Archive for the 'Humor' Category

Dec 06 2011

Grinchonomics, 2nd edition: “Santa’s hollow threat…” or “how the Economist can help save Christmas”

Last year, I argued that Christmas was the most inefficient time of the year due to the large loss of welfare that goes with the tradition of gift giving. This year I will argue that Santa Claus, as the tradition is embraced in the English speaking world, fails to provide children with strong enough incentives to behave nicely, thus resulting in too much naughty behavior, reducing society’s welfare in the months leading up to Christmas. We’ll explore a market-based solution to this market failure,  already being practiced across the European continent, which harnesses the power of incentives to improve children’s behavior, and the overall efficiency of the Christmas holiday.

The lyrics to the popular Christmas song, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, are a warning to little children that they better not act naughty, OR ELSE! Read them and see what I mean:

You better watch out, You better not cry
Better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
He’s making a list, And checking it twice;
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you’re sleeping, He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good, So be good for goodness sake!
O! You better watch out! You better not cry
Better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

“So be good for goodness sake,” a child will say, ” OR WHAT? What are you going to do Santa, if I am naughty? Are you not going to bring me a present that I really want?”

You see, this is the problem with the Santa I grew up with. He is all carrot, and no stick. Humans respond to incentives, and the Santa I grew up with is great at incentivizing nice behavior, but he’s really bad at disincentivizing naughty behavior. Consider the following:

  • Santa sees me when I’m sleeping and knows when I’m awake, so he knows when I’ve been bad or good. If I’m good, the implication is that I will be rewarded with wonderful gifts from Santa come Christmas time.
  • If I’m bad, however, I will experience no loss whatsoever. While I will not benefit as much as the good children, nothing will be taken away from me. I will be made no worse off by being naughty, rather the degree to which I will be made better off is reduced.

This is a classic incentive problem. Santa provides rewards for good behavior, but fails to dole out punishment for bad behavior. A culture which embraces this benevolent Santa will invariably produce too many naughty children. Such a market failure can be illustrated clearly using benefit and cost analysis:

As economists, we’re always exploring ways to improve efficiency in the markets for different goods, services, and human behaviors. Clearly, in the market above, in which children determine how naughty they will be based on their perceived private benefits and costs of their own behavior, there is a market failure.

Due to Santa’s hollow threat (“…you better watch out!”), children lack a strong disincentive to not act naughtily, and therefore choose to engage in naughty behavior to the extent that overall welfare in society is reduced. The marginal private benefits of naughty behavior are far greater than the marginal social benefits of naughty behavior (let’s face it, acting naughty is FUN!).

So how could Santa better harness incentives and disincentives (both the carrot and the stick) to reduce naughty behavior and increase overall welfare in society, thereby increasing the overall efficiency? Santa must do more than just encourage good behavior; he must also strongly discourage naughty behavior.

Well, as it turns out, the Santa I grew up with is not the only version of Santa Claus in the world, and in fact the Santa known to millions of children all over Europe is one with a fearsome, wrathful side that is not timid about doling out punishment to naughty children. Allow me to introduce the European Santa, and his evil alter-ego, known here in Switzerland by the ominous name Schmutzli (which translates loosely to “dirty face”).

img source:

The Swiss news site introduces the character Schmutzli:

This is not the Santa Claus known to English-speaking countries but the Swiss version – who is normally accompanied by a strange-looking individual with a blacked out face.

The Swiss Father Christmas was based on Saint Nicholas, whose feast day was celebrated on Saturday – his Swiss German name, Samichlaus, alludes to that. But the origins of his sinister companion are less easy to make out.

Known as Schmutzli in the German part of the country… Samichlaus’s alter ego usually carries a broom of twigs for administering punishment to children whose behaviour throughout the year has not been up to scratch.

You see, here in Switzerland, and in much of Western Europe, Santa brings gifts for the children who have been nice, but his partner Schmutzli delivers harsh punishments to those children who have been naughty. Schmutzli, who goes by different names in other parts of Europe, is known to throw naughty children in his sack, carry them into the woods, and administer a fierce beating with his birch stick, and for the naughtiest children, to eat them or throw their beaten bodies into a river.

Schmutzli, quite literally, provides the stick to accompany Santa’s carrot. In Europe, children not only receive wonderful rewards from Santa for good behavior, but fierce punishments from Schmutzli for naughty behavior.

From an economic perspective, Schmutzli’s existence increases the efficiency of the Santa character dramatically, and therefore improves overall welfare in society by giving children both an incentive to act nice and a strong disincentive to act naughty, thereby internalizing the negative social costs of naughty behavior. The outcome can be as illustrated as below:

As the graph illustrates, Schmutzli’s presence by Santa’s side come Christmas time forces children, in their decisions regarding naughty behavior, to account for the likelihood that Santa truly “knows when you’ve been bad or good”. For if he does know when you’ve been bad, Santa will unleash Schmutzli, his child-hauling sack and his birch stick on those whose behavior has been more naughty than nice.

Schmutli’s existence in Switzerland’s Santa story internalizes the external costs of naughty behavior among children, and thereby reduces the marginal benefits enjoyed by naughty children, reducing the actual number of naughty children and the size of the deadweight loss they impose on society. Fewer children will act naughty, the externality is reduced, and overall welfare in society improves.

There you have it. The deadweight loss of Santa. If you ever doubted that Economists could find the inefficiency in Christmas, I’ve shown you once again that it is indeed the most inefficient time of the year. By providing a balance of rewards and punishments, Schmutzli’s presence corrects the incentive problem of an always benevolent Santa. Society as a whole should therefore suffer from less naughty behavior among its children.

Once again, a little Economic analysis can help make Christmas more efficient for all!

8 responses so far

Feb 07 2011

Label your axes!

Published by under Humor

This is the kind of humor economists love, from the folks at xkcd comics:

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Dec 16 2010

Grinchonomics – or “how the Economist stole Christmas”

Every year around this time economics students and teachers alike begin looking forward to the long Christmas holiday right around the corner. Two or three weeks of yuletide cheer, mistletoe, snow men, caroling, food, family and… dead weight loss. That’s right, what’d you think this post would be about, the efficiency of Christmas? Come on… it’s the DISMAL science! Not the jolly science!

The tradition of giving Christmas presents has long fallen under the scope of economic researchers who seek to understand more about the rational, or as it turns out, irrational behavior of individuals in society. From an economic standpoint, many of the things that Christmas traditionalists believe are bad, are actually good, while the traditions many believe are good are in fact quite bad from an economist’s viewpoint. Basically, economists are grinches. So prepare to be grinchified…

Are you the kind of person who thinks doing all your Christmas shopping online is cold, impersonal, and against the holiday spirit? Well, Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics, argues that shopping online is far more efficient than spending days roaming the malls and shopping centers searching for the right gift for your loved ones. Says Dubner about “clicking and gifting” (i.e. shopping online):

See here’s the thing: I like the sound of clicking and gifting, that sounds efficient to me. That’s what we need to bring to the holidays, is more efficiency, less emotion. Let’s get rid of that.

Economists’ disdain for Christmas shopping is not limited to criticizing the inefficiency of spending hours shopping for gifts, in fact the tradition of giving gifts itself is considered economically irrational and inefficient. Sure, you say, it’s the thought that counts. Well, that’s just stupid. A gift giver can think all he wants about what a friend or a loved one may want for Christmas, and end up buying the thing they think the other person wants. But when it comes down to it, each of us only really knows what one person in this world wants, and that is ourselves, that’s right, the royal ME.

So basically, any gift you can buy for someone else will bring them less benefit than a purchase they themselves make; so WHY BOTHER? What it comes down to is self-interest in the end. When we buy a gift for another person, it is ultimately for our own benefit, which as we will see soon, most often exceeds the benefit of the receiver of the gift.

This is what’s known as the dead weight loss of Christmas. From an economic standpoint, Christmas is not “the most wonderful time of the year”, rather it’s “the most inefficient time of the year” (not so catchy as a song lyric, I’m afraid). Dead weight loss is like when,

…my wife’s great-grandma buys me a sweater at $85 and to me it’s worth like $1.50. Because I don’t like it… so that’s $83.50 deadweight loss… And the holidays are jam-packed with that kind of waste.

We’ve all been there, as both the gift giver and the unfortunate receiver of a gift we don’t like or even want. In fact, this phenomenon can be graphed using a basic diagram learned by all high school economic students: the marginal benefit, marginal cost diagram. Look at the graph below and see if you can figure out what it shows, then scroll down and read the explanation.

Basically, what the graph above shows is that the act of giving gifts brings benefits to the gift giver that are not enjoyed by the gift’s receiver. From the ultimate consumer’s standpoint (i.e. from the perspective of the gift receivers), many of the gifts received for Christmas will be valued far less than the amount of money, time and energy that went into choosing and buying them by the gift giver.

In other words, the marginal cost of shopping for and buying Christmas presents exceeds the marginal benefit of those who receive them, hence, the market for Christmas gifts fails since the behavior of private individuals results in a level of Christmas shopping that exceeds the socially optimal efficient level, at which the marginal benefit of the give receivers intersects the marginal cost of gift production. Resources are over-allocated towards Christmas present shopping because it is simply impossible for gift givers to know the precise preferences of those for whom they shop.

That $85 sweater, for instance, may have only been “worth” $1.50 to the poor fellow who received it. The dead weight loss, therefore, is the resources that went towards producing and purchasing a sweater for someone who doesn’t even like it, and all the other possible ways those resources and that money could have been allocated.

Have I ruined your Christmas yet? Well, fear not, there is an economically efficient way to approach the Christmas season and to maintain the beloved tradition of gift giving! That’s right, even the Grinch economists have a solution to this wasteful problem! And it is so simple… it is… CASH! Cash is the ultimate gift, perfect in every way. No time whatsoever is wasted in the process of deciding what to give someone. Simply put your debit card in the ATM machine and your entire season of shopping is done!

Cash is the perfect gift to receive too. There is no chance you will be unsatisfied with what you ultimately “get” for Christmas.  Cash can be spent on the goods from which the receiver himself enjoys the greatest marginal utility per dollar he spends. The dead weight loss above is completely eliminated when cash is given instead of other presents. The marginal benefit of the giver and the marginal benefit of the receiver are the same since the giver can rest assured that the receiver will spend it on something that provides him with the greatest possible benefit.

So there is a happy ending to this story after all! Maybe someday when economic education has truly succeeded we can once and for all do away with the wastefulness and inefficiency of Christmases past and form new traditions rooted in the efficiency of cash gifts. So, students of economics, if you want to make your loved ones happy this Christmas, you now know what to do. In the process, you’ll help make the world just a little bit more efficient!

For more on the dead weight loss of Christmas, listen to and discuss with your class the two podcasts below, from two of my favorite shows, American Public Media’s Marketplace (from which the quotes above are taken) and NPR’s Planet Money.

Discussion Questions:

  1. A market failure in economics exists whenever resources are allocated inefficiently towards the production or the consumption of a certain good. What makes holiday gift giving a market failure?
  2. Why is the marginal benefit of a gift giver often times greater than the marginal benefit of a give receiver? How does this discrepancy result in “negative social benefits” as indicated on the graph?
  3. What is dead weight loss and how does holiday gift giving result in it?
  4. Why are cash gifts more “efficient” than buying presents for others? How would an economist analyze the efficiency of gift cards or gift certificates compared to presents? To cash?
  5. Should we scrap Christmas and replace it with Economistmas? For Economistmas, everyone would get exactly what they want, which is to say, everyone would get money to BUY exactly what everyone wants. Surely you agree this would be far superior to our antiquated traditions rooted in inefficiency and dead weight loss, right?

Author’s note: For the record, I have bought my wife and family the perfect gifts this year! They’re simply going to love what I got them! And no, it is not cash! ;o) Merry Christmas!!

20 responses so far

Dec 01 2010

Elasticity Haikus

Published by under Elasticity,Humor

One particularly witty student submitted his Economics Learning Log for our Elasticities unit with the following thoughtful poems.

On Price Elasticity of Demand:

Price may increase fast

Inelastic good’s demand

Stays in place for good

On Cross-price Elasticity of Demand:

Vodka drinkers fear

Russians tax it, prices soar

I’ll drink beer instead

On Income Elasticity of Demand:

Wages cut in half

No more decadent lifestyle

I miss my Rolls Royce

On Price Elasticity of Supply:

Demand for sweets down

Asbestos found in lollipops

Guess I’ll make fewer

Well done, Nick! Keep the haikus coming!

16 responses so far

Sep 15 2009

Guns and Butter – a dangerous combination

Indexed » Blog Archive » Resources were not allocated efficiently

Econ students and teachers alike should appreciate this Venn Diagram. What happens when a nation chooses a point on its production possibilities curve somewhere between “guns” and “butter”? Answer, “Accidental shooting”… GET IT?

The punchline: “Resources were not allocated efficiently”

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