Why is it so hard to keep the house clean?

The simplest hypothesis is that we like to complain about a dirty or messy house but in fact we are observing an optimum.  We just don’t want to put more time in.

The behavioral economist believes we are making the same mistake over and over again.  What might that mistake be?

1. We clear away papers, books, and dirt, but we do not develop new systems for preventing their future accumulation.  In other words, we reduce the immediate stress but discount the future stress of future dirtiness at too high a rate.

2. A free-rider problem, combined with ill-defined property rights, means that piles accumulate repeatedly.  Cleaning is like removing a few cars from one lane of a two-lane highway.  New cars (piles) step in quickly to fill the temporary gap.  In a multi-person household, cleaning just shifts the traffic into different lanes rather than pricing the road.

A real solution might involve the random destruction or taxation of the property of other household members, so as to limit accumulation in the first place.  Bonuses for savings could help as well, since savings are a relatively liquid and low storage cost means of carrying wealth.

3. We overrate the liquidity value of inventories.  We want many things at hand which are of little or no use, perhaps because of an endowment effect.  Most people should throw away anything they have not touched for the last three years. 

4. Framing effects mean that we can get used to many kinds of messes.  The real problems come from the people who keep their homes clean.  Tax them and their cleanliness, for the same reasons that Bob Frank wishes to tax status goods.

Here is my previous post Tyler Cowen, Ramist.  Here is my idea of how to clean up the house.  Here is my post on the tennis ball problem.


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