Pet theories and the economics of intangibles

Pet theories and the economics of intangibles
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First Published: Sun, Oct 12 2008. 11 18 PM IST

Puppy love: For parents, acquiring a pet can only be an act of masochism. JUPITERIMAGES, INDIA
Puppy love: For parents, acquiring a pet can only be an act of masochism. JUPITERIMAGES, INDIA
Updated: Sun, Oct 12 2008. 11 18 PM IST
We got a puppy last week. We did it for the same reason most parents do most things: Because we are masochists and forgot one fundamental truth — being a grown-up is a hell of a lot less fun than being a kid. So for the last week, my husband and I have been waking up five times at night to soothe a whimpering puppy, while the kids blithely come home after school and revel in being licked all over the face. Our sleeping arsenal includes wads of tissue to wipe off dog poop from the floor, a bottle of Dettol and a wet cloth. Come morning, we are surrounded by more puddles. My kids are in heaven. Hell, the kids in our entire building are in heaven. A dozen of them sit around a bewildered puppy, glaring at each other and squabbling for their turn to play while I stand above them, Dettol bottle in hand, like an avenging angel and try to mediate. “Sorry, Rohan, you touched her five times. Now it is Ria’s turn. And please don’t carry the puppy by her ears.”
Puppy love: For parents, acquiring a pet can only be an act of masochism. JUPITERIMAGES, INDIA
Don't get me wrong. I grew up with pets: dogs, cats, parrots, parakeets and an assortment of rabbits. Except that it didn’t seem so difficult then. Mom did all the work, and Dad, an avowed dog-hater turned turtle so much so that he called Teddy, our late and lamented dog, his adopted son. A week of sleepless nights has made me take a markedly different view towards pets. I frequently question our urge to acquire one, particularly since we live in an apartment in a building that is not pet-friendly. Hence the question: Why do people acquire pets?
I realize that dog lovers are rolling their eyes right now. Getting a pet is an emotional decision, they will say. It is based on love and offers intangible, immeasurable rewards. Fair enough. I buy all that. But indulge me here with some logic. So why do people get a puppy? 
Reason No. 1: For companionship. This applies if you have just recently retired or are suffering from an empty-nest syndrome. For most professionals in the middle of life, sandwiched between kids and parents, struggling with job pressures, companionship is not something they lack. Solitude is. They don’t crave another presence; they simply want to be absent. 
The question needs to be rephrased. Why do middle-aged parents choose to acquire a pet? And here comes the masochistic part. For the children — because pets teach children responsibility; pets will help them take care of one another, be compassionate towards other species and eventually save the earth. The simple act of getting a pet will reduce global warming; or at least stop the glaciers from melting. Or so we think. The reality is that kids are programmed to shrug off responsibility. They lose textbooks, forget mid-term exams, forget favourite (and expensive) toys at faraway birthday parties and treat a pet as another plaything. Sure, they will fill up water in the bowl once, maybe twice. After that, pets fall under the purview of the same beleaguered parents who were foolish enough to think that they could pass the buck. 
Since my husband thinks economics delivers the answer to most questions, I did a search on “the economics of intangible objects”, reasoning that pets offer only intangible benefits. This led me to Adam Smith, who offered a fascinating discourse on the topic of “vendible commodities”, but didn’t quite address the issue of pets. After several detours into “assertive modesty” and the economics of intangibles; into the meaning of “disposition”, ranging from progressive and conservative, I finally hit upon two gentlemen called Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott. The former, a Nobel-prize winner, is hot stuff among economists, but it was Oakeshott’s essay, On Being Conservative, that gave me answers to my questions. 
Oakeshott talks about how a conservative mindset regards change and innovation. “Innovation,” he says, “entails certain loss and possible gain, therefore the onus of proof to show that the proposed change may be…beneficial rests on the would-be innovator.” The problem is that the would-be innovators in my household, aka kids, didn’t use this logic with respect to the dog. There was no onus of proof; only mere badgering and endless repetition of “we want a puppy”. 
Oakeshott, not surprisingly, prefers a slow rather than rapid pace with respect to innovation. In other words, get a goldfish before a puppy. He also says that the “most favourable occasion for innovation is when the projected change is most likely to be limited to what is intended and least likely to be corrupted by undesired and unmanageable consequences.” Yes, but what if the change agents didn’t have a clear view of what was intended from the change and instead got themselves mired in all kinds of unmanageable consequences, such as having to turn down all party invitations because the puppy is howling? Clearly, Oakeshott hadn’t thought that far ahead; or perhaps he hadn’t encountered irrational kids — or pups — when he came up with his clearly outlined theses. 
Finally, I called my car mechanic in the US, the man I consult on puzzling existential issues, ranging from “why is my Scorpio making farting noises?” to my current question. “Jose,” I asked, “what would you call something that doesn’t have any tangible value?”
“A lemon,” he replied without hesitation. 
He was still chortling when I hung up. 
Also Read Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
Shoba Narayan’s puppy peed on her lap as she wrote this. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Oct 12 2008. 11 18 PM IST