Conspicuous *Production*: “Sexy” Work, “Schlep” Work, Automation, and Artisans

People who seek sexy work are often members of what I called the Jeffersonian middle class in an earlier post — motivated by creative self-expression and a sense of personal dignity rather than economic survival.

… Sexy work is attractive to those who like their social identity to be harmoniously integrated within itself (what your mom thinks of you and what your boss thinks of you are not in conflict) and with your private identity (you don’t feel misunderstood). There is consensual external validation of your internal sense of self-worth. You feel authentic.

Sexy work is easy to enjoy, learn, value and integrate into your identity, primarily because it is downhill psychological work: it is the cognitive equivalent of muscular atrophy. You have to choose to make it hard for yourself. You can cash out some status and attention even if you’re not making any money. It does not test your sense of self-worth significantly.

Schlep work has the opposite characteristics along all four vectors. It is harder to enjoy, learn, value and integrate into your identity, primarily because it is uphill psychological work for a social species. It is hard whether or not you want it to be. It is hard to cash out status and attention even if you’re making good money. It tests your sense of self-worth every day.

Somehow, over the past decade, we’ve gone from a useful heuristic (“focus on your strengths” and “find flow”) down a slippery slope of use-with-caution ideas (“work smart, not hard” and “follow your passion”) to the idea of work as a kind of consumption that should be chosen based on the pleasure one can derive from it.

Sexy/schleppy is to my mind, the most natural way to break down human preferences for work. They arise from fundamental desires and aversions. In choosing consumption behaviors or conspicuous production, we tend to feed desires and starve aversions. In schleppy work, we do the opposite: we defer gratification and accept, even seek out, a degree of pain based on the no-pain-no-gain heuristic. A little nudge from a plausible “play to your strengths” philosophy is enough for us to choose the easier way.

Unfortunately, the entire current conversation around work is confused because we prefer a less meaningful distinction, creative vs. uncreative.

Via You Are Not an Artisan.

Is Every Speed Limit Too Low?

The short answer is “yes, at least, almost every speed limit.”

Over the past 12 years, Lt. Megge has increased the speed limit on nearly 400 of Michigan’s roadways. Each time, he or one of his officers hears from community groups who complain that people already drive too fast. But as Megge and his colleagues explain, their intent is not to reduce congestion, bow to the reality that everyone drives too fast, or even strike a balance between safety concerns and drivers’ desire to arrive at their destinations faster. Quite the opposite, Lt. Megge advocates for raising speed limits because he believes it makes roads safer.

via Is Every Speed Limit Too Low?.

Too Many College Graduates, Not Enough Jobs For Them

Nearly half of working Americans with college degrees are in jobs for which they’re overqualified, a new study out Monday suggests.

The study, released by the non-profit Center for College Affordability and Productivity, says the trend is likely to continue for newly minted college graduates over the next decade.

Vedder, whose study is based on 2010 Labor Department data, says the problem is the stock of college graduates in the workforce (41.7 million) in 2010 was larger than the number of jobs requiring a college degree (28.6 million).

That, he says, helps explain why 15% of taxi drivers in 2010 had bachelor’s degrees vs. 1% in 1970. Among retail sales clerks, 25% had a bachelor’s degree in 2010. Less than 5% did in 1970.

Does anyone find this surprising? When you subsidize something, you get more of it, whether or not it makes sense. When the government made it easy to get a loan for a house, people started buying more houses, even when they couldn’t afford one. When the government made it easy to get a loan for college, people started going to college more, even when there was no market payoff for doing so. Government subsidies lead to misallocations of capital because the distorted the emergent information system of prices. The housing bubble burst; the education bubble is going to as well. Via Study: Nearly half are overqualified for their jobs.

Complex Systems and Normal Accidents

One of my favourite sections of the book was Harford’s discussion of accidents. Most of the problems Harford examines in the book are complex and “loosely coupled”, which allows experimentation with failure. But what if the system is tightly coupled, meaning that failures threaten the survival of the entire system? This concept reminded me of work by Robert May, which undermined the belief that increased network complexity led to stability.

The concept of “normal accidents”, taken from a book of that title by Charles Perrow, is compelling. If a system is complex, things will go wrong. Safety measures that increase complexity can increase the potential for problems. As such, the question changes from “how do we stop accidents” to how do we mitigate their damage when they inevitably occur? This takes us to the concept of decoupling. When applied to the financial system, can financial institutions be decoupled from the broader system so that we can let them fail?

(Emphasis mine.) via Harford’s Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure.

Complex Societies Need Simple Laws

Big-government advocates will say that as society grows more complex, laws must multiply to keep up. The opposite is true. It is precisely because society is unfathomably complex that laws must be kept simple. No legislature can possibly prescribe rules for the complex network of uncountable transactions and acts of cooperation that take place every day. Not only is the knowledge that would be required to make such a regulatory regime work unavailable to the planners, it doesn’t actually exist, because people don’t know what they will want or do until they confront alternatives in the real world. Any attempt to manage a modern society is more like a bull in a darkened china shop than a finely tuned machine. No wonder the schemes of politicians go awry.

F.A. Hayek wisely said, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” Another Nobel laureate, James M. Buchanan, put it this way: “Economics is the art of putting parameters on our utopias.”

Barack Obama and his ilk in both parties don’t want parameters on their utopias. They think the world is subject to their manipulation. That idea was debunked years ago.

“With good men and strong governments everything was considered feasible,” the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises wrote. But with the advent of economics, “it was learned that … there is something operative which power and force are unable to alter and to which they must adjust themselves if they hope to achieve success, in precisely the same way as they must taken into account the laws of nature.”

via Complex Societies Need Simple Laws – Reason Magazine.

Left vs Right on Evolution and Economics

On the one hand: Many right/conservative types believe in a universe that was designed from the top down, but are OK with thinking of the economy as something that self-organizes from the bottom up without central control.

One the other: Many left/liberal/progressive types view with contempt anyone who believes in Creation or Intelligent Design, and see evolutionary theory as as good explanation for life on Earth. But, simultaneously, they believe that the economy can be directed and controlled by a relatively small group of smart people.

Me, I have become a believer in the primacy of evolutionary forces in both life and economics.

Roller Skating and Economics

"How are 100 people supposed to skate around the arena without guidance or direction? Each skater traces out a pattern, and the patterns must mesh so skaters avoid injury. That’s a complex problem. It would require smart leadership. But it won’t get solved! The arena will be a scene of collision, injury, and stagnation. Who will pay for that?!"

If you knew nothing of skating, you would expect catastrophe. Before they knew of skating, people knew of dance performance such as ballet, and to achieve a complex coordination requires a choreographer. Everyone knows that.

Intuition leads us to think that complex problems require complex, deliberate solutions. In a roller rink, the social good depends on getting the patterns to mesh. But no one is minding that good. As your friend describes the business idea, not even the owner intends to look after it. How can the social good be achieved if no one is looking after it?

Yet, we have all witnessed roller skating, and we know that somehow it does work out. There are occasional accidents, but mostly people stay whole and have fun, so much so that they pay good money to participate. The spectacle is counter-intuitive. How does it happen?

via Daniel B. Klein, Rinkonomics: A Window on Spontaneous Order | Library of Economics and Liberty.

Illegal Immigration + Gun-Friendly Laws = Very Low Crime

Given that it’s nearly impossible for low-skilled immigrants to work in the United States legitimately, it’s safe to say that a significant percentage of El Paso’s foreign-born population is living here illegally.

El Paso also has some of the laxer gun control policies of any non-Texan big city in the country, mostly due to gun-friendly state law. And famously, El Paso sits just over the Rio Grande from one of the most violent cities in the western hemisphere, Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, home to a staggering 2,500 homicides in the last 18 months alone. A city of illegal immigrants with easy access to guns, just across the river from a metropolis ripped apart by brutal drug war violence. Should be a bloodbath, right?

Here’s the surprise: There were just 18 murders in El Paso last year, in a city of 736,000 people. To compare, Baltimore, with 637,000 residents, had 234 killings. In fact, since the beginning of 2008, there were nearly as many El Pasoans murdered while visiting Juarez (20) than there were murdered in their home town (23).

El Paso is among the safest big cities in America.

Via The El Paso Miracle – Reason Magazine.

Gambling with Other People’s Money

In the United States we like to believe we are a capitalist society based on individual responsibility. But we are what we do. Not what we say we are. Not what we wish to be. But what we do. And what we do in the United States is make it easy to gamble with other people’s money—particularly borrowed money—by making sure that almost everybody who makes bad loans gets his money back anyway. The financial crisis of 2008 was a natural result of these perverse incentives. We must return to the natural incentives of profit and loss if we want to prevent future crises.

via Gambling with Other People’s Money | Mercatus.

What the Tea Party Movement is Really About

Central planning has two primary flaws, when compared with economic freedom: it misallocates resources, and it magnifies the impact of corruption. I could write a decent-sized book explaining both of those mechanisms, but because I’ve never been busier in my life than I have been these past few weeks, I’ll cut to the conclusion.

The endpoint of central planning, if not outright failure, is a much deeper and more intractable division of society into haves and have-nots. After promising a better world for everyone, the progressives will end up creating a society that is more polarized than ever.

via What the Tea Party Movement is Really About | The New Ledger.