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. Mike M says:

    I’ve never heard of anyone trimming their Christmas tree before. Just pick one out that looks good and appreciate it for how nature created it.

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  2. ktb says:

    @12, I’m with 17, you’re offbase here. Psychopaths tend to lack empathy for others, and don’t tend to feel remorse for hurting others. That doesn’t mean they don’t have any emotions or that they always behave rationally. In particular it doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on their tendency to value their ownmoney over their own comfort or time.

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  3. Ryan Cagey says:

    I suppose, as a die-hard economist, that if I truly believed in comparative advantage, I would higher a male prostitute to satisfy my wife.

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  4. Vusi says:

    My dad is an economist who mows his own lawn. He’s just a better lawn mower than an economist.

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  5. Bobby G says:

    @ Brenton (#9),

    So… take it you haven’t read SuperFreakonomics yet?

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  6. gvg says:

    I love the comparative advantage idea. I have simply been “out sourcing” all my duties as an up scale housewife all these years. Though the Christmas tree is always a small party thing, get the children to do the work for “fun.”

    I am sure my husband can see the comparative advantage of his Stanford educated wife doing something other than house chores. There is always a higher and better use of my time.


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    • Frederic Mari says:

      You say this as if it was news.

      Maybe the US has something against hired help (I doubt it but…) but my own calculations are that, as soon as you earned above minimum wage, it’s a pretty good idea to get someone else to do the lion share of the household chores – Say, get someone to clean your abode 2 times a week for half-a-day. Personally, I think Mondays and Thursdays are particularly good.

      The cost is more than repaid by how happy the wife will be. And, since what’s left is fairly small/easy stuff, it is really simple to do at least half of it, to yet more happiness for the wife.

      And a happy wife is very very very important to a husband’s happiness…

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  7. JP says:

    As an economist who attended the AEA conference looking for a job, I am not astounded by other economists who take their models too seriously.

    Dr. Wolfers, Dr. Blinder, and Dr. Hall all seem to forget the Axiom of Revealed Preference. That is, if you observe me doing A vs. B then it is because I prefer doing A vs. B. Whether it is mowing a lawn or trimming a Christmas tree, independent of what my “competitive advantage” is, if I have chosen to do that activity it is because that is the activity I prefer most out of all alternatives. At what point did economics become a prescription to others on how they should make choices?

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  8. Frederic Mari says:

    You enjoy tree trimming with your wife more than love making with your wife?


    I suspect we’re reaching the point where you do NOT want to use comparative advantage to justify your choice… :)

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