Jun 26 2007
One of the joys of summer for teachers is that we get to forget about stacks of student work and read whatever we want. One of the books I read during my Bali trip was one about food called The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan (the other was the classic and utterly cheesy mystery in which a Harvard professor uses economic theory to solve crimes, Murder at the Margins).
While The Omnivore's Dilemma warrants several blog posts itself, one section stood out to me as relevant to what I was seeing in Bali firsthand. In discussing the different food chains humans participate in, Pollan discusses a concept called “artisinal economics”, which he describes as a system in which “the competitive strategy is based on selling something special rather than being the least-cost producer of a commodity.” Pollan goes on to point out that “this artisinal model works only so long as it doesn't attempt to imitate the industrial model in any respect. It must not try to replace
skilled labor with capital; it shouldn't invest capital to reach national markets but rather should focus on local markets, relying on reputation and word of mouth rather than on advertising…”
Touring around Bali, one cannot help but be awed by the seemingly endless selection of arts and crafts available not only to tourists but to Balinese for their houses, businesses and temples. Around the town of Ubud (famous as a center of artisanship),wood and stone carving workshops and painters studios stretch for kilometers in which truly talented artists can be observed creating unique (and some not so unique) pieces of traditional art (and some not so traditional, such as the Thai Buddhist monk paintings I've seen on sale in places like Bangkok and Phuket). It would seem that a large percentage of the island's population is involved in the art business, and although I did see some African patterns such as giraffes and of course the Thai monk paintings, the majority of the art appeared to be in traditional Balinese styles and for the local market.
The market for art and crafts seems to fit Pollan's description of an “artisanal economy” where quality and individuality are the goal of the economy's output, as opposed to maximizing output and minimizing costs. To see young men and women working with their own hands and tools that haven't changed in centuries was refreshing, representing a hope that I and I would guess many of you share regarding the desire to hold on to something from our society's past even as the modern economy pushes us ever forward into a world of homogenization, increased output, increased mechanization and inevitably less and less beauty and quality defining and differentiating unique cultures from one another.
- Why do firms in developed and developing countries tend to replace workers with machines as their economies grow?
- If the craftsmanship and artisanship of Bali belongs to an “artisanal economy”, what kind of economy do the factories, superhighways and giant container ships of the rich world belong to?
- Do you think the artistic, labor intensive industries that employ so many Balinese will survive in the modern economy, or can artists be replaced by machines as easily as seamstresses and auto workers were in
the 20th century?
- Based on Pollan's description of “artisinal economics” quoted above, what chances do you think exist that such an economy will reemerge and thrive sometime in the 21st century? What would it take for such an economy to thrive today?
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