The Capital Hill Baby Sitting Co-Op Depression

McLeod Governance loves a great academic journal article.They don’t come much better than an article in the Journal of Money, Credit and Banking in 1978 (yep – 36 years ago!)In 2008, Paul Krugman, the esteemed Princeton economist and New York Times columnist, won the Noble Memorial Prize in Economic Science for his work on international trade patterns.He considers this article (the one from the Journal … not alas from Honestly Lay Bare) as the story that changed his life and his understanding of risk and her manifestions within an economy.

As we read the article we were reminded that in every day life, in every organisation, the true character of risk is there for us to find.

If only we look in the right place.

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The story is told in an article titled “Monetary Theory and the Great Capitol Hill Baby-Sitting Co-op Crisis” by Joan and Richard Sweeney. At the time of the article Richard Sweeney was the deputy director, Officer of International Monetary Research at the United States Treasury.The Sweeneys tell the story of—you guessed it—a baby-sitting co-op, one to which they belonged in the early 1970s.
Such co-ops were quite common: A group of people (in this case about 150 young couples with congressional connections) agrees to baby-sit for one another, obviating the need for cash payments to adolescents.It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement: A couple that already has children around may find that watching another couple’s kids for an evening is not that much of an additional burden, certainly compared with the benefit of receiving the same service some other evening. But there must be a system for making sure each couple does its fair share.The Capitol Hill co-op adopted one fairly natural solution.It issued scrip—pieces of paper equivalent to one hour of baby-sitting time. Baby sitters would receive the appropriate number of coupons directly from the baby sittees. This made the system self-enforcing: Over time, each couple would automatically do as much baby-sitting as it received in return. As long as the people were reliable—and these young professionals certainly were—what could go wrong?

Well, it turned out that there was a small technical problem.

Think about the coupon holdings of a typical couple.

During periods when it had few occasions to go out, a couple would probably try to build up a reserve—then run that reserve down when the occasions arose. There would be an averaging out of these demands. One couple would be going out when another was staying at home. But since many couples would be holding reserves of coupons at any given time, the co-op needed to have a fairly large amount of scrip in circulation.

Now what happened in the Sweeneys’ co-op was that, for complicated reasons involving the collection and use of dues (paid in scrip), the number of coupons in circulation became quite low.

As a result, most couples were anxious to add to their reserves by baby-sitting, reluctant to run them down by going out. But one couple’s decision to go out was another’s chance to baby-sit; so it became difficult to earn coupons. Knowing this, couples became even more reluctant to use their reserves except on special occasions, reducing baby-sitting opportunities still further.

In short, the co-op had fallen into a recession.

Since most of the co-op’s members were lawyers, it was difficult to convince them the problem was monetary.

They tried to legislate recovery—passing a rule requiring each couple to go out at least twice a month. But eventually the economists prevailed. More coupons were issued, couples became more willing to go out, opportunities to baby-sit multiplied, and everyone was happy. Eventually, of course, the co-op issued too much scrip, leading to different problems …

What the Capitol Hill Baby-Sitting Co-op experienced was a real recession.

Its story tells you more about what economic slumps are and why they happen than you will get from reading a year’s worth of Wall Street Journal editorials.

And if you are willing to really wrap your mind around the co-op’s story, to play with it and draw out its implications, it will change the way you think about the world.

For example, suppose that the U.S. stock market was to crash, threatening to undermine consumer confidence. Would this inevitably mean a disastrous recession?

Think of it this way: When consumer confidence declines, it is as if, for some reason, the typical member of the co-op had become less willing to go out, more anxious to accumulate coupons for a rainy day. This could indeed lead to a slump—but need not if the management were alert and responded by simply issuing more coupons.

Above all, the story of the co-op tells you that economic slumps are not punishments for our sins, pains that we are fated to suffer.

The Capitol Hill co-op did not get into trouble because its members were bad, inefficient baby sitters; its troubles did not reveal the fundamental flaws of “Capitol Hill values” or “crony baby-sittingism.”

It had a technical problem—too many people chasing too little scrip—which could be, and was, solved with a little clear thinking.

But if it’s all so easy, how can a large part of the world be in the mess it’s in?

First, we have to imagine a co-op the members of which realized there was an unnecessary inconvenience in their system. There would be occasions when a couple found itself needing to go out several times in a row, which would cause it to run out of coupons—and therefore be unable to get its babies sat—even though it was entirely willing to do lots of compensatory baby-sitting at a later date.

To resolve this problem, the co-op allowed members to borrow extra coupons from the management in times of need—repaying with the coupons received from subsequent baby-sitting. To prevent members from abusing this privilege, however, the management would probably need to impose some penalty—requiring borrowers to repay more coupons than they borrowed.

Under this new system, couples would hold smaller reserves of coupons than before, knowing they could borrow more if necessary. The co-op’s officers would, however, have acquired a new tool of management. If members of the co-op reported it was easy to find baby sitters and hard to find opportunities to baby-sit, the terms under which members could borrow coupons could be made more favorable, encouraging more people to go out. If baby sitters were scarce, those terms could be worsened, encouraging people to go out less.

In other words, this more sophisticated co-op would have a central bank that could stimulate a depressed economy by reducing the interest rate and cool off an overheated one by raising it.

Now, imagine there is a seasonality in the demand and supply for baby-sitting.

During the winter, when it’s cold and dark, couples don’t want to go out much but are quite willing to stay home and look after other people’s children—thereby accumulating points they can use on balmy summer evenings.

If this seasonality isn’t too pronounced, the co-op could still keep the supply and demand for baby-sitting in balance by charging low interest rates in the winter months, higher rates in the summer.

But suppose that the seasonality is very strong indeed.

Then in the winter, even at a zero interest rate, there will be more couples seeking opportunities to baby-sit than there are couples going out, which will mean that baby-sitting opportunities will be hard to find, which means that couples seeking to build up reserves for summer fun will be even less willing to use those points in the winter, meaning even fewer opportunities to baby-sit … and the co-op will slide into a recession even at a zero interest rate.

***

As Krugman notes “so the story of the baby-sitting co-op is not a mere amusement. If people would only take it seriously—if they could only understand that when great economic issues are at stake, whimsical parables are not a waste of time but the key to enlightenment—it is a story that could save the world.”

(Post based nearly completely on Baby Sitting the Economy by Paul Krugman Slate and Monetary Theory and the Great Capital Hill Baby Sitting Co-op Crisis by Joan and Richard Sweeney The Journal of Money, Credit and Banking 1978)

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