Will manicures make me happier?

A Californian friend commented to me recently that NZ women have a reputation in the US for being ungroomed. She was shocked to learn that most NZ women don’t dye their hair or get weekly manicures and pedicures. More surprising still was seeing women in public without make-up on! It all reminded me of the way I sometimes hear American commentators cite laziness as the reason for French productivity growth being lower than in the US.

Any economist would explain both of these phenomena as resulting from different preferences across leisure and consumption. Weekly pedicures, maniures and hair dying takes up a lot of time that could be spent on other things. Similarly, French workers choose to work far fewer hours that American workers and enjoy more leisure time.

So do Americans simply value leisure time far lower than many other countries? Is consumption so important to them that they have little desire for free time to laze around? And, more troubling, why do some apply pejorative value judgments to those who have different preferences? What persuades people that consuming more to generate bigger GDP summary statistics makes their way of doing things ‘better’ than anyone elses? We need to remember that utility is unobservable and, unless someone wants what you have, their own way of doing things is probably ‘better’ for them.

I guess this is my ‘why can’t we all be more understanding of our differences and just get along’ moment. Group hug!

  • I agree completely here. I’ve gone on spiels about the inadequacy of GDP numbers unless adjusted for leisure. Productivity means something, though still not a ton, per-capita GDP means much less.

  • “And, more troubling, why do they apply pejorative value judgments to those who have different preferences? What persuades people that consuming more to generate bigger GDP summary statistics makes their way of doing things ‘better’ than anyone elses?”

    Indeed. I think this is a value judgment many people, especially economists, are guilty of making my friend. The best we can do is to try to recognise our biases and try to make them as transparent as possible when we analyse things.

  • Peter

    What persuades people that consuming more to generate bigger GDP summary statistics makes their way of doing things ‘better’ than anyone elses

    I think it’s an article of faith for most Americans that the rest of the world, if it could, would be just like them. Therefore, the American way of life is the best way since it’s what everybody else wants!

  • StephenR

    I’m really surprised NZ women have a reputation in the US full-stop!

    Any economist would explain both of these phenomena as resulting from different preferences across leisure and consumption.

    Hopefully any person would think of those too, simply as a matter of common sense, but I get the feeling economics spits out such factors to consider (and more!) simply as result of using some fairly straight forward eco-nomics-like tools..?

    The best we can do is to try to recognise our biases and try to make them as transparent as possible when we analyse things.

    That is interesting. I came to associate ‘declaring ones’ biases’ as a humanities/social science thing at university, but it certainly makes sense to do so here too!

  • Edmond

    I would like to point out that it is actually a very tiny segment of American women that go for weekly manicures and pedicures. The Californian is displaying quite a biased view of her own countrywomen and sounds very much the ‘princess’ type.

    My female friends, few of whom get mani/pedicures on a regular basis, most only as a rare treat, see it as leisure time. They ‘laze around’ while others groom them. I don’t really see the appeal any more than I do in knitting, but to each their own. The only women I know who consider that level of grooming to be normal are models, escorts, and lobbyists (their professions rely upon a constant state of peak appearance).

    Before ascribing some behavioral position to all Americans based upon a woman, about whom most Americans would likely pass the same ‘pejorative value judgment’ as you have, take a moment to reflect on the variety of individuality in the peoples of the world (and Peter, that includes Americans – surprisingly, we do not have a myopic hive-mind)

    As far as the reputation of kiwi women in the US… where is New Zealand? In any case, in 3 years in Wellington I never found them to be ungroomed, but there is a definite lack of what I can only describe as feminine poise.

  • ‘What persuades people that consuming more to generate bigger GDP summary statistics makes their way of doing things ‘better’ than anyone elses?’

    I like the way you think Rauparaha. So good to see someone on here pointing out that there are inbuilt biases in using one set of data over another.

    ”The best we can do is to try to recognise our biases and try to make them as transparent as possible when we analyse things.’

    That is interesting. I came to associate ‘declaring ones’ biases’ as a humanities/social science thing at university, but it certainly makes sense to do so here too!’

    Economics IS a social science. It exists in such a minefield of value judgments that I think you should all come to the humanities side and use your bias.

  • “I think it’s an article of faith for most Americans that the rest of the world, if it could, would be just like them. Therefore, the American way of life is the best way since it’s what everybody else wants!”

    I am not sure that is the way people in the US think – I think that is the image that we ascribe to them in order to make ourselves feel better. It is all about recognising our biases 🙂

    “That is interesting. I came to associate ‘declaring ones’ biases’ as a humanities/social science thing at university, but it certainly makes sense to do so here too!”

    That is the advantage of economics isn’t it – you can make your value judgments as transparent as possible and try to discover what can be viewed as objective.

    “So good to see someone on here pointing out that there are inbuilt biases in using one set of data over another”

    We have never said that data sets aren’t implicitly biased – we have always said that you need a theory to get something out of the data. Now the goal is to try to make that theory transparent and to try and separate the objective and value laden components – however, it is impossible to “reach a conclusion” without applying value judgments.

    “Economics IS a social science. It exists in such a minefield of value judgments that I think you should all come to the humanities side and use your bias.”

    Yes economics is THE social science 😉 . Getting past that standard economist ego rub, economists do recognise that they are part of the social sciences, however that does not mean that we should paint our discussions full of biases and act like nothing is happening.

    The economic method requires determining some general tendencies in as objective a way as possible. Do value judgments exist, yes. However, the goal of the method is to make the discussion of general tendencies as value free as possible. Once this has been done, people can apply value judgments to reach results. Other social sciences are too quick to run with their value judgments, which has the two fold disadvantage of preventing them from learning outside their field and making their recommendations less transparent.

    Economists get annoyed with other social sciences because we think they are intellectually dishonest with some of their work. They think the same thing about us when they hear us prescribing policy, however the policy prescription element is NOT part of what an economic scientist does in the way I conceive it (contrary to Friedmans definition). The economic scientist is merely trying to describe the interaction of individuals in the most general way possible – hence why subjects like neuroeconomics will become important over the next 20 years.

  • rauparaha

    “Before ascribing some behavioral position to all Americans based upon a woman, about whom most Americans would likely pass the same ‘pejorative value judgment’ as you have, take a moment to reflect on the variety of individuality in the peoples of the world”

    Edmond, I’m sorry if you took it as a slight on Americans. Obviously there are all sorts of people wherever you go; however, I hope that what you took from this post was a comment on the specific subsection of any population who stereotype others who are different as worse. Relating it to a specific group of Americans with particular views makes the post an easier read, but I wouldn’t want to suggest that ALL Americans act or feel that way.

  • “Edmond, I’m sorry if you took it as a slight on Americans”

    It did seem like an unnecessarily strong statement to me, you needed a winking face to imply that you didn’t mean it 😉

    I think you are just trying to regain some of your left-wing street cred with the awesome Dr Calcott by attacking GDP, consumption, and the US in one go 😀

  • rauparaha

    “It did seem like an unnecessarily strong statement to me”

    But toning it down and being more precise would make it much less readable and technocratic sounding/boring:P

  • Maybe Rauparaha just has a habit of hanging around with ungroomed women? 😉

    (winking face inserted in line with the Matt Nolan style guide)

  • “But toning it down and being more precise would make it much less readable and technocratic sounding/boring:P”

    Hmmm, I would say that the statement was unnecessary strong – in so far as some of the rhetoric could have been removed without damaging the validity or readability of the statement.

    Furthermore, a smilely face in of itself would not have changed the readability of the statement but would have made the tone a little less aggresive 😛

    If you want to keep “attacking American consumerism” for the sake of readability I would prefer to lay down the fact that this isn’t a blog wide value judgment 😉

  • rauparaha

    I think accusing me of attacking consumerism stretches your point too far. Nowhere did I say that ‘American consumerism’ is bad, worse than any other way of doing things or even undesirable. I think you’re reading the post the way you want to to make it fit in with some value judgments you’ve made about my political views.

    I began the opst by working from an individual’s comment and then cited a a stylised judgment of some commentators. The only thing I generalised across all Americans was working more hours than the French. That is an empirical fact and I made no value judgment about it. I could have been more careful by ascribing pejorative judgments to ‘some’, admittedly. However, in the context of a blog post I think such slight slips are commonplace and forgivable.

  • My only comment is that the tone was relatively negative towards Americans as a group – I do not dispute that I used a value judgment to pull that out, however I am confident that if I read the same thing oblivious to who the author was I would have felt the same way.

    You have consistently mentioned “slight slips” that we make on the blog. However, just because we make a slip doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be answerable to any reasonable inference that is made from it. You have clarified yourself since, however I felt that you comment to Edmond was too dismissive, stating that HE took it as a slight rather than admiting that it could easily be interpretted as a slight on Americans.

    Now I at least 100% agree with the concept of your post – that it is important to remember that maximising welfare is the goal of policy, not arbitray but measurable goals. However, I also felt that treating Americans as an absolute, especially in such a negative sense, actually detracted from your argument by “shifting the focus”.

    You may again criticise the fact I am making a value judgment by interpreting part of your piece in this way – however, everyone that interprets something has to apply a value judgment. If you think the value judgment that Edmond and me applied is completely wrong I suppose you could continue to dismiss it.

  • rauparaha

    It appears you are trying to paint me into a corner where I either agree that I don’t care about the views of others or admit that I’m anti-American?

    I think this has gone too far already.

  • “It appears you are trying to paint me into a corner where I either agree that I don’t care about the views of others or admit that I’m anti-American?”

    Hmmm, I see it as more of a spectrum of choices than a need for extremes. I definitely do not see you as racist or a person lacking empathy. Surely merely stating that you can understand that the way you framed the issue could be interpreted in a negative way that you didn’t mean to put forward would satisfy some type of middle ground.

    So far you have stated that it is other peoples interpretation of your post that is in the wrong here – however, I feel it would be apt to admit that part of the responsibility for this falls on the way you framed the issue.

    I am not meaning to be a troll here, however I have to admit I was surprised with the tone of the post, and I did find the remark to Edmond dismissive – I was surprised because I know you are not like this at all.

  • “Would manicures make me happier”

    – No, Rauparaha, probably not (though I can’t be sure), but it would make ME happier if you just put in a little more effort some time. A manicure would be a good start!