You Can’t Hammer a Nail Over the Internet

This is the first in an ongoing series of extracted readings from various authors we’ve come across who offer unconventional, out-of-the-box thoughts on everything from food to work to play. This column will run each Friday and will feature authors with varying backgrounds and philosophies. The common thread is that their wisdom is sought by some of the most successful and effective people in the world, thus putting you, the reader, in that same elite company. Although this column is for everyone, we have a hunch that it will prove particularly valuable to leaders and individuals — in government, in business, in religion, in the nonprofit sector, etc. — who are on the cutting-edge of making the world a better place. And it all starts in Maywood.

The following is an excerpt from Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (2009), by Matthew B. Crawford, a philosopher and mechanic. Crawford holds a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago and has been a postdoctoral fellow on its Committee on Social Thought. He also owns and operates an independently-owned motorcycle repair shop in Virginia called Shockoe Moto:

Matthew B. Crawford
Matthew B. Crawford

Writing in Foreign Affairs, the Princeton economist Alan Blinder considers the question of job security and falling wages for U.S. workers in light of global competition:

‘Many  people blithely assume that the critical labor-market distinction is, and will remain, between highly educated (or highly skilled) people and less-educated (or less-skilled) people–doctors versus call-center operators, for example. The supposed remedy for the rich countries, accordingly, is more education and a general ‘upskilling’ of the work force. But this view may be mistaken….The critical divide in the future may instead be between those types of work that are easily deliverable through a wire (or via wireless connections) with little or no diminution in quality and those that are not. And this unconventional divide does not correspond well to traditional distinctions between jobs that require high levels of education and jobs that do not.’

Blinder suggests the crucial distinction in the labor market will be between what he calls ‘personal services’ and ‘impersonal services.’ The former either require face-to-face contact or are inherently tied to a specific site. Physicians who treat patients don’t need to worry that their jobs will be sent offshore, but radiologists who examine images have already seen this happen, just as accountants and computer programmers have. He goes on to point out that ‘you can’t hammer a nail over the internet.’

…the crucial distinction in the labor market will be between … ‘personal services’ and ‘impersonal services.’

Blinder’s analysis suggests a future of rising wages for construction, for maintenance and repair work on physical plants, and for maintenance and repair of durable machines (such as cars) that aren’t too cheap that they become disposable at the first sign of trouble, as for example a toaster oven is. In a follow-up piece in the Washington Post, he writes that ‘millions of white-collar workers who thought their jobs were immune to foreign competition suddenly find that the game has changed–and not to their liking.’

He finds 30 million to 40 million U.S. jobs to be potentially offshorable, ranging from ‘scientists, mathematicians and editors on the high end,’ to ‘telephone operators, clerks and typists on the low end.’ Blinder predicts a massive economic disruption that is only just beginning, affecting people who went to college and assumed their education prepared them for high-paying careers with lots of opportunity. Now their bosses are looking to India, or the Philippines, and finding well-qualified people who speak good English and will work for a fraction of what Americans have been earning. Architects face this threat, builders don’t.

The MIT economist Frank Levy makes a complementary argument. He puts the issue not in terms of whether a service can be delivered electronically or not, but rather whether the service is itself rules-based or not. Until recently, he writes, you could make a decent living doing a job that required you to carefully follow instructions, such as preparing tax returns. But such work is subject to attack on two fronts–some of it goes to off-shore accountants and some of it is done by tax preparation software, such as TurboTax. The result is downward pressure on wages for jobs based on rules.

These economic developments command our attention. The intrusion of computers, and distant foreigners whose work is conceived in a computer-like, rule-bound way, into what was previously the domain of professionals may be alarming, but it also compels us to consider afresh the human dimension of work (33-35).

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