Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Trick or Triage

Every once in a while someone will ask how I came to be an economist. I’ll usually tell them a story about sitting in my undergrad poli-sci classes, where I listened to my fellow poli-sci students talking about economic policy without having the slightest clue about economics. But I wonder if the real story goes much further back, to the Halloweens of my youth… [cue wavy flashback lines]

When my brother Neal and I were kids, our mom kept us on a very strict diet. We were not allowed to have anything with added sugar of any kind. She contended that added sugar made us hyperactive and inclined to misbehave three days after eating it. I remember sometimes I would sneak to the 7-Eleven, buy and consume some candy, and then wait three days to see if I got in trouble with Mom three days later. (Apparently I had intuitively grasped the idea of a single-blind experiment, but I had not yet caught on to the double-blind experiment.) But there were never any sweets around the house, and my allowance was limited, so most of the time I went without.

Mom did, however, make exceptions for holidays. After that first Easter after the diet began (when I was about 6 years old), when I was sorely disappointed to find my plastic eggs filled with Nutrigrain cereal, Mom did allow a limited amount of sweets on special occasions. Halloween was one such occasion. But if she had allowed us to keep eating candy for as long as our stashes lasted, the exception could have lasted for weeks! So she implemented the dreaded 24-hour rule: all Halloween candy had to be consumed within 24 hours, or else get thrown away.

This meant, of course, that November 1st involved even more belly-ache-inducing gorging in the Whitman household than anywhere else. It was my duty, my quest, to make sure not a single piece of candy went to waste. And usually I succeeded. But one Halloween when I was about 11, one of my last years of trick-or-treating, the haul was just too large. By about 5:00pm on November 1st, it had become apparent that I would never make it.

And that’s when Neal – who had stopped trick-or-treating a year or two before – came to my rescue. Not by eating the extra, but by teaching me the art of trick-or-triage. He explained that the goal was to eat as much candy as possible in a limited period of time. He then helped me to separate my remaining pile into categories. In one category were the good candies that could be eaten very quickly, such as small chocolate bars. In another category were the mediocre candies that took forever to eat, like Sugar Daddies. A third category consisted of those lousy generic black-and-orange-wrapper candies, which were hardly worth eating in any case. Clearly, it was in my interest to focus on category one at the expense of categories two and three. A fourth category consisted of pretty good candies that took a long time to eat, such as Jolly Ranchers. This category posed a problem. But as Neal helpfully observed, these candies were also typically the least perishable and easiest to hide. Hard candies could spend months in the sock drawer without going bad, thereby allowing me to indulge in small exceptions – er, experiments – throughout the year.

I wasn’t able to finish all my candy that year, but with Neal’s help, I successfully maximized my candy-consumption subject to an exogenous time constraint! Neal ended up becoming a linguist, but his good work one All Saints Day may well have planted the seeds for my development into an economist.


Steven Horwitz said...

An absolutely perfect example of the Austrian (and correct!) notion of diminishing marginal utility.

Trent said...

I have to say I am disappointed with the story (not that you should make stuff up). I was certain it was going to involve an early lesson on perverse incentives (the silly 24-hour rule). Didn't you raise your mother better than that?

Glen Whitman said...

Trent -- I think Mom was stuck between two perverse consequences: encouraging gorging for one day, or creating a gaping long-term loophole in her sugar policy. Since Mom's parenting philosophy was largely one of "natural consequences," I suspect she thought the gorging would induce its own penalty. And she would have been right, except that I had a cast-iron stomach in those days.

Anonymous said...

You can probably thank your mother for your good health and teeth.

On one November 1st morning of my childhood, I was happily admiring my stash of halloween candy when my father entered my bedroom. He was obviously in a bad mood (probably having lost at poker the previous night) and asked me for some candy. Well, I told him not to take any of my big candy bars; those were exclusively mine. Well, that was a mistake because the next thing I did was flee the house sensing impending physical harm. When my father caught up to me, I was cowering in the aisle of the neighborhood grocery store. He dragged me home by the scruff of the neck. And to teach me a lesson that I wouldn't forget, he made me watch as he tossed my entire bag of candy into the trash.

I suppose he was trying to teach me a lesson in sharing or filial respect or something, but the only lesson I got, loud and clear, was that when Saddam Hussein asks for something, you better give it to him asap. I'm sure I'd trade mothers with you as well. Mine gives witches a bad name.

Colin Keesee said...

I was so anticipating a parable of dimishing marginal utility. My micro prof used martinis to explain the concept, I was thinking this would be the same thing but with candy.

Good story though, mind if I steal it? Whenever friends and family ask why I joined the dismal science, my story of defecting from Poli Sci has been growing thread bare as well...