Information doesn’t matter

The classical economists gave us three basic factors of production: Land (i.e. nature-given resources), Labor (i.e. human effort), and Capital (i.e. tools). Naturally this involves lumping together a lot of heterogeneous things. Capital includes a rock you might use to smash an assailant over the head as well as a particle accelerator. But prices do a brilliant thing: they provide information about the relative scarcity of goods and compress that information into a single dimension

This allows us to aggregate! It means that we can talk about how much capital per capita is available in a region (or better yet, provide a distribution of workers’ access to capital… a project I’m not sure if anyone’s done) and the like.

This whole intellectual project is necessary if we want to talk about the nature and causes of a particular economy’s well being. But the original factors have become less useful as the nature of economic activity has changed over time.

It gradually became clear that the concept of labor was too fuzzy: how do we compare the labor of a doctor with that of a stevedore with that of a professional wrestler? We could try to use prices, but for a variety of reasons that just won’t work very well. Household production and leisure don’t have market prices, market frictions are particularly pronounced, information asymmetries abound and are entangled with principal-agent problems (you don’t have to watch a wrench to ensure that it doesn’t slack off, but your administrator may very well cease to administrate while browsing Facebook).

Economists have dealt with the issue with the idea of human capital. In addition to physical tools, people also have mental tools (skills). This idea leads into the notion of social capital (people invest in relationships), and can be extended in any number of directions. It’s a wonderful lens through which to view the world because it lets us see the nature of what we do.

But it’s not the right way to think about the factors of production. Not because it’s difficult to measure human capital (I’m not convinced it’s really possible to measure much of anything of importance in economics… even though I keep trying to). The problem is that it doesn’t get us down to the core, atomic thing that we’re really interested in.

Boulding tells us [emphasis mine]:

It is much more accurate to identify the factors of production as know-how (that is genetic information structure), energy, and materials, for, as we have seen, all processes of production involve the direction of energy by some know-how structure toward the selection, transportation, and transformation of materials into the product.

And I think he’s on to something here. The basic stuff of our economy is information applied to objects (even information has to be physically embodied in writing, magnetic manipulation of hard drives, or the shape of our neural connections), which requires energy.

But we’ve got the information necessary to do far more than we actually do. What is it that stands between the vast amounts of knowledge at our command being applied to our enormous stocks of physical resources using our still plentiful and cheap energy? Why is there so much slack in our economic systems?

It could simply be transaction costs, but I think we can go deeper. Boulding’s factors give a more refined view of both labor and capital, but he’s still missing the fundamental kernel of labor. It’s not our know-how that matters–we all know we’re supposed to save for retirement and yet we don’t. It’s not that we don’t have enough energy. What’s missing is an appreciation of attention.

Attention is at the root of alertness which Kirzner tells us is the prime mover that sets in motion economizing behavior. Attention is what is necessary to learn. Most importantly, it is what is necessary to remember and apply what we learn. And it’s universal. Laborers have it and so will our future robot overlords. It’s easily as basic as energy and materials. The question then is how to tie it into the notion of know-how (the psychology of learning) and social sciences more generally.

“Just Leave Me Alone Goddammit!”*

The basic argument I want to make is that we’ve been thinking about labor and human capital imprecisely,** and we would do better to think of labor as the selective application of attention, and habit (which economizes on attention) as the basic essence of human capital.

Attention

The kernel of this idea was planted when I read Pragmatic Thinking and Learning a few years ago. An important point it makes is that whenever our work is interrupted it takes something like 15 minutes to get back to work. Mental work is like barbecuing (or what the uninitiated erroneously call “smoking”). After 8 hours of cooking your guests are impatient (and drunk) and want you to check the meat. So you open up the barbecue and a plume of smoke billows out. You put in a meat thermometer and sure enough, the meat isn’t done. But now it’s going to take another 15 minutes for enough to smoke to build up to get the process moving again. 20 minutes later people want you to check again. (And that’s why our parties back in San Jose so often dragged on so long.) Showing up to work for 8 hours a day isn’t sufficient for getting your work done; sometimes you just need your boss to leave you alone long enough for you to focus deeply enough to solve the problem you’re facing.

Or we could think of work like juggling. Working on some difficult problem, you’ve got a few pieces of mental material in the air. When someone knocks on your door (or you take notice of an email notification on your phone) you drop the balls. Getting them going again takes some effort, so even a one second interruption sets you back a few minutes. Those of us who work at desks are familiar with how difficult thinking can be. Managing our attention takes effort. But with practice we can get better at coping with distractions and skipping the easy, but unproductive paths offered to us.

And what about grunt work? There’s less attention necessary (perhaps rhythm serves a role in maintaining that minimal bit of attention), but nobody gets paid for not doing what they’re told. Your job is to keep applying effort in the appropriate way. The only human capital you really need is what is necessary to get out of bed and get to work every day.

Habit Capital

People who smoke cigarettes, they say “You don’t know how hard it is to quit smoking.” Yes I do. It’s as hard as it is to start flossing.

Mitch Hedberg

Habit offers a means of economizing on attention. Instead of using up our mental capacity to decide to brush my teeth every day, I just do it automatically. Flossing is not so easy… except that I was able to make it a habit by piggybacking it on an existing habit.

Many of the skills we have are built on a collection of complex little habits, whether it’s muscle memory (you must watch the video above), understanding how to read graphs, or bearing in mind that everything has an opportunity cost.

(Obviously) getting a college degree is not the same as accumulating human capital. What college does (we hope) is inculcate students with critical thinking habits and some basic knowledge deemed necessary or particularly helpful for navigating the world. Learning on the job is similarly about providing workers with habits, and both positive and normative knowledge (i.e. factual knowledge and norms/beliefs/corporate culture). Growing up is about building up human capital largely in the form of internalized norms (moral habits). Habits are everywhere and they’re at the core of what we mean when we use the term human capital.

Habit capital allow us to direct our attention to critical areas in the same way physical capital allows us to leverage (and ultimately replace) our physical effort. By establishing habits we can get certain things done (teeth brushed, books read, etc.) while conserving attention. This takes more attention upfront just as physical capital requires upfront investment.

Anticapital

Economists generally don’t think much about bombs as an investment. Bombs require foregoing current consumption, but once they’re made, they’re intended to get a negative return by destroying something of value. Physical anticapital, as a social scientific idea, falls primarily in the domain of International Relations. Which isn’t to say economists haven’t thought about investments that destroy value. The idea of rent seeking is an important one, but it’s one that has been rationalized.

There’s probably not much to gain by thinking about rent seeking as investment in anticapital.*** But we can bring bad habits out of the purview of irrationality and bring it into the warm, rational glow of economics with the concept of human anticapital.

Just like in biological evolution, we’re satisficing, not optimizing. Habits may initially be adaptive and turn bad as circumstances change. We should expect a tendency towards “good” habits–and how those habits propagate is certainly an interesting question–but we should also expect the odd bizarre byproduct, misfire, and obsolete habits to emerge.

“We are still very close to our ancestors who roamed the savannah. The formation of our beliefs is fraught with superstitions–even today (I might say, especially today). Just as one day some primitive tribeman scratched his nose, saw rain falling, and developed an elaborate method of scratching his nose to bring on the much-needed rain, we link economic prosperity to some rate cut by the Federal Reserve Board, or the success of a company with the appointment of the new president “at the helm.”

Nassim Taleb

tl;dr:

Attention matters more than time. Habit economizes on attention. Mental work involves applying mental tools to particular problems and habit allows us to do so more or less automatically. In other words, habit is human capital.****

*That’s one possible title for the next paper I want to write. A more boring but descriptive possibility is “Habit Capital.” Another with more regional flavor is “Hey! I’m Working Here!” Maybe I’m not very good at titles…

**This follows in a similar vein as my entrepreneurship research which basically boils down to: entrepreneurship theory is good, but our empirical measures suck.

***Although I should mention that thinking about rates of depreciation will surely shed light on rent seeking questions.

****I’ll leave it for the comments to sort out whether it’s the only sort of human capital. Maybe you can also help me sort out how to wrap belief, understanding, and learning into this view.

Attention and Motivation

Since reading Pragmatic Thinking and Learning a few years ago, I’ve changed a small but important aspect of my life. I no longer worry about having enough time; I worry about having enough attention. Time devoted to working on a task early in the morning is far more productive than time that would otherwise be spent sleeping devoted to the same task.

In a similar vein, I’ve been coming across tidbits of information related to drugs and attention that have shed some light on this issue for me. For example, what Adderall (basically) does is that it excites your nervous system so that your focus is laser sharp. Suddenly boring tasks like cleaning the house are very easy. Besides ADD drugs, marijuana and LSD are both supposed to do something similar (in the case of LSD, for it to be a useful pharmaceutical would require doses in the sub-Grateful-Dead-concert range… just as you wouldn’t want to eat a handful of Ritalin). [Sorry I don’t have decent citations here… Commenters?]

The point of that last paragraph is to shed some light on the question plaguing those working on improving their own productivity: “How do I increase my motivation?” Anyone who has tried Adderall can tell you that motivation has nothing to do with why they’re cleaning the inside of the oven. They’re just doing it because they can.

What’s my point? Motivation and raw focus are both important, they’re different from one another, but they’re closely tied. Neither is easy to observe from the outside. Recognizing this is obviously important for our own lives. But it is also for how we look at the world as economists.