Why It's Cheaper To Buy Tomatoes In A Supermarket Than Grow Your Own.

Submitted by Dmitri Davydov on Sun, 2007-05-06 08:15.
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The $140 Homemade Scarf

During the late 19th century, piano manufacturing was one of New York City’s largest industries. Every right-minded American family, it seemed, wanted to fill its home with music. The advent of the player piano — a music-making machine that required zero talent — drove the boom even further. By the 1920s, some 300,000 pianos were being sold in the United States each year, roughly two-thirds of them player pianos.

But a pair of newer technologies, the radio and the phonograph, soon began to drive the piano into a deep disfavor that continues to this day. Last year, Americans bought only 76,966 pianos. That’s a decrease of 75 percent over a period in which the population more than doubled. As much as people may love music, most of them apparently don’t feel the need to make it for themselves. According to Census Bureau statistics, only 7.3 percent of American adults have played a musical instrument in the past 12 months.

Compare this with the 17.5 percent of adults who currently engage in what the Census Bureau calls “cooking for fun.” Or consider that 41 percent of households have flower gardens, 25 percent raise vegetables and 13 percent grow fruit trees — even though just 1 percent of Americans live on a farm today, down from 30 percent in 1920.

On a more personal note: one of the authors of this column has a sister who runs a thriving yarn store, while the other is married to a knitting devotee who might buy $40 worth of yarn for a single scarf and then spend 10 hours knitting it. Even if her labor is valued at only $10 an hour, the scarf costs at least $140 — or roughly $100 more than a similar machine-made scarf might cost.

Isn’t it puzzling that so many middle-aged Americans are spending so much of their time and money performing menial labors when they don’t have to? Just as the radio and phonograph proved to be powerful substitutes for the piano, the forces of technology and capitalism have greatly eased the burden of feeding and clothing ourselves. So what’s with all the knitting, gardening and “cooking for fun”? Why do some forms of menial labor survive as hobbies while others have been killed off? (For instance, we can’t think of a single person who, since the invention of the washing machine, practices “laundry for fun.”)

Economists have been trying for decades to measure how much leisure time people have and how they spend it, but there has been precious little consensus. This is in part because it’s hard to say what constitutes leisure and in part because measurements of leisure over the years have not been very consistent.

Economists typically separate our daily activities into three categories: market work (which produces income), home production (unpaid chores) and pure leisure. How, then, are we to categorize knitting, gardening and cooking? While preparing meals at home can certainly be much cheaper than dining out and therefore viewed as home production, what about the “cooking for fun” factor?

In an attempt to address such gray areas, the economists Valerie A. Ramey and Neville Francis classified certain home activities as labor and others as leisure. In their recent paper “A Century of Work and Leisure,” they employed a 1985 time-use survey in which people ranked their enjoyment of various activities on a scale of 0 to 10. Knitting, gardening and cooking were in the middle of the scale, with a 7.7, 7.1 and 6.6, respectively. These ranked well behind the three favorite activities — sex, playing sports and fishing (which scored 9.3, 9.2 and 9.1) — but firmly ahead of paying bills, cleaning the house and, yes, doing the laundry (5.2, 4.9 and 4.8).

But here’s where it gets tricky. Ramey and Francis decided that anything at or above a 7.3 is leisure, while anything below is home production. (Knitting, therefore, makes the grade as leisure; gardening and cooking do not.) This leads them to calculate that we spend less time doing market work today than we did in 1900 but more time in home production. Men, it seems, have contributed mightily to this upsurge: in 1920, employed men spent only two or three hours a week on home production, but they averaged 11 hours by 1965 and 16 hours by 2004.

But how many of those home-production hours are in fact leisure hours? This, it seems, is the real question here: What makes a certain activity work for one person and leisure for another?

With no disrespect toward Ramey and Francis, how about this for an alternative definition: Whether or not you’re getting paid, it’s work if someone else tells you to do it and leisure if you choose to do it yourself. If you are the sort of person who likes to mow his own lawn even though you can afford to pay someone to do it, consider how you’d react if your neighbor offered to pay you the going rate to mow his lawn. The odds are that you wouldn’t accept his job offer.

And so a great many people who can afford not to perform menial labor choose to do so, because — well, why? An evolutionary biologist might say that embedded in our genes is a drive to feed and clothe ourselves and tame our surroundings. An economist, meanwhile, might argue that we respond to incentives that go well beyond the financial; and that, mercifully, we are left free to choose which tasks we want to do ourselves.

Granted, these choices may say a good bit about who we are and where we come from. One of us, for instance (the economist, who lives in Chicago), grew up comfortably in a Midwestern city and has fond memories of visiting his grandparents’ small farm. This author recently bought an indoor hydroponic plant grower. It cost about $150 and to date has produced approximately 14 cherry tomatoes — which, once you factor in the cost of seeds, electricity and even a nominal wage for the labor, puts the average price of a single tomato at roughly $20.

The other one of us (the journalist, who lives in New York) grew up on a small farm and was regularly engaged in all sorts of sowing, mucking and reaping. He, therefore, has little vestigial desire to grow his own food — but he is happy to spend hours shopping for and preparing a special dinner for family and friends. Such dinners, even if the labor were valued at only $10 an hour, are more expensive than a commensurate takeout meal.

Maybe someday the New York guy will get to cook a meal with some of the Chicago guy’s cherry tomatoes. Add in another $32 for next-day shipping, and it might become one of the most expensive meals in recent memory — and, surely, worth every penny.

[Via - Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, the authors of “Freakonomics.”]

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