Markets vs. Human Capital
When are we going to learn, cheaper isn’t better. It’s just cheaper.
I have lived in and worked on the same old house for thirty years now… it’s a few years older than me, built when having a roof over your head mattered more than the concept of thermal envelope. In the beginning, we took out a useless wall and some ceiling joists, and vaulted a ceiling. That left room for a big south window, and two small dark bedrooms became one big well-lighted room.
Other changes followed: a kitchen renovation, living room expansion, new front porch, more windows, an upstairs addition, more windows… with a design palette carefully balanced between English medieval, Japanese teahouse (timber framing), and 20th c. modernism (lots of glass) with an eclectic ethic of re-using anything else that looked like good salvage. No two doors are alike, and there isn’t a modern lockset or faucet in the house. Form does not follow function… if anything, they walk hand in hand.
Last summer, I undertook another change to the building front. This time, taking out the thirty-year-old front window and setting a doorway in its place. The stimulus for this was that I had found a farm in the country that seemed like a place I could spread out and build without the constraints imposed by zoning ordinances and building codes.
As summer rolled into fall, it became clear that if David and I kept working at the pace we had established we simply weren’t going to have the house finished and marketable by the mid-October closing date on the farm. I called on some “family and friends” help, and they pitched in to hang, finish, and paint sheetrock.
Paint is paint… and ultimately that’s about as deep as anybody sees when they look at a building. Woodwork is a different matter. If a piece of wood is badly finished, or doesn’t fit, that isn’t going to get better with time. Paint will hide a multitude of sins… but rarely does it hide poor workmanship, and it will never hide a bad design.
To be fair, I am incredibly old-fashioned in my approach to working wood. While I don’t hesitate to employ power tools when I think they are appropriate, the only proper tool for surfacing wood is a well-sharpened hand plane. Truth. That and a bit of linseed oil… nothing more.
Most of the carpenters I have worked with don’t have a plane worthy of the name, nor a roll of chisels honed and ready to use. The market doesn’t expect that of them. In fact, the market would be dismissive of a carpenter who even attempted to use hand tools if there is a mechanical solution available that is even remotely likely to do the job, even badly, so long as it is noisy and appears to be fast (the proper military term: assholes and elbows). The older carpenters are conditioned by a lifetime of being pressured by the market to produce more and more work for less and less compensation, while the younger ones have simply never seen hand tools used except on YouTube videos. This is how Amerika develops human capital. YouTube videos.
Back up a few decades, to the 1980’s. Ronald Reagan was elected president on the premise that the government was too big and wasteful, and he was the man to do something about it. Among other disasters, Reagan cut funding for high school vocational education. Forget developing human capital. Let the market do that. The market instead seized on the availability of immigrant labor from Mexico and Central America, helped along by CIA interference with the governments and economies of those countries. Hey! Cheap labor.
During the 80’s, we also allowed the government to de-regulate Savings and Loan institutions. The S & L’s were localized banking and lending pools that retained a significant capital reserve, paid relatively low dividends on deposits, and used those deposits to finance construction (once again, within a defined geographic region). In one sweep, de-regulation opened the S & L’s capital reserves to massive exploitation (outright fraud in many cases) by real estate developers, hustlers, swindlers, and other con-men. The best exposition of the S & L failure that I have read is Other People’s Houses by Jennifer Taub. She also exposes the build-up and collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market.
Now, in order to get my house to a finished state, I am faced with a philosophical choice. Do I give in to the market, and hire people who (by my standards) simply don’t know how to do good work? Or, do I take the longer view, and attempt to influence the few who indicate a willingness to learn? Socrates said, “… there is no teaching or learning, only awakened memory.” Can’t teach a pig to whistle… but maybe we can create some learning opportunities.
Let’s just consider for a moment that what is at stake here is the future of human civilization… our values are expressed through our buildings, and our buildings are pretty flimsy, no matter how much we pay for them. Like everything else in the industrialized world, they aren’t really intended to be maintained. The way its done now is the whole goddamned building is knocked down to rubble and taken to a landfill, and some shiny new eyesore is erected as quickly and as cheaply as possible in its place, financed by mortgages and bonds. Is that any way to run a culture?
I’m not the only builder or homeowner faced with the dilemma of wanting quality workmanship, but stuck with a workforce that has neither the training nor inclination to do better than barely acceptable work (a good solid D+, maybe a C-minus on a good day). Only the wealthy, you might think, can afford the best workmen… not exactly. What they typically get is a bigger version of the same shit, with an extra coat of paint, marble counters subway tile jacuzzi tub, and (for those with real class) gold-plated faucets. Hurrah!
We can do better. There are lots of old tools still out there needing a bit of attention. Pick one up, feel how it fits your hand. Notice the absence of electrical cords, plastic parts… think about lithium ion batteries and how they’re going to end up in a landfill. Let’s develop human capital instead.
“Most men in their lives are like the carpenter whose work goes so slowly for the dullness of his tools that he hasn’t time to sharpen them.” Cormac McCarthy