Do you find yourself stressed out by the challenges of balancing parenthood, work, and household duties? Join the club! But fear not, there’s a 21st Century solution to this age-old dilemma: Outsourcing.
In The New York Times Magazine article “Outsource Your Way to Success,” Catherine Rampell writes about a married couple of Columbia professors, Jon Steinsson and Emi Nakamura, new parents who structure their life by the economic principal of comparative advantage. As Rampell describes: “Even if you’re faster and more effective than everyone else at a given task — fighting with the cable company, say, or folding your socks just so — you still might be better off if you pay someone else to do it for you,” because you could be using those minutes of chores and drudgery to be engaged in a “higher-value activity,” like work, or at the very least coming up with clever Facebook status updates that will impress your friends.
Steinsson and Nakamura, economists who put their money where their mouth is, “outsource as much of the humdrum aspects of their personal lives as they can.” They have a housekeeper, and though Rampell writes that they used to cook “recreationally” (um, as opposed to out of hunger?), the couple hired a personal chef to deliver meals for them. They prefer spending time with their son to making their own meals, though why they can’t cook with their kid is beyond me, and a loss for their kid. Will their boy grow up thinking food just magically appears every Sunday, pre-chopped, cooked, and packaged? Now that sounds humdrum to me.
I’d rather take my son food shopping, and then enlist his help in making dinner. I think it’s important that Felix see where and how he fits in as a human being on the planet Earth, that he consumes food which people spent time and resources on producing, and that he recognize the value and effort that goes into creating a delicious meal. I also think it’s essential for him to ball his own socks when they come out of the laundry. Call me old fashioned, but I think hard work prevents spoiled brats from growing into callous, entitled jerks.
Often I read about luxuries that the wealthy can afford, only to find myself feeling disgusted at the rich for infantalizing themselves. Steinsson and Nakamura have hired people to build their IKEA furniture, teach them how to use software programs and baby carriers, and look through their family photographs to select the good ones, which even they admit didn’t turn out too well. (You’d think a pair of Columbia professors might have anticipated that outcome.)
I’ll admit that since I was raised with a strong work ethic by lower middle class parents who didn’t go to college, I am approaching the concept of personal outsourcing with a huge chip on my shoulder, a bias. After all, the economic theory here makes dollars and sense! As Rampell writes, “Embracing the D.I.Y. ethos is (wrongly) perceived as evidence of thrift or even moral virtue.” (Emphasis mine.)
Well, let me let you in on my little theory: Capitalism is inherently a cold, heartless, dehumanizing system in which people are seen only as widgets that produce products or provide services, and success is measured purely by size of bank account. The more I can opt out of the system and work for myself, the better. Why pay others to do what I can do myself?
The argument for personal outsourcing is loaded with empty terms like “effective use of time” and “productivity.” I believe there is a value to routine tasks like washing the dishes and sweeping the floor. Putting on music and getting my hands dirty not only leaves me less stressed out, it also makes me feel good about myself because the results are so tangible, and personal. I’m a human being who makes messes and then cleans them up. I’m responsible for myself. Paying someone else to do the tasks that I consider undesirable— not chores that I can’t do, such as major plumbing, house renovations, or car maintenance, but that I don’t want to do — means that I consider my time more valuable than these other people’s, the lowly workers I hire to handle my messes. It’s not.
After all, what else could I be doing? Working? Ah, but all work leaves Brian a dull boy. Besides, my best ideas about my work often come to me when engaged in the routine of chores. (Our subconscious works best when the mind is distracted. This is why we’re often struck with inspiration in the shower.)
Taking the concept of outsourcing to an extreme (as A.J. Jacobs did for Esquire a few years back) becomes ridiculous. Does the economically minded couple put a price on spending time with their child? What about changing dirty diapers? Or having sex? Or on reading a good novel?* Where do they draw the line between what is an “effective” or “ineffective” use of their time? And doesn’t managing the people they hire also require effort, and headaches, that would be easily avoided if they just lifted a finger and did their own chores? Their child will grow up thinking that the solution to life’s problem isn’t effort, but money. This leaves me feeling down and dejected about humanity, kind of icky, so much so that I’m about to shut my laptop and go wash some dishes.
Personal outsourcers may think they’re being clever and thrifty, but in the end, an only-economic approach to life leaves one poor of the spirit, and bankrupt at heart.
* I’d suggest Steinsson and Nakamura read (or hire someone to read and summarize for them) H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Welles describes a future where the beautiful people, the Eloi, live on the planet’s surface, their every need taken care of by the Morlocks who dwell underground. Sounds alright, until you discover the Morlocks eat the people of the surface, who are too helpless and fearful to fight back. The Eloi are more like cattle then people, perhaps because when you give up your ability to take care of and be responsible for yourself, you give up a piece of your humanity.