Friday, April 24, 2009

Breastfeeding Economics

Yes, there is economics to breastfeeding. And here is an interesting review of the costs and benefits (I haven't looked at the main references myself). However, most of the costs and benefits are specific to the individual mother/child and so it is likely that the equation will be positive or negative for some and not for others. Nonetheless, there is food-for-thought there.

Implementing idleness

In Slate, there is a series of articles by Tom Hodgkinson (someone we have encountered before) about being an idle parent. He starts with a situation where he tries to delay interaction with his children.
I have noticed this tendency in myself: Sometimes I am staring at my computer screen and a child comes into my study and asks to play a game: "Will you play Tractor Ted with me?" Self-importantly, I sigh and say something along the lines of: "I'm working" or worse, a querulous: "Can't you see I'm working?" The child persists for a while and then gives up. I then look at my screen again and wonder whether checking the Amazon ranking of my last book can really be considered to be important work. Can it not be left for five minutes?
Been there! (Currently, 105,000. Doh!) Of course, you are supposed to think that perhaps you should be paying attention to your kids but Hodgkinson doesn't think that is the goal: he is all about being left alone. The surprising thing is that he argues that to achieve idleness you need to religiously say yes to your kids in precisely these situations.

The story goes that if you say yes and play with your child for 5 minutes, something unexpected will happen.
Give children whatever they want, whenever they want it, as soon as they ask. If children know they can have your undivided attention for any reason, no matter how paltry, at any time of day or night, lo and behold, miracle of miracles, they stop asking.
It is quite hard to understand this argument. Apparently, they don't come to you looking for some affirmation of love and instead only if they actually want to play which is, I guess, not often.

This seems a stretch for me. They may actually want to play most of the time. But I guess it can't hurt to try something counter-intuitive.

Hodgkinson does have other interesting ideas such as outsourcing parenting to pets (again, if it doesn't work, you face big costs), avoiding family days out, and not getting up from bed. There is more in his book, The Idle Parent (available in the UK).

Saturday, April 18, 2009

FT Review: Accepting advice from economists

Tim Harford provides a review of Parentonomics in the Financial Times.
What happens when Mr Spock meets Dr Spock? The answer is Parentonomics, an autobiographical account of how an economist used his professional training in game theory to bring up his three children.

Joshua Gans describes his experiences in the labour wards, changing nappies and dealing with tantrums, spousal absences and sibling rivalry - all the while explaining what he did or did not do, the economic principles involved, and whether any of it worked as a parenting strategy.

The obvious question is whether this is supposed to be good advice or some kind of joke. There is no ambiguity in Parentonomics: Gans is not joking. Thankfully, he can be very funny. Although he is an academic - a professor at Melbourne Business School - his writing has a professional snap. While the advice is intended to be useful, readers will come to their own conclusions about that. It does at least tend to be thought-provoking.

The review goes on to describe the various stories and also my lack of regard for "social mores." To my mind, this review captured exactly what the book was about and it was heartening. But as I read it, my recurring doubts as to potential damage being an economist was doing to my children, could not be suppressed. Then again, if I wasn't an economist, I am sure I'd find another way.

Now the last time a major outlet reviewed Parentonomics, I took the reviewer to task on his opinions. That reviewer didn't much like the book or economists. But I asked myself, is it fair that I spare Tim Harford the same scrutiny just because he has written a favourable review? The answer is: surely not.

The undertone of the FT review is the boundaries of economic advice. If you didn't know anything more about Tim Harford, you might come away from review thinking that he thought I might have come close to stepping over that line. But let's investigate.

Now, on the one hand, his writings are an 'education' for non-economists about how useful economics can be. Indeed, many of my 35 reviewers seemed to be hoping for the same thing from Parentonomics. That wasn't to be, but The Undercover Economist and The Logic of Life remain leaders in doing just that (see my views on the entire PopEcon genre here). While I had entertained the thought of doing something similar with Parentonomics, it just didn't work out that way.

On the other hand, there is this:

This is from Tim Harford's documentary series, Trust Me, I'm an Economist. He has literally set-up shop, Lucy van Pelt style, in a shopping mall! And there is also this, his 'Dear Economist' advice columns which just last week purported to use economics to help someone, and I am not making this up, "whose neighbour was confusing them as God." His answer to them: "it's not about you, it's about God."

So in terms of the subtext of "offering advice where no economist has gone before" I'm afraid that I can hardly be considered a pioneer. My offering is modest and specialised in contrast to the potential breadth of such offerings. In that regard, Tim Harford's review should surely be read as that of a kindred spirit (or maybe "part of the problem") rather than the distanced, squeemish, observer.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

What am I reading?

Apparently, now that I am a writer, people are interested in what I might be reading. This blog asks authors just that. Here is my entry. I'm in good economics company. Here is Thomas Schelling, Robert Frank, Bryan Caplan and Tim Harford.

Managing disputes

Over at the Game Theory blog, Cheap Talk, Sandeep Baliga contemplates how to manage a Lego based dispute.

You hear the sound of Lego and see your kids building the John Hancock Building out of Lego. You smile, thinking, “The Inca Trail can never compare to the joy I just felt seeing the kids playing together so happily.” You turn to the crossword puzzle. Your reverie comes to a screaming end as a fight breaks out behind you. Who got one of diagonal bits that criss-cross the Hancock a bit wonky? You will never know but each kid blames the other.

What to do?

The situation reminds you of the famous Moral Hazard in Teams paper by Bengt Holmstrom. Someone clearly did not exert the cooperative effort level. But you cannot tell who it was as there is no kid-specific signal, just the aggregate signal of the building falling over and the fight. First, you think that you should be fair and punish a child if and only if the weight of evidence is high. You realize you’re screwed as you never have that level of evidence. You could ask the children what happened and cross-check what one did against the other. In fact, this would give an opportunity to apply your own research and you’re excited about that. It dawns on you that the 8 year old can always out-lie the 4 year old. And the volume of the four year old’s cries is measured on the Richter scale. Your research obviously did not take account of these practical matters.

Incentive theory gives the obvious answer: punish them both. This works very well if there is nothing random that can cause the building to fall over. Then, each child knows they get punished if they start fighting so no-one fights as long as the punishment is big enough. If a fight can start randomly - and we parents know this can happen - sometimes you’ll punish them even though nothing truly bad happened. This is unfair and inefficient but what can you do? This second-best solution is still better than no incentives at all.

Briefly, you think about the theory of repeated games which claims to get cooperation even when the game is quite noisy and there is lots of private information about who did what to whom. You remember that Jeff has made important contributions to this theory. You use your common sense and decide that using his research might take the application of game theory to family life a little bit too far. You get up, confiscate the Lego and send the kids to their room to get out of their pajamas and put clothes on. The ultimate punishment.
That is a good solution of the goal is 'peace and quiet' but the other options was to let the dispute run its course. Then you could play the role of arbiter. For instance, this seems like a good opportunity to use the wisdom of Soloman and divide the Lego to reveal who really values getting the tower built.

By the way, Lego disputes are a common societal affliction; see here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter econ lessons

As a celebration of chocolate, Easter would be my kids' ideal holiday but for the fact that we are Jewish and are supposed to be celebrating passover which apparently bans such consumption. This is something my daughter describes as "ridiculous" which here means "surely Moses didn't lead our ancestors out of slavery so we could miss out on chocolate." She has a point which is why we turn this into a big economics lesson.

Today is Easter Monday and at 10am Easter eggs around Australia go on sale (usually a 50 percent discount). Given that, for us, there is no need to specify a particular day to eat chocolate, our family policy is to wait until Monday to make any purchases. This, of course, means that our children must spend weeks walking passed chocolate egg filled isles wondering if their preferred options will actually be around on Monday. But it is a whole education in delayed gratification which is something you want to encourage especially where chocolate is concerned.

So I went out today and there was a large crowd. This made sense to the kids but surprised me. In any case, they were happy to rush through the store, collecting their preferred options quickly which was good for me. Normally, the decision would weigh on them as if it were life and death. Nonetheless, I can recommend the cross-cultural price sensitive experience as a good way of managing the holidays.

Elsewhere, Peter Martin has his own economics and Easter issues.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Toy Jail

Scott Adams has some ideas for house design. One caught my eye:
TOY JAIL: This is a closet on the first floor, near the stairway to the second floor, used for jailing any toys that the kids neglected to pick up and bring back to their rooms. The closet isn't locked. It's just a way for the adults to tuck the debris out of the way when they want things tidy in a hurry.
If it were me I would make it a locked actual jail for toys confiscated as punishments. This will be particularly salient for stuffed toy animals.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

I sense fear in this one

In Slate, Emily Bazelon puzzles over the love her young sons have for Star Wars. It is an odd article. It appears her six year old, nursing a broken leg, somehow got to watch Star Wars (the original move) and his three year old brother obsessed over it.
He talked about the movie to any relative, friend, or baby sitter who would listen and plenty of shopkeepers who wouldn't. He relived the trash-compactor scene. He worried over Obi-Wan Kenobi's Jedi sternness and Darth Vader's glittering malevolence. He sniffed out plot twists in the rest of the endless six-movie saga (who knows how) and tried desperately to work out why Darth Vader could be Anakin Skywalker and Luke's father—and could also cut off Luke's hand. Here's a little girl sweetly summarizing the Star Wars plot. Simon wasn't sweet. He was feverish. He was short-circuiting. Thanks to our two hours of stupid indulgence, Paul and I concluded, his neurons were melting.
In reaction to this, they regarded themselves as failed parents! They banished Star Wars for three years before letting them watch again. In the meantime their enthusiasm had not diminished. If you read the article you will see how engaged those children were. They puzzled over the plot to understand its nuances. They desperately wanted to understand why Obi-Wan let Darth Vader kill him.

If this had been their reaction to a book, their parents would have been extolling the virtues of reading and appreciation of literature and how advanced their kids were. But since it was Star Wars, apparently, those very same skills were some sort of parenting failure. She ends with doubt about letting her kids watch The Empire Strikes Back.

Suffice it to say, their reaction is nothing short of ridiculous. I try to say this with the utmost respect because Bazelon inspires many a blog post here with interesting questions. However, puzzling over Star Wars in this way is not one of them.

When children (and I say children and not just boys) adore Star Wars is an interesting question. Even in our family where we as parents also adored the movie, we were surprised that our children's reaction was and to this day remains as powerful as our own when we were their age. They continue to debate the plot and play out the roles. It is not some aspect of violence destroying them emotionally. It is a broad appeal to thinking about good versus evil among many other things. And for us it provides a useful frame of reference.

Kids get obsessed about things. Denying it seems like exactly the wrong reaction. How great is it when a three year old becomes interested in a world beyond disputes about property rights? It doesn't matter if it is Star Wars or something else. Many obsessions are just worth nurturing.