David R. Henderson  

Thinking on the Margin About Work

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I was talking on the phone Saturday with a friend who called to wish me happy birthday on my 65th birthday. (See what I did there? :-)) This friend is a doctor, not an economist, but I think he would have been a first-rate economist. He's a fan of Econlog.

I told him that, contrary to my usual practice, I planned not to work on Saturday. That got us talking about work and enjoying work. I quoted an economist friend of mine, Tom Nagle, who is also a fan of Econlog, who said some years ago: "I know many people who love their job. I know of no one who loves his job on the margin." That made sense to me.

I then told him about quoting Tom Nagle's line to Dwight Lee once, who, quick as a flash, shot back, "Of course people don't love their jobs on the margin. If they did, they would be out of equilibrium."

In other words, if you love that marginal hour of work, you're getting two returns from it: (1) the income and the (2) intense pleasure. Then the utility from the income plus the utility from the intense pleasure is highly likely to exceed your opportunity cost. You're out of equilibrium. So you will work longer. QED.

My friend replied: "I love economics."


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Njnnja writes:

One can still love their job on the margin. They just might love something else *more*. Opportunity cost FTW!

David R. Henderson writes:

@Njnna,
Touche.

Bob writes:

At the summit of a 15k' mountain my guide asked me, "who do you care about the most in the world?" Without hesitation, I replied, "At the margin, YOU!"

liberty writes:

I think we are - except the very lucky - most of us out of equilibrium, for long periods, working many more hours than we would prefer. Why don't we work less, then? Necessity.

In extreme cases, it is the necessity of eating vs. starvation we face. You can say that it's a cost-benefit analysis of working + eating food versus not working + starving, and so at the margin we are choosing to work those hours in order not to starve; but then the same could be said about having a gun to your head and making a "choice" to do what a mugger says, but that is considered coercion. If it is a choice between doing something and dying (or even going to jail) we tend not to call it a choice.

In less extreme cases, people still may face losing their home or their internet connection (which makes everything more difficult), etc.

Even those of us lucky enough to enjoy our jobs would still be better off if we had more flexibility in choosing our hours so that we can explore different possible equilibriums, with more or less work, more or less consumption, and more or less time to explore the rest of what life offers. For this we need both cultural change and something like a Basic Income Guarantee.

Silas Barta writes:

What about the purported cases of workaholics who work themselves to death? Then they'd reach equilibrium! :-p

John Cowan writes:

Belated happy birthday David. Thank you for the many many insightful posts.

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