Saturday, March 4, 2023

Three Problems With Communal Ownership

Maybe Four... or Five.

Communal ownership of goods is one of the fundamental principles of Communism - and one of the major reasons it doesn't work.  When everyone owns something, no one owns it, and as a result, it doesn't get taken care of, and there is a lot of wastage as a result.  When farm collectives were tried in the Soviet Union, farmers would share the same tractor.  Ivan would borrow the tractor, and, since it was Russian made, it would break.  He would put it back in the barn and say nothing, and the next guy to borrow the tractor has to deal with it - and likely be accused of breaking it.

At the Parcheesi Club, I was asked to change the light bulbs and polish the Parcheesi tables.  Light work, to be sure, but a funny thing - everyone who volunteers for this position quits after a year or two.  Not a good sign.

I noticed a few things that disturbed me.  The three main problems we had were

1. Hoarding disorder

2. People throwing things away that were of value, and

3. Kleptomania.

The hoarding was quite evident.  I found a stash of dead light bulbs - incandescents and fluorescents, as well a a pile of broken light fixtures (that were contemporary, not historic relics or anything).  Dead light bulbs are worth nothing - so why save them?  I noted before that my parents, back in the early 1940's, had an apartment in Boston on the "Edison" DC system, and if you burned out a light bulb,  you could take it back to the Edison company and they would give you a free one.  Maybe that is where this habit came from.  All I know is, my parents saved old light bulbs and it was annoying as fuck to try to replace a light bulb in our house, as you would go through a dozen of them, only to find they were all dead.

Other things were hoarded as well - cardboard boxes for example.  Erma Bombeck once said, "Youth always assumes there will be a cardboard box when they need one.  Old age doesn't want to take that chance."  And the LoL's at the Parcheesi club are taking no chances.  Problem is, scads of cardboard boxes are a fire hazard, particularly when they are broken down flat and then wedged behind the furnace.  I kid you not about this.  One friend of mine used to "save" old boxes and cardboard and wrapping materials and wedge them up in the rafters - where they could fall down into the Parcheesi Club Fondue Pot and start a conflagration.

So, over the years, I have been surreptitiously removing this cardboard detritus and tossing it in the dumpster.  The last thing we need is to burn down the building.  The light bulb thing was new to me, though, and I have been going through them and tossing them - with the goal (nearly reached) of going all-LED.  Why keep even a good incandescent or florescent in this day and age?

There is other sorts of garbage laying about as well. I am careful to make sure it is garbage, though.  Historical records are important (and indeed, the local museum will accept them for curation!) and various things that have a use and are still functional should be preserved.  But a broken coffee maker or a table missing a leg is ready for the trash.  Sadly, some people err on the side of caution, and as a result, we have jars of bent nails to deal with and burned-out light bulbs laying about.

Food hoarding is another problem. People bring snacks and beverages for the Parcheesi tournaments and they put the "leftovers" in the refrigerator, which, after a few weeks, turns into a science experiment.   No one wants half-eaten sandwiches or half-drunk sodas.  It should all go in the trash, lest it cause a food poisoning event.  They put a sign on the refrigerator that it was to be cleaned out every Wednesday - but that amounted to little more than an unenforceable Popcorn Memo.  The problem is, of course, is you never know what is being "saved" and for who.  Beyond a day or two, it should be tossed!

On the opposite end of the spectrum are people who throw away everything, without thinking whether it is of some use or not.  The funniest thing that happened was someone was going through the cleaning closet and said, "why do we have three vacuum cleaners?  We don't need three vacuum cleaners!  Let's keep the newest one and throw the others out!"  So they tossed out an "old-fashioned" vacuum cleaner and kept the newest shiny plastic one.

Problem is (or was), that "old fashioned" vacuum cleaner was an industrial model that belonged to the cleaning service hired by the Parcheesi club (with no 1099!) and they got righteously pissed-off when they found out their $500 industrial vacuum cleaner was summarily tossed to the curb.   The "modern" vacuum the club members decided to keep was a cheap plastic job.  The Parcheesi club ended up buying the cleaning service a brand-new industrial vacuum.   What a waste of money!  Not only that, what a waste to throw two working vacuums away.  (By the way, and I will address this below, the other two vacuums were tossed because they were missing accessories which I later found).

There is a fine line between hoarding junk and throwing away valuable, working appliances.  The Parcheesi Club, for example, occupies a three-story building.  Three vacuums, three stories - the problem solves itself.  Put one of each on each floor and the members can use them to tidy up!

But it gets worse than that.  The Parcheesi tables require a special tool to set them up and we put this tool on a chain mounted on a hook on the wall.  Someone decides they need this tool for some other purpose and they take it and it is never seen again.   Other times, I carefully organize the Parcheesi pieces in a nice little cabinet, only to come back a day later and find them scattered all over the place - with some missing.

Like I said, maybe four or five things. Squirreling away valuable parts is a form of information hoarding, and in Parcheesi Club, there are plenty of information hoarders.  "Where is the key to the storage room?"  "Oh, only Brenda knows where that is kept, you have to call her!"  So you call and text and e-mail and no response because Brenda is out of town.   And the Brendas of the world do this so that they have some sort of weird passive-aggressive "hold" on everyone else and can control things simply by making themselves unavailable.

You finally find the key, make copies, label them, and put them in the key box and next week, Brenda has taken them all and hidden them, yet again.  I start to understand why the previous volunteers quit after a year.  And by the way, there isn't just one Brenda - there are dozens of them - maybe more!  Some no longer even play Parcheesi - they belong to the club only so they can hoard information.

Hot on the heels of squirreling away things, is outright theft.  Sometimes it is a matter of misunderstanding.  Parcheesi Club members are old and they forget things - some are halfway into Dementia (I am only 1/4 the way).    Mark brings a commercial-grade cooking sheet of hors d'ouvres to the Parcheesi meet, and at the end of the night, someone took it and left behind their lame-ass WalMart substitute.  Was it an accident (wife asks husband to "grab our cooking sheet!") or outright theft ("Hey, chance for a free upgrade!").  It only takes one or two kelptos to ruin the whole thing.

It is not that someone is stealing the cash out of the cigar box, or even stealing valuable Parcheesi boards or pieces - or even vacuum cleaners!  It is just little things that go missing - little things that I guess some think won't be missed.  Sometimes, they are the tiny parts you need to put together a Parcheesi table - or a special tool.   People never steal the part you can buy at Home Depot - no, no, they take the reverse Imperial thread bolt with a Whitworth head.   Good luck finding that!

Communal ownership of anything sucks - and is fraught with peril.  That's why when I read one of these idiotic stories about "five Millenials go in together to buy a house!" I know how it will play out over time.  Tim will play video games all day long while Jim is on an extension ladder cleaning the gutters.  Lisa is out partying all the time, while Susan ends up washing all the dishes everyone else leaves in the sink.   The house needs a new roof, but three out of five of the "owners" either don't want to pay or cannot afford to pay for the new roof.  It is a nightmare.

So why do it?   Well, in some instances, it makes sense.  The Parcheesi club offers classes to teach people the nuances of the game (Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced!).  Some equipment is expensive to buy, and if you are new to the game, maybe you don't want to invest all that money before you figure out whether you want to do this or not.  It is like the pottery business - there are plenty of brand-new kilns and wheels out there, purchased by folks who thought they were going to make pots, but never got around to it - or even got around to wiring up the kiln.  Better off to join a guild and use their equipment until you decide whether it is worthwhile to build your own studio or not.

But it is interesting to witness how communal ownership works in real-life.  There are signs and instructions taped on the walls, enunciating rules and regulations - and the dire consequences to people who fail to obey them!  Of course, they are of little use, and the signs fade and fall down and not much changes.  You just have to hope that the group has a sense of communal purpose and sticks together and doesn't get larger than Dunbar's number.

And yes, you will have to tolerate a little roughness along the edges.  Someone will hoard garbage, someone else will throw things out that should be saved.  And there will be theft and malfeasance - and information hoarding as well!   But if you can keep the group cohesion together - which requires leadership, then maybe you can accomplish great things.

Ah... but that is another problem with Communism and Communal ownership.  The leaders have to sacrifice for the good of the Commune, but are always tempted to line their own nest with perks, as we saw in Russia and China - special lanes for government limousines.  People starve while the bureaucrats feast.  Yes, even in Parcheesi club, this can occur.  Years ago, some of the former leaders decided to bring Parcheesi club "upscale" and invited a world-famous Parcheesi champion to attend a special reception (which he agreed to do, and give a speech, for a fee). Government officials and local celebrities were also invited and they even hired a caterer!  The repainted the Parcheesi room for the event!  It was a wonderful formal night out for.... the leaders of the Parcheesi club.  Ordinary members were not invited and indeed, not allowed to attend, other than some who agreed to pass hors d'ouvres for the event.

As a result the Parcheesi Club coffers were drained dry after the event was over and the leaders all resigned, since there was nothing left to do.  Zil Limousines, indeed!  Thank God they didn't try to pay themselves salaries!  That would have been audit-bait for sure!

Which brings us to another problem with Communism and communal ownership.  How did these people get elected to lead Parcheesi Club in the first place?  Well, the problem is, no one wants to lead the place, as it is a lot of headaches (or perceived to be so) and many people feel it would be presumptuous for them to nominate themselves.  For whatever reason, it is hard to get someone to lead such organizations.

Either you get someone who just wants to line their own nest (and that of their friends) or you get people who mean well. but just manage day-to-day operations and then throw it over the fence to the next guy.  It is rare, in such organizations, to find someone who has a vision for the future of an organization, and the ability and will to lead it in that direction.  That takes a lot of strength, integrity, and hard work.  And sitting on the sidelines, sure as shit, will be some heckler who will criticize your every move, but offer no help or make no contribution of their own.

But hey, that's not a problem just limited to Communism - so-called Democracies suffer from the same effect, which is why we rarely end up with decent elected leaders and have people like "Our Miss Margie" Green instead.  People get the government they deserve.

And yes, there are advantages to communal ownership, as well.  When you combine a group of people of different talents together, they can work together and each according to his abilities and needs.   Well, at least in theory.  Problem is, everyone thinks they are the indispensable man, and their efforts are not appreciated.  Worse yet, sometimes they are right, at least in part.  In any of these sorts of organizations, you see a small group do the majority of the heavy lifting, and a whole lot along for the ride.

Overall, though, communal ownership of property is a less-than-ideal solution to anything.  Even institutional ownership is a better idea, as at least an institution can enforce their rules about use of communal property.   But private ownership ends up being more efficient, in most cases.  Think about how well you treat your car (or should) - cleaning it, washing it, waxing it, changing the oil regularly and doing regular maintenance.  Now think about a fleet vehicle - such as the phone company truck or a police car.  In addition to their hard use, there is no one in the food chain who really cares for the vehicle the way a private owner would.  Sure, an institutional owner like the Police Department or the phone company will do regular maintenance and wash it once in a while. But that pales in comparison to how many people will "baby" their car.

Yes, in theory, communal ownership and collectivism is more efficient than private ownership.  But the reality of human nature is that some are going to exploit collective assets for their personal gain, while others end up doing the lion's share of donkey work to maintain the collective assets.

Owning things privately may be more costly, but results in all of the work benefiting the worker who is also the owner.  Or, as my Italian friend once said, "In Italy, we have a saying, the best partnerships are an odd number of people, less than three!"  He said this after extracting himself from a partnership where the partner did little work and just spent money instead. Share and share alike!

Of course, not everything can be done on your own.  If everyone worked as a sole proprietor, nothing would get done.  One large enterprise can do more than hundreds of small businesses - as Mao found out when he tried to get individual farmers to make pig iron in his "great leap forward."

The trick is, to manage that one large enterprise effectively.  And self-interest is one way to insure that people work efficiently and that resources are properly managed.

Or to put it more succinctly: Communism Sucks!