Sunday, January 20, 2013

Keep the middle man

This weekend I've been reading The Locavore's Dilemma by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu and several passages about the role of intermediaries reminded me that I have been meaning to write about the importance of middle men.

Intermediaries, they write, complete important tasks like assembling, grading, packaging, processing, storing, transporting, financing, distributing and adverting products. The uninformed public, especially Marxists, have seen these middle men as redundant parasites who stand between the customer and the craftsman or farmer. They insist this makes buying and selling impersonal and the process needs to be changed.

This mentality is just a knee-jerk reaction to the division of labor, something Henry David Thoreau compared to letting another man do his thinking for him. What they gloss over is that when you don't hire a middle man that labor has to be performed by someone else, often the customer.

This is called shadow work, unpaid labor that the customer picks up from an eliminated middle man. When you spend an hour on the Internet searching for cheap airline tickets instead of hiring a travel agent, you are doing shadow work. The money you save is the shadow work payment. For some people, that's worth it. If you are a corporate attorney, it probably isn't and you'd rather have the free time.

In 2011 Craig Lambert wrote a New York Times article on the growing problem of shadow work. That is to say, the problems that have come from eliminating middle men.

To be sure, shadow work has its benefits. Bagging one’s own groceries or pumping one’s own gas can save time. Shadow work can increase autonomy and enlarge our repertoire of skills and knowledge. Research on the “Ikea effect,” named for the Swedish furniture manufacturer whose products often require home assembly, indicates that customers value a product more highly when they play a role in constructing it. 
Still, doctors routinely observe that one of the most common complaints today is fatigue; a 2007 study pegged its prevalence in the American work force at 38 percent. This should not be surprising. Much of this fatigue may result from the steady, surreptitious accumulation of shadow work in modern life. People are simply doing a huge number of tasks that were once done for them by others. 
Doing things for one another is, in fact, an essential characteristic of a human community. Various mundane jobs were once spread around among us, and performing such small services for one another was even an aspect of civility. Those days are over. The robots are in charge now, pushing a thousand routine tasks onto each of our backs.

The beauty of middle men is that they perform tasks that would otherwise end up as shadow work. There's nothing redundant or parasitical about that.

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