Monday, April 16, 2012

Economics of a Family

Division of labor is generally a good thing for an economy. It means that people specialize in what they are good at and then trade the money they earn for something they are not good at. This usually means that jobs get done more efficiently and items are more affordable. When Henry Ford made the automobile affordable for Americans in the early 1900's, he used this idea in the form of his assembly line. Each person in the line did his job, and his job only, to every car. The car got passed down the line for the next person to do the next job and arrived at the end, finished. It was an efficient and affordable way to put many people to work since each person only needed to know how to do one thing; he didn't need to be a craftsman.

A lot of things are produced this way. Most of the clothes, furniture, and other things we use each day are probably produced in assembly-line fashion. However, if you own a beautiful, hand-made piece of wood furniture, or a handmade quilt, you know that the cost of such an item is considerably higher than it would be if it were made on an assembly line and were not uniquely crafted by a skilled artisan.

It occurred to me in one of my frequent and random wanderings of thought, that the majority of American society likes to put the family on an assembly line and divide up the labor. A woman and a man each have some skill which earns them a paycheck. Let's say she is a 10th-grade-history teacher and he is an engineer. They get married and continue to work, trading their labor for the labor of others as they purchase a house, car, furniture, food, etc. Once they have kids, the process continues. If mom thinks she isn't good at taking care of babies, no matter, that's what division of labor is for! She continues to do what she IS good at, teaching high school history, and trades in that work for baby care done by someone who is presumably better at it than she is. As junior gets passed down the assembly line of child care, getting treated just like every other kid on the line by the workers, he makes it to school age. Now, it is time to send him off to the public schools where the government has kindly taken mom and dad's money in the form of taxes and is choosing the laborers they think will be good at specializing in taking the next step in shaping the little man. Now, mom teaches someone else's kid high school history, while that someone else teaches her kid to read.

Mom and Dad think this is great. They can continue to work at what they are good at and trade in their specialization for the work someone else will do to their children.
They can even trade in their specialty for ready-made meals, lots of activities for their kids, and lots of stuff to keep their children occupied and in possession of the latest fashions and toys.

Poor junior gets passed along the assembly line and comes out the other end looking very much like everyone else does. He gets stuffed into whichever mold was popular at the time to become another standardized member of society, who learned math, reading, history, and science in the same manner as everyone else did. He becomes standard; somewhere within a standard deviation of the average. Problem is, he's not made of metal or plastic and it is hard for him to feel significant when he was not uniquely and carefully molded like a precious and rare piece of wood carefully crafted into a unique piece of artistry by a master carpenter.

Image from

It is too bad that parents, the only craftsmen in possession of each of these fine and unique pieces of material, are so quick to put them on the assembly line of society and divide the labor of shaping them. What fine and lovely pieces might we find all about us if the craftsmen spent the laborious hours lovingly crafting each piece into the unique item of humanity she was born to be!

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