Defining Production

Production is the conversion of selected inputs into an output, which can be either a material object like a cup, desk, or barrel of oil, or an end-user service like medical care or bartending.

Inputs are resources such as human labor and natural materials, assets such as machines and buildings, and productive services such as those used in accounting and financial management.

Production typically occurs at all stages of the output life cycle. For example, a final output is produced from inputs, but most inputs must themselves be produced as intermediate outputs. Once a final output has been produced, outputs are often required in its consumption.

An airplane, for instance, needs fuel, and this fuel must be produced. The airplane must also be maintained, which requires spare parts. These parts must be produced as well, and the maintenance service itself counts as production. Production is also involved in an output's disposal stage — when the plane is disassembled for parts or possibly junked.

A contentious issue, but one that must be addressed here, is whether caring for dependent human beings should be counted as production. If you feed your own child, are you producing something? If not, is it production when you feed an elderly resident as part of your job at a nursing home?

As in all social matters (and even in the physical sciences), gray areas exist and mature judgments must be made. The appropriate question to ask when making such judgments is this: Is it reasonable and ethical to apply economic criteria to the activity in question?

When a parent feeds a baby, neither the child nor the feeding process is normally treated as an output. As well, parents don’t optimize their feeding activities by estimating when the marginal cost of their efforts exceeds the marginal benefit of the baby’s sustenance. The driving forces in feeding a child is parental love, not benefit and cost.

Clearly, then, feeding a baby is not an economic activity — specifically, it is not production. To a lesser degree, the same comments apply to cooking meals and otherwise caring for a family’s non-dependent members.

The nursing home case is dramatically different. Under current social arrangements most nursing homes are profit-oriented enterprises, and the attendants are wage-earning employees.

Although the employees may show considerable compassion to those in their care, the predominant relationship between them is commercial. The cost-benefit criterion can thus be applied, and the feeding of a resident can reasonably be construed as the production of a feeding process.

The related issue of housework is much simpler. Housework is the maintenance of an output such as a house or apartment, and is unambiguously seen as production from the ENL perspective. Although rarely done, it would be perfectly reasonable to compare the marginal gains and losses incurred when cleaning a residence, and to stop dusting and scrubbing when these are judged to be equal.

The conceptual position taken here should not be confused with the political position adopted by those who demand financial compensation for “unpaid labor.” Economist Marilyn Waring summarizes this stance as follows in her book, If Women Counted:

I am talking about attributing a monetary valuation to unpaid work, productive and reproductive. This process, called imputation, would make this work visible, influencing policies and concepts, and questioning values.1

Waring’s primary aim here is not to develop an economic framework that will take us beyond capitalist logic, but to apply political, moral, and intellectual pressure so as to improve women’s lot within the prevailing order. Her aim is certainly worthwhile, but it is short-term and reform-oriented, and thus fundamentally different from ENL’s purpose.

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