Sunday, 13 February 2011

Beyond the Big Society

Will Hutton in today's Observer has spotted a pertinent analysis revealed in Tyler Cowen's new 'book'; that our post-war wealth is the result of industrialising the production of inventions made between 1910 and 1940. Economies and efficiencies are made continually by lowering factor costs and by micro-technological changes in manufacturing technique. Whilst research and scholarship has expanded our understanding of the tiniest and most complex details, we're in a spiral of diminishing returns. Big Pharma research produces lower and lower returns, the web hasn't created replacement jobs (he cites Google, Apple, Microsoft, eBay and Amazon as between them having created fewer than 100,000 direct jobs in the US). However, Hutton's own commentary on what this all means is flawed - he still favours the State over the markets, wilfully ignoring the essential reality that this period of human stagnation comes at the end of a phenomenal post war period of growth for Statism. 

Alvin Toffler (remember him?) covers the same analytical ground in Revolutionary Wealth; the reason Google, Amazon, Apple et al employ so few direct staff is that they've outsourced all the time and labour intensive transactional and commissioning tasks to us, the consumers. I'd add IKEA and MFI as obvious local supplements to the list. As knowledge has grown exponentially, so the technologies have made it more widely and instantly available than ever before - 'trade secrets' are a thing of the past. Toffler terms this 'prosuming', a combination of producing and consuming. 

At this point I need to guard against a certain smugness, for I'm a consummate prosumer. I have tools and knowledge and physical ability. I can restore battered sad old furniture to add 1,000% to its value at a cost of less than 100% of its purchase price as long as I don't cost my labour. If I want to use an absolutely specific type of bath salt I can make it. I can transform the cheapest and least popular cuts of meat into exquisite meals. I can cook, sew, decorate, grow, join, plumb, tile, brew, bake, wire, craft and create, make all my own picture frames, fix engines and computers and anything I can't make or adapt I can procure on the best possible terms because I can use the internet effectively. It may not be worth my while - yet - to make my own pins, but the benefits of the Division of Labour established by Adam Smith at the start of the industrial nation is now everywhere in reverse. And Toffler is right in one thing; no government, no State, can capture by economic statistics the 'value added' by prosuming. It's a choice, of course; a trade-off between time spent and value gained. And its impact is grossly underestimated. 

Between Hutton and Toffler neither have quite got it, but I can't offer a pathway to the future either. It's not just a renaissance in 'invention' as Hutton would have it, though this may be part of it, nor Tofflers 'new wealth system' that will advantage the US, though this is also part of it. Just as when we could individually no longer afford domestic servants to clean and cook for us and had to learn to do so ourselves, so now collectively with policing, social care and a whole panoply of public services. This on the face of it is the Big Society. But beyond this we're into developing a whole new social system, one in which we will radically re-value time. How we value time, our own and that of others, will be the key. 


English Pensioner said...

You may be capable of doing all those things, but how many of our up and coming youngsters can? The practical abilities of the younger generation seems to be verging on zero. Being sexist, it seems to me that boys no longer learn to use tools and girls can do little more that cook ready prepared meals, or assemble meals from ready prepared ingredients.
My son-in law often says "I'll need to get someone to fix it", and when I suggest that he should do it himself, he has no idea how to start. But at least he's willing to do it if I show him and he's slowly collecting some useful tools.
You and I clearly belong to a different generation (although I wouldn't claim to be able to cook), but I'm prepared to tackle most other jobs which still remain within my physical ability - my excuse for not actually doing the jobs for my s-i-l !

Anonymous said...

I need to start making picture frames.

What are you using to join the corners? Any tips on equipment?

The paintings are fairly large.

Don Cox

greg tingey said...

Worse yet, even if you have all those abilities - I have a similar very wide skill-set, and I am also highly educated and trained (HNC Electronics, B.Sc. Physics, M.Sc. Engineering)
But, even living in London, and willing to work almost anywhere withing the M25, I was completely unable to get a regular job from age 48, when I got my M.Sc. until my official retirement age, a month ago.

Something is seriously wrong with the whole system, somewhere.