Division of Labor

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 4th, 2013

Economics 101

(Originally published October 24th, 2011)

The Division of Labor gives us our Houses, Food, Cars, Televisions, Smartphones, Laptops and the Internet

We can’t do everything ourselves.  It’s not efficient.  And most times not even possible.  We don’t build our own houses.  Grow our own food.  Build our own cars.  Manufacture our own high-definition televisions.  Smartphones.  Laptops.  And we don’t build our own Internet.  No.  Instead, people everywhere across the economy specialize in one thing (i.e., work for a living).  And together these specialists fit into the big economic picture.  Which gives us our houses, food, cars, televisions, smartphones, laptops and the Internet.

It started with the most basic division of labor.  Prehistoric women raised their young.  While prehistoric man hunted.  Which was necessary for the propagation of the species.  And us.  For if they all hunted and no one nursed the young the young would have died.  And with them the species of man.  For there was no formula back then.

The next great leap forward on the civilization timeline was the indispensible plough.  The prime mover of civilization.  With the food problem managed, famines were more the exception than the rule.  And with fewer people needed to produce a food surplus, people could do other things.  And they did.

The Division of Labor let us Create Surpluses in Food, Ploughs, Shoes, Tools, Harnesses, Etc.

The division of labor gave rise to artisans.  The first skilled trades.  Made possible by a food surplus.  As other people grew the food the artisans made the tools and crafts the farmers used.  They specialized in plough making and designed and built better and better ploughs.  Lots of them.  Shoemakers made shoes.  Lots of them.  Metal workers made tools.  Lots of them.  Leatherworkers made harnesses.  Lots of them.  See the pattern?

The food surplus gave us surpluses in ploughs, shoes, tools, harnesses, etc.  The division of labor let us create these surpluses.  Specialists made continual improvements in their areas of specialization.  Producing better things.  And more of them.  Which led to another key to the advanced civilization.  Trade.

The shoemaker didn’t have to grow food.  He could trade shoes for food.  Ditto for the plough maker.  The metal worker.  The leatherworker.  And the farmers didn’t have to make any of these things because they could trade food for them.  So we became traders.  We created the market.  And traders took their goods and/or services to these markets to trade for other goods and/or services.  First by foot.  Then by animal.  Then by boat.  Then by train.  Then by truck.  Then by airplane.  Artisans (i.e., workers) traded their specialization for the product and/or services of another’s specialization.  Then.  And now.

The Division of Labor made the Complex Simple and our Lives Rather Comfortable and Fun

The division of labor gave rise to the artisan.  The skilled trade worker.  The middle class.  People who can specialize in one thing.  And trade that one thing for the other things he or she wants.  Whether it be a skilled blacksmith hammering out farming tools.  A tool and die maker working in a factory.  An accountant.  Or a software engineer.  We have a skill.  Our human capital.  And we trade that skill to get the other things we’re not skilled in.  The end result is a modern, bustling, free market economy.  An advanced civilization.  And a high standard of living.

All thanks to the division of labor.  Which made the complex simple.  And our lives rather comfortable.  And fun.  Unlike prehistoric man.  Who knew of no such things as iPhones.  Indoor flush toilets.  Movie theaters.  Or restaurants.  No, he didn’t do much other than survive.  Which was no easy thing.  But he did.  And for that we are grateful.

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Comparative Advantage and Free Trade

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 21st, 2012

Economics 101

Mercantilism benefited only Protected Industries which Profited Handsomely from Higher Consumer Prices  

The Age of Discovery ushered in the era of mercantilism.  An era of trade.  But protected trade.  Tariffs, quotas, protectionism, restrictions, subsidies, etc.  You name it they used it.  To favor their trade position and their domestic industries.  And to restrict that of everyone else.  For mercantilism was a zero-sum game.  You only did well if others did not.  A thought that still has traction today.  Especially in older, inefficient industries.  That cannot compete with international competition that provides better quality at lower prices.  Such as textiles.  Steel.  Automobiles.  The Americans protected these industries in the face of better foreign competition.  Which only hastened their decline.

A protected industry has no incentive to improve.  When protective tariffs raise prices of lower-priced and higher-quality imports consumers buy the inferior domestic goods.  Because the tariffs make the better goods more costly.  So when a business has a captive audience their only focus is in maintaining that protectionism giving them that advantage.  Not improving their quality.  Or improving their productivity to lower their prices.  Why?  Because they don’t have to.  So prices continue to rise to pay for inefficient labor and management.  And quality continues to decline due to the lack of real competition forcing them to continually provide a better product.  By improving designs.  Production methods.  And making capital investments in new machinery and equipment.

This is the cost of protectionism.  Poorer quality and higher prices.  Because of the misguided belief in the zero-sum game of mercantilism.  There was a reason why mercantilism was abandoned for free trade.  Because free trade was better.  For consumers.  Giving them lower prices and higher quality.  Whereas mercantilism benefited only those protected industries which profited handsomely from those higher consumer prices.  And the government officials who granted those favorable protectionist policies.

The Consumer gets Lower Prices AND Higher Quality thanks to the Division of Labor, Specialization and Comparative Advantage

As civilization advanced so did the division of labor.  People began to specialize.  Instead of growing our own food, making our own tools, spinning our own pottery, etc., we did only one thing.  And did it well.  Then we traded the things we made for the things we didn’t make.  This division of labor created a middle class.  And this middle class would take their goods to market to trade with other middle class artisans.  At first bartering with each other.  Trading good for good.  Then they introduced a temporary storage of value into the economy.  Money.  Making those trades easier by reducing search times.  Trading your goods for money.  And your money for goods.  Making life a lot simpler at the market.

Let’s take a closer look at the division of labor.  Let’s consider two artisans.  A toolmaker.   And a potter.  Both are skilled craftspeople.  And can make an assortment of goods.  But each excels at one particular skill.  The toolmaker can make 10 plows a day.  But if he makes 2 pottery bowls he can only make 4 plows in that same day.  The potter can make 12 pottery bowls in a day.  But if he makes 3 plows he can only make 5 pottery bowls in that same day.  Each can make more of their specialty.  But when they try to make other things in addition to their specialty they can’t make as much of their specialty as before.  So there is a cost to the toolmaker to make pottery.  To make 2 bowls cost the toolmaker 6 plows.  And there is a cost to the potter to make tools.  To make 3 plows cost the potter 7 bowls.  So the economy as a whole is better off when the toolmaker and the potter focus all of their energies in their own specialty.  When they do we get 10 plows and 12 bowls in one day.  When they don’t we only get 7 plows and 7 bowls.

We call this economic principle comparative advantage.  Where we look at economic output.  Which is what matters.  The more we bring to market the better it is for consumers.  Because greater quantities mean lower prices.  And when these skilled craftspeople focus on their specialty they improve the overall quality of the goods they bring to market.  So the consumer gets lower prices AND higher quality.  Thanks to the division of labor.  Specialization.  And comparative advantage.

We will always Have Jobs regardless the Size of our Imports for Having a Job is the Only Way to Buy those Imported Goods

If you multiply this over and over again to represent all the individual economic exchanges throughout the world you see why free trade is better than the protectionist policies of mercantilism.  Because it provides consumers with greater economic output at lower prices and higher quality.  This is why nations practicing free trade have the highest standards of living.  Because their people can walk into large department stores and fill their carts with inexpensive, high quality goods on a moderate paycheck.  Which could never happen if the mercantilists had their way.

The old inefficient industries want tariffs to increase the costs of those goods we fill our shopping carts with.  Including the food we eat.  And the cars we drive.  They use lofty arguments about protecting American jobs.  But those protectionist policies destroy jobs by increasing costs for businesses throughout the supply chain.  Raising consumer prices everywhere.  Reducing the amount of things we can buy.  Meaning businesses can’t grow and create new jobs.  Or they have to cut back production and eliminate existing jobs.

There’s also a lot of talk about the balance of payments.  Which actually meant something during the days of the gold standard.  For any trade deficits had to be paid for with gold.  But we don’t have the gold standard anymore.  Governments everywhere abandoned it in favor of irresponsible government spending.  So we don’t have to pay for trade deficits with gold.  Most money today is just electronic entries in a computer.  International capital flows have never been greater.  There are currency markets where people actively trade the world’s currencies.  So trade deficits don’t mean the same thing they once did in the mercantile world.  Then there’s the argument that if all our manufacturing jobs go overseas there will be no jobs for Americans.  If we import everything and export nothing there will be jobs everywhere but here.  Sounds like a problem.  But can that happen?  Not unless we get those imports for free.  So we will always have jobs regardless the size of our imports.  For having a job is the only way to buy the imported goods in those department stores.

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Division of Labor

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 24th, 2011

Economics 101

The Division of Labor gives us our Houses, Food, Cars, Televisions, Smartphones, Laptops and the Internet

We can’t do everything ourselves.  It’s not efficient.  And most times not even possible.  We don’t build our own houses.  Grow our own food.  Build our own cars.  Manufacture our own high-definition televisions.  Smartphones.  Laptops.  And we don’t build our own Internet.  No.  Instead, people everywhere across the economy specialize in one thing (i.e., work for a living).  And together these specialists fit into the big economic picture.  Which gives us our houses, food, cars, televisions, smartphones, laptops and the Internet.

It started with the most basic division of labor.  Prehistoric women raised their young.  While prehistoric man hunted.  Which was necessary for the propagation of the species.  And us.  For if they all hunted and no one nursed the young the young would have died.  And with them the species of man.  For there was no formula back then.

The next great leap forward on the civilization timeline was the indispensible plough.  The prime mover of civilization.  With the food problem managed, famines were more the exception than the rule.  And with fewer people needed to produce a food surplus, people could do other things.  And they did.

The Division of Labor let us Create Surpluses in Food, Ploughs, Shoes, Tools, Harnesses, Etc.

The division of labor gave rise to artisans.  The first skilled trades.  Made possible by a food surplus.  As other people grew the food the artisans made the tools and crafts the farmers used.  They specialized in plough making and designed and built better and better ploughs.  Lots of them.  Shoemakers made shoes.  Lots of them.  Metal workers made tools.  Lots of them.  Leatherworkers made harnesses.  Lots of them.  See the pattern?

The food surplus gave us surpluses in ploughs, shoes, tools, harnesses, etc.  The division of labor let us create these surpluses.  Specialists made continual improvements in their areas of specialization.  Producing better things.  And more of them.  Which led to another key to the advanced civilization.  Trade.

The shoemaker didn’t have to grow food.  He could trade shoes for food.  Ditto for the plough maker.  The metal worker.  The leatherworker.  And the farmers didn’t have to make any of these things because they could trade food for them.  So we became traders.  We created the market.  And traders took their goods and/or services to these markets to trade for other goods and/or services.  First by foot.  Then by animal.  Then by boat.  Then by train.  Then by truck.  Then by airplane.  Artisans (i.e., workers) traded their specialization for the product and/or services of another’s specialization.  Then.  And now.

The Division of Labor made the Complex Simple and our Lives Rather Comfortable and Fun

The division of labor gave rise to the artisan.  The skilled trade worker.  The middle class.  People who can specialize in one thing.  And trade that one thing for the other things he or she wants.  Whether it be a skilled blacksmith hammering out farming tools.  A tool and die maker working in a factory.  An accountant.  Or a software engineer.  We have a skill.  Our human capital.  And we trade that skill to get the other things we’re not skilled in.  The end result is a modern, bustling, free market economy.  An advanced civilization.  And a high standard of living.

All thanks to the division of labor.  Which made the complex simple.  And our lives rather comfortable.  And fun.  Unlike prehistoric man.  Who knew of no such things as iPhones.  Indoor flush toilets.  Movie theaters.  Or restaurants.  No, he didn’t do much other than survive.  Which was no easy thing.  But he did.  And for that we are grateful.

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LESSONS LEARNED #13: “If you were to live under the socialist maxim ‘from each according to his ability to each according to his need’ you would find yourself surrounded by needy people with no ability.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 13th, 2010

KEY TO CIVILIZATION growth is the food supply.  Food surpluses in particular.  Before dependable food surpluses, life was short, harsh and miserable.  Especially for women.  When they weren’t working in the fields they were giving birth and raising children.  High infant mortality rates, though, inhibited population growth.  Most of the children women gave birth to didn’t survive to adulthood.  So there was a constant state of child rearing.  But few children survived to help with the business of family life.

Malnutrition and famine were common.  Feudalism provided a precarious balance between life and death.  For centuries the common people (i.e., peasants) eked out survival on their landlord’s manor.  The lord owned the land.  The peasants worked it.  Most of the bounty went to their lord.  But they kept what they grew on a small strip of land for themselves.  Just enough for subsistence.

But England changed all that.  By 1750, her agricultural output was second to none.  Private property.  Free market economy.  Capitalism.  Increased productivity.  Specialization.  These all combined to provide incentive.  Incentive produced food surpluses.  Food surpluses produced profits.  Reinvested profits improved farm yields.  This produced more profit.  And the cycle continued.  In less than a century feudalism would disappear from England.  There, you either worked land you owned or were paid wages to work land owned by others.  People began to live longer and healthier lives. 

The British Empire ruled the civilized world in the 19th century.  Representative government.  Abolition of slavery.  Free trade.  The Industrial Revolution.  These things, and others, gave them wealth, power and moral authority.  A lot of good came from this island kingdom.  Including the United States.  They weren’t perfect.  There was a learning curve.  But the modern capitalistic economy which they gave us liberated the masses.  It let us do what we wanted to do, not just what we had to do.  In particular, women, who could do more than just raise families and work in the fields.  One day, she could even become prime minister of Great Britain.

FOOD SURPLUSES BEGET industrialization.  Food surpluses beget everything, really.  Food surpluses release human capital to do everything else we do besides farming.  England was at the van of this modernization.  Others followed.  In time. 

Russia abolished serfdom (i.e., feudalism) in 1861.  Industrially backwards at the time, this liberty awakened a dormant human capital.  They followed the English model.  In time, with the advent of steamship and rail transportation, Russian grain competed with other European producers.

Joseph Stalin, looking to jump ahead in the industrialization process, implemented collective farming in the late 1920s.  He turned away from the English model.  The government became land owners.  It was feudalism on a grand scale.  Large collective farms would produce vast food surpluses that could feed industrial cities.  And there would still be surpluses left over to export to raise capital to build these industrial cities.  At least, that was the plan.

With less incentive came less productivity.  What land the former serfs had come to own was lost to the state.  The state took so much of the harvest that there was little food left for those who labored to grow it.  And the price the state paid for their crops was less than it was before collectivization.  The ‘free’ serfs were earning less and working more.  They didn’t like it.  And chose not to participate.  Collectivization became forced collectivization. 

Deportations, terror, murder and famine followed.  Perhaps more than 5 million starved to death during the famine of 1931 and 1932.  Others were to follow.

Forced collective farming produced famines elsewhere.  In China, during Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, forced collectivization produced even greater famine deaths.  Historians estimate that 20-30 million, maybe more, starved to death in the famine of 1959–62.  Though hard numbers aren’t available, North Korea suffered a devastating famine in the late 1990s that claimed millions.  But in the West, in the 20th century, famine was unheard of.  When the United States suffered during the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s, there was no corresponding famine despite the loss of productive farmland.

WITH INDIVIDUAL LIBERTY comes incentive.  With incentive comes productivity.  A small island nation of free land owners could produce grain to feed themselves with surplus left over for export.  Nations with great fertile tracts farmed by forced collectivization led to famine.  Slaves have little incentive other than to subsist.  The collective good means little to them when they are starving.  They continue to sacrifice.  And continue to suffer.  Even if they do produce a few more bushels of grain.  So if the suffering is the same, what is the incentive to work harder?

As individual liberty declines, those in power tend to exploit those they rule.  In the name of the state.  Or the common good.  This is easy to see when it results in famine or revolution.  Not easy to hide those things.  But it is a little more difficult to see when the results are more benign.  Longer unemployment benefits, for example.  I mean, those are pretty nice.  Hard to see the downside in them.  As it is in other benefits these rulers give us.  So we are seduced as they whisper these sweet nothings in our ears.  And soon we willingly cede our liberty.  A little at a time.

WITH THE RISE of individual liberty, there was a corresponding decline in the ruling elite thanks to representative government.  Great Britain gave this gift to us and the United States took it to incredible heights.  The oppressed everywhere immigrated to the United States to feed a growing industrial demand.  Being new, we did not know all the affects of industrialization.  When the bad things came to light, we addressed them.  Great Britain, for example, was one of the first to protect women and children from the worse of industrial society.  Still, working conditions could be harsh.  As could life in the industrial cities.  Poverty.  Filth.  Disease.  And it was the wretched state of life in these slums that gave birth to a new school of thought on industrialization. 

In 1844 Friedrich Engels wrote The Condition of the English Working-Class to expose life in these slums.  He would collaborate 4 years later with Karl Marx on a treatise called The Communist Manifesto.  And from this Marxism, Communism, socialism, collectivism, etc., would follow.  As economic systems go, these would all prove to be failures.  But the essence of them lives on.  State planning.

You see, it was capitalism that gave us the industrial slums.  And that was good propaganda for a ruling elite looking to rule again.  So they whispered sweet nothings into our ears.  They talked about a Social Utopia.  From each according to his ability to each according to his need.  Fair taxation (i.e., only the ‘rich’ pay taxes).  Social safety nets (paid for by taxes of the rich).  Shorter workdays.  Longer paid vacations.  More government benefits.  A burgeoning welfare state.  Free stuff for everyone.  Again, paid for by taxing the rich who have exploited the working class.

What evolved was the elimination of the middle class.  You had the evil rich (and the middle class were, for all intents and purposes, rich because they didn’t need government help) whose wealth the government taxed away.  And the poor.  The poor who the government would now take care of.  If elected.  And they were.  They seduced a great many people with their utopian vision.  Even in the West. 

Great Britain and the United States would fall to this seductress, too, thanks to the Great Depression.  It was capitalism that gave us the Great Depression, after all.  The greed of the money people.  And so these great nations declined from greatness.  They became welfare states, too.  They had short respites during the 1980s.  Margaret Thatcher helped rejuvenate Great Britain.  Ronald Reagan, the United States.  But the ruling elite whispered more sweet nothings in our ears and the decline continues.

In 2010, our appetite for state benefits appears to be insatiable.  And we may have run out of wealth to tax away to pay for it.  California is on the brink of bankruptcy.  New Jersey elected a governor who proposed draconian spending cuts to stave off bankruptcy.  Other ‘blue’ states (i.e., states who vote Democrat) are also in trouble.  Underfunded pension obligations.  Demands of teacher unions.  Of government worker unions.  Everyone is there with their hand out.  None of them are willing to sacrifice for the common good.  No, they expect others to do the sacrificing.

THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION has increased federal spending to such record levels that Communist China is concerned about our fiscal/monetary policies.  As they should be; they hold a lot of our debt.  The federal government has ‘bailed out’ private industry and taken de facto control.  They have created a healthcare entitlement that will cost more than a trillion dollars.  More spending is coming.  And it is all for the greater good.  They are vilifying those who are not poor, taxing away what wealth they can from them and giving it to the poor.  When about half the electorate doesn’t pay any income taxes, there is little opposition to raising taxes on those who do.  For if the ‘rich’ complain, the government vilifies them.

Where will it all end?  It is difficult to say.  How will it end?  Badly.  We can look at Europe who we seem to be emulating.  They’re further down The Road to Serfdom than we are.  With the excessive government spending, there will have to be greater government revenue (i.e., taxes).  Previous methods of taxation may prove insufficient.  Hello value added tax (VAT).  It’s all the rage in Europe.  It’s a multiple tax.  At every stage of production, government is there.  Taxing.  From the raw materials to the final assembly, government is there at every stage.  Taxing.  VATs will increase government revenue.  But they will also make every day life more expensive.  VATs increase the sales price of everything you buy.  And you pay it again at checkout.  It’s everywhere.  Everything will cost more.  From manicures to lattes to toilet paper to tampons.  And this is a tax everyone pays.  Even the poor.  It is a regressive tax.  The rich will pay more, but the poor will feel it more.  This hidden tax will take a larger portion of what little the poor has.

But how bad can it really get?  In 2010, I guess the answer would be to look at Greece to see what happens when a country can no longer sustain her welfare state.  And the people aren’t all that keen on losing the government benefits they’ve grown accustomed to.  It isn’t pretty.  But when you start down that road (from each according to his ability to each according to his need), the taking and giving always get bigger.  It never gets smaller.  And when you reach a critical point, government just can’t sustain it any longer.  And it crashes.  Like in Greece.

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