Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Andy Kessler: were all artists now

Andy Kessler is a bright guy, who self-published his book, "Wall Street Meat" about his ventures of the 90s Wall Street and VCs. Writing in the Dec. 23, 2004 Wall Street Journal, he posits in the article "Andy Kessler: WSJ: We Think, They Sweat" that while economists and politicians may be fretting over our record trade deficit--now over $550 billion--and falling dollar, we should view these events neutrally if not even positive for the American economy and jobs. While China and other third-world countries are gaining jobs in manufacturing goods for companies like Apple Computer the jobs left for Americans, Kessler says, are often high-paying design and engineering work that is the source of intellectual capital. We have merely shifted the production work to them while keeping the more intellectually stimulating work for ourselves.

While that may be true for some sectors of industry, it can not be the basis for a wholesale rollback of domestic manufacturing. First, many people do not have the skills or capabilities to be designers or engineers, no matter how much training they get, just as some people are not cut out to be much more than shower singers. Second, as noted in the book, "The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us," most of the riches of success are won by a very few number of persons or firms. Meaning the distribution of rewards does not trick down to all who aspire to be in a certain profession. If you had a job as a tool maker you could be reasonably assured that if you were competent you could have a decent salary. However, just being a competent designer or artist is no longer the metric of whether or not you are rewarded. You must be among the elite or invent a breakthrough product or idea. But by definition everyone can't be above average.

For a company like Nike which outsources its shoe manufacturing the rewards for consumers spending $100 sneakers go to the top management of Nike and its contractors as well as a few select designers and endorsers. What is left pays for the salaries of minimum wage jobs at Footlocker. So, as Robert Frank and Philip Cook document the gap between the super rich and everyone else widens and may continue to do so should Kessler's observations come to pass.