They may be good for the economy, and they’re certainly good for you.
January was my best month, ever. In my New England town, it was filled with unexpected vacation: snow days, some declared by mayors and school superintendents, others declared by weary fathers who could not bear to dig out the car on yet another morning. Sometimes the hours passed too slowly; in a house with three daughters under the age of 5, you learn quickly that cabin fever is a contagious condition. But the thing about vacation is that once you accept its inevitability, you just might enjoy it.
So by the third or fourth day of enforced leisure our girls had their routine: getting up and dressed in snow pants, trying to conquer snow berms, falling, getting their hands wet, curing themselves with hot chocolate, taking a hot bath at mid-day, putting on pajamas in the early afternoon, and watching, over and again, a DVD starring Olivia, the pig from Ian Falconer’s children’s books. And my wife and I had the pleasure of watching them figure out what to do with found time. Always a sentimental dad, I became an enraptured fool, totally undone by scenes of domestic winter bliss. At one point, I got out an anthology of poems and started to read to my eldest Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” but she was distracted by all the possibilities for the real snow outside.
Meanwhile, everything got done. We all had enough groceries in the larder to eat; water continued to run from the tap; Netflix continued to stream. I and many of my friends could do some work from home, although I tried to resist the damnable urge. Some of my neighbors were distressed by their inability to get to the office—there was much griping about nursery schools closing down, loss of child care, having to babysit one’s own children instead of getting to the office. But I could not figure out why they were so worried. Would they not be able to make up their work? They were writers or teachers, like me; or they were musicians, architects, doctors. Would they really reach the end of 2011 with less to show for their professional lives? Would our society have a less productive year? Would we be poorer for these days we had spent living instead of working?
Because if not, then I think we all might consider expecting more vacation. If it turns out that five unexpected days off result in more family time, more hot chocolate, but no downside at all, then it seems we ought to have those days off ever year—whether there be snow, sleet, or nothing but clear skies.
Fearful that I was overlooking something obvious, I called Victor Matheson, who teaches economics at Holy Cross and studies the effects of natural disasters. I asked him what was lost when snow kept us from work, and he said that pretty much nothing was.
“Usually these natural disasters tend to be of short enough i duration that nothing happens—you can’t pick it up in the data,” Prof. Matheson said. “Things have to be really big before they show up. Even the 44 inches of snow we have got in Worcester in last couple weeks isnt big enough to show up.”
He said that while there tend to be big economic losses on the day of a snow storm, a lot of that money is made back the next day. “Grocery stores suffer like crazy the day no one can get to the grocery store, but everyone goes the next day, and you don’t see the difference.” For this reason, he said, the National Gas Out Day “was the dumbest thing ever. Everyone just gassed up the next day.” By the same token, people will get their face-lifts after the snowmelts; and buy stamps; and get the dog groomed.
Prof. Matheson and other economists I talked to agreed that there are three exceptions, cases in which the money lost to a bad storm never gets made back. The first is if the snowstorm comes at a particularly bad time, like a couple days before Christmas. We will buy what gifts we can, but it will surely be less than if we’d time for a couple more leisurely trips to the mall, and stores never make up that lost income. The second is discretionary purchases like a meal at a nice restaurant: if you miss your traditional Friday night at Bentara (to pick our New Haven favorite), you don’t have two date nights the following week. And the people who would have randomly window-shopped on the afternoon of the storm, and might have bought something displayed in the window, will not think to schedule a window-shopping excursion after the blizzard has passed.
Finally, there is the unavoidable suffering that comes with “rearranging,” to use Prof. Matheson’s word. In other words, that there are winners does not mean much to the losers. It’s no consolation to my local pet store that I took a snow day to buy pet food on Amazon; the money still gets spent, but maybe Waggles goes under and our neighborhood never gets that local business back. More worrisome, a city budget rent by extra plowing costs is never made whole, even if consumer spending is stable.
But these downsides are largely costs associated with the surprise element of winter storms. If we knew precisely when the snow storms were coming, and with what severity, we could arrange our holiday shopping around them. We could make our kibbles runs the day before the storm. Cities could budget appropriately for clean-up. And that fact—that the costs are mostly associated with the surprise, not with the lost work hours—has one very pleasing implication.
For what is a planned holiday but a snow day that doesn’t come as a surprise? The days off that we plan tend to be associated not just with intense happiness—trips to Hawaii, midday spousal assignations, time spent puttering aimlessly—but also with economic benefit.
“Think of Presidents Day sales,” said Scott Bernhardt, whose company, the rather pharmaceutically named Planalytics, analyzes the effects of weather for businesses. “They can plan for it, say, ‘OK, I am going to have a sale, drive people into my store, and put out all my wares, even though its January in New York City.’ If you can anticipate it, and know its coming, get merchandise is from China, advertise, it’s a good thing.”
Mr. Bernhardt cautions that it would be too simple to say that days off are always good for the economy. Among other problems, he notes that closing the financial markets for a day is undesirable: “When money stops moving, that’s a very bad thing for any reason.” But the evidence handily suggests that a snow day is not the end of the world. With our increased capacity to work from home, it’s not even the end of work. Perhaps, then, our politicians might give us what Mother Nature can so easily take away: a few more days every winter to be cooped up with our families, thinking about all the things we’ll buy when we get out of the house, realizing how little they are actually worth.
—Photo Amy Fleming/Flickr