Intro. [Recording date: February 21, 2019.]
Russ Roberts: My guest is author and economist Dan Hamermesh.... His latest book, which is the subject of today's episode, is Spending Time.... Your book opens with a paradox of human existence, and I want you to start by explaining this paradox. Which is: In theory we just get a fixed amount of time in our life. We get 24 hours in a day--other than the days that we switch, as you point out, to Daylight Savings Time or away from it. We get the same number of days per week, the same number of weeks per month, per year. And we live longer, actually, than our ancestors did. And yet, time feels like it's scarcer. We seem busier. What's going on there?
Daniel Hamermesh: Well, the reason is very simple. Yeah, we're living longer, but compared to 50, 60 years ago in the United States or other rich countries life expectancy has only gone up by about 15%. Where, the income that we have--most of which we want to spend--has gone up--even after inflation, it's more than tripled. So, we have a lot more money, and only a little bit more time in which to spend it. I think that's the main reason why we feel more rushed.
Russ Roberts: And, explain that in a little more detail. We have more money: That's nice; that's pleasant. We have a richer standard of living. And in theory, one of the things we do with that money--not in theory--one of the things we do with that money is we sometimes buy more leisure. And relaxation. Why do [?don't?] we buy less stress? Why do we feel that time is scarcer when it is actually not really any scarcer at all?
Daniel Hamermesh: Well, it's all a matter of relative scarcity. I mean, compared to the dollars we have, time is very scarce. Same thing as if you are comparing rich people to poor people, at the same point in time. Both of them have the same 24 hours a day. But the rich folks have an awful lot more money, and it takes time to spend money. You can't just contract out everything and pay lots of money and get the same satisfaction. You can't sleep--you can't pay somebody to sleep for you. You can't pay somebody to eat for you. You can't pay somebody to go to the theater for you, or to read Proust for you--my favorite example. So, all these things take time. And the more money you have, the more things you want to do with the money. And it takes time to do 'em.
Russ Roberts: As a labor economist--and I used to be one, on paper at least; I guess I'm still one in some theoretical realm--as a labor economist, we often use the hourly wage rate as a measure of the value of time. And the narrow reason for that is that, in theory, we could work an extra hour. We could consult or do other things with that time--to work--and therefore, taking leisure or foregoing the opportunity to work; and so leisure is very expensive. And yet, of course, for many of us, we don't have opportunities for an hour of consulting here or there. We pretty much have a fixed salary, at the end of the year. And yet, somehow, our higher incomes are doing what you are talking about. I'm just trying to go a little deeper into it because in theory--and I keep saying 'in theory'; I'm going to stop saying 'in theory'--but, through using economic reasoning, that time is--it's not any scarcer. It's just a little more precious.
Daniel Hamermesh: That's exactly right. It is more precious. For example, take an extra hour of sleeping--I do. In most cases, I can't get a job for that extra hour and make some more money. But, I could do something else. So, even if I make no money at all--let's say I don't even work ever. The more family income I have, the scarcer is the time that I have. I can use my time to do more different things. Give you an example of this: I've now done a paper, a brand new paper, not published, not really included in the book, talked about it, where we look at three different countries looking at people who don't work at all and have not worked recently. In all three of them, the people who had family income that was higher--not because of them, but because of their partners or because of the government giving them money--in all three countries those people, those adults whose family income is higher, used their time differently from those who have low incomes. In particular, they sleep less, and they watch a lot less television than people who don't work but who have less family income. So, even without any earning possibility at all: How much you have in your pocket affects how you spend your time. Time is scarce, even for non-earners.
Russ Roberts: So, are you arguing that if I have lots of money, I can go to the theater; I can go to a movie and go to a baseball game; I can sit home and watch TV. And having more money makes watching TV more expensive, because I'm giving up the opera?
Daniel Hamermesh: That's a nice way to put it.
Russ Roberts: I think that's what I'm getting.
Daniel Hamermesh: That's exactly what the point is. Okay. If I have no money, I have very little choice. Because I can't go to the opera, because opera takes the same amount of time as a two-hour TV show. But it costs $125, at least, compared to about a buck-fifty ($1.50). Without any money, I'm going to make the choice that takes a little money and a lot of time. With a lot of money, assuming my tastes are the same as yours, I'm going to use my money to spend that extra or two going to the Metropolitan Opera to see something I like, rather than watching so-called Reality TV.
Russ Roberts: I used to make this argument to explain why books are shorter, movies are shorter, double-headers are rarer--in fact, they've disappeared in baseball except after a rain-out. Double features don't exist. And that--all those things used to be common, because people were happy to spend 4 or 5 hours at a baseball park, 4 or 5 hours at a movie theater. But now, that 3rd, 4th, and 5th hour at the baseball game and at the movie theater isn't quite as appealing as it used to be. And I think what we're saying here is it's because we have other things we can use our money for. But, of course, that's a little hard to understand that, because we reduced our money for the baseball game as a little extra to pay for the double header or the, sometimes, or for the extra movie theater. Right? But do you think that's a correct analysis?
Daniel Hamermesh: I think that's exactly right. What you are doing is sort of looking over time what's been happening. What I was talking about was more a rich person or a poor person at the same point of time. But the phenomena are identical. It's exactly the same thing. It's a changing relative scarcity of dollars or money and time. And time has gotten more expensive. And it is more expensive, for higher income, and also higher-wage people.
Russ Roberts: So, this next point is outside the scope of the book. But it's relevant, given what we were talking about, which is: I was talking to a friend the other day, I hadn't seen a little bit, and I asked her how she was doing. She said, 'Well, I want to say I'm really busy. But I'm trying to stop saying that.' And I was intrigued by that comment, because I find myself, in casual conversation, when asked how am I doing, 'Och, I'm so busy.' And, of course, I am busy. Sort of. Kind of. But we use that phrase, often, to convey a, I think, a moral superiority. And it kind of ties in to what we are talking about. It means a really high value of time, because I'm really high-wage.
Daniel Hamermesh: An important guide. I mean, that's exactly right. I mean, saying that you are busy has become almost a status symbol in this country now, the rich countries. A little bit less so in other rich countries. They behave differently from us. America is really unusual in certain ways in how we spend our time.
Russ Roberts: And it is an interesting thing. It could go the other way, right? You'd think it would be a status symbol to say, 'Oh, I've got nothing to do. I'm living like a king.' Of course, some kings are really busy, and some kings loafed around and got everybody to take care of stuff for them, so I guess that goes both ways, too.
Daniel Hamermesh: I think it does. I think the real issue, though, is that there's been a change. It used to be, being part of the idle rich was a status symbol--even though the idle rich were very busy. I mean, going to Ascot to watch the horses--
Russ Roberts: Exactly--
Daniel Hamermesh: or going to salons. They were busy, but they would never say they were busy. And now, since doing things like going to Ascot or salons is not quite acceptable any more, saying you are busy with all kinds of things--a). it's a status symbol; but b). it's a social way of keeping people off your back--saying, 'Don't bother me because I'm too darn busy to deal with you.'
Russ Roberts: 9:25 I have a Russian friend--I've told this story before, I think, but you haven't heard it, Dan, I don't think. I have a Russian friend; I would ask him how he's doing; and he would say, 'Fine. Like all Americans.' And there is a certain cheerfulness Americans are supposed to convey that's not common in, say, the former Soviet Union where he had grown up. In which case, when you ask, 'How are you doing?' he would shrug and make a face and sigh and bemoan his fate. But in America you are supposed to say you are fine. Because you are not really answering the question of how you are doing. It's just a conversational gambit. But, the new thing is 'busy.' And I'm making a personal campaign here: I'm going back to 'fine.' I think the busy thing is--there's something--I don't know--pretentious about it. So I'm going to try to stop saying that.
Daniel Hamermesh: I recommend being partly retired, as I now am. I can't honestly say, 'I'm not real busy.' I can no longer say, 'I'm busy.' I never really did very much, but now I say, 'I'm not busy at all.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah, well, George Stigler used to--allegedly; I never saw it--but George Stigler, the great economist from the University of Chicago used to have a boat that he called The Treatise. And so when people asked him what he was doing, he could say he was working on The Treatise. Now, I don't know if that's a true story. I don't if any of that's true. I suspect it's all true.
Daniel Hamermesh: It sounds like Stigler, who I knew very slightly when I was an undergrad. Yeah, it sounds very much like him.
Russ Roberts: So, let's turn more to the results of the book. The book is an analysis of how people spend their time based on time diaries that people fill out. So, explain what those are; talk about some of their limitations and the differences between what we have access to in the United States versus other countries.
Daniel Hamermesh: Sure. A time diary--and they've been going on now for a little over 100 years. The first ones were done in Philadelphia in 1917 or 1916. The United States in 2003 started doing these on a continuing basis, so every month about 1000 people randomly selected from all over the United States keep a diary. They are asked to do this, and fill something out the next morning when they wake up describing every activity they undertook, starting at 4 o'clock the previous day. So, I would put down, if I were filling one out this morning, I would put down that yesterday morning I was sleeping. I would then put down, 'At 6:45, woke up, washed my face. 7:15, sat down to eat.' Etc., etc., etc. Every time I switched activities. The government, which collects these, would then hire people to code them into a large number of defined categories. In fact, the United States uses over 400; other countries use fewer. That's many too many. I mean, you can't do anything with that. So, what I've done, and what other people have done pretty much the same, is collect these to aggregate them into 6 major categories of how we spend our time: Working for pay; What I'll call home production--these are things you do around the house that you could pay somebody to do for you; Sleep--it's obvious; Other personal activities--washing up, showering; TV [television]-watching ; and All other leisure activities. And, one can make these categorizations for any country you have. So I've done this for at least the United States, United Kingdom, Canada; United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and France. And one can do it for many others. Other countries have similar data. The United States is now unique: It's the only one with an ongoing, continuous set of time diaries--every month, every year.
Russ Roberts: Some of the weaknesses are obvious: It's retrospective, by definition. It's flawed--it's volunteered. And, it's also hard to keep track of multitasking, which is a common American experience. So, you might be watching TV while you eat lunch; and you are also answering emails.
Daniel Hamermesh: Well, the question is this way, look at. Of course multitasking is important. And several studies--German data, Australian data--do ask you to list simultaneous activities. The question is: if I'm multitasking and I have to list one activity, I'm going to list the one is most important, most salient, in my mind. So, if for example my wife is cooking dinner and has on MSNBC [Microsoft/National Broadcasting Company--cable TV network] all the time, which she does, I would bet you if she did a diary she would put down 'Cooking dinner.' And she would not list MSNBC. So, of course you're right: Multitasking is important. But recall? Look, most of our data on unemployment and how much we work come from asking questions: 'How many hours did you work last week?' This is where we get our data on hours of work in the United States. And that's much more subject to recall problems than asking you what hours of the day you were working yesterday on a diary basis. So, I think these are much more usable, in terms of indicating what we do, than most of the data that people in economics have used for the last 50, 60 years.
Russ Roberts: It's not that big a selling point, Dan. On this program in particular. But I take the point. It's an excellent one. And, of course, you did mention age. In these surveys, they, of course, are going to ask a bunch of demographic questions: Gender, age, various other questions. Age is famously not evenly distributed in these kinds of surveys, at least in my experience. There's a lot of people who are 29, 39, and they don't seem to rotate the odometer over--
Daniel Hamermesh: [*laughter*]
Russ Roberts: I'm making a joke out of it, but it's true: Obviously people are somewhat dishonest when reporting age, income, and other things. But, time use, you'd think, is pretty straightforward.
Daniel Hamermesh: I don't think there's any reason for people to lie about this. They may have errors of recollection--
Russ Roberts: Correct.
Daniel Hamermesh: Of course they do. Every survey has errors of recollection. But, lying about how you spend the time? I've thought about this a lot. I don't think that's a serious issue. These [?] totally confidential. Nobody else is going to see this: you are never identified.
Russ Roberts: The book is filled with lots of interesting tidbits and trends and analyses. And, the parts I like the best: there's some great factoids, and there's also--you speculate and expand on some of the findings where you bring in a lot of nice applied economics; we'll be talking about some of those. So, I want to pick out some of the factual differences that show up in the data. So, for example, one of the things that fascinated me is that educated parents--that is, parents with relatively high levels of education--are spending more time with their teens at home in the United States than in Canada. Explain what's going on there.
Daniel Hamermesh: Not only that: They are spending more time than they used to in the United States. That's not my own paper. That's a paper by Valerie Ramey and Garey Ramey at UC San Diego [University of California, San Diego]. Their argument is--I mean, the fact is correct. Their argument is: In the United States, the way to get ahead is to get into a fancy university. In other words, be a Tiger Mom with a tiger for a--a Tiger Cub Child, as it were. And Canada, there's much less competition, and the schools are much more homogeneous than they are in the United States. Between McGill and U. Toronto there may not be much of a difference. Between the U. of Texas at Austin and, um--
Russ Roberts: a lesser university--we don't need to name them, Dan--
Daniel Hamermesh: Thank you for the advice. We don't need to name them. Thank you very much. In fact, of all kinds I can pick out [?]. But, yeah, there's a huge difference. And it pays to have parents work to get you exposed to all kinds of things to get you into a fancy school that will help you get ahead. So, it's really a function, these other authors argue, of the nature of higher education, its heterogeneity in the United States compared to elsewhere.
Russ Roberts: So, some of this is tutoring. Some of it is advice. Some of it is dragging around to various activities that show up on their resume. I think you implied that it actually is worthwhile to go to a fancier school. Bryan Caplan and others might--previous EconTalk guests might disagree and suggest that it's really just the people who go there, what actually is transformative. Sometimes it's just signaling. And other times it could be selection bias--the people who tend to go already have certain levels of skills. But certainly most people think that it's important to go to a good school, or a so-called good school.
Daniel Hamermesh: Even if it is signaling--
Russ Roberts: it's still important--
Daniel Hamermesh: it still pays to do it. And therefore parents are going to do it. For example, when I was applying to college in 1960, 1961, I never thought of having extra-curricular things on my high school resume. I don't think we thought about it very much. Nobody cared very much. But I look at my grandchildren applying for stuff: They are trying to accumulate things like crazy, and hope to stand out in that regard. I think there's been a big change in the United States in the last 50 years in this regard.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; well, I'm 10 years younger than you--roughly. I was applying in 1972. And I hadn't--I don't even think--I can't imagine I mentioned it. I had a couple of extra-curricular activities. Nobody paid any attention to them. And the idea of tutoring or studying for the SAT [Scholastic Aptitude Test] exam was ludicrous. Right? We tried to get a decent night's sleep; we shut up with a bunch of Number 2 pencils. But, obviously what's happened there is that our generation, broadly defined--the baby boomers--we're a large cohort passing through time, and so our children and grandchildren are now numerous. And there's only a fixed number of spots at the best schools. So, that competition is much fiercer than when you and I were applying to school.
Daniel Hamermesh: It is. You wonder why, however, why we have to have this competition on the basis of non-academic things: tutoring other children, doing this or that volunteer activity. I don't know: This is the way it is; I'm not going to change it. But it's a strange way to be spending time and for kids to have to be spending time.
Russ Roberts: Well, you could also ask the question of why, when I was at Washington University in St. Louis--this would be about 15, 20 years ago--there was a special committee; and it was devoted to an aspect of student life that the university thought was important, called Education. There was actually a Special Committee focusing on education. I mean, really, it made me laugh at the time. Or cry. But, clearly, college in America today is a wide variety of things. It's not just a place where people go to learn. It's a lifestyle experience. It's a lot like a resort, at the best, fanciest colleges, at least. And, we're paying for, as parents, if we choose to, we're paying for lots of things that not related to what we call human capital in economics: the acquisition of knowledge.
Daniel Hamermesh: No, they aren't. But they are related to other things that might help the kids in the labor market. And, more important, you've got to remember that the top schools, while they're very selective, are competing for students. Not just in terms of what they offer in the classroom, but in terms of all kinds of extras they might be offering. My favorite example is, right next to the office I used to hold here on campus, they'd built a very nice, 25-meter, swimming pool, with lounge chairs and artificial palm trees for the kids to loll under. I think that really helps attract students.
Russ Roberts: 21:06 But your previous point, which I also find somewhat puzzling, as to why you want "well-rounded"--why extra-curricular is so important. Why--one answer, by the way--this goes back to our earlier conversation; we'll bring it full circle--is that the student is doing 30 extra-curricular things, working on the student paper, doing mock trial, doing Model UN [United Nations], starting on the varsity soccer team. And still getting good grades. Wow. This is a pretty talented kid. So, I think part of that is to show the ability to be a manically busy, ambitious person. Which maybe is not what we want in our best universities. But that's what we get.
Daniel Hamermesh: No, that's not a bad argument. In fact, I think it is part of that. Although a response is: Look, couldn't they channel energy to do something more creative in the educational context than doing all these extra-curriculars?
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Daniel Hamermesh: To me, as an old, fuddy-duddy professor, I'd prefer that. But ain't the world is.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, no, that's right.
Russ Roberts: Now, we had Alison Wolf on the program, a while ago, talking about the role of women and differences between men and women. And one of the things she said in there, I want you to react to, is the role of labor-saving devices. And you talk about this in passing in your book--the--obviously, washing machines, dishwashers, and other appliances have, on the surface made home life easier--for better or for worse--mainly for women who were doing those tasks historically. They were in the food prep, often hauling the water, not just boiling it. Sometimes chopping the wood that fired the wood stove. So, life has changed an immense amount in the United States for women. And, one of the--what she said, was the real thing that changed women's lives were not those things, but pizza. And what she meant by that was the ability to acquire decent-tasting food at a relatively low price. And of course as women have become more involved in the labor market, that's especially appealing.
Daniel Hamermesh: I think that's a good argument. But it's only part of the story. Look, even if you never bring in frozen pizza, not having to heat up water, not having to--I don't know if you remember when you were a kid what kind of washing machine you had. We had a semi-automatic washer. It had a little wringer. And you had to hand-wring the stuff out before you hung it on the line. Very time consuming. Microwave: I mean, we heat stuff in the microwave. That saves time for the person who does most of the cooking. So, yes: Of course, she's right[?]: Prepackaged, decent foods helped a lot. But there's so much else going on. And it has resulted in a huge time saving; and it's very clear on this, especially for American women, who had done most of this dirty work beforehand.
Russ Roberts: I think her claim was that even though they had these labor-saving devices, they still spent more time in the home than doing home production than the men. It just was of a different kind. But the food prep was really the key change. I think that--that's my memory.
Daniel Hamermesh: I think she's right; but in fact women still are doing more at home than men. They are doing more work at home; they are less likely to work for pay in the labor market; do not work as many hours. But men have increased [?] in the amount of work they do at home, while women have decreased quite substantially the amount that they do. And you have this not just in the United States, but all other rich countries to more or less the same extent.
Russ Roberts: It was striking in your book that when you sum up work time plus home production time, women work a little bit more, but it's a very small difference that is dramatically--the mix has obviously changed, as you said, but they are quite similarly. And I don't know if those are correctly defined in the survey results. But I was struck by that, that they were relatively close.
Daniel Hamermesh: It's about an hour difference each week, maybe at most an hour difference in the United States. In some other countries, like the Netherlands or Norway or Sweden, they are almost identical. I think it's a fascinating result. I call it 'iso-work'--they are about the same in total. This doesn't mean they are doing the same things. If you think of home production--walking the dog, cleaning the car, doing the dishes, shopping--
Russ Roberts: carpool--
Daniel Hamermesh: as work--carpool; all kinds of child care, I would argue--all those together, they are work to me. They are not something you would choose to do if you had huge amounts of money. Most of them, anyway. And the same thing for paid work. So, I think making this addition--getting total work and finding they are pretty similar--is just an absolutely striking result. And it holds up in most rich countries. Much less so in poorer countries. In poorer countries, no question women are doing more work in total than men.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I use that extra hour, by the way, to keep up on the New England Patriots, which is a full-time, year-round job. I wish I had more than an extra hour. My wife doesn't keep up at all. She's a shirker. She's doing food prep and childcare stuff, and I'm keeping up with the Patriots. That's a precious hour to me.
Daniel Hamermesh: I understand. I hate to tell you though, sir, I would classify your Patriot keeping-up as either TV watching or leisure.
Russ Roberts: Oh, it is. Oh, you're right--
Daniel Hamermesh: Your wife's working more than you are, in total.
Russ Roberts: That's what I'm saying. She's got--she's working in total--that extra hour that you mentioned, that's the average difference. And so in my case, I'm taking that leisure that's available to me and--she knows nothing about Rob Gronkowski's thigh injury, or whether Brady's going to get an extension. I'm up on that. I'm all over it. And that's because I'm shirking and not sharing. It's not quite iso-work. It's close. But I've got that extra hour on her.
Daniel Hamermesh: Yeah, but on the other hand you probably are working more for pay than she is. At least I hope so.
Russ Roberts: That's a tough question, actually. That actually is a tough question.
Russ Roberts: I want to actually--let's talk about that. Two things. With respect to working for pay: My wife is a high school teacher and administrator. She works a lot at night, grading papers, answering emails from colleagues. Her day is extremely full--which is another way I keep up with the Patriots, by the way: is that I take leisure on, you could call it on the job. I work from home, so it's tricky. But, in her case, she works a decent amount at night. I work at night, too, all the time: I'm reading books for--I was reading your book last night. I'm not--I don't go home at 5 o'clock. I don't turn off my computer at 5 o'clock. Sometimes I like to. As listeners know, I keep the Jewish Sabbath, which means that for 25 hours I turn off everything. But, on an average weeknight, I'm working at night, and yet your data--you find a lot of people who don't work at night at all. And I feel like, in certain parts of the American economy, work is really 24/7 [24 hours a day, 7 days a week--Econlib Ed.], or in my case, 24/6.
Daniel Hamermesh: It's even worse than you say. I mean, think about my job as a professor. What is work? I run for exercise. I'm a big, albeit very slow, long-distance runner. I get some of my best ideas while I'm running. And: Is that work time? If you asked me to do a diary, I'd say, 'No, it's running time.' It's very hard, and a lot of, increasing number of activities and occupations, to say what work is. Your wife's work is much more well-defined; although it does sort of [?] take place at strange times of the day. There's another big difference between the United States and other countries, by the way. We do an awful lot more of our work at night than people in any other rich countries. We are the champion of night-time, weekend work.
Russ Roberts: Well, I would suggest--you and I, and many, many others, probably we have the largest proportion of people in human history, are doing work that we actually enjoy doing. We were talking earlier about home production. Hauling water from the river, nobody would call that fun. I don't think. But thinking up an idea while you are on a run is really exhilarating.
Daniel Hamermesh: It is exhilarating. Right. But it's not just the running. And it's not just even the home production. For example, I have much more chance now to display one's culinary talents and have fun cooking. Same thing for work. People have jobs they like. But the same thing is true, also, for other leisure activities. Think about going to a museum today as compared to when you were a kid. I mean, the museums are just much better.
Russ Roberts: Yep.
Daniel Hamermesh: No question. All the interactive stuff. It's just fantastic. So, we've seen these improvements in just almost every dimension of human life. Just ask yourself: Would you go back to living the way you did, or your grandparents did, when you were a small child? I mean, there's no way. If nothing else, we have air conditioning now, which I sure didn't have when I was a kid.
Russ Roberts: So, I want--
Daniel Hamermesh: It's much better.
Russ Roberts: So, let me rephrase your point, make sure I understand it. You are suggesting that almost every aspect of life in America, at least over the last hundred years, has improved. Which includes the experience we call work. The experience we call leisure. So, my grandfather's idea of leisure was listening to Caruso on a beat-up gramophone that wasn't very good. It was very scratchy. I remember listening to it as a child. His next-best activity was smoking a pipe and looking off into the distance. And his third activity, when I was around, was either eating ice cream with me, or reading me a poem or telling me a story. Whereas, my parents, with their grandchildren, have a much wider and more delightful array of stuff to do. Is that a correct way of saying what you are saying?
Daniel Hamermesh: It's correct. It also ties back to our first point--
Russ Roberts: yes--
Daniel Hamermesh: your parents probably have more money than your grandparents did. And I trust--I don't know how many grandchildren you have, but I look at the things that I do with my grandchildren. I mean, we take each one on an exotic trip somewhere in the world. My grandparents didn't have much money at all. And they sure never took me to Australia, the way I am taking a grandchild this summer. So, yes: We can expand our activities, variety-wise and quality at the same activity, compared to what we used to do. In the same amount of time we are having higher-quality activities.
Russ Roberts: And it's tempting to say, 'Well, Dan Hamermesh, he's got income; he's been a successful academic.' But, it's also important to say that this is increasingly available to a lot more people. And the example I like to give--I've got an upcoming video on this: You know, a 1973 Honda Civic--which was a nice car, and it sold for $1973, dollars which was a great marketing technique in 1973. If you looked at the inside of that car--which I have, because you can find it online--it's scary-looking. It's like a metal box with a few dials. There's zero amenities. Forget things like anti-lock brakes and airbags. Just the seat itself, and the look and feel of it, is--it's not as nice.
Daniel Hamermesh: My example is child restraints in cars. Now, they are in there--it looks like a tank, [?]. Our kid, our older son, in 1973, we had a little strap around him attached to something in the back. He could bounce around in it. God forbid there should have ever have been an accident--he'd have been ensmushed[?], I'm sure.
Russ Roberts: Well, and of course, I'm sure you experienced this, too: When I was young and we would take a cross-country trip--and, yeah, we weren't going to Australia, either--we would fight over who would get to lay down in the back window well. The back part of the car. So that, not only were there no seatbelts: we were--
Daniel Hamermesh: People would lie around. We had the same thing in our 1955 Chevy Station Wagon. Two of us could lie in the back, and we'd fight over, among the three of us, who got to do it. I never got to. I was the oldest of three. I've been very deprived.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, it shows.
Russ Roberts: I want to talk about this other aspect, though, of leisure on the job, which I think is--it's interesting, and I don't know if you have experienced it being the older fuddy-duddy you've confessed to be. I am struck by, at the age of 64, how difficult it is for me to stay focused on a task. Compared to when I was younger. Now, part of it is just getting older. But part of it is that I've developed some very bad habits of rotating between email, Twitter, a paper I'm writing--the essay I'm writing, the project I'm working on, the book I'm reading. And I don't have the sitzfleisch--the ability to stay in one place--as much as when I was younger. One of the things that fascinates me that's relevant for your book is that I think a lot of people take leisure on the job. That is, they make airline reservations. They do check their sports scores and their teams, what's going on with them. They watch a funny video. They are constantly doing multiple things within any one hour. And I just--part of that's a statement about our wealth. Part of it's a statement about what the Internet has done to our attention span, I think. What are your thoughts on that?
Daniel Hamermesh: Sort of [?] the wealth, a very good explanation. Look, we know that people who are better off do more different things, on any given day. They buy more different things. They do more different things with their time. So, it's not surprising: If you are well off and better off than you used to be, in any given hour you are going to be doing more different things, including cruising the Internet, looking up restaurants, maybe listening to a YouTube recording of some operatic aria, etc., etc., as well as working. I do the same thing. You think--it's part of the age. You think it's bad at 64: Wait till you are 75 and see what happens. Okay? There's no question about that. But it's also a function of our economic wellbeing. We can afford to do that. It might cost us a little bit of production, a little bit of salary. But, what the heck? We're making so much, so many of us, that why not enjoy ourselves a little bit? And this is one aspect of that enjoyment.
Russ Roberts: I want to shift gears. I want to talk about a phenomenon that is--I want to move to marriage generally, but I want to start with a phenomenon you discuss in the book that, historically, husbands are older than their wives. In the United States and certainly elsewhere. And that that gap has been shrinking. And that is utterly fascinating. It is a purely emergent phenomenon. There is no--nobody is in charge of this. There is no rule. There are some--sort of there are cultural norms, in general, that suggest that men are older than their wives. But of course there are many people who buck that trend. There are many women who marry men who are younger than they are. But, in general, on average, husbands are older than wives. But not so much any more. So, talk about why that is. Why it started off a larger gap, any gap at all; and why it's shrinking.
Daniel Hamermesh: First of all, a simple fact that the turn of the 20th century, the age of difference at first marriage, male/female, was 4 years. A few years ago it was about 2.1. And if you look at couples under age 50--don't take me--the difference is 1 and a half years. The same thing has happened in other rich countries. It's much less true in poor countries. The question is why the gap is narrowing. Uh--that's a tough--
Russ Roberts: And why was it there in the first place?
Daniel Hamermesh: The first place is easy. A), you want to have married early because their fertility, their childbearing years were going to be short. They weren't going to live as long. So if you are going to reproduce, you want to have them doing it early. That's one thing. On the men's' side, it took a while for guys to demonstrate how much they could earn and make themselves attractive in the labor market. So, that's another reason for them to be substantially older than their wives. Today, in the United States especially, we have all kinds of sorting. You know, pretty well, whether somebody is going to do well in life or not. Some guy is going to do well. Also, people mix now [?] to a very large extent at colleges and universities; and they are mixing with people of roughly the same age. Look at me: My wife robbed the cradle. I'm four months younger than she. How did we meet? We met in grad school, when she was studying something else and I was studying economics. And I think that kind of method of meeting--be it in school or on the job--is increasing important. And it's not surprising. There's more and more women who are working, going to college, than in the old days. So, for all these reasons we see this very sharp narrowing of the age difference between men and women at first marriage.
Russ Roberts: But, historically, men were the workers and women stayed home. Women were protected through things like alimony and divorce laws that protected them from--even though they weren't being paid, literally, they were investing obviously in the family. And so, social norms and laws evolved that legislation evolved that protected women and gave them an incentive to invest in the family, even though they were vulnerable economically. And as women have more and more become the equal of men in the workforce, in terms of both participation and wages and so on, you would expect that phenomenon to be less important. The part that's interesting to me is that, I think everyone's aware--most people are aware--that the marriage rate in the United States has fallen. The part that's interesting to me--and I'm sure you know this--is that it's fallen very little, for people with college education or higher. It's fallen; but not so much. But among people without a college education, and particularly people who don't finish high school, it's dropped off the cliff. It's plummeted, you could argue. I don't have the numbers off the tip of my tongue. But it's quite dramatic. And I wonder whether--how much of that is a change in the ability of less-educated men to find productive work in the United States, in the current economic climate? How much of it is the ability of women to support themselves through various ways? Have you thought about that at all?
Daniel Hamermesh: A little bit. It's not part of my stuff on time use, but I think both causes you are talking about--the problem of low-educated men making a lot of money and demonstrating to a spouse that they can help support them, I think that's part of it. Also the increased independence of women, because of the greater access to jobs and somewhat equalization of wages also made a difference. I think what also has mattered some is the fact that we talked about before. That is, women can get along in the household spending less time doing home production. That being the case, they don't need guys out there to support them while they are home doing work at home. So that, one more reason why there's less need for lower-educated, for lower-income women to find a spouse. All of these things have worked together. How much each contributes, I have no idea.
Russ Roberts: You have some interesting comparisons between the United States and Europe. It's well known, at least claimed, in some data, that United States workers on average work more hours per year than in Europe. And it's not a small difference. So, people have suggested a variety of reasons for that. We'll come to those, and maybe in a minute. But I'd like to hear your take first. Talk about that difference, and what do you think is the cause of it.
Daniel Hamermesh: The United States is now the champion of total work among rich countries. We work about 8 hours more per week than Germans, on average; about 6 hours more than the French. This wasn't true at all 40 years ago. At that point we were smack dab in the middle. It's not because more of us are working during the year: we're about in the middle of that. Our work week, if we're working, is about the same as other countries. Okay? The big difference is we get very few holidays, paid or unpaid, compared to other countries. And most important: Much shorter very vacation time. The Germans will typically get 5 weeks of paid vacation. Other countries 6; others 4. The Australians get a sabbatical of 3 months every 10 years--everybody, not just privileged professors. And we get very short vacations. Every one of these countries mandates paid vacations. We don't. And for that reason, our work years are longer than for everybody else. It seems to me it's a political decision. No company can do it themselves. Otherwise, if they did, they'd get creamed by their competitors. We made a political decision not to do it governmentally. Other countries have chosen to do it through government mandates.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm going to disagree a little bit with that, and then--
Daniel Hamermesh: hah, hah, hah--
Russ Roberts: suggest some other arguments that have been made there. One of the reasons: First thought is that, a lot of people in the United States--this might be true, literally, in the data, but it might just be anecdotal. But I hear of Americans who don't take all of their vacation. So, that's not the only reason, that mandated difference. And again, you have to ask the question of why those mandates are there for those other countries. Why has their political system done that? The answer that I've heard in the past--I associate it with Edward Prescott--is that there are higher taxes in Europe, so the return for work is not quite so high, so they don't work as many hours. What do you think of that?
Daniel Hamermesh: Ah, look. I think that I've argued with Prescott over this--could be about 15 years ago in some unusual environment. You know, it's fine to look at the European countries. But, Switzerland doesn't work any near as much as we do; their tax rates are no higher than ours. Japan, now, doesn't work as much as we do; they have the same average tax rate as we do. So, I think, while it's easy to point to France and Germany as having high tax rates, there are countries with tax rates no higher than ours where people are now working much, much less. So, I don't find Prescott's argument appealing at all.
Russ Roberts: He would probably disagree--
Daniel Hamermesh: I'm sure he would--
Russ Roberts: but that's okay. Do you think--do you have any thoughts on why? I mean, one obvious theory for these differences is cultural.
Daniel Hamermesh: Hah, hah, hah, hah, hah. Sorry for laughing. I used the word 'cultural' in a difference[?] in a paper recently, and I got lambasted.
Russ Roberts: Why?
Daniel Hamermesh: It was considered derogatory for the particular group that I was talking about. So I now never use the word 'cultural' any more. I'll leave that term to sociologists. As an economist, I don't want to use that at all. So, it may be cultural, but I can't talk about it.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm going to take a chance.
Daniel Hamermesh: Okay.
Russ Roberts: And I'm going to suggest--I don't know if it's true--I'm going to suggest the possibility that America's culture is more--you did use the word 'workaholic' in your book.
Daniel Hamermesh: Maybe.
Russ Roberts: So, it's possible that maybe Americans are just more materialistic, more ambitious, more eager to change their old--different ways you could frame it that are attractive, others less attractive. But that could, of course, be the difference. And then you'd argue that the legislative aspect of it is to just make it easier, as you say, for companies to not compete on that basis.
Daniel Hamermesh: Exactly. But if it is cultural, it must be a new cultural thing, because 40 years ago we were no different from other countries.
Russ Roberts: Excellent point.
Daniel Hamermesh: So, you have to make the argument that somehow, culture changed here--or didn't change here but it changed elsewhere--in a way to make this difference suddenly arise. And that's a much tougher argument to make, since we like to think culture is much more permanent than 30- or 40-year changes.
Russ Roberts: Yep, I agree; that's why I think there might be something to the tax argument, because obviously the size of government in Europe has grown dramatically over the last 40 years. It's grown here, too, of course, but not quite as much. And then there's the question of how taxes are structured, and whether they were done well.
Daniel Hamermesh: Uhh--of course. Of course. But the difference in tax rates wasn't that great 30 or 40 years ago. It was about the same, 30 or 40 years ago. I just think some other countries decided that they would be better off having holidays, having paid vacations; and we have not. We are unique in that regard, and I would say that correlates very well with our very long work years.
Russ Roberts: I want to raise a related question, not directly related to the book but drawn on your interests in labor economics and public policy. I recently had Mariana Mazzucato on the program, and we got into an argument about child labor laws. And I suggested that legislation was not an important reason that children don't work in the United States: that it was a partly market-driven force. And of course there's all kinds of areas where this could be true. Child labor laws would be one; mandatory overtime; the minimum wage; OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration]--safety regulations on the job. So, for example, the American workplace is dramatically safer than it was a hundred years ago in terms of death on the job, accidents on the job, disability on the job. But I would argue--
Daniel Hamermesh: A hundred years ago--if I may say, a hundred years ago, heck--40 or 50 years ago. The death rate on the job--this is accounting for the decline of construction and manufacturing--death rates on the job in the same industry have fallen over 50% in 40 or 50 years. It's just unbelievable. One of the great unknown success stories in our economy.
Russ Roberts: And, you know, you make--that was a very subtle point you made very quickly: Which is the nature of work in the United States is safer, meaning there are fewer manufacturing, construction--the most dangerous occupations have fewer people in them, proportionally, than they did 50 years ago, but even within those occupations they've gotten less dangerous--
Daniel Hamermesh: Much less so--
Russ Roberts: And, a lot of people would put up a chart that would show the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and say, 'Look what happened after it passed.' And what they often fail to do is look at the trend before it passed. And it's the same trend. It's almost exactly the same.
Daniel Hamermesh: Of course. Of course.
Russ Roberts: Suggesting that the legislation--it could still have an impact. It could have been the trend would have slowed. It doesn't say that the law is irrelevant. But it is important to understand that there are often underlying factors that are moving in the same direction.
Daniel Hamermesh: Absolutely. And we as economists have to try to disentangle them. Which, for example, I've done in some of my work over the years on minimum wages over time. There's no question--a rich society--minimum wage is tough to talk about--but a rich society should be having people doing less over time. On the other hand, there's some pretty careful experiments, one of this I did 20 years ago involving some California laws which suggest that in fact these things do matter at the margin. They don't explain everything.
Russ Roberts: Right.
Daniel Hamermesh: Of course not. But they do matter. And the question only is, politically, do we want that kind of extra-mattering [?]? Do we want to spend time legislating those extra changes? It's a purely political question.
Russ Roberts: And what comes with those changes--other enforcement, and monitoring; and it's never quite done exactly the way that the people who thought it was a good idea thought it would actually happen. Etc., etc., right?
Daniel Hamermesh: Of course not.
Russ Roberts: We mentioned the minimum wage.
Daniel Hamermesh: Heh, heh, heh.
Russ Roberts: One of the obvious points is that, when the minimum wage stays unchanged for a long time and gets eaten away a little bit by inflation or just stays unchanged even with inflation, fewer and fewer people are earning that amount because of market forces. So, it's a natural phenomenon, to some extent. But, of course, if the minimum wage is set high enough, and we recently had a conversation with Jacob Vigdor of the U. of Washington on this, it can have impacts on employment. It can have impacts on hours. It can have impacts on other margins that I often worry that advocates fail to keep in mind. And I'm curious what your thought is having lived over roughly the same period I have, and seen research that was an absolute consensus that the minimum wage was a destructive thing to low-skilled workers to a near-consensus today that it's really no big deal? And those of us like myself who are still not in favor of it are seen as misunderstanding the current state of research. I'm curious what your take is of where we are on that issue.
Daniel Hamermesh: Hah, hah. Oh, dear, the minimum wage wars, as I call them. There's no policy in the United States in the labor area that is so unimportant, that has gotten so much research and angst spilled[?] about it. Okay? I am really tired of it. I have a new paper with another guy; we talk about minimum wage and overtime. And the fact is--and this is interesting--your initial point wasn't quite right. In about half the states, minimum wage at the state level which apply everywhere are much higher than the Federal $7.25.
Russ Roberts: Absolutely.
Daniel Hamermesh: And moreover, in the last few years, looking across states, those higher straight[?] minimums have exactly mirrored the rise in average wages in those states. So we have been raising the minimum wage for the majority of workers in this country. We just don't talk about it very much. In terms of the consensus on this: My view has always been--there's a wonderful study 40 years ago by the guy who is my co-author on this paper--that, you know, it has some small effects. The effects are bigger on low-skilled people; they're bigger on teenagers. It's also the case that those who are affected by the minimum wage who we're so-called 'trying to help,' are people who are probably not the primary earner in the families. So, when you say all these primary earners are starving at the minimum wage, that's a very rare phenomenon. So, like in most things in this, I am a complete middle-of-the-roader. The problem with that is you get hit by cars coming in both directions. As I have been repeatedly.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's, um--the part that I always worry about that is an extremely unpopular view among--a disliked view by people who are advocates for the minimum wage. But my argument is that it effectively creates a reserve army of the unemployed. It prices out a lot of people from the labor market whose skills aren't worth the minimum wage--if it's set high enough.
Daniel Hamermesh: If it's set high--
Russ Roberts: And then--
Daniel Hamermesh: Yes, but I disagree with you, given how low it's set. If I may just finish. I just don't think it matters very much. My view is: This is a really unimportant issue. The main thing is a way in which political parties get money from advocates for their side. If I ran the zoo--I may quote Dr. Seuss--If I ran the zoo, I would simply say, 'Look. Pick a level for it. Let it go up with inflation every year, and stop worrying about it. It's just not important enough to worry about.
Russ Roberts: Well, I agree it's a lot of political theater around it. But, in Seattle, if you are a large employer, I think you have to have 500 employees nationally, I think--not just in the local market or in the local or a particular location--so, if you are a large employer, it's $16 and hour. Now, there's still a lot of people in Seattle who make many, many dollars above that. But, for people who have low skills--I think it's a pretty brutal thing. What I was going to suggest--and then you can react to it--is that because it's attractive, it pulls people into the labor market. It allows employers to not provide--we focus on the wrong things. We focus on--not the wrong things but only on a narrow set of things: whether people are working and how many hours they work, say. That would be a big expansion[?]. But we also should worry about training on the job, the opportunity to learn from other people, mentoring. And as a result, you don't have to be very nice as an employer, because there's a lot of people willing to work at $16 an hour who are struggling to find those kind of jobs, because they are expensive to the employer. And that just seems to me to be a terrible thing to do to low-skilled workers, in the name of helping them.
Daniel Hamermesh: I think it's a more subtle thing even than you are saying. There are really two issues. One, you are focusing, and the law is focused on wages. I know darn well there are studies of this: When the minimum wage goes up, you cut back other compensation. All kinds of fringe benefits. No question on that. On the training business, that's a little bit tougher. I mean, if I have to pay somebody a bit more, I have incentives to train her or him a bit more. In fact, the evidence on the training suggests that in fact that may go up with a higher minimum wage. But I think the bigger point is that other methods of compensation--namely non-monetary or monetary non-wage compensation--there's no question that gets cut when minimum wages are increased and you kind of pay some people more than you had to before.
Russ Roberts: You might used to have provided uniforms; now the workers have to buy their own. There's a whole bunch of dimensions to this, of course, that are often, I think, underappreciated.
Daniel Hamermesh: All those things.
Russ Roberts: Your book is written for a non-economist. And, one of the sub-themes that runs through the book, which I think is extremely important and I've certainly, in my life, in talking to students emphasized it, is that: Our time is, in many ways our most precious gift. Our most precious resource. It is--it's fairly hard to expand it. You may think that by jogging you are going to make it, maybe, a little longer at the end. But, in general we're stuck with what we have. And we don't spend as much time as we might thinking about its preciousness. So, talk a little about that, and how that motivated you in writing the book.
Daniel Hamermesh: Well, in fact, as a sort of an interesting aside, I wanted the subtitle of the book: Your Most Precious Resource. The editor said, 'a). It sounds like an advice book; b). Using the word "precious" makes it sound like something out of Lord of the Rings.' So the subtitle became The Most Valuable Resource. Which I view as much less interesting, but I do what the editors tell me to do. Uh, I think the issue is people just don't think about time very much. I'm not asking that people worry about it. But either they stew about how rushed they are and don't think about ways to change that feeling of rushedness, or they spend time on things that, really if they'd thought for a minute they would say, 'Hey, this is not the greatest thing to do with my time.' There are ways other than declaring poverty and becoming a monk of having more time, even with the same income. One could, for example, force oneself to spend time on things. For example, I walk to work in New York. I walk 3 miles from my flat up to Barnard College. It's a way of forcing myself to relax a little bit. All kinds of things like that we could do which I think would make our lives better. It's not an advice book. But once you start thinking about time, you realize there are things that we all do that we haven't thought about them, that we could improve our lives and perhaps become somewhat less of a workaholic than we currently are.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm always struck by how, when you explain to people that you can pay for things--services, impart[?] to your daily life--and free up time to do other things because of invoking, say, a fancy economic piece of jargon, but in this case isn't--much more of the common sense--say, invoking comparative advantage. People are like--they are like, 'Whoa! I never thought of that.' And I'm thinking, 'Okay. Well, that's good. If that's helpful to you, I'm really happy.'
Daniel Hamermesh: That's what we say. But, on the other hand, in terms of our 24 hours a day, there's really not that much we could contract out. Across the Valley from where I lived here till a few years ago, was the richest man in Texas, Michael Dell, whose computers you may have heard of. Now, I think about him: How much time can he save by paying for things? I mean, leisure time? No. All his home production, maybe; but some of his home production involves spending time with kids. Which is enjoyment. My guess is that most--if you could--the richest person in the world could at most contract out 3 or 4 hours a day. And that still leaves huge amounts of money. And very, very little extra time to spend it in. So, we're stuck. There's no question about it.
Russ Roberts: So, I shovel my own driveway. It's very short. And it only snows a few times a year here. But I pay somebody to cut my lawn. And--but, for example, my time is, quote-quote, 'very valuable.' And yet I take my own garbage out every week. I don't pay someone for that 90 seconds, or 3 or 4 minutes. And that's--the simple answer in economics is transaction costs: that to do that contracting and time it would just be not worth it, so I just do it myself. And I'm sure Michael Dell has some things like that in his life, where he probably might--he might clear his own table. Maybe not. He may have a servant who does that, full time. There are a lot of little things that rich people can do to make their lives a little more convenient and free up some time. But, as you point out, they are limited. And so much of them, we enjoy. I love chopping wood: when a tree fell in our yard. Raking leaves, not so much. But now that the kids are out of the house, I don't have to set a lesson, so I do pay for that. Or I just don't rake 'em at all. It's really liberating.
Daniel Hamermesh: No; of course. All these things are exactly what we do. In my case, I do none of this home production because we moved into a large apartment downtown [?]--
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Even better.
Daniel Hamermesh: Yeah. That's even better. But still, how much time did it save me? It saved me very, very little. It just doesn't make much difference. Eight hours of sleep a night--I should be so lucky. I work on average about 5 hours a day, reading. I can't pay somebody to read for me. Or sleep for me. It's just--you're stuck. So there's very little hope of time saving unless you make a conscious effort to do things a little bit differently and spend a bit more time at them. In my case, walking the 3 miles to Barnard College rather than taking the subway for 25 minutes.
Russ Roberts: I want to close with a question about the state of economics. I was a student of Gary Becker. And, Gary Becker--it was 1965; you may remember the date better than I do, but I think 1965--wrote a paper that got a lot of acclaim about a different way of looking at how we get our satisfactions in life. And, in particular, Becker pointed out, which is undeniably true, that we combine time with purchases. We don't get direct utility, direct pleasure from a steak. We have to take the steak, combine time--that is, to cook it--and we produce the ultimate good, we're really consuming, is a pleasant dinner with our wife, or a pleasant meal with a glass of wine. And our ultimate goals are not the consumption of things. It's the creation of experiences. And, your example of walking to work is a perfect example of that. You are creating serenity. Or, a little bit of health. Or a whole bunch of things. Contemplation. And yet, what I find fascinating: I think everyone understands that, that it's true. And it--I would suggest--and Kelvin Lancaster had a similar approach at the time--a similar kind of--the idea of that a home is like a little factory. And it might be useful, not necessarily as the husband or the wife, but as economists who look at these experiences, to think about them as not just goods, but goods-and-time. And I am struck by how little impact that had on our profession. Like, none. Zero. On the teaching of economics, or how people conceive of the economic enterprise. Do you think I have that right?
Daniel Hamermesh: I think you have pretty much right. I teach a course for grad students at various locations around the world [?] time[?] And I'm shocked at how few students, or even my younger colleagues, have read the 1965 Becker paper. Which, as you can tell motivated much of this book and has motivated much of my research for the last--good grief--30 years. I'm shocked. I don't know why people don't--I think the real reason--maybe I'm optimistic--is, until recently, we economists like to test theories. And fit models. And until recently there really has not been enough data to allow serious thinking and testing of that model. We know it, in a sense. But the specific implications of it and a testable way have not been available. I think now, with these data that I've used which are becoming more and more widely used, we are starting to see papers, including a recent one of my own, where in fact we do test things directly. Rather subtle predictions. And I think you are going to see much more of this. So, I'm optimistic that in fact this idea, which I think is fundamental to our lives in both rich and poor countries is going to wind up being more and more important in our benighted profession.