Tuesday, February 15, 2011

My Achy Economics Bone

It's just a hunch, but something tells me Mark Kleiman just finished Tyler Cowan's book, The Great Stagnation.  (David Brooks essentially used it to fill his column today, in which he spun this really odd tale about a man born in 1900 vs. a man born in 1973, and how the former "built wealth" while the latter shuffled his ipod.)  Kleiman worries that something called the Baumal Effect necessitates an increase in teacher productivity.  From Wikipedia, the Baumal Effect:
involves a rise of salaries in jobs that have experienced no increase of labor productivity in response to rising salaries in other jobs which did experience such labor productivity growth.
Kleiman's solution?  Video-screens! No, seriously.

This crap makes my economics bone hurt.  I would ask this question: where is the morality of shared interest in this economic equation? There are plenty of things in life that are good, valuable services yet which will likely, in 1000 years, be about as productive. Like parenting, for instance. The husband or wife who chooses to stay home and raise the babies is doing something invaluable. So how do we value it? Mark might suggest we find ways of increasing the productivity of parenting – maybe involving videoscreens?

We’ve become so used to business-speak about “growth” being this magic genie that grants all things good, that we have lost sight of what really matters in society. Once we discovered that there were millions of starving people in the 3rd world willing to live on slave wages (because at least slaves get to eat), we sold our neighbors out faster than you can get to page 6 of the WSJ.

Now, I’m not suggesting I have any grand answer to trade and productivity. But I do think that we’ve bent so far over the altar of *quantified productivity* and *growth outcomes*, that we’re forgetting the real value of the real work that real people do. Just because Mark Zuckerburg figured out how to print gold, it doesn’t mean that schoolteachers, firefighters, waiters, taxi drivers, professors, mechanics, cashiers and the rest of us now have to have our god-damned stock diluted.

OK, I took a breath. You want productivity? A school teacher who turns out good students prints gold. A taxi driver who can drive you home from a bar at 2am prints gold. A plumber who can fix the gushing pipe in your basement prints gold.  Since when have we become so blind to the value we bring to each other that quarterly growth and performance targets have come to define us?

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