Harold and the Tale of John Henry

Harold’s post got me thinking about John Henry vs. “The Machine”.    I am a fan of capitalism (it beats the alternatives). In this snow example, it  has lowered the full price of removing snow.  According to Amazon, Harold could buy a good snow blower for $300.    Assuming it snows hard 5 times a winter in Chicago and that the blower lives for 6 years (I’m making up these numbers), then ignoring the lost interest and the cost of reading the instruction manual; rational Harold must ask himself whether he is a “John Henry”?  The “easy” soft solution here is to buy the machine and pay $10 per snowfall removal.  He would save time, and protect his back.   Capitalism has allowed him (at low price) to substitute capital for labor.  Armed with the blower, his driveway looks good and he has extra time to blog about the experience.  By buying the blower, you increase manufacturing demand in the exporting nation that built it and you are likely to lower back breaking work in that country.

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

19 thoughts on “Harold and the Tale of John Henry”

  1. My wife has made the same argument…. Unfortunately, my personal discount rate of 900% makes this investment a net loser.

  2. Are you sure you’re calculating expected medical costs correctly? Include heart attack probability as well as back problems, and you might get over even the 900% hurdle.

  3. OK, how about the same thought experiment I proposed a while back with the lawnmower: are you better off living on a block with a shared snow blower, with the trust between neighbors and other measures of social capital that it implies, or on a block where every household has its own snow blower? On my residential block, everyone has a shovel, and even a heavy snow can be removed in front of a house with moderate effort; this is just fine with me. Sometimes a neighbor will shovel the block of a neighbor who is away on vacation.
    But if it were snow blowers, I think that the shared blower is preferable; I would feel better off with the lower expense and the social cooperation that makes a city block a neighborly place to live.

  4. Mark should keep in mind the mindful caution implied in Mississippi John Hurt’s Spikedriver Blues (reading “shovel” for “hammer”),

    This is the hammer that killed John Henry,
    But it won’t kill me,
    It won’t kill me.

  5. My calculus is I can spend the money on something more useful, avoid carbon emissions, and burn calories/work muscles. Being fit avoids/delays health care costs and being outside I might run into a neighbor, increasing social capital. Just saying.

    And I’m all for the shared equipment practice and would do it here, including chipper/shredders, mowers, rototillers. In this particular neighborhood however, there is widespread isolation so it would make it tough.

  6. Bruce is right that a neighborhood association can be tyrannical and they are not what I consider to be social capital. Dan correctly identifies a form of social capital as being what happens when you are out with the shovel and commiserate with a neighbor about weather conditions. Dispelling isolation is the name of the game. So is taking care of the sidewalk of the old widow down the block. I have no real experience with homeowners’ associations, but read about them when they become officious and overbearing with people.

    Shoveling snow, raking leaves, and pulling weeds are all forms of basic outdoor maintenance that tend to be short in duration, occur intermittently, are amenable to working at our own pace, and are followed by rewards in the form of hot chocolate, apple cider, or cold beer afterwards. Low tech solutions are rewarding in these circumstances.

    The machines which have revolutionized the world are the ones that Ha-Joon Chang talks about in “23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism.” The washing machine, he says, has changed the world more than the internet. Nonstop drudgery just to keep domestic life going is a drag on the people who had to do it, and was a drag on the labor market as well; when you have running water in your home you do not need to spend two hours a day fetching it in buckets from the well. If shoveling snow took two hours a day month in and month out, and a snow blower reduced it to a ten minute task, the blower would be a godsend.

  7. Dan Staley hints at this: yes, this is capitalism at its finest. The externality of carbon emissions is, well, an externality and not included in anyone’s accounting. It’s all good, what you don’t see doesn’t exist, and if it does exist, it’s definitely somebody else’s problem and expense. Ya hoo!

    And add to the carbon emissions the noise pollution — I live across the street from a snow blower owner and boy, does he make a lot of very obnoxious noise with that thing.

    Human sweat is the true renewal energy source.

    P.S. The neighborhood association in my older subdivision is actually quite sweet and sponsors events year-round that really do build social capital. My favorite is the annual May subdivision-wide yard sale, when we all walk around and admire and buy one another’s cast-offs.

  8. I’m all for exercise, but shoveling snow is really, really bad for your health. It’s not just the back injuries: more people die of heart attacks every year in New England from shoveling snow than died in earthquakes in California last century. Gasoline-powered leaf-blowers should be banned, but the need for snowblowing is occasional enough to make the noise effects tolerable. As to air pollution, surely the amount of gasoline consumed must be entirely trivial.

    The notion of having a neighborhood snowblower seems sound. Or even a neighborhood kid who owns a snowblower and makes some money doing everyone’s walk.

  9. Neighborhood snow blowers may be a good investment. Snowy winters in the Northern Hemisphere may be the rule in the future. Thousands of square miles of polar ice caps have been transformed into open water because of global warming, which has created summer heat waves and wildfires, which have reduced grain harvests, which have caused spikes of food prices in the developing world, which has led to intense discontent in the populations who bear the brunt of the food shortages, which has in part caused them to turn out in the streets of Cairo in huge numbers demanding immediate change. The two main items in today’s news are interconnected.

  10. I’ve been sold on snowblowers ever since reaching my mid-40’s, when I said, “I’m getting too old for this crap.” Here in the Detroit area, we get a lot of 1-2″ snows, for which I let nature take its course (no snow removal), and a few snows in the 3-10″ range. With the snowblower, cleaning my driveway takes under a half hour (usually more like 10-20 minutes), and two gallons of gas-oil mixture lasts two years or more, so as Mark says the pollution effect is pretty trivial (I have thought about it as I fire up the engine, see the particulates going into the air, and smell the exhaust full of unburned hydrocarbons). There are other things I can do and have done to reduce my personal pollution profile by way more.

    Looking back, I’d say my personal discount rate for reducing manual labor probably has been negative ever since I was a kid (i.e., reading was way more rewarding than breaking my back). And while it’s true that in principle being out shoveling could be a bonding experience in the neighborhood, in the real world whether you’re shoveling or using the snowblower it’s too cold out after a major snow (usually in the 5-10 degree range) to do more than nod in the direction of your neighbor. You’re too focused on getting the job done, getting back inside and warming up to stand around and chit chat. Bonding can wait until we’re enjoying a Michigan summer evening (light until almost 10:00 and comfortable temperatures) on the back deck with drink in hand.

  11. Ed Whitney says:
    “Bruce is right that a neighborhood association can be tyrannical and they are not what I consider to be social capital. ”

    What was in discussion here was not a neighborhood ‘association’ (meaning a group with legal powers), but a neighborhood association (meaning people voluntarily cooperating).

  12. I agree that people die while shoveling, and I suggest that if many (if not most) of the dead were in better shape they’d have a smaller chance of heart attack. A lifetime of activity will ward off the danger of heart attack. I’m 47 and still shovel as it is a good workout, and I hope I’m alive at 80 when I’ll be the crazy old coot still shoveling by hand. When I shovel, it is true I’m focused on the task at hand, but that doesn’t stop someone from stopping and chatting, whether they are walking the dog or going to the mailbox or driving and want to say hi. I don’t mind stopping and chatting. That said, if I was in the NE USA this year I’d be complaining about shoveling too. We are in a moderate drought here and watering our landscape to avoid winter kill so not much shoveling this year.

    And Ed gets at an excellent point about the washing machine – this frees up so much time for women in the Third World, they start down the road of emancipation. Now THERE is a revolutionary labor-saving device!

  13. I think the calculation here is wrong because it misses the $50 worth of time (not to mention the gasoline and the storage space and the maintenance) Harold is spending either way. Better would be to hire someone with a plow (or a blower) and pay $25 per snowfall, and get the exercise some other way while encouraging local entrepeneurship.

    (I speak from a vermont perspective where only the people with very short driveways shovel or blow their own; the private contractors also work for the city, the local hospital and some other big businesses to supplement the fulltime force when really big snows come. But they couldn’t do that if they didn’t have the driveway business as a baseline.)

  14. When it snows I shovel at a leisurely pace, even though I could be in better shape (understatement). And I do take time to chat, with the grounds keeper of the church next door, who is kind enough to run his snow blower on down my front walk while he’s doing the church’s, and with the ladies passing by, who always admire the long flowing winter hat that I always wear while shoveling. You gotta have a gimmick!

  15. Twist on the social capital bit: Our kids *love* to shovel. It makes them feel helpful (because they are helpful) and a contributing part of the family endeavor. They aren’t old enough to run a snowblower; it would take away an opportunity for them to contribute in a real way.

    So, should we also take away the dishwasher, & have them wash dishes, and the vacuum, and have them sweep? They load the dishwasher and run the vacuum, and when they are old enough, they will learn to do both by hand too.

    What bothers me is the idea (not necessarily advanced here, or perhaps advanced in a more nuanced way, but adopted by many many people) that if you *can* have a machine do it, you should. The assumption quickly becomes that everyone will have the machine, and the many externalities listed above are quickly brushed aside as trivial or the province of cranks. A neighborhood of shovels tips very quickly into a neighborhood of snowblowers.

    If you have a bad back, a weak ticker, etc., by all means do it. But for the rest of us, Mr. Kahn falls too quickly into “it saves time at low cost” as if time and money are the most important variables. They are not, necessarily. For me, the *longer* it takes to shovel with the kids, the better.

  16. if you *can* have a machine do it, you should.

    Oh, I caught it. And IME bringing up having an active life means there’s a good bet the subject will be changed, and soon.

Comments are closed.