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Shadow Labor

Mises Daily: Friday, November 11, 2011 by

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Everybody does "shadow work." No matter how a person makes a living — trading time, talent, and productivity for a more marketable commodity, money, so as to trade that indirect good for necessities and beyond. Virtually everyone in the modern economy pumps their own gas, drives themselves to work, or scans their own groceries.

In his New York Times piece "Our Unpaid, Extra Shadow Work" Craig Lambert says the term "shadow work" was coined 30 years ago by Austrian philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich, in his 1981 book of that title. Illich believed any work we do that we aren't directly compensated for is shadow work.

Mr. Lambert points out that in order to work for a living we all take on various unpaid tasks. Driving to a job means we have to not only operate the car but fuel it, obtain insurance, have it maintained periodically, and so on. Even if we don't change the oil, we accept the management role to see that it's done.

The digital world has generated hours of shadow work. Travel agents are going the way of the Dodo bird while we log in and book our own plane flights, rental cars, and hotel reservations.  Once we get to the airport, we deal with self-serve kiosks until it's time to cross the TSA border where a human hand is provided but unwanted.

Few executives dictate letters anymore; it's much more efficient for them to type their own letters, and cost of staff is high.

"The conventional wisdom is that America has become a 'service economy,'" writes Lambert, "but actually, in many sectors, 'service' is disappearing." The deputy editor of Harvard Magazine lays the blame for passing on these chores to corporations. "Technology enables this sleight of hand, which lets gas stations cut their payrolls, having co-opted their patrons into doing these jobs without pay."

He goes on to contend that Wal-Mart and Target don't fully staff their stores so that customers will wander around the store more and buy things they hadn't intended to.

But what Lambert misses is that this shadow work is one of the effects of inflation, along with the government's ongoing effort to prop up the cost of labor with regulations and the minimum wage.

Plenty of teenage boys cut their employment teeth filling people's tanks, checking their oil, and airing up their tires. When not pumping gas, these kids poked their heads in the attached garage and learned from the mechanics.

Gas pumps don't sit out in front of service garages anymore. You pump your own gas, pay your own bill, and go inside if you're hungry for a Twinkie, or in some places a McDonald's hamburger or DQ sundae. In Las Vegas, you can fill up, go inside, and play video poker.

Those selling gas at the retail end make somewhere around a dime a gallon. So paying an attendant even minimum wage means pumping more than 80 gallons an hour just to cover wages, employment taxes, and the like.

Increases in minimum wage over the years have made the more expensive gas pumps that include the payment mechanism more cost effective.

Money makes the division of labor possible. "The great accomplishment of reason is the discovery of the advantages of social cooperation, and its corollary, the division of labor," Ludwig von Mises wrote.

Guido Hulsmann writes that money extends the division of labor, "And it thereby contributes to the material, intellectual, and spiritual advancement of each person."

However, inflating the money supply undermines the division of labor.

Just as a result of inflation is when candy makers shrink the size of a candy bar and charge the same price, charging $3.50 for a gallon of gas that the customer pumps is less of a good than $3.50 a gallon with that service provided by the station. The customer is paying a higher price by supplying his or her own labor.

It's the high price of labor that forces the average Joe to plunge his hand into a toilet tank's icy water to change the toilet flapper.  The flapper is a rubber mechanism in a toilet tank that is the moving part of the flush valve, sealing water into the tank and allowing water to exit the tank when you flush.

Flappers deteriorate over time so these rubber gizmos must be changed. However, I never remember what size of flapper I need (and my four toilets all use a different size), so it's a guessing game at the Home Depot as to what I should buy. Once I get it right, then there's the removal of the old flapper, which by this time is like fishing a soft-shelled turtle out of a mossy pond.

Then there is a chain that must be attached in the right place to the rod extending from the toilet's handle or the toilet won't flush properly. Of course I'm not describing rocket science, but skinny arms seem to maneuver better in the tight confines of the tank, and replacing a flapper every few years just doesn't give a person the practice needed to become good at it.

Flappers aren't expensive ($5–$7), but who can afford to pay a plumber to come out and charge for an hour to do a five-minute job?  So instead, big-box home-improvement stores like Lowes and Home Depot thrive. We buy the supplies and provide our own inefficient labor.

In a world without government interference, handymen and women would be everywhere doing small odd jobs like this.   

Mises explained,

The greater productivity of work under the division of labor is a unifying influence. It leads men to regard each other as comrades in a joint struggle for welfare, rather than as competitors in a struggle for existence. It makes friends out of enemies, peace out of war, society out of individuals.

[product:0]

Mr. Lambert strikes a similar chord when he concludes,

Doing things for one another is, in fact, an essential characteristic of a human community. Various mundane jobs were once spread around among us, and performing such small services for one another was even an aspect of civility. Those days are over.

It's not that faceless corporations fool us or force us into doing shadow work. Businesses merely understand that consumers are price sensitive. And as costs increase, businesses offer goods for sale that include self-service, allowing customers to absorb cost increases by providing labor instead of money. However, the time we spend doing these chores diverts us from doing what we really want to do, thus making our lives less fulfilled.

While the division of labor builds a civil society, it is government money printing and regulation that tears society apart.