THE EDITOR: The issue of litter during the Carnival parade is a variation of the age-old economics problem called The Tragedy of the Commons.
That problem is usually outlined as how to ensure that cattle farmers utilising a common grazing area will not overuse the grass. If every farmer uses a fair share, the common will supply them all; if one or a few over-graze, however, the commons will be destroyed and all the farmers will lose out.
In our case, Carnival masqueraders throw litter on the streets because, as public property, the roads are a commons for which no individual holds ultimate responsibility. Giving responsibility to the city (or regional) corporations is an imperfect solution to this problem. It is imperfect because this means that all citizens are paying for an act perpetrated by a few.
The measure proposed by the Port-of-Spain mayor, for bands to pay a litter fee in advance, is also imperfect, since every band is paying for everybody’s litter, there is no link between the fees and clean-up costs, and such a fee provides a perverse incentive for masqueraders to litter even more (in order to get their “money’s worth”).
Carnival is full of such perverse incentives. The San Fernando debacle, where the largest bandleader did not pass the sole judging point, shows this, since bands are paid an “appearance fee” to do so. But why is this done? The city corporation gets no returns on that fee, so this is wasted money. But the bandleader did not bother with the fee because passing by the judging venue might have upset his masqueraders, who are his real source of income for Carnival.
Since this is true of all Carnival bands, why should the State be paying bandleaders an additional income in the form of cash prizes? A rational economic model dictates that, instead, the bands should be paying the corporations for the privilege of using the public roads and inconveniencing all non-Carnival-loving citizens (what economists call a “negative externality”). That fee should not only cover clean-up costs, but also security, infrastructure and all other outlays made by public authorities.