Thursday 16 January 2020


My column for next week's Newsroom will go through a bit of econo-parenting. I wanted to check my earlier review of Josh Gans's excellent "Parentonomics", but found it had disappeared down an internet memory hole; it had been in the Christchurch Press in 2008. I've dredged it up from my Google Drive archives and am posting it here.
Review of Parentonomics

As with most things in life, it comes down to a cross-price elasticity. If you're a careful parent who's made sure that sugary and fatty treats are a complement to healthy foods rather than a substitute for them, which is to say that you'll allow them as an occasional reward for good behaviour rather than as a daily staple, you should welcome every bit of advertising on the kids' morning cartoons - it increases the price that kids are willing to pay for those treats and consequently the amount of good behaviour that you can extract from them in exchange. If you can control the supply. At least according to Melbourne Business School economist Josh Gans.

Dilbert creator Scott Adams tells us that having a working knowledge of economics is like having a mild superpower: it provides a pretty useful framework to help in understanding the world. Gans's latest book, Parentonomics (University of New South Wales Press, 2008), applies the economist's mild superpower to parenting - from the delivery room to school concerts. The results? Generally hilarious and often helpful.

Parentonomics is presented as a series of chapter vignettes written primarily to appeal to an audience of non-economists. Gans avoids economic jargon like "cross-price elasticity" - the tone far more Dave Barry than textbook. The informal narrative is bolstered by reference to empirical findings from the social sciences and intuitive explanations of the relevant theories. So we find that reasonable amounts of television viewing doesn't seem to have adverse effects on kids' school performance and that car seats for kids aged 2-6 don't really seem to add much safety over and above just wearing a normal seatbelt.

Parentonomics is at its best in chapters like "Toileting" where Gans applies economic reasoning about incentives in order to provide rewards for achievement of certain ... outcomes, then watches as the subjects of his regulatory regime alter their behaviour to obtain the promised reward in ways that meet the letter of the law rather than its spirit: when the child is rewarded for having a clean nappy when he wakes up in the morning, don't be surprised to find a pile of dirty nappies hiding behind the dresser. Other highlights include negotiating with infants and optimal punishment schedules for older children.

In other sections, Gans's economic applications are more observational than prescriptive: they help us to understand why things are as they are rather than help us in doing anything much about it. So Gans argues that, at a resort complex where his family frequently vacations, the folks who wind up paying for the "kids eat free" deals at the participating resort restaurants are the childless people going to the other restaurants: keeping the cheaper restaurants full of noisy kids helps induce others to pay more to go to the higher-end venues. Gans later wonders why airlines seem unwilling to make simple moves to make flights easier for families. Perhaps, following his earlier logic, it's that frazzled families as co-passengers also help make business class travel that much more enticing to the childless. I'm not entirely convinced by that argument, but I'm not sure that the counterarguments don't also cut against Gans's restaurant story.

In another interesting application of cross-price elasticity, Gans offers a blog, that provides interesting tidbits of economic analysis of parenting. I started following the blog about a year before Parentonomics came out; Gans started offering teaser bits from the book a few months ahead of the book launch. Some of the anecdotes and analyses that made it into the book also can be found in the blog, and of course the blog updates regularly with new material while the book does not. Is the blog then a complement to the book or a substitute for it? I find them rather complementary. Not least because it's a lot harder to take the blog to bed with you at night to read to your wife when the 11 month old is letting neither of you sleep.

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