New TV Show Sparks Unnecessary Moral Outrage (and Proves People Don’t Understand Basic Economics)



CBS recently released a new show titled, “The Briefcase.” Normally, I wouldn’t have given such a show a second glance...

But then I read reactions to the show on social media.

I found myself vaguely ashamed for [watching]...I kept reminding myself that I had to watch it in order to write about it.

[P]ossibly the most disgusting show on TV.

[The show] pits people in need against one another for entertainment.

[C]an we all agree that “The Briefcase” is an absolutely sickening premise for a reality TV show?

So what on Earth is the premise of this show?! Perhaps it’s a natural curiosity, perhaps I’m a genuinely terrible person, but I had to find out what lay behind what one writer called a “deviously surgical” premise for a show.

So I broke down and watched the first episode.

The basic plot is the following. A family experiencing financial hardship is given a briefcase with $101,000. The first $1,000 is theirs immediately to spend. Then comes “the twist.” The family is informed that there is another family, experiencing hardships that are either just as bad, or worse than their own. The family then has to decide over a period of several days how much of the remaining $100,000 to keep and how much to give to the other family. They can give away all of it, some of it, or none of it. Over the course of their decision-making process, they are offered more information about the other family, their circumstances, debts, and other details. In the final minutes of the show, the family is shocked to learn that the other family has also been given a briefcase and has been facing the same choice.

Call me a cold, calculated economist, but I fail to see the issue here—aside from the fact that the show just isn’t very good television.

Some people are claiming that the show exploits people—it’s “pitting poor people against each other.” The problem with this logic is that without a doubt this show is making its participants better off! The individuals are free to make their choice—regardless of whether they choose to keep all the money or give it away.

At a bare minimum, it makes their situation no worse. Consider the initial family given the briefcase. We’ll call them “Family A.” Family A has three options. They can keep all the money, give some of it away to “Family B,” or give all of it to Family B. For sake of simplicity, let’s assume that before the show, each family has $0.

Below are some of the possible outcomes (I assumed that “giving some away” meant half, though any distribution is viable).

Family A

Family B

$100,000

$0

$50,000

$50,000

$0

$100,000

What the chart above shows is what economists refer to as Pareto improvements. That is, in any of these scenarios, at least one person is made better off and no one is worse off as a result of the transaction. In the worst case, one of the parties ends up with $0—precisely what they had before the show started.

What about the “twist” at the end of the show—that the other family also has a briefcase?

In this case, taking both transactions into account, our outcomes look something like the following.

Family A

Family B

$200,000

$0

$100,000

$100,000

$0

$200,000

Once again, these are Pareto improvements. At least one family is better off than they were before and neither family is worse off. So while we may find the premise of this show to be in poor taste, or just plain stupid, let’s take a step back before we start making claims about exploitation. Without a doubt, the show is helping at least one family. Depending upon the decisions made by the participants, two families may wind up being significantly better off than they were at the start.

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