The MILLTs at Spousonomics are calling on spouses to look for Pareto improvements in our marital transactions.  Paula offers this list for her husband on Valentine’s day.

1. Help with garbage night.
2. Join you in the 30-day meditation challenge.
3. Not remind you when you have to make up a work shift at the food coop.
4. Use my Petzl head lamp when I’m reading in bed and you’re already asleep.
5. Work on my tone of voice when I’m frustrated.
6. Pick my battles.
7. Entertain notion that my way isn’t the only way.
8. Try again to make braised pork shoulder.
9. Give Sonny & the Sunsets another chance.
10. Let things go.

I’m as keen on free lunches as the next guy (I’m looking at you Asher), but at the risk of throwing cold water on Paula’s Valentine’s Day overtures, let me bring a little dose of tradeoffs to this home economics lesson.  First of all, Paula is shortchanging her generosity on many of these because very few of them are literal Pareto improvements.  Garbage night?  Who isn’t better off keeping their hands clean, not to mention taking a pass on the sub-freezing walk to the curb. And I am not sure what exactly a Petzl head lamp is but I’d be worried about waking up to the fragrance of molten hair after dozing off with one of those on.

No those are genuine sacrifices.  Indeed Pareto improvements are pretty hard to come by even if you are otherwise a selfish pig.  Especially if you are a selfish pig.  Because as long as you are already doing everything that would make you better off, the only room left for Pareto improvements is spanned by the knife’s edge of indifference.

There is a second category represented on the list:  proposals that take a long-run view. These are a bit more subtle.  Give Sonny and the Sunsets another chance.  This qualifies as a Pareto improvement even though the implicit suggestion is that Sonny and the Sunsets didn’t cast a warm glow the first time. If the clouds part for Paula the second time around then she and her husband are both better off.  But again Paula’s pure self interest already takes care of this one so long as she’s thinking ahead.  Anyway, if even Sonny and the Sunsets can grow on us after a few listenings then anything can.  Why not just spend 30 days meditating?  Oh wait…

And let’s not forget that a Pareto improvement has to make the other party better off, at least weakly.  Given what we can all infer from the pledge itself, “Try again to make braised pork shoulder” seems to fail on that count.

Then there’s the issue of narrow framing.  Pareto efficiency for the household may entail violence against the rest of the world.  Not reminding him about food co-op is nice but what about the poor slobs waiting for their food at the co-op? Heck why not replace this one with “Encourage you to pilfer more food from the co-op?”

The last set of proposals all relate to improving conflict resolution.  Most appear superficially to be obvious Pareto improvements.  Work on my tone of voice when I am frustrated.  Paula is probably truly indifferent to how her own voice sounds when she’s frustrated, but I would bet that her husband has a clear preference.  So this does seem to require a little more than pure self-interest to implement.  “Let things go” is another.

But it’s for exactly this kind of household constitutional amendment that the logic of Pareto efficiency can be turned on its head.  The concept of renegotiation in repeated games holds a key lesson.  Marriage is a partnership that requires individual sacrifice in order to reach the efficient frontier.  The temptation to cheat on the relationship must be deterred with the threat of moving below from the frontier as a reprisal.  Once there it is tempting to re-negotiate back to the frontier.  But as soon as we get used to doing that, the incentive keeping us at the frontier in the first place goes away.

Best not to “Let Go” so quickly, Paula.  Sorry Mr. Paula.  Try to have a Happy Valentine’s day anyway.