Shh! (Or, Why Your Screaming Baby Should Have You Worried)

Holiday season is once again upon us. It's a time of thanksgiving, and joy, and renewal -- and believing, or pretending to believe, that it's better to give than get.

To see loved ones far away, many will take to the skies and endure endless hours of discomfort in seats too small next to neighbors too large. Underpaid pilots, maybe multitasking on laptops, will apologize for delays. Flight attendants will serve either bad food for lots of money or no food for free. You will be charged for checked bags, aisle seats, window seats, exit-row seats, blankets, barf bags, headphones. The day airlines begin charging for lavatories, or oxygen masks, can't be far off. Yes, sir, your seat cushion can double as a flotation device in an emergency, but that'll cost you an extra $25.

And yet no one ever discusses the very worst part of air travel: babies.

Here's the situation: You're trapped on a six-hour cross-country flight and, in the row behind you, two parents are sitting happily with a 12-month-old baby on their laps. The plane remains parked at the gate. People are quietly chatting on their cell phones. The baby is preternaturally silent.

This will not last.

Once airborne, the child screams its head off. Nothing -- neither earplugs nor noise-canceling headphones -- drowns out the wailing. All hopes of sleep or peaceful reading die. Passengers with social or business obligations on the other end of the flight will embark on them with thudding headaches.

Fair, this isn't. Soon enough, you too will want to scream your head off, but you can't because you're an adult. Adults don't do that. (Or, if they do, they're arrested and removed from the plane.)

Some say the child's parents suffer more than surrounding passengers, as if they are mortified of the torture their child is inflicting on hapless neighbors. But I've never truly seen remorse. Most often I see instead Schadenfreude, the perverse joy people get from taking pleasure in others' pain. "See," their icy glances say, "This is your small punishment for not having kids. It's a tiny price to pay, really. I have to listen to this all the time, and that's on top of changing diapers, wiping runny noses and footing college tuition bills. You've gotten off much too lightly, young man."

But at its heart this is a question about where one person's rights end and another's begin. I'm not suggesting airlines ban people from traveling with infants -- just that they encourage people to think twice before hopping on a plane.

That babies scream on planes is unfortunate but not inevitable. Some are born-screamers, or so my high school history teacher -- the father of a half-dozen children by a half-dozen women -- once told me. He claimed you could tell a child's temperament the second it left Mommy's tummy. Some are tranquil by nature.

Happily, something can be done about the screamers. My proposed solution results from approaching the situation as any economist would. The unbearable noise generated by screaming babies is a negative externality -- a market failure, in which someone else's actions spill over and have a negative impact on innocent bystanders.

Air pollution is the classic example of a negative externality. And the classic solution is a Pigovian tax that gives companies a clear incentive to pollute less.

So here's my Pigovian plan for planes: instead of issuing free or half-priced tickets to babies - which only encourages people to fly more often with their young in tow - airlines should require parents to buy a "baby ticket" that costs twenty times the normal fare.

A roundtrip cross-country ticket, then, costs $10,000 instead of $500. The money paid above and beyond what the average passenger pays - in this example, $9,500 -- is fully refundable so long as the child doesn't make any noise beyond what neighboring passengers decide is reasonable. At the end of the flight, passengers in the vicinity are polled. How much of a nuisance has the baby been? Compensatory damages are awarded. Those sitting closest to the child, who have suffered the full force of its shrieks and squeaks, obviously receive the most money. Flight attendants serve as neutral controls to guard against dishonest passengers attempting to extort money from the truly innocent.

The positive effect of such a policy would be to discourage those with babies in tow from flying in the first place.

This problem exists because airlines have strangely, inexplicably, perversely, decided to allow babies under 24 months to travel for free so long as they don't occupy a seat. Betty and Bob are now zooming off with Zane to visit Grandma and Grandpa for Thanksgiving -- it's such a bargain to fly because it's three for the price of two! -- and then at Christmas they're again zipping off with Zane, this time to visit Grams and Gramps.

Parents don't see anything wrong with this. They often even expect sympathy when their wee-one wails onboard. But why? It makes absolutely no sense. In a capitalist country where negative externalities are viewed as market failures correctable through pecuniary fines, it's hardly radical to suggest that parents flying with boisterous babies offset the damage done by their child.

That's my proposed solution, anyway. I guess it's why everybody calls me Grinch this time of year.