Thursday, February 10, 2011

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
By: Steven D. Levitt and Stephen D. Dubner

Freakonomics is quite the sensation. It's a book. It's a column. It's a blog. It's a podcast. It's going to be a movie? It's everywhere.

While I wasn't as impressed with Freakonomics as I was with the work of Malcolm Gladwell or some of the things I've read about Game Theory it was still fun to watch connections being made in unlikely places. The history student in me was overjoyed.

Until I stumbled upon this article from the column in the New York Times about the Freakonomics of Trash in Taipei City (in Taiwan for those scratching their heads).

This is when I became slightly disenchanted with Freakonomics.

First, I should explain that I do live in Taiwan. I have lived here for almost a decade. Although I do not live in Taipei City I have visited Taipei dozens of times and I can assure you that trash pick up is essentially the same all over the island (As Canadians are often want to say: Canada is more than just Toronto, Taiwan is more than just Taipei). You wait with your trash outside your home for the garbage truck to pass at a designated time. You can tell when it is coming by the distinct music eminating from the truck at obcene decibel levels. This happens every day all over the island.

Dubner gets the basics right. Daily manual garbage pick-up by trucks that play classical music but seemed to leave oh so much out. Freakonomic reader Nick Grisanti wrote to the writers to fill a few more blanks about the system and secondary trash economies that are built around the current system.

Grisanti even takes the time to mention the lack of public trash recepticals in Taipei (I can assure you, this lack of garbage cans is island-wide). The reason being, if public trash cans were available, many households would simple drop their daily garbage in the public bin and cause massive pile-ups of refuse on the streets. Believe me, this has been a point of contention for me in Taiwan since the day I got here and it hasnever really abated. The lack of trash ans simple encouraged most to drop their trash on the ground where it may wash away or get swept up by a shopkeeper, but will most likely sit their for weeks.

But what neither Dubner nor Grisanti address is WHY this system is the way it is. Why doesn't Taiwan impliment a more Western style of garbage collection? Certainly this system is in need to some reform. The answer to this is a much larger social and humanitarian problem: stray dogs. Taiwan has an enormous population of stray dogs roaming the streets of cities and towns all over the island. Any organic trash left unattended would fall prey to these packs of canines looking for their next meal. I've seen what my dogs can do to a garbage bag full of rotten leftovers and thy're tame. Imagine what a pack of ten or twelve strays can do? Without daily pick-up, Taiwan would have a much larger pollution problem than it already has.

But it's not simply that Taiwan has gone to the dogs.

There is a social advantage to the current do-it-yourself situation in Taiwan. Taiwan is notoriously shut-in society. My wife, who is Taiwanese, was startled on her first trip to Canada when cahiers, baristas, fast food servers etc... all idly chatted with her.

"How are you?"
"Nice weather, eh?"
"Have a great day, there!"

In Taiwan, despite the urban over-population, people can go weeks without speaking to another living soul. Trips to supermarkets, coffee shops and restaurants can be done in abject silence. It can be a maddening experience for those not expecting it. Some people would characterize it as being shy or cold. I'm not here to philosophize, but interaction with the community is minimal and usually relegated to the 10 minutes each day when people in a neighborhood stand outside their houses or apartment blocks waiting for the singing truck to come round. It's the time of day when people exchange gossip from their neighborhood and the vast majority of face-to-face social networking is done.

This doesn't even address the Taiwanese propensity for all things new and a general aversion to all things old, while propels the trash economy even more. But that's a subject I don't have the time or resources to investigate. The trash culture in Taiwan is a fascinating topic worthy of more than simply a passing reference by Freakonomics. I was really hoping for something more enlightening.


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