03 May 2017

Where Economic and Psychological Progress are at Odds (a partial explanation of how obviously bad policies can make for good politics)

Trump listens to his gut. While he may not be self-made man, his facts are, and he shows a disinterest in sustained thinking or nuanced thoughts.

His reliance on instinct and disdain for theory has taken him past what we know of how economies work to what he feels about how individuals feel about psychology of work. Freud could better explain Trump's economic policies than could Keynes.

Over the last couple of centuries, the economy has obviously made us more prosperous. Our prosperity from our work has increased more obviously than our contentment, though. What has obviously worked economically has less obviously worked psychologically. This is partly because of division of labor.

Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, the book that was arguably the first to define capitalism, opens with the account of division of labor as a force that had multiplied productivity.

THE greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour … seem to have been the effects of the division of labour. ,,,, To take an example ... the trade of the pin-maker. One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving, the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands ... Each person... might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day …

By Smith’s calculation, division of labor bumped up productivity somewhere between 240 to 4,800 times. As Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, for the first time since the ancient Greeks, productivity began to rise in the West.

If anything, this process has accelerated and deepened. This month I'm working with a client's product development team intent on rolling out a next generation computer chip that can be used in self-driving cars. The team involved in planning includes a couple of folks from Scotland, a couple from India, one from Malaysia, a couple from China and one from Austin, TX. The team working on project tasks includes an even larger swath of countries. 

We don’t just divide labor to focus on different tasks within a factory. We now divide labor across continents.

But this comes with a price. What makes us more affluent makes it more difficult to be engaged. Division of labor makes it harder for employees to see – or experience – how their tasks feed into finished products. And when a product is dependent on the efforts of so many people, it becomes harder to feel as though your own efforts make a difference.

Obviously gales of creative destruction that obsolete jobs, companies and even whole industries are the most visible element fueling the support for Trump’s promise of a national economy that won’t lose jobs to overseas competition. I suspect, though, that this curious alienation that comes from the steady division of labor that has started with pins and extended to transistors so small that their state can be changed by subatomic particles (true story), is a big part of why we don’t feel more certain of the gains that have come through this process that has made us part of a global economy.

Trump's protectionist policies will stymie this force for progress. His economic policies are awful. To me, the fact that policies which reverse the increased specialization and global trade take us backwards is hardly worth arguing. (Although I have argued it here.) The bigger question is why Trump's anti-trade policies won so many converts. I think the answer is, in part, psychological. Progress has made us more affluent; it has also made it harder for us to be engaged in our work.

Csizkzentmihalyi reported on a studies of where people find flow. People doing more traditional work like farming are more likely to find flow - or engagement - work. People doing more modern work are more likely to find flow in leisure. Tasks that we can see the whole of - building a cabinet or sheering sheep or cooking a meal - are tasks that are easier to find flow in than tasks that are merely some small part of a larger process. 

What does this mean? Economic progress is at odds with psychological well being. As our work becomes more specialized and we're more productive, we run the risk of becoming less engaged in our work and less happy. 

I do think there is a fix for this and it goes back to Csikszentmihayli's work on flow. For the last 100 years - well, at least the last 50 years or so -  we've focused on the quality of the product, what we experience as consumers. At its current peak of evolution, this focus on what customers experience with your product is called UX, or user experience. It's a big deal and rightfully so. It's a big part of how we've made the post-Adam Smith rise in productivity translate into more happiness as a consumer. What's next? We focus on our work as producers. We can create video games that engage and delight; we can also design work - just as we design products - to engage and delight.

I won't pretend that the only problem with globalization is that specialization can lead to stronger feelings of alienation than more traditional work. I will say, though, that as we become better at designing work to engage us when we are wearing our producer hat, jobs and work will become less a matter of angst and anger than it has in recent decades and will make it easier to sustain support for a process that has not only made us more affluent than our ancestors but more affluent than they could even imagine.

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