Why Europeans look lazy

September 13, 2006 | 71 comments
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It is a well established fact that Europeans perform vastly less formal market work than Americans. A less known fact is that this is a recent development— in the late 50s, Europeans worked about 10% more hours, but this has been in steady decline for 40 years, until now they work about 30% fewer hours than Americans.

Another less known fact is that Europeans do a lot more home production (stay home to care for children or elderly, tend the house, cook the food, etc.). In fact, most (or possibly all) of that time that they don’t spend in the marketplace, they spend working at home. This gets reflected in the European economy, which has a distinctly smaller service sector than the U.S.

Last week, an economist came through BYU to give a presentation and pointed out that, according to his rather simple model, the entire difference between the two regions could be explained by higher tax rates in Europe encouraging people to do their own work instead of buying services (ie, legally evade some income tax). The model and empirical work was okay but very basic, more suggestive than definitive. Should we bump up the income tax and see if that will keep people at home with their kids? I’m disinclined, but its an interesting idea.

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“Europe” in this case was proxied for by France, Germany, Italy, and Spain which make up the lion’s share of the European economy. I don’t know how different some of the smaller countries look, but if you are averaging across Europe my understanding is that these are the countries that will control the average.

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71 Responses to Why Europeans look lazy

  1. Wilfried on September 13, 2006 at 6:18 am

    Nice title, Frank. I love it. But I think you’re on to something. From my experience high taxes do indeed discourage part of the population to work more and longer. The extra time doesn’t pay off. I have heard that mentioned more than once by people happy to settle for less.

    Most probably there is also at play an ingrained culture of enjoying time at home, tending the house and the garden, enjoying time with children and elderly parents, cooking elaborate meals, or spending hours in visiting friends, socializing, talking. But in this representation there is the risk to stereotype a population of hundreds of millions, as diversified as Americans (I think my wife would like me to match the stereotype…).

    As to the choice of countries, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain are major countries to base averages on, but it further depends how broad you define Europe. The UK (are you EU, Ronan?), the Scandinavian countries, and now all those former east-European states that have entered the European Union, they all contribute to diversity, with their own cultural, social and economic traditions.

  2. Ronan on September 13, 2006 at 6:41 am

    “Europe� in this case was proxied for by France, Germany, Italy, and Spain which make up the lion’s share of the European economy.

    Frank,
    I guess the UK is not part of the European economy, which kind of answers Wilfried’s question!

    I have spent 3 years of my adult life in Austria, 4 in the US and 5 in the UK. You would think that I could then make some wise observations, but I’m afraid I am useless: the entire time has been spent outside of the economy (as a missionary and a student) and among Mormons who seem to buck the trend somewhat for their propensity to “stay at home” a little more then average.

    BTW, there is another reason why Europeans (=mainlanders) spend less time at work: to get anything done here (like, um, registering with the police) takes weeks out of your life. (/grumble, /grumble)

  3. Seth R. on September 13, 2006 at 8:50 am

    Neat factoids Frank. Thanks.

  4. Frank McIntyre on September 13, 2006 at 8:53 am

    Thanks you guys, for the comments! As for the country choice, it would be interesting to know about the smaller countries, especially insofar as they differ from the ones here. Eastern European economies are likely to be a very different story, and so not really worth lumping in. Scandinavians, it’s true, might come out a little differently (or a lot?) but they are so small compared to these that the European average would not change much if weighted by country size.

    Wilfried, there is a strong propensity for people to make claims that this is a cultural difference. What is fascinating is that the cultural differences appear to be directly related to economic institutions. Thus, when Europe was much poorer than the U.S., they worked a ton. Now they don’t. The taxes story is interesting, mildly compelling, but not yet certain.

    Ronan, good point about the regulation forming a bonus tax layer.

  5. Russell Arben Fox on September 13, 2006 at 9:43 am

    “There is a strong propensity for people to make claims that this is a cultural difference. What is fascinating is that the cultural differences appear to be directly related to economic institutions. Thus, when Europe was much poorer than the U.S., they worked a ton. Now they don’t. The taxes story is interesting, mildly compelling, but not yet certain.”

    This is another one of those perennial chicken-or-the-egg issues, isn’t it Frank? Did post-WWII Europeans (and I would be very hesitant to take the behavior of Western Europeans in the decade following that cataclysmic war as a baseline) commit to a strong welfare state, and then develop work and leisure habits that accorded with the maximum personal benefit they could gain under that state? Or did Western Europeans, over the years, respond to the pace and demands of post-WWII capitalism in ways that would preserve their culturally ingrained preferences in terms of work and leisure, with one of those responses being a high-tax regime?

  6. Frank McIntyre on September 13, 2006 at 9:56 am

    It is possible that Europeans allow the higher taxes because they don’t mind the fact that they don’t work as much. I find it less compelling that european policymakers are actively trying to encourage people to stay at home through higher taxes.

    On the other hand, according to the work I saw, if the U.S. had european tax rates, we would work the same way europe does, suggesting that our preferences for work are largely the same as theirs, and both groups are just optimizing in the face of the tax burden they experience– no need for a preference argument there at all!

    You will, of course, need an argument for why the tax rates are higher one place over the other, and that can go a million directions.

    Also, as for postWW2 being a bad starting point, research going back a long way suggests that the Americans and Europeans worked about the same before this time (pre-depression and so forth). Since productivity and hours worked was roughly the same in the two places over a long period, this is another argument against culture being the root cause. So Europe worked more post WW2 because they were recovering from the war and low productivity. As that effect wore off the high tax burdens caused them to shift out of services into home production. No preference argument required, until one goes to explain tax rates.

  7. Matt Evans on September 13, 2006 at 9:59 am

    Or did post-war Western Europe free ride America’s shouldering the expense of protecting them against the soviet bloc?

  8. Frank McIntyre on September 13, 2006 at 10:02 am

    Matt,

    Well, they were paying more taxes already. Had they taken more of the burden with even higher taxes you might have driven the whole economy underground! Also, it was not until the last few years that productivity in Europe caught up with the U.S.

  9. Last Lemming on September 13, 2006 at 10:14 am

    Empirical evidence in the US clearly shows that the labor supply of women is much more responsive to the tax rate than is that of men. I believe that all of the “dynamic analyses” of tax proposals being done in Washington (whether by Treasury, the Joint Committee on Taxation, or the Congressional Budget Office) take that phenomenon into account. It seems totally consistent with your presenter’s hypothesis—women not in the labor force are typically engaged in the “home production” activity of caring for their own children. So I am fine with spreading the message that low taxes on wages mean more women in the labor force.

    I have also wondered about the feasibility of creating a shadow GDP that includes the value of home production. Published GDP excludes it, except for homeowners acting as their own landlords. If you wonder how third world inhabitants survive on a per capita income of less than $1,000 per year, it’s not because prices are lower; its because subsistence farming and other “home production” isn’t counted in GDP. A measure that included home production would allow more realistic comparisons across countries.

  10. Matt Evans on September 13, 2006 at 10:15 am

    Frank, I read a study while in law school (1998-2001) that claimed that Europe’s social spending since WWII was only possible because the US had shouldered the costs of keeping the Soviets at bay. The amount Europe would have had to pay, were the costs of cold war containment applied per capita, would have been several times greater than the total of their social spending.

  11. Susan M on September 13, 2006 at 10:16 am

    What on earth does registering with the police mean?

  12. Matt Evans on September 13, 2006 at 10:18 am

    Last Lemming, that’s an interesting proposal, but would we be able to measure “home production” within a standard deviation? For example, how much do I raise my home production by driving my own car, and brushing my own teeth?

  13. Frank McIntyre on September 13, 2006 at 10:21 am

    Matt 10 — that’s probably right.

    LL 9 — I think GDP in developing countries often does attempt to account for home production– farming anyway.

  14. Tim J. on September 13, 2006 at 10:51 am

    Susan,

    I was wondering the same thing. Maybe Ronan was one of those that was caught on “Dateline” a few months ago?

  15. Last Lemming on September 13, 2006 at 10:52 am

    Shows how much attention I pay to international economics. Frank is correct that developing countries often attempt to account for home production in their GDP measures. The following link provides information on how succesful they are. In fact, the article takes my “shadow GDP” idea for granted and describes how it is being implemented and what obstacles remain. It strongly emphasizes how the current practice devalues women’s work.

    http://www.sarpn.org.za/documents/d0000919/P1017-Unpaid_Care_Work_3.pdf

  16. Russell Arben Fox on September 13, 2006 at 11:03 am

    “It seems totally consistent with your presenter’s hypothesis—women not in the labor force are typically engaged in the “home productionâ€? activity of caring for their own children.”

    But here culture and religion enters into the issue again–because, despite the popular image of European women seeing themselves as the same as and responding to economic conditions in the same way as men, women in the countries this study examined–France, Spain, Italy and Germany–remained in “traditional” occupations and positions in the economic life of their countries to a far greater degree over the decades than American women did. They may have had (and continue to have) fewer children than is the average in the U.S., they may have fewer domestic expectations, but the fact remains that the “careerist” aspect of feminism that became so important to so many women in the U.S., and so influential on our economic life, never took root in quite the same way in Western Europe.

  17. S. on September 13, 2006 at 11:28 am

    Living in Manhattan, I have seen many families dealing with the tradeoffs of working more hours or having a spouse work longer hours (twenty versus forty versus sixty).

    The tradeoff is that if you work longer, you can afford to outsource domestic chores that you enjoy less than your job (eating out more instead of cooking, hiring a cleaner, etc.) You can pay for expensive educational opportunities for your children (fancy schools, piano lessons, tutors, etc.) instead of providing them all yourself. For better or worse, most Manhattanites seem to love working and are happy to outsource domestic duties.

    But the problem always comes down to taxes. To work extra hours and pay somebody else to do your cleaning (and have the effect be time/revenue neutral), you have to make four or five times as much your cleaner hourly (since you are paying high city, state, and federal income taxes on the marginal income — as well as at least theoretically paying your substitute’s social security — and your cleaner at least theoretically also has some taxes, and you and your cleaner both have some commuting time, etc.)

    Lots of people make it work (they make $100/hour at some bank and hire illegal aliens for $12/hour), but there is no question that the taxes create a huge amount of friction.

    If we really want upper class professionals to weed their own gardens, cook their own meals, make their own household repairs, maintain their own cars (and yes, educate their own children), it strikes me as likely that raising income taxes would have this effect.

    (If it’s only the issue of having young children cared for by their mothers that we care about, a minimal level of law enforcement in the hiring of illegal nannies — putting five or six New Yorkers in jail per year for hiring illegals, say — would deter most of them from hiring illegal nannies, and this would decrease supply considerably, perhaps making nannies prohibitively expensive for many families. One could even theoretically impose a special nanny tax. Whether the result would be better for the children on balance is quite another matter — a topic best taken up on another post…)

  18. M L on September 13, 2006 at 11:41 am

    Susan,

    It is likely the case in Austria, as in Germany, that Non-EU foreign nationals are required by law to register with the Auslaenderamt (Foreigner Office). This allows the Germany government to keep track of your last location and follow up on visas, passports, etc. As missionaries we had to register and un-register? in each city we were transferred to. Failure to register was a violation of the visa requirements.

  19. Proud Daughter of Eve on September 13, 2006 at 11:42 am

    How do America and Canada compare for this model? You could test this by comparing hours worked inside the home and hours worked weekly in Canada and the U.S since Canada has a significantly higher income tax but has the same culture as the U.S. However, I happen to know that Canada has slightly longer average work week than the U.S. In fact, recently there was a discussion that Canada had one of the longest working weeks in the world and there were various suggestions as to how to change this. Raising the income tax was not one of them. (The preceeding was typed on behalf of my Canadian husband.)

  20. M L on September 13, 2006 at 11:52 am

    Russell,

    Your comment regarding careerism raises the issue of the effect of the feminist movement on American culture and how European culture may or may not have experienced a similar phenomenon or whether that is still to come. Without having done much research about, or paid much attention to, the feminist movement, anecdotally it is responsible for the increased focus on careerism vs. caregiving, as well as decreases in the birth rate and women marrying later in life.

    If European society did not experience a similar movement toward careerism as a means of obtaining gender equality, perhaps that would explain the fact that European women currently fulfill more “traditional” roles in European society.

  21. DKL on September 13, 2006 at 11:56 am

    One way to look at this is specialization of labor and trading. Income and other taxes constitute a transaction cost. The lower transaction cost associated with trading currency for services, makes it more profitable to be highly specialized in the kind of labor you perform, specifically by specializing in those activities that generate currency (e.g., by spending more time at work).

    Also, no matter what the data says, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that Europeans actually are more lazy than Americans.

  22. Jonathan Green on September 13, 2006 at 11:58 am

    ML, it’s not just foreigners who have to register, it’s everybody. You can’t get a a library card without your Anmeldungsbeleg. The first time I encountered this as a missionary it struck me as outrageously un-American, which, of course, it was, although it’s becoming less so these days.

    Frank, but wouldn’t you need to account for the stronger and healthier unions of western Europe? Most companies would love to have their employers work longer hours for the same pay, and unions have tended to sgtrongly oppose that. If tax policy explains it all, though, does the differing status of labor unions in the US and Europe have no effect?

  23. Frank McIntyre on September 13, 2006 at 11:59 am

    “Also, no matter what the data says, ”

    The clarion call of the online blogger.

  24. john f. on September 13, 2006 at 12:16 pm

    I’m with Matt on Europe having been able to develope the social welfare states that it has because America spent its blood and treasure it keeping the Soviets at bay. Absent that, the countries of Western Europe would have had to spend the money on bombers and nukes that it spent on free college education, generous pensions, and socialized health care or else forcibly become part of the Soviet slave empire.

  25. Frank McIntyre on September 13, 2006 at 12:38 pm

    JG,

    Good question and I don’t know the answer. I guess one can run a few directions:

    1. Unions reflect the preferences of the members, as opposed to driving hours of work decisions, they reflect them.
    2. Unions are a real driver (but then you want to see if unionization has steadily increased over the period, to reflect the steady fall in hours worked).
    3. This guy is off and taxes are not as much of the difference as he claims. Which is, I hasten to add, perfectly plausible.

  26. Jim F. on September 13, 2006 at 1:32 pm

    ML and Jonathan Green: And it isn’t just European countries that require everyone to register. Many countries around the world do, perhaps most.

  27. john f. on September 13, 2006 at 2:04 pm

    And, having lived in some of those countries, I can point out that it’s really not that bad having to register with the police. If you aren’t a criminal, you have nothing to fear, at least until those parliaments criminalize your particular religion as a “dangerous cult.”

  28. endlessnegotiation on September 13, 2006 at 2:05 pm

    A description of various Europeans based on GI surveys after WWII (taken from Steven Ambrose’s “Band of Brothers”):

    [T]he Arabs were despicable, liars, thieves, dirty, awful, without a redeeming feature. The Italians were liars, thieves, dirty, wonderful, with many redeeming features, but never to be trusted. The rural French were sullen, slow, and ungrateful while the Parisians were rapacious, cunning, indifferent to whether they were cheating Germans or Americans. The British people were brave, resourceful, quaint, reserved, dull. The Dutch were regarded as simply wonderful in every way…[T]he average GI found that the people he like best, identifed most closely with, enjoyed being with, were the Germans. Clean, hard-working, disciplined, educated, middle-class in their tastes and lifestyles (many GIs noted that so far as they could tell the only people in the world who regarded a flush toilet and soft white toilet paper as a necessity were the Germans and the Americans), the Germans seemed to man American soldiers as “just like us”…GIs noted, with approval, that the Germans began picking up the rubble the morning after the battle had passed by, and contrasted that with the French, where no one had yet bothered to clean up the mess.

    Sounds to me like laziness can be blamed entirely on the French.

  29. Mark B. on September 13, 2006 at 2:20 pm

    endlessnegotiation may have a point. My father took a long–several days–trip by boxcar from Brittany to the western border of Germany and thence to Southern France just at the end of the war. The French towns were still filled with rubble, with just a lane bulldozed through so traffic (mostly American) could pass through. The Germans, who had just lost the war, were hard at work, clearing the streets, chipping mortar from bricks so they could be reused, etc. He said the Germans were much more like the folks he had grown up around in Snowflake, Arizona than the French.

    The Brandywine tomato (grown in my backyard garden) I had for lunch today reminds me why economics doesn’t explain much, unless you decide to call my preference for tomatoes having flavor and juice and lacking the texture of a turnip an economic choice.

  30. Last Lemming on September 13, 2006 at 2:30 pm

    the only people in the world who regarded…soft white toilet paper as a necessity were the Germans and the Americans.

    By the late seventies, the Germans had dropped off that list.

    unless you decide to call my preference for tomatoes having flavor and juice and lacking the texture of a turnip an economic choice.

    Unless? It’s called utility maximization and is at the very essence of an economic choice.

  31. DKL on September 13, 2006 at 3:02 pm

    Frank McIntyre The clarion call of the online blogger.

    Actually, I was joking. Deadpan doesn’t work well in text. I don’t know enough Europeans to make a judgment based on even just anecdotal evidence. But I’m sure if I did have enough data, it would point to the fact that Europeans actually are more lazy than Americans.

  32. Ed Johnson on September 13, 2006 at 3:58 pm

    Frank,

    You might also note that home production generally escapes tithing as well as taxes. So tithe-paying mormons face an effective “tax” differential greater than others. Perhaps this helps explain why Mormons are somewhat more likely to engage in home production. Tithing not only helps fund the church, it keeps us home with the kids!

  33. Jonathan Green on September 13, 2006 at 4:05 pm

    If the Europeans had paid for their own defense during the Cold War, there would have been a huge surplus of American funds that we most likely would have used for impulse purchases at a massive Tupperware party in 1973 or so.

  34. john f. on September 13, 2006 at 4:09 pm

    Or a health care system. . . .

  35. DKL on September 13, 2006 at 4:39 pm

    Or slave reparations. . . .

  36. Dan on September 13, 2006 at 5:03 pm

    Frank,

    One thing you failed to mention. While Europeans have lessened the amount they work, Americans have increased their work time, spending more time at work than at home. Perhaps what Americans should do is simply go back to spending more time at home and less at work. That might decrease our economy somewhat, but the price we’re paying right now—America’s family is being attacked from everywhere—is worth a drop in the total production of the American economy.

  37. Nate Oman on September 13, 2006 at 5:07 pm

    Um…Dan…I think that was the point of Frank’s post. He is saying that one way of getting people to spend less time at work and more time at home is to change their incentives through the tax code, which is what some emperical evidence suggest the Europeans have done.

  38. Nate Oman on September 13, 2006 at 5:08 pm

    “Tithing not only helps fund the church, it keeps us home with the kids!”

    Clever. Of course, because there is no increasing marginal tithing rate, tithing is a less effective incentive for staying at home than a progressive tax system.

  39. Clark on September 13, 2006 at 5:09 pm

    DKL – LOL.

  40. Nate Oman on September 13, 2006 at 5:15 pm

    “The Brandywine tomato (grown in my backyard garden) I had for lunch today reminds me why economics doesn’t explain much, unless you decide to call my preference for tomatoes having flavor and juice and lacking the texture of a turnip an economic choice.”

    Mark B.: There is absolutely nothing wrong with calling your preferences for tomatoes an economic choice. The only thing that economic theory requires is that your preference for the tomato be reseasonably stable, transitive with your other preferences, and used to make decisions under conditions of relative scarcity. These are very weak assumptions, which is why the tools of economic analysis are so useful. Methodologically, “economic” does not mean “concerned with money or commerce.”

  41. Ed Johnson on September 13, 2006 at 5:20 pm

    “because there is no increasing marginal tithing rate, ”

    Actually, the effective marginal tithing rate is actually decreasing when you account for the benefits of taking the tax deduction. But the total tax-plus-tithing rate is still increasing, and still higher for Mormons than for others.

  42. Nate Oman on September 13, 2006 at 5:20 pm

    Proud Daughter of Eve: One explanation might be opprotunity costs. There is nothing to do in Canda as compared to the United States. Accordingly, Canadian leisure is less valuable than American leisure, and folks substitute in for work which accordingly has lower costs, ie Canadians give up less than Americans by going to work because non-work life in Canada is boring. We could emperically test this theory by looking at how Canadians spend their non-working time. If the Canada-is-boring theory is correct, we would expect Canadians to spend more time doing domestic work than Americans (this is because of the tax beneifts of untaxed domestic work) but quite a bit less time playing, going to the movies, etc.

  43. Nate Oman on September 13, 2006 at 5:21 pm

    Ed: At some point, however, the Alternative Minimum Tax kicks in and the marginal monetary cost of tithing is constant.

  44. Frank McIntyre on September 13, 2006 at 5:28 pm

    Ed, ahh, now the purpose of tithing becomes clear!

    DKL, I know you were joking, but that doesn’t stop me from mocking :)

    Dan, In 1955 Americans averaged about 1250 market hours per adult. This dipped to 1200 in the 70s and then rose to 1350 in the late 90s and has since slid towards 1300. Thus we have not really increased all that much (about 5% in 50 years) despite the notable increase in women’s market participation. The Europeans went from 1400 hours to 900 in a continual drop– a huge shift.

    And Nate’s right, you’ve hit on the theme of the post.

    endlessnegotiation, I think French and German work profiles have followed the same pattern over this period. I have no comment on toilet paper preference.

    Mark B., economics does not dictate preferences, it just models what happens when you try to satisfy them. Hence the relative markets for turnips vs. tomatos.

  45. Frank McIntyre on September 13, 2006 at 5:40 pm

    And I don’t know how I could have written this post and forgotten to link to this:

    http://despair.com/effort.html

  46. DavidH on September 13, 2006 at 5:50 pm

    Ed,

    Who said that the value of home production generally was not subject to tithing? My understanding is the market value of a stay at home parent is on the order of $130,000 per year– although the issue is not free from doubt (I would appreciate your and Frank’s analysis.) See, e.g., http://letters.salon.com/mwt/broadsheet/2006/05/12/salary/permalink/1e92620075a8c58f51b247f1735d56ca.html

    It is true that the Brethren leave to the individual questions like gross vs. net and whether to tithe the imputed value of work (like washing dishes, mowing the lawn, trimming the trees, washing the car). But we all know how a truly committed and devoted LDS will resolve the question whether to donate that $13,000 additional tithing per year–don’t we?

  47. Clark on September 13, 2006 at 5:50 pm

    “There is nothing to do in Canda as compared to the United States.”

    What?

  48. DKL on September 13, 2006 at 6:12 pm

    Nate Oman: There is nothing to do in Canda as compared to the United States.

    How could you say something so senseless and hurtful? Don’t you realize how many people in your audience are Canadians expatriates?

  49. Clark on September 13, 2006 at 6:50 pm

    I think Nate just doesn’t like hockey.

  50. S. P. Bailey on September 13, 2006 at 7:02 pm

    Nate: You must be referring to the North-North-Dakota part of Canada. Having just returned from the Canadian Rockies (and a week of some of the best hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, etc., etc., the world has to offer), I was amused by “there is nothing to do in Canada,” but probably not in the way that you intended.

  51. Naismith on September 13, 2006 at 7:17 pm

    “How do America and Canada compare for this model? You could test this by comparing hours worked inside the home and hours worked weekly in Canada and the U.S since Canada has a significantly higher income tax but has the same culture as the U.S. ”

    I don’t think the US and Canada are similar at all. There is one glaring difference between the two systems, and that is the way health insurance is provided. Of all the US moms I know who work outside the home fulltime when they would much rather be at home, the most common reason is not the money per se but rather the access to health insurance benefits for their family. If dad is a construction worker or entrepreneur or farmer, he may earn good money but is likely not to be offered health benefits through work, and so mom gets a job as a school secretary or government clerk which may stink but offers health coverage.

    In Canada, all workers have access to health coverage, so that issue doesn’t come up.

  52. Mark Butler on September 13, 2006 at 8:02 pm

    Perhaps a better way to fix the health insurance problem would be to fix the tax discrimination that led to the establishment of the current health insurance regime in the first place. Why in the world should the government, as a general principle, discriminate severely in favor of employer provided health insurance?

    One of the most noxious consequences of this discrimination is the extreme motivation it gives for employers to hire a smaller number of (younger, single) employees and have them work long hours (minimizing per employee costs) and then discard them when they reach the age of forty or so. A governent preference for employer provided health insurance is effectively like a per capita tax on employment.

  53. Jack on September 13, 2006 at 9:23 pm

    “…if I did have enough data, it would point to the fact that Europeans actually are more lazy than Americans.”

    DKL, if this were true it would only be because Americans are busier doing unimportant things.

  54. Jack on September 13, 2006 at 9:23 pm

    Like blogging.

  55. Mark B. on September 14, 2006 at 10:00 am

    Then why oh why do farmers grow tons of tomatoes that are inedible wannabe turnips, which nobody could prefer over a real tomato?

    Yeah, I know, packers like them, since they can’t be crushed, and if you’re going to turn them into soup or sauce or ketchup and add a ton of salt anyway, who cares if they have the texture of a turnip and no flavor.

    It sounds as if the democratic ideal has won again, and the two wolves have outvoted the sheep.

  56. Frank McIntyre on September 14, 2006 at 11:10 am

    “Then why oh why do farmers grow tons of tomatoes that are inedible wannabe turnips, which nobody could prefer over a real tomato?”

    They apparently do when faced with the price of a tomato that meets Mark B.’s demands.

    “Let them eat cake!” :)

  57. Mark B. on September 14, 2006 at 11:49 am

    “Let them eat cake!�

    And, just as the poor doomed queen Marie Antoinette proposed an “economic” choice for her subjects–in newspeak she may have said something like “They can maximize their utility by eating cake”–the unseen master of our markets (presumably it was Unseen Hand, that snipelike never seen cousin of Augustus and Learned) has now spoken, “Let them maximize their utility by eating cheap tomatoes that have the flavor and texture of turnips, but the shape and color of tomatoes.”

    Not being an economist, I don’t understand. Is it that all our individual demands, when aggregated, come up with something completely different, sort of like Monty Python’s Flying Circus?

    Or is it like the mob–see Huckleberry Finn, chapter 22–where a whole cavalcade of pitiful people, whipped up into a frenzy (supposedly by all those cheap imitation tomatoes) demand something that none of them alone would choose, and all we need is one man standing firm before this onslaught to stop the onrush of humanity into the abyss with the Gadarene swine?

    Or is it that the large mass of Americans don’t really know what a real tomato is (just as they are ignorant of fresh corn on the cob and homemade cookies), so their “economic choices” are as unfree as their political choice when voting for President (George W. Bush and Al Gore–come on, you can’t seriously believe that more than a handful of Americans would actually have chosen either of them, can you?)

  58. Matt Evans on September 14, 2006 at 11:56 am

    “Is it that all our individual demands, when aggregated, come up with something completely different[?]”

    No, it’s that all of our individual demands for Mark B tomatoes, when aggregated, are still too small to motivate farmers to satisfy it.

  59. Matt Evans on September 14, 2006 at 12:01 pm

    Because I’m an entrepreneur, however, I should point out the possibility that you’ve identified a need currently not met by the market, and are sitting on a juicy, red-gold opportunity.

  60. Mark B. on September 14, 2006 at 12:40 pm

    But who out there is “demanding” tomatoes that taste like cardboard, have the texture of turnips and are only identifiable as tomatoes by color and shape and the label on the store shelf? Why would anybody who knows anything about what a tomato should be choose one of those abominations, rather than buying a turnip instead?

    Isn’t one of the base assumptions in economics that people make rational choices?

  61. Ed Johnson on September 14, 2006 at 1:23 pm

    When the revolution comes and we replace this silly market with rational, efficient central planners, I hope Mark B. gets to be the head of the Ministry of Tomatoes.

  62. John Mansfield on September 14, 2006 at 1:57 pm

    My first week of college, we viewed “Alexandre le Bienheureux” to help us understand European laziness. Alexandre preferred carrots to tomatoes; or maybe he wanted to live the life of a carrot. I can’t quite remember.

  63. roland on September 14, 2006 at 2:30 pm

    This all proves the point of the French President that European Labor Unions have a major strangle hold on the government, preventing the president from passing some much needed pro-business reform legistlation that was needed in order to stimulate the economy.

    I have friends tell me that laid off workers get a over-generous 2-year severance pay package guaranteed by law.

  64. Mark B. on September 14, 2006 at 3:40 pm

    Is there something I said, Ed, that makes you think that I believe some central planner in a Ministry of Tomatoes would do a better job than the market in providing good tomatoes for consumers?

    On the other hand, for all the scorn heaped on central planners, I don’t know that a central planner bureaucrat could have done worse.

    Finally, do you like the tomatoes that are available generally from the supermarket? Does anybody?

  65. Mark Butler on September 14, 2006 at 4:12 pm

    I am sure we could get better tomatoes if most of the population were willing to pay a premium for them. I imagine the problem is that perfectly ripened tomatoes have a very short window in which they must be delivered and eaten, which is a logistical problem not to be underestimated.

  66. Mark B. on September 14, 2006 at 4:50 pm

    The only way to end this threadjack would be to suggest that the Europeans who engage in Tomatina don’t look all that lazy. http://gospain.about.com/od/august/ig/Pictures-of-Tomatina-Fight/index.htm

  67. Jim F. on September 14, 2006 at 4:56 pm

    I’ll see what Mark B said and raise the fact that we demand and buy tomatoes when they aren’t in season.

    If tomatoes have to come from a long way away, as we demand, then they aren’t going to start out ripe. It won’t be many months until the only choice for those in most of the U.Sand Canada. who want a fresh tomato will either have to move to the southern extremities of the U.S. Ior, for that matter, another country) or do without.

    But canned tomatoes are very good for most things. That’s a way to have your tomato and eat it too when they aren’t on the vine locally. When they are on the vine locally, if you want the market to carry good tomatoes, then buy only good tomatoes. Support your local grower when it is feasible to do so.

  68. Nate Oman on September 14, 2006 at 5:31 pm

    Jim F.: I have always found it facinating that one of the things that Marlowe’s Faustus gets from his pact with the Devil is “fruit out of season.”

  69. Jim F. on September 14, 2006 at 10:30 pm

    Nate, did it taste good? Or was it, too, shipped from Peru?

  70. Adam Greenwood on September 18, 2006 at 9:53 am

    I’m told that tomatoes are one of the few crops where home production is a significant part of the market.

  71. grego on September 24, 2006 at 4:35 pm

    I never noticed that. Most hired outside work for most things–nothing like the DIYers in the USA.

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