Is kindness economically efficient?

When I was a sophomore in college my microeconomics professor talked about gift giving as an example of an economically inefficient cultural practice. The lesson of the day was on how human beings efficiently allocate their resources. When we have the freedom to choose exactly how to spend our money, economic theory tells us, then we can maximize our own personal well-being. But when given a gift, some of this freedom is removed; in efficiency terms, it would be much better just to give cash and let the recipient figure out on his or her own how to spend it.

There was one important caveat: As my professor put it, when two people exchange a gift there are some “warm fuzzies” involved, a benefit that we can’t easily quantify. It’s one thing to go out and get what you want, but it’s particularly special and heartwarming when a loved one is thoughtful enough to get it for you. On a related note, let me digress for a moment and offer some free advice to all men reading this: Don’t ever give your wife or girlfriend cash as a gift, no matter how big an econ nerd you think you are. You run the risk of injury, death, or worse.

For whatever reason, recently I’ve been hyper-sensitive to all the subtle ways that economic efficiency and basic humanity butt heads, just as is the case when it comes to gift giving. And when it comes to this subject, the example that keeps smacking me in the face is my morning commute to work.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that I am not a big fan of my commute from suburban Connecticut to Midtown Manhattan every weekday morning. A while back I basically wrote a treatise about the importance of public services, citing my own laundry list of complaints with the Metro North Railroad. My morning train is almost never on time; it often takes ten minutes extra just to get out of Grand Central in the morning because of the huge bottlenecks at the platform exits; and some of the trains are so old, I’m left to wonder if they’re the same ones Pete Campbell used to ride back in the 1960s.

But believe it or not, these are not my principal beefs with my morning commute. Rather, the real downers have to do with my fellow commuters, and how we collectively treat eachother.

There are some features of commuter culture that are just plain selfish, and end up being inefficient for everyone. I began writing this post while on a packed train full of people leaving the City for the holidays. The two seats next to me were occupied by 1) a guy in a suit clearly commuting home from work, and 2) his suitcase. This is, regrettably, a super common strategy used by train riders who can’t tolerate the notion or another human being sitting next to them: put your belongings on the seat beside you and challenge anyone looking for a seat to ask you to clear the space (they usually don’t). This particular individual even employed a secondary strategy only used by true masters of the art form, which is to pretend to be asleep as seatless passengers shuffle by, only to spring up and start reading the newspaper after they’ve moved along. Merry Christmas everyone!

So, this type of thing is both inconsiderate and horribly inefficient; if we all would simply leave the seats next to us clear, the benefits to the people who’d otherwise have to stand up for an hour-long train ride would easily outweigh the costs of having to move our belongings. This type of selfishness is the worst kind from an economic perspective because it has no productive purpose, unlike, say, the shop owner who “selfishly” decides to provide extra services to customers in an effort to make more money. In the aggregate, it makes us all worse off.

A train passenger takes up two seats; the elevator bank in my office building

A train passenger takes up two seats; the elevator bank in my office building

That hoarding extra seats on a train is bad should be obvious. But there are other things about my commute that are a bit more ambiguous. To take one example: Every day, the train conductor passes through the rows of seats in the morning, greeting passengers and asking to see their passes. But most people don’t acknowledge him back, instead holding up their cards for the conductor to inspect while their eyes remain fixed on their book, newspaper, tablet, or whatever.

Another example: When I enter my building in the morning, I head to a huge elevator bank that takes me up to my office. Routinely, I find myself approaching an open elevator with someone already inside, only for that individual to look me in the eye blankly as the doors close in my face.

Maybe it’s not my place to call these cultural habits “rude”. But at the very least, they represent missed opportunities for small gestures of humanity towards others. Saying good morning to the train conductor or holding the elevator door may sound trivial, but when added up, these things make a difference. In the oft-quoted words of Baha’u’llah, “The betterment of the world can be accomplished through pure and goodly deeds, through commendable and seemly conduct.”

A harder question to answer, however, is whether or not these things are in fact economically inefficient. From the perspective of the train passenger who elects not to look up from his book, wouldn’t it actually slow the conductor down to engage him even in a simple “good morning”, while distracting oneself from one’s reading? And in the case of the elevators, is it really a big deal when the doors close in your face if you only have to wait a few more seconds for the next one? Indeed, in our building, sometimes holding the elevator door for someone takes longer than simply waiting for the next one to open up.

My answer to this is to go back to my college professor’s comment about the “warm fuzzies” that we all gain by giving gifts to each other. Holding an elevator door may seem inefficient on the surface, but that’s only the case if we ignore the good vibes that would inevitably be created by simply showing kindness and courtesy to our fellow human beings. In that sense, little gestures of kindness that appear economically inefficient on the surface turn out actually to be highly efficient, in that they produce a valuable positive externality, i.e. they lift the quality of the social atmosphere and make life more pleasant for everybody.

All of us have experienced, in whatever small sample, the immense joy of being in an environment characterized by mutual respect, unity, and shared sacrifice. It’s something you feel sometimes at a family reunion, or during an athletic competition alongside a tightly-knit group of teammates, or at a spiritual retreat with other searching souls. The pinnacle of this feeling in my own life was, without a doubt, during my pilgrimage to the Baha’i holy places in Israel about a decade ago. It was indeed both humbling and thrilling to visit the shrines and other holy sites I had only experienced in stories and pictures to that point. But even more enjoyable was the profound spirit of love and community I felt around the collection of pilgrims, volunteers, and staff that had congregated there. I can say without hesitation that I would have given any amount of money to have kept that feeling going into my everyday life.

But everyday life is in fact supposed to be characterized by a feeling of love and community. In Baha’i Scripture, we hear God exclaiming to His creation: “Noble have I created thee, yet thou hast abased thyself. Rise then unto that for which thou wast created.” The more impersonal, colder status quo that we’re all so used to is in fact what should be seen as unnatural and unfitting.

We can’t force people through laws and rules to be nicer to one another. How, exactly, would we enforce a rule mandating that train passengers smile at the conductor, or that elevator riders hold the door for others? Even if we were able to impose such things, the point would be lost; the economic benefit of courtesy and civility comes from spontaneous, genuine kindness between human beings, not compulsion. The only force capable of steering people’s behavior in that direction is, from an economic perspective, a selfless, irrational will to consider others rather than oneself. (In other words, being good simply for the sake of being good.) Then and only then will those “warm fuzzies” start to truly add up to something.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s