Tuesday 10 January 2012


As nice as Seuss's Grinch story is, we can't forget that it's the story told by the victorious Whos a century after the event. And so I told Ira the real story over Christmas. He prefers my version. And so I thought I'd share it with you as well. It's not in Seussean verse; maybe someday.

Recall that in The Lorax, insecure and ill-defined property rights, combined with a rather stupid Onceler and with a Lorax who cared more about grandstanding than about saving the trees, produced an outcome that none of the protagonists would have chosen. If the Onceler weren't an idiot, he'd have scaled back his capital investments to be commensurate with the stock of Truffala trees available. If the Lorax weren't a moralizing jerk, he'd have pointed out to the Onceler that re-planting trees as he went would let him get a return from his physical plant for a much longer period. And if property rights had been secure, either the Lorax could have sued the Onceler for stealing trees or have subsidized a faster replanting rate. 

And so we can see that the Grinch story is a problem of insecure property rights as well: does the Grinch have the right to peace and quiet, or do the Whos down in Whoville have the right to make as much noise as they like? In a Coasean world, it wouldn't matter as they could bargain to a solution. This could even hold in a world of poorly-defined property rights. If the Grinch really valued peace and quiet more than the Whos enjoyed making noise, and nobody knew which party had rights, the Grinch could still be sensible and pay them to stop even if he thought he had the right to peace and quiet. But only if he thought his rights would then be enforced; Seuss doesn't really like letting his characters find the efficient solution anyway*. And so in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Grinch isn't able to convince the Whos to stop making noise despite their most likely having come to his nuisance. 

In my version, the Grinch leaves the big noisy city and, after a tedious search, finds the perfect place for his studies: he homesteads a mountain overlooking an empty valley. There, he's able to read and write without interruption. Until the Whos show up and start building a town. The Grinch welcomes them, and tells them how much they'll love the peace and quiet of the place, hoping that they'll take the hint. After the noisy construction finishes, they have a raucous party in celebration. And then another for every holiday after, from Arbor Day to Xylophone Appreciation Day. But the biggest party they saved for Christmas. The Grinch pleaded with them; he was there first, surely they could try to keep the noise down. But they wouldn't. In desperation, he tried to steal Christmas, thinking that might stop them. But it didn't. So he gave up. He returned all their toys and dined with them before packing up his things and going off to find a new quiet place to live. He was there first, and by rights they should have compensated him for his loss, but enforcing the claim was more difficult than just leaving. And so he finally did the efficient thing and left. 

I tell it with a bit more embellishment, but you can fill in your own details.

* In The Zax, the North and South-Going Zaxes surely could have played leap-frog to solve their conundrum; instead, they just stood there until the city grew around them. By contrast, in The Sneetches, Sylvester McMonkey McBean is an entrepreneurial hero who profits by the prejudice of the Sneetches with Stars Upon Thars and the lame mopiness of Those Who Had None Upon Thars - the latter of which ought just to have had their own frankfurter roasts. A pox, or a McMonkey McBean, on both houses.

Update: In Lorax, it's possible to get complete forest decimation as being optimal from the Onceler's point of view, if the Truffala trees grow slowly relative to discount rates. But clearly he erred here given the massive capital investments and his intentions of biggering and biggering and biggering even as he chopped down the last tree. And so I expect decimation here was based on idiocy rather than rational calculation.


  1. Note also that the future of the Truffula trees is fairly grim from a biological standpoint. Attempting to recover an entire species from the very limited genepool of an individual seed is fraught with problems.

  2. Though of course there are alternative assumptions as to who has the initial rights allocation. Here's another version
    You'll like it!

  3. I'd missed that one! Thanks, Stephen.