Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered

August 23, 2012

I don’t remember where I first heard about E.F. Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered”, but it has been on my “to-read” list for years and so finishing it comes with some satisfaction. The arguments presented in the book are enough in line with my thinking, and in contradiction to my actions, that they demand acknowledgment. I am not accustomed to reading full theoretical texts (economic or philosophical) and have little occasion to practice or even discuss Schumacher’s ideas, so in order to capture its effect on me I have decided to write this post, a sort of book report.

Assembly line work has never been worthy of the hands that perform it. Humans did not evolve large minds and sensitive fingers for repetitious, piecemeal tasks. For decades Americans have lamented  the drain of manufacturing jobs from our country, to cheaper workers abroad and machines at home. What have we really lost? A steady source of pay for many families, no doubt. Many Americans have given up a way of life based on union-protected benefits. But it’s important to remember that the industries we’ve lost were always based on uninspiring, cumulatively traumatic work.

At the same time, while hands have worked metal in factories, metal has worked the earth of the great plains. And the farm machines have not been worthy of the soil they tilled. Insensitive to the many complex signals of the land’s health – the hearty rot of fresh compost, the buzz of pollinating bees,  the crunch of mulch underfoot – the combines have swept over our fields applying the vast simplifying efficiency of industry. Though topsoil eroded and aquifers dried up, still yields improved, year after year, by stricter monocultures, bigger subsidies, and increasing use of petroleum.

Why do we turn over the sacred task of agriculture to machines while we carry out the robotic labors of manufacturing?

The most resonant message I gleaned from a 2012 reading of E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 classic Small is Beautiful is Schumacher’s belief in the value of labor. No matter what, if anything, may be produced, creative work with one’s hands is the greatest satisfaction that a human can know. The message is extraordinarily timely in 2012, when we are struggling to get the American labor economy back on track. Many billions have been spent trying to rejuvenate the American manufacturing sector, from the auto bailout to the DOE loan program. Yet these industries struggle to compete internationally unless they begin outsourcing their labor. Americans are not unwilling to perform manual labor – we just expect that if we do so, we will be paid enough to sustain our uniquely costly, resource-intensive lifestyles. But American products do not command high enough prices to pay for these lifestyles. The unions bar the manufacturers from offering lower wages, and the jobs go overseas.

I do not merely dread the drudgery of manual work. I also think it is an unwise vehicle for sustainable American job growth in 2012. Consider this article, which highlights the work of some of the greatest manufacturing minds in the United States – who are developing robots to perform ever more sophisticated tasks.

The article admits that there are some physical tasks humans perform better than robots: “People are pretty good at figuring out, how do I wiggle the radiator in or slip the hose on? And these things are still hard for robots to do.” Nuanced actions that rely less on precision than sensitivity and responsiveness: this is where humans have an advantage. What field of work demands these skills? Wendell Berry discusses what is required for “kindly use” of land for agriculture:

“Kindly use is a concept that of necessity broadens, becoming more complex and diverse, as it approaches action. The land is too various in its kinds, climates, conditions, declivities, aspects, and histories to conform to any generalized understanding or to prosper under generalized treatment…”

In other words, the task of agricultural production is analogous to “wiggle the radiator” or “slip the hose on” – problems that humans with their broad spectrum of evolved talents can approach without trouble, as long as they are close enough to the problem to apprehend it fully, but that neither robots, nor the engineers who design them, nor the agricultural planners and monoculturists who manage their land holdings from afar, can address very well at all.

Schumacher discusses agriculture in the seventh chapter of Small is Beautiful: “The Proper Use of Land”:

“In our time, the main danger to the soil, and therewith not only to agriculture but to civilisation as a whole, stems from the townsman’s determination to apply to agriculture the principles of industry…the fundamental ‘principle’ of agriculture is that it deals with life…the fundamental ‘principle’ of modern industry, on the other hand, is that it deals with man-devised processes which work reliably only when applied to man-devised, non-living materials. The ideal of industry is the elimination of living substances…the ideal of industry is to eliminate the living factor, even including the human factor, and to turn the productive process over to machines.”

Undoubtedly we have seen industry advance to slowly eliminate the human factor: first by a “race to the bottom” of labor conditions and eventually, when humans can no longer work for cheaper, a substitution of machines for humans.Schumacher’s theories of economic development are focused on work rather than production. A hundred people may do in one hour what ten could do with more sophisticated tools; however, a hundred people will be employed rather than ten. If the products of both approaches yield the same products, then each employee will only receive one hundredth of the revenues, rather than one tenth, and may not come home with sufficient wages to feed himself, herself, or his or her family. Yet it is inarguably better to put as many as people to work as possible with the tools that are available than it is to forestall employment in the hope of some future windfall to support capital investment.

We wish to keep everyone meaningfully employed. Clearly the “problem of production” has not been solved or there would be no need for income and therefore for work. In fact, there are many problems facing us and we should be glad that welding and fastening are no longer among them. Among them, the need for agricultural reform seems to be just as pressing as economic rejuvenation, and perhaps tied to it. American agriculture has traded the cost of human labor for the mostly externalized costs of petroleum (used to power farm equipment and for petrochemical fertlizers and pesticides). Furthermore, it is rapidly depleting our national supply of water and topsoil. Not to mention the atrocity of our meat-producing practices.

Why shouldn’t displaced factory workers now return to the land to undo the “factorisation’ of our greatest resources?

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