Tools and externalities

Following on my previous post: In trying to define a “traditional” tool I raised the issue of toolmaking. But the way a tool is made has implications for the maker of the tool as well as (if not more than) for the end user.

The low stages of my scales suggest a toolmaker who pursues a craft in a small shop: people who make wooden molding planes, for example. That may be a kind of ideal, but it isn’t always practical.

In the middle are small, semi-industrial operations in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, with relatively few workers, an emphasis on craft, and a working environment that is, for lack of a handier term, more or less flat, in that it minimizes the distance and distinction between labor and management workers being given latitude for authority and the owner is not only capable of doing some actual work but even now and then does it. That, at least, is the kind of working environment I would prefer for myself, whether as a worker or a manager ( I have been both).

At the high end of the scale, you have machine parts cranked out by machines wherever labor is cheapest for the profit of corporate shareholders.

If I value the way I work, surely I ought to try to extend that privilege to others? That’s merely the golden rule. So I might say, as a third principle, that “A tool (and its components) should be made by workers who work as the user would want to work and who are treated as the end user would want to be treated.”

The insignificance of man in the face of modern magazine publishing

Nothing demonstrates to a man his ultimate insignificance in the Great Economy like his inability to unsubscribe from a magazine.

(All right, fine: Lots of things demonstrate to a man his ultimate insignificance in the Great Economy. But this one is particularly stupid, and sufficiently banal that I can laugh at it, unlike, say, losing my job, which was less obviously humorous.)

Here’s what happened. I used to subscribe to a hipstery sort of design and decorating magazine called ReadyMade, full of the sort of things I’d have wanted to make and do in my impoverished twenties. I read it in my late thirties out of ironic nostalgia for my own youthful irony. That magazine went out of business with six months left on my subscription, which I had been unlikely to renew anyway, and the parent company (Globo-Zines Inc.) sent me Better Homes and Gardens instead, a thoroughly un-hipsterish and unironic publication and one whose design notions I had even less desire to emulate. I see that the two magazines have ostensibly the same purpose, but the demographics are completely different. The one ran ads for new releases by twee little indy bands; the other shills Campbell’s soup. And where ReadyMade at least pretended that you were actually going to do some of the projects described in its pages, Better Homes and Gardens doesn’t seem to. It seems designed solely to sell paint.

I usually ignore it until my daughter spots it and unsheaths it from its plastic wrapper. (ReadyMade didn’t come wrapped in plastic, but arrived with its cover charmingly, insouciantly crinkled.) She’s a junior art director, so she finds this kind of thing fascinating. Her contribution to Sunday dinner is folding the napkins into boots and butterflies. But even she can’t get anything out of BHG, except for one article in the December issue on tying bows from ribbon. Being homeschooled, and raised in part by me, she makes fun of it mercilessly.

Local ground and rhetorical ground

Benjamin Cohen writes on Grist this week (“What bean-counting ‘contrarians’ miss about the local-food movement”) about some issues I’ve been mulling over since getting involved in the “local food movement” a decade ago — namely, the terms of the debate. Cohen takes on writers who have reduced ethical consumption to a single metric — typically greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or energy efficiency — and who have then used that metric to deny the value of eating local. The problem with this approach, Cohen says, is that no single metric can assess the value of something as complex as a food system; as he puts it, “regionally configured food systems are about more than energy.”

So, for example, Stephen Budiansky argues that the damage done by the fossil fuels he consumes driving back and forth to the farmer’s market negates the good he does by buying food locally; Cohen responds that Budiansky takes fossil fuel use as a given — something most local food activists would like to change — and deliberately removes taste, freshness, and community from his rhetorical framework.

I’d go further in my critique, and it’s a critique that cuts both ways.

A fable

The king of Ustreasia was a wealthy man, wealthy beyond compare. His kingdom was peaceful and lovely, and his people were hardworking and kind and ethical, for the most part. But for all the riches of his kingdom the king’s true pride was his herd of elephants. And what elephants! Bulls all, with slashing tusks and stamping feet and trumpeting calls that echoed throughout the capital. For generations the royal trainers had taught the elephants to march in procession, to carry the king and queen upon their backs. They passed the knowledge of their profession on to their children and were respected with soldiers and priests. The people watched the royal parades and felt pride, and visiting rulers smiled in appreciation of such well-kept animals.