Monday, October 5, 2009

The definition of 'work'

I would like to construct a better definition of work that is broad enough to engage a more general philosophic view.

Work is the object of labor - workers labor only because there is work to do. In the market setting, whenever there is work to do, this implies an expectation of profit. Even in the short term case of unprofitable firms, labor is only contracted under expectations that losses are thereby reduced. Thus, profit as used in this essay is only a relative quantity, a "net gain". In short: labor implies work; work implies profit. Throughout the essay, work and labor will be used almost interchangeably: work IS labor in the sense that there is always much work to be done but we tend to be oblivious to the vast majority of it because we do not perceive anyone actually intending to do it.

If work is to be a well defined aspect of our economic life, then it cannot be defined such that the same action taken by two different people is work for one of them and not work for the other. Although this distinction - the subjective division between work and leisure - underpins much of the early philosophy of economics, it suffers from several flaws. The first is that meaningless service exchanges look better from the perspective of common metrics such as "unemployment". For example, suppose two unemployed people decide to work for each other by buying each others' groceries. In this way, they are each performing a service for someone else and getting paid for it. Thus, one might suppose that this is work, but that buying groceries for oneself is not. Secondly, a person might enjoy doing something that others consider to be work, or a person might not enjoy doing some action that he or she is in some way compelled to do without pay because it is considered to not be work. Therefore, the idea of the desirability of any activity is a hidden, subjective, and informally classified determinant of economic variables - it is a source of error.

Accepting the above gives a very broad definition of work: work becomes virtually all human activity. The distinction between voluntary action and pecuniary actions, which was never well adhered to in economic theory anyway, disappears. Work can be defined as all human activity except those functions that another person literally cannot do for a person. For example, although I may feed you, I may not eat for you; although I may change channels for you I cannot watch TV for you. In certain cases the distinction is subtle - a person may gather information for themselves or have it reported to them, but the act of learning and internalizing is not delegable, and therefore not work. One can make distinctions in work based on telos: Is it work for oneself, for "pleasure", etc. or for an organization or for society in general? The problematic aspect of this type of distinction making is that it is not always clear what constitutes what, nor does the individual always have a clear idea of their own causes of action. The substitute person need not be a real and identified other who will step forth to act - (s)he is a theoretical person who could step into one's role and complete the task. Additionally, work is a separation of action from authorship. Workers do literally sign away their rights to their own creations when they work in a creative capacity for a corporation. More fundamentally, anything that one can conceive of as being an activity someone else could do is an activity of which a person cannot also claim himself author, and so anything truly authentic or unique is not definable as work. Here, the distinction is between general action and details.

If economics is to be a predictive discipline, it must make every effort to maximize the degree to which it predicts future economic activity. Continuing with the assumption that work is any human activity that another person could complete in your stead, the basic premise that work implies profit must either be abandoned or profit must be defined to include nonpecuniary goals. The latter assumption seems to be more straightforward and elegant, and for purposes of descriptive brevity, this is how it will be defined throughout the essay. More precisely, profit is the direct achievement of personal ends or the achievement of ends on which some personal goal is contingent. The theory is not violated when a person's goal in life is to make as much money as possible, nor is it violated when a person's goal in life is to smoke as much weed as possible. Here I note again that in practice individuals act on expectations of profit.

That offers of work are often treated as implying profit on the part of the firm is a particularly troubling assertion. In this, the "firm" is created as a mystical entity, where in fact it is a collection of individuals. Furthermore, the profits of the firm are collectively the property of the investors and creditors. The balance sheet shows this to be true. To say that a firm owns property is to assign total ownership to one group - the investors and creditors - and then to assign some other level of ownership to the firm itself. Therefore, the firm does not own itself, and cannot claim its own profits; it becomes nonsensical then to assume it is interested in achieving profit. A person who takes an offer of work receives money in exchange for some activity. This is labor in the classical sense, and it work in time and effort. A person who spends money in exchange for some goods or services has been offered work as well - it is work in selecting and exchanging. Even a person who is watching television is working by viewing advertisements. An author depends on the work of his or her readers. All of these are work in the broader sense, and all of them are acts of labor. One might object that these are different kinds of transactions, one being a spending of wages for goods and the other being the production of goods for wages. Here, though, one must ask what the significance of this distinction is: limiting work to work for money forces us to treat volunteering as not being work, or the work of a student as not being work.

The appeal to a framework of division between needs and wants does not help the matter. When a teenager goes to the mall to buy designer clothes, we do not treat this as work, even if the teenager feels that he needs these clothes in order to fit in with his peers. When a person takes on a second job simply because he wants to save up money, we do treat this as work, with or without appealing to a theory of necessity. Furthermore, we encounter many difficulties if we attempt to make more formal definitions. Does a person need to be literate? Does a person need adequate nutrition or is malnourishment simply an unpleasant part of life, like boredom? The first instinct is to introduce a rights framework, but then one has effectively abandoned wants and needs. Rights, of course, suffer similarly: to introduce the individual right to be nourished is too weak of a demand to actually ensure nourishment.

Returning now to the idea itself - that work is any human activity that another person could complete in a person's stead - the benefits of this definition are numerous. Many problems are clarified.

1. Ensuring that there is enough work becomes a meaningless endeavor. The real objective becomes to ensure that social goals are achieved.

Economists use measures like "unemployment" to gauge the health of the economic system. This definition and its common use strongly imply work to be a good thing. Although intuitively we often feel that work is a bad thing (just as we might curse when we spill a glass of milk rather than saying "hurray! Some work to do!") we just as often enjoy work: we may enjoy shopping, cooking a meal, or even arguing on the internet. As outlined above, it is silly to distinguish between work and play on the basis of some subjective sense of enjoyment or dread because work is the path to the achievement of personal goals, not the actual goals themselves.

The real problem with people not working is that they may be unable to provide for themselves in the long run. Their quality of life is compromised. This is an ethical judgment, just as any preference for some level of employment is ultimately ethical, whether based on Pareto optimums or some other economic pseudoethics or on a philosophic theory of ethics.

When society decides that it wants to address unemployment, it is a mistake to try to create work. In reality, everyone is always employed, and so the question is whether to change their actions so that they are more profitable. This may require a mix of mandates, training, subsidies, and assistance programs. What the society should do is find work that is not being done and entice people to do it. Here, individual goals are scrutinized on the basis of their importance. Avoiding starvation is relatively more important than buying another toy. In our present society, there is no shortage of work to be done that is very valuable to everyone. Our goal of preventing climate change could motivate us to build more wind power generators. Our goal of preventing homelessness could motivate us to produce low cost housing. Our goal of westernizing the world could motivate us to teach or volunteer in impoverished countries.

When there is no work that is not being done that that society feels is worth doing, the alternative is to either change the division of labor between individuals or to create a class of people who do not work. America has categorically rejected the second option - we do not want to create a dole. The goal, however, is to ensure that everyone has a minimum quality of life, and this means they must have the income to support that quality of life or receive services as a charity.

2. Individuals will tend to minimize work along profit isoquants.

In a more technical sense, work is a collection of activities to the achievement of profit. I have not yet created a metric for measuring quantity of work, but any such definition will feature a balance of criteria such as time, effort, physical hardship, etc. that detract from an individual's profit. There will be situations where optimizations exist, and it is reasonable to expect individuals to take actions to optimize work (i.e. do less work per unit time, but still be considered "working" throughout that time). Nobody wants to be Sisyphus, rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down over and over again. A person who is working is always accomplishing something in his own mind.

3. People are always working. Consumer behavior is explained in the same way that worker behavior is.

A person who is doing an "enjoyable" activity that is not classically categorized as work is engaged in a profit-seeking process just as a worker or manager is. Take, for instance, the person shopping at the mall for new clothes. The profits come from ideas of achievements of fashion. The person is directly experiencing joy through social pressures that tell them this is how to behave and through the experience of feeling closer to the goals of looking good. Perhaps the person is achieving the direct goal of simply going out and shopping, possibly with friends.

Even a person who is loitering on the street or sitting around bored is working toward goals. The person is "killing time" or "hanging out" or one of many descriptors that indicate that this is the way by which they are looking forward to future profit. Such a person is not choosing against any better thing he or she could be doing, he is valuing these as less valuable than simply waiting. There is no room in this model for people to choose against what they value - a person chooses by valuing.

4. Work is locked into the political world - denying that some work is work is political disempowerment of some workers.

That some functions in our society are prestigious, there is no doubt. That this makes others shameful is a proposition that positive thinkers might decry. Nevertheless, it is true. An unemployed person is not engaged in a prestigious function, and most people are ashamed to be unemployed. In fact, the first question a person asks upon meeting someone else is usually "What do you do for a living?"

Without taking a broad definition of work, the prestige system becomes locked into the economic theory. It is a dangerous politicization to define things along the lines of pecuniary profit. Economies get distorted by economics, particularly when the economic theory ends up arguing that those who participate in certain ways are not merely "more valuable" than others, but not producing value at all! This type of result must be avoided, even if it is an abuse of the economic theory. It is reflected in the treatment of homemakers as not part of the economy and the deligitimization of this profession has had ripple effects - it seems that the basic skills of parenting are no longer passed on and exchanged to the necessary degree. However, when various types of excluded work are compared to included work, it becomes clear that many sources of pecuniary profit have questionable social value. Does the world need car salesmen more than it needs good parents?

Work is connected to the fundamental expression of the human as a social animal. As thinkers and as competitors, we create a variety of illusions by which we attempt to monopolize resources for ourselves. Much of our political activity is a part of this competition. The social sciences are plagued by the problems that this introduces. I have summarized the attitude toward work as "prestige based" but it is probably more complex.

In conclusion, the concept of work can be broadly defined in a way that reduces the complexity and theoretical difficulties of economic work. In so doing, economics comes to a different understanding of the value of work that individuals do rather than the tacit and abused conclusions that are reached through a classical approach.

Economics is wrong to incorporate what are really engineering concerns (limiting data input in order to achieve a result through simplified calculations) into the foundational theory. The nature of the data containment structure must be broad enough to contain all possible data. From there, theories can be tested through the development of engineered applications. This proper course will require a stern reevaluation of much of economic philosophy. This essay is really only the tip of the iceberg.

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