Punishment Capital


The Undercover Economist, Tim Harford, alerted me to a forthcoming book which uses the economics to explore the nature of contemporary parenting. This volume joins a long line of recent books in which, it is contended, economics is presented as a tool for understanding pretty much everything (Freakonomics, The Economic Naturalist etc) Harford's own book suggests, "the logic of life".

Parentonomics is written by Australian economist Professor Gans who having spent much of his day job thinking about incentives wonders how this might have affected his parenting style.

"Can incentives and rewards help to get them to do things like sleep through the night, eat healthy meals, clean up their rooms, do their homework? Can economics help the smart, caring, well adjusted, high-achieving little person that we know is in there to emerge?"

One concept that emerges from the world of economics to help ailing parents manage, or change the behaviour of their children is "punishment capital". As Harford explains:

if you are the source of a steady stream of money or sweets, that gives you a negotiating position. Threatening to remove the carrot (or rather, the flow of chocolate coins) is more credible than threatening to wield the stick.

As an aisde, only the FT readership could comment on this piece as follows:

I personally favour a good-cop-bad-cop strategy and therefore, with my
three daughters, I played the role of a generous World Bank while my
wife, their mother, that of the strict International Monetary Funds.

I know of what this man speaks. Each night without a visit from my eldest son and daughter costs me one euro. 50 cents each. If we have to go to our daughter but she doesn't come to us, she gets 20 cents. The alternative is nocturnal visits which force us to adopt the uncomfortable position of outriggers at the edge of the bed. Our 18 month old is blissfully unaware of this potentially lucrative revenue stream that sleeping chez Roberts entails. Given that he's just sleeping through the night this seems wildly unjust. But the logic of economics is inequality and he is ignorant that he's experiencing this particular aspect of parental economics.