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I am wondering if the following might considered a market failure in the traditional sense. I don’t think so because I do not see uncompensated benefits and costs here, so maybe a better question would be to ask why this equilibrium persists. Here it is: have you ever noticed the janitors where you work or in places you visit spend much time, if at all, cleaning many of the things we put our hands on?

For example, our janitor does a wonderful job mopping our floors, vacuuming the carpets in our buildings, cleaning the toilets, taking out the trash, and otherwise making sure our place does not turn into this. But I have been watching closely for a year and a half now, and never have I seen the sink faucets cleaned. Never have I seen the door handles cleaned. Never have I seen the handle on the paper towel dispenser cleaned. Or even the flush handles on the toilets.

But isn’t the reason to clean up after ourselves to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria and other germs? If so, it would seem to me that we would contract with our cleaning staff to do this – and if existing staff are insufficient to do it, then we should hire more. It would also seem to me that thinking about all the resources we spend both directly and indirectly to prevent and treat the spread of disease, that people place a large value on not contracting illnesses. So the reason for this equilibrium must not be that we don’t value it enough. As an economist, the main reason I think the outcome is the way it is, is that the least costly way of dealing with the problem is to have each and every individual be vigilant about avoiding contact with these surfaces.

Why would I say that? It would seem that hundreds of people come into contact with these surfaces each day – and every single time a person touches a surface he could leave disease carrying bacteria on it. So all that work from a janitor just to make sure the first person who touches the handle in a day does not contract it. But if that person himself had a cold already and sneezed into his hand before opening the door – then that bacteria is there all day long. If he did not have the bacteria, the second person could have, and so forth. So, dedicating all that janitorial time to clean each handle and contact surface to benefit so few people would seem not to make sense. In fact, to truly make sure we kept clean and did not contract disease, the janitor would have to clean every surface we touched after every single time we touched it.

Since I understand this, and everyone else does, the least costly way to avoid the problem is to have each of us wash our own hands any time we come into contact with a surface (only about 20 seconds of time) and then if we plan on touching a surface after this – taking measures to avoid contact. So I tend to use revolving doors and push them with my covered shoulder. In our bathroom, I keep my hand towel after washing and use it to open the door and then throw it out in my office.

Is there more to the story? Perhaps, I’d like to hear your ideas as to whether it even makes sense to want these touchable surfaces cleaned. And if so, what the nature of the “failure” is? I mean failure in the general sense that there are benefits out there to be had but that are not being realized. It would be silly call the existence of high costs a market failure. By that standard, anything that is good and desirable but that does not yet exist could be painted as a market failure – and you definitely do not wish to go there.

2 Responses to “Janitorial Market Failure”

  1. Speedmaster says:

    You know that sick feeling when you press the handle on a public wall-mounted Purell dispenser and nothing comes out, it’s completely empty? Then you realize that since you touched the handle, you’re now worse off than if you had never even gotten involved? I hate that feeling.

  2. Anthony says:

    I think the point at issue is not, in fact, the existence of germs on the surface but, rather, the appearance of a germ free surface. If you truly want to consider all human action as a trade off between one good versus another, then take the perspective which considers thought as a market. The brain only has so much capacity and the germaphobia proves to be very preoccupying. Thus, in order to allow the average individual to pay no mind to the thousands of potential germs all over the bathroom, elevator, office, etc, they pay a man next to minimum wage. If you consider the dollars per hour a CEO makes simply to contemplate the big picture of the company, adding 5 extra minutes to this deep thoughts instead of how many times he needs to wash his hands seems to be a valuable investment. Even if he as just as likely to contact a disease when the surface is cleaned versus the alternative, we allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking it is clean simply because we see a person is there cleaning. Appearance can, sometimes, be everything.

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