The Pricing Machine

by F.

For two hours, I sit at one of my computers and type up an agreement. It’s tedious work. I have a term sheet to work from; I have a document from the other side as a starting point; and then I have my intuition, which from years of experience tells me what should or should not go into the agreement, which side is helped or hurt by a particular clause or wording. “That hurts us—cut,” I think, then move on to the next clause. “Good for us—keep.” I select text and hit the delete key. The screen is filled with red crossed-out text.

On my computer, I have a timer that shows how much my bill to the client will be. Like a taxi meter. From time to time I pause and look at how much I’ve made. I’m always shocked—in a good way. I can charge a lot for this service. I can reach down and scratch my balls and in the time it takes to relieve my itch I’ve made $5.00.

Sometimes drafting is fun, in the way a reasonably difficult sudoku puzzle is. A puzzle is a puzzle is a puzzle, in some ways. It hardly matters what the subject matter is.

Then I turn to my other job: writing. I read and read and read. I open my other computer. I make outlines. Get background information. Think about different structures for the piece—”Anecdote lead this time?” I think. “No, I did that last time. I need something new. Quote? Well, sort of hackneyed, but if apposite it can really work.” I jot down keywords, think about the ending. Think about transitions. Plot my paragraphs—at least the topic and the ending word or phrase that will swing the reader to the next paragraph. (I think of this like swinging on monkey bars.)

I don’t need a timer to calculate how much I make for this latter task. It’s relatively tiny. When divided by the number of hours it takes to actually produce a finished piece, it’s absurdly tiny.

Out there, beyond my house, there’s this machine called “the economy.” It prices my labor differently depending on what I do. When I draft contracts, each minute of my time is priced highly. When I write a piece, each minute of my time is priced much lower. I have little direct control over the pricing of my minutes. (I don’t have pricing power.) At any particular point in time, it’s external to me. It’s a datum. A fact of nature. Like gravity.

I choose how to allocate my minutes to get the most return. Now, which activity gives me a better return to my time? In dollar terms, the first. Clearly. The differential is ridiculous. But there is another aspect. It’s easy to overlook because that machine out there doesn’t price it directly. Why not? Because there’s no demand for it. It’s my satisfaction (or utility or whatever you want to call it). The only demand for my satisfaction comes from inside my head.

It would be nice if the dollar return and the satisfaction return to my minutes was directly related. What a wonderful world that would be! But I’m not holding my breath, in part because I’m hardly unique. I’m like a lot of people. What I like to do, many like to do. Which means competition. Which means lower prices. Which means I can make a lot more drafting agreements than other sorts of writing. Because few can draft agreements. Few can even get into law school. I got lucky in the IQ sweepstakes.

But it’s easy to get confused by this. To start equating dollar return with satisfaction return. They are not the same, at least for me. I suppose there are folks who only enjoy what pays, and their enjoyment is a direct function of pay. Those people are fortunate. They should celebrate their luck. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them, as far as I can tell. Inside my brain, satisfaction and remuneration have been cloven.

It is what it is. Just another datum. Like gravity. Could I retrain myself and repair the cleavage? I’m not sure. Should I try? I don’t know. I have a feeling that preferences, while malleable, have a component that is unchangable. Or, to shift the metaphor, preferences are scalar. They can be moved along a range. But that’s it: on each side is a limit. It is what it is.

But am I worse off for having the preferences I have? Unlikely. Most of what matters is day-to-day mood. You don’t spend most of your time at work; you spend most of your time in your head. In a state of concentration (or not.) In a state where images are hitting your retina, sounds are hitting your tympanum, and millions of nerves are getting all sorts of signals from the environment. Swimming in a stream of sense data.

The water should be warm and free of riptides. [Note: streams don’t have riptides, as the Mixed Metaphor Police reminded me this morning.]