The Pail King


Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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115 Responses

  1. Avatar Kazzy says:

    I simply can’t accept opportunity cost theory. Because not all time is equally valuable. If I were to pay someone to mop my floor (a task made far easier with a steam mop, I might add, and ideal for a home with child, as there are no chemicals involved), I couldn’t then take that time saved and utilize it to make money to pay the floor mopper. I can’t free lance teach. Sure, I could do other things to make money in that time, but likely not at as high an hourly rate as my primary job. And I likely couldn’t find reliable work for the one-hour-per-week I would pay someone to mop. The theory simply practically doesn’t work. Because if we all adhered to it, and actually valued all 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year as we did our time spent working, most of us would outsource a lot more of our work. But we don’t. Precisely because we DON’T value that time as highly. If you asked me if I’d rather have an extra $150/month and mops the floors or be out that money and not have to mop the floors, I’d prefer the latter. Because I probably wouldn’t do anything meaningful with that extra hour a week, but I would do something useful with the extra money.

    More importantly, tell us more about this ginger mead!Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:


      I’m partly sympathetic to your position. Nobody (or almost nobody) actually wants to spend all their time working, so the value of your time on an hourly wage basis is not always the right way to calculate costs. E.g, I went to the grocery today, but if I hadn’t there’s no way in hell I would have been doing something that earned me any money.

      But you can’t reject opportunity cost analysis, only a particular application of it. I gave up something in order to go to the grocery store, so clearly I valued going to the grocery more than whatever other thing I would have been doing. Opportunity costs can’t be avoided, because there’s always some alternative use of your time that has has some kind of value to you.Report

      • Avatar M.A. says:

        I don’t think it’s an “opportunity cost” analysis that’s fair, I think there’s the fungibility aspect Kazzy was talking about too.

        Finding an “extra” 30 minutes to 1 hour job, just to pay someone to spend 30 minutes to an hour mopping your floor, is not going to happen (unless you have some strange at-home employment hobby that you can simply do 30 minutes to 1 hour more of that is a money-making hobby of some kind, like knitting tchotchkes for an Etsy storefront).Report

      • Avatar MikeSchilling says:

        And (this is something so obvious that it takes an economist to miss it) work has diminishing marginal utility. If I worked 90-100 hour weeks instead of 45-50, I wouldn’t get twice as much done. I’d be tired and less enthusiastic, and thus less productive. In fact, there’s definitely a Laffer curve: at some number of hours, I’d be so much less creative and more likely to make foolish mistakes that my total amount of useful work produced would go down.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:

          And (this is something so obvious that it takes an economist to miss it) work has diminishing marginal utility.

          Is this one of your one-liners, or do you really think there’s an economist out there who has missed that?Report

          • Avatar MikeSchilling says:

            Ms. Oster, who values the marginal hour at the average rate of the others.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:

              Actually, she doesn’t. That’s a misreading of what she’s saying.Report

              • Avatar MikeSchilling says:

                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.

                What am I missing?Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

                I’m pretty sure Mike is correct here. At the very best, she is assuming that I could find an hour or so extra of work per week, although a professional’s time isn’t usually segmented in that way, and mine certainly isn’t.

                I work at home, I work on weekends, I work in the shower. I read blogs at work and comment on them, because that’s very definitely work as well. I take e-mails on the train, and some nights I wake up at three in the morning to write. The salary doesn’t change at all in response, I just optimize my time so I’m productive at what I do.

                This is also a part of why I find the opportunity cost of my taking a cleaning job much more persuasive. It’s probably a lowball figure, but it’s also a fairly certain one. I could definitely mop someone’s floor for cash, but I don’t. And I know precisely why I don’t.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                There are some hours that are worth a *LOT* more to me than others.

                If you want me to work a 10 or 12 hour day at work, it is much, much, much easier for me to stay 2 or 4 hours late than it is for me to get to work 2 or 4 hours early.

                Since it’s true for me, I assume it’s true for everybody. (The hours having different worths, thing. Not the waking up thing. I know that there are some people who are actually good at that.)Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                You don’t get paid marginally. If you did, it would take more $per hour after some number of hours a week to get you to work, and then that marginal $per hour would be the comparison, in her approach. But since you don’t get paid that way–all your hours are equally paid–you use the hourly amount.

                I think it’s fair to question whether that hourly amount is really the proper comparison, but there’s no evidence she’s confusing the average and the margin.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                I get paid more per hour to work additional afterschool hours, in part because I probably wouldn’t if I wasn’t.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                You’re one of the few. I almost wrote “most people don’t,” and I guess I should have done so.

                I once did some extra work (a recruiting event), and my Dean gave me a $10 Starbucks gift certificate. It really torqued me. I’m a salaried professional, so if I have to work more hours to get my job done, that’s what I’ll do. But giving me $10 for 4 hours work made me feel like I was working for–or at least having my work valued at–$2.50 per hour. I know it was just a way of saying thanks, rather than actual compensation, but I still found myself preferring to forego the extra $10 (I actually gave the card away).Report

              • Avatar MikeSchilling says:

                Many, many years ago, when I worked at Large Oil Company (I’ve mentioned the name before but won’t here), we got in a very serious bind by building a monitoring system with insufficient performance testing, so that processing a minute’s worth of data wound up taking more than a minute. This was pretty embarrassing, as you can imagine, so there was a huge crash project to fix it. Everyone put in tons of overtime, on the promise that we’d get comp time one for one. Not extra money, you understand, just the same amount of time off.

                Well, this went on for a few months. We found the bottlenecks, we learned a whole lot about optimization, and we built a system that (in comparison) screamed. Then came the announcement: corporate policy for overtime was one for two, the people who’d promised one for one were not authorized to do so, and the guy who was authorized said no, after the fact. One for two it was, which for some people meant literally months of promised vacation went away. There was no recourse, and the the result was that lots of people quit, which was pretty obviously going to be the result.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                More anecdata: My wife is another counterexample. It takes a lot for the “extra pay” to kick in (More than 10-14 on-call days in a given month), but when she does, it’s a very healthy bump. Though apparently the tax-man is very aggressive about it. Whatever formula they use means 45% of it is withheld. (We at least theoretically – and I think we do – get that back in terms of a refund.)

                In the past, I’ve had jobs with flexible hours and on an hourly rate. So I’d get time-and-a-half. That applies to a lot more people, I think, than Clancy’s doc-work situation. But even then, a lot of employers won’t let you work more than the forty, if you’re hourly.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Best overtime work I ever had was at a pool supply company–I got double-time for working on July 4, on my regular 6 a.m.-noon shift. As if I might miss any of the fun fireworks during the morning.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                Many years ago, I was being quizzed by a police officer as to why I was behaving so suspiciously and such an all-round suspicious individual. This was memorial day weekend. In the course of the conversation, he was grousing about having to work during the holidays. I asked him if he got any holiday pay for it. Apparently, he would if he worked on Memorial Day itself. But they’d given him that day off, but had made him work the day before MD and the day after. So he didn’t get extra pay, but also couldn’t actually go anywhere with his family over the weekend.

                (I also discovered that his ex-wife went to the same college that I did. That did not work out in my favor. Fortunately, he didn’t give me a citation for that.)Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                But why were you behaving so darn suspiciously????Report

              • Avatar MikeSchilling says:

                One more and I swear I’m done. For now.

                I was working for a company that placed engineers into contract positions. I learned that a previous employer of mine as having problem I could help with, so I negotiated my own placement. Had I been a salesman, this would have resulted in a sizable commission. Since I wasn’t, they bought me a CD. (At least they went to the effort of figuring out what I’d like. It was quite a nice recording of Schubert’s Great Symphony in C.)Report

              • Avatar Rod Engelsman says:

                You don’t get paid marginally. If you did, it would take more $per hour after some number of hours a week to get you to work, and then that marginal $per hour would be the comparison, in her approach. But since you don’t get paid that way–all your hours are equally paid–you use the hourly amount.

                Ever hear of over-time?Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        If you read below, you’ll see a better fleshed out argument (largely put forth by others). As you note, I don’t deny that opportunity costs exist, only this particular author’s over-reliance on a particular type of opportunity cost.

        And, oddly, being hyper-analyic, hyper-rational, and a bit of a numbers geek, I actually DO do bit of analysis quite often, even if I don’t necessarily follow it. Which tells that, perhaps most importantly, we simply don’t properly assess how we value things.

        For example, while crashing an intro economics course during a recent bachelor party (long story), the professor put forth a question wherein he asked whether his brother was irrational to say he would spend no more than $150 for a concert ticket but would then refuse to sell that same concert ticket once in his possession for $500. Class ended before I could Good-Will-Hunting him and point out that it was not necessarily about rational versus irrational (at least based on how we commonly use those phrases), but that his brother clearly misstated or misjudged how much he actually valued the tickets and the concert-going experience. Which I think is a terribly common and human thing to do.

        Another example… every now and then Ikea hosts (or at least used to) a “Free Breakfast” day. As an enticement to get you into the store, they give you a free basic breakfast, which I think is like an egg, a piece of toast, and a bacon strip that normally costs $1 or $2. The strange thing is, if you happen upon an Ikea on this day, you’ll see a line out the door for the free breakfast (not purchase is required). I’ve never waited on it, but in observing it it seems to me that it must be at LEAST an hour long if you end up at the back at peak times. Now, would I like a free breakfast? Sure. Would I wait in line for an hour to get a $2* Ikea breakfast? Fuck no. Because I value my time more than that. And I bet if I offered any of those people $2 to stand in one spot for an hour, they’d spit in my eye. So, yet again, there is a disconnect between how people perceive value, largely based on how that value is presented. There is something about getting something for free that makes it enticing, just as there is a tendency to overvalue what you have versus what you don’t.

        * Many, perhaps even most, of these people seemed to be there with their families. So you might have been getting 4 or 5 free breakfasts, meaning you were saving $8 to $10. This might seem to change the calculus but, technically, you’re also consuming those other people’s times. If you have a mindset that you’re the person who is going to feed those 4 or 5 mouths regardless and you don’t much care how they spend an hour on a Saturday morning, the situation seems a bit different. Most importantly, though, don’t go to Ikea on “Free Breakfast” Day.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      The problem isn’t with opportunity cost analysis. It’s with the assumption that the opportunity cost of your time is equal to your average hourly wage. Most people just don’t have the option to work an arbitrary number of extra hours at their average hourly wage. But all that means is that the opportunity cost of an hour of your time is something else, namely whatever it is you’d be doing with your time if you weren’t doing the thing whose opportunity cost you’re evaluating.Report

    • 1+ on the steam mop. The Better Half’s parents gave me one for Christmas, and it’s easily my favorite gift they’ve ever given me.Report

  2. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    If I were to pay someone to mop my floor… I couldn’t then take that time saved and utilize it to make money to pay the floor mopper.

    No, you certainly could, by finding a second job. The fact that you don’t want to is an indication that the opportunity cost is too high, for you. That’s all. Or possibly you couldn’t find a job that pays so well, although I doubt you’ve looked. (I haven’t.)

    You have not disproven opportunity cost (which isn’t a theory, by the way, it’s axiomatic). Instead you have stated your preferences within the framework of opportunity cost itself. For you, the cost is too high, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It will necessarily happen to be too high at some point — that’s axiomatic too, if I’m not mistaken.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      Hmmm… I don’t know what axiomatic means… you’ve gone over my head there. But anyway…

      I doubt that I could find a job, in my area, that pays $37.50/hour and allows part-time work only on nights and weekends, which is what it would need be for me.

      If opportunity cost simply means, “People choose that which is valuable to them and that which isn’t, that which they’ll pay for and that which they won’t,” sure, I get that. But the writer states that if any activity would cost less to outsource per hour than an individual’s hourly rate of pay, it SHOULD be outsourced, lest they enjoy it. And that seems like flawed logic to me. Otherwise, Warren Buffet is wrong to do anything for himself other than that which he loves to do. Somehow, I doubt we’d say Warren has improperly valued his time by taking the time to put his own shoes on in the morning.

      I should also note that I like how you are willing to examine traditional thinking about egalitarianism. Which I took to be the real point of your post. There is something really thoughtful to digest there.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        An axiom is a premise or starting point of reason. Something that should be self-evident by the statement itself.

        The “we hold these truths to be self-evident” lines of the Declaration of Independence are axioms.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:


          In the present context, it’s axiomatic that what a thing “costs” is whatever you have to give up in order to get it. I mean, you can come up with an eccentric definition of cost if you feel like it, but then you’re not really being very clear in communicating with the rest of us. Or you can use a different word to denote the idea that we identify with the word “cost,” but again, that’s not being terribly clear. A thing “costs” whatever it is you’re giving up to get it.

          In a purchase, the cost is obvious. It’s the amount of money you’re giving up.

          In pursuing an opportunity, the cost is whatever other opportunity you have had to give up in its place. There’s always something.

          That you don’t find that you are giving up any terribly valuable opportunities does not mean that you have disproven opportunity cost. It only means that given the current set of tradeoffs, the opportunity at hand is worth pursuing.

          Saying that you’re doing what you want to do, that it’s valuable to you, and that you have thereby disproven opportunity cost is like saying a helium balloon disproves gravity. The relative values at hand give a counterintiutive result, but when you observe all the relevant values, the theory still holds.Report

          • Avatar greginak says:

            Well yeah, simply stating there is a cost in some way of any choice is reasonable and not all that interesting. Seems true and banal. What are the different kinds of costs, what are the rational and irrational factors that go into calculating costs seem like the key questions.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:

            Okay, let me clarify then.

            Yes, opportunity cost is a real thing. But there are many ways to calculate the cost of an item. The author of that piece seems to posit that there is one true way to do so. I disagree with her definition of cost.

            For instance, there are opportunities to work after school that pay $80/hour. I often take advantage of these because I consider giving up that hour of time to be worthwhile for $80. However, sometimes there are days where I opt not to take advantage. I decide that my time is more valuable than $80, for a host of different reasons. If I understand the quoted author, it would seem that I am operating in some sort of irrational way because I don’t apply a constant value to my time based on my hourly wage that I adhere strictly to when evaluating how to utilize my time.

            Does that make more sense?Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        Hmmm… I don’t know what axiomatic means…

        Well, it’s kind of like a chainsaw…Report

      • Think of opportunity cost [OC] this way: you give up something when you choose to do something. The wage you might have earned in that hour is just one way to measure what you give up. Maybe the hour you (or Jason) spends mopping could have been spent reading a blog or drawing a picture or staring aimlessly into space. The point is, that by mopping, Jason gives up something, and he apparently would rather be doing that something than mopping the floor.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy says:

          That all makes perfect sense… it’s just when people like this author or Daniel Hamermesh over at Freakonomics insists, “Well, my hourly wage is $X an hour and it only costs $Y an hour to have Activity Z done for me so obviously it is irrational for me to do anything other than pay to have Activity Z done for me.”Report

          • Yeah, I think I share your feelings on those types of arguments.Report

            • Avatar Kazzy says:

              That is all I was trying to get at, really. My apologies to all for making it needlessly complicated with a really poor initial comment.Report

          • Avatar Chris says:

            I wonder why the answer isn’t, “I should be spending that time mopping someone else’s floors for money.”Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

              That’s actually a relevant consideration, as Emily Oster points out. If you would never accept that amount money to do the job, then you should maybe consider paying that amount of money — for someone else to do it:

              If you’re still struggling to think about whether some outsourcing is worth it, ask yourself this: Would you do this chore for someone else if they paid you the market wage for it? Would you, say, go grocery shopping for your friend if she paid you the delivery fee? If not, you probably shouldn’t be doing it for yourself either.

              Those who object to using my current salary as a metric may find this more persuasive.

              I know I do, and I must admit I’m not wholly convinced by current-salary metric either. But opportunity cost is at least the salary I would otherwise earn as house cleaner — a second job I could probably get, if I were motivated to do it.

              The opportunity cost for most of my recreation is therefore at least that much.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                I was only half serious, because if you use the time to mop someone else’s floor for money, your floor still remains un-mopped. However, if I were going to be serious, I’d point out that there is a value to doing things like mopping your own floor that has little to do with whether you hate doing it. I’m thinking of a philosopher whose name will send this comment to the spam folder automatically, and a sort of “existential engagement” with one’s world, or hell, with one’s kitchen, but something along the lines of what this dude says works as well.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            Especially when you can ignore Z for free.Report

          • Avatar MikeSchilling says:

            I wasted so much money watching my kids play baseball, when I could have paid someone else to do that for me.

            Or, (somewhat more seriously), I wasted all that potential profit volunteering for Little League, when I could have worked those hours and paid someone else a lower hourly wage to schedule the umpires.Report

    • Avatar M.A. says:

      No, you certainly could, by finding a second job.

      Except not really, because I doubt you would easily find a second job that allows you to work for 30 minutes every other week.

      Time/money is not exactly fungible in that sense. You’d need to give up a lot of other things to be able to acquire a minimum 10 hours/week job, and likely your current pay is such that the opportunity cost of 10 hours per week is not worth the minimum wage such a job would pay.Report

  3. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    As for the ginger mead, it is one of our favorites. I believe you can find it in the third edition of Charlie Papazian’s Complete Joy of Home Brewing.Report

  4. Avatar NewDealer says:

    I think having a full time maid or nanny is probably overkill and ineaglitarian.

    Having some one come over and clean once or twice a week is fine if you can afford it and are an especially busy soul. You will probably still need to do some of your own cleaning as well.Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      Hey, my family has a full time maid (and we’ve had one for years). Of course in Singapore, where it is relatively easier to hire people from around the (much poorer) region at lower wage rates, all or almost all upper-middle class families have a full-time live in maid. In fact many middle class families do as well.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        I think there are cultural differences here.

        Many Americans do have full-time or part-time help in the kind of a cleaning person or a nanny.

        However it is also considered to go against, Yankee republican virtue to borrow from another thread on the league. I think (and Jason should probably chime in) seen as being snooty and decadent to not do your own housecleaning or a sign of having too much pride to do your own cleaning.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        Having a cleaning person is sort of associated with being a self-important yuppie at best and being a Paris Hilton type at worst.

        Guys, am I too far off here?Report

        • Avatar greginak says:

          yuppie…no. I’m not sure people use the word yuppie anymore but whatever. I think, if anything, its associated with being rich, plain and simple.Report

  5. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    I see this as a testament to the power of anti-market bias, and the reason why libertarianism will never be popular. You know that hiring someone to clean your home would be a mutually benefical arrangement. You know that you’re leaving a big pile of utils just lying on the ground. You know these things better than 99% of the population. It’s your job to know these things.

    And yet…here we are. If even you can’t completely immunize yourself from anti-market bias, what hope is there for the average man on the street, who wants the intellectual tools necessary to recognize it for the sham that it is?Report

    • Avatar Rod Engelsman says:

      There’s also a coordination problem. At one time I tried to juggle two part-time jobs where one, unfortunately, had a varying schedule.

      Both employers expected me to put their needs first, schedule-wise, which I totally understand. But it just didn’t work.

      There’s also a limit to how much productive work you can accomplish in a week, particularly if that work is intellectual in nature. You need down-time and physical exercise and stuff like mowing the lawn can have quite a bit of utility in that regard.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      Funnily enough I am pro-hiring someone to clean your house.

      At least I don’t see why it is a horrible thing to do.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      We’ve gone back and forth on hiring a cleaning person. The reality is, we’re just not sure we can afford it. If we knew we could, we probably would do it, largely because Zazzy and I don’t see eye-to-eye on cleanliness and chores and the like, and the cleaning person would not only cut down on work, but on stress. I’ve never thought about any cultural implications or anything like that. It is also not in our nature (nor do I assume it is in Jason’s, in case my statement implies otherwise) to take advantage of people so I don’t think we’d worry about egalitarianism or anything when making an arrangement.Report

    • Avatar MikeSchilling says:

      Or, pure market-based analysis is inadequate, because even people with the most reason to value it realize that it doesn’t accurately describe their lives. But that privileges reality over abstraction, and we can’t have that.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        Contrariwise, it’s Jason’s emotional response, not his intellectual response, that privileges an abstraction over reality. The abstraction being the idea that it’s wrong in some intangible way to hire people to do your housework, and the reality being that it’s a win-win transaction. How do we know that’s the reality? Ask the housekeeper.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew says:

          Emotional responses are most of what determines whether a result is a win. We don’t seek outcomes that can be defined as wins by some abstract definition but that don’t feel good. It’s a reality that Jason doesn’t think he’ll like the feeling he thinks hiring a housecleaner would give him. So how is it in any sense a reality that it’s a win-win? He could be predicting his utility wrong, but it’s at best another prediction that he is, so it’s hardly reality that hiring a housekeeper is a win for him. If there’s some sense in which you’re sure it’s a win for him, it is in an abstract sense; it’s not based in a description from Jason of his utility, expected or actual, from that post-transactional outcome.

          This doesn’t mean there isn’t any market explanation for the fact that the transaction hasn’t taken place. It’s just that there isn’t enough (expected) utility in hiring a mopper for Jason for him to do so at the moment. He’s not being anti-market, he just didn’t buy a particular service today, like I didn’t buy a Big Mac.

          Sometimes we overthink things here.Report

          • Avatar MikeSchilling says:

            Emotional responses are inefficient. In the short term, we need laws against giving in to them rather than using strict profit-maximizing logic. In the longer term, we can rely on the evolution of New Market-driven Man.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        Actually, market analyses, properly understood, include our emotional feelings about things, because those reflect our values. Whether done by market supporters or market skeptics, the failure to take account of that, and to think it’s only about comparing dollars to dollars, is one of the primary errors people tend to make when talking about markets.Report

  6. Avatar Rod Engelsman says:

    By the logic of opportunity cost, I really ought to be paying someone to do this job. But I don’t.

    I’d say this is a terrible application of opportunity cost logic. As others have noted, first of all, does the alternate opportunity actually exist*? And then, even if it does, would you actually do that other thing? It’s not just a matter of paying someone to mop the floor so you can do something you would rather be doing, like playing with the kid or watching TV, the implication is that you should be working at your typical wage rate while paying that person and then pocketing the difference.

    Although it does bring to mind the old manor style of life with a butler, chauffeur, gardener, and a couple maids. It would create substantial employment opportunities on the bottom end. It’s just that we off-load a lot of that to our mechanical servants now, instead of human ones.

    * In my case, it legally doesn’t exist. I have to comply with Hours-of-Service rules for when I can drive and when I can’t. One limit is 70 hours “working,” driving or not, per 8-day period. And that’s supposed to include any paid work including things like a second job.

    To be clear, it’s not that the government is telling me I can’t work more than 70 hours every eight days. It’s that I can’t drive if I’m over that (or other) limit rules. But since, practically speaking, driving is the only thing I’m usually getting paid to do, it amounts to the same thing.Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      Yeah. I think, to add on, part of the problem is i already have my own time. I don’t need to work to get time, while i have to work to get money. I can spend my time more freely and flexibly then i can make money. My own free time can’t quite be quantified like work hours. Also lots of people don’t actually like having strangers, even paid ones, in their houses. I don’t have to clean my house to make it presentable for a stranger to come over nor do i have to get dressed to perform some chore. Opp cost analysis isn’t wrong per se, but really doesn’t address many potential issues here and why people make the choices they do.Report

  7. When we’re talking about egalitarianism and inegalitarianism and guilt, etc., when it comes to hiring a cleaning person, I think it’s helpful to keep in mind that potentially, the employer/employee relationship can be (maybe even necessarily is?) a power relationship in which the employer (usually) has more power than the employee, and the employer might be tempted to abuse that power.

    By “abuse,” I don’t mean forcing the cleaning person to go into abject servitude, but there might be a temptation to treat the cleaning person as if he or she had no (or little, or less) “dignity” (however you might define that term).

    I also think that this power relationship can (and often does) apply to the customer/customer-service personnel relationship.

    Even if I’m right, I don’t think that’s a dispositive argument against hiring a cleaning person. As Jason points out, a cleaning person agrees to clean for money because he or she wants (or even needs) the money and is willing to do (and is probably good at doing) the work. (I’ll be soon at a point where I’ll be on the job market and might be grateful for most any service job I can get and that I can do reasonably well.)

    But perhaps in my tendency to be suspicious of the positive sum exchanges I’m told are inevitably the result of voluntary market transactions, I am too quick to think of other “costs” involved in the transaction.Report

  8. Avatar zic says:

    What an interesting topic.

    First, I think we’re even having this discussion because the monetary value of things and time has become our standard of valuation; at the expense of other values. It’s probably cheaper to buy tomatoes at the store, shipped in from parts south and west. It’s certainly more time effective. But they don’t compare with the tomatoes I grow myself.

    I work as a designer; my product is most specifically written instruction on how to hand knit my designs. On nearly a daily basis, someone will try to commission me to make them one of my designs. When I tell them the cost — materials and labor, which in this business is charged by the yard, and so mostly ends up being well below minimum wage, they’re no longer interested. They can go down to the mall and buy something for a third the price; it may not made of materials of the same quality, it won’t be custom fit, probably won’t last as long, but it will sure as hell be cheaper. Once in a while, someone will take my offer, but it’s rare. So my product for original designs isn’t the clothing, it’s the instruction for the clothing, sold to someone else who values the time with fiber and needles.

    My husband, a professional musician, is constantly being asked to play for free; and here, I think the operative word is ‘play.’ It’s fun, relaxation, so why should he get paid for it? Plus, we can download more music then we could possibly listen to for free on the internet. When he does play, for pay or for free, people talk about what a natural talent he is, how he makes it look so easy. They never recognize the many thousands of hours he spends practicing, arranging, listening, composing, learning new compositions. It’s play, and so there’s a conception that monetary value and hard work aren’t part of the mix.

    He’s also a software engineer; mostly working on audio applications of late. Here, it’s the opposite; the expectation in the industry is that he’ll ask to be paid a high hourly rate. And he gets requests to program at high rates pretty frequently; mostly says no because the details of programming audio for ios aps are pretty mind numbing.

    My vegetable garden, knitting, cooking — these are things that I do because the reward my spirit, they provide food, warmth, comfort, color, texture, scent — all sorts of value that have nothing to do with what the cost. My sweetie’s music, too. All are worth more then what people are willing to pay, at least in my view of things.

    I’d be all for a counter valuation system. And as an angel investor in several start-up companies, I think there’s some room for other valuation systems in the business world. How we tend to think on the value of things now seems rather flat; missing other rewards, missing potential.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      First, I think we’re even having this discussion because the monetary value of things and time has become our standard of valuation; at the expense of other values.

      No. Quite the opposite, really. In recent decades people have become more willing to spend extra money on intangibles. “Organic,” “fair trade,” and “local” and “artisanal” were not buzzwords twenty years ago. Well, there was “Buy American,” I guess. Who knows how far this mania for autarky will go!Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        I find great irony in that. You are right, there have been great attempts to monetize those other values. But that is, really, the point. When they become marketing schemes instead of values of worth in their own right, we’re right back to defining their worth in terms of their monetary value.Report

        • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

          That’s rubbish. Companies are able to charge extra for that stuff because people care enough to pay extra for it. It’s axiomatic that if you’re willing to pay for something, you value it more than the money you’re giving up. That wasn’t the case before. Now it is.

          If you can’t see that through your anti-corporate bias, look at the prices people are willing to pay for that stuff at farmers’ markets.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:

            But that is based on a presumption that these people are buying them KNOWING they are intangible. A great number of people who insist on buying organic or fair trade or local think they are getting something very tangible (or creating something tangible) in return for their extra money. They believe organic food to be healthier or fair trade products to benefit others (a form of charity) or shopping local to stimulate their area’s economy. They might be wrong in this beliefs, but they tend to hold them.Report

            • Avatar dhex says:

              “When they become marketing schemes instead of values of worth in their own right, we’re right back to defining their worth in terms of their monetary value.”

              i’d have to end around this by postulating thusly:

              1) they’ve always been marketing schemes i.e. something designed to appeal to an audience/market segment

              2) as per (the more well-spoken) kazzy, their value to the audience stems largely from the audience believing that the value of these goods is above/beyond earthly concerns like money. so these products’ value is boosted by their audience’s belief in the marketing scheme they’d likely claim does not exist for this particular market. or something like that.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        How much for your child?

        No, right? Just no. Not, “You couldn’t name a price high enough.” Just, wrong question. Bad question.

        There are domains where we continue not to apply monetary or time-quantity (which in that context is really just another way to say money or at least wealth) measurements of value. We just don’t think to apply them. Zic’s point is that that domain used to, or in some places used to, apply to a lot more activities and even products in life.

        Zic may be wrong about that, but it certainly doesn’t demonstrate it to say that some particular marketing terms (their application to products with particular real characteristics tightly or loosely governed by the market or other regulators) have succeeded in conferring a price premium on certain products in recent years.

        It’s remarkable that you think it does.Report

        • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

          I was using those examples because those are the same sort of things that Zic specifically mentioned. People never cared about this stuff before at all. Long, long ago, people grew their own food because they were dirt poor and subsistence farming was their only option. Then division of labor emerged, and people were still dirt poor, but they were slightly less poor if they worked in factories and bought from farmers. Then the economy modernized a bit, and people bought whatever was cheapest, as long as it was more or less fresh, because they weren’t quite dirt poor, but they didn’t have a lot to spend on luxuries.

          This is the first time in history that people have cared enough about those things Zic is talking about to actually pay for them, which is the ultimate test of value. People may say they care about something, but it’s all talk unless they’re actually willing to give up something else to get it. Now they do.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            But by your own axioms, you have to give something up to do or get anything. It doesn’t mean value is everywhere only axiomatically) measured in money or even time-production terms. It’s not, though it almost ubiquitously is now. That’s what Zic said- there’s a significant subjective component to the measurement of value, and the units are not everywhere time and money. She’s right.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            …And she didn’t mention anything of those things, remotely. You’re completely blind to the experience of value she is trying to communicate. Maybe others would put those labels on some of her products and pay (for the labels??) accordingly. But that’s simply not the kind of value she is trying to communicate.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          How much for your child?

          No, right? Just no. Not, “You couldn’t name a price high enough.” Just, wrong question. Bad question.

          No, it’s an excellent question. Almost the perfect question.

          Here’s a real example from my life that clarifies.

          In my brewing hobby, I favor a supply store that’s a 45-minute drive from my house, one way. I seldom visit the store in person, however. I prefer to order online and have the supplies shipped to me for (as I recall) about $13.

          I’ve also been told that that’s terribly wasteful. “You’re just throwing away that $13.”

          No, I’m not. That $13 is buying me an extra hour and a half of weekend, minimum, with my family. I am buying time with my daughter. And I feel fantastic about it. All that time for just $13!

          By your logic, and by Zic’s, I ought to feel terrible for commodifying my family time. And, I suppose, I ought to be dutifully making the 1.5-hour commute to the brewing store whenever I want to brew. Anything less would be treating my daughter as something to be bought or sold.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:

            This is a great counter, and surely something we can all identify with. The idea that something is so valuable that you can’t imagine naming a set monetary price doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a value. Just the opposite!Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            No, not all places (communities, families, realms of production etc.) where other valuation methods once prevailed and now don’t have moral implications (although some could), certainly not of that degree. I apologize for the stark example if it offends you. But Zic ‘s point is just that a lot of less profound realms than family itself (or particularly important family moments) were once set off from regular money-time considerations and aren’t anymore, for whatever reason. That’s what I took her to be saying, at least, and I’m not saying she’s necessarily right. But the point is that other things beyond that extreme example – or other very sacred parts of life whose value is just not commodified (which is not to say it’s couldn’t be; it just isn’t) used to be treated as apart from (certainly) money and (to some extent even) time tradeoffs, as a matter of custom. Now they’re not, because the recognition of the efficiency gained by those calculations, with numbers units more consciously applied to the opportunity costs, has spread widely. Now we protect only the most sacred parts of life in that way (to the extent we even do that), as you point out, though maybe it’s not that odd for just ordinary family time to be thought of as all that sacred.

            I would point out that there is probably some price you wouldn’t pay for a half hour more time on an average Saturday afternoon, while there might be almost none you wouldn’t pay to be there for that precise half-hour she spends getting married or graduating. And if you were forced to pay a really hefty price to be there (for some unthinkable reason), I wonder whether you’d be just as happy with the idea that this kind of valuation is inevitable or natural for all realms (if that’s what you’re saying), and not wish there could be other ways to think of value.Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          So speaks a man who’s never had someone try to sell their child to him.
          (In all fairness, the child’s quality of life would have increased dramatically).Report

        • Avatar Jim Heffman says:

          “How much for your child?”

          Why do you think that the answer to this question is not an economic one?

          “Over my dead body” is still a price. The price being, of course, your dead body.Report

  9. Avatar Jim Heffman says:

    The point is not whether Jason could find a job that lets him work for a half-hour every week and pays enough that he could make more money by hiring a cleaning service.

    The point is that he never actually ASKS that question. His thinking, as he points out, is “hiring a cleaning service is a thing that stuck-up rich lazy people do, and I’m none of those things, so I shouldn’t hire a cleaning service”. The idea of maximizing economic utility is nowhere to be found.

    …unless maybe it is. Because, by portraying himself *to* himself as not-stuck-up-etcetera, Jason derives greater utility than a half-hour’s extra income. Or even a half-hour’s leisure, a half-hour spent lying in a hammock drinking a beer.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      Unless, indeed. There are also frictions that decrease the utility. You can’t *literally* snap your fingers and have someone mopping you floor just the moment you want it mopped. And inherent factors about this way of having one’s floor mopped as well – you have to have a stranger in your house (mopping no less!, which may make you feel stuck-up or lazy for not doing it yourself) with all the attendant concerns that come with that (is the rest of the house

      It’s hardly anti-market for these factors to simply cause a person who has both the money to hire a cleaner and the time to mop himself to choose to do it himself. It may be that it’s just more common (though I have friends who are in the less common group) for people with the time to do their own cleaning to do it, even if they have the money to hire it out. It may be uncommon to choose to hire out cleaning work unless you have little time to spare and lots of money, at which points it becomes completely obvious and guilt-free. (You’re already working long and hard enough!)

      If this is the common utility-return pattern to hiring cleaners in the population, by what measure are we saying there is some irrationality or anti-market bias going on? Those are the utility-return patterns, demonstrated over large numbers of people. And even if some other pattern obtains, it’s neither more or less rational for one person’s utility return from a particular kind of transaction to be different from the majority of the populations. I suppose you can be enough of an outlier to likely be called bizarre at some point, but I’d have to think about it to come up with a situation where a person is actually reacting to expected utility returns (or previous experience of same) in deciding whether to make a transaction and is still correctly said to be acting irrationally from a market perspective or is somehow acting out of “anti-market bias” of some kind.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        …(is the rest of the house in a condition you want the stranger to see? You may then be faced with offers for more services which you fear you may accept, creating an overall situation you consciously and unambiguously want to avoid at this point…)Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          There is a very finger-pointing-at-the-moon aspect to much of modern economics.

          “Under these precise conditions, we would obtain optimal efficiency,” the economist says.

          “Yeah, but we never get there,” the layman answers.

          “Yes, that’s my point exactly,” says the economist. “Why else would I mention it?”

          “Economists are stupid,” says the layman.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            Sure. But is there-being considerations that lead a person not to make a purchase rather than to make it really such a part of that? I mean, just figuring out whether to buy stuff? I know that goes to assumptions of rationality. But at some level this is even below that. Rationality assumptions I thought tend to say that if there are ways a person sees to come out clearly ahead, not by murky utility tradeoffs but just by certain moves that lead to a bigger pile of wealth and not much less utility, then they’ll take them. This, I think, operates below that level. These are just basic utility decisions about products and services. In a sense they’re below market operations, because in the aggregate they define the market. Then those prices feed back into the utility preference functions and you get individuals’ behavior in markets. But the preferences are just what they are in a given individual. There’s not some way where a transaction that doesn’t look like a win to you “really” is. If you take the plunge, you may find that it is, but that’s then – and you may not. You’re making a market (not an “anti-market bias[ed]”) decision by not doing it just as much as if you got the cleaner. After all, the utility could conceivably be much greater so as to offset your discomfort level and you just do it.

            Maybe you meant to just be agreeing – couldn’t really tell.Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

              Rationality assumptions I thought tend to say that if there are ways a person sees to come out clearly ahead, not by murky utility tradeoffs but just by certain moves that lead to a bigger pile of wealth and not much less utility, then they’ll take them.

              Yes, but — if they don’t take those piles of money, then it necessarily means they are refraining either because they are ignorant of the opportunity or because they perceive the cost as too high. In many cases, it may prove that something really odd — like my desire not to put on airs — is quite dear to people, and even that its valuable is quantifiable.

              That’s a result you can only reach by the assumption of rationality, and by its falsification — the finger, which points to the moon.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                Well, frequently I think, when rationality assumptions fail, it is because people are unaware – various tax credits they just don’t take and the like.

                I’m not clear how you come out of hiring a cleaner with piles more money and little reduced utility. It’s just a close question of is the service worth the money. It’s not, to you. It’s not like there are >hours and hours of free time available if you’ll just suck it up and pay the hourly wage for a cleaner on or two times. It’s just an ongoing price that doesn’t carry enough value for you to pay. There’s absolutely no way in which that frustrates rationality assumptions. You have to make choices.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                It’s just a close question of is the service worth the money.

                No, I think the question is “is the service worth the cost“.

                It’s the reversie of the old saw that a person is irrational if they reject a better compensating job because it undermines their dignity. At least, I thinkit is.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                Well, if Jason would not take a cleaner for free, then I guess the question is whether the service is worth anything to him. But that doesn’t mean it’s not also a question of whether it’s worth the money (the cleaner isn’t going to work for free in any case); in that case it’s just clearly not. If on balance he just doesn’t want the person in cleaning, then it’s still just a question of the value of the service to him. There are things some people want that I just don’t, and might pay not to have around. Desires are different; I still deny this means he’s not reacting rationally to expected utility gains & losses, which is exactly what the market expects him to do.

                At some point of clear availability of major gains compared to really objectively negligible costs, the market (or at least economics) expects him to stoop over and pick those up, and where that doesn’t happen, it’s true economics’ assumptions go awry. But that doesn’t happen just any time someone doesn’t buy something he has the money for that just arguably might have some utility for him.

                “Hey, that guy’s walking down the street in a light rain shower and just passed up the opportunity to buy an umbrella for $3! He must be governed by deep anti-market bias!” Nah.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                MD, I’m not entirely sure what you’re arguing here, but I think it’s a distinction between homo-economicus and normal human rationality.

                I think Jason’s on the side of normal human rationality, which includes lots of murky emotional stuff like self-perception and tradition and conditioning and what not (it’s preference theory, I think). On one level, I’m with (what I take to be) your criticisms of this New Economic Man, since the conditions under which he’s rational cannot be refuted. Any choice he makes is a rational one! (I tried to make these arguments in the irrationality of voting threads without great success.) On the other, tho, I reject (as I think you do) the idealization of homo-economicus as having very much explanatory power in everyday life, or even theoretical life for that matter.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                Basically I’m arguing that his feeling about “airs” isn’t some bizarre species of market-confounding attitude that frustrates any attempt to predict his decision using market analysis about whether to get someone to mop his kitchen. It’s just one example of the myriad kinds of considerations – some more direct as to the value of the service, others somewhat more idiosyncratic or situation-based – that go into people’s decisions about whether to buy something. There’s no sense in which “real” utility-maximizing decision for him is to hire the cleaner; this is an entirely “real,” market-relevant consideration about the potential purchase from his perspective. If it weren’t, or if other things about the service raised its value enough to offset it, he’d hire the cleaner.Report

              • I think Michael understands me very well, both about the decision not to hire a cleaner and about what it says about economics: The stuff about rational utility maximizing in terms of dollars and valid dollar-equivalents is both amazing and useful all by itself. But one of the most interesting things it does is to point at something else — the realm of interior, subjective values, among which is my desire not to put on airs. But we can’t get at that sort of thing without the economic rationality, and the systematic effort to bracket all that and see what else is going on.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                +1 to Michael Drew’s comment.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                Jason, if I’m twisting your words or refusing to accept what you say. If you insist that the considerations that keep you from getting the service are omehow not of the species that (somehow or other) rightly should determine whether to make a purchase, I accept it. It’s just that, to me, they sound like exactly the kind of thing that leads me to decide not to buy something (or to do so) on a regular basis. Maybe not at the absolute core of the fundamental value proposition, the kind of thing that regularly lies on the first ring or two of entirely routine peripheral considerations. Maybe we are just both weird, and Brandon really does have the inside juice on how we ought to be thinking about spending our money.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                whoops – if I am, I apologize, that is.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

                Michael, I don’t think you’re twisting my words at all. I think as far as I can tell that we are in agreement. That’s a rare thing, so let’s not ruin it.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                Okay, sorry. I’ve been rightly accused of interpreting others’ own thoughts for them of late, and I would have understood if you felt I was doing that here, that’s all. Thanks.Report

  10. Avatar RTod says:

    What I find fascinating about time-commoditization discussions is that everyone does it, but everyone does it with only certain things. We all find our calculations for the things we commoditize to be very clever and logical, and others’ to be overly anal or downright bizarre.

    I wonder what triggers us to latch onto the specific ones we do.

    (My personal biggie: refusing to drive 15-20 minutes out of my way to a station that has gas that’s ten cents cheaper per gallon.)Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      Well, doing so would be illogical. You risk burning as much money as you save.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        But personally, I find being dogmatic about it to be more troubling than inconsistent. Sometimes I think it is stupid to spend the extra money for pizza delivery when the place is less than 5 minutes away. Other times, I couldn’t think of a better use of $3. All depends on what kind of day it is.Report

  11. Avatar Damon says:

    I’m sort of a foodie too, and I’d never give up my “grocery shopping time”. I enjoy going and seeing new products and thinking about what I’ll cook the next few days.

    Now, I’ve had cleaning folk come to the house, but mainly have not had them. I found the value proposition to be not worth it. It cost too much for the amount of cleanliness they provided. I also had a problem with them not locking certain interior doors and leaving lights on, so much so that I was close to firing them several times.

    So it’s worth it for me to spend my time grocery shopping and cleaning my house. I also can tolerate a higher level of filth. 🙂Report

  12. Avatar wooby says:

    My case isn’t/wasn’t opportunity hours: I wasn’t working, and didn’t for several years. (I built a house instead.) But when I moved here, and became a person with no running water, and no flushing, a good friend, suburban dweller, just about lost it concerning my “primitive” life. . . . Thinking about *hers*: She worked 40 hours a week in a job she hated and despised for a woman she hated and despised, a situation I had noticed seemed to contribute not only to her ongoing state of unhappiness, but to substantial health problems. With only secretarial skills and twenty years of government service in a high priced area, she felt there was no way out. I figured the plumbing portion of her living expenses was about 8 hours, or 20% of her time. The actual time I took to take care of my water needs, and “flushing” needs was 1/2 hour a week. Felt, and feels, like a bargain to me. Even carrying five gallon pails of future compost up a hill took place in lovely scenery, and functioned as a de facto gym membership. I try not to get too smug about it.Report

  13. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post quite a bit. It looks like most of the things I’ve been thinking have been covered already. However, I don’t know if anyone else has pointed out that that’s a great title.Report

  14. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Only semi-relevant, but I just returned from a weekend in Newport, during which we toured a couple of the mansions of moguls of yesteryear. During a tour in which we explored the servants’ quarters and work spaces, learning more about their experiences in these mansions, the guide went out of his way that it is easy to scoff at the seeming needless decadence on display, but in doing so we forget the jobs created, industries sustained, and economies stimulated. 2500+ people were employed in these homes. Local vendors were ecstatic to see the Vanderbilts and their ilk come to town, knowing that business would be booming. A very interesting perspective that is oft-ignored.Report