Monday, January 12, 2015

Incompetent Engineers: Marilynne Robinson and the Global Economy

Marilynne Robinson is a historically-minded writer of fiction and essays.  In one essay entitled "Family" she decries the damage wrought by the fact that the "marketplace gods," as she calls them, are now in ultimate charge of the global economy.  The result, she says, is a return of Social Darwinism—the nineteenth-century idea that prosperity and success are rewards for the intelligent, the industrious, and the able, and poverty and failure are equally just rewards for the stupid, the lazy, and the incompetent.  The Social Darwinism of the 1800s led straight to eugenics, which acquired a bad reputation after the Nazi regime embraced it during World War II.  But in the ruthless international competition that currently prevails, she sees a return to the bad old days when a small, fantastically wealthy elite ruled over millions of industrial workers enslaved in unremitting toil.

So far, so conventional.  But toward the end of the essay, she takes an unexpected turn:
"Maybe the great drag on us all is not the welfare mother but the incompetent engineer . . . . When our great auto industry nearly collapsed, an elite of designers and marketing experts were surely to blame.  But the thousands thrown out of work by their errors were seen as the real problem." 

Robinson is good at questioning unspoken assumptions that most of us are so used to, we don't even realize they are there.  The assumption she challenges in this essay is that global competition is inevitable, and every industrialized nation must organize its institutions, including its educational system, governmental policies, and even its cultures and family structures, to succeed in the constant worldwide race to produce the most goods and services at the lowest prices.  And rather than simply deploring the way things are, she suggests that the problem may lie in a place we haven't looked—within the very elites we usually assume are the answer to the problem.

Robinson is right that the U. S. auto industry went through a steep decline in the 1980s.  The main reason for that decline was surging competition by Japanese automakers, who adapted many techniques developed in the U. S. for lean manufacturing and outran their former teachers.  To the extent that U. S. automotive engineers and managers got lazy and let things slide, she is absolutely right.  It took another decade for U. S. automakers to learn the hard lessons that Japanese competition taught them, but by 2000 the global shares of auto sales by U. S. and Japanese makers were about even.  Now that many Japanese firms have U. S. factories, the problem is not so clean-cut, but that specific incident has been taken care of. 

Both Japan and the U. S. now have China to worry about instead.  The effect of the globalized economy on the U. S. is an erosion of time available for family and family life.  Instead of one person in a family earning a living wage that suffices for a spouse and children, Robinson cites the many workers today who "patch together a living out of two or three part-time jobs, or work overtime as an employer's hedge against new hiring." 

What if Robinson's "incompetent engineers" had been competent, and had beaten the Japanese at their own game sooner?  Because the largest single expense in manufacturing tends to be labor, if the U. S. makers had quickly adopted the productivity-raising automation technologies that were such a large factor in making Japan more competitive, probably the U. S. workers who eventually lost manufacturing jobs later would have simply lost them sooner.  Clearly, what Robinson is calling for is not just competence in a narrow technical sense, but a larger vision of what purposes engineers serve, and what forms of life are encouraged or discouraged by engineering activities.

What would have to change for society to become less dominated by the ruthlessness of international competition and more hospitable to things Robinson says she misses:  "humor, pleasure, and charm; courage, dignity, and graciousness; loyalty, respect, and good faith"? 

Engineers tend to think in terms of systems, and when asked a question about a large system, the engineering answer tends to be framed in the same terms of system-wide changes.  Some would look toward legal and regulatory solutions:  protective tariffs, restrictions on immigration, widespread unionization, and other changes historically associated with left-wing politics.  But people are not machines, and the kind of scientific approach that models cows as spheres for the purpose of analysis, and models entire populations as a bunch of numbers in a database somewhere, is the kind of thinking that has gotten us into this situation in the first place.

Besides the direct influence of elites through the powers they hold, elites also teach by example.  Civic, industry, and government leaders of earlier eras attempted to maintain public appearances that were consistent with good character and citizenship—things like charm, courage, dignity, graciousness, loyalty, and good faith.  They sometimes failed to show these traits of character in private, or occasionally in public, but the journalists of the day recognized the need to preserve the illusion of rectitude in many cases and refrained from plastering every famous citizen's misdeeds all over the countryside.  Scandals were reported, but they were rare enough to be scandalous.  By contrast, scandalous behavior in everything from sexual morality to profiteering appears to be the norm for many public figures today, at least judging by media coverage.

I don't know clearly how to express what I'm asking for.  Perhaps the essence of it is a reform of character starting with the individual, and a recognition that all the regulatory changes in the world will not reform an individual who has no example of good character and rectitude to look up to and to consider imitating.  If we want an economy in which family breadwinners are paid a living wage for a work schedule that leaves enough time to families to be families, and not just strangers sharing the same living quarters, we all have to value that way of life—have to value it more than just that additional dollar we use to buy that additional consumer item.  All of us, high and low, rich and poor, engineers and janitors, will have to undergo a radical change.  And then we will have to re-learn the democratic process of moving our society toward the vision laid out by people who see it better than most of us do—people like Marilynne Robinson. 

Sources:  Marilynne Robinson's book of essays and speeches The Death of Adam was published in 2005 by Picador.  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on the automotive industry.

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