In class last week I asserted that a system that produces 100 housing units with 9 jobs can be more beneficial than one that produced 100 housing units with 3 jobs. Unfortunately, at the time I was too tired to make my case, so I thought I’d revisit that discussion here.
To many people, with our American bias toward looking at this model through capitalists’ and economists’ eyes, 3 jobs and 100 houses looks better. The economists’ bias for creating efficiency above all else by minimizing inputs and maximizing outputs sees jobs as inputs and houses as outputs. The American capitalists’ bias for maximizing profits to the capital investor leads to strategies for minimizing labor costs also sees more jobs as a burden rather than a benefit.
These capitalist and economist arguments rely on the ceteris paribus (all other things being equal) assumption. Ceteris paribus claims that other than your examined variable, everything else about the scenario is identical, so only the examined difference can matter. This is a blatant example of the logical fallacy of begging the question, a circular argument in which the conclusion is included in the premise. By definition, the only thing that we can consider is the quantitative difference between numbers 3 and 9.
In the real world, you can never hold all other things equal. Ceteris paribus is impossible. For example, in our case of 3 versus 9 workers, you can’t hold the wages by individual constant AND at the same time hold the total cost of their labor constant. You can’t change the number of workers without changing the nature of the work; the timeline, the pace, or the quality of the product, the dynamics of the team, or which parts of the process are externalized. Every change you make yields complex and cascading changes in your system, and those factors must be considered.
What if efficiency and profits aren’t what matters most?
What if quality of life and work matters? What if creating more jobs and involving more people matters? There are many ways that having more jobs and more people working together to get things done benefits the whole system and many of the people in it. I argue that in the more complex web of the real world, jobs are also outputs and benefits. Human labor is an abundant and renewable resource. Why deplete scarcer resources unsustainably to minimize labor in order to accrue wealth to capital?
In the original scenario in class we discussed an enterprise of 3 (or 9) workers creating 100 units of affordable housing. What if these housing units are being created in a post-disaster or high-unemployment community? 6 jobs could mean 6 more families that can afford to house and feed themselves. Now you have housed 109 families instead of 103. The benefits of active participation in restoring their own communities rather than having relief given from afar have big payoffs. Engaging local people in the creation or restoration of housing in struggling communities has cascading practical and social benefits that contribute to the health of the whole community, and may stand independently of (or even outweigh) considerations of efficiency and profit. Instead of looking through the eyes of capitalists and economists, let’s briefly take the perspective of others with different priorities.
Socialist: 9 workers is better than 3 because it can result in sharing productivity surpluses more evenly among more workers and keeping those assets circulating in the community.
Worker: It can be more appealing to work on a larger team where people have diverse skills and styles and are not stretched to the minimum to cover what needs doing. Working with others and making measurable and meaningful impact with our work feels good, which empowers us and encourages us to do more.
Sociologist: Working together to shape our environments builds healthy relationships, creates positive self-esteem and a sense of stewardship, and empowers people to affect change rather than waiting for others to do for them.
Environmental psychologist: Engaging more members of the community in the work deepens the connection of people to places, projects, and to each other and improves physical, mental and societal health.