If Only Polly Toynbee Had Read Her Adam Smith

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That Polly Toynbee is remarkably uninformed concerning the world around her is an obvious truism. She’s far more interested in the visions of sugar plums dancing in her head than any aspects of reality. But even so it really would be a good idea if she’d bothered to read her Adam Smith. Not because he’s right on all things, he isn’t. Nor because he’s a free market only free market all the time sorta guy – he isn’t. But because he did, some 242 years ago, point out the problems with many of the things Polly complains about. And if she wants to find solutions to her complaints it really would be worthwhile looking at the wisdom of the ages concerning how to solve them.

For example, all jobs pay the same amount. Which explains this:

Adam says he could find better paid work, but stays because he is fond of those he has cared for over five years: “They have become like family to me.” I have spoken to other care workers whose kindness is exploited by a system that pays them so little.

Well, no, he can’t find better paid work. He can find work which pays him more cash, certainly, but that’s not the same thing.

Utility – that’s what its all about. And utility is a personal thing. Entirely so. Sure, we can observe that there are things which many to most humans like, full bellies, happy children, that beer which is the happy produce of our isle. Things which most don’t, pools of ordure perhaps. But the blend of what we prefer and don’t, that mixture which makes us as happy as we can be within the boundaries reality imposes, that’s a personal thing. It can be pretty weird too, those pools of ordure. There was a bloke so sexually excited by cow s**t in large quantities that he used to visit slurry tanks to gain his kicks. Until one day he took his mind off matters – or perhaps concentrated a little too much on one particular manipulation – and drowned in one. Weird, sure, but that’s utility for you.

Ol’ Adam didn’t consider such a case but he did point out that all jobs pay the same – when we consider all that is paid for doing them. Hard labour in noisesome conditions – say, dunnikin diver – will pay well. Because the high cash wages make up for the noisesome conditions. Gary Becker made the same point about sex work – it’s unskilled labour in at least part of that market after all. The relatively high pay compared to other unskilled labour is explained by the loss of social capital from doing that labour.

Equally, running in the other direction, jobs that lots of people like doing pay little in cash. Those stage stars are surrounded by a penumbra of the star struck who will – AmDram proving this – pay for the privilege of strutting the boards. Oxbridge graduates will go to work in London on £20k for the honour of working at The Guardian.

So, why is Adam paid little cash for caring? Because he enjoys it. His pay being that combination of all the things he gains from turning up to work.

The thing is we’ve known this for 242 years now. It really is about time Polly read her Adam Smith, isn’t it?

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Esteban DeGolfDavidTDSpikebloke in spain Recent comment authors
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Esteban DeGolf
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Esteban DeGolf

A similar misleading complaint is regularly made about the pay of public school teachers in the U.S. Most people actually underestimate their wages, but also completely disregard the fact that they enjoy:
Virtually 100% job security
Pensions that are more generous than 95-99% of the public sector
Ditto for health insurance
3 months’ vacation per year
A low pressure working environment – show up, go through the paces & you’re fine
Except in the most severe recessions (when other people are losing their jobs) guaranteed annual pay increases
And, as noted above re: Adam, most teachers derive great personal satisfaction from the work.

TD
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TD

There’s a bit more pressure than you think. I’ve taught a few 1-3 day courses and prepping for them and teaching them when I’m not a natural speaker is a bit of pressure. One of my sisters has taught for years and for a while in a pretty rough school. That probably took a few years off her though she’s retiring after this year from a much nicer school. Still, some of the other factors you list are true.

David
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David

I agree with you entirely UK teachers get a bad deal. (Which possibly accounts for the poor quality of some of my teachers at my school)
Although Esteban is talking about the US, it might be easier there.

Esteban DeGolf
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Esteban DeGolf

A similar misleading complaint is regularly made about the pay of public school teachers in the U.S. Most people actually underestimate their wages, but also completely disregard the fact that they enjoy:
Virtually 100% job security
Pensions that are more generous than 95-99% of the public sector
Ditto for health insurance
3 months’ vacation per year
A low pressure working environment – show up, go through the paces & you’re fine
Except in the most severe recessions (when other people are losing their jobs) guaranteed annual pay increases
And, as noted above re: Adam, most teachers derive great personal satisfaction from the work.

Hector Drummond
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All fine, Tim, but why bring that old dinosaur Polly Toynbee into it?

Hector Drummond
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All fine, Tim, but why bring that old dinosaur Polly Toynbee into it?

bloke in spain
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bloke in spain

Wouldn’t it be important to append “where markets operate” in there somewhere. Because La Twatbee seems to be a fine example of where they don’t. If one follows her career arc, it’s fairly obvious she’s always been paid well above personal utility value, market value or any other value. Because she’s always benefited from her “friends in high places” ensuring she’s remunerated well above what anyone not called Polly Twatbee could expect in an equivalent role.

bloke in spain
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bloke in spain

Wouldn’t it be important to append “where markets operate” in there somewhere. Because La Twatbee seems to be a fine example of where they don’t. If one follows her career arc, it’s fairly obvious she’s always been paid well above personal utility value, market value or any other value. Because she’s always benefited from her “friends in high places” ensuring she’s remunerated well above what anyone not called Polly Twatbee could expect in an equivalent role.

bloke in spain
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bloke in spain

Oh & should have added – generally with other people’s money.

bloke in spain
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bloke in spain

Oh & should have added – generally with other people’s money.

Spike
Member

I agree that less generally attractive jobs pay more, that you can make a bundle by doing things that few others can or want to do, and that most people have non-monetary criteria in picking a job. But supply-and-demand explains this fully. The conundrum “all jobs pay the same amount” is the economist noticing that all jobs pay different amounts, and inventing a fantasy term to plug the difference. This is a dangerous path. The eco-gadfly notes how efficiently suburbanites can drive to work in the small city, but then pulls out of a bodily orifice the “social cost” of… Read more »

Esteban DeGolf
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Esteban DeGolf

Re: teachers, I agree that teaching in a bad school or one in a bad neighborhood is much less comfortable than one in a good neighborhood, but this is true of other jobs – repairmen, car salesmen, convenience clerks, etc. One big difference, however, is that in other jobs, the performance expectations can’t be met just by showing up & going through the motions. Also, there is always the threat of competition or replacement. In the U.S., a public school teacher can make a minimal effort (show up on time, have lesson plans written, go through the motions) and they… Read more »