David D. Friedman had a thought-provoking post over over the weekend — Middlemen, Specialization and Birthday Parties. Therein he talks about how specialization and division of labor have allowed for us to cheaply outsource various aspects of our lives that were formerly almost necessarily DIY. Below is an example I can relate to now that I’m living as a parent in my own era of kid’s birthday parties — and note Friedman’s reaction (second paragraph):
This afternoon I attended my grandson’s birthday party. It was held at a facility obviously designed for holding children’s parties. The entertainment, preceded by a safety video, consisted of playing on and in large inflatable structures—slides, a bouncy room, an obstacle course. That was followed by cake and pizza, after which everyone went home, the birthday boy accompanied by a bag of unopened presents.
Looking at it as an economist, it is clear that the change from then to now represents an increased use of the division of labor, something that, as an economist, it is hard for me to object to. And yet I do, and I do not think the reason is entirely a conservative preference for the way things used to be. For somewhat similar reasons, I find having guests over for dinner a different, and better, practice than taking them out to a restaurant. Homes have an emotional dimension to them. To invite someone into your home, whether an adult colleague or a child’s friend, is to some small degree to treat him as part of your family.
I tend to agree. I also can’t help but think there’s a tie-in here to buying a friend a gift card rather than a gift. Sure, giving a friend cash or a gift card is like saying, “Hey, I know that no one knows what you want better than you do, so you make the choice and get what you want!” The reality, for me anyway, is that gift cards make the gift, on some level anyway, work. Now I have to remember to allocate the cash to buying something. I have to remember I have the gift card. Whereas getting a gift in hand is more of a risk on the gifter, it also is more personal. I learn something about the giver in the process. I also recognize that the giver sacrificed their time to pick the gift out. These little things somehow add a lot of depth to the experience — at least they do for me.
I like Friedman’s mention of having friends over to your house in lieu of going out to eat. While we haven’t intentionally engaged in a preference of eating-in with friends over eating-out with them, we probably do it about 50% of the time. Going to have to try to bump that up, if possible. Recently, we’ve done a lot more takeout for these meals with friends, which helps some with the work, but still keeps the gathering more personal and relaxed. I’d never really thought about how you lose some of the emotional dimension by eating out at restaurants instead of in your house. It’s a great point.
Overall, I feel like friendships and family-friendships are incredibly hard to build these days. Everything seems over-formalized, requiring lots of advance planning to get together with other couples and couples with kids. “Playdates” are a normal thing now, which just strikes me as a little bizarre.
Anyway, I’m digressing from Friedman, so I’ll stop. Anyone else feel like he does? Like I do?