September 21, 1997
"A Journalist-Economist Switches Gears"
San Jose Mercury News
By Timothy Taylor
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I DON'T think I'm actually burned out, not yet. But I can smell scorching.
Before I start to char, I'm reorganizing my life. In particular, I'm planning
to disappear from this Opinion page, where my musings have appeared in nearly
300 columns over the last 13 years.
One reason for giving up my public soapbox in this newspaper, and the modest
paycheck that accompanies it, has a valid ring for the workaholic 1990s: I have
alternative projects I'd like to pursue. Two books and several long essays have
been gestating in my mind for the last few years.
Frankly, I don't know whether these projects will ever be completed. A wise
colleague of mine once said: ''There's a big difference between wanting to write
a book, and wanting to have written a book.'' Everyone wants to have written a
book; but until you've spent some time suffering in front of a keyboard, you can't
really know if you want to write one. But if I don't free up some time to work
on these projects, they will never have a chance to happen.
If none of these projects does come to pass, I have the best of excuses: My
wife and I are expecting our first child, due next February. Since my wife works
as a research analyst at an investment bank, any flexibility in our joint working
lives needs to come from me. Along with hiring some modern Mary Poppins to help
us out, of course.
Along with backing away from newspaper writing, I am also turning down the
opportunity to teach economics classes this academic year, and I'm being very
persnickety before accepting any freelance editing projects. My primary paycheck
comes from editing an academic economics journal, and if that's all that happens
in my work life during the next year, it will be plenty.
I'm taking some gentle ribbing from friends about the supposedly non-economic
aspects of the decision to have a child. There's no question that the economic
status of children has changed. In poor countries of today, or long ago in the
United States, children were an investment; that is, you put resources into raising
them when they were very small, and then they contributed labor to the family
business as they grew up, and were providers of social security in old age.
In today's world, the financial returns from parenthood have largely disappeared,
leaving out-of-pocket costs and the intangible rewards. To put it another way,
children have gone from being an investment to being a consumption good.
But one of the greatest misunderstandings about economics is that the subject
is about amassing money and material goods. Search the groves of academe as you
will, you literally cannot find a professional economist who believes that the
goal of each individual should be to earn the highest income, or that the goal
of society should be to produce the highest gross domestic product.
Instead, all of economic theorizing and philosophy is built on the notion that
people seek happiness in their lives as best they can, given the constraint that
there are only 24 hours in a day.
Given that I yearn to be a father, making time for parenthood is in the highest
tradition of economic rationality. Having a child seems to me a grand adventure,
akin to a voyage to distant and unexplored lands. As with any adventure, one expects
a certain amount of discomfort and sleeplessness and expense and occasional outright
fear; what would an adventure be without hazards to overcome? But my wife Kimberley
and I also hope for some transcendental moments of discovery and joy.
The powers-that-be at the Mercury News have said that they would prefer to
think of my departure as a separation, rather than a divorce. I still take a genuine
charge from newspaper writing, and I may well feel moved to write again in these
pages from time to time. But unless or until that happens, my thanks to all readers
who have taken the time to share in my meditations these last nine years.
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