Sunday, July 4, 2010

Automation and the housework rebound effect

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.


  1. Doing more housework fits in perfectly with the law of supply and demand: make something cheaper (the time cost of doing housework) and we'll consume more of it (the housework itself). Economists that claim these things will lead to less housework are guilty of looking only at the immediate effects. We do actually spend less time doing housework though (there are few housewives around these days), but we also have cleaner houses.

    However, it is pretty hard to claim that it hasn't help to improve our lives. We now have cleaner clothes and houses, better food/meals, etc.


  2. CKM: "These counter-intuitive results have led to ineffective government intervention and bizarre social norms."

    I want to learn more about those two.

    It seems that housewives had a set limit for the hours of work they were willing to do. They continued to do those hours of work with more effective tools, preferring more output to more leisure. Is that a bizarre social norm?

    This effect seems to apply to computers. It seems that most people are willing to pay about $1000 for a computer, preferring to have more speed, storage, and better displays rather than spend less for the capacities of a few years ago. I can't back that up with statistics.

  3. Ineffective government intervention - maybe the slip,slop, slap campaign - skin cancer rates continue their dramatic rise. Helmet laws that result in less cycling and thus more dangerous riding conditions.

    Social norms such as working a 40+ hour week even after radical productivity gains seems a little bizarre to me.

  4. Most "solutions" are only partial. After eliminating most of the problem, smaller or previously hidden effects become important. Suncreen allows people to do much more. But, there is unfelt damage from the radiation not blocked by the sunscreen. We encounter unforseen problems when we do new things.

    I don't see that so much as a "rebound" (ironically creating harm) but as in imperfect search for greater possibilities.

    Your information about helmet laws was eye opening. This is a truly ineffective intervention. The reduction in pleasure, freedom, and amount of cycling does not seem to be worth the benefits of helmets. And, making children feel safer on a bicycle may make them less safe, when the added safety is only partial or mostly superficial.

    I read that football helmets have not reduced injuries. Skull fractures are down, but neck injuries are up. Coaches encourage players to use head-butts, relying on the helmet to protect them.

    Anti-lock brakes and stability systems have made cars safer, but not as safe as predicted. People rely on those systems to drive faster in the rain, as the car feels more stable.

    The goverment advertises that it is on the job providing health and safety for the public. A downside of this regulation is that it is only partially effective, it greatly increases costs, and it often happens years after the fact.

    This broad message is harmful, because it leads people to think that anything allowed must have been checked out by the government. People believe that "if it were bad, they would not be allowed to sell it to me".

    My radical suggestion: The government should stop regulating safety. I know that is unlikely.

    The public would stop thinking that government angels are protecting them, and multiple, independent testing companies (for example, Underwriter's Laboratories) would appear for judging the safety of everything, from cosmetics to contact lenses. People would understand that knowledge is limited, and that all products come with risks.

    There would be competition to provide effective, efficient oversight through independent companies, and consumers could trust the authority of their choice. Authorities which made major errors or which colluded with its customers would go out of business, so they would be careful with their hard-won brand names and reputations.

    - -
    CKM: "Working a 40+ hour week even after radical productivity gains seems a little bizarre to me".

    I wonder if you work 40+ hour weeks, including personal research and blogging? You probably like your work and don't crave much more leisure. I don't see that as bizarre, probably because I'm like that.

  5. CKM: "Working a 40+ hour week even after radical productivity gains seems a little bizarre to me"

    We all unwittingly opted to take the gains from our increased productivity in the form of more money and thus more 'stuff'. In real terms we all earn something like 2.5 times more money than we did back in the 1950's, yet we work longer hours then we did back then and our happiness levels are lower.
    Aussie author Clive Hamilton discusses this phenomenon at length in his book Affluenza...I highly recommend it.

  6. G'day Cam. One area where perverse outcomes can be observed is the rise of the two income family and housing. Having two income earners was supposed to make houses more affordable (i.e. two people to pay the mortgage instead of one). But instead, house prices have been bid up, resulting in no real gains to two income families and far lower housing affordability for singles and families on one income only. So society has found itself in the bizarre situation whereby it is working harder but paying more for much the same level of accommodation.

  7. Well spotted Cam and further with washing machines come increased water use. More water use means less water for the Environment; less water there means more expensive food stuffs; more expensive food stuffs means more money required at the till and that means?, more work hours.

    More vacuums, fridges, irons, etc etc etc more power consumption ie more coal burned leading to dirtier air so that leads to more air conditioners leading to more power consumption. Your rebound effect is in fact a out of control spiral.

    Yes you're true about helmets too. We're begging people to get out of their cars and for what? Where is there a safe road to share with cars, buses and trucks? Why haven't we seen signs like "Slow down, that pedestrian (cyclist) may be your child" or "Pedestrians have right of way". Why, when I press a button to cross a road, do I wait soo long? Why don't the lights change immediately? That would get at least some people walking.

    Why haven't road rules changed?

  8. Andrew, your point about partial solutions is insightful. But I would still say that the effect are rebound effect because they off-set the benefits. Maybe not completely (although sometimes that's the case and I would call it a backfire - eg. helmet laws).

    You would be interested in the Peltzman Effect which describes exactly what you have about safety regulations.

    It appears that people have a natural sense of how much time to spend at various tasks and how much risk they should take.

    Lastly, I was working a 29hr week up until a month ago when I started a new job. I decided that the extra day or so with the family was worth more than my marginal income or that time. One of the problems you face when you do decide to cut down on work is that all of your friends are at work and you can't use that time to socialise anyway. Hence the evolving social norms of work.