Tim Harford recounts the tale of the Capitol Hill babysitting co-op, which Paul Krugman is very fond of using as an example to support his economic prescriptions, but he includes the part that Krugman tends to ignore … the ending:
One of the most renowned parables in economics is that of the Capitol Hill babysitting co-operative. It became famous because of Paul Krugman, a winner of the Nobel memorial prize in economics and a pugnacious columnist for The New York Times.
Long, long ago (the 1970s) in a town far, far away (Washington, DC) there was a babysitting co-op with a problem. The 150 or so families in the co-op, mostly congressional staffers, shared babysitting duties and kept track of who was owed babysitting, and who was owing, with a system of “scrip” – tokens good for a half-hour’s sitting.
Thanks to an administrative misstep, the co-op ended up short of tokens. Most families wanted more, as a buffer in case they had a run of social engagements, and so most families wanted to stay in and sit for others. Of course, if everyone wants to babysit, nobody goes out, and that means nobody babysits either. The co-op suffered a demand-led depression: there was no shortage of people willing to supply babysitting services, but because of a failure of monetary policy, this potential supply was not called into play. [. . .]
Two-and-a-half cheers, then, for Krugman. But something has been nagging at me ever since I read the original story of the Capitol Hill babysitting co-op, published in 1977 by Joan and Richard Sweeney. Paul Krugman’s most recent retelling does not mention how the original story ends: the co-op prints too much scrip, inflationary pressures spring up and are suppressed, and the co-op seizes up again because nobody wants to stay at home babysitting. Krugman is right when he says that economies sometimes suffer from problems that have technical solutions. Perhaps he is too quick to suggest that those technical solutions are simple.
But let me look for compromise. The babysitting co-op was ruined because it was run, incompetently, by a bunch of Capitol Hill lawyers. In this respect I think we can all agree that it remains an important cautionary tale.