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Another Economist Heard From in the Leisure/Work Debate

We are still getting e-mails, like this one, concerning our New York Times column a while back about the leisure/work distinctions in “hobbies” like gardening, cooking, knitting, etc.

But the following message, from economist Shoshana Grossbard, is easily among the best. She teaches at San Diego State and is the founding editor of the Review of Economics of the Household. Here’s an excerpt from her dispatch:

In your stimulating Freakonomics column of May 6, 2007, you propose the following definition of work and leisure: “It’s work if someone else tells you to do it and leisure if you choose to do it yourself.” Your examples of leisure include a home-cooked meal that Stephen occasionally prepares and tomatoes that Steven grows. Here are some of my ideas as an economist of the household as well as a wife and mother of 25+ years of experience.

I agree that an arbitrary categorization of household activities as work or leisure is meaningless. At the same time, basing that distinction on whether an activity is voluntary or commanded — as you suggest — is problematic as well. Most household production is performed on a voluntary basis. This certainly applies to most home cooking.

Nobody ever commanded me to cook. The father of my children would not have been my husband if he had told me to cook for him! When cooking is Stephen’s favored activity, it is leisure. He is indulging in his hobby. In contrast, I don’t consider cooking a hobby.

I would categorize as “work” most of the time I have spent preparing thousands of meals for my family. In my opinion, an activity in household production is work and not leisure if: (1) it is not a preferred activity, i.e. it entails a relatively high opportunity cost; and (2) a family member who benefits from the activity is willing and able to “pay” the person to engage in this activity (even if no actual monetary transaction occurs).

To me cooking is work: most times it entails an opportunity cost, such as the value of checking my emails or reading the Freakonomics column in the N.Y. Times. You may call me a mercenary, but I admit that I would not have cooked as many meals for my husband if he had not compensated me for it by increasing my individually disposable income. We had an implicit agreement that even though we were both holding full-time jobs outside the home, I would do all the at-home cooking.

It was also my job to meet with our children’s teachers in case they misbehaved in school. Being “talked down to” by an elementary school teacher is definitely not my idea of leisure, but it is an important input in the “household” production of quality children. My children’s father never wanted to talk to the teachers. That was part of my job…

It was my choice to engage in this household production because the price was right. My [now] ex-husband’s income covered most of our bills, leaving me more personally disposable income than I would have access to had we not entered this implicit contract involving the exchange of my time for his money…

If I am not exceptional in my mercenary nature, then other at-home cooks may also be expecting some reward for their efforts. Furthermore, men who don’t cook and expect their wives to cook for them may need to give up pleasant low-paying jobs in order to cover required quasi-wage payments. If they become employers of a cooking wife, they will gain from realizing that idiosyncratic food tastes may be an obstacle to marital bliss. Otherwise, if restaurant meals and frozen dinners don’t suit them, and they can’t afford to pay the quasi-wages that home-cooking women are expecting in today’s marriage markets, they may end up single!