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ContentFather's Stories
Brooke Allen began writing stories for his school newspaper in high school, for his literary magazine in college, and most recently for his children. He has a BA in mathematics and is a great believer in writing things down -- proofs and prose. He has been a teacher, speaker, computer programmer, and entrepreneur.

Mr. Allen lives in Glen Ridge, New Jersey with his wife, Eve, and two sons, Davis and Glen.

He would love to hear from you at brooke.t.allen@gmail.com


Tricky Economics

We once attended a "Tricky Tray" fundraiser. It offered some excellent economics lessons. If you haven’t experienced one of these is, I'll explain.

"Tricky" means what you expect and "Tray" comes from both the French word "très", which means "very", and the Spanish "tres" which means "three".

A Tricky Tray is a very tricky device for separating you from your money three ways.

1) You pay $40 for a meal worth about $7.49.

2) You donate a prize that is supposed to cost about $20 but since it will bear you name, and since you don't want to appear cheap, you will spend about twice this amount.

3) You must buy at least 10 tickets for $1 apiece that you will use to bid on the prizes. However, everyone else buys five times this number to increase their likelihood of winning something, so you will too just to stay even.

If everyone spends more to increase their chances, then everyone is worse off. The cost to achieve the same chance of winning goes up. This nicely illustrates the relationship between inflation and money supply.

If everyone has the same chance of winning a prize as everyone else, and if the number of prizes exactly equals the number of attendees, and if the average value of a prize is $40, then each participant should expect to win something worth about $40. This nicely illustrates the concept of expected value. As everyone contributes a $40 gift to join the game, they should all break even.

People then spend money for the tickets to underwrite a process that simply keeps people from going home with what they came with; sort of like the way Wall Street charges you a fee to sell one sock and buy another.

The average person paid $40 for their meal, $40 for the gift that they brought, $50 for the tickets with which to win other people’s tickets. Therefore, the average person received $7.49 in certain value and an average expected value of $40 in prizes, but with a large variance in outcomes. You can see how this could lead into a discussion of risk/reward ratios and breakeven analysis. It could lead to that discussion, but it won’t. Not now.

Anyway, it was all for a good cause. At least we assumed that it was.

In our case, we came with prizes that cost us $20 each (though not evidently so). We followed instructions precisely, and did not care who thinks we are cheap.

We bought the minimum number of tickets because: 1) we are not gamblers, 2) since we already had everything that we needed, we did not need anything else, 3) we already had a house stuffed with things we did not need, the only thing that this might suggest is that we could use a bigger house - however we didn't expect to find a house among the donated gifts), and 4) we had no desire to collect other people's ideas of things we did not need.

Eve and I separated upon arrival.

With my ten tickets I proceeded to win five prizes. This was more than nearly everyone else. Let me explain how I did it:

A ballroom had dozens of tables holding hundreds of gifts. Next to each was a brown paper bag of the size that typically holds a flattened PBJ sandwich under an apple and a milk carton. You were to inspect each prize and decide if you wanted a chance at winning it. If it interested you, you'd drop half of your numbered ticket into the bag. During dinner, each bag would be shaken and winners called out.

Those are the physical and mechanical aspects of the Tricky Tray.

It was worth observing the behavior of participants.

The whole endeavor was clearly a female thing. Men were in tow, but they weren't digging it. Of a few hundred items, less than a dozen might possibly appeal to someone with a Y chromosome. Even then, they were a woman's concept of what a man might want.

A typical exchange in front of a variable speed drill:

She (all a titter): "Oh honey, I'm putting a ticket in this bag just for you. You could use it." It was hard to force the slip into the bag since every woman in the room had used a few percent of her tickets on one of the man-prizes as a gesture of fairness.

He: "I don't want another drill. I already have one."

She: "But you can always use another drill."

He: "How?"

She: "What if the one you have breaks?"

He: "Then I will buy another one."

She: "But you could have this one."

He: "If the one I have breaks, then I will want to chose the one I buy to replace it."

Dinner began at 8:00 P.M. by which time the inspection of the prizes was to be completed.

By 7:45 the room had emptied, but for me.

On a first pass I inspected each bag. Some of the bags were overflowing, many had dozens of tickets, some had fewer than five; a few were empty.

On a second pass, each empty bag got one of my tickets. The remaining tickets went into bags with little competition.

Of course I won lots of prizes. Some folk with over 100 tickets won nothing.

During dinner, half my numbers were called. The women at my dinner table became upset with me. (The men couldn't care less.)

Was I cheating? Several people suspected as much, until they began to inspect my winnings.

She: "No wonder you won so much; you bid on the stuff nobody wants."

Me: "I want these things."

She: "What on earth are you going to do with a shelf of children's books?"

Me: "I have children."

She: "Or those reference books?"

Me: "I can use the atlas, the dictionary, the pocket encyclopedia and the almanac. The only thing I have already is the thesaurus and so I'll give that away."

She: "OK, but a basket of pet toys? What are you going to do with them? You don't have any pets."

Me: "Yes, but I have friends who do. These will make fine presents."

Priscilla put her finger on it. "None of the things you've won are any fun. I saw your bucket with the mop and the cleaning supplies. Are you crazy?"

"I saw that one too.” Suzanne laughed, "Who on earth would donate such crap? There was a really cute pair of earrings nearby. I wanted them so bad. Brooke, why didn't you try to win those?"

I blushed, "I don't wear earrings. Besides, that bag was full."

She: "You could give them away. They would make a better gift than pet toys." There was obvious contempt in her voice.

Me: "So, if you won those earrings, would you wear them or give them away as a gift?"

A pause.

She: "Well, actually I probably would pawn them off on somebody. They aren't exactly my style."

Me: "Good. This will illustrate the point. Let's look into my cleaning bucket. How much would you normally pay for all this stuff? Bucket, mop, spare mop head, brush, floor cleaner, tile cleaner, window cleaner, pot scrubbers, pumice, natural sponge… the bucket was brimming."

She: "More than $30." There was lots of nodding indicated consensus. "But I could buy that stuff any time."

Me: "Exactly. You have and you will again as you use it up and so will I. So this prize, that not one other person wanted, will save me at least $30."

She: "Soooo…What's the point?"

Me: "How much do those earrings cost? They look like costume jewelry."

She: "I know exactly. I've seen them at the drugstore for $19.95. They have a hundreds on display."

Me: "Now, if I wanted to give you a pair of earrings, I could take you to the store and let you pick exactly the ones you want. If I did this with the money I saved from taking the cleaning supplies that nobody wanted, I'd still have $10 left over."

Everyone agreed that the real point of the evening was to enjoy oneself. Somehow, for them, my approach didn't cut it.

Funny, I was having a blast.

The laugher, shaking of heads, and derisive comments lead me to believe I had not trained any competitors for next time.

You need not have fun nor make economic decisions the same way as everyone else.


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