How do I avoid rows over the TV remote?

17th January, 2009

Although Christmas in the company of various members of the extended family was fun, it was interrupted and spoiled by family rows over who got to watch what television programme, who got the best seat, who did the washing up, and so on. Can economics prevent such rows spoiling next Christmas?
Penny Belton, Gloucester

Dear Penny,

I am all in favour of assigning clear property rights in such cases. Someone can “own” the right to the remote control; the best seat can also go up for grabs, as can exemption from the washing-up rota.

One can get pretty fancy about these auctions, but I wouldn’t advise doing so unless you’re going to buy bespoke software and hire a team of specialist economists. A simple set of auctions for temporary use of selected scarce resources should do the trick.

I have made this sort of recommendation before on the basis of sound economic theory. This year, I am delighted to report that I have empirical support. Bev Stewart, a grandmother from Yorkshire, auctioned the right to spend Boxing day in the comfy armchair in front of the telly. All family members were eligible to bid; she was expecting a “rabble of Stewarts” to descend upon her the day after Christmas.

The winner, after 17 bids from a range of bidders, was her daughter-in-law for the sum of £13.50. The ingenious Grandma Stewart not only raised money for a good cause, but prevented the annual arguments over what she is quoted as saying is the “perfect seat … straight in front of the TV and has got the coffee table at the side for you to rest your drink on and the TV remote, so everybody wants to sit there”.

Twenty-five family members and no arguments. If auctions can work for Bev Stewart, they can work for us all.

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