Thursday, May 31, 2007

Knowledge Workers

Guess which TV show I'm referring to: though in the general category of "reality show", it has no violence, no hidden cameras, no alliances, no tribes or tests, and no romance. Most people on the show are elderly, and there is almost no "action", though people watch it in big numbers and have now for many years.
Give up? It's "Antiques Roadshow" on PBS, where people bring in things that have been kept in their households for decades without a clue as to their actual value. The variety of items is stunning, all the way from old photos and baseball memorabilia to obscure impressionist painters and Asian collectibles from the 1600s. One week it's carved whalebone, the next it's signed photos of Groucho Marx.
The engine that makes the show go, though, is the supply of antiques experts and appraisers who affix the values on the items. These guys (mostly guys) don't manufacture things, or even fix them, nor do they do much else beyond advising people how to preserve things or mend little flaws.
I have to tell you. I can't help admiring these folks. They are what economists call "knowledge workers", or, to use an older phrase, they are people who "live by their wits". They are almost all self-employed, and so report to no one and never have to sweat out a "job performance" review. Sure, they have a resume, but they don't count on it to actually make money. They don't carry tools, but are instead noticeable by their flamboyant outfits and hairstyles. You could drop them in parachutes into any city of decent size, and they would do just fine.
It's pretty obvious what gives them the edge on everyone else. It's knowledge. If you know all there is to know about a given market, then you set the prices and reap the rewards, even if the market is a tiny one like collectible Zippo lighters or German whirligig toys. Knowing what's a bargain and what's a bust can be tricky, but it's not cheating anyone, and ultimately adds a little to peoples' happiness. Just observe the faces of the folks on the show who find out that Grandma's old sewing machine is worth a couple grand. They may not sell it, but they can leave feeling better about themselves and Grandma. And if they do sell it, it's the expert that put the transaction in motion.
They can even save people from being ripped off. I can recall one person who brought in a letter bearing the signature of baseball icon Lou Gehrig. The expert, though, was not only familiar with Gehrig's signature, but with fake Gehrig signatures many times done innocently by people who didn't want to trouble Lou after his ALS kept him from signing and who never dreamed that there would one day be an actual value on his signature. In this case, the expert narrowed the options to one person as the forger - Gehrig's wife, who never collected a dime for this "little white lie".
That kind of knowledge, I submit, is power, even if used on a small scale.


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