Crying Babies on Planes May Be On Your Econ Exam

Imagine starting an exam, only to discover you are very familiar with the subject area–crying babies on planes.  From taking law school exams, I’m used to completely unlikely situations, such as the ownership regarding:

a clock that is caught by a stranger (crossing the private property via a popular trail between the road and his college) after its owner accidentally knocks it off a ledge while writing his will, leaving the clock to his favorite niece–who then signs it in the presence two of witnesses, one being his niece and the other his best friend with a business interest in the clock, plus his lawyer, and promptly dies (I hate it when that happens). 

So this particular exam scenario got my attention quickly.

Economics Professor Art Carden wants to know:

Crying babies and loud children are among the common complaints of frequent flyers; indeed, I can say from personal experience that a screaming infant can make for a long flight. Describe the reciprocal nature of the externality. How does the private market internalize the externality? To what extent does the possibility of an upgrade to first class help mitigate the externality? What is the role of reasonable expectations in deciding on a policy? What is the parent’s responsibility? What is the responsibility of the other flyers?

The economics of crying babies on planesSince this is a sample exam question, economics students should know what an externality is (well, if they want an A.  Or a B.)  But for the non-economists around us, an externality is “a secondary or unintended consequence <pollution and other externalities of manufacturing>.“  They can be negative or positive.  If you enjoy the sound of crying babies on planes, then their presence on your flight is a positive externality.  This is a lawyer’s explanation of it, so please check out this economist’s explanation if you want to know more.

But definitely read through the comments on his post.  They are really interesting, especially one suggesting the possibility of crying babies makes your ticket cheaper.

And the answer?  Professor Art Carden schools us in the economics of crying babies on planes.

I joked earlier that if you enjoy crying babies on planes, it is a positive externality.  Hopefully no one actually enjoys babies being miserable, but Dr. Carden mentions:

Being around other people’s kids on planes reminds me of my own, so a little bit of crying is not necessarily a bad thing (do note that this relationship is not linear or strictly positive). Fewer babies on planes would make people who don’t like loud kids better off, but at the expense of those who are worse off because they are around fewer cute kids.

It reminded me of an old story.  The setting changes each time I’ve heard it, but it always a situation where a group of men haven’t seen their children in a while.  The wild, wild west, or men coming home from war.  They are in church and a baby starts crying.  The pastor stops his sermon and demands the mother and child leave.  “Wait!” yells one of the men, “please, let the baby stay!”  The men all stood silently, listening to the child cry, thinking about their children back at home.

Personally?  They do keep me from sleeping, but I mind them much less than the 5+ year old children who are allowed to throw things, yell, and play their iPads at full volume on red-eyes.  The babies can’t help it, and their poor ears are popping. Once, I flew with my 3-yr old cousin who covered her ears and cried, “My ears broke!”

What are your thoughts on this?  And for legal gurus in the crowd, feel free to solve my fake exam question, or (even better) explain why it is a terrible exam question.

Edit:  More babies on a plane.  Are crying babies like factories? (?!)


About Jeanne Marie Hoffman

Former bartender, still a geek. One equal part each cookies, liberty, football, music, travel, libations. Stir vigorously. +Jeanne Marie Hoffman Jeanne on Twitter

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  1. I have my opinion about this based on our return flight from FL this past Wed. My kids were fairly quiet, at first the youngest was talking too loud, but a few reminders stopped that. My kids weren’t the disturbances on the flight, but the entire flight the rows around us were treated to the very loud conversation of the people (in particular one of them) in the row behind me. I’ve been admonished by flight attendants for letting my kids watch movies w/o headphones at low volume (this was on a different flight), but this person was WAY louder than that. This person was a lot louder than my kids and it went on THE ENTIRE FLIGHT. I was grateful our younger son was able to fall asleep and stay asleep when he was tired; had this person kept him awake I would have been tempted to send my child to him saying “you woke him up, you deal with him”. Sorry to rant, I just get so frustrated when people go on and on about kids on flights, but no one says anything about adults are not extending the same basic courtesies to their fellow passengers.

  2. @Tiff: Excellent point. I have a pretty loud voice in any case, and I tend to project to be heard when I’m talking to someone and there’s a lot of background noise. I have to watch myself to make sure I’m not “that guy” because I really don’t like being party to another’s conversation. That counts double when I can kind of tell someone who can be heard by half the plane/restaurant/etc. thinks s/he is impressing everyone nearby with tales of his/her awesomeness.

    Has anyone ever asked a flight attendant to shush other passengers?

    • Jeanne Marie Hoffman


      I certainly have! I had a 5:30am flight and from when electronics were allowed again, a child in first class was playing a shooter game at full volume on their video game system. I normally grin and bear it, but my head was about to explode, and we had hours ahead of us.

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