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Cookie Monster and the Economics Lesson

Posted by on September 15, 2012

Image from the Muppet Wiki

The 1977 Little Golden Book “Cookie Monster and the Cookie Tree” (which I think was also a segment in a Sesame Street episode) is ostensibly a fable about sharing, but I have a different perspective. Yeah, I know it’s pretty dorky to write a serious critique of a children’s book. Humor me, though.

There’s a reason we read fables and other morality tales to our children. In addition to teaching them to read and entertaining them, we’re hoping they assimilate some of the lessons. Other times, we keep some stories away from our children, because we don’t want them to assimilate those lessons. That’s why we care so much what they watch on TV, and how much, right? So, it is in the spirit of preferring some lessons over others that I bother to present my perspective on this silly book. (Besides, it’s a fun way to talk about economics, the dismal science.)

For those who haven’t read it in a long time (or ever), here’s a synopsis. A witch has a magic talking cookie tree, whose cookies she doesn’t want to share with anyone, especially the voracious and insatiable Cookie Monster. To keep all the cookies to herself, she casts a spell on the tree to prevent it from giving cookies to anyone who doesn’t share. Desperate for cookies, Cookie Monster tries to find a friend on Sesame Street who”ll share cookies with him. Unfortunately, nobody believes he’ll really share. Going back to the cookie tree, he meets the witch, who can’t get any cookie, either. They realize that if they share, they can both get cookies. At first, it works to mutual benefit, but it doesn’t take long for Cookie Monster to devour all the cookies, leaving none for the witch.

Since not sharing is presented as the cause for the dilemma, and sharing seemingly resolved it, it’s understandable if this book is used to teach children to share. I don’t think it’s particularly appropriate as a sharing lesson, though. Rather, I believe it’s a cautionary tale about the need for proper respect for, and effective enforcement of, property rights.

Before anything else, I’ll state the obvious. If I don’t, I’m sure someone would accuse me of cold-hearted individualism. The witch is selfish, and that is not a trait to be emulated by children. Criticizing this story is by no means intended to deny or obscure that. That said, let’s move on.

The witch owns a tree, and it’s her right to dispense with as she pleases. Cookie Monster is a threat to her private property, so she tries to protect it, albeit in a foolish way. Cookie Monster would have assumed the cookies were his for the taking – without even asking anyone whose tree it was.

When forced to share with someone in order to partake of the cookies, Cookie can’t find anyone willing to trust him, because he has a bad reputation for tricking people (according to Bert), taking everyone else’s cookies (according to Ernie), and never sharing his cookies with anyone (according to Big Bird, Count von Count, Bert, Prairie Dawn, and Grover). The witch foolishly “contracts” with the magic tree for security, such that she must share with someone just to make use of her own property. Cookie and the witch solve each other’s problem by contracting with each other to share cookies. That is, Cookie Monster helps the witch by sharing with her and is paid for hi service in cookies. At first the transaction goes well, but not for long. Cookie violates the terms of the contract by eating all the cookies on the tree, thereby depleting a resource that he doesn’t own and cannot renew.

So, what lessons should we take from this morality tale?

  • Cookie Monster (and everyone else) should respect private property and contracts. In this case, he shouldn’t steal cookies, and he shouldn’t take more than he’s contractually agreed to share.
  • The witch (and everyone else) should protect her property more carefully and not bind herself in contracts with unreasonable restrictions (such as she made with the tree).
  • The witch could have sold the cookies to Cookie Monster. If she really didn’t want to share, she could have set the price exorbitantly high, presumably above Cookie’s subjective appraisal of the value of a cookie in currency (or whatever he might have to barter). If Cookie’s willing to pay the price, however high, the witch could consider buying more cookies from another producer or supplier than she expects the tree to produce. Of course, she’s within her rights to not sell or give away a single cookie.
  • As a lesson in generosity, I’ll repeat that the witch could have shared freely of some or all of her cookies, and that would have been very kind and selfless. However, she’d be foolish to let Cookie police his own consumption if she wanted to keep any for herself (or anyone else she might like to share with).
  • Responsible enforcement of and proper respect for property rights are necessary even if the intention is to charitably share goods at no charge.
  • Failure to protect property is poor stewardship and leads to unregulated use and distribution (like the witch experienced). Failure to respect property is theft, and leads to damaged reputations and diminished capacity to participate in markets (like Cookie Monster experienced).