I had an epiphany of sorts last night I’ll share with you that is a real world illustration of the economic theory behind comparative advantage.
My wife is going to need to start using our basement exercise room, so I bought a dumbbell rack to get my dumbbells off the ground and organized.
The problem, of course, is that the rack needs to be put together and putting things together makes my head hurt. It’s not that I can’t do it, mind you, it’s that it takes a long time and almost without exception I’ll put it together incorrectly at first and have to take it apart and do it again.
I bring the box into the house and my wife says, “Why don’t you just do put it together in the family room so we can watch Jeopardy while we’re working on it.” This can’t happen because for me to solve the dilemma of putting together things I need NO distractions. I simply can not get my head around the instructions if there are any distractions. Weird, right? Trust me, I know and this has been my life story.
Struggle With Putting Together A Simple Dumbbell Rack
So, I take it down to the basement to begin my trial and error. Sure enough, I put it together wrong. It is built, just not how the picture shows. If you’ve ever seen Homer Simpson build things you’ll know what I’m talking about:
For the love of me, I can’t figure out how the rack I’m working on is supposed to fit the image on the box. I stare at it, reread the instructions and it just doesn’t come to me.
Call For Backup; My Wife To The Rescue!
Then I proceed to do the inevitable; call my wife down for assistance. We have a good relationship so she knows the routine, but it still causes a little embarrassment for me that I need MY WIFE to help me put together a simple dumbbell rack, after all, I’m a MAN, I’m supposed to do be able to do this stuff!
But facts are my brain doesn’t operate in a way that makes me nearly as efficient at this stuff as my wife. In a New York minute she sees the problem and we’re off and running. How does she see it when I can’t? I think to myself. I’m not dumb, I should have been able to figure it out, but I couldn’t. Eventually, I would have of course but not nearly as quickly as she did.
The epiphany happened when I went upstairs to get a wrench and saw my dyslexic boy playing with a lego set he put together. My dyslexic son can put stuff together in a snap. He gets it! He SEES it! Directions on paper to me are in 2D, but to him it’s 3D.
Human beings’ brains are wired differently!
I told him that if he would have put my dumbbell set together it would have been done now. Whereas here I was still struggling. He gave me a “dadddddd” kind of retort, like I was joking him but facts are, I think it’s true.
Put any kind of building thing in front of that kid, and he dives right in and builds it. Not always perfectly of course, but the vast majority of time it is, without any help and in a fraction of the time it would take me.
I can’t do that. In fact, LEGO directions literally bring me pain. I see them and it’s like kryptonite to Superman; “Get it away!” And it’s always been like that for me.
Human Brains Are Wired Differently
Yet, I’ve always been good with numbers. No, not Benoit Mandelbroit-like, well, actually who knows? I didn’t pursue math as a career because in high school I was lucky to graduate. Was I a bad student? Yes. Was it because I was dumb? No. I just didn’t care. 30 years later, as I sit and write this, I find chemistry, physics, engineering, etc. incredibly fascinating. In school, all I cared about was sports statistics.
I knew all the stats for players in every sport season. A baseball player went 2 for 5 in a game after already having 243 at-bats in the season with an average of .273 what would his new average be? Easy as pie.
Put together this Home Depot bus that is designed to be completed by an 8 year old??? Call the Psychiatrist!
My dyslexic boy struggles mightily with numbers. His younger brother gets numbers easily though his younger brother is not nearly as gifted with putting things together. It’s so interesting.
Lesson in Comparative Advantage
So what’s my epiphany??? Well, it’s really nothing more than a principle of economics, that of Comparative Advantage.
Comparative Advantage says that if Country A is good at producing oranges, and Country B is good at producing coconuts, Country A should focus on oranges, Country B on coconuts and then TRADE with each other. This will maximize production AND minimize costs.
Think about it like this. Country A produces 100 oranges, Country B 100 coconuts. They trade 50 each. So, now each country has 50 oranges and 50 coconuts.
But let’s say Country A says, “We don’t like Country B anymore, so we’ll produce both Oranges and Coconuts and stop trading with those fools.”
Well guess what happens? They produce LESS of both products because they are taking resources from producing what they’re good at, oranges, and putting those resources towards what they are not good at, coconuts.
If they took 50% of their resources that went to produce oranges and allocated it to coconuts they’d still have 50 oranges, but because they aren’t very good at coconuts they’d have fewer than 50 coconuts, say only 35.
Now, Country A which previously had 50 of each, or 100 total, only has 50 oranges + 35 coconuts or 85 total, making them…POORER!
Of course, Country B is poorer too because while they still have 100 coconuts, that’s all they have, pretty boring, right? They liked oranges to complement their coconuts.
Hopefully, Country A will go back to trading and both Countries will be better off.
Comparative Advantage with Individual Humans
The same concept of comparative advantage works with human beings too. My son, the builder, literally VISUALIZES instructions his brother can’t. His brother, the math whiz, literally VISUALIZES numbers the way his brother can’t.
So, while having knowledge of both, the know-how to build and the basic understanding of numbers, is a good thing, does it make ANY sense for both boys to focus half their attention on areas they simply are not good at? No!
My older son will struggle mightily with numbers and make many mistakes along the way. Ultimately, he may arrive at the finish line but it will be a challenge and will take a lot of time; Time that could have allocated towards doing what he is naturally good at, putting things together!
To take his time away from his natural ability and focus it on an area that is not his natural ability is a waste of his God-given talent.
He should focus on what he’s good at. It will be better for his psyche, better for his efficiency and better for society at large.
Maximize YOUR Comparative Advantage
The same goes for you and me. I should NOT put together that dumbbell rack. It’s a waste of time that I could use for things I’m good at. On top of that, like Homer above, I’ll probably screw it up so the end result may not be very reliable either.
Going forward, it’s my wife who will be putting putting things together. She’s good at it, always has been. What will I do? Well, I actually like to think I’m good at writing about concepts regarding numbers. I enjoy it too. And I will continue to do so, with this blog and other projects going forward.
Society, thus, will be better served by my using my talents on ANYTHING but putting together dumbbell sets and the many other things that I’ve tackled, unsuccessfully, in the past. So, if you need something put together don’t ask me to do it, just ask my wife!