Adam Smith’s Fallacy of Productive Labor

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Adam Smith’s Fallacy of Productive Labor

Adam Smith was the brilliant moral philosopher who dispelled us of the persistent myths of mercantilism. However, as prescient as Smith was, he was far from being above reproach. One example was his inability to solve the Diamond-Water Paradox. Smith being unable to explain the Diamond-Water Paradox was not his only shortcoming. In his economic treatise, The Wealth of Nations (Book II, Chapter III) (1776), Smith surmises that any work that does not result in producing tangible goods is unproductive labor.

Smith writes: “…The labor of some of the most respectable orders in society…unproductive of any value.. does not realize itself in any…vendible commodity..”(p.423). Smith was even bold enough to add lawyers and physicians to the list of unproductive contributors in the workforce. This mistake is a corollary of the labor theory of value, the same principle that hindered his ability to address the value paradox. The value of a product or service is not determined by the amount of labor required to produce it but by whether consumers value it. If consumers values an intangible service and firms can provide such services and yield profits, then whether the enterprise creates tangible goods is immaterial.

Adam Smith’s Pin Factory

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Below is Adam Smith’s famous Pin Factory example detailing the benefit of a specified Division of Labor. This single paragraph has evolved to be one of the most heavily referenced tropes in all of political economy. Detailing the advantage of job specialization over having one person complete production from start to finish. The proliferation of job specialization is what has allowed for technological advancement and the development of more complex goods.

“…TO take an example, therefore,’-‘ from very trifling manufacture; making, but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of the pin-maker; a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade), _ nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head ; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; mad the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. I have seen a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day…”(Wealth of Nations, 1776, p.54-55)

See Interactive Pin Factory at Adam Smith Works (Click Here).

Thier’s Law Applied to Human Capital

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This blog entry was inspired by feedback from Enrique at the Prior Probability blog.

If Gresham’s Law applies to retain human capital in the job market, is it possible that Thier’s law (p.9) could also be applicable in certain contexts? On money, when legal tender laws forcing vendors to accept both forms of money at nominal value, economic agents will choose to transact with the higher valued currency. Presenting an axiom that is the opposite of Gresham’s Law, “ Good money drives out bad money”. Typically in the arena of monetary economics, the divide between advocates of Gresham’s Law and Thier’s Law is a sharply delineated dichotomy. Most proponents of one will not defend the possibility that the principle could apply to the circulation of money.

However, in terms of the circulation of human capital these concepts are not necessarily opposed. Employee retention is the byproduct of several highly qualitative attributes that are generally specific to a certain firm. In corporate vernacular, the term “culture” is thrown around so frequently that it has become a buzzword deeply embedded in the American psyche. Companies such as Google, go to great lengths to demonstrate that they have a flexible, open, and innovative corporate culture. The veracity of the claims is ultimately judged by the perceptions of the individual employees. One employee may adore working at Google, while their colleague completely despises the company’s ethos. Making the ebbs-and-flows of human capital even more complex. Employee retention at the individual level is based upon a multitude of various factors. The aggregated collection of the opinions of all the individual employees regarding their work-life satisfaction tends to paint a fuller picture. If while perusing Glassdoor, you happen to see a company with eighty-five two-star ratings, chances are this is not the petty slander of a few disgruntled employees. This is why oftentimes companies will periodically send out surveys to their employees in an attempt to measure overall morale throughout their organization.

Putting aside the highly individualized variable of career satisfaction metrics for an entire firm, if there is a pattern of talented employees leaving, there is a retention problem. Sometimes this may be isolated to a specific department even if the firm as a whole has no issues keeping competent and productive workers. Certain companies and even job roles select for specific attributes that may not be conducive to attracting skilled and reliable labor. Some industries are notorious for high turnover rates, one salient example being the hospitality industry. I remember a few years back, being in between jobs, so I briefly worked at a call-center. For me, this was an income stream until I found something else, for many of the people in my training class it was a lifelong career path. This path was a volatile one. Staying only a few months at one company and then abruptly quitting, generally with no notice. Upon receiving a new job offer, I gave my supervisor my two-week notice and he was astonished by the fact I even bothered to take this step. After only six months, only five people (including myself) out of the twenty-five in my training class remained. Industries and job roles with high turnover may be more willing to retain employees with fewer skills or with a poor performance history, due to the outflow of higher-skilled employees. Perfectly mirror the effect described in Thier’s lawinstead of money, the commodity that is flowing out of the firms is quality human capital.

The question becomes how can these opposed ideas transpire concurrently in the same labor market or even the same company. The answer to this question is predicated upon a “rules of the game” type logic. Each company and each interior department within a firm operate as governing bodies directing the task of workers. Meaning both varying capacity function as “ruler-makers” within the company. Think of corporate policy as being analogous to the federal government, while the department formulated rules are similar to state law. Clearly, in most cases, corporate policy supersedes department policies. If these rules are too onerous or unjust there is little a qualified and skilled employee could other than leave. Either accept and abide by the rules set forth or resign. Resignation being a clear withdrawal of consent on the part of the employee. One relevant example of this is companies still drug testing for marijuana in states where it is legal. Granted, it is an organization’s prerogative to make employees refraining from drug use a contingency of employment. However, if enough high-caliber job candidates take to smoking cannabis they may be in a bit of a quandary. A few years back the FBI ran into this problem due to their “drug-free” employment policy.

If the rules governing the management of a firm are too oppressive, people with options are going to find another job opportunity. What the company is left with are those who lack the skills, ambition, and conscientiousness required for productivity. The employer is left with the staff that clings to their jobs for dear-life as odds are they do not carry too much value on the job market. Much how department policies such as catering to senior and skilled workers can impose an effect similar to Gresham’s Law the opposite is also true. If you create rules that disincentives tenure and self-development, odds are you will lose a lot of great workers. The kind of workers that can be a game-changer in managing strategic customers. As we have observed with the call-center example, frequently due to the oppressive rules, low pay, and dismal work environment people with potential tend to leave these positions. Leaving you with the unskilled and the desperate who are locked-in to the role due to their circumstances. Keeping this dynamic in mind, it is a wonder why people expect quality service whenever they call tech support.

The Law of Diminishing Returns Applied to The Division of Labor

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Most economists from Adam Smith onward have sung the praises of the division of labor. It has even been said that the more specificity a labor pool is the more advanced the economy. A more productive economy has more task specialization. However, doesn’t the law of diminishing turns apply even to the division of labor? At some point,  does specialization shift beyond the equilibrium point of the utility function / production frontier and result in inefficiency?  I am not the biggest fan of neoclassical methodology, but in certain areas of economic life, Pareto-efficiency makes sense. It should not be rigidly applied without any qualitative context. That only provides us with a one dimensional account of economic activity.

At work, I am being assigned to help out with some of the workload in our parent division of the company. I can’t help but be awed by how inefficient their process is. This is where my observation of applying the law of diminishing returns to the division to labor becomes pertinent. The way the process was devised for processing orders for the headquarters of our company, requires actions to be passed off to multiple teams. The total process can take up to forty-eight hours. The process that was originally trained on, takes only four hours and a transfer between only two departments to complete.  Does having a hyper-diversified and stringently delineated process help the customer? I would argue that it does not. Giving tasks that could easily be done by one person to three people means there could be a time gap in between task serving only to make the process more lethargic. Making the premise of utilizing a  proverbial “assembly line” method counterproductive and detrimental to the customer.