The Price Of Things

I was riding the bus the other day and on the way downtown the bus stopped to change drivers.  A woman had been driving and a man replaced her.

Totally unremarkable in 2012.  In 1965 it would have been jaw dropping.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that in 1965 there was no such thing as a lady bus driver.

Did people really, really think in 1965 that women couldn’t drive buses?  Of course not.  Sometimes, during the transitional period when these things were an issue such arguments were made.  They were poor arguments.  That never really was the reason that women didn’t drive buses.

What was the reason, then?

Well, it’s complicated.  It leads to bigger questions.  Why does anyone get hired to do anything?  There are almost always dozens of people who could do the same thing equally well, or equally poorly as the case may be.  Yet in 1965, and for many years before that, excluding women from bus driving and a whole host of other jobs was such a rigid convention that it was questioned only on the margins of society.

I bring this up in the context of economics, a subject that discusses “labor markets”, as it does so much else, in terms of mathematical models and formulas.  How would the mathematical models and formulas account for the now startling conventional reality of 1965 when it came to the employment of women?  What equation tells you that there is an invisible line dividing the sexes such that one is in the “labor pool” and the other is not?

Furthermore, why does a bus driver get paid such and such, an auto worker get paid something else, and a paralegal or an accountant yet something else?  Is this determined by “bargaining power”?  Neo-marxists seem to think so.  It makes a model of some kind work.  But it has little to do with the reality of the situation.

The answer is not really quantifiable, though we often delude ourselves into thinking it is because it makes the kind of sense that appeals to a simpleton, or a “policy wonk”, to the extent the two can be distinguished.  If I get a high paying position that is an affirmation of my worth to society, we like to think.  If I get a low paying position I guess I’m not so valuable.  But high paying or low paying, it’s still me.

Whatever the reason there were no women bus drivers in 1965 it had nothing to do with economics, but it was a profound difference in the way people lived and conducted themselves socially and otherwise.  If you wish to expand the concepts of economics so far that they encompass all of human experience and knowledge, of course, you can describe this in terms of “price”:  people attached a value to excluding women from day to day occupations and willingly paid a price for doing so.  That would be one way of putting it.

Then again what price was paid, if any, by changing this around completely?

More to the point, what price have we paid by reducing all human interaction to economic conflict of one kind or another?  It may seem better to some since everything can be quantified and modeled.  But it can’t account for something as simple as a smile on a child’s face.  To know the price of everything and the value of nothing:  somehow I’m not so sure that’s an improvement.




Filed under financial crisis

2 responses to “The Price Of Things

  1. Zarepheth

    We need economic models that do not require economics to be a zero-sum game. If the economy, and society as whole, are working properly, it will be a positive-sum game where everyone receives more than they put in. Since our economic models require there to be a loser for every winner, we can never have a win-win system until the models are changed.


    • Z – I took the liberty of editing a few typos.

      On the substance, let’s see: a) not all our economic models require a loser for every winner, but some do. Those pertaining to debt, for example, since for every debt there must be an asset. To a Keynesian, though, this is not a winner-loser situation because they don’t model for debt that can’t be paid or is defaulted upon. That’s a legal matter, not an economics one, so they don’t deal with it.

      Now that’s odd. Certainly you and I can agree on that.


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