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Economics: Using Seinfeld to Teach the Dismal Science


Jerry, Elaine, and markets; The Soup Nazi is a monopolist

What is the deal with economics? You've got your costs and your benefits, your variables and your curves. And don't get me started about all the fractions!

What to do? According to a few economists, the answer is to watch Seinfeld. Earlier this year, Alan Grant of Baker University in Kansas, along with Linda Ghent and George Lesica of Eastern Illinois University, started a website based on the idea that the show was a rich primer on microeconomics. "Seinfeld is not about relationships," says Grant. "It's not about all of the mushy things. It's about four people who make decisions about how to act in certain situations. And that's what economics is all about."

The site, yadayadayadaecon.com, is the definitive source of Seinfeldian economic pedagogy, with descriptions of nearly 200 scenes and the principles each demonstrates. The famed Soup Nazi? He stands for monopoly power. His uniquely delicious soup keeps customers coming back even though he verbally abuses them. When Elaine comes into possession of his recipes after being banished from his shop, she threatens to challenge the monopoly.

Or take "The Sponge," an episode that Princeton economist Avinash K. Dixit has written an entire paper about. Hearing that her preferred brand of contraceptive sponge is being pulled from the market—creating scarcity—Elaine buys a case of them and begins to hoard her dwindling stash. She starts to think in terms of opportunity cost: Is sex with a current boyfriend worth giving up sex with a future date who might be better? Is he, as she puts it, "sponge-worthy"?

Ghent reports that her students say the show is a valuable aid. "They may never have met a Soup Nazi, but they can relate to being in a situation where someone has market power over them," she says. Plus, it's funny to read plot lines rendered in the deadpan language of the dismal science. For example: "When George joins a book club to impress a girl and finds the reading too costly, his demand for a substitute good (the video of the novel) rises to ridiculous proportions. In the end, he finds that the movie and the book are imperfect substitutes."

Seeing the show this way reveals how economics lies at the heart of its distinctive brand of humor. Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer are ruthless people who faithfully follow the rules of classical economics, even if they violate the dictates of decorum. In one episode, Jerry barters away the intellectual-property rights to one of his sexual techniques. Where the rest of us laugh and gasp, an economist would only nod in understanding.

The bottom line: Several economists have set up a website that explains the behavior of Seinfeld and his pals in economic terms.

Bennett is a reporter for Bloomberg News .

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