates that they got a lot of utility out of them. They may have, but I think it more likely implies that they don't get nearly as much from them after they use them (so they throw them out).

As to relationships, I think we can and do assign utility to our interactions with people. The important part is the tradeoff of that utility with price. Everyone knows someone that they get a lot of utility from, but can't be around too much because they drive them crazy. And as far as babies go, they deliver a lot of services to us that we do get utility from: for example, they coo at us and it is worth more to us that if (say) my barber cooed at me.

metromut said...

I realize this isn't the economics of it but what about privacy...Is there no respect of privacy in economics...I'm sure many people would pay for privacy which could be an econmic benefit to some enterprising trashman...