Entry 312: Outsourcing Your Life

An article in The New York Times Sunday Magazine last fall profiled a couple of economists, Jon Steinsson and Emi Nakamura, who practice in their personal lives the principal of  “comparative advantage” which states that (and I’m putting this into non-economist terms), “every hour spent washing dishes can be better used on more productive activities.”*

While this may be true, you’d be left with what economists refer to as “icky dishes.” So Steinsson and Nakamura, who are both tenured at highly-respected and very-uptown Columbia University, pay people to handle the humdrum tasks of everyday life so they can concentrate on…whatever it is economists do.

According to the article, they they have “…paid people to build IKEA furniture for them (even though the service often costs more than the furniture itself); teach them how to use software programs and baby carriers; and load their CD collection onto their computers.”

Well, listen, these people may be economists, but even I know better than to pay someone to load my CDs into iTunes. I had my wife and daughter do it for free. And while I totally get having someone assemble your IKEA furniture so that you don’t end up with bookshelves that more closely resemble abstract sculpture, I have to question whether Columbia should have tenured people who can’t even figure out how to use a baby carrier. Step 1: Stick the kid in it. Step 2: Carry it.

On the other hand, if you want to pay someone to actually carry the baby, go for it!

You may think that these folks are incredibly wealthy, but they’re not. They are just practicing good economics:

“…Steinsson and Nakamura paid for housekeeping services even when they were penniless grad students. Outsourcing household tasks meant they had to take on more debt, but they calculated — correctly–that spending an extra hour working on a paper was better for their lifetime expected earnings than spending that same hour vacuuming.”

So they’re probably still paying off student loans that went toward maid services. That’s some good economics right there! And how do they even know the extra hour made their papers better or their lifetime earnings higher? And how did they manage to concentrate on the paper while the housekeeper was vacuuming? And, if the housekeeper was anything like the person we have in every other week, they were lucky to even find their papers afterward. There seems to be some unwritten rule that a house cleaner is not permitted to put anything back where it was. Even if she just lifts something up to dust underneath, she’ll move the thing all the way across the room and then put it in a cabinet. Plus, she always presses some button that either disconnects the Internet or sets my alarm clock to go off at 3am. I can’t even figure out how to set my alarm clock intentionally**, and she manages to do it while wiping it with a rag.

But I digress.

The point of the article is to know the value of your time. That’s easy to do if you get paid wash-fold[1]by the hour: if you get, say, $50 an hour, and you pay someone, say, $7.50 an hour to do your laundry so you can use that time to do whatever you do to make $50 (I hope it’s legal!), then you obviously come out ahead, and possibly with better-folded clothes. But if you’re on salary, it’s more difficult to make that direct calculation. The assumption Steinsson and Nakamura make is that, if you spend that extra time on work, it will be good for your career and will pay off long-term.

The assumption I would make, however, is that you don’t like doing laundry and you’re rationalizing it by imagining that having someone do your wash will somehow propel you toward that corner office.

The other fallacy with this theory is the premise that the hour I didn’t spend doing laundry will be used for career-oriented endeavors. That assumes my work is so much in demand that I can find a buyer for every available moment of my time, and that I won’t spend at least part of that laundry-free hour watching cute puppy videos, although economists would argue that even that has value as a distraction that will make my work better, and, besides, I don’t know every little rule about sorting all the different types of laundry anyway so better I should let a professional handle it or else I’ll end up with shrunken pink underwear.

Now I’ll admit that I do this outsourcing thing, too. We probably all do, at least a little, if we can afford to. For instance, I pay people to mow my lawn so I don’t have to spend my Saturdays doing it. But I don’t delude myself into thinking there are economic benefits of being able to do more productive tasks on the weekend.

This would be hard to do anyway, since what I usually do instead of mowing the lawn is take a nap.

See you soon.

*Imagine what economists would think about you wasting time reading this blog!

**Maybe I should pay someone to teach me.

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