Aug 23 2009
If you’ve spent much time on this blog, you know that I’m a fan of the boys at Freakonomics, the book that so aptly applies economic theory to the seemingly benign happenings of everyday life. In the article above the Freakonomists examine the difference between labor and leisure. I thought this article did a good job of introducing some of the basic concepts behind how economists think about the world.
As this year’s AP students begin to delve into the world of economics, one of the early topics they study will be the concept of humans as rational beings engaged in the constant pursuit of utility (the economist’s word for happiness). According to our text, “Economics assumes that human behavior reflects ‘rational self-interest.’ Individuals look for and pursue opportunities to increase their utility.”
If, as economists say, the purpose of life it the pursuit of utility, then presumably work is only a tedious but necessary means to an end, which we assume to be leisure. So why, as pointed out in the article above, do so many people willingly choose to spend so much time and money doing things like cooking, knitting, gardening, working in the yard, and other tasks that appear to be work, when they could easily pay others to do these menial chores for them, thus giving them more time for leisure? As the authors say, “Isn’t it puzzling that so many middle-aged Americans are spending so much of their time and money performing menial labors when they don’t have to?”
Where exists the line between work and leisure? This seems like an apt question to explore from an economic perspective. Here’s the author’s view:
“Economists have been trying for decades to measure how much leisure time people have and how they spend it, but there has been precious little consensus. This is in part because it’s hard to say what constitutes leisure and in part because measurements of leisure over the years have not been very consistent.
Economists typically separate our daily activities into three categories: market work (which produces income), home production (unpaid chores) and pure leisure. How, then, are we to categorize knitting, gardening and cooking? While preparing meals at home can certainly be much cheaper than dining out and therefore viewed as home production, what about the ‘cooking for fun’ factor?”
Why a professional (let’s say a lawyer) who spends 50 hours a week in his office, earning somewhere in the range of $100 an hour for his labor, would choose to spend two hours mowing his lawn on a Saturday, rather than hiring the neighbor boy to do it for him, truly poses an economic paradox.
Let’s see why: If this man’s labor is worth $100 and hour, then we can calculate the opportunity cost of mowing his own lawn as $200 plus the value to this man of the leisure he could have enjoyed by not mowing his lawn. The man probably could have hired the neighbor boy to mow his lawn for $20, which would have then freed him up to pursue his own leisure activities (reading, working out, watching a movie, etc.) during those two hours, and compared to the $200 value of his own labor the $20 seems like a bargain. So is a lawyer who mows his own lawn acting irrationally?
It would seem the line separating leisure from work has blurred in modern times. A hundred years ago an activity such as sewing or caring for a lawn would certainly have been viewed as work, but today the behavior of millions of Americans would indicate otherwise. As a science rooted in the belief that humans are rational pursuers of their own happiness and leisure, the paradox of the lawn mowing lawyer poses several interesting questions for students of economics.
According to chapter one of our text (McConnell and Brue’s Economics, 17th Edition), “Purposeful (rational) behavior does not assume that people and institutions are immune from faulty logic and therefore are perfect decision makers. They sometimes make mistakes.”
- Is the lawyer who mows his own lawn defying a fundamental rule of economics, that people act rationally? Is he making a mistake by not hiring the neighbor boy to do it for him?
- What is meant by opportunity cost? Give an example of a decision you have made recently that involved an opportunity cost.
- How is the lawyer’s decision whether or not to mow his lawn rooted in marginal analysis? Describe a choice you’ve made recently that involved marginal analysis.
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