The American Time Use Survey and Economic Imperialism?

So, the current locus of collective action for social scientists seems to be the petition and drive to save the American Time Use Survey (petition details here). I don’t know too much about the data itself, but it seems like an incredibly useful font of information – what little research I’ve read based off time-diary studies (for example, this 2005 book on Honduran immigrants by Leah Schmalzbauer) has been extremely enlightening, replicating some of the nuance of ethnography with a much larger n. One question this debate forces us to ask, however, is what can we learn from the ATUS?

A smattering of findings are reported in this portfolio.com blog post:

  • First-born children receive 20 to 30 minutes more quality time each day from parents than second-born children.
  • Working mothers spend less time cooking, eating with their children, playing with their children and are more likely to buy prepared food. These decreases in time are not offset by spouses, potentially leading to childhood obesity.
  • The returns from grooming: Men who spend twice as much time grooming than the average of 32 minutes a day can expect to earn 5 percent more. Extra grooming time beyond the average 49 minutes does not result in a noticeable benefit for women.

Etc. While these findings all seem very respectable, interesting, and potentially very useful for policymakers, the way the blog frames these findings is very telling:

The best argument for keeping ATUS is that it can provide a good measure of non-market activity which isn’t picked up by GDP but is vital to the economy like child-rearing and home production.

The New York Times takes a similar tack in its praise of the survey, Time and Time Again – New York Times:

Time-use data are also needed to develop an accurate picture of the economy. The National Academy of Sciences and many economists acknowledge that today’s economic statistics — basically, measures of consumption and investments in assets — are incomplete. In a global economy, investment in people is also essential, and to measure that, how people spend their time is as important as how they spend their money.

While I can’t disagree with the economic importance of non-work time use, I am worried about this sort of argument more broadly. Where, for example, is a discussion of the sociological importance of this data? By defending time use in terms of its economic importance, the NYT reinforces the dominance of the economic mode of thought.* A professor of mine liked to say, “The market is a good servant but a bad master.”** If we think of our time, even our time outside of work, principally as inputs into the economic equations of production and consumption, human capital and etc. don’t we lose sight of that dictum?

* Excuse the inelegant phrasing – I am having trouble finding the exact right words for this critique.
** Does anyone know the origin of that saying?

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2 Comments

  1. suinmd

     /  March 2, 2008

    What useful policies will information about the amount of time men spend grooming lead to?

  2. Well, suinmd, if men who do more grooming earn more, for example, it might suggest that men are being valued on their appearance too (not just women), or at least that men making more are expected to be well groomed or something in that vein.

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