When I took the introductory fine arts course in college (which actually was a tough course), one of the ideas that stuck with me was devolution. The instructors used that word in a very particular way, to apply to the changes that took place in late Roman art. Drill technology improved to the point where drills could be used to help create sculpture: they were faster and cheaper to use than chisels and hammers. But the results were cruder. It was easy to identify a late Roman bust: the curls and eyes were much coarser than in earlier Roman or Greek work.Devolution: Welcome to a World Where Things Don't Work Well (Naked Capitalism)
Now it’s probable that drills, by making it cheaper to produce sculpture, allowed for more sculpture to be made. But I never heard that mentioned in that long-ago course, so I’m not sure. And I didn’t hear of a two tier market, with the more labor intensive, more finely crafted work being produced for a more discerning clientele, and the drill work being more of a mass product. The impression I had was that the new drill technology became a new normal, replacing the older methods.
It’s become fashionable to discuss the creeping decay in advanced economies, particularly the US, both in term of third worldification and end of empire. The more apocalyptic turn to theories of collapse from writers like Jared Diamond and Jacques Tainter. (note: I think she means Joseph Tainter-CH) But I think they miss one aspect that may prove to be important, that of how the pursuit of efficiency doesn’t always produce net gains, as economic theory might tell us. The measure of productivity, more stuff per unit input, misses how service/product quality can deteriorate. Some of this is deliberate: I have readers in comments regularly lament how old durable goods and tools were more reliable and lasted longer than contemporary versions. But there are other aspects of the downside of the willy-nilly pursuit of efficiency that have become so routine we accept these indignities and often don’t recognize them (unlike other ones that remain annoying years after the change, such as the widespread implementation of call routing and prompts in place of humans answering phones).
And Noah Smith reacts to a post from Umiar Haique (one of my favorite writers BTW) who says:
Consider this thought experiment. If you were really, really, really rich — say, not just part of the routinely opulent 1%, but a card-carrying member of the eye-poppingly decadent .01% — what part of your life would be American? If you had the money, I'd bet you'd drive a German car, wear British shoes and an Italian suit, keep your savings in a Swiss bank, vacation in Koh Samui with shopping expeditions to Cannes, fly Emirates, develop a palate for South African wine, hire a French-trained chef, buy a few dozen Indian and Chinese companies, and pay Dubai-style taxes.Smith points out that it's our institutions that are really failing (emphasis mine):
Were to you have the untrammeled economic freedom to, I'd bet you'd run screaming from big, fat, wheezing American business as usual, and its coterie of lackluster, slightly bizarre, and occasionally grody "innovations": spray cheese, ATM fees, designer diapers, disposable lowest-common-denominator junk made by prison labor, Muzak-filled big-box stores, five thousand channels and nothing on but endless reruns of Toddlers in Tiaras — not to mention toxic mega-debt, oxymoronic "healthcare," decrepit roads, and once-proud cities now crumbling into ruins. Sure, you'd probably still choose to use Google on your iPhone to surf the web — but that's about far as it'd go.
How did we get here?
The mightiest adversary that snaps great empires like twigs isn't chimerical "globalization" — it's glittering hubris, bedecked in the finery of denial. Hence, if the whispered rumors of our imminent decline are worth leaning in and listening to, then perhaps it's worth trying to diagnose the depth of the plunge and the slope of the cliff before we scrabble for a handhold.
...Let me be clear. I speak not merely of America's structural current account deficit, sagging trade balance, or dearth of exports — but the possibility that America's greatest export might be the furious pursuit of mediocrity: a set of self-destructive expectations and preferences that, having not been good enough for America — having reduced the people formerly known as the middle class to penury, having rotted Baltimore and Detroit into cities that are beginning to resemble Kabul and Peshawar — probably won't be good enough for the world. Should the world cotton onto the not-so-happy ending of the story of dumb, opulence-driven McGrowth, then that recognition might be the rocket fuel that sends an American decline into liftoff.
Still - and I wouldn't have written this blog post otherwise - I think Haque does make a very good point. America does have a serious problem with our acceptance of bland mediocrity.What's Mediocre About America? (Noahpinion) I agree. And our institutions are failing because they're not run for the public good, which does not exist in America, but for profit by extractive rentier elites, a sure ticket to national failure.
It's not our businesses or our products that are mediocre, it's our institutions. Our infrastructure, health care system, schools, and cities are, with a few exceptions, disgustingly mediocre. Haque mentions most of these. He makes a very good point.
Take a trip to Japan, and you'll be stunned at how easy it is to get anywhere. The train system is quiet, clean, comfortable, amazingly convenient, and runs on time. Even if you're out in the boonies and need to take a bus, those are much nicer than their American cousins. And it's nice to be able to use a bullet train to get from Osaka to Tokyo in three hours, without wasting two hours waiting for an airplane. (Note that these trains cater to the middle class, not the super-rich.)
Now, much of America is spread out, so it makes more sense to use care rather than trains in many areas. But our auto infrastructure, once the world's best, is decaying, and we're not spending the money to replace it. Meanwhile, in places where a Japan-style train system would make sense, I'm stuck paying $38 for a round trip to New York City on a train that averages about 30 miles per hour and uses old-fashioned paper punch cards. A better system would cost money that we are not willing to allow our government to spend. And it would require systemic reforms that we are not willing to allow our government to carry out.
Meanwhile, one has only to look at the international education rankings to know where we stand. A few simple reforms, like year-round school, increased teacher pay with more stringent qualification requirements, longer school hours, fewer vacation days, and increased ability to fire bad teachers, could probably bring us way up in the rankings. But we do not do these things. These things cost money that we are not willing to allow our government to spend. And they require systemic reforms that we are not willing to allow our government to carry out.
Our health care system, in contrast, is reknowned for its waste. In the case of health care, although the super-rich can enjoy the world's top surgeons, the average American gets worse health outcomes than Europe for a much higher price tag. We're willing to spend the money on health care, but we're not willing to bring in government to control costs.
And don't even get me started on urban blight. Just look at pictures of Detroit.
America's mediocrity does not stem from the failure of its companies. It stems from the failure of its governments - federal, state, and local. If we want to become an excellent country in all respects - if we really decide that we've had enough of mediocrity - it is our government which we must focus on improving.