Nightcap

  1. What it’s like to deliver packages for Amazon Austin Murphy, the Atlantic
  2. On being a female classicist Madeline Miller, LitHub
  3. Sing, Goddess Patricia Storace, NYRB
  4. Is nationalism really the future of conservatism? Rachel Lu, the Week

Nightcap

  1. Hannah Arendt On Why It’s Urgent To Break Your Bubble Siobhan Kattago, IAI
  2. Does the right to self-defense apply against agents of the state? Jason Brennan, Reason
  3. Amazon (the company) and the Department of Defense Melanie Sisson, War on the Rocks
  4. ‘I have noticed a difference between older EDM stars and younger ones’ Cory Arcangel, Are.na

Sine qua non: No shortcuts

This past summer at language school a young man invited me to a party, which I had to refuse since there was a major exam coming up. In response he said, “But you’re smart, why do you have to study?” He was genuinely astonished at the idea that intelligent people have to study; for him, intelligence meant that one was spared the bother of having to work to master a skill or a subject. His bewildered reaction made me start thinking about the nature of the work surrounding achievement and how it is perceived.

Bluntly put, achievement is very hard work and requires tremendous sacrifice. Last weekend, Oxford had its matriculation ceremony, after which the individual colleges arranged group photoshoots. While waiting for one shoot, I overheard two young women discussing a celebratory evening party. One said that she couldn’t go because she had to finish the reading for the next day, but the other said that she had risen at five o’clock that morning in order to finish her reading so that she could attend the party. Neither one was bothered by the choices she had to make, and they were united in their agreement that study came first. Missing a party or missing sleep were simply prices for achievement.

There is an ancient Egyptian legend about a couple who stole the Book of Thoth, which contained all the wisdom of the natural and supernatural worlds, copied it down on a stone writing tablet, washed the stone, and then drank the runoff water; in doing so they acquired all that knowledge without having to read the book. (For those who are interested, the story doesn’t end well, mostly because Thoth is annoyed that his book is gone, but also because, having not genuinely learned the material, the couple can’t control their new-found powers.) In the Folger Museum in Washington DC, there is a medieval manuscript (MS V.b.26 (1)) that contains a spell to compel the spirits to do your writing for you, though as a friend of mine drily pointed out, there’s nothing promised about the quality of writing delivered. What is interesting about myths and spells concerning shortcuts to knowledge and accomplishment is that they are all focused on bypassing the sacrificial process, while still being crowned with the laurels.

The ancient/medieval view was that the spiritual sphere, being responsible in the first place, could help create a world where everyone could achieve without the bother of the foundational work. Now, in a post-Frankfurt School, Utilitarianist world, society speaks in terms of “talent,” as if it is a supernatural thing that requires no cultivation, existing fully formed in a vacuum. We have come from Thomas Jefferson arguing that every person should be free to pursue his own interests according to his endowments to John Rawls’ yowling about the “injustice” of modern society and a world where smart, talented people appear to “have it all.” In order for the Rawlsian vision of the world to work out in completely equitable justice, the work put in by achievers in pursuit of their goals must be negated.

On a personal note, I remember one chillingly funny episode when, during a seminar, a classmate informed a group of us that our coming in prepared, having done the readings and written up commentary, was an act of oppression against her. Her basic argument was that we were too smart, and it wouldn’t cost us anything to show up unprepared once in a while in order to let her shine. We finished on time; I ran into her three days before all MA theses were due for submission and she hadn’t started writing yet. I’m willing to bet, though, that in her movie she’s a victim and we’re all oppressors.

In a way, the romaticization and mythicization of people of genius has been very unhelpful to society, especially since the popular conception of these people appears to support Rawls and Co.’s complaints. Let us take the example of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, partially because his myth is a perfect example and partially because this is a topic I would be happy to discuss for days on end. The popular myth is fairly well established: genius infant who miraculously taught himself everything and created beautiful music as a three-year-old, before dying tragically young, in keeping with the romantic tradition of great geniuses.

The reality, while hardly prosaic, is much less romantic. W.A. Mozart’s parents, Leopold and Anna Maria, were superbly well-educated for the standards of their time. Their familial letters, written in a mix of German, French, Italian, Latin, some English, and mathematical substitution ciphers are a jumble of thoughts and observations on literature, music, art, history, political events, social commentary, and professional talk, along with some infantile humor. Musicologist Nicholas Till wrote a wonderful book, Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Beauty and Virtue in Mozart’s Operas, that covers exactly how having an Enlightenment-era (possessing an unbound belief in the benefits of education and faith in the individual), Renaissance man (good at everything) for a father affected Mozart and his sister.

Due to the extensive concertizing tours undertaken throughout Wolfgang and Marianne Mozart’s childhood,[1]music history tends to treat their father as the epitome of a deranged stage parent. But one of Leopold’s primary reasons for the tours was to procure music lessons for his son with the best musicians in the world. On the infamous “Grand Tour,” where the Mozart family travelled across Europe, from 1763 to 1766, the family spent over a year in England, on stretched financial means, so Wolfgang could study composition with Johann Christian Bach, one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s surviving sons and a much-sought after composer and teacher. Leopold was absolutely determined that his son would study with a Bach and the family had first spent time in the Netherlands in an unsuccessful effort to contact Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, J.C.’s brother. Mozart senior also applied the same strategy to obtaining private instrumental and voice lessons for Wolfgang. So much for the spontaneous aspect of the child genius story; during his boyhood, the composer had lessons with masters for whom he had to prepare work and have it judged. Genius might exist, but it had to be formed and cultivated, a process that the Mozart myth has completely and deceptively lost.

Losing sight of the work, sacrifice, and constructive elements of achievement has, I believe, provided valuable fuel to the social resentment industry. It is easier to envy the accomplishments and standing of others if one believes that they are unearned endowments because the person holding them is “gifted.” In my own path and work that I do, I’ve seen many people of envious or resentful inclination become devastated emotionally and psychologically when they come into close contact with high-achievers and see the amount of work, time, investment, and sacrifice that being one requires.

In my experience, these people either develop personal persecution narratives, such as the girl from my class, or flounce out proclaiming that they “have a life.” My personal experience has made me doubt the efficacy of Charles Murray’s solution, proposed at the end of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 – 2010, that the best cure for the culture of resentment and anger is for the top twenty percent, representative of the high-achieving, to become visible to the bottom eighty and in doing so to allow the bottom sectors to see how hard the top actually works. Historically, the argument is probably justified; returning to the example of the Mozart family, their close association with the aristocracy, both hereditary and professional, certainly provided impetus for the children to set themselves new challenges as part of winning respect and recognition. But that family had an openness to self-improvement, a belief in the possibility of it that as a larger cultural force was, as Nicholas Till repeatedly pointed out, unique to the Enlightenment.

The people of contemporary society not only lack such a belief, they are closed even to the possibility that there is room for improvement. This is not new; Nietzsche observed and decried the culture of ressentiment– defined by the OED as “a psychological state resulting from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred that cannot be satisfied.” Only now there is no suppression. Achievement through self-improvement is replaced with cries for equality of outcome. People are no longer willing to work for achievement, instead they want is for what they have done, no matter how small, no matter how inadequate, to be recognized as achievements, citing that they did invest time, energy, and money it their banalities. Since the investment aspect is very important, I’ll close here and we’ll look at it next.


[1]Marianne Mozart was, according to the entire family, the better musician and performer of the two siblings. By the time of her early teens, she had surpassed her father and brother as a violinist and pianist to such an extent that her brother gradually ceased playing seriously himself in order to concentrate on composing for her. However, her parents had her retire from the stage once she turned seventeen in order to leave her open for an aristocratic marriage, which she eventually made. After she was widowed, she became a very successful teacher and was able to support single-handedly her children, step-children, and nephews and leave behind a massive fortune.

Nightcap

  1. One thousand years of labor: the evolution of work Gabriel Winant, the Nation
  2. Why didn’t ancient Rome industrialize? Mark Koyama, NOL
  3. Productions, and the threshold of industrialization Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon
  4. Rationalization of production and changes in the nature of work Jacques Delacroix, NOL

Nightcap

  1. Husband shopping in Beijing Sheng Yun, London Review of Books
  2. German life in the 20th century Richard Evan, the Nation
  3. City University of New York: American Dream Machine Charles Upton Sahm, City Journal
  4. Catholic populism versus American populism Ross Douthat, NY Times

Nightcap

  1. Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain Nicola Clarke, History Today
  2. After Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses Kenan Malik, Guardian
  3. The labor theory of value, explained Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  4. The closest exoplanet to Earth could be “highly habitable” Adam Mann, Scientific American

Nightcap

  1. The Alps Rhys Griffith, History Today
  2. London: imploding with cool Ian Jack, NY Review of Books
  3. Should you start your day at 2:30 am? Bryan Lufkin, BBC
  4. Bringing back the Sabbath (against work) William Black, Aeon

Nightcap

  1. An audacious proposal for a US–North Korean alliance Tim Shorrock, the Nation
  2. Le Corbusier’s Indian Dream “AG,” URBN Sense
  3. Lovers of Wisdom Jim Holt, New York Review of Books
  4. The curse of work Joe Moran, Times Literary Supplement

Nightcap

  1. Before Indiana Jones came Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron Blake Smith, Aeon
  2. Can economists and humanists ever be friends? John Lanchester, New Yorker
  3. A Guaranteed Income would undermine the social virtues of work John McGinnis, Law & Liberty
  4. On Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Palestine, and the Left Corey Robin, Crooked Timber

Nightcap

  1. The Forgotten Everyday Origins of ‘Craft’ Sarah Archer, the Atlantic
  2. Changes in the Nature of Work Jacques Delacroix, NOL
  3. Why America Can’t Go Swiss on Guns Kevin Sullivan, RealClearWorld
  4. Eccentric culture is what makes the West unique Rémi Brague, Montréal Review

Immigration and Jobs

A couple of thoughts about immigration. It seems that there is a widespread belief in the US that immigrants take jobs from Americans. It makes superficial sense if you also assume that the number of jobs to be filled is fixed and that just about anyone can do any kind of work.

Both assumptions are mostly false. Here is an example that illustrates why.

I keep hearing native-born Americans trained in various high-tech fields who claim that they are unemployed because of competition from low-cost H1B visa holders. H1B visas go to foreigners with skills deemed to be needed by the American economy. A large number of H1B visa holders are from India and many are from China; they also come from a wide variety of other countries, including Russia, France, Bulgaria, etc. The implicit affirmation is that were such visas stopped completely, those who complain would step right into the vacant jobs.

Two things. First the claim that foreign H1B visa holders work for less is largely unsubstantiated although it should be easy to investigate such abuse. Second, I think it’s illegal to pay H1B holders less than Americans. Why would many employers risk a distracting lawsuit? Of course, a few might because there are irrational people everywhere.

Next and last: Hundreds of thousands of high-tech jobs are going begging as I write. Are employers so vicious that they would rather have the work not done at all than to give it to a credentialed American? Or is it more likely that the unemployed native-born high-tech workers have skills that do not match demand? If the second supposition is correct, ending the H1B visa program would cause even more high-tech positions to remain empty. Of course, this would have a negative effect on everyone, on every American’s prosperity.

Missing from this narrative: the possibility that high power, accelerated re-training programs would bring unemployed Americans the skills the high-tech sector requires.

I have to begin a confession that’s going to make me even more unpopular locally than I already am. I mean unpopular among my conservative friends. I taught in an MBA program in the middle of Silicon Valley for 24 years, two quarters each year. It was an evening program squarely directed at the ambitious hard-working. During that span of time, I must have had 150 students from India. I remember only one who was a bad student. I was intrigued, so I made inquiries. Sure enough, he had an Indian first name and last name, and the corresponding appearance but he was born in the US.* I cannot report so glowingly about other, non-Indian students that sat in my classroom through the years.

This little narrative proves nothing, of course. Consider it food for thought. Do it especially if you voted for Pres. Trump – as I did.

Reminder: H1B visas are awarded to individuals with an occupational qualification deemed to be in short supply in the US. Right now, it’s likely that most of those who get an H1B are trained in some IT area but that’s not all. For a long time, farriers from everywhere could easily get one. (If you don’t know what a farrier is, shame on you and look it up.)

There are other – presumably non-specialized – categories of immigrants who are widely suspected of taking jobs from Americans. The truth is not always easy to discern, not even conceptually. Five or six miles from where I live in Santa Cruz, there are growers who are tearing off their hair. Their problem is that they can’t figure out who is going to pick the crops they are now putting into the ground. As I have said repeatedly, the Mexicans they counted on in years past have largely stopped coming.

A quarter of a mile from where I live, and in the same direction, there are dozens of perfectly healthy US-born Americans who are working as “sales associates.” The apparent conceptual issue is this: sales associates earn $10/hr while a moderately experienced crop picker earns $15. The question arises of why we don’t see a full exodus from the sales positions to jobs that pay 50% more?

I think it’s lazy to call the US-born sales associates “lazy.” The reality is that the Mexicans who came, and are still coming, to pick vegetables and fruits in California overwhelmingly came from a rural population. They were reared under conditions where almost everyone around them labored in the fields. When they arrive in the US – legally through family reunion – or illegally, they are ready to take picking jobs. They then just do here more or less the same work they would do at home but for five times the pay or more.

In American society that kind of population disappeared several generations ago through mechanization and, of course, through the importation of foreign labor, precisely. Native-born Americans won’t do the work because it’s alien to their background. I think US-born people of Mexican ascendancy whose parents labored in the field won’t do the work either. Their parents do what they can to make their own work experience alien to their children. I am not surprised, that’s another expression of the American dream. It’s  what many would do back in Mexico but then, why emigrate?

I am pretty sure that any immigration reform should include a temporary agricultural program, a sort of H1A ( “A” for “Agriculture”) visa. It would allow foreigners to come to the US legally, just to work in the fields and for a set period only. It would not lead to permanent residency, nor, of course, to citizenship. Such a program existed between the forties and the early sixties, if memory serves. It was called the “Bracero program.” I don’t know why it was terminated. (Perhaps a reader can tell us.)

Mexicans would be the first to take advantage of such a program. As Mexico’s economy develops, they may be replaced by Central Americans and, eventually, by Africans. Such a program would sidestep the kind of assimilation problem France, for example, is facing right now with its North African population.

PS Personally, I think Mexicans make good immigrants to the US. I would bet than in ten years we will be begging them to come.


* Disclosure: I am married to an Indian woman. She is not in high-tech unfortunately.

WORK

This is an essay with a strange origin. My friend Peter Miller, an artist and a craftsman, is also a trained sociologist like me. He posted an essay on his blog about crafts. It’s a sophisticated and unusually perceptive essay. He asked me for comments. I begun answering him in a letter and then, quickly, I thought both his essay and my comments might be useful to others. I think anyone interested in the nature of work and changes in the nature of work should read both Peter’s essay (see above) and mine. I don’t know exactly in what order but it seems to me that my essay is easier for the non-specialist who pays a mortgage or who studies for his Calculus finals. It would not be hard to make me change my mind on this though.

Dear Peter:

This is a thick narrative that demands a lot from the reader. Those are separate and additive reasons to turn it into a book. It would benefit by being watered down; some of the things that you say in one sentence would be better said in three. Just an unsolicited opinion on form. (Lack of solicitation has never stopped me before.)

It seems to me that your argumentation is not finished, that you have not looped the loop. I explain.

The pilot automation that is the pretext for your essay seems to me to be only a special and late instance of a process that began massively and kind of suddenly in the late 18th century. I mean the rationalization of work associated with the Industrial Revolution, of which it is only one facet, I think. I think this because, if nothing had changed in the realm of production but the capture of large amounts of inanimate power, the world would have still experienced a big economic growth spurt. The rationalization of production supplied additional economic benefits.

“Rationalization of production” means the specification in advance of the one best way to achieve a well defined end. It’s not “whichever way works” but “the exact best way.” Nearly always, it involves the decomposition of a task into smaller components most of which are easier to complete than the whole, usually, much easier. This is contrast with crafts production which involves a trained worker doing a job from beginning to end.

Note: This contrast is overdone as far as many crafts are concerned. Craftsmen did not wait for the 18th century to rationalize their methods. They did it in small steps that spread slowly or not at all. (Ask me how we know this.) For every single instance of production the comparison between crafts and rationalized production is often exaggerated. This is in the nature of contrasts. The real difference on the ground is a matter of emphasis, of course.

Until recently, the rationalization of production was a pre-condition to mechanization, the replacement or, usually the partial replacement of human workers by machines. Mechanization is another source of enlarged societal wealth because machines are, on the whole, less expensive to employ than people. Machines don’t get sick; they are maintained at predictable intervals. They don’t take vacations. They don’t retire with benefits. They never feel lazy. They are never reluctant to do the work assigned to them. With machines, the same number of people can do more than without machines, other things being equal. The cost of machines plus their human tenders is normally lower than the cost of people plus people.

Rationalization does not require mechanization. It just makes it easier. Many clerical jobs were rationalized in the 19th century without benefit of any mechanization.

The rationalization of production, and of work that may or may not be considered production (rearing children, for example) is, to a large extent, an attempt to separate every job into parts each of which can be handled on a routine basis. This allows for production to increase seemingly while reducing the level of competence required of the line producers. (Yes, it sounds familiar to you, Peter, because I am paraphrasing someone; his first name was Charlie, his buddy was Freddie.) I mean by “level of competence” three things: specific job training, general education, intelligence and other otherwise desirable personal features. As the level required in all three for a given job drops, the cost of securing workers of the requisite competence also tends to decrease. At least, it drops at first. Over time, the story is vastly more complicated than this. (See below.)

The average worker of the early twentieth century was probably less skilled – any way you define skill – than his 17th century counterpart. He also needed less intelligence to do his work properly.

Here is an illustration of these basic ideas. Today, one can buy shoes made by machine in South Korea or by hand in India. That is, modern mass production along rationalized lines, in the world, exists side by side with craft production fairly similar to all shoe production before 1750. The average line worker in a Korean shoe production does not need to be very bright, and he can be satisfactorily trained in a month or so. By contrast, a traditional Indian shoe-maker is apprenticed for four to five years, or more.** He cannot be stupid and he needs patience, perseverance, and a superior ability to focus, among other personal traits. It’s true that today’s unskilled Korean worker probably has more formal education than the Indian shoe-maker. That’s not because he needs it to do his job but because he lives in a rich society where formal education is a consumption item. It may also be to enable him to spend rationally. It may make him a better citizen. It’s not required by his job beyond basic literacy, if that.

Historically, this rationalization of work driven by the search to save on production costs had an unexpected positive downfall: In many cases it reduced defects in the final product as well as accidents during work. These facts would have been enough to move forward the general movement toward rationalization wherever defects in the product were costly, as with steel, or silicon, or where human life was valued,* wherever the old process was dangerous.

The movement of rationalization of production never stopped; it continues as I write. Fast food restaurants modeled after McDonald are one of the most visible fairly recent results of this process. And some of us remember the days when service stations were staffed with adult men who actually knew how to check your oil and your tire pressure. Automatic piloting is just another instance of the same long societal process of rationalization. (Incidentally, I would guess that if you could compare the dangers of flying with or without automatic pilots while keeping everything the same – you can’t – you would find the former much safer.)

With every tiny step in the rationalization of work voices were raised to regret the crafts methods the new techniques were destroying. A few of those voices belonged to people who were fully qualified to pass judgment. I mean, individuals who had worked both in craft and in the corresponding rationalized industry, home weavers working by hand converted into weaving machine tenders, for instance. I am guessing there would have been and there are still few of those. Many more, like the artist and print-maker Peter Miller, know only the crafts side of things. (I don’t know this for a fact but I imagine that Peter has spent little time in a factory of any sort. He will correct me if I am wrong.) I can’t imagine that there were many who wrote on the lost world of crafts who also possessed both industrial experience and craft experience. Those imagined or proceeded from more or less distant observation. Others, a third kind of commentators, the loudest voices by far, belonged and still belong to professional intellectuals who have known neither craft nor modern industry. Karl Marx is the chief, the best known of those.

Digression: Pseudo “Marxists” in universities and elsewhere have derived a whole quasi-scholarly industry for fifty years from a few paragraphs in Marx’s youthful 1848 Manuscripts that have the merit of being easy to read. In one of those, Marx wrote of the “alienation” of the worker from his work contrasting the inherent pleasure of craft work with the sort of coitus interuptus of factory work. The fact that generation after generation of sociologists have failed to find empirical confirmation of such alienation among real live workers never stopped this industry from expanding. The best treatment of the topic comes the 1964 thin book by the French anarchist Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society. It provides a more sensitive, better informed, detailed, and of course, much more thorough view of the lost world of crafts than does anything in the Marxist tradition. End of digression.

Much of the nostalgia for a pre-rational world is simply mistaken, sometimes grossly mistaken. I sometimes overhear discontented, intemperate comments about the coffee shop chain Starbucks, which has managed to systematize the preparation and serving of coffee products while enlarging their scope. More often than not, I read between the figurative lines of the complaints a longing for the good old days when coffee in America was prepared and poured by real people in real places. In fact, I knew America well before Starbucks and I can assure you that nearly everywhere, the coffee was bad and bitter, the pouring sometimes surly, and the sitting stools hard. It is as if the Starbucks haters remembered their childhood in charming, civilized Florence or Rome, rather than in the real Fort Wayne and Buffalo where they grew up. Nostalgia will do this to you, the lying bitch!

When all is said, I am not attempting here to argue against the merits of crafts activity. Anyone who has even built and painted a garden fence he was not forced to make for pay knows that there is pleasure in making things from beginning to end. It does not take even long before one learns the difference between a well built fence and an ugly one. Craft work is learning work. And millions of what the French call “Sunday painters” (like me) are well aware of the fact that their artistic creations give them more pleasure than almost anything else on earth except babies (and sometimes, making babies). I mean both the result on canvas and the process itself. By the way, “Sunday painters” are amateur artists who know their work has no economic prospects and may not even deserve to be shown. I don’t have a survey in mind but I suspect that even those who are aware of committing frankly bad paintings love their art. Activity that links the senses, brain, and hands is often a labor of love. That’s why we miss the crafts.

Not surprisingly, nostalgia for the crafts era is all around us and it’s in most of us if not in all of us. My house was built in 1906 of planks that were probably hewn with primitive tools. That’s one (one) of the reasons my wife and I bought it. When I made some repairs on it I found hand forged nails that I put away like treasures. If I am told that a pot was hand-made I become immediately willing to pay a premium for it over a machine-made pot that looks identical to me. Examples are legion. Most of us have an addiction for an “authenticity” that is often the product of selective ignorance. The magnificent Gothic cathedrals, built largely by hand, survived; the clay and straw hovels that abutted them did not. Neither did the results of the lack of toilets immediately at the foot of the great cathedrals. Crafts nostalgia may even taken tragic forms and yet survive.

In France, every year, several people die from eating “artisanal” cheese. It’s labeled by the government according to specific rules. (This is France, after all where the government does almost everything!) One component is that it’s made from unpasteurized milk; another is that it’s shaped by hand. The first feature probably accounts for all the deaths. Some consumers no doubt want unpasteurized milk because it’s more “natural.” Others and some of the same, chose cheese made by hand for aesthetic and sentimental reasons. They get the deadly bacteria as a bonus. The striking thing is that French society broadly defined appears to consider a few deaths an acceptable price to pay for the privilege of consuming cheese issued from a crafts process. The consensus includes those who would never touch artisanal cheese with the business end of a fork.

So what to do with our nostalgia for the crafts and for their more or less imaginary era?

First, we must all admit that we don’t wish to go back to the days when every nail was forged by hand and cost $5.99 retail! Poverty does not mean not earning enough money; it means not earning enough money to buy the things you need or want. If your income is stationary but the price of bread shoots up to $10 a pound, you are poorer. If lettuce is $5 a pound, – as with organic lettuce – you are poorer than if it costs $1.50. We should not allow our nostalgia to drive us into poverty.

Second, we must recognize that the rationalization of production – together with mechanization and reliance on fossil fuels – have made us rich beyond belief, rich to a degree that I, myself, couldn’t have believed fifty years ago. (Good point to plug my book: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography – which goes in detail over the poverty of everyone fifty and sixty years ago.) We are richer because we have become collectively enormously more productive in the past 150 years and accelerating in the past fifty years. We are more productive because of fossil fuels, because of mechanization but also because of the rationalization of production alone. The higher productivity is obvious in the manufacturing fields but I can’t go into it here because of the complicating factor of outsourcing. Let’s take agriculture because Americans import relatively little by way of agricultural products. Here are some numbers that are easy to remember to implant the facts firmly in your mind:

In 1860 about 60% of the American workforce was employed in agriculture and in lumber. Today, the percentage is less than 3% (three per cent). We are not worse fed than in 1860, food has just dropped in price. No catch!

Let’s go back to our shoe workers. Rationalization of much production has made all of us very rich by historical standards irrespective of our individual merits. The low-skill, borderline idiotic shoe machine tender in South Korea earns ten times more money than the skilled, smart, attentive shoe craftsman of India. One lives in a society where rationality of production prevails, the other, not.

The cheapness of the things we need is such that we are not forced to work very long to secure them. In addition, a very large fraction of our society does not work at all (children, many adolescents, middle-class wives and ex-wives, retirees with thirty more years before them). Collectively, we have enormous leisure as compared to our ancestors, even our near ancestors.****

Wealth gives us, with leisure time, the luxury to experiment and schools of all kinds (including California community colleges). Wealth even makes it easy to preserve old traditional techniques as in Peter’s examples: Am I willing to spend pennies each year to support the preservation of craft techniques of Japanese pottery I have never even heard about? Yes; why not? Those who are so inclined can become craftsmen in the broadest sense of the word because we can afford to try and fail. I would bet that there are more painters in Santa Cruz County (“Silicon Valley Beach”), population 50,000, today than in all of Paris in 1880. Are they any good? Not my topic; my topic is nostalgia for crafts production. It’s not art criticism. Crafts are here, in abundance, where I live, no doubt about it.

Note: I understand that real craftsmen in the traditional mold, such as Peter, may argue that I stretch the meaning of crafts beyond recognition because it does not incorporate the common notion of a long, supervised apprenticeship. I think they are wrong. I suspect they confuse “craftsman” and “good craftsman.” (I don’t know exactly, in fact, what Peter would argue; I am just guessing on this. We will find out, I hope.)

Here is my third proposal about what to do about our nostalgia for crafts: We can believe that we have entered  the age of post-rationalization of production. Manufacturing is under control, agriculture too, as I pointed out. Such a belief would not be completely absurd. Today, the amorphous category “Services” accounts for about 70% of American GDP, (the sum total of the value of what all Americans produce in one year at home). The percentages are similar for other developed, rich countries. But, “Services ” is a bad category; it was invented more than a hundred years ago to mean: “everything but agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining and manufacturing.” It did not amount to much at the time. “Services” was a sort of residual category. Nonetheless, on the face of it, it’s possible to believe that in a short time, almost all of us, will be teachers, brain surgeons, professional poets, software “architects,” brewers, not to forget waiters – excuse me, “waitpersons.”

All these occupations have in common that they rely on tacit information. That’s information that is not well understood by the user himself. For that reason, it’s also difficult to transmit that kind of information deliberately to others and in a systematic manner. It’s normally communicated to others through more or less formalized apprenticeship arrangements favoring direct observation of more senior workers.

My own position about this belief in a world of production changing in that direction is like my attitude toward Sasquatch***** I don’t believe in it but I would like to be wrong.

I am not sanguine no, I am rather cautious for two reasons. The first is that the least likely industries have been rationalized in my lifetime; burger making is a strong case in point. The second cause of my cautiousness is that I am witnessing right now, as I write, massive rationalization taking place around me in another unlikely industry, the practice of medicine. I can already see the day when we will be remembering with longing the Bill’s Burger days of medicine when the doctor knew our name and used mostly his intuition to diagnose us. (Sometimes with fatal results, of course.)

A final note in passing. Being beyond the age of rationalization would have serious benefits in terms of power relations in general. Hierarchical arrangements are much less useful, or more difficult to implement when the work process is not rationalized. We see see this in Silicon Valley every day. Unfortunately, this does not mean that it’s the wave of the future. This is yet another story, of course.

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* Yes, I mean Christian and, especially formerly Christian regions of the world well on their way to secularization. (This means more or less endowed with some degree of religious indifference.)

** I suspect that the apprenticeship time could be cut in half without damage to competence but that’s another story and it would still remain a long time.

*** “Artisan” just means “craftsman.” “Artisanal” means produced according to a more or less crafts method rather than in a plant with machines. Saying it in French in the US allows for a higher profit margin by exploiting the naive and pretentious.

**** It’s true that traditional peasants have much down time but it’s mostly not leisure because they are lacking the other ingredients of leisure. As I write, I realize I may be overstating my case on this. More thinking needed.

***** Also known as “Bigfoot” and, “L’ Abominable Géant des Forêts“.

Updates and Accolades

Hello all. I’ve been busy lately. Will hopefully have some cool stuff starting next weekend or so.

In the mean time, The American Conservative recently highlighted Notes On Liberty for being a libertarian blog that is actually worth reading.

Also, I happened to win the first ever annual monthly blog contest now being put on by the Foundation for Economic Education. This is a huge honor, and I probably would not have pursued it without your readership and, more importantly, your critiques over the last year and a half.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but RealClearHistory also gave Notes On Liberty a shout-out for some of our work on colonialism back in February.

All three organizations are well worth adding to your daily reading routine. I’ll be graduating from college next weekend. My school’s quarterly A&E magazine did a feature on me and you can check that out here.