Monday, August 29, 2011

Tony's customers

A gathering of folks who love and know how to maintain old farm machinery is a damn good place to think about the people who understand the nature and use of tools.

Veblen postulated that the more useless some activity is, the more status it confers.  So a steam and antique tractor show is doomed to have reduced status because it is a gathering of the most utilitarian devices ever cooked up by the mind of humans.  It is saved somewhat because this machinery no longer has to do paying work and collecting is an approved leisure-class activity.  But not much.  The number of persons you could even tell about this niche hobby is tiny and the number of folks who would be impressed by your perfectly-restored steam tractor is probably fewer.  So even though this hobby requires amazing persistence and incredible skill levels to participate, there will likely never be a celebrity tractor restoration specialist.  This is a labor of love—a perfect example of Veblen's "Instinct of Workmanship" on glorious display.

A 1920s-vintage steam engine powers a threshing machine
The people who see beauty in a steam tractor must have a genuine feel for the form-follows-functon aesthetic but that does not stop them from dressing up the wheels with some very non-utilitarian pinstripes.

Steam power was grossly inefficient.  This contraption converts
lots of energy into only 25 horsepower--but it can pull a 6-bottom plow
The reason speculations about the perceived status of tools and the people who use them are important is because people who can use tools gracefully are uniquely positioned to create alternative futures.  Society pays a heavy price for lowering the status of the tool users.  Why?

We expect everyone to learn at least a little science in schools but we will give important jobs to technological illiterates. This is a bad idea for many reasons because here is what the technologically literate bring to the table.
  • They embrace and organize for complexity. 
  • They love big projects. 
  • They have a clear understanding of how many steps are involved between an idea and a working outcome. 
  • They know what it takes to finish a project. 
  • They are much less likely to low-ball the costs of a project. 
And because the tool users suffer from lowered status, their important jobs have been shipped overseas because Leisure Class fools have no way of valuing the tool-users' vital contribution to civilization itself.

The following is from an excellent article in of all places, Forbes, called Why Amazon Can't Make A Kindle In the USA.  Nice that you guys finally get it after 35 years of outright assault on the Producer Class.
A chain reaction of decline 
Pisano and Shih continue: 
“So the decline of manufacturing in a region sets off a chain reaction. Once manufacturing is outsourced, process-engineering expertise can’t be maintained, since it depends on daily interactions with manufacturing. Without process-engineering capabilities, companies find it increasingly difficult to conduct advanced research on next-generation process technologies. Without the ability to develop such new processes, they find they can no longer develop new products. In the long term, then, an economy that lacks an infrastructure for advanced process engineering and manufacturing will lose its ability to innovate.” 
The lithium battery for GM’s [GM] Chevy Volt is being manufactured in South Korea. Making it in the U.S. wasn’t feasible: rechargeable battery manufacturing left the US long ago. 
Some efforts are being made to resurrect rechargeable battery manufacture in the U.S., such as the GE-backed [GE] A123Systems, but it’s difficult to go it alone when much of the expertise is now in Asia. 
In the same way that cost accounting and short-term corporate profits don’t reflect the true health of corporations, the economists’ reckoning of the impact of outsourcing production overseas misses the point. Americans are left with shipping the goods, selling the goods, marketing the goods. But the country is no longer to compete in the key task of actually making the goods. 
Pisano and Shih have a frighteningly long list of industries of industries that are “already lost” to the USA: 
“Fabless chips”; compact fluorescent lighting; LCDs for monitors, TVs and handheld devices like mobile phones; electrophoretic displays; lithium ion, lithium polymer and NiMH batteries; advanced rechargeable batteries for hybrid vehicles; crystalline and polycrystalline silicon solar cells, inverters and power semiconductors for solar panels; desktop, notebook and netbook PCs; low-end servers; hard-disk drives; consumer networking gear such as routers, access points, and home set-top boxes; advanced composite used in sporting goods and other consumer gear; advanced ceramics and integrated circuit packaging. 
Their list of industries “at risk” is even longer and more worrisome. more

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