Monday, May 7, 2012

The Outsourced Life

An article in the NYT takes issue with the growing personal services market:

The bad news in this case is the capacity of the service market, with all its expertise, to sap self-confidence in our own capacities and those of friends and family. The professional nameologist finds a more auspicious name than we can recall from our family tree. The professional potty trainer does the job better than the bumbling parent or helpful grandparent. Jimmy’s Art Supply sells a better Spanish mission replica kit than your child can build for that school project from paint, glue and a Kleenex box.

The prospect is not attractive:

WE’VE put a self-perpetuating cycle in motion. The more anxious, isolated and time-deprived we are, the more likely we are to turn to paid personal services. To finance these extra services, we work longer hours. This leaves less time to spend with family, friends and neighbors; we become less likely to call on them for help, and they on us. And, the more we rely on the market, the more hooked we become on its promises: Do you need a tidier closet? A nicer family picture album? Elderly parents who are truly well cared for? Children who have an edge in school, on tests, in college and beyond? If we can afford the services involved, many if not most of us are prone to say, sure, why not.

I'm still skeptical about whether the personal services model will work for long. The professional nameologist at $100 a consultation may lose out to which provides an inferior but comparable service for free. Effective personal service will just cost too much money, and people will use better tools to do things themselves - just as happened with domestic service.


I suspect the NYT is identifying a market which does not really exist outside a few upper-class enclaves - Manhattan, Boston, Marin County, Santa Monica. If there is evidence of booming personal services demand in Tulsa, that would be something.


It is true that there is demand for newer forms of domestic service. Instead of full-time butlers or valets, the upper middle classes hire a morning of maid service here, a childminder there. But even if people hire maids, that isn't really the ideal economy of the future. It only works if there is huge income inequality.


There is little leverage or scale in personal services, which means that they will generally be low-paid. Even the legal profession is starting to struggle, and it has had several centuries of stiff barriers to entry into the profession.


Artificial intelligence and robotics are likely to cut the cost of alternatives even further in ten or twenty years' time.  

And this article argues that even if a market in personal services does expand much further, we might not like it. There is clearly a new argument developing here, which also comes from Harvard theorist Michael Sandel, which says the market for personal services could damage or undermine other social goods.


It's really an issue of the boundaries of the market, which can shift back and forth. People can cook food at home, or get delivery Chinese, or microwave frozen pizza. Maybe delivery Chinese is not the future we were hoping for.


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