Glaeser: The Great Knowledge Destroyer

Yeah, I’m liking this Glaeser thing. There’s ten or so chapters in the book, so I imagine we’ll get about a month out of it before moving on to Calvin. Jeez, I feel like we only just started Luther – how long was he around for? Three months? Maybe I’m biased because of how long we spent with Aquinas, but that doesn’t feel like much. Ah well – the Institutes is 1100 pages, so we’ll at least be a while getting through that. In the meantime, Glaeser can tell us about how to destroy knowledge.

So Glaeser is having some chat about why cities decline. He’s focusing on Detroit, which, if you didn’t know, lost 58% of its population (over a million people) between 1950 and 2008. And I mean yeah, shit, that’s gonna wreck a place. One of the key factors in the fall of Detroit is that Ford Motors bunked off to cheaper areas – if, for instance, you look at the Wikipedia page for the ‘Decline of Detroit‘, the automobile industry is listed right at the top. Basically what happened was that Ford and a couple other Detroit-based car companies set up huge factories, Detroit’s population swelled, and then Ford fucked off to cheaper pastures and Detroit just sort of deflated. If you’ve never seen photos of the abandoned neighbourhoods of Detroit, I recommend having a look – it’s terrifying but also hypnotic.

Anyway: what Glaeser wants to know is why Detroit got hit so hard. There were other industrial cities, right – for instance, Glaeser points out that New York’s garment industry “employed 50 percent more workers than the auto industry did in Detroit.” And yet New York’s having a grand 2019. Something else must be going on. For Glaeser, it’s the knowledge-destroying idea. Glaeser argues that “while information technology seems to increase the returns from being smart, machines that reduce the need for human ingenuity work in the opposite direction.” Ford’s assembly line is categorised as the second type. You’ll probably be familiar with the basic premise of the assembly line: you’d have a big old line of people, and they’d all do one small job each, and it’s a good process because each person just has to do their one thing for eight hours a day and it’s honestly not very complicated. You don’t have to know anything, you just have to grind. Each employee is very replaceable, because they’re not responsible for much, and they don’t need to be highly skilled either. It’s a good way to get a lot out of an uneducated workforce. The problem, as Glaeser has it, is that nobody needs to be smart. There’s a reduced need for ingenuity among the workforce – and because there’s a reduced need for ingenuity, people aren’t getting trained up to come up with new ideas and go out and be entrepreneurs and make their own companies and create new businesses. It’s not absolutely impossible that someone off the factory line could end up as an entrepreneur, through sheer force of will – the point is more that the assembly line isn’t facilitating the process. It’s a knowledge destroyer: it destroys the need for any of the staff to go out and gain new knowledge.

I guess here we should run through a couple options, to maybe spell out what this thing might look like in context. When you’re doing your job, part of what you’re doing is acquiring knowledge. That goes for both blue- and white-collar work – even if you’re just swinging a pick-axe all day, like an old-timey miner or something, you’re still going to be acquiring different sorts of knowledge. You’re going to learn about how your body works, how to do physical labour in such a way that you can maintain your energy levels and keep working in the long term without wrecking your health. That’s all valuable knowledge. It’s shit you can transfer into other contexts. If you decide to change careers and become a painter or a builder – hey, maybe there’s still some technical stuff you need to learn to get right into it, but you’ll have a whole lot of background experience from being a manual labourer that will help you out.

Glaeser’s idea definitely doesn’t explain the entirety of why Detroit went downhill, and I think he knows that – I don’t think he’s treating it as the most important factor. But I really like this idea that some jobs generate more knowledge than others. It’s definitely something that resonates in the current day, when we’ve got robots coming to take our jobs and all the rest of it. We’ve got to be learners, because we’ve got to be flexible about what we do. The job market’s just not stable enough for us to relax into one thing. And if your job is singularly about putting windows into cars, then yeah, you’re gonna lose that job to a robot, and you’re not gonna be well-equipped for anything else. That’s a problem.

That said, it’s also probably worth noting that Glaeser is very yay capitalism. Part of his criticism of Ford revolves around the breakdown in competition: instead of lots of small businesses all working their asses off to innovate and stay ahead of the others, Ford represents “supersize, self-contained factories” that are “antithetical to the urban values of competition and connection.” By contrast, Glaeser lauds the “intellectually fertile world of independent urban entrepreneurs,” attributing the post-industrial success of New York to the city’s “explosion of entrepreneurship.” So he’s not just criticising Ford for maintaining an unskilled labour force, right – the key problem is that such a labour force has a harder time generating entrepreneurs and wild new ideas, meaning no real competition in the market, and no ability to adapt when Ford leaves town. I dunno – like I agree that we have to adapt to survive in our current economic system, but is that even an acceptable state of affairs? Detroit’s problem, according to Glaeser, is that it wasn’t capitalist enough. It didn’t have enough capitalist entrepreneurs to innovate past the problems that capitalism created in the first place. At what point does that stop being an indictment of Ford and his knowledge-destroying idea, and start being an indictment of the system that made those problems possible?

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