(This is a snapshot of my old weblog. New posts and selected republished essays can be found at raganwald.com.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008
  The value of work

Anansi decided he wanted to have some fish. He went to Babatunde the Fisherman and offered to help Babatunde fish that day. Babatunde agreed, and they went to the river.

Babatunde said, “Let us spread the nets together.” Anansi demurred. “That is too inefficient: specialization is the key to efficiency. All week you do the work and you get tired. This is not fair that you have to work hard and your reward is exhaustion. So, you will spread the nets and I will get tired.”

And so Babatunde spread the nets while Anansi laid in the shade of a tree on the river bank, loudly proclaiming how heavy the nets were, how difficult it was to wade through the river current to set them, and how tired and sore he was.

Anansi Goes Fishing tells this timeless tale of West Africa with a completely different twist. It’s a wonderful book to share with children from three to ninety three.
Later, it was time to harvest the catch. Babatunde felt bad for Anansi who was still complaining about being tired, so he suggested that Anansi harvest the fish and he, Babatunde, would suffer the burden of being tired. But no, Anansi would hear nothing of it, so Babatunde harvested the fish and Anansi again was tired. And so it was again that Babatunde gathered the nets while Anansi was tired, and Babatunde carried the fish back to the village while Anansi walked beside him, groaning aloud with the effort.

They reached Babatunde’s house and Babatunde put down the heavy load. Anansi offered to divide the catch, but now Babatunde demurred. “Brother Anansi,” he said, “There is no need for you to work, you have been tired all day. I will make us a splendid dinner and we can discuss the portioning over a delicious meal.”

And Babatunde made a delicious fish stew, with peppers and spices. He put out two bowls, one for Anansi and one for himself. He ladled the hearty meal into his own bowl and began to eat. Anansi asked him, “Brother Babatunde, where is my share?”

Babatunde looked at him in surprise: “I thought that since you were tired all day, you deserved a reward: therefore, I am going to eat the fish and you will feel full.”

Many times you will hear people arguing whether the value is in an idea, or the implementation. Whether it is in the development, or the promotion. Whether it is in the muscle, of the management. Whether it is in the execution, or the imagination.

My suggestion is that if you are the one doing the work, arrange your affairs such that you—and not your partner—decide how much goes into each bowl when the stew is ready.

Comments on “The value of work:
My suggestion is that if you are the one doing the work, arrange your affairs such that you—and not your partner—decide how much goes into each bowl when the stew is ready.

This post has stirred in me a very strong emotional response, but it is because I am conflating the analogy here with modern-day salaried employment.

In my version, Anansi owns the nets, and Babatunde fishes with them. Babatunde must fish all day and must catch 20 fish, or Anansi will take the nets (and the daily pair of fish) away. At the end of the day, Babatunde is given 2 fish. If Babatunde catches 30 fish, he is given 2 fish. If he catches 100 fish, he is given 2 fish. If he catches 5000 fish, he is given 2 fish and Anansi gets on the cover of Inc.

Of course, Anansi has his own view of this. He mortgaged his grass hut for 300 fish and some rope, and he gave Babatunde 2 fish every day (and ate only 1 fish himself) while they frantically wove the nets. He traveled 3 weeks out of 4 all through the Summer of 2007 to drum up excitement for his fish in other villages all along the river. His wife bore it with stoic silence but even Anansi had to realize the emotional cost when he came home and his 4-year old daughter called him "Anansi" instead of "Daddy". And then Anansi had to drum up a second round of funding because the nets were late to market, there weren't as many fish as originally projected, and of course the percentage of fish caught from each school each day was much lower than expected.

Okay, this is going to kind of a weird place. The point is, the more I thought about this the more ambivalent I felt: Anansi was a grasping exploiter, Babatunde was a malcontent goldbrick. And then I realized the answer:

What is the value of a dream compared to effort? Hah! What is the value of either of these, compared to owning the nets?
Response to chalain:
Aha! What is the value of the dream compared to the labor compared to the owner of the nets?

The question reminds me of a massive flaw in the free market libertarian's tome, Atlas Shrugged . Rand believes, preposterously, that labor and ideas are distributed equally among individuals. Dagny Taggert for example, the ablest commander within the industrial complex of the fictional world, is equally content preparing meals in the kitchen of John Galt, her personal Anansi and the idea man behind the whole enterprise. I'd love to see Lee Iacocca whip up a souffle, or Donald Trump weave a toupe!

I digress. Even if those abilities and energies were portioned equally in us all, our abilities to catch fish still rely on the owner of the nets.

Which brings us to Midas Mulligan. A relatively minor character, Midas owns not only the nets, but the fish and the houses and the land and the river. He doles out his bounty as he deems appropriate with money that he creates and disperses by some dubiously fair method that he controls. The entire economy operates at the whims of one banker -- hardly a free system. As long as Midas (or the owner of the nets) remains a benevolent dictator, society tics along beautifully. But history has shown time and again that benevolence is fleeting.

"The value of work" is decided not by the idea man, not by the laborer, but by the cat with the coin. I'll leave the extent to which modern central bankers play the role of enlightened despot for others to debate. But it is worthwhile to consider how much pull they have over the economies of the world, and how, like Midas, they remain hidden almost entirely from public view.

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Reg Braithwaite

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