Thursday, December 11, 2014

Engineers versus the high priests of Set

We must always remember that human societies are nothing if not complex, and there are many angles that one can observe them from.  Nevertheless, even if they don’t explain everything 100%, there are some viewpoints that explain quite a lot.  For example, the idea that a lot of human activity is explained by personal greed (‘follow the money’) is surely a useful simplification.

Here I want to explore how it is that some societies respect honest and productive labor, and others denigrate practical labor and instead value parasitic, bureaucratic or abstract scholarly forms of labor.  I will refer to the former as the engineers, and the latter as the high priests of Set.

Now I mean no specific insult to the high priests of Set, but I wanted to pick a religion that (as far as I know) has no current adherents to avoid offending anyone living.  (If there are any surviving acolytes of Set reading this I apologize – make your will known and I’ll find something even more obscure.  I do point out, however, that if you are trying to remain hidden, nothing is better at hiding something than spreading the meme that it’s ridiculous to believe in it…)

So in ancient Egypt there were various religious cults, and one of these worshipped the God known as “Set.”  The high priests did no useful work, and their knowledge had no practical applications in the real world.  They could not predict the weather (at least, no better than any person who was not a high priest of Set), they could not heal the sick, or build bridges, etc.  Still, they did have a lot of knowledge - but it was knowledge of the internal workings of their own cult.  It was specialist political and bureaucratic knowledge.  However, even if not objectively useful, their insider knowledge was very useful to the high priests personally: it let them rise in the hierarchy, and they had much better lives than the farmers and weavers and cooks who actually did useful work.

There will always be two classes of human labor: productive and parasitic.  Even if the boundary between these two is sometimes less than absolute (example: a priest who also has some practical medical knowledge, an administrator who mostly shuffles paper but does do some useful scheduling), the fundamental distinction is still valid.   The issue is, why do some societies value the practical labor of engineers (and farmers and machinists and janitors etc., but I’m partial to engineers so let’s use them as an exemplar of the class), and some societies value the high priests of Set (and lawyers and diversity consultants and tax collectors and courtiers etc.).

In the 19th century New England in the United States, the culture valued the self-reliant man, the person who could do practical jobs, the engineer.  An example of this is the protagonist in Mark Twain’s book A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  Now the book is enjoyable if a little silly in spots – there is no way that real human beings in the middle ages could possibly have been so credulous.  The point is that this is an illustration of a culture that valued hard work and practical values.  The hero doesn’t have time for fairy tales, but he knows how to forge metal and build generators and so on.  He is self-reliant, not afraid of getting his hands dirty, and proud of his practical skills.

Compare this to much of the history of classical China, where manual labor of all kinds was denigrated.  In this culture what people most wanted to be was a member of the imperial court, or a tax collector, or a scribe, or a priest of some sort. 

Why do some cultures go one way, while other cultures go the other way?  Obviously it’s complicated.  A significant factor must be momentum: a culture values practical labor because it has for a long time, and vice-versa.  But I propose that one of the main forces that push a society one way or the other is demographics.

When a society has a low sustained fertility rate, wages rise.  The power and prestige of landowners and rentiers falls, and that of workers rises.  But more, such a society by its very nature will favor practical work over the administrative.  On the other hand, for societies with high sustained fertility rates, wages fall.  The power and prestige of landowners and rentiers is maximized, and workers become disposable commodities with no intrinsic value.  In this case practical work is denigrated, and only those workers who can parasitize the administrative and cultural systems of the society have a hope of prospering.

Let’s consider a society with a low fertility rate.  Labor becomes the limiting factor.  As such, labor does not just get high wages – labor gets power.  As Benjamin Franklin wrote in his Observations concerning the increase in mankind, peopling of countries etc., when land is abundant and people few, farmers don’t need to work for a landowner.  They can just set up shop themselves and be their own master. 

Now suppose that you wanted to start an enterprise to, for example, build furniture in such a culture.  You would HAVE to hire carpenters.  In this you would have no choice.  You might also need accountants and administrators, but these would be limited to the minimum required to actually balance the books and set the schedules, because labor is in short supply and there isn’t that much left for overhead after you’ve hired the carpenters.  In this case the administrators are doing the necessary, practical work of organization, and they are not parasitical court followers or administrative empire builders.

Now consider a society with sustained high fertility rates.  Workers who do useful things get paid very low wages, they are disposable commodities. You still need them, it's just that you can take them for granted.  Meanwhile landowners and rentiers in general become an aristocracy.  Supply and demand, people, supply and demand.  Now while common laborers are ground into the dirt, more skilled laborers do a little better – because their wages have to cover their training costs, one way or the other, and because of ‘efficiency wages’ (it is easier to fire a janitor when they are halfway through cleaning a room, than to fire an engineer when he is halfway through designing a bridge).  Still, wages for all practical workers are overall very low – typically engineers in high-fertility societies get paid less than janitors in low-fertility societies.

However, people don’t like to starve to death in the mud.  So if the market means that doing productive labor is like living in a slave labor camp, people will scrap for an alternative.  In other words, for a job that does not depend on the market – like tax collector.  In imperial China peasants who worked the land were paid barely enough to survive, because there were so many starving landless peasants competing for work.  However, the tax collector didn’t have to compete for his job.  Once awarded to him, he simply collected his salary (the “Iron Rice Bowl”).  Period. 

Thus the overwhelming pressure in such societies is for jobs that are removed from market discipline – court favorite, scribe, priest, bureaucrat, mistress, anything.  And under these conditions people will scrap and fight with desperate intensity to get and keep these jobs, as if their lives depend on it – as they do.  They will also push for their relatives to join the imperial bureaucracy, and so on and so forth.  Also, because the productive workers get paid so little, there is plenty of surplus to pay the unproductive ones.

Now in a low-fertility society, losing a job is not a death sentence.  Jobs that pay high wages are plentiful, as are opportunities for self-employment.  If a worker is doing something that is not vital, they can be released with little effort because the worker knows that they can easily find something else.  But in a high-fertility society, losing a job is a death sentence.  People will hang on to their useless jobs for dear life, and they will resist with all their might any attempt at making the system more efficient. 

Bureaucracies will always tend to increase, and administrators will always favor hiring more administrators, to increase their status.  That’s almost a law of nature, like the second law of thermodynamics.  But in a low-fertility society market forces are a powerful countervailing force – labor is simply too valuable to waste like this, and people are not that resistant to losing a job that turns out to be redundant.  In a high-fertility society, however, people have a desperate motivation to create and expand the bureaucracy, and once someone gets an unproductive job they cling to it like a leech.  Plus, because not much need be paid for the necessary productive labor, there is plenty of surplus to grow the bureaucracy. 

Sociologists often comment on how the overgrowth of a priestly and administrative caste can lead to the downfall of a society.  But what if they are looking at the symptoms, and not the cause?  I propose that an overgrowth of the priestly and administrative caste does not come out of thin air, but is often a consequence of too-rapid population growth. 

Karl Marx may have gotten many things wrong, but he got one thing right.  The history of civilization is a history of class war.  Once organized agriculture started, people belonged to one of two groups – workers and landowners.  The former have a stake in expensive labor, and the latter in cheap labor.  These diametrically opposed incentives are the engine of so much of the nonsense that human beings have done in the last few millennia. 

But there is another player in this game: the priestly/administrative caste.  They don’t suffer from the same market forces as regular labor.  They are, in a sense, also in direct competition with the rentiers and landowners.  Now much of the administrative caste does serve the rich, no doubt – they collect taxes, propagandize the divine nature of the rule of the rich, entertain the rich, etc.  But a lot of the costs of the priestly caste come out of the profits of the rich.  The rich can deal with uppity landless peasants quite easily.  Fire them and replace them with others.  Priests are not quite so easily dislodged.  They will cling to their power, they will expand it, and reach their tentacles into the society and find all manner of non-market-based stratagems to entrench their privileges.  Administrators will make the simple complex to justify their existence.  But this comes at the expense of the army and the building of weapons and so on, and will weaken the society overall…

It’s not just about the standard of living of the average worker.  In low-fertility societies you have a yeoman culture, where people of energy and talent have the freedom and resources or build and invest (because a society not pushing at subsistence is necessary to have an investable surplus).  These societies tend to be dynamic and advance (think England in the post-Medieval period). 

On the other hand, in high-fertility societies you have a sort of mandarin culture, where productive work is looked down on, talented people have no outlet but to compete for priestly or administrative jobs in the imperial court, corruption and nepotism runs riot, and the society overall is impoverished and capital starved and stagnant.  Think imperial China.  Or, as the vile gospel of Neoliberalism continues to spread its rot, very soon, the entire world.

I am already seeing this in science in the United States.  No that long ago to be a scientist in a university was considered prestigious, and to be an administrator, less so.  They used to refer to people who went from science to administration as 'failed scientists'.  Now, not so much.  The flooding of the market with foreign nationals has driven down the job prospects of American scientists, they have trouble getting funded no matter how hard they work, they are fired with nothing to fall back on, and more and more are working part time as low-paid teaching temps.  Meanwhile administrators are gaining in salary and prestige, and growing the bureaucracy.  University presidents are getting paid like business CEOs.  More and more moving to administration is seen as the goal, not doing science.  I mean, today being a scientist means fighting a non-stop zero-sum game against the smartest people across the entire world.  Being an administrator means you step out of the competitive circle, you get paid a high salary no matter what and you tell scientists what to do.  Because power follows the market.  If talented scientists are a dime a dozen, they matter little, you can take them for granted.  On the other hand, the administrator that allocates scarce funds is someone to pay attention to... 

Here's another aspect to this.  In a low-fertility society, because labor is scarce, people with odd personality traits can still prosper.  The brilliant loner, the person who failed the standardized tests but had a unique insight... the need to fill a slot gives these people a chance.  Forget about the current racist fetish about a diversity of skin color being the most important aspect of human beings, it is a diversity of talent and temperament and viewpoint that are critical.  In high-fertility societies there are 100 desperate people competing for every job, even the high-skill ones.  Under these conditions workers with poor people skills and who don't do well on standardized tests are filtered out.  There may be a diversity of skin color, but a homogeneity of the spirit and intellect.

Do we have a society where the engineers are dominant, and practical and intelligent effort is the standard?  Or do we have a society run by the high priests of Set, an inward-looking pack of bureaucrats that absorb resources and create self-fulfilling complexity without giving anything back?  

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