18 Feb 2011, 3:47pm


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  • Specialisation – is it making stuff better and cheaper but ruining our quality of life?

    Even at school I learned that one of the things that set Man apart from other creatures was the division of labour. We don’t all have the same talents, I am a better engineer than horticulturalist or painter, whereas others probably paint better than design electronics or software. So it make sense I stick to the engineering and others to the painting, growing food etc.

    That all works really well up to a point. Can it go too far? When I was sat school I believe that a town’s football team was drawn mainly from kids in the county. I’m not totally sure of that since I was never that into football, but let’s run with it.  These were trained up, and as a result there was a wide variety of football clubs playing at various levels.

    Now they are basically businesses rather than football clubs – the pool of footballers is global, and more and more money chases fewer and fewer players. Obviously this optimises the quality of the football at the top  – it’s probably miles better than it was decades ago. However, it also makes it more inaccessible and remote – there’s probably a much lower chance of the football-mad kid across the road getting a chance to make a living wage playing football. That has been swapped for a very remote chance of him getting richer than Croesus playing football if he happens to be that exceptional.

    That seems to be the general problem with our economic system – it is trending towards a winner-takes-all world, one of outrageous competition and stupendous rewards, or nothing, rather than one where there is a range of opportunities where most people can find a living that matches their aptitudes.

    This winner-takes all seems to apply across talent ranges and even geography. In more self-sufficient times Britain was more evenly settled, but the modern economy is concentrating jobs and people more and more into the south-east. In itself that wouldn’t be so bad, but it inflates house prices unreasonably, and stretches transport infrastructure.

    It is one of the dreadful ironies that just as information technology gets to the point that remote/home/tele working becomes practical and economic, we comprehensively reject the whole idea and concentrate our industries into specific parts of the UK. The M4 corridor for your engineering companies, Cambridge for advanced IT and software and biotechnology, London for finance and lots of other things.

    The corollary of this is that you can either live where you can get a job but then you can’t afford to buy a house, or you can live where you could buy a house but there aren’t any jobs there, so you have to spend a fortune commuting. That will start to go up as oil prices increase, and it’s not going to a good place at all.

    Globalisation has taken this pathology to a whole new level, as President Obama called out in his State of the Union address recently.

    At some point, hopefully soon, we will have to ask ourselves what is our economy for? Is it to make as much stuff as possible for as little as possible? Or is it to give as many people as possible a good quality of life? I don’t claim to be an expert, but I suspect the economy we will end up with in the former case will look very different from the one to realise the latter. And at the moment we are running down the first path.

    There’s no denying the recent inexorable trend but it’s also very long standing. It is countered from time to time, however, by new technologies and opportunities.

    From a century perspective, wealth is probably aggregating in the SE, after the C18/19th “blip” of heavy industry in the N. But from a millennium perspective, this might be just a reversion to more normal conditions.

    Before the C17th, apart from York and Newcastle, there were virtually no towns of any size north of the Wash. The South is bigger, warmer, more agriculturally productive and better connected to mainland Europe. Geography and geology are big influences and difficult to overcome.

    Regarding concentrations of wealth, this has been getting worse in the UK over the last 30 years (Gini rising from c. 25 to c.37) and in many other industrialising/ed countries, but again, small beer (as yet) when compared to earlier times.

    Governments can (and probably should) engineer some negative feedback, but attempts at wholesale economic restructuring haven’t worked well in the C20th.

    “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

    -Robert A. Heinlein

    I’m sure specialisation and urbanisation to some degree must run in lock-step, and both introduce a certain fragile complexity. As you’ve alluded to previously, this is predicated on cheap energy subsidies, and is not ultimately sustainable. If/when globalisation does unravel, we are remarkably ill-equipped to deal with it due to over-specialisation. Not only do we have specialisms that can only function in the complex systems we currently inhabit, many specialists lack counter-balancing skills that could make them functional in a simpler, more resilient alternative.

    Certainly the question of ‘what the economy is for’ has been asked before, and a few names come to mind instantly: Donella Meadows, Aldo Leopold, Herman Daly and E F Schumacher (whose ‘Small is beautiful, was actually subtitled ‘A study of economics as if people mattered’).

    You’re quite right, though, that economics as currently instituted can’t seem to see the wood for the trees… or is it the other way round? It can’t give a value to the forests, because all it sees is lumber? Both the dismal art and ‘consumers’ are wearing the ‘more is better’ blinkers and it bodes ill for all of us – especially in a time when ‘less is inevitable’.

    @SG once again I owe you a debt for increasing my general knowledge. Your claim that the North was devoid of sizable towns was so outrageous until I found it impossible ot refute – Manchester and liverpool stuck out as the obvious exceptons, but no. Thank you!

    @Macs also I owe a debt for the improvement ot my education – for I discovered Donella Meadows’ Leverage points amongst a fascinating trawl through some of the works of the people you lsited. Schmacher I’d come across, but not the others.

    There’s hope at least in the UK, where at east some consumers have woken up to the value of forests 😉

    Back online….just. Nice piece – I missed it before going off-radio (May I take the liberty to label those olden times before we went “too far” as “self-sufficient” times? Just saying).
    In a sense, we are on the same page. While you’ve sussed out one part of the problem, I’m trying to highlight another side of the problem in my “analysis of modern trade”. This probelm you point is a direct by-product of the consequences of “trade-scaled-up”. Even though it is not, in today’s climate of discourse, my line of writing will be pigeon-holed into one or all of the following: a) Socialist, b) namby-pamby c) enemy-of-progress. Just an indicator of the times we live in. Nothing more.

    > I am a better engineer than horticulturalist or
    > painter, whereas others probably paint better than
    > design electronics or software.
    That thinking stems from our own unconscious “social-conditioning/programming”. It is not set in stone.

    > it’s “probably” miles better than it was decades ago.
    “Probably” but mostly, nope (IMO, at least). 22 men kicking an air-filled bladder hasn’t changed (Nor has the 11 fools wearing flannels game). Nor has anything else for that matter (sadly. Just observe around us, and we’ll see it for a fact)
    TV/marketing/presentation/etc has elevated the image of several such things to something we behold as what you’ve written above, and a little beyond too…

    From now, I see me as the “Indian” Macs that frequents this site! (Ha!) ;-). Yup, I would have written that myself, and quoted all those people without missing a beat! :-D. Thanks Macs (which is why I am writing about something else). But, Macs missed “Dunbar’s Number”, which is also a very important point to this discussion (As an engineer, you may already be aware of this, ermine?).

    SG raises some interesting points. but this is verily a geographical thing (or not? Feel free to point out my flaw, if any)! Indeed, the Industrial revolution that has shaped everything that we take for granted today owes its thinking to those very conditions SG talks about… Move to SE-Asia (pre-colonisation), and you’ll find it is (largely) pleasant all year around, supports a wide variety of vegetation and the entire population was evenly distributed on account of this. FF to today, and we too have the exact conditions that SG lays out.. Pockets of “wealth concentration” due to tactical positioning of A vs. B, milking “perceived value” with the masses (I went to Aya Napa, did you? ;-)), etc., etc., etc. I hope I make sense.

    It’s all about productivity, right?

    Have you followed any of the debate about Tyler Cowen’s “The Great Stagnation”? It is a discussion along the same lines – can we keep improving productivity at the same rate as we have done historically. I have just finished listening to the econtalk podcast on this:


    worth a listen if you have a spare hour.

    To some of your specific points…

    I know lots of folks who work in those UK geographical “clusters” of specialisation you mention. Many of them do work from home, part or even full time. But most still find that co-habiting an office can be more productive for some tasks – phone conferences are awful.

    To be sure, house prices in those regions are in direct correlation with wages, and it’s kind of trite to argue houses are “unaffordable” there. If they were truly unaffordable, nobody would live there. It’s just supply and demand, mostly working to drive down disposable incomes as far as possible.

    If human beings hadn’t started specializing, we’d still be gathering nuts and fighting over wild boars.

    Even then I’m certain the best nut gatherers were split off from the best pig stickers, to the mutual benefit of more nuts and boars for all.

    This isn’t to say everyone should only be able to do one thing, or that there isn’t a pleasure to be had in being a renaissance man of woodworking and quantum mechanics.

    But there’s not many astrophysicicts moonlighting as ballet directors for good reason. 😉

    Just my usual contrary view, move alone here. 😉

    […] Is specialization ruining our quality of life? – Simple Suffolk […]

    @Surio, I do wonder again whether the issue is one of trade per se or the concentration of power in transnational corporations that brook no regulation and have burst the bounds of national regulation. If we disregard resource crunches, I would say that humanity can probably resolve that, though it may take a couple of generations as we pass trhough a global robber baron stage.

    I don’t have so much of a problem with trade as such. There is evidence of trade in prehistoric times – WA Cummins’ analysis of the stone axe trade posits nationwide trade and the existence of secondary ‘axe factories’. In his conclusion

    Motivation for this bulk trade probably came from the consumers and is unlikely to have been the result of a sales drive from the axe factory.
    4. The secondary distribution centre for Group I axes may have been the Neolithic precursor of the modern port of London.

    These are Stone Age people already trading, so I would postulate that it may be possible to have trade without exploitation.

    @Lemondy, that was a great interview, thanks for the link. I do hope we don’t _need_ another world war to boost growth by focusing innovation 😉

    @Monevator, I’m not a 1970’s hippy back to the land sort of guy, I grew up in a city so I’ll leave the boar sticking to boar stickers 😉 However, many parameters have a maximum in their desirability curve, there’s a too much as well as too little, and so it is with specialisation IMO. We are becomeing both deracinated and decadent in some areas – previous generations wouldn’t have tolerated the waste implied in the youth unemployment we have, but until recently big finance made enough that we could look the other way rather than fixing the problems.

    I think some of the hyper-specialisation is coming home to roost – Heinlein’s quote probably can be generalised to contries too. A country like the UK should be able to feed and water itself, and in the long run it would be nice if it could wean itself of dependence on imported energy for the very basics of life. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t trade to make life better, faster etc, but the poor resilience of modern societies disturbs me. That doesn’t mean we all have to become individually self-sufficient, that’s probaly swinging the pendulum too far the other way; even mediaeval societies were reasonably specialised at the individual level, though not too much on the national level.

    i tend to agree with Monevator.
    And also it’s quite natural.
    All we have here is the “splitting off” of ideas to solve problems more efficiently.
    It’s natural selection in “fast forward” tough but real.
    And often it involves “disintermediation” of old complete services but so what if it provides a better and/or cheaper service?
    I can now get a personal assistant (with a good degree)online from India on a “pay as you go” basis for 30% of the cost of the UK.
    (please don’t talk about minimum wages elsewhere – i agree these need to be addressed but even so the rate would be much lower)
    So we have global competion now for more than just manufacturing.
    It’s for everything that doesn’t need “touch”
    So fine some of us may need to focus on “touchy” types of industry.
    My lad has just started medical school.
    Very touchy, very safe.
    But others will work in other areas where specialisation (IT, Biotech etc etc) gives us an advantage due to the concentration of such experts.
    The pace of change can be scary but surely we waste our time mourning the demise of the buggy whip maker – despite all his expertise?


    I like your responses to the points of view presented here.

    If I am conveying the impression that I am anti-trade, “I wish to emphasise, a 1000 times”(*) I am not anti-trade, but I have serious reservations about how it is conducted today across the World. OTOH, I don’t see self-sufficiency as exactly “deprivation” either, as others seem to.

    (*) Read it like that Sikh in “Mind your language”, for enhanced comic effect!

    @ermine, I conceded that point you make (“concentration of power”) in the comments in my post as well. We don’t need to go as far as stone age. I conceded, that as recent as the Silk route did “trade”(*) in its precise meaning of that word.

    (*) Dictionary: an equal exchange

    However, in today’s world the semantics are well and truly mixed up. It’s a fact. “Trade” is often conducted between “goods-based-economy” [tangible] and “services-based-economy” [intangible], and when “services” goes out of fashion or when the ruse stops working, then “knowledge-based-economy” comes into existence…etc. I have gripes with these main issues. Secondly, new economic terms are being invented every year in order to keep imaginary imbalances propped up; it is this nature in which “trade” is conducted that I object to. Thirdly, artificial barriers are put up time and again! And all those unnecessary loopholes of patents! Et cetra etc., Hope I am clear.

    The “hunter-gatherer” cliche has become a convenient yardstick to beat differing points of view, and is getting a little bit tired, IMO. As Wade Davis puts it in his talk:

    And it’s humbling to remember that our species has, perhaps, been around for [150,000] years. The Neolithic Revolution — which gave us agriculture, at which time we succumbed to the cult of the seed, the poetry of the shaman was displaced by the prose of the priesthood, we created hierarchy specialization surplus — is only 10,000 years ago. The modern industrial world as we know it is barely 300 years old. Now, that shallow history doesn’t suggest to me that we have all the answers for all of the challenges that will confront us in the ensuing millennia.

    So, agreed on the specialisation is going to come home to roost sentiment.

    The “buggy-whip” analogy is wrongly, albeit glibly being used by you -interspersed with a lot of glib Darwinian/”flat world” keywords – all of them plainly wrong! ~Hrm!

    Sadly, the overly complex society that you are so keen to promote and welcome is being solely (literally) propped up with the fossil fuel/petro-dollar juggernaut. Just look at some CISCO manuals to get an idea on what it takes (tech/infra/energy) to keep this virtual world running! And when the oil surplus peters out, the [[thing]] will majorly hit the fan! The only “thin” hope is research on “synthetic fuel”, but WWII exposed its weakness, and very little has improved since.

    Of course, a glib response to this “alarmism” would be “In the long run, we’re all dead, matey!”. That’s true, we will be, won’t we?

    […] price mess is susceptible to reductions. At the moment cheap energy/transport is distorting our economy and  living patterns, concentrating them and leading us to commute long distances. In an energy challenged world we just […]

    […] on the job front. Ermine touches on this also, but it is not what I meant to convey. Heard of DO-178B? That’s what is used when they […]


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