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The Harvard economist who fought a $4 Chinese food charge values his time at $12 an hour

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Benjamin Edelman, a Harvard Business School professor and expert on consumer protection on the Internet, is a man whose time is very valuable. A Businessweek article on him earlier this year emphasized just how valuable: as an undergrad, he charged up to $400 an hour as an expert witness for the NFL and the ACLU. Now, as a consultant, he's paid up until $800 per hour to research companies.

But he's also the kind of guy to pick an elaborate legal fight over being overcharged by $4 at a Chinese restaurant. Edelman, angry that an out-of-date menu posted online for Sichuan Garden II listed prices lower than the ones he was charged, asked for a refund, then for three times that amount, and then threatened a lawsuit.

The Boston Globe's Hilary Sargent got the emails from their recipient, Ran Duan, a well-known bartender at Sichuan Garden II. (After the emails went viral, Edelman later apologized: "Having reflected on my interaction with Ran, including what I said and how I said it, it's clear that I was very much out of line. I aspire to act with great respect and humility in dealing with others, no matter what the situation. Clearly I failed to do so. I am sorry, and I intend to do better in the future.")

All in all, Edelman wrote more than 1,100 words about this $4 overcharge. "You're right that I have better things to do," he wrote at one point in his exchange with Duan.

He does! So we did some quick math on the opportunity costs of Edelman's fight. Assuming the Harvard professor has a typing speed of around 50 words per minute, which is about average, it took him at least 20 minutes to type the 1,100 words words in his emails. That means even if you assume he knew the relevant statutes off the top of his head with no research whatsoever, and that referring the matter to the proper authorities (as he said he did) took little time, that's at least 20 minutes devoted to a $4 overcharge.

Spending at least 20 minutes chasing $4 means you value your time at no more than $12 per hour — or 20 cents per minute.

Of course, you can't put a price on principle. And consumer fraud on the internet is kind of Edelman's thing. (He also pursues much bigger issues than a $4 overcharge, such as privacy violations from Google and Facebookracism at Airbnb, and airlines deceptively mislabeling fees as taxes.) But given how much he charges others for his time, it's surprising he doesn't value it himself nearly as much.

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