“[T]he machine of growth must never stop.”

28 01 2013

“Firms committed to growth exist in a treadmill universe; the machine of growth must never stop.”

- Glenn Porter, from the Introduction to David A. Hounshell, From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932:  The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States.  Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984, xvi.

My graduate class this semester is on industrialization.  Technically, it’s supposed to cover 1877-1945, but I slipped in my favorite book of all time, David Hounshell’s From the American System to Mass Production just because I could.  Now I’m not suggesting that it will be your favorite book of all time if you read it too.  My graduate class didn’t like it much, at least before I started teaching it.  What makes it insanely great to teach, however, is explaining exactly why everyone should like it anyways.

Hounshell’s book offers an entirely different version of the 1800s than just about any other historian has ever written.  While one famous book on industrialization calls it a “term of magic” that “means everything and nothing,” Hounshell gets down in the weeds and explains exactly how factories operated.  He begins by describing the famous Armory System (a more accurate term than the “American System of Manufactures”) then follows it through industries of all kinds:  clock-making, sewing machine manufacture, furniture-making, reaper production, bicycle-making and, of course, the production of automobiles.  While the details can be off-putting to people who aren’t technically inclined ["Doesn't this guy have any friends?," one of my students asked about Hounshell last week.], the best thing about the book is how you can follow concepts like interchangeable parts or even particular kinds of machine tools from one industry to another and beyond.

Now I’ve read this book ten times if I’ve read it once, but it is so rich is that it feels new every time I read it because I’m never exactly the same person each time I pick it up.  So based upon what I’ve been writing about in this space lately, this 1854 quote (p. 15) from the English investigator Joseph Whitworth certainly still rings true:

“[Americans] call in the aid of machinery in almost every department of industry.  Wherever it can be introduced as a substitute for manual labor, it is universally and willingly resorted to.”

The question this raises is not, “Can you use machinery to automate education?”  Of course you can.  The question is whether you should automate education, thereby making mass production possible.  Now I’ve argued that point here on pedagogical grounds ’til the cows came home already, but since Hounshell’s book is written mostly from the manufacturer’s point of view, I want to discuss this question as a business decision.

Henry Ford was an anti-Semitic, anti-union creep.  He was also an industrial visionary. However, as Hounshell describes at the end of the book, the vision of mass production didn’t last very long.  Model “T” production peaked in 1923.  Five years later he had to shut down his factory to update his product since General Motors was eating his lunch. Sure, the assembly line spread to countless industries, but being the first mover was not enough for Ford to keep raking in money.  At first everyone just wanted a car.  Then they wanted their car to be special.

So how does this principle translate to other industries?  Hounshell quotes Lewis Mumford (p. 315) on this subject:

“When. . . mass-methods are applied to relatively durable goods like furniture or houses there is a great danger that once the original market is supplied, replacements will not have to be made with sufficient frequency to keep the original plant running.”

Is education forever too?  You can always get more, but would you be willing to pay for it?  I think MOOCs are like cars in the sense that everyone in the world would probably like to drive, but the question then becomes whether there are any roads built where they live.

Let’s move from the world of metaphor to the real world now.  This is from an NYT story about China from a few days ago:

“There is a structural mismatch — on the one hand, the factories cannot find skilled labor, and, on the other hand, the universities produce students who do not want the jobs available,” said Ye Zhihong, a deputy secretary general of China’s Education Ministry.

China’s swift expansion in education over the last decade, including a quadrupling of the number of college graduates each year, has created millions of engineers and scientists. The best can have their pick of jobs at Chinese companies that are aiming to become even more competitive globally.

In other words, without structural changes in a depressed economy an education can only take you so far.  Then there’s this lovesong to MOOCs from the robot that’s phoning in columns under the name “Tom Friedman:”

For relatively little money, the U.S, could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite in any Egyptian who wanted to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic.

And where are those Egyptian villagers going to work when they’re done with their online degrees?  Maybe they can give the folks at Your Man in India a run for their money.

The reason American universities are so big on MOOCs is that they see a potential revenue source that will compensate for the huge decline in revenue from state appropriations, the decline of the American Middle Class or usually both at the same time. As Mark Cuban (of all people) recently noted, they’re addicted to growth to keep their bloated budgets bloated. Anything they might be doing for Egyptian villagers in service of that goal is purely by accident. Like Henry Ford, when the rubber meets the road, they’re trying to solve a business problem rather than a societal one.

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