Saturday, May 25, 2013

Creeping Abstraction, Part I

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, THERE WAS A well-publicized incident in which the brother of then-presidential candidate John McCain called 9-1-1 in the Washington, D.C. area to complain about some construction on a bridge that was taking place during rush hour. The call was played during reports on the incident in the news media.

McCain’s brother was (rightly) ridiculed at the time for doing something so clueless. The 9-1-1 system was set up to report emergencies, and using it to complain about a traffic problem was an abuse of the system, one that might have delayed help for someone in a life-threatening emergency.

In the aftermath of the incident, I had a recurring thought I couldn’t shake: Despite his poor judgment, I could understand what Joseph McCain was hoping to do. What he really wanted was to speak to The Guy Who Made the Decision. He wanted to hold someone accountable for making the idiotic decision to conduct traffic-clogging construction work on a busy bridge during rush hour.

This brings me to one consequence of industrial civilization — its mass production, specialization of skills and so on — that I call the Creeping Abstraction of Accountability.

Think about what life, and especially economic life, was like in a typical village in America in the time before mass industrialization. For fun, let’s name this hypothetical little town “Sylvan,” and we’ll say the year is 1800.

In Sylvan, accountability in economic relations was pervasive — inescapable, even. If you were a typical citizen of such a town, you knew who made your clothing, pots and pans, furniture, shoes, lamps, soap, window glass; you knew who built your carriage or wagon, and so on. And not just in an abstract way— you likely knew personally the makers of those things, and could thus hold them accountable if there was a problem. If the furniture-maker’s apprentice delivered a three-legged chair to your house, you could walk over to his shop with the chair, hold it up and ask (perhaps wryly), “Yea, Thomas? Wert thou just back from yon tavern when ye forgot this missing leg?” and expect  poor, hungover Thomas to groan a sheepish apology, and promise to correct the situation without delay. Similarly, if your skillet handle broke, you could march off to the local tinker’s shop and demand an explanation, and you would expect to receive one on the spot.

In short, you actually could in fact speak to The Guy Who Made the Decision, and this state of affairs obtained from roughly before the American Civil War, all the way back to the dimly known beginnings of civilization when the first farmer planted the first crop.

Now, let’s return to the year 2013 in a typical American community.

I called my bank a couple months back because my checking account was inexplicably overdrawn. I use their bill payment service, and I had specified that the “pay date” of my rent payment should be the first of the month, yet they had deducted the payment on the 23rd of the previous month, overdrafting my account. When I called, a customer service representative said that the payment can come out that early so that the check has time to reach the payee. I apologized for misunderstanding, thanked her for the information, and hung up.

When I changed the pay date to the 7th of the next month to account for this new information, my landlord charged me a late fee because the rent check arrived on the 15th. I called the bank, and they said that it had been mailed on the 7th. When I said I was confused by this, given the information I received on my previous call, the rep explained that sometimes the money comes out on the pay date, and sometimes it comes out when the check arrives at the bank after being deposited by the payee, and they could not tell me in advance which of those two possibilities would happen each month. When I pointed out that this makes planning rather difficult, the rep told me that this was just how their (third-party) payment processor worked.

So even the bank I was speaking to could not tell me when the payment would be deducted. But worse than that, I wasn’t really speaking to “The Bank” at all — I was speaking to a rep wearing a headset in a call center in Arizona or Iowa or wherever, and she had virtually no power to change the way the bank did business (the first rep I spoke to did refund the overdraft fee, which was nice). The way the bank’s payment processor does payments was probably designed in a series of meetings involving a shifting bunch of personnel from their legal, marketing and accounting departments, and the policy’s ultimate purpose could undoubtedly be summarized as: “Make as much money as possible for the company, in a way that is unlikely to get us successfully sued.”

Thus, our current world is a mirror image of Sylvan: In our world, accountability in economic relations is abstracted, nearly to the point of meaninglessness. Who made the shirt you’re wearing? What were the wages and working conditions for the people who made it? What about the chair you’re sitting in? Or computer on which you may be reading this post? Or the cell phone in your pocket? If you have concerns about those things, to whom do you turn for accountability?

There is no immediate, human accountability for many problems that arise from the production of most of the stuff we use every day. This is the Creeping Abstraction of Accountability.

This has had profound implications not just for economics, but for how we discuss politics. More in part two.

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