I must confess this book has been a huge part of my worldview for about 40 years. I seem to re-read it once a decade or so and I always get something out of it. The main concept to me has been “appropriate technology”. The basic idea could be defined simply as “the right tool for the job”, although one might also add small, sustainable, and local. The idea of “Economics as if People Mattered” has also always appealed to me as I think the “human” aspect has always been left out of the traditional economic model.
At first blush this can strike one as “anti-American” since this is America where “bigger is better”: we always had the worlds tallest buildings, the largest dams, the best highway system and the largest economy.
Clifton is the CEO of Gallup, and has been since 1988. His basic concept is that the economy that provides the most “good jobs” wins. If you’re a liberal, you might think this would mean the typical “just cut all the red tape”, laissez faire, blame the unions and lower taxes mantra, but Clifton doesn’t go in that direction, at least as his main point.
He notes that the real “job creators” are small to medium size businesses, the classic entrepreneurial ventures. He looks at job creation as a “City Government” problem, more than looking for the national government to solve the problem.
For me, he sums up much of his entire philosophy with this sentence: “America has to create the next new way humans survive and thrive.” Along with the understanding that a “good Job” and “a job” are two different things and that someone with a “good job” is also able to be a “good customer”; the basic concept that you create jobs by “creating more customers” would seem to be a sound one.
One of the events that are going to bring the above viewpoints closer to each other is the advance of technology. The rapidly decreasing costs of computational power along with technologies in the nano-sphere promise a less capital intense, more flexible and nimble manufacturing base that would lend itself to local economies as well as be rapidly adaptable to changing tastes and technological developments. Local based businesses are also less apt of foul their own nests and have an interest in becoming sustainable parts of the local economy and actually be good citizens.
In a recent interview with Forbes magazine Clifton says: “Do we focus money and policies and speeches primarily on the people who need America’s help or those who can offer help, the small and medium businesses.”
Schumacher and Clifton would not see eye to eye on everything, but I do think the two men could find lots of room to agree on things. Giant corporations take on a life of their own, sacrificing the “human dimension”: sucking dollars and life out of local economies, calling employees “human resources” and existing mainly for the benefit of management. I’ve never quite been able to fathom how granting both limited liability and full “person” status to an immortal entity than cannot be imprisoned or drafted and can in fact be owned completely by a foreign government, fits into the “free market”.
I’m certainly not saying we should abandon the corporate form, and neither is Clifton or Schumacher, for that matter. But I am saying that we are more likely to find our economic and cultural salvation in small to medium, entrepreneurial ventures that are far likely to produce more “good jobs” than a small number of rich people at the top lording over the worker bees perfoming mindless tasks. Schumacher, in particular, would lament anyone sacrificing his life to mindless toil, just for the sake of survival.
If such a thing as “American Exceptionalism” exists, it has to be in our rich legacy of the entrepreneurial small business. There is a governmental role in all of this, and rather than just dry up and go way, it has the be in the role of midwife to small business creation and that of providing educated and capable citizens to fill those “good jobs”. It has to be realistic enough to acknowledge that there will be always some jobs that are less desirable than others and that having a population of so called “losers” large enough to form an underclass without hope of ever elevating themselves or at least a realistic hope that their offspring might do so, is always going to carry a terrible cost.
My father, other than the time he spent as a soldier, worked all his life in a plywood factory. He hated his job, but was willing to do it not only because it enabled him to be a homeowner and have what he thought was a middle class life, but because he had the hope that it would enable me do one day have a job I wouldn’t hate.
If you aren’t familiar with both of these books, it might be fun to read them back to back. They would nicely balance each other and if you didn’t take either one as “gospel” would certainly be food for thought. These two books, written 40 years apart and on totally different wavelengths in many ways have a surprising number of areas where they overlap. If you look at business models as the “technology of organization”, which they truly are, then looking at small to medium businesses as being the best pathway to “good jobs”; the concept of appropriate technology would seem, well, ——————-appropriate.