The Opportunity Cost of Not Working

The great conductor Carlos Kleiber was not a man to worry about the opportunity cost of not working:

He refuses to be at the beck and call of the record industry or the opera and concert managements who bombard him with offers. Even an admiring Herbert von Karajan himself was unable to tempt Kleiber to take a date with the Berlin Philharmonic, an engagement which any other conductor in the world would have grabbed without a second thought.

The reason, according to Karajan, was that Kleiber does not really enjoy conducting. ‘He tells me, ‘I only conduct when I am hungry.’ And it is true. He has a deep-freeze. He fills it up, and cooks for himself, and when it gets down to a certain level then he thinks, ‘now I might do a concert’. He is like a wolf.’

I like this kind of attitude. Go off and earn a bunch of money, use it to live well, and then, when it runs out, repeat. It’s not just conductors who can do this, or performers in general: lawyers can do it too, if they go "of counsel", and the world of management consultancy is full of such people, who prefer a life of adventure to one shackled to a desk.

Yet as Dalton Conley notes in today’s NYT, statistically speaking, people are likely to move the other way, and work more as their earning power rises.

It is now the rich who are the most stressed out and the most likely to be working the most. Perhaps for the first time since we’ve kept track of such things, higher-income folks work more hours than lower-wage earners do…

This is a stunning moment in economic history: At one time we worked hard so that someday we (or our children) wouldn’t have to. Today, the more we earn, the more we work, since the opportunity cost of not working is all the greater.

This is good news for gross national product, but less good news for gross national happiness:

Even with the same work hours and household duties, women with higher incomes report feeling more stressed than women with lower incomes, according to a recent study by the economists Daniel Hamermesh and Jungmin Lee. In other words, not only does more money not solve our problems at home, it may even make things worse.

Which in turn helps to explain the unhappiness that people earning $250,000 a year feel when they read in the paper that because they’re rich they’re going to have to pay more in taxes. Yes, they’re rich. But money hasn’t made them happy or comfortable: quite the opposite. Taxing that money further feels only like adding insult to injury.

On the other hand, as Mark Thoma notes, maybe Conley is reading too much into the statistics, and the reason that the rich are working more than the rest of us is simply that they’re able to find the work.

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