Next on the SAL Podcast: Adam Davidson
March 10, 2020
In our latest episode of SAL/on air, our literary podcast featuring talks from across Seattle Arts & Lectures’ thirty years, we hear from Adam Davidson, the co-founder of NPR’s Planet Money and an economics writer at The New Yorker.
Davidson joined us earlier this year, on January 22, for a Journalism Series discussion of his book, The Passion Economy. This new book argues that living a passionate life and living a financially stable life aren’t as separate as they used to be (oh, and that robots aren’t taking over our jobs—at least, not in the way you would think).
Despite the pain and anxiety around our current economy, Davidson admits that he sees a lot to be optimistic about. In this talk, he explores what’s next for Americans—from Amish furniture makers to obscure brush-making factory workers—after the invention of A.I., social media, outsourcing, and global trade.
As Davidson says of these stories: “These are people who not only make a decent living, but have real security. It’s a different kind of security because it’s not the security of following a well-worn and well-defined path. It’s the security of having identified a unique bundle of skills and abilities, and an audience that craves those.”
Listen to the episode on lectures.org, or wherever you get your podcasts (and don’t forget to “like” and subscribe!)—but, if you don’t have time to listen to Davidson speak, here are some highlights from the event.
On life before the twentieth-century notion of a “job”
There’s an amazing statistic: that far more than half of the people who have ever lived, never were more than two or three miles from the house they were born in. They wouldn’t have ever eaten food that was different from the food they ate. They wouldn’t have met people who are different from them. That is the world of the United States in the 1840s, 1850s, 1860s, and we very rapidly go through this radical transformation, creat[ing] this new world that had completely different logic—this industrial world. One thing I like to think about as so emblematic of this shift is the creation of the job—the job, as we know it, is this very modern thing. It’s this tiny blip in human history.
On how American institutions are built around our current concept of work
Education is such a great example. In 1900, 10% of Americans went to high school. College was a pretty obscure thing . . . It’s not until World War II that half of Americans are graduating high school, but that was a major institution that benefited people as this economy grew. We built an understanding of savings and retirement savings. We built the whole idea of homeownership and mortgages . . .
When you think about a lot of these institutions, they’re built around a very specific model of how life goes. Zero to 18: you’re under the care of your parents. That was a big battle. The concept of adolescence really comes out in 1904. There’s a book by a famous psychologist at Clark University defining adolescence—it was a new idea! 15-year-olds were no longer just crappy farmers. They were on a personal journey of learning who they were . . . There’s a chapter about some Amish entrepreneurs in [The Passion Economy], and that’s still the case: you see that 13-year-old, 14-year-old Amish kids are being judged by adult standards right away.
On the Industrial Revolution
Most people who have ever lived, had lived through several famines where they would have seen people they loved die. Most people could not survive two bad harvests in a row. Even in a primitive factory, the labor that someone does on a conveyor belt, or some batch process—they are adding infinitely more value per minute or per hour per day than a farmer can. And the farms themselves are also becoming more productive. Obviously, we now have surplus food; we now have obesity as an issue more than hunger.
As we can tell (and it’s still all relatively new), that is a one-time boost to an economy that’s—nothing else is like it. Even when you look at the Soviet Union, that was a disaster economically, it was as horribly-run as an economy could be, yet it took a country of semi-literate peasants, put them in factories, and it actually had a good 70-year-run against all odds.
On how racism effects the prospects of people of color accessing the passion economy
Part of what we do need—and on this, I am short-term pessimistic, but long-term hopeful—is a whole host of institutional changes. Institutional racism is so pernicious for so many reasons. It’s not just the obvious ones, but if wealth is a carrier of history, then something like half the wealth in America is inherited. And, I’m not talking about billionaires, I’m talking about people who inherited thirty grand when they were twenty-eight and were able to put a down payment on a home, which gave them the confidence to start a business. Because inherited wealth is obviously a proxy for how people were doing 30 to 40 years ago, what you see is white people having a comfort level, a safety valve, that allows the kind of risk-taking I’m encouraging. I don’t believe that what I’m describing is only available to the richest of the rich, but it does require some ability to have some comfort—and that is a source of deep concern.
On the turn in our economy
As you may have noticed, it’s now possible for people to get very, very rich, and then they don’t need us anymore. They don’t need a lot of labor, they have automation. Increasingly, they’ll have A.I. If they do need people to be doing something physically, they can use outsourcing, they can find those people in low-wage countries . . .
In the book, I tell the story of my grandfather, Stanley, who was the epitome of the 20th century man, a big, strapping Superman-like figure who worked two shifts a day at a machine tool plant that made ball bearings. He was very proud—he didn’t fight World War II even though he was of the age, but he kept saying, you can’t fight a war without ball bearings . . . Stanley was a big, strong guy with blue overalls with grease all over him, moving heavy metal around.
Now, you go into a factory—and we still make a lot of stuff in America—it’s a myth that we don’t—but it’s made by giant, very clean, white machines. And you have very few people. And those people wear white lab coats and program the computers that actually do all the work . . . So, I think you get the sense of why there’s a dislocation that feels so painful. There’s this very relatively comfortable life that was available to most of us, as sort of wind at our back, an expectation of growth, an expectation of progress.
On early solutions to the matching problem
[For] even much of the 20th century, most manufactured goods, most services, are provided locally. They’re provided by people within walking distance, obviously, before trains and planes, that was a necessity. But interestingly, even now, most of the things you buy are, are far more likely to be produced locally . . . and part of that is just what economists call a “matching problem.”
Say I want chocolate. There’s 8 billion people, 7 billion people in the world, with some number of them making chocolate. How am I going to find the chocolate I want? Snickers had some amazing innovations in how to mass-produce chocolate at incredible size and speed and cheapness that was unprecedented. Probably the reason you all know what a Snickers bar is, is they were geniuses at mastering the logistics distribution of candy bars in the 1920s—they figured out how to build first, a nationwide and then, global network that would make sure that every candy store everywhere had Snickers, and then they were able to use that breadth of sale to maintain their leadership and hold on to it.
But it’s really an industrial product, the nature of Snickers: the fact that it’s a heavy solid inside, with a soft chocolate outside—that’s actually the opposite of what chocolatiers like to make, which is hard chocolate with a creamy center, but it’s just an industrial solution. It’s just much easier to make these kinds of logs of nougat and caramel, then put them through what they call “enrobing,” a quick wash of soft chocolate. But they were able to reach this massive scope. They solve the matching problem by creating an inferior industrial (now, Snickers are delicious, let’s be honest, but there are better chocolates).
Think of the challenges of the Industrial Revolution: you’re suddenly going to a shop. You’re buying things made by people in some city you’ll never visit, by people you’ll never meet. That’s a new thing in human existence. And we came up with a host of solutions to the matching problem.
Well, we’re beginning to find new solutions to the matching problem, where you can match those things you are uniquely capable of producing, or those services you’re uniquely capable of providing, with people thinly spread around the world, using those same tools: the internet, A.I., social media, outsourcing, global trade. That allows you, not to price your goods or services at the point of indifference, but to price them at the point of maximum enthusiasm. You’re not getting the person who’s willing to pay $4.99 but would not pay $5.00 [for a product], you’re getting the person who loves your thing so much they’ll pay a fortune.
On the Braun Brush, a brush manufacturer in Long Island
For most of the 20th century, Braun Brush specialized in brushes for the food industry—they had a pizza cleaning brush, they had a dairy bottle cleaning brush . . . But they had the standard twentieth-century model: they’re going to make as many of these things as they can, sell as many of them as they can, and make money on the volume. . .
But over time, the Chinese manufacturers got better and better. . . The company was heading towards ruin. Lance, who never really wanted to be in the brush industry, never really enjoyed it, suddenly has this failing company. And he just decides to make a radical decision: I’m not going to compete with Chinese exports. . .
His new model is finding people who have desperate need to solve a problem that a brush can solve. Believe it or not, there’s a lot of them, enough to make a really thriving business. His first big success was a nuclear power plant that had this problem . . . What they found out is, there’s a brush they used to clean the pipes when they were inspecting them, and the brush had staples, and the staples fell in the coolant liquid. And if you’ve seen Chernobyl, you don’t want a lot of metal, spiky things sloshing around your coolant liquid. So, Lance created a special brush that had no staples that was really secure, cost about 12 bucks to make, and he’s confronted, With what do I charge?
You know, the 20th century model is cost plus: the cost, 12 bucks, maybe you charge 24 bucks. He was like, Screw it, they’re gonna say no. So he charged $6,000—that was not even close to the value he was actually providing. But by charging $6000, it’s not that he’s taking advantage of them. It’s the opposite. He’s creating the conditions for him to be a person who’s out there solving problems. So he’s benefiting all the people whose problems he’ll solve. He somehow found out that NASA had this problem with the Mars Rovers. And he designed a special brush. There’s now two of them on Mars.