High Caste Professionals Part 1: Why they are different

I have always envied lawyers and doctors, and even teachers – when we need their services we need to first visit their offices.  Typically however when economists, architects, chartered accountants, management consultants and IT professionals services are required, they need to make the first visits to potential clients. Why this difference? Are the latters’ services less valuable?  Are they more in numbers, so there is some excess supply? Probably not.

There is a caste system of sorts among professionals, where lawyers and doctors are up there and the rest are down there.  You can see it in many different ways – it is much more difficult to get into law and med schools than it is to get into other types of professions.  Children of layers and doctors rarely opt out of their parents caste – sorry – profession, than children of architects and management consultants. The ‘aah’ or ‘oh really!’ that greets one after you introduce your spouse has far more depth and feel when the spouse is a doctor or a lawyer, than if she is an IT professional or a journalist.

Having proved beyond doubt that lawyers and doctors are up there, and the rest of us are down below, the next question is why?  The answer has been revealed to me  through a host of bad experiences – the output of the lawyer and the doctor is not visible.  And for all others it is.  The lawyer could have lost the case because the judge was in a bad mood, or because he had been bought over, or his client actually was the culprit.  Similarly the doctors output is also not visible – many diseases heal themselves; the placebo effect anyway has some healing powers – so whether my doctor is formally trained or learnt on the job in a slum – merely prescribing some medicine would help; moreover every patient forgets that one dose, or eats the wrong food, or did not get that one test done – so there is always a good reason why failure in curing is because of the patient’s incompetence not the doctor’s .

So it is simple, doctors and lawyers are valued, because we cannot see their output!  If true this same principal should help us sort all professionals as high caste or low caste.  Let’s do a checklist of various professions, do they belong to the architect/chartered accountant variety or the lawyer/doctor variety.  The beautician and hairdresser’s output is fairly visible and therefore they can-not be up in that professional caste hierarchy.  The purohit or shaman or god-man, yes the output is not observable so they are high up in the hierarchy.

Economists? The corporate economists that give gyaan on how interest rates are going to go up, and how electricity reforms are critical for industry – their output is quite visible and so they belong to the architect/CA category. But the policy economists, now they are different breed.  If the government listens to them, then their output is visible and they quickly become like the CA variety within the government, but since the governments output is not visible, they become like gods outside.  If the government does not listen to them, then their output has no value and so they are worse than the architect/CA variety and only the TV channels invite them, of course with no payment.

Teachers?  Actually teachers fit the bill very well.  Attend a PTA meeting, see how parents attend to teachers words.  ‘Your child does not pay attention’ she says.  ‘Yes mam’ the two heads nod vigorously while the child is examining his shoe laces in great detail.  And as she goes on to add, ‘He does not finish his class work.  He does not do his homework.  His writing is bad.  He talks too much in class….blah blah’.  So rather than the parents saying, ‘Then what are we paying you for, madam?’, you hear them say, ‘We will make sure he does all of that’.  And it’s not only the school teachers who can demand good behavior from their clients and get away with it.  College teachers are no better, ‘You are late, so I won’t let you come into the class.’  Imagine an architect telling his client, ‘I will not talk to you because you are not in time, please go away’!  Teachers have so much power, for the same reason as lawyers and doctors – their output is unobservable.    Does the teacher teach, or the parent teaches, or the book teaches or the child learns from his peers?  Actually, all of the above.  The output of a teacher in terms of greater marks obtained is not so clearly visible.  In terms of greater learning is even more difficult to decipher.

No lawyer has number of cases lost or one displayed on his signboard, no doctor has percentage of cases treated successfully displayed, same holds true for teachers and god-men.  Moreover unlike in the case of a beautician or a restaurant, they rarely display the prices of their services.  Architects and brokers have very standard fees that are well known to all.  But not so the doctors, lawyers and god-men.  For teaching as well, leave a teacher to directly deal with his clients on pricing matters and see how quickly he will end up having a different pricing regime for each student.

So it seems I am turning economics on its head – you get valued more if your output is not observable by your client!  Actually not 🙂 but read on.  Lawyers, doctors, god-men and teachers all have non observable output, and we resort to guesswork to choose them.  The general supply demand principles do not work as well here, you need a more advanced and nuanced understanding.

So where am I going here?  I think we have screwed up thinking on this class of professional services.  They do not service their clients like other service providers do.   Rather they ‘employ their clients’, and so the typical power structures that go with other services do not work here.

More in the next one…

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