January 23, 2003
Larry Summers Proven Wrong!

Larry Summers Proven Wrong! Yesterday I posted an aphorism that the MinuteMan had found cited by Tom Friedman and attributed to Larry Summers: "In the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rented car." Now I find--by looking at my comments--that a lot of people have washed their rental cars:

  • ...the very successful easyrentacar company in the UK now adds 10 to the bill if you don't [wash the car].
  • ...oh god, i have washed a rented car. i was young! i didn't know better! it's the net, damnit, i can't possibly be the only one around.
  • ...I've never washed a rental car, but I have washed company cars, when I didn't have to. The reason, of course, was that a clean Lincoln looks cooler than a filthy Lincoln.
  • ...I too have to admit washing a rented car-- outside and in! I'd driven it on 100 miles of Utah's back roads when the agreement (in fine print) said not to. The red dust on a white body was too flagrant. Sorry, Larry.
  • ...I too have washed rented cars, many times. As another poster noted, some rental agreements require you to return the car clean. And as another noted, clean cars are better to be seen in.
  • ...Hey I vacuumed out a rented mini van on account of being too embarrassed to turn it in after the the kids turned it into a pigsty while on vacation, and I even washed the outside too.
  • ...People do wash rented cars.
  • ...I washed a rental car - mind you that was after using it working at a contaminated site at a US Airforce Base.
  • ...I went on a road-trip through France this summer with my girlfriend. Along the back roads we took through the beautiful French countryside, our rental car got splattered, endlessly splattered with poor, dead bugs. It was just too gross NOT to wash our car.
  • ...I find the quip about washing rental cars somewhat annoying, especially in the mouth of someone like Larry Summers. The aphorism is an obvious allusion to the now commonplace observation that lack of well defined private property rights reduces incentives for the proper husbandry of resources. In many, perhaps most circumstances, this observation is both true and important. However, the extreme form of the aphorism ("Never in the history of the world ...")evokes for me the smarmy tendency of some economists and many conservative pundits to dismiss too casually and absolutely social ordering mechanisms other than the market. Moreover, as previous comments show, the aphorism also evokes the fact that too casual dismissal of non-market mechanisms is often based on even more casual empiricism. I am sure that Larry Summers doesn't generally think this way, but his choice of aphorism evokes such thinking.
  • ...On my first trip to Australia I eventually washed the windows on the hire car I had. Not for vanity or to help the hire company, but because the decrease in visibility was making my passengers nervous. Me, I figured I could see well enough for the few days left, but that that was not a sensible bet to make.

I would never have believed there were so many rental car-washers in the world...

Posted by DeLong at January 23, 2003 03:25 PM | Trackback

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Larry Summers, when asked to clarify his comments on the non-existence of spontaneous washing of rental cars, insisted that his point remained intact.

"Of course, a number of the car-washing episodes that supposedly contradict my thesis do not stand up to examination," an unrepentant Mr Summers insisted. "Clearly, the incentives of markets, contracts and self-interest are still at work. People refer to washing their cars because it is required of them in the rental agreement, because their visibility is hampered, or because they are hiding evidence of a violation of the terms of their rental agreement. What is clearly NOT happening is a sudden outbreak of altriusm by car renters. There is no evidence of a need to reqrite basic principles of economics JUST yet."

Posted by: Michael Harris on January 23, 2003 04:51 PM

Later, Mr Summers was heard to chide himself for saying "altriusm" and "reqrite" when he meant to say "altruism" and "rewrite".

Posted by: Michael Harris on January 23, 2003 05:12 PM

Add me to the list. I washed the car I rented for our wedding, in my wife's hometown. At the reception, the car was thoroughly decorated by my so-called friends. The next day, in pulling off the worst of the decorations, I noticed some pre-existing paint damage not noted when I rented the car. Since I was afraid of they would blame the damage on the decorating, I found my self washing the *^&%ing rental car before we could get to the airport for our honeymoon!

Posted by: Curt Wilson on January 23, 2003 06:59 PM

An expression of the same basic point which invites much less argument is the world-wise Belfast proverb I heard from the late Irish science fiction writer Bob Shaw: "A borrowed saw cuts anything."

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden on January 23, 2003 07:41 PM

How long would we have to wait to see this kind of correction in the New York Times? Advantage: Blogosphere!

Posted by: Paul on January 23, 2003 08:39 PM

This is just more bloody Rubinomics. There is no evidence of such a simplistic one-to-one connection between car washing and rented status. Rented cars have been washed in the past, and non-rented cars have gone unwashed. People, we should be concentrating on the fact that the car won't be rented if it isn't washed, not the other way round.


More seriously, you can tell all you need to know about economists' attitude to the working class by considering the question; if "nobody" washes rented cars, how come they're always clean when you come to rent them?

Posted by: dsquared on January 23, 2003 10:55 PM

Okay, how about this: Nobody puts premium gas in a rented car?

Posted by: gek on January 23, 2003 11:50 PM

>>if "nobody" washes rented cars, how come they're always clean when you come to rent them?

Semantic-quibble answer -- because they're not strictly "rented cars" when the Avis staff clean them. They WERE being rented and probably will be again, but right then, they're unrented.

(To be honest, I noticed that in the wording also. My semantic-quibble answer is how I decided I'd respond if I were Summers and someone called me on it.)

Posted by: Michael Harris on January 24, 2003 12:35 AM

Or, if you picked up $60 ($20 x 3 in a tight bundle) lying on the pavement and nobody was around, would you keep it?

Surprisingly, my wife was in this position. She felt guilty enough to wait about 10 minutes to see if anyone came by to claim it, and then still felt guilty enough to donate it to a relative who needed the cash (and she's deserving) rather than keep it herself.

Ohhhh... I sort of wish she had kept it. :-)

Posted by: Eiji Hirai on January 24, 2003 01:59 AM

Advantage: Blogosphere, but also Advantage: Gek, of the premium gas.

Man, this is a tough crowd, but I suppose we knew that.

Posted by: Tom Maguire on January 24, 2003 07:19 AM

- More seriously, you can tell all you need to know about economists' attitude to the working class by considering the question; if "nobody" washes rented cars, how come they're always clean when you come to rent them? -

Thank you, DD....

Posted by: anne on January 24, 2003 11:09 AM

Gulp, it looks like Brad DeLong has unwittingly been spreading another story that wasn't quite true. I'm sure, though, that he had the best intentions. What should be his punishment? No tomatoes with basil? The following is from today's www.opinionjournal.com:

"Other Than That, the Story Was True
Time magazine has issued the following correction:

'The article "Look Away, Dixieland" [Jan. 27] stated that President George W. Bush "quietly reinstated" a tradition of having the White House deliver a floral wreath to the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery--a practice "that his father had halted in 1990." The story is wrong. First, the elder president Bush did not, as Time reported, end the decades-old practice of the White House delivering a wreath to the Confederate Memorial; he changed the date on which the wreath is delivered from the day that some southern heritage groups commemorate Jefferson Davis's birthday to the federal Memorial Day holiday. Second, according to documents provided by the White House this week, the practice of delivering a wreath to the Confederate Memorial on Memorial Day continued under Bill Clinton as it does under George W. Bush.'

The question this raises is even more intriguing than the one it puts to rest. Specifically: How did Time come to make this error? Are Time reporters Michael Weisskopf and Karen Tumulty just guilty of a huge misunderstanding, or did someone plant this phony information with them in an effort to smear the president? Or, for that matter, in an effort to embarrass Time--or Maureen Dowd?"

Posted by: David Thomson on January 24, 2003 01:19 PM

Did anyone ever change a lightbulb in a rented car? How many people did it take?

Posted by: Arthur on January 24, 2003 01:45 PM

Did anyone ever change a lightbulb in a rented car? How many people did it take?

Posted by: Arthur on January 24, 2003 01:47 PM

Let me act as devil's advocate and follow up Michael Harris's posts at the beginning of this thread (and Martin White's from the earlier thread).

Arguments by economists:

"No one inthe history of the world ever washed a rented car".

- when confronted with evidence that some people have washed rented cars,

"What I really mean is, only a few people wash rented cars. But if they do so it is for selfish reasons, so I'm right anyway",

- when confronted with evidence that some people wash rented cars for reasons that are at least altruistic at least to first-order:

"What I really mean is, not that many people wash rented cars, and even if some may appear to do so out of consideration for others, I'm sure they are really feeling better because of those others' reactions, so it is really out of selfishness, so I'm right anyway".

My problem with all this is, does this make "the basic principles of economics" irrefutable and therefore non-scientific? I certainly cannot think of any observation that could not be explained away as "selfish" at some level.

Posted by: Tom Slee on January 24, 2003 05:19 PM

Last summer we rented a car for two weeks, and after driving on some very dusty dirt roads we washed it for 2-3 dollars.

I understand that Summers made a quip and not a scientific statement. Hey, I even ate some free lunches in my life, including one that consisted of wild cactus fruits growing near a highway in Sicily. (So nobody even paid for planting the cacti).

Posted by: Piotr Berman on January 24, 2003 07:20 PM

Isn't there a lesson here, regarding statements like: "increased federal deficits have to raise interest rates"?

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on January 25, 2003 10:35 AM

I'm shocked--shocked!--to learn that Larry Summers could be mistaken.

Poor Mr Summers. He was stoked when he took the top job at Harvard precisely because everyone would then hang on his every word. He forgot that this also meant that he could be hanged by his every word.

Posted by: Martial on January 25, 2003 11:24 AM

They've actually hired someone to talk for Larry-- one of Tony Blair's press staff, apparently. http://thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=257974

I think it's a wise decision on their part. But who'll write memos for him, so we can avoid another World Bank Memo fiasco?

Posted by: anandla on January 25, 2003 12:23 PM

i don't know where this fits into the economic model, but when i washed my rental i was trying to be nice, or polite, or something. i just figured it was a clean up after yourself kind of thing.

Posted by: quinn norton on January 25, 2003 02:31 PM

Well, Larry Summers makes an off-the-cuff quip and twenty comments later we're all working out whether "economics is wrong!" heheh.

I was just playing in my opening remarks, you'd really need to get Larry's own honest response rather than my facetious comments. That said, Tom's remark that "I certainly cannot think of any observation that could not be explained away as "selfish" at some level" is something worth discussing.

Now even with all of that -- it's not unremarkable to make the empirical assertion that rental cars will be typically driven more recklessly, maintained less carefully and washed less often BY THE USER (driver) than cars owned by their drivers.

If that assertion has empirical support, then there's SOMETHING in the notion of self-interest influencing behaviour, even if Summers' quip overstates it.

Posted by: Michael Harris on January 27, 2003 04:29 PM

In case anyone is still reading this theard (this blog moves so quickly)...

I admit to "playing" as well. I do confess that rental cars will be looked after less well than privately owned cars.

But (as usual, thinking of the pithy comment about 2 days too late) here is an analogous observation Larry Summers may have made, with perhaps the same justification:

"In the history of the world, no one has ever bothered to cast a vote in an election".

If I remember it long enough, I'll try that out the next time the subject comes up...

Posted by: Tom Slee on January 27, 2003 05:41 PM

Read. Noted. Enjoyed. :-)

Posted by: Michael Harris on January 27, 2003 08:52 PM

I've just left back an Easyrent car at Geneva Switzerland without either washing it or paying the advertised 10 penalty for not doing so. I merely said I hadn't dirtied it. Which reminds me that when staying at youth hostels and the like I always took a pride in cleaning and polishing up the kitchens, etc., so perhaps even easycar rental operatives recognise "Old European" social awareness when they meet it. Let's hope the UK Treasury's fascination with Summers and all his works is not too abiding.

Posted by: Des McConaghy on June 29, 2003 03:25 AM
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