Home Economics

22nd March, 2008

Dear Economist,
My fiancee is moving in with me. We’ve lived together before, and we hate housework. Before, we didn’t do work in retaliation for housework not done by the other. This led to a suboptimal equilibrium of dirty floors and resentful cohabitants. This time I want to create an incentive scheme to keep our house clean and us happy. I am reluctant to assign monetary value to chores, as this can backfire. Weekly rewards, such as choosing a Friday night restaurant, seem gimmicky. But I can’t think of a better idea. I have racked my brain and time is running out! Help me, Undercover Economist, you are my only hope.
Home Alone

Dear Home Alone,

If this were a holiday fling, the outcome would be clear: each of you would prefer the other to wash the champagne flutes and make the bed in the mornings, but lacking any mechanism to enforce co-operation you might both slack off and feel resentful. It is often the case that brief encounters can be mutually exploitative.

Yet economic theory, experiment and practical experience all suggest that in the most unpromising situations, the bitterest adversaries find a way to get along when they are stuck with each other. Reciprocity seems to be the key. Soldiers in the trenches of Flanders practised “live and let live” when the generals were not looking. The cold war did not end in mutual annihilation.

I venture to say that if this time you and your fiancee can’t even match the grudging co-operation of Khrushchev and Kennedy, you will at least be warned before the wedding day that housework is the least of your worries.

Also published at ft.com.

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