The Pail King
Today was a glorious day, full of work and play. And a little guilt.
Alice, Boegiboe, and I ate French toast for breakfast. We played with Play-Doh together. We watched Coraline. I went grocery shopping — just a few things, nothing fancy, so I went to the Safeway, which is closest. Their bread is appalling, but they carry McCormick spices, which I favor. I routinely cook for people who must on pain of agony be gluten-free. McCormick guarantees it, and they have never let me down.
I began a batch of ginger mead. I used pale, almost entirely crystallized radish honey. It’ll be spicy, dry, carbonated, and on tap just in time for the summer, assuming that all goes well.
I mopped the kitchen floor. And I found myself thinking of this piece by Slate‘s Emily Oster:
How much is an hour of your time worth? It’s worth whatever wage you would get if you spent that hour working. If you work for an hourly rate, this is an easy calculation. Even if you work for a salary and a fixed number of hours, the principle is the same: It’s whatever your salary works out to per hour. (I realize that your boss probably won’t pay you more if you work more hours. But you could always get a second job, probably at the same wage rate, so don’t overanalyze it.) Same logic if you don’t work at all: If you did get a job, what would the wage be? […]
Consider grocery shopping. There are really two options: I can order online and have the groceries delivered by a company like FreshDirect or Peapod, or I can go out and spend two hours wandering the aisles at my local supermarket. There’s a delivery fee for the former, maybe a markup also. So which is the better way to shop? This opportunity-cost idea makes the decision easy: Is the fee plus markup smaller than the value of two hours of my time? If yes, delivery. If no, head to the car…
Once you start thinking like this, you may find you are not outsourcing enough. Should you hire a cleaning service, rather than spending three hours every other week cleaning the bathrooms yourself? Depends on the opportunity cost of your time—more or less than the hourly rate for the service? You may initially think that paying someone to clean your home is a waste of money or a luxury, but unless you make less than the rate you’d be paying (or unless you actually enjoy cleaning), if you’re not choosing to work in those hours, you shouldn’t be cleaning either. Ditto for laundry, yard work, snow shoveling, and on and on. You like opportunity-cost theory, eh?
As most of you know, I’m a completely shameless foodie. Preparing food is my principal hobby, and going to grocery stores is a big part of the fun. Viewed purely as a responsibility, grocery shopping is also an activity that I would never entrust to anyone whose wage rate was significantly less than my own. (See: “Cooking, gluten-free,” among others.)
So that’s right out, anyway. But what about mopping the floor? I don’t find mopping the floor fun. I find it disgusting. But with a three-year-old in the house, I must either mop the floor at least once a week, and often more, or resign myself to living in filth. I’m not even especially good at mopping. I only mop so that I don’t have to pick bits of Play-Doh out from between my toes while watching Coraline.
By the logic of opportunity cost, I really ought to be paying someone to do this job. But I don’t.
I asked myself why not while mopping today, and I found the answer was… strange. I don’t feel like putting on airs. Hiring someone to clean up after me would strike me as horribly inegalitarian, and I would find that feeling unpleasant.
This is a very strange thing to think, when you think about it: There are folks out there who are hoping that I will hire them, who are eager to do the work, and who would certainly work for less than the opportunity cost of an experienced writer-editor, even one who works at a nonprofit.
They’re hoping for my business. They are hoping that my egalitarian scruples lose, because if those scruples lose, we will become materially more equal.
They want me to part with some cash, so they can get that cash, so that their kids can get a decent meal and maybe an education, and maybe they won’t have to worry so much about the rent or the car payment.
These are things that we never really have to worry about in our house. Oh no — here we worry about egalitarian scruples!
I suppose that one might object as follows: There are ways that one can be unequal that go far beyond money. One way of being unequal is to scrub the floor of a writer-editor while he and his daughter play with Play-Doh a little while longer, him all the while sipping a glass of the 2009 vintage cinnamon buckwheat mead. (It was lovely, by the way.)
And that would be a true objection, as far as it goes. But that’s — how far, exactly? Far enough to put all maid services out of business? That would be an extraordinary claim indeed, wouldn’t it?
Image credit: Jos Dielis under Creative Commons.