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John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


What Is Choice Worth?

Any plan for organized collection could expand certain choices for the consumer (for example, allowing more container size options or services that some haulers don't currently offer). But reducing the number of haulers means limiting some other choices. Several NSWMA talking points restate this observation in different ways.

• Freedom of choice is very important to residents.
• Many residents prefer to make buying decisions without influence of government.
• The open market allows residents to easily switch haulers when they are not happy.

Unfortunately, Mr. Carnival gives us an unbalanced view, weighted entirely toward open hauling. All else being equal, people may prefer choice in almost anything – but it is rarely the case that all else is equal. Certainly it's not the case when it comes to trash disposal.

So the question is not whether people think choice is important (of course we do), but how important it is and which choices matter most. How much more money are residents willing to spend on hauling in order to maintain the feeling they have a "freedom of choice?" Would residents rather trade their choice of hauler for more choices among the services offered, or for control of other aspects of waste management (e.g., the choice not to bequeath overflowing landfills to our children)?

With respect to the "influence of government" on our choices, the fact is that government already has an enormous impact on our buying decisions about trash disposal. Not every Twin Cities hauler is licensed to do business in Maplewood, for example, and there are laws about what you can put in the trash.

I realize that some residents would prefer to have no government regulation of waste management at all, such as the resident who told me he's still angry that he can't use burn barrels to dispose of trash in his backyard. Our government's decision to disallow his open burning wasn't out of spite, mind you; it was because burning might have been cheap and convenient for him, but it shifted the ultimate but less-immediate costs of his trash onto his neighbors and the rest of the public, whose environment and health were harmed.  Regulations like this are part of what the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution explains as the purpose of American government, to “promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity...” Our Founding Fathers recognized that we need government to protect the interests of the people and the future generations who will inherit this great land.

As for the claim that the open market lets unhappy residents easily switch haulers, there's some argument to be made over how easy it actually is to switch haulers in practice. Haulers often entice us with introductory rates and long-term contracts, impose cancellation penalties, and make us jump through hoops to cancel service (such as having to call a different number and talk to someone whose job is to try and cajole you into staying with them).

More importantly, there's as question as to how much choice we really have as consumers, with only the leverage of one household each. Sure, we can choose based on price, but if that's all that really matters then the fact that prices are lower under organized collection should persuade us. Do we get to choose where our trash is hauled and how it's ultimately disposed of? Do we get to choose what kinds of trucks are used on our streets, or how many? Organized hauling can give us the ability to make these choices as a community, where open hauling does not.

Speaking for myself, the current consumer “choice” of trash hauler reminds me a lot of Henry Ford's famous line, that Model T buyers could choose “Any color, so long as it’s black.”

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