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What is the Quantity of Labor?

Labor as an economic commodity is expressed in terms of worker-hours. That would imply that the human worker is like a machine which produces a certain quantity of output in a certain time. In practice, such a definition is oversimplified.

Human labor is at least of four kinds:

1. There is a kind of labor which is like a productive machine. For instance, if a man is hired to dig a ditch with a shovel, his work is measured in terms of the shovel loads of dirt taken from the ground. If he removes three scoops of dirt per minute, the ditch will be finished more quickly than if he removes two scoops of dirt per minute. Labor productivity will be measured in such ways.

2. Labor also has the dimension of physical presence. Employers pay certain employees for “covering” a certain function. For example, a sales clerk is hired to stand behind the jewelry counter at a department store. Much of the employee’s work time is unproductive. This employee does become valuable, however, if a passing customer has a question about a piece of jewelry which the sales clerk is able to answer. To be more accurate, the employee’s work becomes valuable if, after that discussion, the customer decides to buy the jewelry.

3. Some labor consists of applying knowledge to an operation. Suppose that in an office building an electrical short causes the lights to fail. The office manager calls an electrician. After arriving at the office building, the electrician checks certain parts of the circuit and then makes a simple repair. The lights go back on. To an extent, one might say that the electrician’s “work” consists of what he did in a period of, say, five minutes as he removed a cover, located wires that had shorted, cut away the burned portions of wire, spliced wires back together, wrapped them in electrical tape, and put the cover on again. However, only the electrician knew what steps to take to restore the electricity. It would be more accurate, then, to say that this person’s “work” consisted of applying the knowledge of his occupation to this particular situation. The knowledge itself was acquired by education, training, and prior work experience. Being a repository of knowledge about electrical circuits, the electrician performed an economically valuable function in assessing the problem at this office building and then applying a known solution.

4. While still a teenager, Kevin Garnett signed a six-year contract for $125 million to play professional basketball with the Minnesota Timberwolves. What kind of work does this represent? Garnett’s contract called for his showing up at the games, putting on a Timberwolves uniform, and then using his unique personal skills to exert himself physically to perform the required motions of a basketball player in order to, hopefully, win games for the team and attract paying customers to its games. In addition, the team owner told Garnett that, for this kind of money, he wanted him to behave reputably both on and off the basketball court so as not to disgrace the team.

This category of work, then, calls for the worker to deliver unique personal skills to an event, the basketball game. Garnett had shown himself to have superior playing abilities in the game of basketball. It would not do for a player of slightly lesser ability to take Garnett’s place on the team. It would not do for the owner to try to develop a basketball-playing robot who could play better than Garnett. The Timberwolves fans wanted a human player of Garnett’s talents and mystique, giving them hope that the team would win. Such considerations govern work in the entertainment world. They may also govern the political world where, for instance, a former Congressman makes a more effective lobbyist than an equally knowledgeable person without this background.


The first type of work is dominant in primitive economies where a person works with simple tools. In more advanced economies, machines take over much of the productive function. For instance, a man operating a backhoe can dig a ditch much more quickly than a man with a shovel. Even so, one can still measure the productivity of the man plus machine digging the ditch. Man-hours of this particular operation are still meaningful. The increased use of power equipment also means that a larger knowledge component is required than before to do productive work.

Advanced industrial and post-industrial economies typically require work with a large knowledge component. The knee-jerk explanation is that such knowledge comes mainly through education. However, a modern liberal-arts education is quite inefficient in producing work-related knowledge. Prior work experience would be a better generator of this knowledge. In certain situations, the worker will know exactly what to do because he has previously faced and handled the work requirement at hand. In other situations, however, the worker will not have experienced anything like what he is now asked to handle. In that case, work will consist of the worker’s using his intelligence and creative imagination to find ways of doing the work. One might say that creative work - the development of new products and routines - is the highest kind of work; it should also be the most generously rewarded. Higher-level managerial, professional, and technical work involves use of one’s brain to acquire knowledge that is not previously available.

Let us now speculate how the quantity of work might be affected if the government imposed a shorter workweek. The first two categories of labor would indeed follow the pattern described by the formula: output = labor productivity x employment x average work hours. If average work hours are reduced, then either employment or labor productivity would have to increase in order to maintain output. Specifically, the digger of ditches would have to dig more quickly - shovel more scoops of dirt out of the ground per minute - to finish the ditch in the same time. If that could not be accomplished, the contractor would then have to hire another ditch digger to handle what the first person might otherwise have done in the period of time not worked. With respect to the retail clerk who has to stand behind the counter for a set period of time, shorter work hours would absolutely mean that someone would have to be hired to fill the time gap.

With respect to the other two kinds of work, however, a change in the normal work period should have little effect upon performance. The critical element is finding someone who knows how to do this work. It would then take his person only a short time, after applying his work-related knowledge to the situation at hand, to perform the actual operation required. In the electrician’s case, changes in the normal work period should have little effect on his ability to make the necessary repair since it should take him only five or ten minutes to complete this work after sizing up the problem. If the electrician took Fridays off, the main effect would be that, if the electrical outage occurred on Friday, the office manager would have to call someone else. For the rest of the week, there would be no effect.

With respect to a professional athlete’s or entertainer’s work, the events requiring uniquely skilled performance would certainly be scheduled to fit whatever state-imposed work schedules would require. Moreover, much of the work is recorded. When the recording is finished, the singer or other performer is able to deliver his or her unique service being then totally absent from the scene of the machine-produced images.

One should observe, however, that capital investment may have as much or more impact upon the quantity of work performed as the time and effort of a human laborer. Power-driven machines greatly improve the speed of physical operations. To have those machines on hand, the business firm must pay money to purchase them and to train operators. Therefore, we call it “capital investment’. Besides this, someone must have previously invented the machine which the business firm has purchased. Scientific and technical knowledge must be such that the inventor was able to conceive and produce the invention. Increased productivity is, ultimately, a society-wide accomplishment.

The working hours of the human laborer can and should be reduced if the same amount of output can be produced with the shorter as with the longer hours provided that the changed work schedules do not appreciably increase the toil and stress upon the people handling those jobs. Since knowledge-related work is hardly affected, there can be little reason to require long hours of work from such workers. They themselves are in a better position to judge the ebb and flow of their own creative energies. It may actually be that more time off from work will “recharge their batteries”, so to speak, and keep them more productive in the long run.

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