Blood, Sweat, and Tears: An Analogy for Measuring Economic Contribution

Most Americans will be familiar with the phrase "blood, sweat, and tears" and have probably used it to describe their own contributions at some point.  The phrase is commonly understood as hyperbole for determined effort, but, I believe, it also provides a useful, metaphorically graduated scale for measuring and ranking different types of economic contribution.  With all the talk about "fair share" in current political discussions, I think it is useful to talk about the different ways we contribute to society through our economic activity.  Without a foundational understanding of the markedly different types of contributions we make to the creation and maintenance of society, any discussion of "fair share" will be uninformed and potentially dangerous.

There are three distinct levels of contribution to economic activity described quite well by each of the terms in the phrase "blood, sweat, and tears."  Differences in the cognitive demands and the scarcity of certain skills certainly affect status and remuneration.  However, I believe that these differences are more usefully understood as continuums within each of the blood, sweat, and tears categories.  Examining these levels from least to greatest, will provide people with a framework with which to guide honest discussions of contribution and reward. 


Anyone who exchanges activity for income contributes his sweat to the economy.  While physical toil may be involved, it is not necessary.  A prompt care physician and an assembler in a widget factory both contribute sweat if they perform expected tasks in exchange for pay.  Some may have difficulty placing an assembler and an E.R. physician into the same category.  In terms of blood, sweat, and tears, the physician-as-employee occupies the lowest third of the continuum despite his years of training and contribution to public health. 

 Employees who come to work and leave at a prescribed time, receive pay based on that time, perform assigned tasks during a work week, are contributing sweat.  The E.R. physician in the employ of the hospital will be paid more than the person assembling widgets and will no doubt hold a higher social position, but, when examined in terms of blood, sweat, and tears, he is engaged in the same category of behaviors: selling activity for a wage.  Sweat.


Tears are the investment of conscious energy beyond what is required for the completion of assigned tasks.  Tears are a great metaphor for this level, which requires the person maintain a sense of stewardship over the company that does not end with a shift.  Tears demand that the person be responsible for the overall success of the company, or for a particular portion of it.  To contribute tears, job performance is dependent upon results instead of actions.

 If our assembler and physician from the previous example are contributing sweat, then the Widget Division Manager and the Head of Emergency Medicine are contributing their tears. 

To remain in good standing with his company, an assembler need only perform assigned tasks.  The division manager waits on market feedback to judge his standing with the company.  If the widget design is faulty, he fails.  If the widget is over- or under-priced, he fails.  If some new technology replaces the need for widgets, he fails. 

In the hospital, all patients during a given week may receive excellent treatment, but if the department is overstaffed, the department head will have failed.  The Department Head must predict many variables and make decisions that determine the success or failure of the department.  Which, and how many, drugs are inventoried?  What diagnostic tools does the hospital invest in? 

Tears are more difficult to visualize than sweat.  Decision-making.  Predicting demand.  Managing the activity of others.  Strategy creation.  These are tasks that are never completed and require conscious energy from that person beyond workdays and scheduled shifts.  Success or failure is determined not by the completion of an action, but by market feedback.

In many small businesses, the owner provides the tears.  As companies get larger, they employ foremen, managers, and C-suite executives to delegate some of the tears.  There is a large range of different ways to contribute tears that result in a widely varying pay scale.  Every form of tears is not categorically more valuable than any form of sweat, but tears require a greater commitment to the success of the company and are more valuable to the business, and the economy, as a whole.


The most valuable and most rare contribution one can make is his blood.  Blood is a metaphor for real investment and risk.  Spending accumulated wealth and risking financial and personal ruin are the ultimate form of commitment to a business.  The division manager and department head spend a considerable amount of their time and energy helping the company grow.  However, if the company they work for shuts down, they face only a period of unemployment while they search for a new job.  The owner of those businesses may also face huge losses in cash, real estate, and equipment.  For those fully committed to a company, failure can result in devastating financial and personal losses from which they may never recover. 

Throughout our history, human survival has required that everyone, with few exceptions, pour in his blood, sweat, and tears.   The combined blood, sweat, and tears of our ancestors, accumulated throughout history, has created an economic reality so robust and rich that we can now lead safe and prosperous lives while contributing only one or two of the categories.  The problem has become confusing this blessing, created through the effort and sacrifice of real people, with a right to which everyone is somehow entitled. 

Most Americans put much of their sweat into their jobs and their tears into family, friends, and hobbies, and they either hoard their blood or, more often, squander it on frivolities.  To live in a society where an individual can punch a clock for forty hours a week, spend his conscious energy chasing passions, and make no material investment in his livelihood is an incredible privilege granted to very few people throughout our history.   If this describes your existence, a look in the mirror may be the best place to find someone not contributing his "fair share."

Blood, sweat, and tears are all still necessary ingredients for human survival even if you are fortunate enough to get by contributing only one or two of them.  You may never have met them, but rest assured: the company providing your paycheck would not exist without the blood and tears of some person or group of people.  Our rich history of recognizing, honoring, and rewarding those who poured their blood, sweat, and tears into our economy has created such a pampered and spoiled existence that we have lulled ourselves into believing that our privileged condition exists ex ante rather than ex post.  We now find ourselves in an environment where biting the hand that feeds us is not only acceptable, but often glorified.  Hopefully this simple, recognizable metaphor can provide a useful framework for honestly navigating discussions of contribution and fair share.

Image: gentlegiant27153 via Pixabay, Pixabay License.

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