[C]omparative advantage would be a disaster in the real world (however well it works in some mathematical models). Nassim Taleb points out how fragile it is to the assumption that prices stay constant. For example, if one country specializes in wine and another in wool, things go all hunky-dory for awhile -- until wine is replaced by something else as the fashionable thing to drink, or there is some once-a-century natural disaster that wipes out your ability to make wine, or there's what Schumpeter called "creative destruction" where a more advanced industry replaces a more primitive form (such as the automobile replacing the horse and buggy).
Whatever the mechanism, suddenly the former suppliers are getting a lot less in exchange for a unit of their product than they were just before -- perhaps nothing at all if they're out for good. And this applies not just to whole industries but to individual workers. We all specialize in some set of skills in the hopes that they will be needed for as long as we have to work, perhaps with the occasional update. But when we're unemployed for more than a few months, and especially when we sense that our job description has been eliminated completely, we figure that that skill set ain't worth what it used to be, and that we're shit outta luck.
In a society where people have broad and general tasks, not being able to sell your labor to an employer isn't so bad. If you're a hunter-gatherer, you can provide lots of healthy food by yourself, defend yourself and family, and have enough time left over for leisure. Same thing if you're a nomadic herder -- you have a broad enough base of skills to fall back on to support yourself if you can't sell your labor. And ditto for farmers -- you may try to get seasonal work threshing wheat when the opportunity is there, but for most of the year you'll be "out of work" in that sense, but you have a wide enough range of skills to support and defend yourself on your own plot of land.
Some of these cases can get worse than others -- like if you specialize in the crops you plant and a natural disaster wipes out your monoculture crop for a year or two -- but in general you can get by without selling your hyper-specialized labor like the econ 101 textbook tells you to.
Again there is some variation within these pre-industrial economies, but the point remains. Hunter-gatherers have no extensive, permanent welfare state structures, and that's because their lifestyle is the most robust to negative shocks. They eat such a wide variety of animals and plants that it would take the most perfect of perfect storms to make all of those skills useless at the same time. Herders also lack welfare state features, and again that's because they are not very specialized, and therefore are not so likely to go extinct through bad luck. For example, they pasture their livestock across a variety of grazing lands during the year, own a largish number of animals over whom they can diversify risk, etc. Farmers are a bit more specialized since they tend to plant only a few (perhaps just one) staple crops and are lucky to have even a handful of animals. It's not surprising, then, to see proto-welfare state institutions in farmer societies, such as long-term third-party charity groups who provide alms to the destitute or run hospitals for the poor.
Still, it takes the incredibly precarious lifestyle of industrial people to cause real fear about "job security" -- i.e., the ability to keep providing for yourself and family. If you lost your job and couldn't find work for six months, could you feed yourself? No, because you never learned to hunt wild game or gather and process plant foods so that they're safe to eat, you never bothered investing in a dozen or so cattle just in case, and you haven't been planting a variety of crops either. Forget whether you can continue your Netflix service or not -- you can't even feed yourself. You surely couldn't defend yourself against violence either, if the country were invaded or if a local crime wave broke out. (Defense spending, which dominates in the national budget, is a social safety net program -- just in case the bad guys show up, when you won't know what to do.) That's how narrow our specialized skill set has become.
Thus, we really do not have a plan B to fall back on if our specialized labor finds no buyer. Lazy thinkers will say that you should just specialize in something else -- except that it's too late. Specialized labor that is at all valuable takes time to specialize in.
Friday, May 06, 2011
Publicada por Miguel Madeira em 12:56