Friday, December 20, 2013

Now I Have a Pumpkin Patch. Ho Ho Ho

The economics of many of our beloved Christmas tales are either trivial (Charlie Brown's chronic despondency induced hyperbolic discounting) or have been done expertly by economists far more talented than I (here's the Dub-MOE on The Grinch and Landsburg on Ebeneezer Scrooge). Today, I'd like you to think about one of my favorite Christmas tales, Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Consider if you will that one of the peripheral messages behind Jack Skellington's exploration of Sandy Claws's realm weaves a Talebesque tale underpinned by a surprisingly courageous acceptance of failure consistent with the central theme of Tim Harford's Adapt. For those of you who have yet to see the film, the protagonist of the story is one Jack Skellington, aka The Pumpkin King, lord of the annual holiday of Halloween. Skellington dwells in his own sovereign realm, ruling over motley spooks, ghouls, goblins, witches, and the dread Oogie-Boogie, an ambulatory, gambulatory burlap sack filled with creepy-crawlies. Santa Claus is a ruler in his own right, wielding dominion over a diminutive labor force and stacks of brightly-colored gift boxes. When Skellington stumbles upon a portal to the Land of Christmas in a secluded grove and joyously jumps through, the comedy of errors is well and truly underway. All singing, all dancing, etc etc.

To borrow an idea from a friend, each realm (and there are many others, including the Easter, Valentine's Day, et al) is its own tightly-bound network. By crossing the holiday divide, Skellington is exploring what, to him, is non-ergodic space. He is making a foray into unmapped territory. Wearing the goggles of an economist, it's a parable for entrepreneurship, even scientific inquiry.

Ultimately, the tale ends with a bit of euvoluntary cultural exchange: Jack's subjects frolic in the snow and Jack himself gets the girl, while Santa's left a bit tussled from a kidnapping, but none the worse for the wear. However, the audience is invited to imagine an alternate telling where the chief antagonist (Oogie) emerges victorious, ultimately murdering Santa, conquering Christmas Town, and subjugating its inhabitants.

In a world governed by the Precautionary Principle, the downside risk of allowing a creature like Oogie Boogie access to the gentler realms would be sufficient to justify the destruction (or at the very least gating) of the grove of portals. With a Halloween Town version of the FDA in place, the story would likely go like this: bored Pumpkin King mopes around for an hour and a half, Sally mops the floor for Dr. Finklestein, ghost dog inspires forgettable Forrest Whittaker movie, The End. With an exceptionally strong precautionary principle in place, life loses some of its luster, some of its excitement, perhaps some of its joy. We trade the thrill of making new network contacts for the mundane security of the familiar. I don't know about you guys, but that sounds like a pretty raw deal to me. Up with experience, up with exploration, up with the enduring human enterprise of expanding the boundaries of the map and shining new light into the dank crannies of the earth. Up with the unexpected friendship between lanky Pumpkin Kings and Sandy Clawses.

Merry Saturnalia, people. And a Euvoluntary New Year!

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?