Towards A Good Samaritan World

Thursday, November 30, 2006

AGAINST POPULISM

My article at Tech Central Station, "The New Populism and the iPod Economy," takes on Senator-elect James Webb's populist manifesto in the Wall Street Journal. Among other things, I show that an evolution-skeptic can still find merit in the work of Daniel Dennett:

Think of all work as occurring on two metaphysical planes: physical space and Design space. (The term "Design Space" is the philosopher Daniel Dennett's.) To plant a garden, you must dig holes and pull weeds—physical work—but also plan how to align the furrows and decide what crops to plant—Design work. To cook a meal, you have to dice onions and cut potatoes—physical work—but also decide the ratios of the ingredients, and judge how long to leave the pot on the stove—Design work. Physical work is the work of the hands. Design work is the work of the mind.

As civilization advances, muscle power tends to be replaced by machine power. At the same time, mankind acquires increasing power to reproduce Design. This tends to make the best Design work more and more valuable, while rendering the second-best Design work worthless. People need to adapt to both of these changes.

Sometimes economic change turns people from Design workers into mere physical workers. For example, in the Industrial Revolution, many rural peasants became factory workers. Rural agriculture and husbandry require forethought and skill, which was passed down from generation to generation. Factory work was more mechanical and required less thought. As their own Design work was lost, new kinds of Design work were pioneered by industrial inventors, entrepreneurs, managers, and distributors, which workers—"workers"—didn't understand.

There was (then as now) a trickle-down effect: industrial progress raised workers' living standards even as it made the fortunes of the tycoons. But "workers" felt a double insult: their own work had been dumbed down, while the mysterious prosperity of the bourgeoisie gave them a feeling a relative poverty. This seemed "unfair." They were working, they were playing by the rules they knew. They deserved, they thought, an equal share of the rewards.

The American middle class today enjoys far higher living standards than the factory workers of the early Industrial Revolution. They also understand that merely working is not enough to earn an average living. One must get educated, go to college, acquire professional skills. But now the Information Revolution is changing the nature of work again. As economists Lawrence Katz, David Autor, and Melissa Kearney wrote last January:

"[The] 'polarization' of the U.S. labor market, with employment polarizing into high-wage and low-wage jobs at the expense of middle-wage work [can be explained by] a model of computerization in which computers most strongly complement the non-routine (abstract) cognitive tasks of high-wage jobs, directly substitute for the routine tasks found in many traditional middle-wage jobs, and may have little direct impact on non-routine manual tasks in relatively low-wage jobs." (my emphasis)

If "the non-routine (abstract) cognitive tasks of high-wage jobs" sounds cryptic, it is. "Abstract" work occurs at the frontiers of knowledge, of Design Space, and it is inherently difficult to understand. This is part of the reason that it is so well-paid; few people are able to do it. Though college educations are as useful as ever, a college degree is not enough. The secrets of cutting-edge value-creation in the Information Age have not yet been standardized into skills that can be taught in any school.


And here's my blow against populism:

Webb warns us of "a steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century." But is it a bad thing for our times to resemble the 19th century? The century between Waterloo and World War I (1815-1914) was a golden age of peace and progress. It was the age of the railroad and the steamship and the telegraph and the photograph. It witnessed the advent of universal manhood suffrage and major advances in the rights of women. Modern Italy and Germany were born. The 19th century was an era of steady advance in every field of human endeavor, from food production to finance to physics to free trade, from music to medicine to metallurgy, from literature to longevity, from biology to biography, from social science to sewer systems.

The story of how all that ended is sad and strange. It ended, of course, with "the guns of August" in 1914, but the seeds of its end were planted long before: a rising tide of protectionism which exacerbated national rivalries; the rise of nationalism and socialism; a vague discontentment among the intelligentsia, which longed to overthrow the old order in favor of they-didn't-really-know-what; frustrated envy and impotent confusion on the part of the still-relatively-poor as they witnessed the prosperity of the unprecedentedly-rich. The wave of progress had a populist undertow.


Also, the comments are worth reading this time. The immigration articles seem to turn the discussion forums into a chorus of nativist loudmouths, I don't even read them.

5 Comments:

  • Assuming you're the same person as Nathan Smith, I want to compliment you on your astute observation over at the Crunchy Con blog about papal supremacy vs conciliarism. It's interesting that Jesus told His disciples to call no man "father" on Earth--clearly in a spiritual context--because we have one Father, who is in Heaven (Mt. 23). Meanwhile, the Bishop of Rome claims supremacy over all, claims the title Pope (Father), and even refers to himself as the "Holy Father." I have great respect for many Catholics through the centuries--from Bonaventure and Pascal to Mauriac and Merton--but I object to the spiritual arrogance inherent in the RCC hierarchy, from top to bottom.

    I disagree with some of your views, including your dislike of populism and your support for the Iraq War, but I think we share some common spiritual commitments. I hope you are feeling a little better about your personal life. Over the years, I've had some serious depressions as a result of terrible events. Keep leaning on the Lord. He will bring you through. Try to rest in His love even if you've lost the love of someone so dear, and even if you find it hard to love yourself. Christ will always love you and will never forsake you.

    By Blogger JT, at 7:12 PM  

  • One might say Lancelot Finn and Nathan Smith are familiar with one-another.

    Anyway, I sometimes worry that in our increasingly design-based economy, the problem is not so much that too few get the requisite education, but that too many will eventually find themselves constitutionally incapable of learning to perform work worth their economic independence. Some, of course, are just born with unfortunate genes so that they have few options from the start, but more often children don't have the sorts of developmental experiences that render them cognitively and socially capable when they're adults. It's easy not to feel sorry for adults - they chose their path, after all - but if a whole category of human labor is inexorably fading into (relative) irrelevance, then a vastly larger portion the population will be left with no real expectations of economic self-sufficiency. What's left for them, except ignominious dependency or crime?

    Crime in the modern world is far rarer than it ever has been in the past, and I think it's directly attributable to how much worse crime pays now relative to the past. Legitimate economic and social mobility is greater than ever, forensic science is more advanced than ever, and rule of law is well established everywhere in the developed world. Of course there are plenty of other factors that feed into criminal activity, but economic rationality seems to have the most consistent influence.

    But given a future in which a considerable and growing portion of the population finds economic mobility foreclosed, then those who can still make a buck may find themselves essentially paying whole swaths the population not to make trouble and imprisoning the rest.

    Universal education, paid for (not administered) by the government is of course the best form of protection-paying, since it's going to reduce to the greatest extent the "unprofitable" proportion of ourselves by mitigating generations propogation of poor personal prospects. It won't suffice forever, though, as preeminent design predominates ever more. Creative production will decline more gracefully, I think, since as total wealth increases, those who control it tend to buy more varied creative works at higher prices, but ultimately only so many people are going to be interesting enough to enough people to not fall out of the black.

    This is something we need to think about today while it's still a fairly distant problem. Later, I fear, cognitive dissonance will drive many (more) to dehumanize those on the other side of the divide, either to make human warehousing seem palatable or anarchic violence seem righteous.

    By Blogger Nato, at 9:44 AM  

  • JT, thanks for the kind words and welcome to the site. Rod Dreher and I got acquainted a bit just after I published my first article at Tech Central Station, "Did Benedict XVI Take a Page Out of MacIntyre's Book?, which Dreher liked. He wrote me and asked to publish it, in somewhat modified form, in the Dallas Morning News, where it appeared as "A light in these dark ages." Dreher and I have a point in common, I think, in that we're philosophically theoconservative. But on policy we're about as different as can be within the broad "conservative" coalition. Not only am I an Iraq War hawk (though I'm more conflicted about this of late), but as far as I know I'm the most radical pro-immigration firebrand who's been published in a national publication. Dreher's views on politics seem to be close to those of the Prince of Darkness among American pundits, Pat Buchanan, though I think Dreher's moral worldview, and his interests, are different and far more wholesome.

    Nato's point is a fascinating one but I think unduly pessimistic. I don't see any reason to think that anybody will be left without "prospects of economic self-sufficiency." Don't forget: the iPod economy's ever-increasing productivity makes self-sufficiency easier and easier to achieve. There's hardly any unemployment in America today; starvation is unheard-of. Severe want is a result of bad personal choices, or in some cases a result of malign policies, such as growth restrictions that drive up real estate prices in major metropolitan areas; but the solution to this problem is theoretically easy, even if politically difficult because of rent-seeking on the part of homeowners and landlords.

    It may be difficult for the masses to keep up with the design-worker class, but there's no reason it should be hard for them merely to get by, as long as we don't sabotage economic growth. Or even to enjoy rising living standards. Another problem is that the US "working class" is actually a rentier class, enjoy higher wages than it deserves relative to similarly-skilled classes elsewhere: unwinding this anomaly without causing low-skilled US workers' living standards to fall will be tricky, but it's certainly doable.

    I believe that Design-type tasks can, with time, be standardized and inculcated in a new, broader middle class, to everyone's benefit. If not, they may remain the preserve of a comparative elite, which would lead to more inequality. At worst, this could be ameliorated slightly by programs along the lines of the EITC: the least-skilled people would have to work for a living, and would get the moral benefits that come from working, but transfers would keep their standard of living afloat. This will be quite affordable if the recent gains in productivity continue.

    The real danger is envy: that instead of noticing that their needs are being satisfied better than in the past, and being grateful for economic progress, people will keep comparing themselves to those who are still better off. That's when policies that kill the goose that lays the golden eggs start to gain political momentum. Populists legitimize envy.

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 12:07 PM  

  • A lot of interesting points. Too much speculation for my tastes, but I've been guilty of just as much. Maybe it's because I'm one of the elite, but I don't feel like being a "deisgn-worker" or whatever is that difficult, at least no more so than many many other things that we do on a daily basis. I would say that learning to speak and understand a language is the most difficult thing a person can do, period. And yet, basically every Human today knows and understands at least one language, and frequently they understand more than one. Now, perhaps you can say people understand languages to varying degrees, but if it was possible for them to learn part of a language, it's possible for them to learn another part, and another, and so on. I firmly believe that anyone can be a great student of their native tongue, but for the most part, necessity does not drive people to master their language in its many facets. If evolutionary pressures in the economic sector produced the requisite necessity (is that redundant? haha), people would adapt and become better students of language. Once you've mastered language, design-work becomes much easier. Language is the instrument of design, and like design, it does more work the more complex it gets. It's like the whole cranes-building-cranes analogy that Dennett is so fond of, and it all starts with language. In 100 years, the internet will be quite sufficient to provide the tools necessary for mastering language (along with everything else, for that matter). Everything will turn out just peachy... that is until the second coming of Christ and the apocalypse occur.

    By Blogger Thomas Reasoner, at 12:51 PM  

  • Insofar as design can be standardized, it can also frequently be computerized. I don't mean to imply that we are today already suffering greatly from an overabundance of folks who aren't capable of doing good design work - as Finn points out, our economic prosperity has kept joblessness at near historic lows. The problem is as the segment grows in the future, it will inevitably emerge out of the noise level. Of course, transfer payments can soften the blow or make up the difference between the marginal value of one's work and the economic comfort level, but of course these are dangerous and unstable for a variety of reasons. Are those reasons insurmountable? Perhaps not: Scandanavia apparently does very well under such a scheme. That said, the economy of the future may strain even that well-woven social fabric.

    As Tom rightly points out, it's a lot of speculation.

    By Blogger Nato, at 1:07 PM  

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