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Knowing Where To Tap

You’ve likely heard some variant of the morality story where someone justifies their (commercial) worth as mostly a matter of knowledge, and not just labor.

A typical version is as follows - a handyperson is hired to fix a failing heater. They spend a few minutes investigating and listening to it from a variety of locations, and then tap a particular spot with a hammer and fix it.

They bill the owner of the heater $300 - the owner objects, saying that it was a simple tap of the hammer. So the worker remakes the invoice:

  • Tapping a hammer: $1
  • Knowing where to tap: $299

As with most concise-yet-resonant stories, it belies a more complex issue.

Person holding a power tool at a work bench, doing a task that clearly requires fine motor control

In most versions of this story, the task is simple enough that - despite knowledge being the integral factor - one doesn’t need special training or deep consideration to see the justice of it. That is why it is a morality story, after all!

But real labor (including that done by handypeople) occurs in vastly more complex settings. This does not mean the moral is incorrect - simply that it obfuscates higher dimensions, and that further analysis is needed.

Consider situations where information is asymmetrical. An auto mechanic tells you that, despite coming in for a simple oil change (for say $30), your engine block has a cylinder liner that looks “off” (they pull out a part to show it to you - you can tell it looks oily and round). They say a more elaborate repair is needed, at a cost of $1200.

They may well be correct - in fact, they may not only be pricing the repair fairly, but doing a service to you and others on the road by alerting you to a genuine safety issue. Or, it is possible that the issue is real but not urgent - that vehicles of your make and age often show a superficial degradation in that spot, but it doesn’t impact performance or safety at this time. Or maybe they just made the whole thing up!

Unless you’re both (1) a subject-matter expert in the area (in this case, auto mechanics), and (2) taking the time to look at it yourself - you just don’t know. And if you are both of those things, you’re probably not taking your car in for a simple oil change!

What’s the moral of this more complicated story? That asymmetries (and particularly those of information) subtly warp our intuitions, and make otherwise simple judgments remarkably complex.

Consider “indispensable” employees - the term can apply to both those who are truly invaluable in their work (and may or may not be fairly rewarded for that). But it can also refer to those who engineer situations (by hoarding information and creating complexity) where only they know how to complete a critical function. The latter tend to be more successful at extracting value from their employment - to the point that they often direct the primary decisions of their business.

And what about other ways businesses “protect” their production? Punishing larceny has a simple logic, when the situation is equally simple - steal a physical good from your peer and you are depriving them of rightful ownership. But who are you depriving of what if you download an audio file of Leonard Bernstein conducting Candide? Sure, you wouldn’t download a car - but not all things are cars.

The overall dilemma is that pricing things (which can include goods, labor, and punishments) is hard, and there are few situations with a clear impartial arbiter. Capitalism suggests that the free market is the answer - but many of the examples we’re considering are themselves products of that.

So, how do we resolve all this lurking complexity? There’s no single answer - the educational and professional institutions that provide accreditation can give valuable signal in some situations, but they can also perpetuate stereotypes and inequality. There’s simply no replacement for critical consideration of individual situations.

If I had to suggest one moral, it is that taking a general moral from a simple story and broadly applying it to life is poor reasoning, and generally inadvisable. The semi-paradox of me suggesting this is left as an exercise to the reader.