Saturday, May 30, 2015

Fry An Egg

The idea driving free markets is that by specialising on things where we have a comparative advantage, and trading, everyone does better. The goal for an individual (or a city, or a country) should be to find something you are good at, you love doing, and that the market values (i.e. you get paid enough). If you don't love it, do something else. If you aren't paid enough, do something else. If you aren't good at it, do something else. With enough flexibility and willingness to learn, the theory goes that we should all eventually 'find our calling'.

Education revolves around this system of 'finding what you are good at' and specialising. So if you can free up time by outsourcing things you find boring or you are bad at, it is worth it. By paying someone to clean your home, the time you would have spent doing it can be used for the thing you are good at. Ditto for cooking, home maintenance, managing your finances, child care, gardening, or whatever you don't like doing, aren't good at, or doesn't pay well enough to justify.

This is seductive and is definitely an argument I have used previously to justify getting help once a week to iron. If it takes me forever to iron a shirt, and I can pay someone to smash all my shirts and make my flat sparkle in a couple of hours, it is money well spent. It is a particularly seductive argument if you live in a country where there is high unemployment. A great example is petrol attendants and car guards in South Africa. We don't need to sit in the car while someone else puts petrol in, but it provides a job. Having a job provides a sense that the money has been earned. This provides a sense of well being.

Something about this doesn't sit right with me. Intentionally creating work for work's sake is a bridge to nowhere. The 'Broken Window Theory' suggests that breaking a window is a good thing because it provides work for someone to fix the window. They then buy something with what they got and there is a chain effect of additional activity that wouldn't have happened otherwise. That is just a coordination problem. A broken window is just a broken window. We can do better.

A Broken Window in my old London Flat

What specialisation also does is make you embarrassingly incompetent at things you just haven't applied your mind to, but that are really simple. As simple as putting your own petrol in your car. I once called a plumber to come 'install my washing machine'. He arrived, attached a pipe to the water supply, twisted it and was done. Perhaps one minute later, I was handing over the cash. This wasn't an example of efficiency through comparative advantage. This was an example of defining myself so narrowly as a 'non-handy' guy that I deserved to hang my head in shame.

I agree that a portion of our day should be focused on getting very good at something. We can't be the best at everything. But for some things we don't need to be. Some things are just about basic life competence. Why is it for example that standard schooling doesn't include learning to cook a few basic meals? Why doesn't it include some domestic education like simple household chores. Many people genuinely don't know how to clean a house. People who do find this very amusing since it is easy, but this is the curse of knowledge. Once you know something is easy, you forget how intimidating it was before you knew. 

Outsourcing the intimidating can become a habit. It can also stop you from experiencing some of the simple pleasures in life. A home cooked meal. A clean house. A washing machine that gets attached to the wall without handing over a silly amount of money. It also means that once you retire as a Chief Executive Officer of a global company employing thousands of people, you know how to fry an egg.
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