As I have previously argued, innovations that aim to save time, increase safety, decrease energy consumption can be subject to flow-on rebound effects that lead to the opposite result. These counter-intuitive results have lead to ineffective government intervention and bizarre social norms.
A typical challenge to the idea of rebound effects goes like this.
“If a business has to pay each worker more due to government intervention on wages, they are clearly going to employ fewer employers. Are you challenging the Law of Demand? If the price of labour is higher, demand will be lower.”
No, I don’t argue that if we hold everything in the world outside of an individual business constant that the business will employ more people. I argue that to believe the world is held constant robs you of the vision to see flow-on effects to society and the ability to estimate the real net effect of a policy or action.
Today's rebound effect concerns time saving and housework.
Day time television is full of advertorials explaining the time saving benefits of new appliances to homemakers. An automatic slicer, a no hands blender, a steam iron, a self wringing mop – the list goes on. A key selling point of all these goods is the time saving. Each task - cleaning, slicing, ironing - can now be performed in a fraction of the time.
Economists would have us believe that it is this very type of innovation that is leading society to a future of leisure filled days. Keynes predicted, is his 1931 essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” that his grandchildren would spend most of their time at leisure, finding ways to “pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well”.
But the present is not the Keynes’ future. Hours of work per household continue to climb with the rise of two income families and reduction in the physical demands of work, while hours of housework remain much the same as they did a century ago.
Maybe the ignorance of rebound effects has lead economists to be far too optimistic.
So what is the real net effect of time saving innovations to housework tasks? The following excerpt from The Big Switch explains how the electrification of household chores failed to deliver its time-saving promise due to rebound effects in the form of evolving social norms. Ironically, these effects are completely in keeping with the Law of Demand and also happen at a micro level. As the cost (in time and effort) of household chores declined, we demanded more of them.
The utopian promise of electricity seemed within reach inside the home. Many women believed that new appliances like vacuum cleaners and washing machines would, as General Electric advertised, transform their homes from places of labour into places of ease. The home would become less like a sweatshop and would become, as Thomas Edison predicted in a 1912 article on "The Future of Women," "a domestic engineer [rather] than a domestic labourer, with the greatest of handmaidens, electricity, at her service." The first widely purchased appliance designed specifically for housework, the electric iron, seemed to fulfil this expectation. Women no longer had to heat a heavy wedge of cast iron over a hot stove and then drag the red hot chunk of metal over a piece of clothing, stopping frequently to reheat it. They could just plug in a lightweight appliance into the wall. During the first two decades of the century, scores of homemakers swapped their old-fashioned irons for modern electric ones. A photograph of the time shows a General Electric employee standing proudly beside a small mountain of discarded flat irons.
As it turns out, though, the electric iron was not quite the unalloyed blessing it first appeared to be. By making ironing "easier," the new appliance ended up producing a change in the prevailing social expectations about clothing. To appear respectable, men's and women's blouses and trousers had to be more frequently and meticulously pressed than was considered necessary before. Wrinkles became a sign of sloth. Even children's school clothes were expected to be neatly ironed. While women didn't have to work as hard to do their ironing, they had to do more of it, more often, and with more precision.
As other electric appliances flooded the home through the first half of the century - washing machines, vacuum cleaners, sewing machines, toasters, coffee-makers, egg beaters, hair curlers, and, somewhat later, refrigerators, dishwashers and clothes dryers - similar changes in social norms played out. Clothes had to be changed more frequently, rugs had to be cleaner, curls in hair had to be bouncier, meals had to be more elaborate, and the household chine had to be more plentiful and gleam more brightly. Tasks that once had been done every few months now had to be performed every few days, When rugs had had to be carried outside to be cleaned, for instance, the job was done a couple of times a year. With a vacuum cleaner, it became a weekly or even daily ritual.