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Dear Ivanhoe,

Why is a bird in the hand worth two in the bush?

Graphic Artist With Questions

Dear GAWQ,

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” is an English proverb dating to the 16th century, according to linguist Gary Martin, who has traced the origins and meanings of many English expressions for his excellent online reference work “Meanings and Origins of Phrases, Sayings and Idioms.” The phrase is used to persuade people to appreciate what they have, rather than risk it in pursuit of more.

Though the proverb itself has lost currency in recent years, its sentiment may be seeing a well-needed resurgence. Overconsumption and high-risk investments have alternatively bloated and imploded the global economy and we are currently feeling the negative effects of an empty-handed “two in the bush” scenario. Investment bankers and short-sellers had an acute case of non-satiation, that is, they were willing to risk all the fruits of a bull market for the prospect of more wealth. It is not that they did not already have wealth when they made these high-risk transactions, but they thought that they had an easy way to get more. Why? That’s the million-dollar question.

The basic premise of the proverb is not birds, but value and what economists like to call well-being. Defining well-being is one of the most basic philosophical questions that societies wrestle with. It is a foundational question in medicine, law, the arts, engineering, psychology, history and so on. The utilitarian school of thought was founded on the idea that a person’s quality of life is measured by their happiness. If we could find a way to measure happiness then it would be our moral imperative as a society to make as many people as happy as possible in order to maximize the quality of the aggregate human experience.

Now, if someone values something, it must be because it makes their life better; otherwise, they would not want it. So, if someone is willing to trade a kilt for a chicken, it must be because they value the chicken more than the kilt because the chicken will make their life better than the kilt would; otherwise, they would not give up the kilt. So, if someone is willing to trade more money for a chicken than a kilt, then the same must also be true, so we must be able to use the basic unit of currency to measure value.

Thus, economics was born. No discipline has concerned itself quite so much with attempting to quantify value and well-being as economics. But any economics student can tell you it is fraught with assumptions like the above because, if you don’t make them, it gets really, really complicated. For example, unless we assume that people have Vulcan-like powers of rationality and that well-being in the long run is the sum of all things that make us happy in the short run, we couldn’t even use the dollar as a measure of well-being in the first place.

This is not to say that the study of economics is without merit; in fact, as an economics major myself, I would argue that it is. The world needs people who dare to ask what we value and how we can materially elevate the quality of our existence. But it is easy to get caught up in the numbers. We think that the more complex our equations are, the more accurately we can predict whether a person is happy; to some extent there is a positive correlation, but it is, at best, only half the story. Money is merely a lubricant in the exchange of goods and services that also happens to be a convenient measure of consumption and the potential to consume.

As a society, we have replaced self-sufficiency with trade such that even our most basic survival depends on some level of consumption. Beyond base survival, there is the concern of our health, the maintenance of which requires further consumption, and this is the starting-off point for the most basic level of well-being, as I see it. As human beings, we are social, intelligent, emotional animals: as social animals, our happiness is partially dependent on the quality of our contact with other humans; as intelligent animals, it is partially dependent on keeping our minds occupied; and as emotional animals, it is also partially dependent on moral questions, like justice, responsibility and spirituality. The types of things that satisfy those needs vary from culture to culture and individual to individual. In modern society, certain levels of consumption can help us meet those needs too—but only imperfectly and incompletely.

American culture has pounded into us this notion that more consumption is always better. We have internalized the notion that the value of something to us is the difference between what we paid and what we would have been willing to pay. Even after we have consumed to the level where all the happiness we could ever want is well within our grasp, we have become so obsessed with the numerical value of our well-being that we have developed self-destructive habits in pursuit of the fleeting pleasure of acquisition.

Some of us overwork ourselves to make as much money as we can so that we have the potential to consume all the things we are led to believe will increase our happiness, even when we are too exhausted at the end of the day to enjoy it. Some of us over-consume to the point where we don’t even use what we have purchased—which is perhaps why self-storage is such big business nowadays—or we consume that which is detrimental to our well-being because we have bought into the propaganda that it will contribute to our net well-being. Some of us play the financial markets in the hopes of striking it rich, but even when we make more money than we could spend in our lifetimes, we keep playing because we think we can make more, all the while telling ourselves we want security for our children. Meanwhile, wealthy nations use economic data like per capita gross domestic product (GDP) and annual real GDP growth rates as cosmic penis-measuring instruments to show their governments care about the welfare of their people.

We are so obsessed with increasing our material wealth that we seldom pause to ask ourselves the million-dollar question: why are we doing it?

The answer is that we are addicted to consumption. Drinking a beer with friends could make you happier, if that’s what you’re into. Drinking alone until you can’t function because you’re depressed does not make you happier, it just makes you miserable for a different reason. That’s addiction, a mental health disorder, and getting over it, for most people, requires rehab. We have identified shopping addiction and gambling addiction as mental health disorders, but it seems people are rarely diagnosed until they’ve financially ruined themselves. If they have the money to spend or they make money gambling on Wall Street, we call them lucky bastards.

But you and I know that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. They deserve our sympathy, not our envy.


According to Martin, the “bird in the hand” imagery of the saying is an allusion to falconry, a popular medieval pastime.

Our sage old proverbian has done something that economists find utterly orgasmic by stating with mathematical clarity the relative value an individual has for two “goods” in terms of worth. We can create a utility function for this person’s preferences with the following equation:

U(Bh,Bb) = 2Bh + Bb

where Bh is the quantity of birds in hand, Bb is the quantity of birds in the bush and U is the ordinal measure of happiness in utils.

In other words, if we agree that a bird in the hand really is worth two in the bush, we would derive equal happiness by keeping one falcon or letting two of them go free, but we have to choose which course of action to take. To determine which it will be, we would have to determine which of the two would be the least expensive option. If a bird in the hand is cheaper than two in the bush, we would rationally choose a bird in the hand; if two in the bush is cheaper, then we will choose that.

It is safe to assume that the amount of time and effort it would take to catch one falcon exceeds that of simply leaving two of them to their freedom, so it would be the rational choice to leave the birds to their freedom in the wild. It costs us nothing, yet we are just as happy as we would be if we were simply given a falcon.