David R. Henderson  

In Praise of Productive Labor

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Yesterday afternoon, I came home from walking at Point Lobos Park with a colleague. We watched probably about a dozen large whales off the shore. It's the most I've ever seen.

When I got home, I couldn't park in front of my house because there were two Cal-Am Water trucks in front. The problem: a pipe underneath the pavement had broken and water was flowing up onto the street. The flow was so strong that it had pushed the pavement up about an inch.

There were four workers there, looking at a map and obviously trying to narrow down where the broken pipe was. I asked one, "Once you track it down, are they going to fix it?" "Not they. Us," he said. They dug up the street in front of our driveway so they could track down the problem and make repairs. I went outside occasionally to see how progress was going. My wife was sick and it was my turn to make dinner, which is hard to do without running water. But I knew not to bug them. I did enjoy observing. At one point, when I went outside, they showed me a hard little one-inch diameter pipe with a big hole in it. That was the culprit. [They let me keep it and I took a picture to post here but couldn't figure out how to do it.]

One worker told me that this was the 4th one of these they had to repair today. But although they didn't look particularly happy, they didn't whine. I think that when I thanked them for their effort, they didn't quite know how to handle it. My guess is that most people would just ask, "When will you be done?"

They competently narrowed down the problem and, in about 2.5 hours, solved it. When they finished it was dark.

Think about that. Here they were, trying to make our and our neighbors' lives easier--on a Sunday afternoon. They didn't know us, and if they got to know us, they wouldn't necessarily even like us. But they gave us their good efforts. Why? Because they cared about us? No. Because they cared about themselves and their families. And they had figured out, as most of us have, that the best way to take care of your family is to find something you do well that other people value. And boy did we value it.

Thanks, good workers.


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CATEGORIES: Labor Market



COMMENTS (6 to date)
Bedarz Iliaci writes:

"Because they cared about us? No. Because they cared about themselves and their families"

How are you able to assert this? Did you speak with those guys?. Or is it a dogma speaking?

Classically, a city is a community of friends. There must be some friendship between citizens, otherwise the city could not exist. Hence, even the strangers must care about each other and this care is called civility (again from the word "city").

David R. Henderson writes:

@Bedarz Iliaci,
"Because they cared about us? No. Because they cared about themselves and their families" How are you able to assert this? Did you speak with those guys?. Or is it a dogma speaking?
Yes, I spoke to them. I didn't bother asking why they were working late on a Sunday afternoon on a Labor Day weekend. If I had asked them if they did it because they cared about me, I'm pretty sure they would have looked at me strangely. If, on the other hand, I had asked them if they did it because they were being paid, they would have looked another kind of strange, the kind that goes with the expression, "Duh."
Classically, a city is a community of friends. There must be some friendship between citizens, otherwise the city could not exist. Hence, even the strangers must care about each other and this care is called civility (again from the word "city").
Their civility is what led them to give me the busted hose when I asked for it. I'm pretty sure, though, that the driving force was not they regarded themselves as part of a "community of friends." I don't think of this as dogma but as simple common sense.

BZ writes:

I have friends. Not, like, a WHOLE LOT, but some. We do favors for each other. Hang out. Invite each other over for dinner, or drinks. That sort of thing.

And then there are the other 100k plus people in my town. We don't hang out. They never invite me over for dinner OR drinks. We don't do favors for each other, but we do cooperate, because of the individual personal benefits of trade. But then, I also do the same for 7 billion other people who are not my on my speed dial.

awp writes:

Bedarz,
Civility is a measure of how you treat people you don't know and don't necessarily care about or else it would be called tribality.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Prof Henderson,
Essentially you maintain that the bonds that bind people into a city are generated from people engaging in free exchanges.

But, to engage in free exchanges, people must have something in common, a level of trust, some common culture, some common expectations etc.

You must assume that these people have no public feeling at all. They are motivated solely by pecuniary considerations. Perhaps so, as they are probably State employees. But it does seem unfair to say of a person that he has no public feeling at all, more so when he is not asked.

There is also a matter that without the people who directly aim at public good without recompense, no city could exist and no goods could be exchanged.

Hazel Meade writes:

I'm impressed they were given the autonomy to both track down and fix the problem on the same afternoon.

Think of all the jobs that were lost by not having two teams, once to locate the problem and catalogue it like an archeological dig, and a second to fix it, plus the overhead needed to add additional managers to coordinate the two groups.

Our belevolent masters aren't as efficient at shoveling stimulus money out the door as they think they are.

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