Wednesday, 21 September 2016

The escalation of surf gang violence

I really like the textbook I use for my ECON110 class, The Economics of Public Issues by Miller, Benjamin and the late Douglass North. The chapter on common resources in the book talks (among other things) about the rise of surf gangs in the U.S.

Surf breaks are a classic common resource. They are rival (one surfer on the break reduces the amount of space available for other surfers), and non-excludable (it isn't easy to prevent surfers from paddling out to the break). The problem with common resources is that, because they are non-excludable (open access), they are over-consumed. In this case, there will be too many surfers competing to surf at the best spots.

The solution to the problem of common resources is to somehow convert them from open access to closed access. That is, to make them excludable somehow. And that's what the surf gangs do, by enforcing rules such as 'only locals can surf here'. So, when I read this article from Outside from earlier in the year, I thought it would be good to discuss:
Lunada Bay, a surf spot on the northern coast of the bucolic, affluent Palos Verdes peninsula in Los Angeles County, is in the news again this month. The spot is famously home to one of the most aggressive band of local surfers in the world: the Bay Boys. In March, a group of plaintiffs, including a local police officer, filed a class action lawsuit against eight alleged members of the Bay Boys (with the intention of adding more defendants later), accusing them of harassing visitors who tried to surf the bay, home to a high quality reef break accessible only by a narrow pass down the bluffs. According to the court filing, the Bay Boys have thrown rocks at surfers trying to scramble down the cliffside trail to the beach, slashed tires, and physically fought outsiders for surfing “their wave.” ...
But surfing’s relationship with “localism” is complicated. Ask any longtime surfer what his biggest gripe is and chances are you'll get one answer: overcrowding. The number of surfers in world jumped from 26 million in 2001 to 35 million in 2011. Tensions arise not only because of the volume of people in the water, but the fact that newbies don’t observe the activity’s longstanding code of conduct, which can be summed up in three essential mandates: wait your turn; don’t get in the way of fellow surfers; respect the locals. It’s enough to turn a sunny day at the beach into a heaving mess.
To see what happens when the hordes descend on a break, all a surfer has to do is drive 20 miles up Pacific Coast Highway from Palos Verde. In Malibu, the famously excellent point break in northern LA County, the system has broken down. Hundreds of surfers vie for space at the world-class spot, cutting each other off and crowding five or six to a wave. A small gang of locals has tried to harass outsiders to limit crowding, but it’s too late for Southern California’s most famous break—everybody wants a piece of Malibu. “It’s the tragedy of the commons,” says Warshaw.
In its milder form, localism enforces the surfer’s code, says Jess Ponting, the director of San Diego State University’s Center for Surf Research. Though he is quick to condemn such localism—Ponting calls the Bay Boy’s actions “some insidious shit”—he empathizes with surfers crowded out of their home breaks. Mild, non-violent localism is often touted as a “a response to limit crowding,’’ he says, though he doesn’t condone the practice. “In a local area that’s overwhelmed by visitors, perhaps local surfers deserve to have at least a spot that’s less crowded,” he says. “If localism is the mechanism to achieve that, the argument goes, then maybe that’s okay?”
The actions of the surf gangs ensure that some surfers are excluded from the best spots (why risk having rocks thrown at you, or worse?), and converts the open access surf breaks into closed access - where access is controlled by the gang. This prevents overcrowding and ensures that the common resource is managed in a way that makes users happier, albeit that those made happier are the 'insiders' who are part of the local surf gang. That might not be the welfare-maximising solution (hence some surfers applauding the lawsuit described in the article).

Now if everyone obeyed surf etiquette as per the code of conduct noted above, there wouldn't be any need for government intervention, lawsuits, or surf gangs. Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 (but sadly passed away in 2012), argued that if enough of the affected community can work together, then the problem of common resources can be solved without government intervention. However, those type of private solutions require that the community can form a homogeneous group (within which trust is high), with common goals for the resource (in this case the surf break); and that both the boundary of the resource and of the community are well-defined. Trust is the key issue here - can all surfers be trusted to obey the (unwritten) rules? It seems not, especially when the community includes interlopers from elsewhere who don't respect the locals. This is why the surf gangs arose (since within each gang, trust is high and there is a common goal for the surf break - keeping non-locals out). 

What isn't immediately clear to me though, is why the need to escalate the level of violence to keep non-locals out? Is Lunada Bay so good that the benefits of surfing there (and avoiding the crowds at other beaches) enough to outweigh the costs of being harassed by the Bay Boys?

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