Thursday, July 14, 2022

Homo Economicus Sings the Blues, And We All Suffer For It

 In last month’s post, I contrasted the positive, intrinsic view of work that underlies high-road HR strategies with the negative, instrumental view of work frequently seen in songs about work. Continuing with the theme of how we think about work, varying perspectives on work often correspond with assumptions about work embedded in different academic disciplines. In general terms, economics treats work as a commodity and as a lousy activity endured because of a need for money, whereas psychology focuses on personal fulfillment, and sociology on social norms.

Most songs on work are consistent with how most economists think about work. And thus, work songs are a revealing way to illustrate the dominant assumptions about work inherent in economic analyseswork as a commodity, as a pain cost, and as an opportunity cost.

In a commodity conceptualization of work, labor is an abstract quantity of productive value governed by the impersonal forces of supply and demand. We can see this reflected in songs that lament factory closings due to cheaper labor elsewhere, such as Billy Joel’s Allentown or Harry Chapin’s The Day They Closed the Factory Down:

      So they're moving somewhere else now
      With their cloths and fabric press
      They found themselves another town
      Where they'll make shirts for less

In terms of the actual work experience, the mainstream economics view of work is that it’s the opposite of something that brings you positive utility. That is, the direct experience of work makes you worse off. Traditionally this was seen as a pain cost. We can see this reflected in songs about long hours, hot and dangerous working conditions, or, as in Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5, bad bosses and disrespect:

      Workin' 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin'
      Barely gettin' by, it's all takin' and no givin'
      They just use your mind and they never give you credit
      It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it
      9 to 5, for service and devotion
      You would think that I would deserve a fair promotion
      Want to move ahead but the boss won't seem to let me
      I swear sometimes that man is out to get me
      They let your dream, just watch 'em shatter
      You're just a step on the boss man's ladder
      But you got dreams he'll never take away

In modern economic theorizing, work doesn’t have to be inherently bad (a pain cost), but working can still make you worse off it reduces the amount of time you can spend doing things that you find more enjoyable (an opportunity cost):

      It's always better on holiday, so much better on holiday
      That's why we only work when we need the money
      It's always better on holiday, so much better on holiday
      That's why we only work when we need the money

      (from Jacqueline by Franz Ferdinand)

So why work? To earn money to live. That is, Workin’ for a Livin’ in the words of Huey Lewis & The News. But don’t oversimplify and take this to mean that economics predicts that people won’t work hard. Rather, economics predicts that people will work hard when the pay is worth it, as captured by Gretchen Wilson’s Work Hard, Play Harder.

While songs can usefully illustrate these perspectives on work that underlie economic approaches to work, perhaps they run the risk of normalizing these approaches. If the nature of work is seen as beyond our control, then instead we might just focus on Working for the Weekend. But there ought to be better ways. Partly this entails increasing our demands for better work. But we also need to dig deeper. In particular, making work into a commodity in our collective imaginations dehumanizes it, reducing workers to productive inputs tracked in headcount analyses and income statements. This sterile conceptualization is not innocuous—in contrast, it’s a key conceptual step towards exploitation. That is, it’s harder for leaders to exploit workers who they see as human rather than as numbers in spreadsheet.

      I work my back till it's racked with pain
      The boss can't even recall my name
      I show up late and I'm docked, it never fails
      I feel like just another, spoke in a great big wheel
      Like a tiny blade of grass in a great big field
      To workers I'm just another drone
      To Ma Bell I'm just another phone
      I'm just another statistic on a sheet
      To teachers I'm just another child
      To IRS I'm another file
      I'm just another consensus on the street

      (from Feel Like a Number by Bob Seger)

Also, economics perspectives on work implicitly or explicitly emphasize individual free choice. If you don’t like your job, tell your boss to Take this Job and Shove It, and then find something better. But we need to recognize that labor markets don’t always work as nicely as mainstream economics wants to assume. There can be power differential in societal institutions and discrimination. Not everyone has the same options. Not everyone is rewarded fairly. Economic theorizing on work (e.g., personnel economics), and mainstream economics more generally, often sanitizes this by ascribing different outcomes to different personal choices or productive characteristics rather the systemic inequalities.

Unsurprisingly given their roots in real life experiences, there are songs that can remind us of the imbalances that workers must navigate. Class-based inequalities are evident in Worker's Song by Dropkick Murphys:

      We're the first ones to starve, we're the first ones to die
      The first ones in line for that pie in the sky
      And we're always the last when the cream is shared out
      For the worker is working when the fat cat's about

Margo Price’s Pay Gap and Cher’s Working Girl address gender inequality. And Nina Simone’s Backlash Blues starkly reminds us of race-based inequalities and discrimination which must not be overlooked:

      You give me second class houses
      And second class schools
      I know you think that all colored people
      Are just second class fools
      Mr. Backlash, I’m gonna leave you
      With the blues, yes I am
      When I try to find a job
      To earn a little cash
      All you got to offer
      Is your mean old white backlash
      But the world is big
      Big and bright and round
      And it’s full of other folks like me
      Who are black, yellow, beige, and brown
      Mr. Backlash, I’m gonna leave you
      With the blues, yes I am

In conclusion, then, the economics assumption about work being lousy is richly illustrated in a wide range of songs about work. But as a society, we should challenge why work is so lousy while also questioning the implications of other longstanding hallmarks of traditional economic thought—seeing work as a commodity, defaulting to assumptions of competitive markets, and embracing self-interest as the fabric of societal interactions. Homo economicus has many reasons to be singing the blues, and we all pay the price.