tagRomanceThe Pareto Efficient Relationship

The Pareto Efficient Relationship


This story was inspired by the title of the book, Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes. I haven't read the book yet, so I can't comment on any similarities between the two works.


Michael shifted beneath his shoulder bag as he checked his watch. He'd done so at least a dozen times during the five minutes he'd been in line. Seeing the time did little to help his mood; he had to be back in the hotel lobby in ten minutes, and still had to check in and change.

The hotel's heat was on despite the unseasonably warm temperatures, and he was sweating beneath the layers he'd donned that morning. Worse than his discomfort, however, was the fact that he might be late meeting his sister for dinner.

As much the thought stung—and it did; he hated being late—he had to admit that a small part of him was enjoying his time in line.

A tall, red-haired woman had been at the desk the entire time he'd been in the lobby. She and the front desk clerk were arguing about... something. Michael couldn't make out a single word of their conversation above the hum of the lobby's Muzak, but he was enjoying the redhead's performance.

He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but something in her body language told him she was orchestrating the conversation. The clerk may have thought he was the woman's equal, but Michael suspected that, like a chess master, the woman knew exactly what she was doing. She was probably dozens of steps ahead of the poor man, and was now backing him into a corner of his own making.

Just as the realization crossed Michael's mind, the clerk faltered and wrinkled his brow. The woman's spine stiffened; it was a subtle shift in her stance, but in that instant she seemed even taller than she had just moments before.

The prospect of seeing her triumph sent a strange sort of thrill down Michael's body. You've got him, he thought. You've been playing rope-a-dope with him this whole time—I knew it!—and now you've got him. Pounce before he has a chance to deflect or regroup. Come on, woman, go in for the verbal kill!

A silly grin spread across Michael's face as the woman leaned across the desk to say a few quiet words. The clerk blanched and picked up the phone. Moments later, the woman left with a second man, though not before she gave the clerk a genuine smile and a profuse thank-you.

Michael stared after her retreating back. He shook his head a few times as he approached the desk. Why, after realizing he might be late, had he relished the idea of watching the woman argue? Why had he felt a strange sense of disappointment when the argument ended? Given the time, he should've been thrilled the two had reached a resolution.

"What the heck was that about?" Michael forced a laugh as he addressed the clerk behind the desk.

"We're having a conference here this week. Let's see... here it is." The clerk pulled out a large piece of card paper. "'The Future of Alternative Energy, with this year's special topic, How to Make the Future Happen Now.'"

The clerk rolled his eyes at Michael before continuing. "Of course they chose the week of Earth Day for the conference. As you might expect, it's attracted some crazies. I argued with that woman for close to ten minutes about why we can't allow her hippie friends to run extension cords through our garage to charge their cars. In the end, I passed her off to our Head of Maintenance and Facilities, just like she'd wanted the entire time. I was trying to spare the poor man, but well, let him deal with her, you know? I mean...."

The clerk's eyes bulged. "I mean, we welcome all guests at the hotel, and are thrilled to play host to such a respected conference." The clerk paused again, collecting himself before plastering on a fake smile. "Welcome to the historic Donatello Hotel in beautiful Kansas City, Missouri. Are you checking in today, sir? Yes? And did you have a pleasant trip?"


Michael wrinkled his nose at the mug of stale, weak coffee in his hands. The hotel served terrible coffee, but he was desperate; like any addict, he needed his morning fix.

"Hello? Excuse me, Mr. Andrews?"

Michael turned to see the redhead. The long-legged, master-arguer, maybe-crazy redhead.

He couldn't remember what she'd worn the day before—jeans and a t-shirt, perhaps?—but today she was dressed in a fitted blouse, a short bottle-green jacket, pinstripe charcoal dress pants, and a pair of black, patent leather platform pumps. Her clothing hinted at curves he hadn't seen the day before, but the biggest change was her hair. It had been pulled into a loose ponytail yesterday, but it was down now, and styled into a sleek cut that ended just above her shoulders.

He couldn't help but stare. Her hair wasn't one of those tamer or quasi-red shades, like auburn or strawberry-blond. No, this woman's hair was a true, fiery orange-red. It shimmered under the room's bright lights, yet still looked soft. He had to tamp down a sudden urge to reach his hand out and touch it.

"Yes?" He glanced at the lanyard that hung around her neck. "Ah, Ms. Clemmons, is it?"

"Call me Goldie." As she smiled, he noticed that her face had a considerable amount of large, brown freckles. Her narrow nose was slightly crooked, and sat beneath a pair of plain gray eyes. She was unusual looking, but not unattractive.

She must have sensed something off in his expression, for her smile widened as she continued to speak. "Yes, I realize it's an unusual name. To save you the effort of having to work some awkward questions into the conversation, no, my parents weren't big Goldie Hawn fans. I grew up on a commune of sorts in Vermont, and since my hippie parents assumed I'd be blond like all of my older sisters they went ahead and named me Goldenrod." She tugged on a piece of her hair. "I fooled them, though," she said before extending her hand.

After countless introductions at conferences and committees, he'd become an expert at assessing a person's character based on their handshake. Goldie's grasp was firm, but it wasn't a death grip. Her skin wasn't clammy or hot, and while her hand wasn't perfectly perpendicular to the floor, it was open by only a slight amount. She didn't slouch or shift her weight from one foot to the other, she looked him straight in the eye, and she flashed him a polite, friendly smile.

She was calm but not dull, confident but not arrogant, friendly but not clingy. She was the perfect conference interlocutor. That must be why his hand felt so... tingly.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Goldie. I'm Michael."

"It's nice to finally meet you, Michael. I believe you know my co-worker, Colin Boyle?"

Who? Before he could clear up the confusion, she pressed on.

"When I mentioned to Colin that I was making the trip down for the conference, he insisted I introduce myself. And since it appears we're on the same panel this afternoon, I thought it would be a good idea to introduce myself now."

"Oh? What's the topic of your paper?"

"Oh, I don't have a formal paper per se. I'll be commenting on the other presentations in the Carbon Reduction Policies Panel, including yours, but I'll primarily be speaking about some of the policy research my organization has been doing. We've compiled broad categories of strategies municipal and county governments take to curb reliance on greenhouse gas emitting energy sources."

He raised an eyebrow. "I believe my paper identifies the best strategy to reduce carbon emissions, including those from energy generation. Economists have shown, time and again, that the most efficient policy is a simple, federally imposed Pigouvian carbon tax. There is no efficient role for municipal or county government."

Her gray eyes flared. She placed the mug she'd been holding on a nearby table, and clasped her hands together in front of her.

"That may be, but the federal government has proved incapable of passing meaningful climate change legislation, and such a tax will not be in place for the foreseeable future. The dysfunction at the federal level leaves thousands of responsible municipal and county governments across the country without a workable system to improve their energy consumption."

She straightened as she drew in a deep breath. Though he had seen her only from the rear yesterday, he recognized the move from the desk.

Her eyes shone as she weaved in and out of the finer points of multi-level and multi-jurisdictional government strategy. She wasn't crazy; that much was clear. She made sense, though she made a few small jumps in logic he didn't agree with.

Part of him itched to argue with her, to see how she'd respond, but for now he was content to watch and listen. Just as handshakes can be informative, so, too, can argument styles. She wasn't condescending or patronizing in her vocabulary or structure, and her argument was clearly one that had been informed by multiple viewpoints; she wasn't a mouthpiece for an organized interest group or party. He liked that.

Her closing remarks drew him back from his thoughts. "So as long as Congress continues to be bogged down in partisan politics, municipalities and counties will be forced to address the pressing issue of climate change on their own, and hopefully, as I outlined earlier, in a manner that is not only environmentally sustainable, but also socially just and economically beneficial."

He stared at her, dumbfounded. Why had he thought she was just 'not unattractive' mere moments ago? Her hair, her eyes, the figure he'd glimpsed beneath her unbuttoned jacket when she'd placed her mug on the table... she was gorgeous. Even better, she was smart and confident, and an excellent debater.

Her smile faded into a puzzled expression. "Did you follow what I was saying? Or was my argument illogical in some way?"

"Huh? Oh, er, yes. I mean no. I mean, yes, I followed, and no, it wasn't that illogical."

He wanted to kick himself for suddenly being nervous around her; he couldn't remember the last time he'd stuttered so much in a single sentence.

Still, at least he hadn't said something along the lines of, I have no clue what you just said. I was too busy developing a crazy and totally out of character conference crush on you, because you're confident and smart and sexy and God you have nice hair.

"Good, I think." She gave him a curious smile. "Well, I'm really looking forward to this afternoon's panel. It's been over ten years since I took my introductory economics classes and I didn't quite understand all of your equations, but it seemed like your paper largely focused on national policy. While perhaps some policies are best implemented at the federal level, have you come across any viable, local level strategies in your research?"

Michael paused. He'd never been one for lies. He just hoped she wouldn't walk away when he told her the truth.

"Actually, the majority of my work concerns monetary policy in high-inflation or otherwise unstable developing countries. Carbon is a bit of a blip for me. I'm afraid I'm much more interested in monetary policy than I am in energy policy."

She'd reached for her mug—giving him another lovely view of the curves of her hips, waist, and breasts beneath her jacket—but she stilled at his words. She blinked several times, as if trying to process what he'd said.

"So why are you here?" She straightened as she stared at him. "If you... hold on. Do you mean to say you don't care about energy policy?" Her voice rose at the end of her sentence to an unnaturally high pitch. Several people around them glanced their way, and he could have sworn that a hush fell over a few of the nearest groups.

His lips twisted into a wry smile. "I didn't say I was uninterested. I just said it wasn't my primary research area." The skeptical look on her face told him she hadn't believed a word he'd said. "I'm interested in the subject, though I admit that's mostly because I don't want some insane anti-growth bill passed in Congress. I wrote a paper, I was invited to the conference, and I thought it would be interesting to see how others are using my research in their work."

She was still giving him that skeptical look. She could tell he wasn't telling the whole truth.

"Alright, alright. To be honest, I came for the barbecue. Oh, and to have an all-expense paid trip to visit my sister and nephews; they're nine and ten, and for some reason I'm their favorite uncle. Plus I'm drawing down a very nice grant right now; it expires at the end of the month, and if I don't use it, then poof! It's gone. So yes, I'm interested in energy policy, and yes, I wrote the paper, and yes, I'm curious to see how my paper is being used, but had this conference been in any other city I probably wouldn't have come."

"Hang on." Her eyes narrowed in accusation as she looked up at him. "Your nametag says Michael Andrews. Who are you?"

"I am. Michael Andrews, that is." He paused. "But I'm afraid I don't know a Colin. Michael Andrews isn't an uncommon name. Perhaps you are looking for another Michael Andrews?" He tried to sound as apologetic as possible.

"Colin Boyle, the President of the Great Lakes Alternative Energy Institute, in Chicago. He's my boss," she whispered. "So... so you aren't the Michael Andrews who works for the City of Chicago?"

"No. I'm afraid I'm the Michael Andrews who works in the Economics Department at the University of Chicago."

"Chicago?" Her eyes bulged, and she sounded incredulous. "As in, the Chicago school of economics? The birthplace of insane monetary policy? And awful Latin American development policies? That University of Chicago?"

"I'm afraid so." He stifled the urge to laugh at the horrified look on her face. Her reaction to his department wasn't something people usually put into words, but it always amused him when someone did. "If it makes you feel any better, I get calls for the other Michael Andrews pretty frequently. I just didn't expect to see someone else from Chicago here, looking for the other Michael Andrews from Chicago."

When she continued to stare at him in silence, he pressed on. "I meet a lot of people at conferences, on speaking tours, in Washington... I assumed I'd met this Colin Boyle person at an event of some sort, and I'd just forgotten his name. I'm sorry if I've caused any confusion. I didn't mean to deceive you, really."

Goldie opened her mouth to reply, but a man approached before she managed to speak. Recovering somewhat, she introduced Michael to the man, a bio-chemist from the University of North Carolina. Michael thought about excusing himself from the conversation but stopped when he saw Goldie hold her index finger up to him.

He was flattered; she still wanted to talk to him? Did she want to talk about his paper? Maybe she wanted to talk about monetary policy; that would be nice. Or, better yet, was she interested in him for non-academic reasons?

He almost snorted at his last thought. No, after his employment revelation, she was probably adding him to her top ten list of most hated people in Chicago.

Michael tried to follow the bio-chemist's words as he waited for Goldie, but it was no use. He'd never been much of a scientist.

He mind wandered as he glanced around the room. He was thankful he'd decided to go with dress pants and a button-down shirt. He normally wore suits to conferences, but he'd had a feeling this would be a casual event. He'd been right; while he and Goldie were dressed in business casual attire, quite a few people were in jeans.

He didn't care what people wore, but he wondered what some of the older faculty members in his department would say if they were here. He didn't have to think long; their words would probably include something along the lines of, "dirty, pinko-commie hippies not showing respect for their own subject matter," a phrase one of his frequent co-authors had once used when describing a group of Berkeley labor economists.

His colleagues had roared with laughter when he'd told them about his trip to the conference, and many had predicted a frustrating few days for him. It wasn't that they were necessarily against the positions he outlined in his paper; like the majority of economists, many if not all of his colleagues were members of the so-called "Pigou Club," and thought that a carbon tax was the best way to account for the negative externalities associated with carbon emissions. They just didn't see the point of going to a conference full of, "irrational Marxist academics who don't have a lick of common sense among them," as one emeritus professor had put it yesterday.

So why had he come here against the advice of his mentors?

Because you're bored with your life, a voice in the back of his head whispered.

He was about to argue with that little voice but stopped when he realized that it was true. He was bored.

Some small part of him must have known it for years, but he had never voiced the realization, even to himself. He was a thirty-eight-year-old tenured economics professor. He'd graduated from Harvard with majors in math and economics, gone straight from his undergraduate studies to graduate school, and started his job at Chicago before he'd even finished his dissertation. He loved his work—he couldn't imagine a better profession—but every year, he went to the same conferences, meetings, and retreats. Every semester, he saw the same people, taught the same classes, and mentored what seemed like dozens of cookie-cutter graduate students. He even wrote papers on the same main topic every day.

It wasn't that his non-professional life was without joy, either. On the contrary, Chicago was a great city, with world-class food, music, museums, theater, and sports teams. He'd just moved into an apartment with amazing city and lake views, and after years of training and dithering he'd run the Chicago Marathon last year.

But neither his professional life nor his extra-curricular activities squelched the general sense of restlessness he felt.

He supposed he should have noticed the restlessness a few years ago, when the euphoria he'd expected to feel after getting through the torturous tenure process hadn't materialized. He'd broken up with a long-term girlfriend, an economist at Northwestern, the same week, but hadn't felt particularly upset about the end of the relationship, either. He'd just felt... flat.

Rather than try and figure out the reasons behind his lack of emotions, he'd thrown himself into his work. He'd spent the next six months sequestered in his office, reading hundreds of articles on a subject he'd known virtually nothing about save for a single Environmental Economics course he'd taken as an undergraduate.

The result had been a systematic review of papers on carbon emission reduction strategies. It was a glorified literature review, it was completely unrelated to the work he did on a regular basis, and—though he hated to admit it, even to himself—it remained his most cited work.

It was also why he was here, attending this conference. He'd wanted to do something a little unusual, and on a whim had agreed to come to the conference the day the organizers had called.

"Woolgathering, Dr. Andrews?"

Goldie's words jolted him back to reality. She'd found him staring at the wall, his lips contorted into a sardonic smile.

"Apparently." He gave her a sheepish grin. "Didn't I tell you to call me Michael? Dr. Mike Andrews is my father, a dentist."

She raised an eyebrow. "So you did. But that's when I thought you were the other Michael Andrews. I thought we might have to introduce ourselves again. I'm still Goldie, by the way."

"And I'm still Michael, and it's a pleasure to meet you again." The tingly feeling was there as shook hands again, and he noticed a twinkle in her gray eyes that he hadn't seen before. They were quite pretty, set against her freckly face and fiery hair. "So, what exactly does he do?"

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