$100 bills on the pavement: another installment

Cartoon purloined following Patrick's excellent advice @ comment 8.

As I’ve said at least once before, my own approach to economics could be described as looking for $100 bills on the pavement. I think they’re everywhere. I keep finding them.  Like I said when I last posted on this.

How many times have I visited a hospital where the patient has an ‘on-off’ switch for their lights. Now the teensy weensiest bit of thought about the situation the patient is in would lead one to install a switch with some capacity for dimming – so the patient or the nurse can set a level of light that seems right at the time. Now of course lots of hospitals have this. But whenever I see the lots that don’t I sigh with exhaustion. What hope is there for us if we can’t build beds for patients in hospitals that show the slightest thought for the patient?

It seems to me there’s a whole agenda here both within organisations and within policy. But, perhaps because there’s no overarching ‘narrative’ as we’ve come to call it, this stuff disappears for lack of some larger thematics.  In this sense the issue is similar to what I described as ‘the political economy of minutiae’ which stymies endless attempts to ‘fix’ the over-regulation problem.  Business and others are endlessly irritated and worse by regulation, but can’t really be bothered with attending to the micro-detail necessary to do something about it.

Likewise there are any number of things some small, some not so small that could improve our world at minimal cost or risk. Why aren’t they done?  Good question, but one is simply that everyone is busy doing what they do, they’re creatures of routine as are the organisations for which they work and nothing much happens. As Alfred North Whitehead wrote (and was quoted writing by Hayek in Chapter Two of his magnum opus, The Constitution of Liberty:

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.

And it seems that we need a cavalry charge to get something new happening.  Of course that’s well and good if it’s a difficult thing. Even if it looks like a good thing, if it’s going to really upset some people, if it’s going to be difficult to do, then a certain Burkean conservatism would say that that is not such a bad thing.  But often there are things that could make a substantial contribution to making things better without making anything worse (like the example above) but even so, they’re just not done – until that is some cavalry charge is mobilised to support them.

Anyway, here’s a $100 bill moment from Eliezer Yudkowsky (HT: Robin Hanson.

Have I ever remarked on how completely ridiculous it is to ask high school students to decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives and give them nearly no support in doing so? Support like, say, spending a day apiece watching twenty different jobs and then another week at their top three choices, with salary charts and projections and probabilities of graduating that subject given their test scores? The more so considering this is a central allocation question for the entire economy?

I’d also put my proposal for ‘windows on workplaces’ in the same category.  But somehow it doesn’t really fit any ideological mould and so there’s nothing to give it any urgency, nothing to get a cavalry to charge on its behalf.  So it sits there. . . .

Comments appreciated below, but comments itemising other $100 bills on the pavement appreciated even more.

Note to self: This Ted Talk touches on the same phenomenon.

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10 years ago

“Likewise there are any number of things some small, some not so small that could improve our world at minimal cost or risk. Why aren’t they done?”

One reason is because people discount the future too much — 50c saved on a light switch that doesn’t have a dimming switch means the building can be built more cheaply now! A second reason is that different groups often pay for different aspects of things in big bureaucracies — for example, where I work, they give us the cheapest computers possible, which no-doubt costs them more on power in the long term, let alone work place productivity which isn’t even counted (I can dry my clothes on my monitor if I get rained on going to work it generates so much heat). But the group that pays for the electricity and the one that pays for the power is different and I doubt they are able to cooperate at all with each other (indeed, I doubt they speak to each other). I would assume the same is true in terms of hospitals, dimming switches, and who pays for the construction of the building vs. the electricity. Thus somewhere gets credit for making a bad decision.

Robert Merkel
10 years ago

Another reason why, Nick, is fluorescent lights don’t support dimming.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
10 years ago

In NT high schools kids do one week’s work experience in year 10 (I think). It’s also tied in with a quite detailed program called Future Pathways where they explore in some depth what is involved in the career in question, study pathways to get there, doing job applications etc. Most schools also have some sort of work experience at year 9 level, so kids will get exposure to at least 2 different sorts of job while at school, which isn’t far from what Yudkowsky suggests.

As for the initial suggestion by Yudkowsky, I have serious doubts on three levels. First, the logistics and staff time involved for schools organising a program whereby large squadrons of kids are sent off to 20 different workplaces for a day at a time (it would have to be large squadrons for all kids to get 20 turns) would be horrendous. If we assume there are (say) 200 kids in (say) year 11 doing the program that’s 4000 parental permission notes to chase up and check; 4 school buses (50 kids per bus) to organise on 20 separate days (80 buses in total); at least 8 teachers to supervise those kids on 20 separate days (who teaches all their other classes while they’re away for 4 weeks – which is what 20 days amounts to?); timetables to re-organise etc etc.

Secondly, I seriously doubt that many workplaces are going to be happy to be disrupted by large groups of kids wandering around even under teacher supervision. Moreover, they’d be disrupted by these large groups of 50 kids for an entire week at least just to accommodate the needs of a single high school. In the area where I grew up there were/are 10 or so public and private high schools. If all of them implemented such a program the local workplaces would be permanently filled with groups of schoolkids!

All this would be even worse if you left it to the kids to organise their own 20 single day workplace placements (rather than run them as co-ordinated school excursions). If we assume there are (say) 100 workplaces in a local area that could potentially host kids for a day, the average workplace would receive at least 40 phone calls from kids trying to organise a placement. Some would receive many more. How many businesses have time to do this, not to mention setting aside employees to accompany the kids while they’re at the workplace etc? And how many kids would be capable of organising 20 separate workplace placements for themselves, making the required phone calls, recording the bookings, navigating themselves to 20 different business premises etc? Alternatively, how many parents actually have time to do this for their kids when they have to work themselves? The more you think about it, the more this is obviously one of the silliest ideas I’ve read about for a very long time.

Thirdly, I don’t really think just seeing workplaces for a single day is likely to be very helpful to kids in making career choices anyway. The combined effect of Yudkowsky’s proposal is that kids (presumably in year 11) would be absent from classes for 5 weeks (i.e. an entire half term) during the year so they can get some sort of superficial, half-baked idea of what workplaces involve. Remembering back to my own school days, such an experience would not have helped me even slightly to choose a career. I already had at least as good a superficial idea of what office work, legal firms, trades work, working in retail etc involved as I would have received from these sorts of visits. I would have treated the whole thing as just a great opportunity to have fun with my mates and avoid any school work for several weeks, and I was quite a bit better behaved and academically motivated than most.

It all rather suggests that the standard economist’s response is usually correct. That $100 bill is almost certainly counterfeit.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
10 years ago

I used “work experience” to hang out with a local nerd on his then super-fast internet connection. I’ve heard at least anecdotal evidence that most work experience involves “here’s a broom”, or “could you make these photocopies?”, or “make a coffee for us would ya darl”. At law firms (take that as you will).

And this is not surprising. We software types have Brooks’ Law: “Adding people to a late software project makes it later”. One key reason being that unprepared outsiders are initially a drain on productivity because they must be brought up to speed.

High school students with no direct training, higher education or professional experience are about as far behind the work as it’s possible to be. It’s no wonder they wind up being dogsbodies.

10 years ago

Admittedly it was 30+ years ago, but everyone at my school was offered 2 work experience day visits. I learned that pharmacists are bored out of their brains, or so it seems, and on the second day nothing about what lawyers actually do, so I stupidly became one.

I suspect that a gap year working is the best way to find that $100 note.

10 years ago

My school offered two one-week work experience sessions. One in year 10 and one in year 12.
In year 10 I spent the week enjoyably with tools in my hands and grease on my elbows, disassembling aeroplane engines at the local airport workshop.
Year 12 wasn’t so good, with a lot more just sitting around watching guys repair computers, though I did do a lot of basic soldering.

10 years ago

So somewhere in a hypothetical hospital, an orderly notices that his job could run much more efficiently if things were done slightly differently. His first thought is, “My wage isn’t going to change, so why should I bother?” but then he decides it might be worthwhile telling a nurse about it.

The nurse (who knows a little bit about cleaning) listens to the idea and thinks to herself, “Dumb orderly, what would he know, I’m much smarter than him, besides, my wage isn’t going to change so why should I bother?” but then the nurse happens to get talking to a doctor about the idea some days later.

The doctor (who knows nothing about cleaning, and a little bit about nursing) is a young intern and thinks to himself, “Dumb nurse, I’m much smarter because I got better marks and did more years at University, and when I get out of this dumb hospital I’ll make real money, so why should I care how this place runs when I’m gone?” So this doctor figures the nurse probably got the idea wrong and he fixes it up a bit and presents it as his idea to the hospital administrator.

The hospital administrator (who knows nothing about cleaning, nursing, or doctoring other than how much they cost, but who is brilliant at guarding her own back against political machinations and has survived several change of governments) thinks, “I’ve seen these interns come and go, I don’t need them getting creative on me.”

So after some time the Health Minister gets all the administrators together and says, “I need some ideas to save money,” and the hospital administrator says, “Well I could terminate a few orderlies if you want to also save a bit of money on inspections.”

Of course it goes without saying that none of the above would stoop so low as to listen to advice from a patient.

10 years ago

A number of departments in the public service have doctoral scholarships for senior staff (EL2-SES), who are paid at their current salary (plus super) for the three years or so it takes to complete a PhD.

I don’t understand why they don’t sponsor an open scholarship application process for the general public wishing to complete a PhD in their specified area of interest. It would be much less expensive and achieve the same result. Still, I suppose an open process may mean that their anointed bureaucrat might not win their scholarship, whereas an internal process of referees, mentoring and schmoozing is a mechanism to legitimise a fait accompli.

Similarly, commissioned research projects undertaken by consultancies could at times be undertaken by offering post-doctoral scholarships at probably less than a quarter of the cost of employing a consultant.

{rant over}