Friday, 6 June 2014

Post-It Notes and other stuff.

I'm at the Citizen's Income Trust all day conference today, so here's a few random thoughts to keep you going.

1. Post-It Notes

I left a pad of small Post-It Notes in a shirt that I washed on Monday (cotton 40 C cycle plus spin). They were bit crumpled when they came out, but blow me down with a feather, they still unstuck and stuck again just like fresh out of the packet. I do wonder, did the clever testing guys at the factory put them through the laundry and then tweak the formula a bit to ensure that they would survive this toughest of tests for paper-based products?

2. Specialisation

There are two ends to this spectrum.

At one end, it can mean that jobs are broken down into ever smaller tasks, like on a production line. At the other end, it means somebody who knows more about a particular topic than anybody else, such as the proverbial rocket scientists or brain surgeons, none of whom would be of the slightest use if they were one of a small group of shipwrecked people washed up on a desert island.

The other point is that although specialisation occurs of its own accord in a free-market capitalist society, even Communist-dirigiste-authoritarian-caste systems have specialisation; under the latter, they still have distinct categories of doctors, bureaucrats, factory workers, bus drivers, toilet scrubbers etc.

3. Slavery

The first thing that springs to mind is the Brits and others taking West Africans to work in cotton fields in the Deep South, or maybe the Israelites in Egypt before the Exodus.

Clearly, there are degrees to this, nobody can ever be completely 'free'; even if there is nobody else around to oppress you or for you to oppress: think Robinson Crusoe before Man Friday turned up. If you were all on your own on a desert island, would you feel particularly 'free'?

That said, seeing as we are commemorating World War II again this week (in the big build up to commemorating the centennial of the start of The Great War, presumably), surely the most horrific slavery of modern times was "forced labour" in Nazi- or Communist-run factories and building projects? Why does anybody even use the awful euphemism "forced labour"?

Compared to what they suffered, being a slave on a plantation or an Israelite in Egypt was a holiday camp.


ThomasBHall said...

On the salvery topic- what about conscription? Forced labour where the job involves getting bayonetted, shot, maimed, burnt or blown up- oh and killing other humans...

The Stigler said...

1. The adhesive for post-it notes was never designed to do that. It was an accidental invention. Maybe they tweaked it and tested it, but I'm guessing not.

2. Yes, absolutely. In reality there's sometimes a balance to be struck between generalisation and specialisation. A real world version of the "desert island" situation is when technology or government wipes out a job.

I've met programmers who had a really obscure specialisation. One guy I know was writing assembler for small devices. He was paid a lot because those skills were rare. But then, the small devices got faster and companies moved away from assembler (it has higher maintenance costs) to higher level languages. His skills were then basically useless. It was like being dropped on a desert island.

3. Yes. I don't know much about the communists, but what the nazis did was slavery. And a terrible form whose sole purpose was to extract as much production out of someone as possible until they were rapidly knackered, at which point, they would kill them.

Bayard said...

I suppose the difference between "forced labour" and slavery is that the former is temporary and the latter is permanent. Also slaves are owned, body and soul, whereas the master of a forced labourer technically only owns his labour.

In some ways, the forced labour of the Nazis was worse than slavery: the slave owner at least has an interest in keeping his slaves in good productive condition, just like any other machine.

paulc156 said...

Talking about specialisations and desert islands reminded me of this joke: Heard the one about the physicist, the chemist, and the economist on a desert island?

A physicist, a chemist, and an economist are stranded on a desert island. They're starving. And then a can of soup washes ashore.

They have no way to open the can. So they put their brains to the problem. The physicist says "I calculate that we could drop it from the top of that tree over there until it will break open."
The chemist says "We could build a fire and sit the can in the flames until it bursts open."

They argue a bit, until the economist says "No, no, no, you’d lose most of the soup. Let's just assume a can opener."

Regards the Israelite slavery. In the 'good book' there is a passage
where the ungrateful Israelites remember the fish they ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.Whilst all they had in the desert was manna. Confounding the myth that slavery in Egypt was such a big deal. Three religions were created on the back of that.
Moses must have been the Nigel Farage of his day.

Rich Tee said...

That's funny because I was just thinking that the most useless person you could have on a desert island was an economist. A brain surgeon would at least have medical training, and would probably be intelligent and resourceful.

Re: Israelites. This reminds me of The Matrix film, where the traitor hates being "free" because the life is so awful compared to the deluded state.

Looking back on my life, I have avoided being too specialised because I have instinctively realised that I would peversely lose some freedom and become more dependent and restrained. In some ways the toilet scrubber is more free than the brain surgeon.

In recent years I have relaxed this a bit though as I need to earn a better income.

Mark Wadsworth said...

TBH, yes, add it to the list.

TS, re 2, could he not retrain a bit and do something else?

B, maybe there is a difference in principle but not really in practice.

PC, yes there was also an IT guy on the island whose suggestion is "Let's just put it down, walk away and then come back in a few minutes and see if it's opened itself".

RT, that's why I said "proverbial rocket scientist and brain surgeons" just so it was clear I was not picking on any particular profession.

The Stigler said...


Yes - that's what people do.

A more extreme example is the problem with public sector jobs - they're often unique to the state and often performed in ways that aren't like the private sector.

Bayard said...

"B, maybe there is a difference in principle but not really in practice."

I don't know: there's a huge psychological difference between something that you know that you are going to get out of one day and something that you know you are stuck in for life.

Graeme said...

if you have ever visited Jersey and seen what they used to call the "German Underground Hospital", something of the horror strikes you...basically slaves mining a fortress through solid rock with minimal equipment....and it was never a "hospital" in any meaningful sense. Mind you, you can see much of the same in parts of Spain - Franco reused a lot of Hitler's ideas when it came to excavating rail/road tunnels.