Opportunity cost

In my not so humble opinion, it is the single most important economic idea.

Nothing in life is free. Everything has a cost. You can’t get something for nothing. If you want something, you’re going to have to give something else up. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

(Actually, one might argue for close to three hundred years of free (or at least really close to free) lunches, but that’s another lesson for another day.)

It’s just about the first term talked about in any economics textbook. And, frankly, I can’t imagine an economics course taught anywhere where it hasn’t come up, multiple times. Personally, I have trouble going an entire class meeting without using and/or mentioning it.

Opportunity cost.

The true cost of any action is the value of the next best opportunity foregone as a result of taking that action.

So why is it that economics teachers have been singularly inept at getting the concept across? Why is it that, despite the phrase have been used in introeconomics economics classes over the last several generations, at least as often as “supply and demand,” and more often than “inflation” or “recession”, and far more often than “stock market” or “public policy” or “profit,” that so few people understand it?

I mean, after all, millions of people have done the Economics 1 class in the century or three since the concept was first understood and the phrase coined. But communicating the concept in a way that understanding trickled down to wide-spread understanding and use in public economic discourse? It has to count as one of economic teaching professions most spectacular failures.

I bring all this up because in my interaction with colleagues and leaders in “higher education” over recent weeks I have been regularly reminded, again, of just how few in the educated and chattering classes get the idea.

Like most institutions below the highest tier, i.e. those of us whose endowments are a couple hundred million or less (and often a lot less), ours had seen its share of solemn faces over the last few years. First we moaned about the recession (forgetting that, just as in most recessions of the past, education spending moves counter-cyclically as people strive to escape unemployment risks by acquiring new varieties of human capital). And now we’re concerned about something called a “permanent recessionary economy” (whatever the eff *that* is; it can’t be a term coined by any serious economist, surely, not even a Bernanke wannabe). All of

So, in honor of our school’s sesquicentennial, we’ve got a new task force studying the college’s direction for the future. (Our current President loves looking at things through lenses of “strategic planning.” His first major act upon being hired about a decade ago was to form multiple — as in like 12 or 17 — “task forces,” each populated by representatives from a whole bunch of “constituencies,” to come up with an integrated strategic plan.}

But my criticism here is not of the President, or even of the idea and processes of strategic planning. Though I have disagreed with both at times in the past (and probably will again), the President has the track record to support his leadership judgment. Strategic planning has a long pedigree in management circles. And, lets face it, the academic world has demonstrated a long-standing commitment to the values of governance by committee and consensus-building. It’s the way we do things. And it’s going to continue to be the way we do things for the foreseeable future.

No, my concern is the quality of the discussion within those consensus-building committees and task forces — and in conversations between those committees and the rest of us. My concern is that part of the consensus shared across all those task forces and constituencies — the consensus that will ultimately shape the findings and the decision-making — is fundamentally flawed.

In recent on-campus presentations, the President pointed out — and correctly so — that “we’re going to have to change what we do and expect.” It may be a bit of clichéd management speak, but it’s still correct in its basic sentiment. Schools like ours are going to have to make some tough choices about what they can do (and what they can’t do) over the next couple decades.

So today our department chair shared with us a “planning and positioning” document (I presume it comes from the task force). This lists ten “defining characteristics that must be sustained.

And lest you think that this is just a step in the prioritization of mission objectives, a list of items to be weighed against each other as we narrow them down to three or five manageable strategic objectives, the same document also lists 10 “transformational opportunities to be strengthened, 12 “goals for student learning,” and 33 “strategic actions to enhance operational stewardship. So someone somewhere has to find a way to take these 65 valued bits of the college and decide which ones really matter and which ones will be merely boilerplate for college catalogs, recruiting/marketing materials, and the like.

Good luck. No, I’m not going to criticize the President here. I wouldn’t want his job for anything, thank you very much.

Will we “interested parties” help? Not likely. No more than it’s likely that the NFL and the organization formerly known as its players union will wake up tomorrow morning and immediately replace their chest thumping about the significance of this or that without recognizing that some valuable this or that has to be given up.

Next week’s department meeting — and, I presume all the other department and program and leadership and committee meetings that happen like clockwork around here — will devote some serious time to discussion of the task force and its objectives. Blah, blah, blah, and more blah blah blah. Everyone will get a chance to speak.

And everyone who speaks will talk about how essential and beneficial pursuit of their particular favorite goals are, about how much we’ll have to give up if we don’t pursue that particular essential and beneficial thing.

Virtually no one will engage the President’s real point. The opportunity cost point. The point that we’re going to have to give up things that are valuable. Things that are really valuable.

We’re going to have to choose. Yet no one’s going to confront the question of how we decide which “good thing” is worth more and which “good thing” is worth less.

Not even, I expect, me.

Because, if you’re wondering what I’m going to say in such discussions, the answer is, probably not very much.

Oh, I expect I’ll be unable to wholly resist the desire to speak my own piece. After all, I have my own personal list of “essential and important bits” (can you say, “economics for citizenship,” “quantitative literacy,” and “higher order listening skills”?). And I’m no less blinded by the truth of my beliefs than my colleagues are of theirs.

But my speaking is more a reflection of my inability to keep my mouth shut, than it is out of any hope that I’ll convince anyone. Frankly, I’m nearly 100% convinced at this point that the consensus here about anything Wade says about the needs of higher education is near absolute. And near absolute on the position that Wade is a flake whose ideas are far too unrealistic to pay any serious attention to.

No, I don’t expect to convince anyone here (save the three people who still listen to me) of anything that matters.

But that’s not the sad thing. The sad thing is that everyone thinks this “critical” collective approach to the “issues” of ours, this having each of us share the advantages of our favorite bits of the mission, is somehow going to deal successfully with the opportunity cost problem.

No, having a long list of objectives now isn’t the problem. The problem is that without careful and honest and correct attention to the tradeoffs of opportunity cost, we’re going to end up with a vague set of objectives, many incompatible in their pursuit. And as the President and leadership make one after another of those tough choices — since you don’t eliminate the need to make tradeoffs just by keeping everything on the published list of essentials, and so someone has to make the choice — you merely postpone the inevitable and perhaps change who decides which tradeoffs are made.

And when the tradeoffs are made, expect them to be accompanied by more-than-necessary bad feelings.

The college can afford an occasional frustrated Wade — he’s a flake, after all. But you aren’t going to deal with the needed change by just ignoring a couple flakes, any more than you’ll solve serious revenue shortfalls by reducing photocopy budgets. You’re going to have to get rid of some valuable people and some valuable programs and some objectives really worth pursuing.

Because opportunity cost is not a flaky idea.

Just ask Greece.

Or Portugal.

For that matter, look at the consequences here in America we’re just starting to see with regard to the profligate spending in pursuit of “good ideas” by America’s own state and federal governments. The consequences of decades worth of trying to cheat the tradeoffs of opportunity cost.

You want to know why the quality of discourse in the Wisconsin mess is so low? It’s low because virtually no one seems to want to admit the constraints of opportunity cost.

Because opportunity cost is not an idea we can dismiss as easily as we can sneer at the flakier of those who might be pointing it out.

No, opportunity cost is something else. Something that applies whether we get it or not.

It is, to steal a phrase from Agent Smith, “the sound of inevitability.”

Me, I blame economics teachers.

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Just found out I’ll be chairing the annual teaching roundtable at next month’s Economic and Business Society conference in Columbus, Ohio.

It’s not a surprise. I was one of the leaders in adding a teaching session to the conference back in Providence in 2007. And even though other problems kept me from proposing a session myself this year (the same ones that have kept me away from Iterations for some time), as an EBHS trustee, I’ve been a long-time advocate of putting teaching-related content on the program. Last year, in Braga, Portugal, I and others managed to finangle two sessions. I imagine we could have had a second session this year as well (the conference chair, Jason Taylor from Central Michigan, is also a fan of teaching sessions). But I just haven’t had time to assemble conference panels and such.

Or even to prepare a paper of my own. The reality is that it is extremely difficult to find time to do research/write in any significant way during terms. And last summer, I was occupied primarily with getting my mother moved into assisted living and rewriting an economic history that had gone quite badly the previous iteration. Add in recurring bouts of depression and learning in December that I have Type II diabetes, and I just haven’t had time to make proposals or write papers.

But I am looking forward to the trip, for personal reasons and professional ones alike.

First, I just love this conference and its people. I haven’t missed one since first going in 2002. It’s the only academic conference I go to every year anymore. Many years it is the only one I go to.

This is partly because of my evolving interests mean I’m more likely to attend non-academic conferences than academic ones with my limited travel dollars. But it’s also because EBHS offers something I haven’t found in any other organization — a dedication to multi-disciplinary collegiality and scholarship. As far as I know, EBHS is the only organization out there that regularly focuses on bringing lots of economic historians together with lots of business historians.

Oh, you’ll see the occasional economic historian presenting before a business history group, or an occasional business historian doing the same before economic historians, but the dominant world view is always one or the other. Which isn’t bad — it’s just that EBHS then provides a very valuable niche.

And we need that kind of scholarship. We need more people who regularly engage in the extended exchange of ideas and careful listening to people with different ways of doing things. It’s too easy to convince ourselves of the importance of marginal scholarship when we only interact with people who share our discipline’s methods.

And, what is even more important, it seems to me, we need it for our teaching. Teachers whose only contact with “research” comes with those who do the same kind of research are going to be much less likely to interact effectively with students who have learned to value other kinds of methodologies.
We rarely get the top scholars of our fields, much less “big names.” (Unless they’re serving as keynote speakers. Last year we managed Michael Bordo, Li Bozhong, and Patrick O’Brien (oh yes, and the Portuguese Minister of State, Fernando Teixeira dos Santos. This year I’m looking forward to seeing Dick Steckel.) But we get people I consider more important: the people on the ground who teach economics, business, and history at 2nd, 3rd, and 4th tier schools.

People less concerned with living in the penthouses of technical research, but people committed to keeping the foundations of the building filled in with sturdy examples and rooms furnished in ways that visitors (i.e. students) find welcoming and worth buying.

As people know, I have lots of problems with the way higher education is done today, particularly at lower-tier schools like my own. Serious problems. Fundamental disagreements with the way things usually get done. Deep fears about the future of what we do and its usefulness.

But places like EBHS give me confidence to go on.

Not because the people of EHBS are somehow more convinced about my arguments. They aren’t. I expect many of them see my idealism and out-of-the-box ideas as flaky (or as dangerous) just like my Luther colleagues do.

In fact I know they do. Because unlike my Luther colleagues, they have listened and conversed with me both deeply and often over the years.

No, I don’t go to EBHS every year because it’s made up of people who share my philosophical or pedagogical or political bent. It isn’t, and they don’t.

No, I have gone to EBHS every year because it’s made up of people who I know will listen. Who, though they rarely go far outside a particular scholarship or teaching box themselves, they recognize the fundamental importance of deeply listening to those who do.

So if you’re interested, and able to find a way to spend a few days the Hyatt on Capitol Square in Columbus, come over and join us April 14-16. You won’t regret it.

And you don’t have to be on staff somewhere as an economic or business historian. We’ve had accountants, political scientists, and philosophers. I’ve chaired panels with bankers and with bureaucrats. Heck, a couple years ago, I had a panelist from a federal government agency who wrote an outstanding paper on the history of x-ray medicine.

And how often are you going to find me willing to put “federal government” and “outstanding” in the same sentence.

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What’s wrong with education today?

Is it our content?  Is it our method?

Frankly, its both.  But even though both our content and our method need work, the real problem lies far deeper.   All of the usual suspects regarding content and method of our teaching could be eliminated, and we’d still have a set of institutions that deserve to be on life support.

Because our content is flawed because our method is flawed.  And our method is flawed because our epistemology of “learning” is flawed.

In brief, our governing philosophy of education is outdated.  Our entire education system is optimized for preparing people for an industrial world.  We no longer live in an industrial world.

For example, the industrial world demanded mass production and mass consumption, led by a core elite of broadly educated professional class.   (As opposed to the artisanal/agricultural world which preceded it, which required primarily agricultural production and local craftsman for small markets.)

But the world of the 21st century is no more an industrial world than the 20th century was an agricultural world.  Just as the fraction of agriculture during the industrial period fell from 80 percent of the economy at the beginning to less than percent at its end, manufacturing today is at most 10% of the modern economy.

The binding limitations on economic and social improvement in the agricultural world were land.  The binding limitation on improvement in the industrial world were labor and capital.  The binding constraints in today’s world are human ingenuity and its primary product, innovation.

Mass production and mass consumption is about conformity and submission to rules about time and the control of effort.  And, unsurprisingly in such a world, a big part of the story becomes control and power over the means of production (yes, Marx had that part right).  And since the key means of production were labor and capital, it’s not at all surprising that battles between “corporations” and “unions” became a critical component in the path of change over the industrial period.

But where mass production and mass consumption are a declining fraction of economic activity  (how many people know that 99 percent of business in America today is done by enterprises with 20 or fewer employes?), it’s no longer a battle over power by labor and capital.  Its about providing and enabling maximum opportunity for innovation.

But that’s not what most of education does.  In fact we are going the opposite direction, focusing on development of “standard” curricula, “standard” credentials, “standard” practices, and “standard” standards.  Progress in a world limited by labor and capital depends on exploiting economies of scale.  Progress in a world limited by human ingenuity depends on increasing the ways things do not depend on “standards” and “conformity” and “scale.”

Until “educators” figure out better ways of inspiring and enabling the practices of human ingenuity, we will find what we do as of increasingly marginal importance — and deservedly so.

Just like the industrial world that spawned us.

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God doesn’t want me rich.

At least not yet.

Ever done the “what would I do if I won the lottery?” game?  Ask yourself what you would do if you won one of those big $100 million-plus jackpots of the Powerball(tm) or MegaMillions(tm) lotteries?

It’s actually a valuable exercise.  One of the biggest excuses we make for not following our call, one of the biggest reasons we ignore signs of a call, is financial.  We “can’t afford to do that,” whatever “that” might be, because our income is too low, because it would require too much sacrifice of other valued activities or goods, or a hundred other reasons.  All of which reduce to “I don’t have the money.”

Win a hundred million dollars or so, and most of those excuses tend to evaporate.

Oh, there are many things that even a $100 million won’t buy.  A stealth bomber, for example.  Creation of Free Luna.  Immortality.

But $100 million is about as enabling an amount of money for the “everyday necessities plus a lot left over for doing what I’ve always wanted to do” as there is.  $100 million invested at 3 percent yields $3 million a year without ever touching the $100 million nest egg of principal.  $3 million/year for the rest of your life and any heirs you might designate for afterwards.

If your dream was to motor around in a Ferrari, you could buy two new ones every year, and still have a million each year for “sundries.”  If your dream is a big house for the family, you could build a giant new house every year, and still have enough left for a month first-class in the South Pacific each year.

There’s not many jobs you couldn’t quit.

There’s an awful lot of businesses you could start for $100 million. A lot of social causes you could pursue to your heart’s desire.

Sounds like a fun game, doesn’t it?

But there’s a catch.  What if your dreams are just fantasies, built upon your exposure to the values of others, rather than the true calling of your “life’s work”?

Then, I submit, the Ferraris and the houses and the businesses and the causes are going to leave something missing.  After a bit of elation,  you’re going to find yourself back in the ranks of the “unsatisfied.”  Perhaps even back in the ranks of the “unhappy.”

Finding a way to spend $100 million isn’t hard.  Finding a way to spend $100 million in service of what you are called to do can be.

If you play the lottery game, and you can’t figure out how to spend all $100 million, there are three possible explanations.

First, you simply may lack sufficient exposure to ways of spending money with lots of extra zeroes after them.  You want to travel, but you never contemplated travelling first class.  You thought about new cars, but not about planes or chauffeured town cars?  You want a new house, but how about 5,000 square feet instead of 2,500.  Or maybe 10,000.  Or perhaps one in your home town and a summer place in, say, Cancun.  Etc. etc.

Second, you have already found your calling in life.  All you want to do is be a teacher, or a nurse, or a fireman, or a novelist, and those simply don’t require the kind of annual cash flow that $100 million could generate.  “I love my home, and my job, and my current vacations. What the heck would I do with $3 million extra every year?”

And third, you don’t know what that calling is.  You might not like your current situation.  (Ask people why they play the lottery, and dig a bit, and you’ll find a lot of people unhappy in their current job or family life or who just feel “it isn’t enough.”)  But you don’t know, not really, what you’d rather be doing.

This third situation doesn’t require you to be depressed or morose.  A lot of people without callings consider themselves happy.  At worst, they would admit to a vague sense of discontent or incompleteness.

But it’s in this third situation where the lottery “what if?” game can be most valuable.   If you think about it, the first two are going to have pretty predictable results in the case of an actual windfall in real life.   The first situation will simply lead to more consumption:  not necessarily a good thing, but a self-adjusting one.    The second situation will mean a person even more content in his or her calling, since he or she will find ways of scaling expenditure:  a lot more money to favorite charities, lobbying Congress, building a bigger business, etc.

But the third?  The third situation finds a person having to think “what do I really want to do with my life?  What *is* that thing or activity that I would *die for*?

What *does* God want me doing?  If I’m a mega-millionaire, I can’t plead the necessities of life as a way of evading my responsibilities. I can only plead Ferraris and first-class luxuries.

I can’t get by with “I can’t afford that.”  I can’t put other things first without admitting that I’m doing so.  I can’t just say, “Manãna.”

I can’t make excuses.

I can say, “I don’t know what you want me to do, Lord.”  But I can’t avoid the responsibility for figuring out what He wants now rather than later.

I can’t make excuses.

And playing the lottery game makes clear that the same is true BEFORE I win the lottery.  It’s not the lack of money that’s preventing me from pursuing God’s calling for me.  Merely my own unwillingness to enter myself on that pursuit.

If, not knowing my call, I play the lottery game, I’m not going to be able to spend most of that money, unless its on gross frivolities.  I could spend 5 of the 100 million on a Gulfstream jet, but what real justification could I, a college professor in rural Iowa 60 miles away from the nearest jet-capable airport, have for “needing” a personal jet.  What real justification could I find for wanting several multi-million dollar homes?

I can’t make excuses.

I can’t wait and avoid the question.  I have to admit that I’m not following His call and I have to refocus myself on ensuring that I do. I have to admit that there’s no time like the present.  I have to admit that anything other than striving to find and follow that call is avoiding my responsibilities.

And even if I were nott a professed Christian, I still couldn’t avoid the question.    I have to admit that I don’t know what *I* deeply want to do.

I may be enjoying myself, but I’m unaware of my core motivations.  I’m unaware of that one thing that burns in me, that one thing that, to me, is more important than anything else I might know.  I’m unaware of what I’m driven to put my wealth, today’s small wealth or tomorrow’s mega-wealth, in service of.

I can’t make excuses.

But of course I am a Christian.  If I don’t know how God wants me to follow His Great Commandment, then I need to refocus my attention and figure it out.

Because I can’t make excuses.

I admit I still would like to win the lottery.

But only to the extent that i already know my call.

Because I can’t make excuses.

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Another bit about “modern society” that people bemoan is our mobility.  Sometimes our excessive moving about is blamed on job and career, but more often than not, its just on the list of self-evident reasons for complaint.  Like the weather.

The more I pay attention to the human past, however, I find this received wisdom puzzling.  Indeed, I would argue that our ability to move is what keeps us from falling back into serfdom.  If the job sucks too much, we can always move.    If there’s a better than good job, we can move for that, too.

Oh, I understand that moving is a pain.  Especially, if you are poor.  But it’s neither against the law nor required by law.  (At least in this country, or in most of Europe.)  Oh, we have passports and immigration rules (sort of), but most of those are restrictions on entry into a place, not restrictions on exit.

And it is the exit possibilities that really make for a non-serf world.

All that said, I’ve always considered myself more an exception to the rule rather than its illustration.  I’ve spent most of my life in two states (Wisconsin and Iowa), and with the exception of one semester in London when in college and a couple other extended research-based visits to England, I’ve never lived farther South than St. Louis or more than 125 miles away from the Mississippi River.

But I decided to count the numbers of homes I’ve lived in over the years.  And the number — 16 — shocked me.

Because this number isn’t particularly padded.  To be sure, I did count multiple places in the same town some.  But I only counted places where I have lived for at least two months.  And even there I didn’t count as separate each return to the town of my birth unless it was to a physical location (once because my mother had moved, the other because I was practicing law and wanted to live in a house rather than a duplex apartment).

But even if you count only the number of different towns or cities, even my number of discrete homes — seven — would have been amazing to  a feudal serf would have considered substantial.

That serf would have likely had at most two different homes in his lifetime — the one he was born in, and the one he lived in after being married. (Many times in fact, the places would have been one and the same.)

From 2 to 7 is an increase in mobility of 350 percent.  From 2 to 16 is an increase of 800 percent.

And I guarantee that I’m far down in the lower tail of the distribution, even among those who have lived most of their lives as I have in “rural America.”

That, I submit, is evidence a fortiori of our escape from serfdom.

And it is a greater protection against tyranny and poverty than industrialization and the Internet combined.  Far more than any revolution, and far, far more than any “political” protection.  More even than modern plumbing.

We can move.

I may be able to choose serfdom.  Sometimes I think a lot of my fellow citizens are willing to do just that.

But you can’t make me choose it.

Nanner, nanner, nanner.

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There are two kinds of bullies.

The kind who control the way you play a particular game.   And the kind who insist you play their game.

Most Americans reject the first kind (save for those who like to be BMOP (big man on playground).

But, if truth be told, the first kind is pretty easy to get away with.  You can just walk away.  Life isn’t grade school.  If I think Joe is a bully, I just decide to hang out where Joe isn’t.

It’s the second kind of bully that can be the problem.  The second kind of bully wants to keep you on his playground, playing his way by his rules.

And, unfortunately, our “system” encourages such bullies to get together and seek power.  They know that it’s a lot easier to keep on bullying if you’ve got a gang of bullies who stand with you.

Economics says that a cartel contains the seeds of its own destruction.  That cartel members have an incentive to cheat, since they can reap extra economic benefits from doing so.  But bullies aren’t driven by economic incentives.  They’re driven by the pursuit of power.

That’s why a Constitution of enumerated powers combined with a t Bill of Rights was such a critical thing. The founders knew their would be bullies out there.   Bullies who would see majoritarianism as a tool.

Unfortunately, “we the people” have emasculated both Constitution and Bill of Rights by converting them into a tool of utilitarianism.  And in so doing, we’ve enabled bullying on a huge scale.  Indeed, we’ve converted the greatest innovation in government ever into an unprecedented affirmation of the bullying ethos.  If we don’t like what other people want to do, the solution has become to pass a law to make what they want to do illegal.

We’ve professionalized and legitimated bullying.  Look at your typical Congressperson, your typical President, your typical bureaucrat.  They’re almost all bullies.

They’re just bullies that look good and promise better.   All at the expense of the evil on the other side of them and us.  We don’t want our bullies to be jackbooted thugs.  We want them to be expertly coiffed with business suit and nicely shined shoes.

Why is political correctness such an evil?  Because  it is nothing more than another excuse for type 2 bullying.  To convert taking offense into taking over the schoolyard.

Do I consider some speech offensive?  Sure.  Absolutely.

And as an adult, I have a pretty easy solution available to me:  I can walk away.

But political correctness doesn’t work that way.  If the PC bullies are offended, they’re solution isn’t walking away and associating elsewhere.  They’re solution is that of serfdom.   They want to build a 10,000-volt fence around the schoolyard, and then, when the offending person can’t escape, pummel him unmercifully until he speaks better.

Look at today’s newspapers.  Look at the stories and editorials where people are calling for government action.  Look carefully at what people are asking for.   Are they asking for enforcement of the Constitution and its protection.   Or are they asking for help in bullying other people?

If you have to, start with those whose causes you don’t share.  (It’s always easier to see bullying on the other side.)  But after you’ve identified the opponents’ bullying tactics, move to those who you agree with.  Look in the mirror.  Look real carefully at what is being proposed with respect to the choices of your opponents.   I hate to say this, but more often than not, you’re seeking to take advantage of the same bullying tactics and threats.

This isn’t meant as America bashing.  Bullying using state power has been the default of political action since long before our republic was founded.   Indeed, what made the American Experiment so special is that it attempted to formulate rules that prevented legitimized bullying and that discouraged just the sort of bullying we now practice.

It’s just that we no longer hear the voices of the Founders well enough.   We’re too busy trying to be bullies.

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People talk of craft these days, if they talk about it at all, to bemoan its absence.  We complain about the lack of craftsmanship in what we buy, and we complain about how the modern world of mass production has replaced a world of artisans and craftsmen.

But, as is the case of so many of our complaints, we rarely look in the mirror.

How many of us, really, have spent our lives in the pursuit of a craft?  Be honest.

Most of us haven’t.  We’ve been too busy focusing on our jobs and being producers and consumers.  We haven’t had time to be interested in the pursuit of a “craft.”

Aside:  I’ve used italics here because I’m not just talking about “traditional” crafts  like cabinetmaking or basket-making or blacksmithing.  I’m not talking out of some nostalgic pastoralism.  I’d much rather live in today’s world than some pre-industrial world, because in today’s world I”m much more likely to be able to enjoy the fruits of other’s craftsmanship.

No, I’m speaking of the attitude of the craftsman toward his craft.

The true craftsman cares about craft for its own sake, not because its a job or production requirement.    The true craftsman goes beyond what others ask for.  He explores deeper.  He develops skills and ways of seeing that ordinary producers or consumers employers or employees never even contemplate a need for.  He does so, not because someone has asked these things of him, but because the craft, and his personal character, demand attention to them.

When I think of craft, I always think of my late father.  I did not appreciate it while he was alive, but as I’ve aged I’ve increasingly realized just how unusual he was. (I was, alas, only 18 when he died, firmly in the grip of the sophomoric adolescence that would still control me for a couple more decades.)

Dad was a master plumber, but he never made a lot of money.  He could have — even in those days, master plumbers could make a pretty penny if they desired.  I had more than my older sister and brother did, but even I wore hand-me down clothes until I was nearly in high school.

My dad moved to a different beat.

I never realized just how good Dad was as a plumber until I owned my own house and started hiring plumbers for repairs and re-modelling projects.  Until I realized that even most people who the state certifies as “masters” weren’t in his league.

I’m not complaining of the work these other plumbers did for me — it has generally been just fine at getting the hot water to my shower and the feces safely to the sewer.

But Dad, his understanding of plumbing took him beyond the mundane  into the realm of art.  He could solder a fitting without just a fine uniform line of solder showing:  no globs, no drips, no errors.  (This was back when all plumbers used copper for hot/cold water service.)  And he’d do so whether he was soldering uphill or cramped like a pretzel in a crawl space.

Nothing was wasted.

Take a look at the pipe in your basement sometime.  If it’s like most houses, new or old, done by professionals or DYI, you’ll find a a number of excess fittings used as the plumber dealt with joists, walls, wiring, or the efforts of previous plumbers.   Try tracing the lines to and from each fixture:  it can be like trying to untangle a bowl of spaghetti.

Look at how many 90-degree ells are used.  Ask yourself whether any of the lines might have been better suited to the use of 45-degree fittings.  Traveling the hypotenuse of a triangle by definition uses less pipe than traveling through the other two sides.  However, as anyone who has struggled to remember and apply the Pythagorean theorem knows, its also harder to measure the distance.

I’m not a plumber.  I can fix a toilet or replace a faucet.  But running pipe — frankly I think something as important to your health as plumbing (and it’s far more important than most of the stuff the health care “debate” focuses on) should be left to the professionals.  When I think of the complexity of what they do, frankly I’m amazed.  I wouldn’t have a clue.

But when I think of Dad’s plumbing, I’m not just amazed.  I’m awed.

I guarantee that if you asked him and just about any other plumber of his time to plumb identical new houses in a subdivision, he’d do it with less materials than the other plumber.  And if you looked carefully at the result, his arrangement of pipes would make more sense to you and the system would perform better.

(Not only can you save some pipe by using 45′s instead of 90′s, it can greatly improve the water flow and mean less clogging, freezing, etc.)

But the real craftsmanship of what he did would come down the line, when the owner of the house wants to remodel or build on or replace the bathtub with a jacuzzi.  When you realize that he didn’t just build “to last”, he built “to modify easily” at the same time.

But really, that’s just his output as a craftsman.  What really matters is how he got there.

He got there because he was driven by plumbing, how and why it works.  He was like Scotty on the original Star Trek — he read tech manuals in his spare time.  He didn’t just go to hardware/plumbing supply shows (he also ran a hardware business) to find new products to sell, he went to listen to what the other tech types were saying about new materials, techniques, and tools.  He listened not just to what a new tool would do, but the reasoning behind the development of the tool.  He had a curiosity about everything that might remotely affect plumbing.   Less than a year before his death at the age of 57, he completed a design course that required him to travel 35 miles each way to attend class.  And, were he still alive, I expect he would still be extending his craft.

Not because he needed to keep up with his discipline.  He was far enough beyond the usual plumber that the only “continuing education” he would have needed was to keep track of the idiocies non-plumbing bureaucrats keep thinking up.

No, that’s not why he did it.  He did it because, for him, plumbing was important in its own right.

Why did he value plumbing so much?   I don’t know.  That’s one of the things I never thought to ask him until long after he was gone.  And, to be honest, when I was a kid, I would much rather he would have spent less time on it.  But whatever the reason, whether it was what he should have valued or not, that was what he was.

And that attitude is what made him not just a plumber, but a craftsman.

Personally, I think the world would be better off if more people took my dad’s approach to life.  But if they don’t, the problem isn’t in “the system” or “the economy.”

The problem is in the mirror.

 

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I just realized it has been over a year since my last post.  Unacceptable.

I shan’t go into all the details.  It’ll just get me in whine mode, and I’d rather save that mode for things that are important, namely rants about politicians, the current education system, and other iterative topics of this blog.

I will make one observation for those of you wondering where the economy is going.  (I don’t know why people ask me the “what do you think about the economy?” question all the time.  After all, I teach economics.  That’s not the same as knowing where the economy is going.  If anything, I expect the two are negatively correlated variables.)  But for those of you who insist on asking, here’s a bit of an economic observation:  if I had spare money to invest  right now, I’m pretty sure I’d put a serious chunk of it into “health care for senior citizens”.  Having dealt with the ups and downs of being a caregiver for an elderly parent, I’ve got to see a bit of what the youngsters out there are going to deal as the Baby Boom generation (i.e. mine) ages.  Forget about worrying about your 401(k), Gen Yers.  Think about how you’re going to deal with all us old farts when we pass 75.

There is going to be one crapload of a lot of old people out there.  And our generation, unlike my mother’s generation, has defined “low savings rate”.  Add in the fact that ours is the first generation of entitlement, and you’re going to have a nightmare.

Weep, Gen Y.  You’re going to have to deal with our incontinence, our congestive heart disease, our Type II diabetes, and all the rest.  For years, because we’re going to be living at least as long as our parents, and our parents were a fecund lot.

And no, the government can’t solve this one for you.  Sorry.  I hate to tell you this, but they’ve been clueless for decades.

Your generation cares a lot about sustainabilty.  Well, guess what, you are going to have to figure out how to sustain, not what this economy is doing right now….you’re going to have to figure out how to sustain unprecedented economic growth.  You’re going to have to reinvent the economic world the way the Europeans re-invented it a couple hundred years ago.

You’ve made a good start.

But the solution to dealing with us old farts is going to be tough.  I don’t care what the worriers and entitlement-people and the politicos who think all solutions are found in someone else’s pocket say.  You’ve got one “social task” ahead of you:  you need  to figure out not just “sustainable” growth.  You need to figure out how to grow growth itself.

We’ll help, of course.  But pretty soon we’re going to be old enough to demand you service our retirement “needs.”

Good luck.

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Academics love to talk about excellence.  You can bet that as terms start all over the country in the next month, convocations and lecture halls are going to be full of people proclaiming its importance and its connection to the education tasks being embarked upon.

Yet even if we agree to the silly distinction that used to be made between “liberal arts” and “vulgar arts,” and look at just the liberal arts, that which one would think would be the province of academics, even if we look at the century (the 20th) where American higher education reached its pinnacle, what do we find?

The greatest American poet of the twentieth century was an insurance man.*
The second greatest American poet of the twentieth century was a family physician**.
As to poetry coming out of the academy? Sell, can one say obscure, pedantic, self-absorbed?  Even, ahem, boring as hell?

And the greatest 21st century American philosopher?   He was a longshoreman***.

The smartest, most creative person I’ve ever known was a plumber who never went to college****.

Four is too small a sample to generalize upon.  But you’ have to admit, they’re three examples to get you wondering.  If higher education is not the place where the best of the best are to be found, should it be the place that we look to when we seek to credential “excellence”?

_________________________

*Wallace Stevens
**William Carlos Williams
***Eric Hoffer
****My dad

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Regular readers know that when it comes to “the effects of the internet”, I tend to be an optimist.  Even an apologist.

I have to be honest, though.  My position is to a large extent, one of faith rather than one based on “conclusive scientific evidence”.  No, not the capital-F faith that my July 18 post was all about, but small-f faith.  The “I believe this, well, just because” sort of  faith.

Oh, my reasons are a little better, a little more sophisticated than that.  (At least *I* think so.)  But compared to, say, what is collectively known about the economic effects of the American railroad, or the size of GDP in 1970, our overall empirical sophistication about “the effects of the internet” is amazingly low right now.

Not just mine, but thine and all the Nobel laureates, too. (And we won’t bother mentioning how little clue the Nancy Pelosi/CNN/New York Times crew have.)

And its not for lack of babbling on the question.  Consider the subquestion of: “what is the internet doing to the quality of social relationships?”

Quite frankly, we’re barely getting to the point where we’re even asking the right questions.

On one key empirical point, virtually all the pro-internets and virtually all the con-internets agree:  the network of social relationships looks very, very different today.

But, despite all the “debate,” most discussing this empirical reality fail to engage the real question:  is this good, or bad, and why?  Because virtually no one explains why web-of-relationships-A is categorically “better” or “worse” than web-of-relationships-B.    Worriers point to the decline of traditional connectivity (churchgoing, newspaper reading, political participation)(“A” was better!), while pro-internet people (raising hand) point to all the marvelous-ness of LinkedIn and blogs and Twitter.

But do we ever really engage the question of “what makes A (or B) better?”  I’m not convinced.

Two examples:
1.  Two “differences” you’ll observe if you live any length of time in a small town, one positive and one negative.  Positive: you can leave your car unlocked with less risk.  Negative:  more people will mind your business.  So which is more significant?

2.  Google “twitter whore youtube”.  You’ll find a two part video by one LisaNova.  Watch it.  Are you appalled or do you find it amusing?

With the exception of interludes in London, St. Louis, and Iowa City, and various bits of business travel, I’ve spent all my life in towns and “cities” of under 10,000 souls.  And I can tell you that I haven’t answered #1 satisfactorily yet.

And as for #2?  Well, I have no clue.  I found the video originally because I was searching for what people were saying about twitter;  and then I spent another half an afternoon trying to figure out a subset of the splinter cultures that use/live on YouTube.  (After a bit of searching on LisaNova, I discovered one such splinter culture, populated, at least temporarily, by people blogging as  CommunityChannel, Channel Reviews,  Danny Diamond.  What does it mean that the total views of part 1 of LN’s “twitter whore” parody are approaching 1.5 million, or that her 2007 “last blog ever” (which isn’t parody at all) now has 648,000 views?

Clearly, there is no mainstream anymore. We live in an urban world — with tens of thousands of small town communities out there on the web.  Is this bad, maybe Tower of Babel bad? Or is it good?  Tocqueville’s America of associations writ large?

I don’t know.

It’s definitely a different world.  But “better or worse”?  Well, er, um, it is better.

I think.

Why?

Well, just because.

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