Saturday, February 18, 2006

Coase's Toilet

About a year ago, I linked Gil Milbauer’s analysis of toilet seat norms. Specifically, Gil addresses the eternal question of who should raise or lower the toilet seat and when. As I said then, Gil’s logic is absolutely correct and strongly supports the CWN (“Change When Needed”) rule over the AD (“Always Down”) rule. Why? Gil presents the math, but really the names say it all. The AD rule requires toilet-seat adjustments in some cases where they are unnecessary (between two consecutive male urinations). The CWN avoids such unnecessary adjustments, thereby minimizing the total seat-adjustment burden.

Now I find – via Marginal Revolution – another mathematical analysis of toilet-seat norms. The calculations are similar, and author Richard Harter agrees with Gil about how to minimize the burden: “It is readily seen that ... the joint total cost is optimized by strategy J” (strategy J is equivalent to Gil’s CWN). But, Richard says, this strategy is “suspect” because men have a selfish interest in advancing it. The CWN rule involves more seat-adjustment by women, whether compared to the AD rule (which puts all the burden on men) or living alone (where there is no such burden). Women will therefore strongly resist the CWN rule.

Richard’s conclusion is that “there is an inherent conflict of interest which can be resolved by [an] equity solution.” His proposed solution involves dividing the increased seat-adjustment burden (which results from choosing to cohabit) between the man and woman. But this equitable arrangement is inefficient, at least until the disutility of relationship discord is taken into account.

While Richard’s analysis is correct as far as it goes, it suffers from a shortage of imagination. The seat-adjustment issue is a kind of externality problem, and like many such problems, it is susceptible to a Coasean solution. As Ronald Coase observed, we can reach efficient outcomes through voluntary transactions so long as the parties are free to bargain. In this case, let’s suppose Richard’s equitable solution defines the initial allocation of duties. Then both parties can be made better off if they switch to the CWN rule and the man gives the woman some form of compensation – perhaps more frequent gifts, extra foot rubs, or straight-up cash payments.

So why doesn’t this actually happen? Well, maybe it does with some couples. But one condition of the Coase Theorem is that initial property rights must be well defined, or else bargains will be difficult to reach. In the seat-adjustment problem, men and women are still fighting about the initial rights allocation. Thus, Richard’s analysis could still be useful, not for establishing the correct final seat-adjustment rule, but for establishing a viable initial rule as the baseline for bargaining.

[An addendum: Some women seem to think the AD rule is better simply because it avoids the “Midnight Surprise” problem of sitting down and plopping one’s rear in the water. I find this unconvincing. Are women blindly backing up to the toilet before sitting? All it takes is a quick glance. Men, too, are potentially subject to the Midnight Surprise when doing operation #2, but I’ve never heard a man complain about it. That’s because men don’t assume the seat will be down. After becoming accustomed to the CWN rule, women wouldn’t assume that either. In any case, the MS doesn’t vitiate the Coasean argument. Start with Richard’s equity solution, which involves seat-down in the evening already, and then let the negotiations begin. If the disutility of a potential MS is large enough to make CWN inefficient, then the bargain won’t occur.]


Eric H said...

There's something else nobody is considering: use the AD rule, and men learn to pee sitting down. In addition to being an alternative solution to the problem, it also considers the extra work required to clean up the splash (an externality?).

Chris Hibbert said...

I feel like we went through most of this the last time the topic came up. If you are still discussing this issue with your SO, I suggest you ask whether they sit in public restrooms without checking. My informant tells me that many women's restrooms have disgusting seats, which causes some women to "hover" rather than sitting, which causes the seat to be even more disgusting. Women always check in public restrooms. I don't known why they think they shouldn't have to check at home; it won't require developing a new reflex, contrary to their claims. Seems to me the right rule is AC: Always check. Always check before sitting, and always check before pissing standing up (for courtesy's sake). In public restrooms, I check the seat before sitting, and at least 10% of the time, clean the seat and then put down a disposable cover.

At home, we've agreed that the lid should always be closed after use, since otherwise flushing spreads stuff all over the bathroom, where we store toothbrushes and other things we'd rather have clean.

Glen Whitman said...

Carina: Sounds like you're arguing about the *initial* allocation, not the *final* allocation. You could start with AD and still bargain to the efficient solution. However, given that this man-who-pays-no-rent is presumably only a visitor, and the female resident is probably accustomed to the AD rule, I concede that the small gains from trade might be swamped by the transaction costs and adjustments costs.

Would you accept, by your own who-pays-rent logic, that men should be allowed to maintain the CWN rule when ladies come to visit?

Try getting a nightlight for the bathroom. I've got one and it works great. With low enough wattage, you won't be blinded by the light (nor wrapped up like a deuce another runner in the night). And you'll avoid Midnight Surprises as well as other disasters that befall people wandering around in pitch darkness.

Blar said...

Midnight surprises are most likely to result, not from the application of CWN, but from the imperfect application of AD. Cowen is mistaken in thinking that this phenomenon points in the direction of attempting to follow AD.

Glen Whitman said...

Good point, Blar. The MS will only occur if you mistakenly assume the seat is always down.

Anonymous said...

I accidentally stumbled into this fascinating Blog. I am not a linguist. I am not a mathematician or economist. I don't have a formula to use, however, I am a real housewife.

I developed a "latchkey bladder syndrome" after some surgery. That means by the time my brain gets the message that my bladder is full...I GOTTA GO NOW!

I literally don't have time to get unzipped and seated without accident IF I have to put the seat down, too. (I have proven it. I choose not to). Therefore, without argument or contention, AD is the rule of common courtesy and respect in my home.

Plus, in the daytime it just looks nicer. Who wants to walk into a friend's BR and be greeted with the seat up? No just doesn't look right, almost unsanitary.

AD should be the practical rule for everyone, since we are debating. Why do men lift the seat in the first place? Isn't it because when you shake it you can splatter or drip...or even miss a little?

Okay, then don't you reach down and wipe it off? Urine drips under the seat are just as nasty as urine drips on the seat. So, if you have to bend over and wipe it off anyway, why not just apply the AD rule and wipe off the seat. Then it will always be clean. Problem solved for both races.

We are proud ADers. I never have to wake myself up completely by turning on the BR light at night. If I do, I will never get back to sleep. The rule in my house stands at ADD (Always Down Dammit).

VIP! (Very Interesting Posts)

Geebo said...

I had the exact same conversation earlier this evening, and now to my surprise I stumble upon this topic.

In my house the seat is down and the lid is down too. This way I cut out any kind of discussion, the dog doesn't get a chance to drink out of the toilet and the for instance your toothbrush doesn't end up in the toiletbowl when you accidentaly drop it.

You can expect the toiletseat to get dirty when men use the toilet with the seat down. If you want a clean and dry seat, take action and responsibility in your own hands and put the seat up after you are done. Do not give somebody the oppertunity to wet your seat. If you are too lazy or forgetfull to put it up, you cannot blame anyone else for being just as lazy of forgetfull to do the exact same thing.

"learning" men to sit down to pee is nothing less then penisenvy. If you cannot grow your own then that is your shortcoming, nobody elses. Do not try to compensate your shortcoming by trying to inmasculate men. Go into therapy to get over it, that will probably solve a ton of other problems too.

If it too difficult for you to check it the seat is down and clean before you sit on it there is also no problem. Then you are used to "surprises" since public restrooms can be dirty and with the seat up as well.

Do not try to make the world to live by your beliefs and rules. Grow up and learn to live in the world, be a big girl for a change.

Ben Karlin said...

Coming into this discussion six years late but my understanding is that AD is the last place gender-based deference is still expected. It is no longer assumed a gentleman will pick up the tab for lunch, pull out her chair, walk on her left, nor open a door to let her through first.

But to keep a lady's dainty hands from touching the toilet seat, a gentleman does the dirty work.

It is not a question of efficiency, shared work, or social justice. I am pretty sure this is plain old chivalry.