Capital Ideas Blog

It's your turn to do the dishes

By Ethan Grove
November 26, 2012

From: Blog


So, who cooked and cleaned up from Thanksgiving dinner?

Did one person in your household do most of the work, or did you take the advice of Emily Oster, associate professor of economics at Chicago Booth, who, in a piece for Slate, wrote about how economics can be applied to divvying up domestic chores—especially when time and patience are running short.

When Oster (who has a forthcoming book, “Expecting Better: How to Fight the Pregnancy Establishment with Facts,” in which she applies the principles of economics to pregnancy) and her husband had a baby, she realized that duties needed to be shuffled and reassigned so neither new parent would be overwhelmed. In so doing, she noted that she had been the better cook and dishwasher, but was no longer able to tackle both efficiently once their daughter arrived. She turned to economics—specifically the principles of efficiency. Oster writes:

“To decide who does what, we need more economics. Specifically, the principle of comparative advantage. Economists usually talk about this in the context of trade. Imagine Finland is better than Sweden at making both reindeer hats and snowshoes. But they are much, much better at the hats and only a little better at the snowshoes. The overall world production is maximized when Finland makes hats and Sweden makes snowshoes.”

Similarly, the most efficient division of domestic labor would be to assign people chores based on their comparative advantage at performing them. So it ran in Oster’s home:

“Other than using the grill—which I freely admit is the husband domain—I’m much, much better at cooking. And I was only moderately better at the dishes. So he got the job of cleaning up after meals, even though his dishwasher loading habits had already come under scrutiny.”

Oster’s focus is fascinating—bringing economics to the private sphere, a world whose economic activity usually goes unmeasured and unstudied. But the comparative advantage approach is often all too lacking in the workplace too. Inefficiencies abound. Senior executives often fail to delegate work that more junior colleagues would be just as well equipped to handle. Staff spend hours in meetings they don’t need to attend.

And, especially after a few days out of the office eating turkey, stuffing and five kinds of pie, waves of email—the bane of modern office life—build up quickly, drowning the important messages in a wash of unnecessary CC’d and BCC’d communications. Like the mountain of dirty dishes after Thanksgiving dinner, most of us are presented each morning with a fresh, overwhelming slew of moderately important emails that cause stress and erode our productivity rather than add to it.

So when look at your emails this morning, consider: is it really worth striving to be a Zero Inbox aficionado, or would you do better to let someone else worry about them, and focus on where you have a comparative advantage?

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