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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Everyday Economics - The Children's Laundry

This story is one of incremental policy change and evolutionary optimization of the extended order. This is the story of unintended and unforeseen consequences. This is the story of capitalism versus socialism. This is the story of incentives, both conscious and unconscious.

This is the story of my children's laundry.

We have two daughters who, in the past, generated a truly impressive amount of dirty laundry. As an example, on a not untypical day, the younger daughter would change from pajamas to an outfit after waking up and getting out of bed, then change into soccer clothes for soccer practice. After soccer, she would come home, take a shower and then lounge about in another pair of pajamas for a while, and then change into yet another outfit to go out to dinner in. Finally, she would change back to another fresh pair of pajamas for bed. Our daughters would manage to sneak all of these clothes into the dirty laundry hamper, usually after being worn just once.

Oh, and did I mention towels? It sure is nice to have a fresh towel for every bath, isn't it? Especially if the towels magically appear clean, dry, and folded whenever they're needed. After all, there was no cost of generating dirty clothes or towels for the children.

Up until about six months ago, my wife did the vast majority of the laundry, including washing, drying, folding, and putting away. My wife implored the children to generate less dirty laundry, trying to appeal to their noble natures that they should help her, even trying to get them to be good world citizens by not wasting energy and water for cleaning more dirty clothes than necessary. However, the amount of laundry kept increasing. The washer and dryer were operating several hours per day. It was driving my wife crazy and I was beginning to fear for her mental health.

You may wonder, in this age of gender equality, why was my wife was doing the laundry instead of me? That's because my wife has a plethora of incredibly complex and non-obvious (to me) rules about how laundry ought to be done that I can never seem to remember and/or get right. Certain clothes aren't supposed to be washed with other clothes. Certain clothes are to be pulled out of the dryer after certain numbers of hours (or was that minutes?). All clothes are to be removed from the dryer as soon as the dryer cycle is finished. Things like that.

I, on the other hand, just stuff any old pile of dirty clothes into the washer and then the dryer, wait until they are all completely done drying, and then, usually within a day or two, remove the clothes from the dryer and work towards getting them folded. Granted, the clothes are a little more wrinkly than when my wife does the laundry and my shirts and underwear that used to be white now have a pinkish, bluish, greenish, brownish, grayish tinge, but it doesn't bother me and I don't understand why it bothers my wife. But it did bother her so she wouldn't let me touch the laundry. Heck, she wouldn't even let the maids touch the laundry!

However, I insisted on taking over the laundry. I decided to exert my authority and I said, "I'm the man of the house and I'm going to do the laundry!" Or something like that.

So I started doing laundry.

Last century saw socialism versus capitalism experiments on a massive scale and at least the extreme versions of socialism did quite poorly. However, there are typically gazillions of tiny socialism versus capitalism experiments happening across the world each and every moment. These experiments take shape in the realm of family dynamics.

My wife's approach to laundry was basically socialism. From each according to her abilities, to each according to their needs. My wife was, according to her, the only person with the ability to wash the clothes and my children feigned incompetence for all aspects of the laundry process - especially the folding and putting away part of the process. So therefore, under the rules of socialism, my wife ended up doing it all.

Just as my wife's approach was basically socialism, my approach to the whole problem is more like capitalism. I wash and dry my children's clothes, but I don't fold them. Instead, I leave them in the basket and tell the children to fold and put away their own clothes. They were a little slow at first to get to it, but once they realized that their clothes were going to just sit there forever, and as they started to consistently run out of stuff to wear, they started folding their clothes when asked.

And lo and behold - the number of loads of dirty laundry per week plummeted! Amazingly, the children, of their own volition, started avoiding changing clothes multiple times per day, started re-using outfits and pajamas, and kept clothes off of the floor so they'd stay clean longer. Just because they don't like folding clothes!

Incentives are an amazing thing!

I doubt the change in behavior was conscious on their part. I'm confident that they never really thought it through. I think that over time they subconsciously made the association that every bit of laundry they put in the hamper became a bit of laundry they had to fold. And that every time they pulled out a new outfit instead of wearing the one they left draped on a chair became a bit of laundry that ended up in the hamper. It was all an incremental, evolutionary and unconscious optimization.

This result was also completely unforeseen by me. I was surprised as could be. Indeed, it was only because of the stunningly obvious reduction in laundry that I even noticed.

Remember, my only goal was to relieve my wife of a hassle. It takes me almost no time to load the washer and dryer. I really don't care how many loads I do. So my wife was freed from laundry slavery and I didn't mind my part so I didn't think it through beyond that point.

Unintended and unforeseen consequences are often negative, but not always. In this case, they were extremely positive. Not only did we help save the planet (and some hard earned money) by reducing the number of loads of laundry and the resources required to do them, but my children have learned to be responsible citizens of the household and have developed good habits.

This is yet another example of incremental improvements that are being continuously made by people everywhere when not hampered by outside interference that move civilization forward.


erp said...

Bret, Very amusing.

Too bad you don't have boys because then you'd have NO laundry at all. Boys not being adverse to wearing the self-same garments until they are forcibly wrenched from their bodies.

Hey Skipper said...

My daughter used to leave her breakfast dishes in the sink.

Until I took them up to her room and left them on her desk.

She used to leave her clothes, books, et al, on the floor.

Until I took them downstairs and left them piled on her chair at the dinner table.

Same idea as yours, same results.