A garland with the flags spelling “PITDAY”

Important futilities

Sometimes what we do seems to be unduly influenced by what appears to be utterly futile. Is that as unwise as it seems?

Koen Smets
7 min readOct 15, 2021

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Last Saturday was Luka’s 6th birthday. We had some balloons to decorate the house, and for just £1 my wife had bought a self-assembly garland with cardboard flags spelling “Happy Birthday”. But when we opened the pack, all it contained was just enough letters to make the word “pitday”. Return it to the shop and ask for a replacement?

The item was clearly not suitable for purpose, but the idea of returning a faulty product bought for the futile sum of £1 felt, well, a bit petty. What if we made up the missing flags ourselves with cardboard, markers, and a pair of scissors? That sounded even crazier, so I set off to the nearby shop anyway to purchase another, hopefully complete, garland, with no mention of the faulty one. It would surely look better than anything we’d concoct ourselves, and well worth the cost of just a pound — a no brainer, really.

Not all futilities are perceived equal

Earlier that morning I had popped into the local fishmongers on my way back from the baker’s shop in the next town (they sell the kind of bread for which I am quite happy to drive the extra mile). Now, the fishmonger’s street is one where you need to pay to park, as a friendly traffic warden reminded me a couple of months ago. I had always known this, of course, but that day I had, as always before, betted that it would be exceedingly unlikely for a traffic warden to turn up in the five minutes it’d take me to collect the order I’d phoned in earlier. I was, very much, the rational criminal that the late, great economist Gary Becker describes in Crime and Punishment.

Thankfully, the traffic warden on duty that day was a benevolent man, who advised me to put just 5 or 10 pence (about 4–8 euro- or dollar cents) in the meter and avoid a pricey fine. At 5p for three minutes’ worth of parking, it makes sense, even for a rational criminal. Our local fishmonger’s does not only supply excellent seafood, they are also very efficient at serving customers, so since then a 10p parking fee has been the norm for me. If I see there is nobody in the shop before parking up, I can even get away with 5p…

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Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius