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.]