Are Economists Cheap? Or Do We Just Believe in Comparative Advantage?

The front page of Saturday’s Wall Street Journal tells us that “Economists are cheapskates.” The article by Justin Lahart is hilarious, recounting the foibles of those of us who sometimes take our classroom lessons about economizing a step too far — particularly when it comes to economizing on time.

I laughed particularly hard when I read this:

Stanford University economist Robert Hall, incoming president of the American Economic Association, values his time so highly that his wife, economist Susan Woodward, occasionally puts her foot down. “Bob doesn’t see why we can’t just hire people to trim the Christmas tree,” she says. “I tell him that’s not what it’s supposed to be about.”

I sent Bob a quick email to tell him that I’m on his side on this one. But he was having none of my solidarity — he reckons the Journal owes him a correction. In fact, he even told me what he hoped for:

Economist Robert E. Hall has never sought hired help to trim the tree. He has never even considered the idea. This year, he did the whole job himself, beautifully, with no help from his relatives or friends. The WSJ‘s report that he wanted hired help was based on erroneous information provided by Susan E. Woodward.

Even if Bob is not guilty this year, I still reckon he’s probably guilty, at least in his heart. Perhaps he just thought it and didn’t say it; perhaps he was guilty last year; or perhaps he’s been guilty of related sins in the past.

Why am I so confident? It’s just how economists think. Alan Blinder has said that he wouldn’t trust an economist who mowed his own lawn, because it reveals that they don’t believe deeply in the principle of comparative advantage. And what goes for mowing your lawn surely holds equally for trimming the tree.

Perhaps not. Ed Glaser has recently argued that we economists should stop being so Grinch-like. Ed reminds us that some traditions are more about meaning than deadweight loss triangles.

O.K., time to ‘fess up. I laughed about Bob Hall’s alleged Christmas request because I really did ask Betsey if we could hire someone to trim our tree for us. Yes, I do believe in comparative advantage, and I figure that I’m more efficient at other things. But she’s a step smarter than my simplistic analysis, and at her insistence, we not only trimmed the tree, but we also enjoyed it (and indeed, we enjoyed it more than the next-best use of our time, leading to the conclusion that I have a comparative advantage at tree trimming).

Of course, when it comes to dismantling the tree, there’s no special meaning attached. And so, following these same principles of comparative advantage, Betsey and I have hired someone to strip the tree. The time we saved meant that we could spend more time in Atlanta, enjoying the very same meetings of the American Economic Association that Bob Hall did such a splendid job organizing. A feat even more impressive, in light of his onerous Yuletide burdens.

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  1. arnebjarne says:

    My solution is the simplest one: I do not have a christmas tree, have not had since I was a child. It is not a question of beeing an economist (maybe just a little…) but that I would rather spend time with the wife doing something we both care about more than killing innocent trees for the purpose of getting more to vacume later.

    @gevin: your use of the label psychopath is not only wrong, but 100% unrelated to the problem discussed here.

    A real psychopath would understand the emotional factor, and use it to his benefit.

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  2. Cory says:

    My wife and I followed the adivce on taking down the tree this year. She did it while I was working a long day at the job.

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  3. Mike says:

    Whose to say you aren’t spending that time with your wife elsewhere?

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  4. Davis X. Machina says:

    “Economist do exercise, don’t you?”

    Unless it’s really hard, the exercise is usually left to the reader.

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  5. Rodney says:

    I’m an economist. What is this “lawn” thing of which you speak?

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  6. Lindsey says:

    Thank you 15, 20, 21! Finally some humor for a humorous post! :))

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  7. Keith Ackermann says:

    I couldn’t hack taking my tree down.

    There was an ape watching me through my window, and he was taking notes. I become very self-conscious and insecure when they do that.

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  8. Jake says:

    17: “A real psychopath would understand the emotional factor, and use it to his benefit.”

    Your last name wouldn’t happen to be Schrute, would it?

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