16 December 2006

take a long line

It is indeed a long line between this fabulous article (via the Daily Briefing) and recent Kevin Rudd pronouncements (kite flying?) on a possible future Labor industry policy. And while the Crawford article ranges over far more territory than an examination of what is meant by industry policy (let alone a simplistic VVB "look" at it), it seemed to echo some of the arguments often made in defence of maintaining a manufacturing sector, without addressing how this might be done.

So Rudd comes out and says he's going to have an industry policy and you get the predictable instant attacks about back to the future and tariffs and comparative advantage and so on, all of which add up to say that (a) he's stupid and (b) Labor is stupid and regressive and driven by nostalgia for what were in fact bad old days and (c) the future lies in higher value stuff, whatever it may be.

Mind you, he hasn't said exactly what the policy might be - remembering that Howard kept his detail hidden in the lead-up to the 1996 election too. But my guess would be that it will be more of what we have now, inasmuch as it will be attention to skills deficits and not much more, in other words investment not protection. However, as long as the cost differential between Australia and cheap labour places continues to widen, we'll be swimming against the tide and more of our manufacturing capacity will go offshore while India and China and elsewhere will slowly gain capacity.

There are arguments that we should keep manufacturing capability for so-called 'strategic' reasons - defence is often mentioned. Given recent history in buying the instruments of war (I heard on radio yesterday about the need for a stopgap between the F111 and the Joint Strike Fighter), locking ourselves into other countries' priorities for reasons of interoperability and so on, the ability to rapidly produce some weapons domestically might seem like a better idea than it has been.

To my untrained mind, the value in retaining a foot in sectors such as manufacturing is that you are precisely going against the theory of comparative advantage using the theory of relative numbers of eggs and baskets. There are links all the way through to what, and how, kids are taught in school (part of Crawford's argument) and how that represents some kind of gross or total national capability. In other words, you don't want a nation of all doctors or all bankers and financiers (certainly not!) or all 'knowledge workers', whatever they might be. Mostly I think they're bankers and financiers, but that's just a little typical VVB prejudice slipping through.

Back to the article, I was particularly struck by this article that Crawford highlight, by one Alexandre Kojeve:

The man who works recognizes his own product in the World that has actually been transformed by his work: he recognizes himself in it, he sees in it his own human reality, in it he discovers and reveals to others the objective reality of his humanity, of
the originally abstract and purely subjective idea he has of himself.

That, to me, sums up so eloquently not only the intrinsic value of manual production (probably more of the artisan than mass-produced kind, however..) but also the deep human experience of feeling valuable. Having worked as a 'knowledge worker' (several of you may laugh, but in Robert Reich's view I am...) for some time, the lack of connection between personal output and what eventually emerges (output plus blue pen marginalia???) is a distinct and real disincentive to do more, or do better. More generally, the dynamics of cube farms seem faintly unsettling: feedlots for word factories? Back to Kojeve, there is little transformation going on in a cube farm that can be discerned and owned by the individual; there appears to be certainly a dessication of the spirit.

All of this has got kind of off track, partly because everything's connected to everything else, but also because of the fascinating detours each part of Crawford's article offers. I think we do need to put more effort, more resources, into retaining a viable and broad manufacturing sector, recognising that manufacturing is indeed a very broad sector, from the small scale trailer maker to high end, complex, computer-driven tools and machinery.

In an policy environment where old fashioned, blunt instruments such as tariffs have been proven not to work, and government winner-picking has not picked any (or do we retain some hope there - is this what nano and all those words beginning with bio- mean?), what means to we have left? Much of the US's capability rides on its military production (the 'industrial-military complex), but even it is losing capability to overseas.

At the more personal or individual level, the joy to be had from making something will no doubt continue in many ways - art, old motorcycles, joinery (what a great word that is!). Unfortunately it's something I can only relate to in a conceptual way: I was one of those whose year 9 toast rack had to be held together with rubber bands. And it only took thirty years of pain, frustration and the added expense of getting someone else in to fix stuff that went wrong, to me to eventually reach the conclusion that I had inherited precisely none of the old man's mechanical ability.

But it's precisely there that Crawford's article hits home, about how we value different things. he says there was more thinking going on in the bike shop than the 'think tank'. Because repair shops, particularly for old gear where you need to improvise, replicate and fabricate, present real world problems that have to be fixed in real time. Not have pre-ordained 'policy frameworks' applied so you get the result the ideology demands. Nor the pre-ordained company templates of the management consultancy profession, that give the customer what they wanted in the first place, what they had the capacity to do but needed the 'independent' letterhead to justify.

But that's a whole other detour, isn't it?

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