Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Instinct of Workmanship—Russian style

For those who haven't read Veblen's Instinct of Workmanship (1914), allow me to explain why it is probably my favorite bit of writing—ever.  It was also Veblen's favorite of his ten books, so I have a solid back-up for this opinion.

A little context here.  Veblen became famous for writing The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)  In it he drolly points out just how absurd the behavior is of people who are mostly trying to raise their social status.  My favorite as a clergyman's son was his chapter on Devout Observances wherein he postulates that church architecture is one of the more common forms of conspicuous waste and that clerical vestments were so like the absurd creations worn by footmen and doormen that this garb's main feature was that it draws attention to the wearers' uselessness as servants of a deity.  I giggled for about two weeks when I first read this.

The problem with funny is that it lets people off the hook.  There are actually serious problems that are directly related to giving economic power to people who make a big deal out of their uselessness.  Unfortunately, because the Leisure Classes take so much pride in their conspicuous leisure, laughing at them becomes a compliment because it means that they are being noticed.  So ridicule really isn't all that effective if the goal is to change their anti-social behavior.  On the other hand, it is probably important to show how wretched "wretched excess" can be on some sort of regular interval.  Watched the Wolf of Wall Street the other night and while the movie is a long way from uplifting, it does show how vile folks who make a lot of money from fraud (as opposed to accomplishment) can be.  Makes sense—if your rewards in life stem from your facility as a liar, you don't have a lot to build on when it comes to constructing a meaningful life as a member of the social order.

Between the criticism of Leisure Class as satire and the obvious existence of the explosion of goods that could only be explained by the virtues of determination, hard work, and innovative thought, Veblen felt compelled to to write about those who did not worship at the altar of total uselessness.  Instinct of Workmanship was a tribute to the people of virtue who actually enrich our lives.  In a world where people commonly held a belief that folks had to be bullied into working and severely bullied into doing a great job, Veblen postulated that wanting to do great work was the default human condition.  Veblen had NO shortage of examples for such a teaching.  In fact, it could be argued that all human progress has been tied to the efforts of people who wanted to make great things.  We build civilizations and cities and miraculous inventions and all those other things of note because we care far more than bullying and coercion could ever make us care!

Cultivating and nurturing the Instinct of Workmanship is easily the most important driver of great societies.  What I find so amazing is that whenever you find yourself where Workmanship is celebrated, the place almost shakes with energy and a pride of purpose.  I remember how it felt the time I visited the great 747 factory in Everett Washington.  I wanted to rush up to someone and scream, "Do you see what you folks can build!"  I didn't because I assumed the only reasonable response to such a lunatic outburst would be to smile and say, "yeah, I know!"

While it is a whole lot easier to get excited about building 747s than warehouses, the glorification of workmanship on matters large and expensive can easily spread to the little things.  I thought about this when reading the article below about the buzz generated at a Russian-Chinese trade show on innovation.  Both countries have compelling reasons to want to upgrade their industrial output.  China wants to advance beyond the screwdriver stage where she cheaply produces designs invented, engineered, and marketed elsewhere.  Russia once had an integrated industrial base she squandered during the corruption of the Yeltsin era and now wants it back because the recent economic sanctions have demonstrated how much she misses it.  So both nations have enormous reasons to celebrate the manifestations of workmanship and Mr. Young could feel the power and excitement.

Russia Is Not Stagnating, It's Booming

A recent giant technology trade show in Moscow held jointly with China suggests empowerment, confidence, innovation, opportunity.

Patrick L. Young  Tue, Oct 28

As never before, Russia embodies opportunity, driven by an empowered, upbeat, workforce. Warning: this may run entirely contrary to reports seen elsewhere...

In a world of data overload, misinformation can be pumped around the world with ferocious velocity, driven by anybody with an axe to grind whether justified or fantasized. Thus the serial battle for objectivity can fall victim to web trolls, or those eager to ignore evidence on the ground and deliver damning indictments driven by ignorance or malice.

Meanwhile, with a nation the size of Russia it is easy to maintain a hidden side. Amidst the riddle, contradictions and sheer enigma of the vast state, unseen angles can easily lurk, accidentally overseen or deliberately overlooked by network bias. Returning to Moscow last week was a trip of delightful revelation. There, I’ve said it.

Read that and weep if you expect a tale of poverty or powerlessness as a result of Western sanctions which have easily self-inflicted as much damage as they are bringing to Russia. Said sanctions squabble has proven entirely counterproductive as (alas!) I accurately suggested previously.

The third Open Innovation Forum assembled a massive pool of talent honed through the impressive Russian education system where hard coding as opposed to soft skills has long been prized. In an area equivalent to 17 times the fabled Red Square, innovators from around the globe gathered amongst some 15,000 delegates to debate and discuss the future of technology and business while interacting with a massive range of exhibits showcasing the best of Russian ingenuity and this year’s national partner: China (underpinning that eastern pivot).

This incredible event took place in Technopolis, a former car plant of staggering Soviet scale (the Moskvitch factory, seeing as you asked) - some 220,000 square meters in all. From large scale silicon wafers to biotech with a dash of nanotech thrown in, the units of Technopolis hummed with productivity as delegates gathered for the conference - a city within a city devoted to the future economy.

From carbon composite racing cars via robots to all manner of startups, here, writ large was a message the West ignores at its peril: the vast suite of innovative engineering faculties which made rockets and armed the Warsaw pact is now combining with a free market economy to unleash the creativity of a well-educated, increasingly confident, populace. Moreover, the engineering excellence came from not merely a vast swathe of geography; the breadth of input from both sexes suggests a nation well ahead of the West in enabling and educating a female engineering revolution.

A flawed belief has been seeded in the West that Russia risks becoming a stagnant backwater. It suits a blithe narrative of European superiority where the EU seeks to draw an agitprop veil over the economic disaster that is its overstretched imperial delusion of centralized multinational regulation. Brussels ought to bury its egotistical pride and endorse trade across the vast range of innovations showcasing in Technopolis last week.

The art of investment often involves contradicting a flawed prevailing wisdom. As the crowd rushes one way, opportunity runs opposite to the prevailing orthodoxy. In Moscow last week, I witnessed more opportunity than I could have dreamed of in my most optimistic vision.

Flying home with Aeroflot merely reinforced the new Russian nexus of service culture and engineering excellence.

Times are changing for the better. more

Kremlin Economy Boss: Please Don't Cancel Sanctions - They're Helping Russia

Igor Shuvalov, the top Kremlin official responsible for the economy: Sanctions force companies to modernize, be more efficient, less complacent. We've been saying this for months: sanctions are helping Russia. Western media is getting this badly wrong.

Nikolai Petro (Interview) | RI Oct 30

This is an account of comments made by Igor Shuvalov, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the economy, last week in Sochi.

Western leaders might care to reflect on them and on what Shuvalov reports Putin telling Biden (see the two paragraphs at the end).

This is an extract from an interview to Russia Direct, by the American political scientist, Nikolai Petro.

"Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov put forward the view that, if they last long enough, Western sanctions will be an impetus for modernization.

The very worst thing that the West could do now is to lift sanctions quickly. This would have the short-term effect of telling government officials and the heads of state enterprises that they need do nothing to change.

Russia would be caught in a more stringent liquidity crunch, as it waited for the end of sanctions to take effect, but still could not obtain credit cheaply or quickly. Shuvalov therefore concluded that, “the sooner sanctions are lifted, the worse for Russian modernization.”

He went on to list several reasons why conditions are now optimal for Russian modernization: Falling gas prices are forcing Russian producers to be more productive; sanctions are forcing Russian companies to search for new sources of international funding at a time when the emerging economies have more cash liquidity than their Western counterparts; low debt and high cash reserves means that Russian investment programs can continue without foreign borrowing – at most, he said, if further sanctions are imposed, Russia will delay full implementation of current programs for two years.

This year once again, he reminded us, the Russian government expects to have no budget deficit. Finally, Putin’s astonishingly high popularity means that he has a window of opportunity to push through unpopular economic reforms.

Shuvalov concluded by telling us of a discussion that Putin allegedly had with U.S. vice president Joe Biden several years ago. Apparently, Biden had just told Putin that Russia was simply too weak to compete for global leadership.

Putin replied that, while Russia might not be strong enough to compete for global leadership, Biden might reflect on the fact that Russia will still be strong enough to determine who that leader will be." more

1 comment:

  1. Not sure if your comment system is working, but:

    This article here is a worthy read:

    It's a disturbing tale of what is happening to manufacturing everywhere in the US it seems.