Monday, November 12, 2007

Super-cleaners vs middling managers

Chris Dillow imagines a parallel world:

In it, office cleaners are very well paid. This is because most people believe a clean office is vital for an organization’s productivity.

Managers, on the other hand, are paid decently but not massively: their organisational skills are certainly valuable, but it’s not seen as worth a fortune – and it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to spot the rare super-managers reliably.

Chris argues that:

the forces of demand and supply that cause high or low salaries can be ideological constructs. In our parallel world, ideology creates a high demand for cleaners and low one for bosses. In our actual world, things are reversed.

Say Chris is right. If so, then there’s probably too much inertia in the system for this to change easily – even if some people realised their ideological mistakes. Markets treat well-paid managers and poorly paid cleaners as a sign of a good business model (attract executive high-flyers, but keep other costs down), and variations from this are liable to be punished by falling share prices. Furthermore, if most of the market sticks with the existing view, then a merely reasonably paid managerial job will be hard to fill.

Ideology isn’t an abstraction; it seizes people’s minds, often subtly, and shapes the world through them. As Joan Robinson said: “Ideology is like breath: one does not smell one’s own.”

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