Do what you’re least bad at then swapsies

Odd the things that a dog walk will have you thinking about. So, trying to get the entirety of Adam Smith’s division and specialisation of labour – the damn pin factory – plus Ricardo’s comparative advantage down into the one short nugget:

Do what you’re least bad at then swapsies

Any advances in conciseness anyone?

30 thoughts on “Do what you’re least bad at then swapsies”

  1. Sounds good to me. Something like that was going through my mind over the weekend when considering my next job.
    I’m averagely competent field engineer.
    I’m crap on HelpDesk.
    Why am I on HelpDesk?

  2. ‘Why am I on HelpDesk?’

    Because you don’t have the political clout to avoid such a lousy job, jgh?

  3. ‘Cos the command structure assumes you work you way up through Service Desk to Field Engineer, so all Field Engineers can do Service Desk. Ten years ago I managed one week at Dixon’s before by mutual agreement I escorted myself off the premises.

  4. “trade” is shorter and less twee than “swapsies,” and more likely to be understood by those pesky foreigners.

  5. jgh, time to switch your career off and on again.

    I’ve done desk and field. Field before mobile phones spoiled it, when they didn’t know where you were. Magic. Trying to explain technical stuff to people who don’t get it over the phone, not so magic.

  6. Fun, but it’s too short to be concise (brief but comprehensive); it’s meaningless without knowledge of the larger subject that it doesn’t even point to.

    Time magazine, 1962:
    “In fields of specialized knowledge, we aim to render an account that is plain and simple, yet does no violence to the difficulty of the subject, so that the uninformed reader can understand us while the expert cannot fault us. We try to keep in mind a saying attributed to Einstein—that everything must be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.”

  7. Overlooks competitive advantage and demand. You may be able to do something well, but if everyone else can and does to the point of reducing the value of your output to nil, then you need to make or do something else.
    Better strategy: find a market where you have competitive advantage, then trade.

  8. ‘Help Desk’ —not that we called it that then— was fine 40 years ago when I was that and programmer too, I could talk you through every keystroke and message on that little black and green screen and walk through every loop and branch that drove it; in my head without a script.

  9. Trade doesn’t depend upon competitive advantage, but comparative. An entirely different concept which is already contained within that short phrase. Even if someone else – or company, or country, whatever – is better than you at absolutely everything it still works that I or we do what we’re least bad at then trade the resultant production.

  10. Short pithy statements are typical of far right thinking: see (zum Beispiel) “Arbeit macht Frei”.

    I prefer the lengthy detailed list approach (and twenty fifthly…) used so effectively and informatively by the P³.

  11. I’m with PJF here.
    Your summary only works where the theory is already understood. Since Ricardo’s idea is famously the only non-obvious element of economics it can’t be explained in one sentence.

  12. “ Trade doesn’t depend upon competitive advantage, but comparative.”

    Maybe, but if your comparatively advantageous activity produces nothing of value, you have nothing to trade. You may be a better consulting engineer than dog Walker, but if all the consulting roles are taken by offshore Indians with lower living costs, you may have to walk dogs to make a living.

  13. You may be a better consulting engineer than dog Walker, but if all the consulting roles are taken by offshore Indians with lower living costs, you may have to walk dogs to make a living.

    Has this ever happened to a competent engineer?

    I’m a freelance programmer. I often work with Indians, and a lot of them are good at what they do too (contrary to the stereotype; I’ve also worked on the same project as wipro however, and they are just as shit as crapita or the other large consultancy firms over here). I’ve never struggled to find work.

    Not saying it can’t happen, but is it anything other than hypothetical?

  14. “Beat the competition, then trade.”?

    “Be useful, then trade.”?

    What point are you seeking to convey by saying “least bad” rather than “best”?

  15. People confuse absolute and comparative advantage when you use “best” so I use “least bad”. To emphasise that it’s not about what you can do in comparison with what he can do, it’s how good or bad at you are you, yourself, at these things.

  16. @biw: “Has this ever happened to a competent engineer“

    Has the earning power of an industry player been reduced by lower cost new entrants? Happens all the time. Has it got to the point that some say sod this for a lark and go off and do something else? Sometimes.

  17. My personal comparative advantage story is earning 200 USD as one of the pacers at the Berlin Marathon (late 80s), plus a weekend in a fab city, a beer, and a couple of chats with Olympic coaches. Any one of the elite field could have undercut me for the job and done it better and further but for them earning potential of 15 times or more for twice the distance was more important to them.

    You have to feel for the best winemaker in Scotland though. Whatever happened to him.

  18. The big problem with Timmy’s formulation is that it reduces comparative advantage to the “obvious” idea that people should, basically, do what they do best even if they aren’t very good at it. Which doesn’t sound terribly revolutionary. What are the benefits of doing so, and to whom do those benefits accrue? That’s the hurdle most people fall at.

    Timmy’s completely correct to say that a major economic illiteracy is people mixing up comparative vs competitive advantage. Even people who are very “business-literate” make that error all the time. And I do think changing the formulation to “least bad” is somewhat helpful. Was it Timmy who came up with the “idiot brother at the barbecue” analogy? That one worked better than this, though it was wordier.

    The thing that Ricardo grasped that most people don’t is that “do what your best at” is the best strategy as an individual, for the benefit of that individual, but also that it makes all sides better off. The barbecue analogy got that point across effectively – the brother might be an idiot, and whatever he does he’ll do it slower than you would have done, but that’s still freeing you up to focus on what you’re (relatively) best at. Perhaps the thing people struggle with the most is that even the guy who’s rubbish at everything benefits. That’s another advantage to the “least bad” rather than “best” formulation is helpful, since it emphasises trade/swapsies is your best strategy even if you’re the bad one. But I reckon it’s still too subtle to get the point across – a lot of people will see it as “well, you could do the trade, but you’d still be losing out from it, the other guy is better than you even at the thing you chose to specialise in!” That’s a really tricky mindset to shift. Just saying something their brain can rearrange into “do what you do best” gives them an easy out, “okay, sounds logical”, without forcing them to think through the radical consequences.

    (I reckon that deep down, the underlying problem is people failing to understand opportunity costs, so setting themselves up with the wrong counterfactual. I’d bet good money that if you tried this out on 100 people, you’d find quite a few who happily accept that “do what your best at” is the optimal strategy for each participant, but if pressed about the issue, would nevertheless also state that doing so is still making the “bad at everything” participant worse off. Totally illogical, but basically they’ve not thought out “worse off relative to what?” Clearly not to any of the other options on the table, since you previously agreed this was the optimal course of action. But unless you actually challenge someone on their contradictory answers, many people would be perfectly capable of holding the two ideas in their heads without any sensation of dissonance. I’m not sure about research into economics education, but I have seen similar research into physics education where students were able to hold two contradictory ideas in their heads – iirc that a ball is accelerated towards Earth by gravity, but also if you throw it upwards that it has constant speed up, gets to the top, and then has a constant speed down. Students who were actively challenged on the contradiction tended to do better in later tests. This is from memory so details may be somewhat mangled, but the fact people don’t even notice irreconcilable differences between their answers, yet can improve understanding when challenged on them, was the take-home point. Pretty sure it will hold in econ too.)

  19. The trouble with “do what you’re best at” is that it doesn’t address the issues of competition, product substitution and new entrants.

    At the end of the 1980s the world was full of companies making mainframe computers. They were mostly good at it and it was what they did best.

    In the 2020s they have either disappeared or changed radically to survive, doing things they did less well, but more likely to let them survive.

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