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May 02, 2007

An Economic Analysis of Interpersonal Relations

As long time readers will, no doubt, recall, more than three years ago, I presented a now infamous (and copiously referenced) analysis of interpersonal relationships, asserting that all such relations can be defined solely on the basis of convenience, exploitation, and self-aggrandizement. In essence, I was taking a sociological perspective on relationships, which I further expanded on with my manifesto on Facebook friends, or more generally, relationships on social networks, one year later. Today, I would like to take a different, more rigorous approach to the same problem, i.e., how do we taxonomically distribute the various interpersonal relationships in our lives? Considering this is an economic analysis, there can be only one criterion (as I am sure most of you can guess): value.

More specifically, in defining relations based on economic principles, we are looking to maximize the value (e.g., emotional/financial support, services,1 popularity, etc.) we derive from these relationships with a limited amount of resources (e.g., time, money, bullshit tolerance capacity, etc.). Now, as with all other things in life, what is valuable to one person does not necessarily have to be valuable to another. For instance, a friend from work, Perfect Ratio, loves his health food, and so, will spend more time and money than is required shopping at Trader Joe's to obtain what he contends to be better food; in contrast, I lead a mostly dysfunctional home life, and am quite content spending less time and money shopping at Safeway. For Perfect Ratio, Trader Joe's adds value (as we like to say in my ever-articulate profession), while for me, groceries are a commodity; I will shop wherever I can get the lowest prices and spend the least amount of time.

Analogously, I would contend that relationships can be divided into similar categories. Some (few!) relationships no doubt add value; others probably serve useful purposes, but are more or less commodities; and finally, others still have no utility (marginal2 or otherwise), and simply detract value from your existence. For brevity's sake, I will hereinafter refer to the first category of relationships as value-added, the second as commodities, and the third as deadweight.

Value-Added Relationships

Value-added relationships are those relationships that an individual finds valuable beyond the sum total of services provided by the other party, and thus, is likely to invest an inordinate amount of resources to retain. In essence, the relationship adds value, i.e., what the other person provides cannot be easily duplicated or replaced, and as such, is worth the extra commitment of resources. Many people might (often erroneously) characterize their partner as being value-added, while most people indubitably have at least one or two friends or family members in their lives that are fundamentally irreplaceable. Though the cost of acquisition and maintenance of such a relationship might exceed the cost of most other relationships combined (especially when discussing romantic entanglements), one would hope that the indispensable nature of these structures justifies the (often heavy) expense. At best, however, these relationships are likely to make up only a very small percentage of one's relationship portfolio; the bulk of the portfolio is likely composed of the next category.

Commoditized Relationships

Commoditized relationships are exactly like any other commodity on the market. They provide vital services, but the product- or service-provider is basically indistinguishable from all his, her, or its competitors, and thus, is chosen on the basis of cost alone. Commodity friends often tend to be stereotypes or caricatures of a well-defined social type, and though providing valuable products and/or services, do not add any value in and of themselves. People most often use these commodity friends to supplement their own abilities or fill some void in their lives. For instance, some commodity friend categories that I routinely retain include:

  • Sports Nuts, from whom I can gather enough details about whatever sport/team so as to talk cogently at a cocktail party;
  • Fashionistas, who tell me what is the new black;
  • Sleazy/Suave Guys, who can pick up an entire group of women at a bar/club (thus saving me the trouble and indubitable embarrassment of such an endeavor);
  • Frat Guys, who are fun to drink with, but not much else;
  • Arrogant, but Ignorant Silicon Valley Guys, who, despite performing some mundane, potentially scriptable task, think they are God's gift to technology because they work at some big company,3 and consequently, make me happy to not have gone into engineering; and
  • Drug Addicts, Riff Raff, and Vagabonds, who are my ultimate antidepressant in the face of overwhelming existential angst.

Obviously, other people likely have other commodity friends, depending on their particular needs, but the concept remains the same. If any one of these commodity friends becomes too expensive to maintain, it is generally trivial to find a replacement. It is not uncommon to maintain a roster/bullpen of various classes of commodity friends, and simply revert to another when one becomes too costly to retain. In engineering, we call this redundancy. The bulk of one's relationship portfolio is generally composed of these commodities.

Deadweight Relationships

The final—and definitely most worthless—category in the economic classification of interpersonal entanglements describes those relationships that exist for no identifiable reason, providing no value, and most often, actually actively draining resources. Like the leech of the social world, deadweight relations are generally acquired while traipsing in various social woodlands (e.g., bars, clubs, parties, etc.), and once acquired, become very hard to eliminate. These are the friends who borrow your money, hit on your friends, eat all your food, and double your bar tab, but when it comes to repaying their debts, are never to be found. These blood-sucking leeches will drain you dry if you let them, but unfortunately, are quite commonplace in most people's relationship portfolios. Sympathy or pity is the most often cited reason for not divesting oneself of these rather dreadful, net negative investments of resources.


Many cynical readers might be inclined to think that having defined the taxonomic classes for an economic analysis of one's relationships, I see myself as falling in the value-added category; nothing could be further from the truth. As most of you know, I am particularly attuned to my own material worthlessness in society, and as such, would never presume to even suggest that I add value to much of anything. However, my particular skill set also prevents me from falling into the deadweight category. I am fundamentally a commodity friend, and in fact, have cornered a number of markets, often much to my own chagrin.

First and foremost, I am the Cynic. Most people inevitably keep me around because my cynical commentary and depressing perspective on life amuses them. Second, I serve as the Faux Intellectual friend to many folks by virtue of the fact that I read a lot; I know a lot about ultimately worthless things like world politics and history, but provide no actual value outside of meaningless factoids. Finally, I am the perennial Tech Guy, providing personal IT support. In fact, this last commodity category I detest, but cannot seem to divest myself from the market monopoly I have obtained in my various friend circles.4

So, there you have it: an economic analysis of interpersonal relations to complement my sociological one from yesteryear. Think about it the next time you are at some pointless social function. Are any of the people around you really adding any value to your life? Perhaps more importantly, do you add any value to anyone or anything, or are you simply yet another expendable commodity, easily replaced and quickly forgotten?5

^ 1 This does not have to mean just sex, by the way.
^ 2 As you can see, I do not discriminate by discipline when it comes to nerdy jokes.
^ 3 You know who you are, and where you work.
^ 4 You hear that, people? I couldn't care less about your asinine problems and won't fix your computer!
^ 5 Like me. There ain't no shame; embrace the commoditization.


Since I am quickly becoming your most avid reader, I will counter:

1.) Footnotes are too demanding. Use parentheticals unless the thought completely wanders away from the point.

2.) I can't help but notice you posted this (and time-stamped it) during work hours. Way to add value.

3.) Why are all of your friend categories dudes? Maybe you'd have a healthier life perspective if you baked in some breasts.

I don't know what it means to bake in breasts, but Jon is right. You need to spend less time writing long posts and more time finding more commoditized services (and here I do mean sex). Perhaps you can ask one of your suave friends to pick you up somebody... to save you the embarrassment, of course.

Thanks to your enlightenment, I have embraced the commoditization. There's no shame in being an easily replaceable commodity. After all, even rich people slum it at Target and Walgreens sometimes. Plus, since most of the people in my life fall into category 2, there's no reason why that shouldn't go both ways.

With that hot pink shirt and sexy eyeliner, you could be my commodity any day ;)


(1) I agree, footnotes can be tedious. I'm looking at some either developing or acquiring some software to make them appear auto-magically within the body text (maybe as a blurb?).
(2) The value I added to people's lives with this post more than makes up for the hour of lost chargeability.
(3) To my credit, only my commodity friends are guys; it could be that all my female friends either add value or are deadweight.

Julie: Are you offering your services, and if so, who are you?

Audrey: Thanks for fulfilling the (commoditized) roles of Faux Intellectual, Food Critic, and Witty, Well-Liked Friend in my life.

Katie: Which commoditized service do you want me to provide? And don't say, Tech Guy!

You know what service I'm talking about. Call me sometime hot stuff ;)

yea i agree.....footnotes suck.

that is it.

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