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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Can You Get Your Hands Dirty in the Global Economy?

Here are a couple of articles to read side by side. First, last Sunday's New York Times Magazine runs a remarkable essay by Matthew B. Crawford. I should say Dr. Crawford: the author has a Ph. D. in political philosophy from the august University of Chicago. Dr. Crawford's current occupation: he fixes motorcycles. Between Hondas and Harleys, Crawford has managed to write a book, Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. The NYT essay distills the main ideas of the book:
  • Modern "knowledge work" can be more nervating than liberating.
  • Working with one's hands is wrongfully viewed as a sacrifice, a last resort, and a waste of talent.
  • A successful motorcycle mechanic is every bit a scientist and scholar, engaging in at least as much complex thinking, problem-solving, ethical reasoning, and social intelligence as any academic in a university lab or library.
  • Shop work has more genuine utility, integrity, and fun than a lot of cubicle jobs.
Among my favorite lines from Crawford is this observation: "There probably aren't many jobs that can be reduced to rule-following and still be done well." Think Big Macs: no McDonald's employee makes a great Big Mac. Big Mac production is a matter of pushing buttons and responding to timers as dictated by rigorously established standardized procedures. Or think the classroom: those situations where teachers and students are citing and following step-by-step lesson plans or policy manuals are likely the moments when the least genuine learning and personal engagement are happening. The best learning happens when we engage in vigorous conversation and exploration that defies that guidance of written rules.

Crawford also offers this observation about what constitutes a good job:
A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this.

Nor can big business or big government — those idols of the right and the left — reliably secure such work for us. Everyone is rightly concerned about economic growth on the one hand or unemployment and wages on the other, but the character of work doesn’t figure much in political debate. Labor unions address important concerns like workplace safety and family leave, and management looks for greater efficiency, but on the nature of the job itself, the dominant political and economic paradigms are mute. Yet work forms us, and deforms us, with broad public consequences [Matthew B. Crawford, "The Case for Working with Your Hands," New York Times Magazine, 2009.05.24].

Crawford pegs where I experience the disconnect with my Madison neighbors who think landing a call center would be a step up for our town. We want more jobs, steady wages, and good benefits, but we don't have a lot of conversations about the work itself. Forget the paycheck and perks: does your work itself make your soul healthy? Does it help your neighbors? Does it serve your god(s)? How often do we ask those questions... and how often do we instead just shut those questions out of our minds for 8 hours a day?

Crawford sees the economy driving more people to spend their money on repairing what they have rather than just buying more new junk. He is hopeful that the sternly shaken economy will free more people to pursue jobs more oriented to their true callings, whether for management or mechanics.

Perhaps motorcycle repair shops will fare well, but Robert Reich's most recent online essay argues that a lot of other physical jobs are gone for good. The former Labor Secretary argues that trying to save manufacturing jobs at GM and elsewhere is a fool's errand. Productivity gains have caused declines in manufacturing jobs everywhere. Percentage-wise, Japan, Brazil, and our main nemesis China have lost more such jobs than the U.S. has. Machines and computers mean we just don't need as many people to build things any more.

You should be nervous anytime you hear "don't need" and "people" that close together. But Reich says it's inevitable, and we should accept it, just as we did in farming (30% of Americans worked to produce food a hundred years ago; now less than 5% do). Reich lists a number of jobs that technology has replaced and is replacing: elevator operators, telephone operators, bank tellers, gas station attendants, store check-out clerks, travel agents, real estate brokers, stock brokers, and accountants.

Reich says routine jobs—all those jobs Crawford mentioned that can be reduced to rule-following—are disappearing. So what's left for human workers?

A growing percent of every consumer dollar goes to people who analyze, manipulate, innovate and create. These people are responsible for research and development, design and engineering. Or for high-level sales, marketing and advertising. They're composers, writers and producers. They're lawyers, journalists, doctors and management consultants. I call this "symbolic analytic" work because most of it has to do with analyzing, manipulating and communicating through numbers, shapes, words, ideas [Robert Reich, "The Future of Manufacturing, GM, and American Workers (Part I)," Robert Reich's Blog, 2009.05.29].

That's great news for idea-guys like me. If I were my dad, I'd be nervous. My dad was a mechanic in the Army. He has worked for Morrell's, built and painted houses, and now mans an assembly line making plastic widgets at PPD. He hates computers, I think because they have no moving parts, nothing a guy can just look at and understand. But where I spend half an hour using a spreadsheet and trigonometry to figure out the lengths for studs on a shed with an angled roof, he drops a line and cuts.

My intelligence is symbolic-analytic. Dad's is physical-mechanical. His intelligence is every bit as good as mine, and a heck of a lot more useful when we want to dig a basement or fix the mower. But the economy Reich describes favors my intelligence over Dad's intelligence.

Or does it? Are workers spinning the same bolts in the same holes a thousand times a day really using their physical-mechanical intelligence the same way Crawford does in his motorcycle shop? The routine jobs to which Reich says good riddance are mostly mindless; clear them away, and we free those workers—or challenge those workers—to do work that uses their bodies and minds more fully for jobs that mass-production robots can't do, like fixing motorcycles, building houses, or operating a skid-steer.

My dad doesn't have to worry: he's close to retiring. But what about workers like him, for whom a cubicle job would be a spirit-damaging waste of talent? If manufacturing disappears, do we have enough work—not just jobs, not just excuses for paychecks, but real dignified and dignifying work for every one of our neighbors?

Work that gets our hands dirty is important. It allows us to connect mind and body with the physical reality around us, not to mention with the neighbor who needs a motor fixed or a leaky toilet replaced. We need to remember that working with things requires as much knowledge as the vaunted "knowledge work" the academy and economy celebrate. Even if we embrace the economic realities Reich discusses, we must also keep in mind Crawford's message about the value of work as something that builds not just GDP but souls and communities.


  1. I strongly disagree with your position. In essence you're saying that we (the state?) need to provide "meaningful" jobs. Our social contract that we operate under certainly doesn't provide for this desire.

    If a worker is unhappy with the assigned duties, the worker is free to leave and pursue other jobs. And if a satisfactory job cannot be found the worker is free to establish a new business which can provide the desired job. If the new business isn't successful, then the worker can do like the rest of us do and take it up as a hobby.

    Honestly, if the state was mandating "jobs that make the workers happy but are not economically efficient" don't you think the state is doing something wrong? I'm all for safety and workers right for reasonable conditions, but if something isn't economically efficient it's really just a subsidization of a failing lifestyle.

  2. Keep that question mark after "the state?" I'm still grappling with this concept, so I'm not advocating a state jobs program. I'm just trying to figure out if the modern economy really makes possible the happy free labor market that you envision.

    If you'll grant me some leeway, let's imagine the workforce on a spectrum. At one end, ECCO ("Every Citizen Counts Org."—this could be an interesting comparison) clients. At the other, Tony Amert. At the Tony end, there's no problem: brilliant guys like Tony have the brains and guts to make it in any economic circumstances. At the other end, ECCO clients. Take away simple manual labor, basic assembly-line stuff, and they're shut out of the economy. They don't have the entrepreneurial skill to establish a new business, and a hobby won't pay the bills.

    Now 99% of the workforce fall between ECCO and Tony. I'm interested in finding out where on that spectrum (what chunk of the Ecco side: 10%? 25%) we find the cut-off point for people who are unable to establish a new business suited to their skills and desires. And wherever that cut-off point is, can we move it? Can we educate more people to use their minds the way Tony can to expand their work options?

    I will agree that it is not economically efficient to subsidize blacksmiths and cobblers... but that is the question: is economic efficiency our supreme value, or is quality of work worth considering in our social goals? Can we build a global, technological economy that thrums along at 4% annual growth and still leaves (most) workers free to pursue the employment that best suits their talents?

  3. I don't disagree with you on the spectrum of workforce concept. I accept that without question.

    However, I disagree with the idea of quality of work as a societal goal. We accept that there ARE differences between individuals. For example, I'm never going to win a dozen gold medals in biking events at the Olympics. But, if I really love biking, in your future society, I should be paid to bike all of the time. This form of society has all kinds of economic problems and most likely would be doomed.

    At the end of the day, when you are employed, you are trading your work effort for the work effort of another. If your work effort isn't efficient, the person you traded with takes a loss. Get too many people trading losing work efforts and everyone goes bankrupt.

    One last comment, we currently subsidize (i.e. the state) individuals that are incapable of competing in the current economy (ECCO, etc.). We do this not because it makes economic sense, but because a small twist of fate could have landed anyone of us in a similar position and we want to take care of them and ourselves. I have no problem with this way of thinking. However, we do need to recognize that it isn't because it makes economic sense. It's because of our natural empathy.


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