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The value of working for free

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A daily post from The Globe's roster of top economists and experts



The invitation to contribute to Economy Lab came with a catch: "Alas, no money is involved."





The Globe and Mail's offer makes sense from its point of view. When a firm works out how much to offer a new employee, it figures out how much the person will produce, and what it can sell that product for. I'm not a Globe and Mail employee, but the same logic holds: pay equals the number of Economy Lab contributions times the revenue generated by each contribution. Since you are reading this for free, Economy Lab generates no subscription revenue. And those annoying wandering ads on the Globe and Mail website probably generate just pennies a click. So the revenue generated by each one of my contributions is likely not a significant source of revenue.

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I accepted the Globe and Mail's invitation to work for free. Does that make me irrational? Isn't economics all about money?







Once, the British science program Brainiacs ran an experiment. A marketer tried to give away £1 toilet brushes on the street ("We're introducing a new product, would you like a free toilet brush.") No problem. The same marketer tried to give away £1 coins ("We're introducing a new product, would you like a free £1 coin.") No takers.







People on the street are not stupid. They know that no one just gives away £1. That person must want something in return.







Contributing to Economy Lab gives me psychic income. I love economics and the way it makes a complicated world intelligible. Like the crassest televangelist, I want to share that love with the world. I want to tell Globe and Mail readers about the fascinating, insightful, policy relevant (or just quirky) research carried out by the hundreds of researchers in university economics departments and government agencies across the country. And last, but not least, like every other contributor here, I have another source of income. If this is good publicity for Carleton University, that's good for me.







So everyone is making rational choices. There's just one little unanswered question: How can an aspiring journalist hope to earn a living if I'm prepared to do her job for free?







It's a situation that's replicated in one form or another across the country.







The educated, energetic retiree, happy to work for fun in the local library.

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The unemployed university graduate ready to volunteer in exchange for work experience.







The parent schooling an unconventional child at home because the school system just can't cope.







And around the world, people are prepared to make T-shirts or telemarketing calls for a wage so low that they might as well be working for free.







Over the next few months I'll be writing about these and other economic issues. I might not always have straightforward answers for you, but I'll try to ask some entertaining questions.



Frances Woolley is a professor of economics at Carleton University

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About the Author

Frances Woolley is a professor of economics at Carleton University, where she teaches public finance. Professor Woolley is a former Secretary Treasurer of the Canadian Economics Association, and currently co-editor of Review of Economics of the Household. Her research on taxation and the family was awarded the Purvis Prize in 2001 and the John Vanderkamp Award in 1997. More

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