Sometimes simply looking up into the cosmos at night can reveal important principles of down-to-earth economics.
For example, after dark, take a moment to find the spring/summer constellation astronomers call “Bootes.” Follow the handle of the Big Dipper and its graceful curve will eventually lead you to “Arcturus,” one of the brightest stars visible this time of year. Arcturus is the prominent star at the bottom of Bootes’ “kite-like” configuration. Bootes, however, does not represent a kite, but rather a celestial herder whose oxen, it has been said, “are tethered to the North Star.” So what is Bootes’ cosmic job description? It is nothing less than keeping the stars and galaxies in constant rotation.
As an economist, I am intrigued by some of the other mythological descriptions of Bootes. In one of my favorite astronomy books — “Mike Lynch’s Minnesota StarWatch” — we learn of an alternative story. Here Bootes is a simple farmhand working for a landowner who had adopted both Bootes and his brother. In this narrative, Bootes was expected to work year after year adding value to the farm, but not necessarily improving his own economic situation. At one point in the story, Bootes’ adoptive parents died, while his older brother simply took off — forcing our mythological friend to do virtually all of the work himself. So how did he cope? Bootes had a sudden inspiration in the form of the world’s first plow — an early Greek John Deere, if you will.
With his team of oxen and his wooden plow, Bootes could now do all of the work by himself and thus finish planting that much sooner. This is a good example of what economists call an “increase in productivity” or an “increase in output per unit of labor input.” Lynch informs us that Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture, was so pleased with Bootes’ invention that she arranged to have him placed in the sky as a major constellation.
Now the moral of the story, from an economist’s point of view: Bootes’ higher productivity could now be translated into either a higher wage and/or greater leisure. Since Bootes’ favorite pastime was hunting (especially hunting Ursa Major, the Great Bear), he chose to use his higher productivity to enjoy more leisure. Lynch tells his readers that when Ursa Major comes up in the spring, Bootes is not far behind — going after the Great Bear with his bow and arrow. Picture in your mind this farmer/inventor/hunter joyfully chasing his celestial prey over and over, year after year. Indeed, some observers claim that Bootes is probably the happiest of the many characters depicted by the night sky’s constellations.
To this economist, the Bootes story demonstrates how a modern economy is supposed to work. If workers increase their productivity by either working harder or more efficiently or with better tools and technologies, they should, like Bootes, reap some or most of the economic rewards, either as higher wages and/or greater leisure.
This is exactly what happened right after World War II up until the early 1970s. Since then, there have indeed been great increases in productivity (think: computerization), but the workers’ traditional economic rewards have been missing. Why? Probably because of the decline of unions and also decades of government policies that tilt toward corporations and the very wealthy. Tragically, we have choked off this vital connection between productivity improvements and the average worker’s quality of life. (I’m wondering: If the ancient Greeks could figure this out, why can’t we?)
So the next time you look up into the heavens at night, think of a joyful Bootes. However, also think of the many poor earthbound workers who have earned, but unfortunately do not receive, the fruits of their labor.
James Eggert taught economics at the University of Wisconsin-Stout for 33 years. His recently published book is “Greenspan’s Anguish: Thoreau as Economic Prophet and Other Selected Essays.”