The definition of pain

“I wish we could get into that painfulness stuff.”

Overheard in the airport in Paris – comment of one luggage handler to another.

Today, exceptionally, we write about something we know something about: painfulness.

This is our translation of a new concept in French labour law. ‘La pénibilité’, it is called. It refers to the difficulty, suffering or pain, involved in a job. Sitting at a desk in an air-conditioned office involves little pénibilité. Carrying heavy roof tiles up a steep ladder in the rain, by contrast, involves quite a bit.

In typical French fashion, the labour bureaucracy has set out to make adjustments. Pénibilité is measured. Then, it is compensated. Each worker has his own account, in which he gets credits, depending on how painful his work is. Get ten points in your account and you get to retire three months early.

Factors contributing to painfulness include: noise, night work, bending, kneeling, crouching, carrying heavy burdens, smoke and so forth. If you get two of these factors working for you, your points are doubled.

This system is scheduled to begin in 2015.

Alas, it is impossible to measure the real pain involved in any aspect of life. Doesn’t the pleasure of being out in the fresh air compensate for the discomfort of bad weather? How to compare the pain of shovelling horse manure to the pain of listening to it? The luggage handler, who measures his own suffering in heavy valises, should try reading Janet Yellen’s speeches; then he’d know what real pain is!

It is because the real pain in life is not quantifiable that we have markets. We don’t know how difficult, painful, or costly it is to produce a beet or an iPhone. The price tells us. The more painful, the fewer people who want to do it. As the supply of willing workers goes down, the price goes up.

But you can’t expect the bureaucrats to understand that. Their zombie jobs depend on not understanding it. They must pretend that everything is measurable and controllable.

Besides, from our experience the labour market can be quirky and unreliable.

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“Problem of child labour on US farms highlighted”, is the headline in the Financial Times.

The problem was brought to light by a Human Rights Watch report, which had studied how tobacco farms in the US actually operate.

“Children who cannot legally buy cigarettes harvest tobacco, use heavy machinery and climb into barn rafters to dry leaves. During shifts as long as 12 hours, these workers – some as young as seven – are exposed to nicotine, pesticides and extreme heat.”

“Hey”, we said to nobody in particular, “they’re talking about us!”

As soon as we were able, we went to work in the tobacco fields. Tobacco was a cash crop in southern Maryland in the 1950s and 60s. But it was ‘pénible’. That is, it was labour-intensive and the working conditions were hard.

Labour was becoming more and more difficult to get. The former tenant farmers were packing up and moving to Washington, where they could get jobs in the government. That left family. Boys – sons, cousins, nephews, friends – were rounded up in late August and put to work cutting, spearing, hauling and hanging tobacco.

The air was heavy in the morning, but still bearable. As the day advanced the pénibilité index rose with it. By the afternoon, the temperature was usually in the 90s, with nearly 100% humidity. The sun beat down. And the tobacco grew heavier and heavier.

We boys, earning about $5 a day, with no penibility points, were unaware of the painfulness of it. Instead, we made it a sport.

Two cousins – slightly older – along with your editor and his brother each took his place at the beginning of a long row of tobacco. The plants had been cut down. Our job was to pick up the plants – which must have weighed ten or 20 lbs each – and spear them onto a hickory stick, five or six plants per stick, so that they could be hung in the barn to dry. Our sport was to race each other to see who could get to the end of the line first.

Our brother was always the champion. Hoisting the plants onto the spearhead, one after the other, without complaint or hesitation, his technique was flawless, his energy unflagging.

Talk about pain! Imagine your poor editor. He not only suffered the pain of the hard work, but the pain of losing the race too. Surely he should get some extra painfulness points. But wait. Suppose he liked pain. Or suppose he liked to see his brother win. Then, should he lose points?

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  • sharpbit32

    Once again Bill Bonner has managed to write an interesting and human story plucked from his recent and past experiences. Wonderful.

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