Dear Economist

My ironing lady – housebound and bored – has taken to phoning me up and begging me to bring round my bed linen for ironing. As I return to pick it up again, proffering a pair of crisp £20 notes, I quip: “But Sheila, aren’t I providing occupational therapy and shouldn’t you be paying me?” She laughs, pocketing the banknotes, and glows with satisfaction as I take my pile of pillowslips. It is my social duty to continue this relationship, but why do I feel I am the one being flattened?

Flora Fortis, London

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After years of hard work I am about to finish my degree in economics. Maybe I shouldn’t say “years of hard work”. I skipped quite a lot. Now I’m worried that in the middle of a recession, I’m going to graduate with a lousy degree. Will reading “The Undercover Economist” get me through? Or should I be in the library?

George, London

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We need shoes come rain or shine and the more shoes we have, the better prepared we are for the unpredictable circumstances we face in our daily lives. Because of this, we should buy shoes no matter how much they increase in price, because their demand will always exist – we can’t walk around barefoot. Perhaps I’m just trying to convince myself that £60 on a pair of shoes is a solid investment.

Shoe-shopper

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My partner and I are ready to register for gifts and we are seeking the most efficient way to do it. Most registries allow any gift to be returned to the store for cash. Additionally, one can often find 20 per cent coupons for this store (meaning that one can return a gift worth $100 and then buy it back with a coupon for $80). Which gifts should we register for? I am worried that if we register for lower-priced gifts, then people who have a higher willingness to pay will take advantage of the consumer surplus and buy a cheaper gift. Or should we just register for the gifts we want because the opportunity cost spent returning gifts and buying new items will be too high?

Meir, New York

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Would it be very wrong to go on holiday and miss voting in the forthcoming general election? We have an excellent constituency MP (Tory) who has a reasonably safe seat. I don’t agree with all his party’s policies, such as they are, but he has an excellent voting record and works very hard. I’d like to see him retain his seat – but not as much as I’d like to go on holiday.

Last election, the Liberal Democrats came second in my constituency and Labour came third, with a turnout of 70 per cent. If my vote were material in preventing a Labour government, I would be prepared to forego the holiday. Should I?

Unmarried UK Voter

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As canvassing for the general election gathers speed, I’ve been thinking about the gambling possibilities. Without going into specifics, I’m considering placing bets on the rival team’s victory – as insurance in the event of having to live in a world not entirely to my liking.

Would this be psychologically effective, or am I wasting my money? What price should I place on my political ideals?
Justin, south-east London


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When I sneeze, people often say to me – I know not why – “bless you”. I do not reciprocate when others sneeze, for I refuse to subscribe to any form of superstition.
It follows that my well-wishers clearly are superstitious. Therefore, my exceptional politesse dictates that I ought to offer them a blessing whenever they expel extraneous sinal mucus.
But perhaps the whole of humankind believes that everyone else is superstitious and so this absurd tradition continues between people who ought to know better, each of them fearing that they will cause offence. It is an awful superstition-fearing spiral. How, dear economist, to break out of it?
Hugh Costello

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I was in a long-distance relationship with my ex-girlfriend for six months, I in Bangladesh and she in England. At first, everything was perfect, but then her demand curve for me seemed to be slowly shifting to the left. Paranoid, I started giving her a lot more attention, thereby increasing my supply. My price and marginal utility fell. We broke up once, but I convinced her to come back.
We went back to normal and we talked for hours everyday. I decided I would move for her and managed to get offers to study economics in the UK. She started acting very oddly, and a few days ago, she said she doesn’t love me any more and completely broke up with me.
We’re still friends and she’s started making excuses that don’t seem too rational. I think she’s confused and that she’ll come back if I play my cards right. Should I sharply reduce supply and hope that my price goes up? I love her more than anything. My demand curve for her is perfectly inelastic.
Anon, Bangladesh

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A growing trend among my fellow students is converting to vegetarianism for environmental reasons, citing statistics that meat production, in particular beef, is a tremendous cause of greenhouse gas emissions. I was wondering if you could provide some insight into the actual environmental cost of a steak. How does it compare to driving, or flying? Would a simple tax on beef production be much more efficient than vegetarianism?
Max

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My son is applying to read medicine at university, and his various options require different combinations of subjects. He would like a place at UCL, with Barts as a fallback.

He feels reasonably confident of attaining an A grade in all four A-levels, but chemistry will be the trickiest. Should he ignore maths, focusing on UCL; or ignore chemistry, which would be fine for Barts?

Also, he does voluntary work in a home for the elderly which, quite honestly, he embarked upon in order to improve his application. In fact he gets a lot out of the voluntary work, including chess and philosophy with retired experts. Should we encourage him to give it up anyway? Should he also give up his musical instrument, sport, an Easter break in Paris and his girlfriend? He doesn’t want to be reductive, but he must meet one of his offers.
Family in Harpenden, Herts

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The Undercover Economist: a guide

Publishing schedule: Excerpts from "The Undercover Economist" and "Dear Economist", Tim's weekly columns for the FT Magazine, are published on this blog on Saturday mornings.
More about Tim: Tim also writes editorials for the FT, presents Radio 4's More or Less and is the author of "The Undercover Economist" and "The Logic of Life".
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