Wealth Is Defined By More Than Just Money

from the a-bad-economist's-problem dept

One of the hallmarks of a bad economist is when they define things in terms of actual money, rather than marginal benefit or marginal utility. You hear it every so often, where people claim that the "rational person" will always take a higher paying job or will always "want something for free," when the reality is quite different. Economics really looks at marginal benefit or marginal utility, and even though it's often defined in monetary terms, that doesn't mean that it just counts actual money. After all, money is just one way of measuring and/or transferring value. That's why it's always interesting to see stories that demonstrate the difference between marginal benefit and direct money, such as this post by Peter Friedman, which highlights the situation where law firms -- that asked law students they hired to take a temporary "fun" job to wait out the recession (while having the law firm pay part of their salary) before joining the law firm for their "real" job -- are discovering many of those students are no longer interested in law firm jobs:
But as newly barred lawyers have taken this public interest option, many have found jobs they like and enjoy. They picked up some ethical sense in school and enjoy doing work that connects with their values. They sympathize with their classmates who ended up at firms and are working long hours doing work they dislike, but they don't want their jobs. They calculate how much they are making per hour, and find that they are better paid -- at least at first -- than those at firms.

Law firms wanted a reserve workforce committed to them to be on call and ready to go should the market pick back up. What they may be getting, however, is quite different. A lot of these associates are trying to find a way to stay in their public interests jobs, or at least a related field, and may have given up on law firm work forever.

These new lawyers have found that their new jobs are more fulfilling and more interesting, and -- more importantly -- they've seen that they can live on a smaller salary. As one of my classmates put it, "Add up the hours I worked this week and add up the hours my friends at law firms worked. Divide our salaries by the amount of hours and you'll see -- I'm rich."
And that, right there, is a perfect example of the difference between money and marginal benefit. Some will argue, incorrectly, that these associates are making a non-rational decision, but that's not correct at all. The marginal benefit to these recent law grads is much higher at the public interest jobs, and, as that one classmate notes, he's "rich."


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    Jon Renaut (profile), Mar 30th, 2010 @ 6:55am

    Time is sometimes better than money

    The best part of my job is getting to leave in the middle of the day to pick my daughter up from daycare, then finishing work in the evening after my wife gets home. Sure, I could be making more money if she spent more time in daycare, and I'm probably missing out on some career opportunities, but spending quality time with my family is the main reason I'm working in the first place.

     

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    henry evans, Mar 30th, 2010 @ 7:51am

    I doubt any economist would argue that it is necessarily "irrational" for a person to prefer a job that they enjoy that pays less over a job that they think they wouldn't enjoy that pays more. Presumably, there is a pay level at which these people would be indifferent between the two jobs. All this shows, is that some new lawyers view the law firm experience as so unpleasant that the wage at which they would be indifferent is higher than the law firms are willing to pay them.

     

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  3.  
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    Tom, Mar 30th, 2010 @ 8:25am

    work less, earn less, spend less and do more

    almost lyrical

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2010 @ 8:28am

    Rich Vs Wealthy

    Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are rich... The person who signs their paychecks.. is wealthy. -Chris Rock

     

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  5.  
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    Derek Davis, Mar 30th, 2010 @ 8:36am

    Consider the small private school teachers

    If you look at all these tiny private and Christian schools around the country, you'll find many quality teachers - good folks - who work for low pay on purpose. For many of them, they are qualified to teach elsewhere (perhaps contrary to popular opinion) and make better money. They find tremendous value in getting the opportunity to teach within a context that lines up with their worldview and convictions.

    They may drive crappy cars, but they see their vocation as having benefits that we can't see when only looking at their paycheck.

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2010 @ 8:53am

    ...Therefore stealing music is fine.

     

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  7.  
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    Getefix, Mar 30th, 2010 @ 9:05am

    Wealth

    Wealth is as silly a concept as IQ. The prevalence of linear abstractions of multi-dimensional, dynamic systems are testament to the fact that most people are about as sharp as a sack of wet mice.

     

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  8.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2010 @ 9:57am

    i know wealthy people living on the street. take all of their weathy and $4 they can buy coffee at starbucks. i prefer my version of wealthy, they one where i have money.

     

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  9.  
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    Rosedale (profile), Mar 30th, 2010 @ 10:05am

    Industry vs Education

    When I graduated and started hunting for a job I joined a state university in my town. To me the pay was excellent, but I quickly found out that their pay was a fair bit lower than industry standard. However, the benefits in some ways could outweigh the higher pay at industry jobs. I was doing Systems Administration. My first year on the job gave me over 20 paid vacation days and 12 sick days. I was able to choose from 3 different health insurance companies. I had dental and vision. My co-pay and monthly for insurance was WAY below anyone else in town. And my employer was flexible with my hours (If you worked 40 great, but no sweat if you didn't, after all you were salaried and in a few weeks you might have to work late fixing a server). In short I basically had the dream job when it came to actual benefits and work environment. The pay may have been lower, but the intangible benefits in some ways outweighed the direct monetary reward. What good would a higher salary do you if you can't enjoy everyday life with your family or go on a simple vacation.

    There are, of course, industry jobs that pay well and have good benefits, but it isn't the norm or a guarantee.

     

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  10.  
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    Richard (profile), Mar 30th, 2010 @ 10:19am

    Re:

    the law firm experience as so unpleasant that the wage at which they would be indifferent is higher than the law firms are willing to pay them.

    Maybe not - for most people there is also a limit above which extra money brings no greater advantage - no matter how much is offered.

    There may even be a point at which some think that extra money would be a negative.

    Richard Feynman turned down a huge offer to move from Caltech to Chicago for exactly this reason.

    Money only really matters to the poor. The rich ought to be indifferent to it. Those that aren't are probably only using it as a way of "keeping the score".

     

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  11.  
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    Rick, Mar 30th, 2010 @ 10:51am

    What is the point of this article?

    To plant a seedthat the value of having lots of money and the opportunity to get rich shouldn't matter and is bad? Spread the wealth socialism and communism is good? This article was written from a vacuum perspective. The ability to profit from something and to gain wealth is what drives capitalism and innovation, creates jobs and provides this country the great standard of living we have. This also doesn't mean that everyone should be forced to subscribe to either value system or ideology. Everyone value's different things. That is why we have the freedom we have. But - to reiterate, the opportunity to profit is what drives our economy. You take that away - you can kiss America goodbye.

    "The problem with liberals is that they don't know a lot, it's just that they know a lot about stuff that isn't true".

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2010 @ 10:59am

    Re:

    You can steal "an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and color."

    I HAD NO IDEA!!!

     

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  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2010 @ 11:00am

    Re: What is the point of this article?

    Why is unemployment so high in America?

     

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    John Fenderson (profile), Mar 30th, 2010 @ 11:15am

    Re:

    "Presumably, there is a pay level at which these people would be indifferent between the two jobs."

    I don't know about those people, but I can say about me...

    I used to believe that there wasn't a job I couldn't handle if it paid enough. Then I got a job that, to many people, would be considered "good": 6 figure salary, office work, doing nothing morally objectionable. The thing is that I found the work so mind-numbingly dull that my workday was seriously degrading all hours of my life. I left the job for one that paid half what I was getting, but whose work was actually interesting. It was a far, far superior job.

    That lesson taught me that it's not true that enough money can make up for any other factors. There are things which are, quite literally, priceless.

     

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  15.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Mar 30th, 2010 @ 11:19am

    Re: What is the point of this article?

    "This also doesn't mean that everyone should be forced to subscribe to either value system or ideology. Everyone value's different things. That is why we have the freedom we have. But - to reiterate, the opportunity to profit is what drives our economy. You take that away - you can kiss America goodbye."

    --->

    "Everyone is free to have their own values, but unless those values are rooted firmly in monetary profit, they're unpatriotic."

    FTFY

     

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  16.  
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    Life of Brain..., Mar 30th, 2010 @ 11:40am

    Emotional vs. Rational

    This is the classic conundrum, will the rational out strip the emotional. Emotions are reactionary and have a powerful effect on rational thought. Emotional thought originates from our limbic system which has a superhighway to the prefrontal cortex (rational) part of our brain. Unfortunately, there are only minimal feedback paths from the prefrontal cortex to the limbic system. In other words, we react with emotion but can act with ration only after an emotional response.

    Until economist fully understand this, they will continue to make the same mistake Alan Greenspan made, assuming that people will make decisions base on rational outcomes rather than emotional fulfillment.

     

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  17.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2010 @ 11:44am

    Re: Wealth

    Rich is working to be able to buy what ever you want, wealthy is being able to cover all your expenses without working.

     

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  18.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Mar 30th, 2010 @ 11:44am

    Re: What is the point of this article?

    To plant a seedthat the value of having lots of money and the opportunity to get rich shouldn't matter and is bad?

    Uh, I said no such thing. Did you even READ? I just said that wealth is measured by utility, not just money.

    Spread the wealth socialism and communism is good?

    Have you not read this site? We are huge supporters of free market capitalism, but to understand free market capitalism, you have to understand that it measure marginal benefit, not just cash.

    The ability to profit from something and to gain wealth is what drives capitalism and innovation, creates jobs and provides this country the great standard of living we have.

    Indeed. But the point is that *wealth* is defined by more than just money. And we're talking about in the very free market capitalist economics form.

    But - to reiterate, the opportunity to profit is what drives our economy. You take that away - you can kiss America goodbye.

    Who said *anything* about taking away the opportunity to profit? We're just saying that out here -- in the real world -- people measure profits in marginal utility, not just in cash.

     

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  19.  
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    The Groove Tiger (profile), Mar 30th, 2010 @ 12:58pm

    Re:

    Hey AC, I just stole all your music!
    I broke into your house and stole it!

     

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  20.  
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    Michael (profile), Mar 30th, 2010 @ 1:22pm

    Re: Re:

    Agreed on the entire post.

    To word your last sentence another way:

    There are factors that are non-negotiable.

     

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  21.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2010 @ 4:16pm

    I hate American Express. These shill posts keep this site free but make it less valuable.

     

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  22.  
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    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), Mar 30th, 2010 @ 6:52pm

    Re: Re: What is the point of this article?

    "Everyone is free to have their own values, but unless those values are rooted firmly in monetary profit, they're unpatriotic."

    John, you're probably more in agreement than you think. Your paraphrase is exactly the opposite of what Mike (and Adam Smith) said.

    You seem to think that linking happiness (my term, I think) and monetary value means you're conflating the latter for the former. What we (if I may be so bold) are saying is that most people weigh the former against the latter. Therefore there is an equivalence, on a scale-balancing level.

    E.g., I value very highly jobs that are near where I live. If you paid me a million bucks to move to Dubai, I'd give that some serious thought, but it'd probably be a roughly fifty-fifty shot of me accepting.

    What Mike is saying is that the 'close to home' aspect should be afforded a higher monetary value than it is commonly (and 'monetary value' is chosen because it's numerical and can be broken down once in that format, not because 'money trumps all.')

     

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  23.  
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    InternationalManofLeisure, Mar 30th, 2010 @ 10:10pm

    Agree...

    I agree with the article and much of the anecdotal evidence in the comments - my anecdotal evidence:

    I work and live in Sweden (I am originally from the UK). I have lived and worked in several other countries including the UK (naturally) and the USA.

    In Sweden, I earn significantly less than I could earn in either the UK or USA. Most goods are also more expensive.

    However, I choose to remain in Sweden because of the following factors:

    - 6 weeks of paid vacation a year
    - Less stress
    - Sweden's population density is 1/12 that of the UK, with all the benefits that provides in terms of clean air, lack of traffic etc
    - I can live in a house that is both 5 minutes walk from a national park and 30 minutes drive from the headquarters of my multinational employer

     

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  24.  
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    private sector sysadmin, Mar 31st, 2010 @ 6:34am

    Re: Industry vs Education

    Yeah, I know several people with SysAdmin jobs at a state uni. None have a degree in CompSci. One has a poli-sci degree, another in music. These are essentially "fake" jobs, working for a company that cannot fail, doesn't produce a real product, and doesn't compete in the real marketplace. Their "profit" comes from tax money. In other words, all the rest of us who don't work at the uni, pay your salary so you can take it easy and pretend to have a job.

    Now, I know some work is actually undertaken, I'm hardly saying you sit on your a** all day long. But, again, your "company" cannot fail, and doesn't have to compete for success, like a real company does.

    I watched "academic professional" positions being created left and right, in order to squeeze out the traditional civil service positions which offer union protection and benefits. (basic union busting, a standard process)

    So, one by one, the real grunts who do the heavy lifting are replaced by elitist music dept grad's who consume double the money, and take years to reach the level of skill that a person struggling in the real world has no choice but to reach as quickly as possible.

    You enjoy what you enjoy, because you have a fake job, in which you can dabble in the process at your own pace, while the taxpayer foots the bill.

    Good for you, I suppose.

     

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  25.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 31st, 2010 @ 1:52pm

    Re: Re: Industry vs Education

    Wow, somebody's bitter...

     

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  26.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Mar 31st, 2010 @ 2:33pm

    Re: Re: Re: What is the point of this article?

    Actually, what Mike was saying is that "value" and "wealth" are terms that encompass more than just money. Often, money is a relatively insignificant portion of the value of something.

    What Mike wasn't saying is that money is not a consideration at all.

    In any case, you and I are in agreement. Rick and I are not -- as I understand what Rick was saying, it is that money is the factor that should trump everything else. That's fine, as it's his personal calculus, but he also added that his valuation is the "correct" one, and people who value things differently are destroying America. That's where he and I couldn't disagree more.

     

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  27.  
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    Jose_X, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 4:19pm

    Re: Re:

    A really boring job can make it clear just how little time you have to get things done in life.. and then makes you suffer for a really long time on that thought.

     

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  28.  
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    Jose_X, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 4:24pm

    Re:

    ...Therefore giving away music is superior.

     

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  29.  
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    Jose_X, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 4:43pm

    Re: Emotional vs. Rational

    Something else that is very important is that all parties participate in transactions (by necessity) and not just those with access to "perfect" information. Information access or lack thereof (as well as disguise/confusion/etc) is an important component of many transactions.

    And there is also game theory. Strategies can depend on common beliefs or on what you believe others believe or will do.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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