Friday, July 13, 2012

The Marginal Disutility of Labor

The following are my replies in a discussion with @popularfront about the appropriate designation of "marginal disutility" in regards to labor.  The full discussion may be found here:

I am comfortable with the essence of Marković's distinction, "In labor the worker uses only those abilities and skills which he can sell, which are needed in the process of commodity production... [Work] is the permanent exchange of matter with nature" but I might rephrase the distinction somewhat; I might analyze Marković's distinction as saying that "work" is that category of action in which a person acts to satisfy some future personal end, whereas "labor" may belong to a category of action in which a person acts to satisfy another person's satisfaction (generally, in return for some negotiated remuneration or compensation for the disutility of "labor"). This may be a useful distinction and I may have to contemplate its implications for a theory of action. I recognize both "work" and "labor" as subsets of the more general category of "action"; I reason that essentially all actions, whether "work", "labor" or other, are essentially acts of transformation; all action seeks to change a person's conditions from a less-satisfactory state, to a greater satisfactory state. If a person were to be completely satisfied at any particular time, there would be no cause to act; and there would be no cause to act, if one thought an action, ultimately contrary to her satisfaction. I would also observe that the "necessary evil" of work, implies the marginal disutility of work/labor. It is necessary, in terms of making arraignments for a person's future satisfaction; it is an "evil" in terms that, all things being equal, or, on the margin, a person would prefer present/current consumptions, enjoyments or satisfactions, rather than delay those present/current consumptions, enjoyments or satisfactions, in order to work/labor for the provision of future consumptions, enjoyments or satisfactions. Time, being one of the scarce resources that must economized, one must utilize one's own scare resources of time in which to act, in order to maximize/optimize one's own satisfaction, now and in the future.

 Robinson Crusoe, stranded upon a desert island, might prefer, all things being equal, to be reading a book upon the sandy beach, but his present stranded conditions, give him concern for his future ability to provide for his satisfaction, he acts out of "felt uneasiness" regarding his precarious condition, and works to create an enhanced set of conditions for himself. He looks for sources of potable water, for potential food sources, for potential areas to provide shelter, he begins to make decisions on how to provide for his future conditions of satisfactions and begins that work. All things being equal, he might prefer a recreation rather than to engage in this work, but his concern for the future motivates his decision to forgo those potential current enjoyments/satisfactions to provide for his anticipated future conditions. Indeed, if Crusoe expected to be rescued at any moment, perhaps he would engage in an entirely different set of work; he may spend his energies on creating a signal fire, or if possessing an emergency GPS transceiver, he make simply press the emergency button and wait for assistance and in this case, he may in fact enjoy his book on the beach, awaiting for help to arrive.

Later in Crusoe's adventure, he may discover some/many of his present needs are met; he may find that an hour of work, may produce for him two coconuts (gathered, prepared and ready to consume), while at the same time, three hours of spear-fishing may produce for him only one fish; Crusoe, by gathering and preparing coconuts, may provide himself sufficient food so as not to be exceedingly hungry, but ultimately Crusoe would prefer more fish than a greater supply of coconuts. Crusoe could spend more time fishing in order to gather more fish, but three hours of work to gather one fish, is on the margin of other uses of his productive time he would prefer, not a very efficient use of his time. Because of his preference of fish, he may only elect to once a day, spend the three hours he expects it will take to spear a fish; Crusoe, wishing to increase his future satisfactions, Crusoe may spend a majority of his productive time of one day, collecting coconuts, to create for himself, a savings of coconuts, that would take him three days to consume. Now armed with this savings of coconuts, Crusoe begins work to constructing cordage, fashioning a fishing pole, a bone-hook and collecting grubs for bait. In doing so, Crusoe forgoes the potential for the present consumption of fish by spear-fishing, in order to construct the means of production necessary to produce a future supply of fish that could be gathered in less time than by spear fishing; and in all this time Crusoe consumes his savings of coconuts. Hopefully, if Crusoe's prediction holds true, and nothing goes wrong (in constructing the line-fishing means of production, Crusoe undertakes a certain amount of risk that his work will prove I effective to satisfy himself) Crusoe perhaps finds that his line-fishing means of production, produces for himself one fish per hour. Now Crusoe has a greater satisfaction than if he had not undertaken his work, because he can spend just six hours each day, gathering his desired margin of food and have a fish and a coconut at each meal, with three meals per day.

Alternatively, Crusoe might have undertaken a different work and spent only one day, constructing a better spear for fishing and developing his spear fishing technique; this work project would have required less savings, but Crusoe may have predicted that his risk of that work not being productive would have been greater than the line-fishing project. In this example, Crusoe acts to exchange his current conditions for more preferable/satisfactory conditions. If Crusoe happened to like coconuts and he did not like fish, he would not ha e to undertake any fishing project whatsoever. If Crusoe had the option of consuming present coconuts without depleting his savings, or working to gather more coconuts, it seems elementary that current consumption without depletion of savings is preferable to present work to increase savings; yet both of these acts have a marginal disutility, which is to say, that even if Crusoe on the whole, rather enjoyed the work of gathering coconuts (perhaps he enjoys the songs of birds in the forest, or he enjoys the exercise), and he, on the whole, enjoyed consuming coconuts, it is elementary to suppose (assuming that Crusoe has more than two ordinally preferenced satisfactions or said another way, assuming that there are more than two things that Crusoe likes doing other than consuming and gathering coconuts), that each additional unit of coconut-consumption or coconut-gathering provides, (beyond a certain point in Crusoe's subjective preference scale), Crusoe with less satisfaction than the previous one; which is to say, that each additional unit provides Crusoe marginally less satisfaction than the previous beyond a certain point. After Crusoe has satisfied his minimal needs, Crusoe will find, marginally less satisfaction with each additional unit, because as Crusoe's minimal needs for his highest ordinally preferred good are met, other needs on Crusoe's ordinal preference scale begin to replace that highest preferred good. This explains the inherent disutility of labor/work; labor/work constituting action for the provision of future consumption of goods, there will come a point at which the preference for the consumption of present goods, will exceed one's preference for the provision of future goods, and each additional unit of labor/work will produce marginally less satisfaction than the previous. One may work for four hours in the garden in anticipation for the future good of vegetables, but as each hour spent in the garden, one's preference to consume present vegetables for satisfaction of hunger becomes greater than that the preference to make provisions for future vegetables. After enough present vegetables are consumed, the consumption of additional units of vegetables satisfies less than when one was more hungry. I am probably not the most adept at explaining economic theory and I am reflecting that I could have potentially explained this concept much more succinctly/eloquently now that I have scribed this keystrokes onto the digital-paper but I hope that at least might help assist in you understanding of the disutility of labor.

 The marginal disutility of labor is also the function by which, at a certain units of labor, the laborer begins to demand additional compensation/remuneration; because after a certain requisite units of labor are expended, the disutility of that labor provides less satisfaction than the previous ones for the laborer's preference for the provision of future satisfactions over the desire for present satisfactions (eat, rest, leisure, etc) as those present satisfactions become ordinally higher on the worker's subjective preference scale.

I used the classic case of Crusoe, for the purpose of describing the simple "praxis" or praxeological principles in a more simple context; I do not believe that these principles change as the situation becomes more complex.

Remember that principle of action I described? That each person acts (all actions) to relieve some "felt uneasiness" or unsatisfaction; that is, all actions are conscious/mental decisions, to change the conditions one finds themselves in, from a less satisfactory state, to a more satisfactory state. If a person desired, no greater satisfactory state, they would take no action at all; for why act if you which to change nothing? Why would you change it, other than you would prefer that change, or expect to enjoy/be-more-satisfied by the results of that change? To act, is to make a conscious decision to direct the body, to change something; and as that conscious decision, precedes from a consciousness (a self) it is directed to be for the interest/satisfaction of that self/consciousness.

Whether we are past "mere survival" or not, would not change the principles behind "praxis" or action. If a person has all the luxeries in the world, and devotes themselves to religion or art, they still act to create a more satisfactory condition, that they have currently. Though I have few concerns for my next meal, I type this message, for a desire to be understood, to connect with you, to hear your ideas, to satisfy my philosophical yearnings/curiosities. Yet, every hour I continuously might spend discussing very interesting subjects with you, is marginally less satisfactory to me than the previous; if it were not so, I would never stop typing this message, or would redouble my efforts as time progressed. But as the case may have it, while I'm quite satisfied typing this message to you at this moment, I am aware of my need for sleep in the near future, as time progresses, my need for sleep will exceed my need to discuss/share/connect and I'll retire for the evening.

Why would Crusoe's scarcity be applicable in the case of you and I? Because there are very few goods that are not for us, in scarcity; economies is the study of scare resources are allocated for human satisfaction or dissatisfaction; most economists unfortunately have never explored the philosophical underpinnings of their discipline, but economies is essentially an ethical-discipline.

Air is one of the rare "free goods" that is in such abundance that it need not be economized; yet in certain conditions (like on the international space station, or in a submersed submarine) it becomes a scare good again. Time is a scare resource for any particular individual, space is a scare resource, every product, and commodity, yea, even all of the means of productions are finite and limited, while the desires of man are indefinitely great; this is the cause why human act, to manipulate/transform/use the material world to provide themselves greater satisfaction. The use of this computer, gives me satisfaction, but there are many people who would find themselves with one greater unit of a similar computer, and yet these satisfactions would not all be equal; some would find this computer almost useless to them, some would find it a great contribution to their satisfaction, some already have so many computers, they would accept a 'free' one, but they may rarely use it.

Scarcity is a pervasive condition and only until we create Star-Trek-like material "replicators" (creating any material object for 'free') is the problem of scare resources/goods to go away (and the study of economics would go away with it).

I would be in agreement with you that many people experience "alienation" in their employment/labors; but it is not that they labor for another that necessarily causes that "alienation", it is lives spent under domination/subjugation which causes this dis-connect with their own authentic-selves; a disconnect with their own human-feelings & human-needs. They were morally condemned because they acted "selfishly" (which only meant that their pursuit of self-interest, conflicted with the self-interest of the person calling them 'selfish', but that person was living a life of alienation as well...) which caused them to feel guilt for their own self, guilty for living for themselves, guilty for pursuing their own satisfaction, that to "be good" they chose lives they thought they 'should'; they may have begun living for someone else's interests, someone else's satisfactions; they have ultimately become alienated from themselves.

The same goes with spanking, a child acts in a way the parent doesn't like, and the parent hits the child; the child hits the dog, and the parent hits the child for hitting the dog; the child learns that reason and principle are irrelevant to power and authority; they grow up either fearing all authority in obsequious obedience or they wish to seize the reigns of power, and transfer that emotional-trauma of their childhoods to those currently subjugated.

Very few of us survive this process with enough rationality intact (because domination and subjugation in childhood is the negation of reason, the child was never treated like a person to be reasoned with or negotiated with, only a mule to be whipped or a dog to be brought to heel).

Working for another, is just a blatant representation, to the person who is not in touch with themselves, who is not living authentically according to their own needs and satisfaction, but is driven by anger, fear, guilt or shame, who sees their working for another as a symbol of their own life; for they have never have the chance or the courage to live for themselves. Alienation is very active in many people, but I think its roots run much deeper than many would expect...

Could someone find enjoyment in their work? Certainly! Could someone find satisfaction in laboring for another? I think that they could. The question is, if their labor were NOT compensated by renumeration, would they continue? If they knew in advance that their work would provide them no future satisfaction, that their only return/reward would be the satisfaction they receive, for acting in the present, would they continue that work? If the answer is yes, then they love what they are doing, solely for the purpose of doing it; it is no longer work or labor, but it is a recreation. If they would slow, or halt their work/labor, than it is not that their work/labor does not provide them with any marginal disutility, it is that it provides them with a very low marginal disutility.

Differences of distinction are made because the qualities of different concepts differ and in this case, there seems to be a qualitative difference. The difference is negated by the praxeological principle that every action occurs because the conscious/rational subject wishes to exchange a less satisfactory condition for a more satisfaction condition based on subjective ordinal preferences. In this sense, as actions, both leisure/recreation and work/labor fall into the same, more general category of action; in this sense, they are the same (praxis).

I make the distinction between these actions because it seems relevant or "natural" (as evidenced in Crusoe's case); in one case a person acts in terms of a direct satisfaction/utility, in the other, there is an indirect-satisfaction expectation. This seems to be an important/"natural" difference; in leisure/recreation, people require no inducement, the very act is satisfying, in and of itself; in labor/work, there may be some form satisfactions to be gained by the act, but ultimately, that act would not be performed without inducement/compensation/remuneration/expectation-of-future-satisfaction is required.

[as an aside, I think that I have no opposition for "work" (as Marković's distinction would seem to imply) to imply an action intended for one's own expectation of future satisfaction (that is, working for oneself, such as in a garden, where one works for one's own future satisfaction) and "labor" as working for another's future satisfaction, with the expectation of some kind of compensation/remuneration for the disutility of the work (as the one working, would not, in this case be the one to enjoy the products of the work). As such all labors are work, but not all work are labors?]

I think that this economic principle hangs upon the scarcity of time; that for the individual, only so much time can be allocated and that an individual would rather experience direct/immediate/present satisfaction/utility than indirect/future/removed satisfaction/utility. If time were not scarce/limited/finite I'm not sure that this principle would hang together.

Of course, this does not imply, that one could not enjoy some part of her labors/work; they may find it fulfilling/enriching/satisfying. What is work/labor for one person, may be leisure/recreation for another. The point is, if economizing is about making use of scarce resources, in order to maximize/optimize satisfaction, then it would seem that something that provides direct satisfaction versus the performance of something that has some form of disutility associated with it (as evidenced by the fact that it would not be performed without some inducement/compensation/remuneration/expectation-of-future-satisfaction) but it performed for some other direct-satisfaction (in the future, like Crusoe's work to construct a fishing pole, in and of itself not fullfilling, but performed for the expectation of future satisfaction {more fish}) because the act itself contains some form of disutility, but that it is performed because it will seems like a useful/relevant/important distinction to me.

I take it that you do not prefer the implications of this; that you would in some way prefer that people could work/labor in a directly fulfilling way; in a sense, they could, but that in that they find their "work" or "labor" directly fulfilling, it would convert to leisure or recreation. There is no reason for a person's "work" or "labor" not to be directly fulfilling, only that as soon as whatever actions they are taking, are taken in and of the satisfaction of doing them, they become perhaps something else; something less like "labor" and more like "art" or "recreation"?

Personally, I do not feel that this distinction contains any "disdain", as recreations/leisures and work/labors all ultimately lead (or expect to lead to) to a greater satisfaction. Why could there not be a "continuous flow of action, all of which she enjoys"? I suppose there *could* be, if persons involved changed their ordinal subjective preferences to be satisfied with less production. Not every act is as productive (in terms of satisfying human-need/wants/preferences) as every other....

It occurs to me, and I'm not saying that you are intentionally implying this, only that I think that the principle of a "continuous flow of action, all of which she enjoys" *might* be most likely/probably, if we change the maximization/optimization of satisfaction, and instead focused our economic theory on the "minimization" of satisfaction; if certain "minimal" needs/satisfactions/preferences were the only needs/satisfactions/preferences that were "required" to be met, then it would be much easier to have the continuous flow of action, all of which she enjoys"... something akin to Buddhism which had the basic form of "desire causes pain/dissatisfaction; therefore to remove pain/dissatisfaction, one must only remove the desire..." in this kind of philosophy, only minimal desire is considered "optimal" and because this limits the ratio of scarcity and indefinite-desire/preferences this more easily allows the "continuous flow of action, all of which she enjoys" that you seem to be looking for... If Crusoe would only be satisfy himself with the coconuts which he could easily gather to meet his basic needs, he would not need to engage in the work of constructing techniques/means for greater satisfaction in the future.

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