Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Sidney Awards:

Posted by Simon Halliday | Tuesday, February 06, 2007 | Category: |

David Brooks of the New York times wrote two columns in December last year to give out his Sidney Awards (named for Sidney Hook) – his selection of the top magazine articles in 2006. They are meant to represent good writing, interesting subject matter and as a result also be representative of the underlying zeitgeist. Here, I’ll take some time to extemporize on their nomination and their relevance to us here in South Africa.

The articles span topics from the heinousness (I would like to call it crime) of Holocaust denialism, to the growing problem of casual and emotionally uninvolved teen fellatio, to the quirks of poverty mis-measurement to letters from Iraq. Herein, I focus on two articles, one by Alan S. Blinder of Princeton University called Offshoring: The Next Industrial Revolution and a second by Matthew B. Crawford of Virginia University, Shopcraft as Soulcraft. The two have an interesting alignment, the intricacies of which I later divulge.

Blinder’s discussion centres on society’s progress towards a third industrial revolution – the information revolution the result of which is the offshoring [from America] of services. The reason this is important is because of the transformation of society from agriculturally based to manufacturing based (first industrial revolution), then to manufacturing based to services based (the second revolution) and from this to a hypothetical third revolution involving the knowledge economy and the ‘information revolution’. These are not new concepts. However, he clarifies that this third revolution is centrally about whether a service can only be delivered face-to-face or whether it can be provided over a `phone line, or over the internet. Hence Blinder separates services into two new categories: personal services and impersonal services. His argument advances that the prices of personal services will continue to rise (people will always need mechanics, doctors, to look and do things here), while those of impersonal services, in the face of international competition should decrease (the comparative advantage of the developing world being the lower wages that we are willing to accept for various work – skilled and unskilled). Impersonal services can be traded freely, personal services can’t.

However, one issue with Blinder’s argument is that he doesn’t cater at all for movement of persons. One of the practices that seem to be on the increase by South African doctors is secondment to the UK. They don’t feel that they can make a decent income here, so they trundle off to Blighty in order to make some cash at far higher wages, but wages still substantially lower than most British doctors would prefer. Thus our doctors, highly qualified and with a great work ethic, get jobs that possibly could be held by others. Expand this to a situation where you have highly skilled plumbers, mechanics, and others and the over-concentration of first world education (proclaimed by Blinder) on management, commerce and services and you have situation in which through movement of persons the wages of ‘personal’ services could be challenged.

This is where the intersection with the second article begins. Crawford’s thesis is that the removal of shop class in American school curricula is indicative of a fundamental flaw in education. This flaw is twofold. Firstly, there is a growing under-supply of hands-on or craftsman style work in the US. Secondly, there seems to be a widespread social under-appreciation for the cognitive capabilities required to do this (craft) work well. His argument is that the movement towards management as a (mock) scientifically based process has undermined the cognitive appreciation required for mechanical or craft work.

From the movement to a Fordian production line system we gained speed of production by workers without significant skill (or arguably pride in their work) and lost the possibility to ‘meet the man’ who made the, generally higher quality, item. No longer was an individual responsible and accountable for quality, but the manager that is not actually at all engaged with the production itself is held to some greater or lesser degree ‘accountable’. In fact, if something goes wrong the managed often manages to shift the blame – it’s the fault of the ‘system’ or the ‘process’ definitely not him. Crawford asserts that there needs to be a restoration of pride not only in so-called blue collar, or craft-based work, but also to service-based or white-collar work which has come to mirror the cognitively disengaged production processes of the assembly line.

The question therefore is how does any of this affect us in South Africa? Firstly, I applaud the government’s engagement with vocational training. Individuals have propensities, both learned and intrinsic towards specific activities. On a personal level mine happen to be staring at numbers, writing things and standing in front of a group of people talking. For my dad it happened to be working with screws, plans and making loud noises with drills. I’m an economist. He was an electro-mechanical engineer. What makes us both enjoy what we do though is the pride in the end-product, the belief that we have done something well. On a micro-level government needs to engage educators and policy-makers with the idea that work at whatever level, must be focused on production with pride and with a goal of personal excellence. This can be self-contained – from the production of high quality plumbing work that other plumbers will admire and appreciate as ‘good’, to number-crunching and report production that is of high quality and on which peers favourably comment. Pride in work is non-randomly distributed through the population – it’s a skill like any other and can be taught, facilitated and socialised. Similarly for a work-ethic. We in South Africa have a unique opportunity as a developing country to attack the problems posed by both Blinder and Crawford – reform of our education system to provide individuals with skills compatible with the coming (or current) third industrial revolution, as well as equipping society and individuals with the pride and understanding that work is not only about subsistence, indebtedness and alienation. It is about social achievement, embeddedness and pride. Not only will these individuals be able to use their skills locally, but they will be exportable as well!

Moreover, we in South Africa are also in the position to erode the hierarchy of beliefs about one profession over another. It is not the height of achievement to attain your Masters or Doctorate in a degree if you hate that kind of work – you are putting yourself on the road to depression. Conversely, the pejorative labels that some apply to blue-collar or craft work is inappropriate and inaccurate. High quality end-products at all levels require cognitive engagement, hard work and pride or enjoyment of the work itself. The rest, to quote one of my favourite films, will be simply ‘Shadows and Dust, shadows and dust’.

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