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Tragedy of the Commons: China’s Genius Bars

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Aug 3, 2013    •    460 Views

When my MacBook Pro had a track pad glitch, I just booked a free appointment online for the next day at my local Apple Genius Bar. In Beijing, I might have had more than a 4 week wait.

Trying to solve his iPhone 4S problems, a Beijing Morning News journalist, Wang Bin, thought it unusual that Beijing’s 3 Apple stores were fully booked for a month. He soon discovered, though, that for somewhere between $1.60 to $6.50, he could buy the free Genius Bar visit from a scalper. Or, he could stand in line at an Apple store and hope for a no-show.

You can see what happened. With multiple email addresses, the scalpers scheduled the Genius Bar slots. Mr. Wang was able to buy one through the Chinese shopping site Tabao.

Apple’s Genius Bar abuse started me thinking about Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom who researched how we overuse the free goods and services that we share. Called the tragedy of the commons, in a communal pasture, we overgraze our cows. In a workplace refrigerator, we create a mess. Dr. Ostrom believed though, that when people care about their common pasture or refrigerator, the tragedy of the commons becomes a solvable problem of the commons because people have the incentive to work together and solve it.

The Apple situation is similar and different. A free service, the Genius Bar is being abused and overused because everyone can freely access it. Here though, Apple’s customers need not organize. Instead, I wonder how Apple will solve the problem. Your suggestions?

Sources and resources: Elinor Ostrom died on June 12. As the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in economics, a political scientist, and someone who paused during a radio interview to go to her backyard to observe a beautiful deer, she sounds fascinating. You might want to read more about her work and life here. And, in a classic 1968 article, Garrett Hardin describes the tragedy if the commons. As for more about Apple scalpers, hat tip to  CNN Money’s Fortune blog for some facts and their reference to the tragedy of the commons.

Please note that the paragraphs on Elinor Ostrom were excerpted from a previous econlife post.

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