Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 9: AGENTS FOR CHANGING STUFF AND FORM - Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles
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CHAPTER 9: AGENTS FOR CHANGING STUFF AND FORM - Frank A. Fetter, Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles 
Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles, (New York: The Century Co., 1915).
Part of: Economics, 2 vols.
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AGENTS FOR CHANGING STUFF AND FORM
§ 1. Variety in the objects of desire. § 2. Increasing range of choice and use of goods. § 3. Historical view of increasing indirectness of uses. § 4. Goods with indirect uses. § 5. Direct and indirect uses of the same good. § 6. Various changes affecting value. § 7. Agencies for altering stuff or material. § 8. Agencies for changing the form of things. § 9. Natural members as agents in effecting changes of form. § 10. The use of tools by man. § 11. The gradual improvement of indirect agents. § 12. Tools and machines. § 13. The age of machinery.
§ 1. Variety in the objects of desire. It has been shown that market-price rests on, or results from, valuations; and that valuations are the reflection of the choices made by men among the objects of their desires. These objects are of the most varied nature, and are capable of the most varied uses. The desires for these uses of goods, to which the explanation of price has been traced, are neither fixed nor simple things. They change from moment to moment and are the resultant of man’s whole nervous constitution, of his education and his social surroundings, and of the objective environment in which he finds himself. The features of the environment which are of the greatest import in affecting the strength of desires are the kinds and quantities of goods and the conditions under which they are to be had.
Every valuation, as it involves a comparison of two things, implies some regard to the conditions of supply. Every process of comparison as we have seen (Chapter 2) is more or less a matter of impulse; but it is generally likewise more or less a matter of calculation. The range of a man’s choice is more or less far sighted in accordance with the range of his intelligence, his experience, his knowledge, and his forethought. To appreciate more fully the various sorts of relationships which exist between things and the desires of men, we should now make a further study of economic goods to see what are the conditions affecting both their quantity and the mode of their uses.
§ 2. Increasing range of choice and use of goods. The simplest form of life known to us, a unit of protoplasm, reacts in certain ways to the things it touches, reaching out to absorb some and withdrawing to escape others. This quality in the cell of living matter is the most primitive aspect, or element, in economic choice. As organisms develop, they become capable of reflex action, a muscle being moved as a nerve is stimulated, and thus action becomes more and more complicated, developing from simple reflexes to instincts and finally to judgments and to calculated courses of conduct. Every increase in the complexity of nervous structure increases the complexity of a creature’s environment. The creature is in touch with more things and in more ways, and is adjusting its life to these things and the things to its life. This means making more and more indirect and complex valuations.
With man this process had already, at the dawn of history, attained a much higher stage of development than it ever has had in the case of any animal. This is shown by man’s use of fire, tools, dress, houses, domestic animals, etc. The process became greatly hastened through the invention of more elaborate tools and more complex and efficient ways of doing things and by the development of tastes and habits of life, requiring more and more material objects as conditions for their continuance. It is obvious that in our modern civilization man has become dependent upon the uses of things in more complex ways than ever before; but further study and analysis are needed to enable us to see more clearly the real nature of this relationship between goods and man’s desires.
§ 3. Historical view of increasing indirectness of uses. Now the relationship of goods and their uses to desires presents several important aspects, the first that we shall consider being that of technical relationship, or directness of use. The reader will recall at this point what was said (in Chapter 3, sections 12, 13) on the direct, present uses of goods. It is goods of this kind in our economic environment to which men first give attention. This narrow circle of our economic environment, however, which is in immediate relation with psychic income, is surrounded by broad zones of goods less immediately related in time, or in space, or in mechanical working. It will aid us to see the conditions more clearly if we take a historical glance at the development of man’s command over his economic environment.
Primitive man had a very scanty stock of goods, the uses of which were direct—food, ornaments, clothing, a hut, etc.—and he had another scanty stock of goods with uses less direct—indirect or instrumental goods, such as his weapons, tools, dogs and horses to be used in the chase, etc. From very early times men have been discovering more indirect yet more effective ways of doing things so that they could get more direct goods, or better goods, or could get them with less labor, or in more agreeable ways. A poor man to-day may enjoy the use of a large variety of goods (some being his own and a much greater mass belonging to others), while the modern man of “means” brings about the gratification of his desires by the agency both of a great amount of goods with direct uses and of a great number of goods with indirect uses. Society as a whole may be thought of to-day as in the situation of a man of means.
Man alone regularly makes use of external objects as indirect agents to get what he wishes—not using merely his own bodily members. Primitive man saw the cocoanut hanging above his head out of reach. When he picked up a stick to throw at the branch, the nut was removed one step from attainment, the stick was an economic good with an indirect use. Slowly through thousands of years the processes of industry have come to involve more and more steps or links. The Indian with a crude knife fashioned his bow and arrow, fastened the flint and cord which were the outcome of still other processes of industry, and shot the bird which satisfied his hunger. To-day in many cases it is only at the end of a long succession of technical steps that men attain the objects which directly yield the uses they desire. They take the indirect way of doing things not because they prefer indirectness for itself, but merely because experience has taught them that it is the easiest and the most effective way of getting what they desire.
§ 4. Goods with indirect uses. Some of these goods with indirect uses are so near to having direct uses that we hardly recognize that they do not have. It is the draft of air rather than the fan, which is the direct cause of the pleasant coolness; the fan is a necessary indirect agent. It is the air-waves striking on the ear which cause the agreeable sound, while the violin, the bow, the skilful hand, are agents one step removed mechanically.
In a multitude of cases the concrete, direct good and the thing valued simply as an agent to get it, are only a single step removed from each other. The land and the trees in the orchard are agents to get the fruit of the harvest; the spinning machine and the loom are agents to make cloth. Again, the good may be removed by many steps or processes from psychic income, much as in the story of the house that Jack built: the charcoal heats the fire, the fire melts the iron, the iron forms the hatchet, the hatchet cuts the tree, the tree forms the boat, the boat is used for catching fish, the fish is used for food, and that is the cause of man’s desire for everything that went before—charcoal, fire, iron, hatchet, tree, and boat. Again, several objects may be complementary agents, that is, may be needed together to obtain one direct use, as the charcoal and iron and some other tools must be brought together to make the hatchet; the boat, a pole, a hook, and bait must all be used together to catch the fish.
§ 5. Direct and indirect uses of the same good. Many goods yield at the same time direct and indirect uses for the same or for different persons. The pitcher on the table as an ornament pleasing to the eye is of direct use, while in holding the water to quench our thirst it is of indirect use. In many other cases the one thing has two or more kinds of uses at once, and the proper distinction is that between direct and indirect uses of a good, rather than between direct and indirect goods. The wagon carries a load of produce to market and a happy family to the circus at the same time; a train may carry both passengers and freight; a stove may warm the room and at the same time cook the dinner, etc. Again, the good may be used indirectly at one time and indirectly at another; the horse which plows the field to-day may to-morrow draw the owner’s carriage. In still other cases two or more uses, either direct or indirect, are possible, but are mutually exclusive: the tree may be kept to bear fruit, may be burned as fuel, turned into lumber for furniture, or used to make a workbench to be used to make still other goods.
Directness, like valuation, has relation to some one person in each case. There are many things, commodities of trade, which in their physical substance and form are ready to be used directly, yet which in the course of trade are still indirect goods to their possessors. As yet they are merely the means of earning a business profit (have an indirect use), but they will later render direct uses to the final consumer.1 Retail and wholesale stores, cold storage and other warehouses, are filled with goods of this kind.
Such facts as these make it clear that concrete goods can not be rigorously classified as either direct or indirect. Any particular good may under different circumstances be used either directly or indirectly. Therefore, the classification of directness and indirectness applies properly to uses rather than to goods, and it is a matter of much importance in our study of economics to keep this thought clearly in mind.
§ 6. Various changes affecting value. Desire is directed upon concrete goods, but in the logical view it is all the uses together which, as experience corrects false impulses and hopes, constitute the cause of all the desires men have for the objects and forces of the outer world. Nothing which is not in some casual relation, near or remote, to desire, has value. The vine which Tantalus is unable to reach magnifies his misery. A captive, chained to a rock, gets uses only from the things within his reach. Men living in savagery and ignorance starve amid the possibilities of plenty. Chained by their incapacity and by their improvidence to a little spot of earth, they do not see clearly, either in time or in space, the economic relations about them. Men begin by valuing goods for their direct uses, but the valuation comes to be extended over all the goods having indirect uses, which by instinct, experience, habit, association of ideas, etc., have come to have a connection with desire.
The nature of the uses rendered by goods may be considered here in connection with the thought of the four aspects of choice as already suggested.2 It was seen there that choice presents itself in one of four aspects, a preference for a kind of goods (stuff), for goods of a particular form, or at a certain place, or at a certain time.
Now the various uses which are accomplished through the indirect instrumentality of goods may be divided into four general classes: (1) stuff changes, (2) form changes, (3) place changes, and (4) time changes. The blast furnace helps to convert the ore into pig iron. The sawmill cuts the log into boards. The steamship carries grain across the ocean. The greenhouse hastens the growth of flowers and vegetables so that they may be brought earlier to market.
It is almost needless to say that such changes have results in the realm of value. For the increase in value which is expected to result from these changes, of course, gives the motive for bringing the changes about. If grain were not, to some one, more valuable in Liverpool than in New York there would be nothing to gain in shipping it three thousand miles across the ocean. If the log were as useful as the boards, the labor and materials put into the sawmill could be turned in other directions.
It must be observed, however, that all four considerations—stuff, form, place, and time—are factors that enter into value whenever value exists. If a particular thing has value, that value is due partly to its composition, partly to its form, partly to its being where it is, and partly to its being available at the particular time. A change in any one of these factors might bring about a change in the value.
§ 7. Agencies for altering stuff or material. Man can not create a single atom of matter. He must work with the materials which nature puts at his command.3 In what sense, then, may we say that man can change the stuff or material of which things are composed? There are many chemical and biological processes instituted by man which bring about changes in the chemical content and material composition. One of the most important ways in which man makes alterations of this kind is in tilling the soil. The farmer plants the seed in carefully prepared ground in such a way that the proper conditions of air, light, and water permit plant-growth, and cause the regrouping of the chemical elements of the soil into new forms of organic matter. The first rude cultivation of the soil was a step beyond the achievements of any animal. It meant the purposeful increase of the kinds of stuff man desired, by a method very different from the gathering of honey by the bee or the hoarding of nuts by the squirrel.
Another important way of making changes in the composition of materials is by breeding and raising domestic animals. Animal growth transforms the food elements into new substances, such as wool, hides, furs, feathers, fat, eggs, bristles, etc. Still another way is seen in the chemical processes of manufacturing, such as iron smelting and other metallurgical operations, tanning, the dyeing of clothes, and the preparation of food as in baking, fermenting, distilling, etc.
To make possible all the changes which man desires in the composition of things, an enormous equipment of indirect agents must be permanently maintained—such things as cultivated soil, agricultural implements, seeds, animals, fertilizers, chemical agents, vats, caldrons, furnaces, fuel, etc., etc. All these things are of value to man (among other reasons) because of the changes in stuff or material which they help to bring about.
§ 8. Agencies for changing the form of things. The alterations in the materials of which things are composed that do not involve chemical or organic changes may be classed under the heading of changes of form. It is probably best to class here most of the operations in the so-called extractive industries (other than agriculture). Such are the processes of mining or of quarrying in which organic or mineral materials are blasted, dug, or broken into sizes and shapes convenient for removal; and the process of forestry in which timber is cut and prepared to be taken from its place of growth. There is always, however, a considerable amount of place change involved in these processes. Here, certainly, with form-change may be classed the grouping or arranging of things in new physical relationships—such mechanical operations, for example, as cutting, sawing, splitting, grinding, putting together with nails, screws, or glue, roughening, polishing, etc., etc. Changes of this sort—as well as chemical changes—play a large part likewise in the processes of agriculture; for example, in plowing, in hoeing, in cutting grain, in trimming trees, and in shearing sheep. Some of the most familiar and typical instances are found in manufacturing establishments, such as sawmills, planing mills, and factories for shaping wood, iron, leather, clay, and other materials. A large part of the preparation of food involves changes of this kind. The performance of all these operations involves, of course, an enormous equipment of indirect agents—in the home, on the farm, in shop and factory. This includes a large part of the stock of tools and machines, tho many of these are used also in effecting changes in stuff, place, and time.
§ 9. Natural members as agents in effecting changes of form. In the course of evolution animals have developed special organs which enable them to bring about changes in the form of things. The foot, the paw, and the tail, subserving largely the purposes of locomotion, are also of use in making physical changes in the environment. Animals have teeth to crush and cut; claws and nails to scratch and tear, pick and bore; hoofs to strike; horns and tusks to pierce, push, and crush. The sword of the swordfish, the proboscis of the mosquito, and the trunk of the elephant are highly specialized organs for acting upon the environment.
Compared with many animals man is in many respects poorly equipped with such natural weapons and agents. The human hand, however, is perhaps on the whole the most adaptable and effective agent which nature has produced.
§ 10. The use of tools by man. Man is the tool-using animal. The intelligence which directs and guides the hand has enabled man to contrive external agents of the most marvelous ingenuity and power. The first tools, as is shown in every anthropological museum, were but natural objects taken to increase the efficiency of man’s body in acting upon the outer material world. These first inventions were evidently hit upon almost by chance, and yet probably not without some dim perception of the fitness of indirect means to attain the ends desired. The stone held in the hand multiplies many fold the force of the blow. The chance piece of sharp or jagged flint is vastly more effective than nails or claws in cutting and tearing. Boulders and stones shaped by nature or very slightly modified were the first rude hammers, axes, and knives. The log used as a roller under a heavy load seems to have been the earliest form of the wheel.
Even such primitive appliances greatly extended man’s control over the world about him. With the stone ax thrown from the hand he could kill animals in full flight. The spear enabled him at a safer distance to kill some of his most dangerous enemies. The bow and arrow and the use of fire must have made his supremacy far more secure. For thousands of years, however, the first tools changed but slowly. It was difficult to get beyond the simple, natural implements picked up by chance.
§ 11. The gradual improvement of indirect agents. In the course of centuries tools and weapons gradually became more efficient. Flint and stone forms were copied in bronze and in iron. Their number and variety steadily increased. Better and more numerous hammers, axes, spears, bows, and arrows were made. Domestic animals were increasingly utilized for food, clothing, and for the carrying of burdens. As a rule the stocks of goods with indirect uses accumulated by primitive man differed little in physical character from his goods with direct uses. Many of them, indeed, were things having alternative uses, some direct, others indirect. It is likely that horses were used to carry men on their backs long before they were taught to carry other burdens or to draw heavy loads. The weapons of the chase were as much a means of sport as a means of securing food, and such things as clothing, tools, and weapons, and even horses and slaves, seem to have been regarded by primitive man as agents to use directly for enjoyment rather than as merely indirect means of getting other goods. This attitude of mind probably helps explain the custom of burying such things with the owner in his grave—a practice which greatly hindered progress, as it kept the primitive community in poverty. Where such customs were not in vogue man’s control over his environment developed through the gradual increase in his instrumental equipment from generation to generation.
§ 12. Tools and machines. It is not easy, perhaps not important, to draw a sharp line of distinction between the machine and the tool. Tools are portions of matter, such as bone, wood, iron, which man guides and directs in applying his energy to things. The simple hoe held in the hand and moved by man’s own strength was attached to the beast of burden and became a plow or harrow, still guided by man. A machine may be defined as a mechanical device by which power is applied in an automatically repeated manner, to change the place or form of things. A machine may be moved by the foot, but the hand is the great tool-using member. A simple, single piece, that can be taken into the hand, as a spade, a hammer, a knife, is clearly a tool; a combination of parts, such as wheels, levers, pulleys, etc., moving upon each other, is clearly a machine. It is doubtful whether the plow should be called a machine. The simplest machine is but a slight adaptation of the tool, by which power may be applied in an automatically repeated manner. The drag develops into the cart, a simple machine. The spinning stick, a tool used in ancient times, developed into the Saxon spinning-wheel of the sixteenth century, the form used when America was colonized. Wind and water were made to turn wheels to supply the power for moving tools, to grind the corn, and to lift the hammer too heavy for man’s strength. The use of power derived from nature, while not the most essential mark of machines, is the most characteristic feature of their modern development. Hand machines, such as the handpress and typewriter, have had important industrial results, but it is the use of power that has led to the results of greatest significance in recent times.
§ 13. The age of machinery. Inventions, new machines, and new processes, tho not frequent, were not unknown in the Middle Ages; but no one class of machines took possession of whole fields of industry. The great industrial changes in the Middle Ages generally grew out of political changes, or of changes of routes of trade whereby large industries were disturbed, or of changes in the use of land through new methods and the bringing into use of land in other places. The industrial changes in England at the end of the eighteenth century, and a little more tardily throughout western Europe and the United States, on the contrary, were due mainly to great mechanical inventions. The age of machinery is, therefore, said to begin with the eighteenth century. The development of the textile machines for cotton and wool spinning and weaving marks the beginning of the movement. Here for the first time were inventions in such numbers, of such a nature, and under such conditions that they were rapidly and widely applied, affecting the lives of a great number of workers. The steam engine at the same time opened up the long line of mechanical inventions by which wood and iron are shaped and wrought, and the iron industry underwent notable developments. Since that time have taken place in all western countries that rapid expansion in the use of machines and those notable changes in industrial organization which distinguish our era from all others.
[* ]Psychic income may be represented as a narrow band at the base. Some direct uses are constantly being transmuted into psychic income. In turn many of these direct uses result from somewhat indirect uses, these in turn from more indirect uses, and the value of each and all of the whole series of uses rests ultimately on this basis of psychic income.
[1 ]This peculiar case is personal, “contractual” indirectness, resulting from a legal contract between men.
[2 ]See note on Aspects of things chosen, at end of ch. 2.
[3 ]Refer to ch. 3, sec. 1, on Inherent physical nature of things.