In my continuing quest to prove that economics must be about more than bond yield spreads, I come to this, from economist Russ Roberts. He's writing on Cafe Hayek, his blog, about the story of a Nepalese man who can do 1,001 handy things and yet earns in a lifetime what a "very unlazy, untalented American" might earn in a year.
Why can the American afford so much leisure? The answer is that he has more people to trade with, people who bring more capital and skill to the table. I know nothing about goats, thatched roofs, or alarm clocks. I know a reasonable amount about economics, a skill that is virtually worthless in Nepal. And yet I live like a king relative to the cook in Nepal. I live like a king relative to my great-grandfather who may have been smarter and may have been able to do many things I can never imagine doing. The fundamental reason that is so is because I benefit from the division of labor. By specializing in economics, I am able to leverage the skills of other people who are specializing. It is their specializing, and the opportunity to trade with them, that makes it rational and gloriously pleasant to specialize in economics.
It's not really about his particular specialty, of course. It's more that like many (most?) readers of this blog, Roberts lives in a developed economy, where the specialization of labor is the norm. It provides for a higher income and better housing and medical care, for instance, even if it means you likely don't know how to fix your own roof.
And I post this as a person who, after college, went to live in the New England equivalent of a thatched hut so I could figure out what a bean really is or what a bucket of water really is. We grew the first and hauled the second. I've never been in such great shape in my life.
Still, Roberts calls self-sufficiency "the road to poverty." I can attest to that, at least with regard to poverty of the wallet.