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Mother Goose and the Principles of Economics, by William Koeblitz

An economic principle seen throughout the collection of Mother Goose nursery rhymes is tradeoff. Mankiw describes tradeoff as, “to get one thing that we like, we usually have to give up another thing that we like. Making decisions requires trading off one goal against another.” A tradeoff may be something as simple as Jim swapping his green pen for Nancy’s orange pencil because each prefers the other’s. When spending money, one is faced with the tradeoff of delegation; that is , spending more money on one thing at the cost of spending less on another. Tradeoff of time is a significant decision people have to make constantly; if Wilmer spends two hours watching TV and four hours playing ball, he will have no time to study before bedtime. From a young age, children are versed in choosing what to do with their material possession and little money given to them wisely. “Little Polly Flinders” might prefer warm feet, but her mother, the wiser, does not consider it a fair trade off for dirtied clothes when sitting among the cinders close to the fire.

Little Polly Flinders
Sat among the cinders
Warming her pretty little toes;
Her mother came and caught her,
Whipped her little daughter
For spoiling her nice new clothes.

With age, a lad presumably older than Polly sells his toy in order to buy a warm coat in “The Hobby Horse.” With these rhymes, children are instructed to decipher the instantly gratifying from the enduring and the frivolous from the practical.

I had a little hobby-horse
And it was dapple gray;
Its head was made of pea-straw,
Its tail was made of hay.
I sold it to and old woman
For a copper groat;
And I’ll not sing my song again
Without another coat.

Another trade off children learn from Mother Goose is the tradeoff of one’s time , most well spent on study and hard work. When Tom Tucker sings for his supper, he is rewarded bread and butter but leaves no time to work for a knife to cut the bread (“How will he cut it without e’er a knife?”) and is presumed to never be a desirable partner because of his lack of work ethic (“How will he be married without e’er a wife?”). “Bobby Snooks was fond of his books” and considered a valued member of society, while Jac k Spry, Bobby’s ruffian counterpart who spends his time getting into trouble, garners only a black eye and a “nose in plaster.” In marrying the tradeoff of time and material, children are given the rhyme of little Jenny Wren, a bird who falls ill and is aided by her love interest Robin Redbreast, telling her to “eat well of my cake, Jenny, drink well of my wine.” But when Jenny recovers, she admits to Robin that she is not in love with him, and he quickly revokes all material support for her, no longer willing to trade them for her time. Other Mother Goose nursery rhymes that teach practical tradeoff are:

“A Candle,” “One, Two, Three,” “The Robins,” “T’other Little Tune,” “Buttons,” “Coffee and Tea,” “Pussy-Cat Mew,” “Candle Savings,” “The Bird Scarer,” Bessy Bell and Mary Gray,” “Needles and Pins,” “Jack Jingle,” “The Old Woman of Leeds,” “Little Girl and Queen,” “Little Tom Tucker,” “There was an Old Woman,” and “When I was a Bachelor.”

Mother Goose also tells rhymes dealing with incentive response, another economic principle. Two distinct groups of rhymes dealing with incentives can be found; those that anecdote incentives of reward, and those that center on incentives of negative consequence. Incentives of reward are clearly seen in the Wren – Robin series, Robin always offering Jenny Wren material incentives to nest with him, as well as in rhymes like “Baby Dolly” (“Hush, baby, my dolly, I pray you don’t cry,/And I’ll give you some bread, and some milk by-and-by). In “Shall We Go A-Shearing,” an old woman is not enticed enough by the incentive to go shearing so she pretends to not hear the request. Yet, when asked if she would like to receive a kiss, she miraculously recovers her hearing. Incentives of consequence are found classically in Jack Be Nimble, urged to be quick enough to avoid being burned, and Miss Muffet, responding to the incentive of distancing herself from a spider and abandoning her curds and whey. A third and more subtle form of incentive seen in Mother Goose rhymes is the incentive of competition. Perhaps in “A Seasonable Song” (“Piping hot, smoking hot./What I’ve got, you have not./Hot gray pease , hot, hot hot; Hot gray pease, hot.”) the second verse was not inserted only for the sake of rhyme . A similar rhyme to this is “Hot Boiled Beans.” Mother Goose rhymes illustrate the power of incentives, driving children to succeed and work hard by the carrot, the whip, and even the admiration of others.

The third economic principle evident in Mother Goose rhymes is that the standard of living depends on the ability to produce goods and services. “If Wishes Were Horses” does a good job of demonstrating this principle.

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
If turnips were watches, I would wear one by my side.
And if “ifs” and “ands” were pots and pans
There’d be no work for the tinkers.

Often, the principle is deduced to the single household in order to be more relatable for the children. Like the rhyme “Bye Baby Bunting,” a hardworking family bids farewell to its newborn member as they leave in the morning.

Bye, baby bunting,
Father’s gone a-hunting,
Mother’s gone a milking,
Sister’s gone a-silking,
And brother’s gone to buy a skin
To wrap the baby bunting in

The family, capable of working to produce for itself, is afforded a standard of living to clothe and warm its children.

The importance of private property and savings is also seen in Mother Goose nursery rhymes. To the household, financially rewarding work is a necessity to survival, and Mother Goose has no problem with affirming this. In “A Man and a Maid,” a couple pondering marriage illustrates the necessity for private property.

The little maid replied,
Should I be your little bride,
Pray what must we have for to eat, eat, eat?
Will the flame that you’re so rich in
Light a fire in the kitchen?
Or the little god of love turn the spit, spit, spit?

Moreover, other rhymes illustrate the importance of managing one’s private property well.

The dove says coo, coo, what shall I do?
I can scarce maintain two.
Pooh, pooh! says the wren, I’ve got ten,
And keep them all like gentlemen.

The lessons of moral hazards appear in Mother Goose rhymes, particularly when dealing with punishment (or lack there of) of immoral, childish behavior. The best rhyme to illustrate moral hazards is “The Tarts.” Here, a mischievous wrongdoer strikes again, and after is punished, sees the wickedness of his ways and is changed.

The Queen of Hearts,
She made some tarts,
All on a summer’s day;
The Knave of Hearts,
He stole the tarts,
And took them clean away.
The King of Hearts
Called for the tarts,
And beat the Knave full sore,
The Knave of Hearts
Brought back the tarts,
And vowed he’d steal no more.