Get past the incredibly careless writing in this Newsweek story, and it turns out that the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, has made an order that the city government won’t buy any bottled water or allow it to be sold from concessions it controls. Like the City Hall cafeteria, type of thing.(For carelessness, this TreeHugger headline is even worse: “San Francisco Mayor Bans the Bottle.” Arguably true, but definitely confusing, since it’s only the city administration itself that’s affected.)
The argument against using city money to buy bottled water — for speakers at public meetings, say, or visitors to the mayor’s office — is pretty straightforward. Buying the bottles and then disposing of them is more expensive than keeping and cleaning glasses that get filled with tapwater, which is of perfectly good quality. They’re a waste of taxpayer money, $500,000 a year according to Newsom.
Unless they aren’t, in a wholly intangible and unprovable way.
Bottled water, in places where the tapwater is drinkable, is purely a positional good — people buy it because they like the way the brand makes them feel, makes them look, and makes them feel about how they look. Clearly, even though it’s based on vapour, that feeling is worth something, or else people wouldn’t buy ordinary water that costs more than something useful, like gasoline. In the corporate world, bottled water is a mark of status.
So what’s it worth, if you’re the mayor of a major west-coast city, to serve a visiting dignitary a chilled bottle of branded water, versus a glass from the pitcher in the fridge? Might you be giving up more than you get, if somebody who could do good things for the city goes away thinking San Francisco is run by cheap losers?
In San Francisco’s case, the glass of water is a different kind of positional good, one that ostentatiously declares Newsom a green champion. His real argument isn’t just based on efficiency with tax money, but on moral principle: “These people are making huge amounts of money selling God’s natural resources. Sorry, we’re not going to be part of it,” Newsweek quotes the mayor saying.
Steady on, there. A solar power plant or a wind farm (or a coal mine, or a wheat farm) does substantially the same thing, right? As long as the water in the bottle didn’t come from someplace dry where someone who couldn’t pay the price went thirsty so this 16-ounce bottle could be filled, I don’t get the moral argument Newsom is making, and I’m not convinced he ought to be making it on behalf of the people of San Francisco.