Free Lunch at SXSW?
I had a shockingly large turnout for my talk at SXSW Interactive in Austin. But the real surprise came during the book signing. I was seated next to Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, and got a glimpse of life as a best-seller. Ferriss easily sold twenty-five times as many books as I did, which is hardly surprisingly considering that his Amazon rank is about 200 times better than mine. And virtually every person who got to the front of his line gushed “Your book changed my life!”
Since I had, shall we say, a lot of free time during my signing, I started reading Ferriss’ book. It had an intriguingly pitched chapter on how to outsource the wearisome parts of your life to India. But alas, after reading it, I still didn’t see any clear way for me to profit from a man-servant half a globe away. Telling my Indian employee how to order flowers for Mothers’ Day seemed about as hard as doing it myself.
Nevertheless, the Amazon reviews for The 4-Hour Workweek are overwhelmingly positive – and many of the hostile 1-star reviews are striking examples of economic illiteracy. Here’s one:
[T]he author advises you demand to get paid for the quality of your work, not the time spent on doing it, but then he suggests you outsource your labor overseas, paying somebody else $5 an hour to do it. If somebody actually has to do the work, then the “solution” he is promoting is false, because it’s simply masking the fact that the work has to be done by somebody, somewhere. Worse, that “somebody”–most likely a poor person in the developing world–is actaully being exploited for another person’s benefit.
Here’s another (though other parts of this review are fine; see below):
If everyone outsources their work, who is left to do the work? If all the farmers, doctors, and garbage collectors followed the advice in this book, eventually, we would all be starving, sick, and sitting in our own waste. The jet-set lifestyle enjoyed by the author only works because others are actually willing to work. Until robots can run the world, the ethical implication is that it is OK for some people to work, just not Mr. Ferriss or his readers.
If everyone in the First World started outsourcing, of course, the actual effect would be that wages in countries like India would rise until outsourcing ceased to be unusually profitable. Workers in the First World could get more leisure, but the main result is that they would switch to jobs that require higher skill or physical proximity. Both sides to the transaction benefit, but the process is self-limiting.
Even though many of the 1-star reviews are deeply misguided, the rest get it right. The problem with Ferriss’ advice isn’t that it “exploits” workers in other countries, but that it’s too good to be true. As the insightful section of the previous review puts it:
If you are as smart and well-prepared as Mr. Ferris, there is money to be made using his strategy. But the same could be said for the stock market, real estate, or various other methods by which many people lose their shirts.
During the signing, I was tempted to interrupt: “Tenured econ profs only have to work 6 hours a week, thirty weeks a year, so I guess I’m an ‘independent discoverer’ of your ‘4-Hour Workweek.’ Unfortunately, getting a tenured position takes a lot of ability, work, and luck. Even so, it is a really great deal – and I’ll tell you how to do it for free!”
I suspect, however, that most of the people in line would have dismissed my plan as “unrealistic.” Go figure.