What would the world be like if high-speed trains arrived every ten minutes to whisk you away to the city of your choice? It would be a lot like Japan. What if our computers and coffee makers were not dumped in toxic landfills at the end of their lifecycle, but were instead reused as raw materials for new consumer products? Just ask Western Europeans. What if instead of crafting environmental rules in secret, governments were required to share all of the information shaping their decisions with any citizen who demanded it? The answer can be found in the United States. The differences among the “worlds” experienced by citizens of Japan, Europe, and the United States stem in large part from variation in the rules underpinning them. In Japan, a national system of bullet trains (shinkansen) came about not because of an inevitable march of technological progress. It was the result of national and local rules that transformed a disjointed collection of railways into an integrated national system—a system that has not had a single fatal accident since its inauguration in 1964. In Europe, new rules make corporations responsible for collecting and recycling the electronic goods they sell to consumers. Because they must safely dispose of any toxic substances in their products, these companies have a strong incentive to remove heavy metals and other poisons from the manufacturing process. In the United States, the Freedom of Information Act empowers citizens to demand that government agencies send them all pertinent documents describing the rationale behind their decisions—a degree of transparency that is unheard of in Japan or Europe. Of course, these states of the world did not always exist. They were brought into being through deliberate acts of social change in which old rules were tossed and new ones put in place. Yet many people find the thought of social change too daunting. It seems unrealistic, out of reach. Compared to the dizzying pace of change in technology and popular culture, it appears that progress on big social problems like poverty alleviation, human rights, and environmental sustainability moves at glacial speed.
Keywords: Save Barton Creek Association, city codes, complementarity, coral reefs, corruption, institutional economics, organizational behavior, rummaging, sanitation services, solar energy, value creation, zero-sum game
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