Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Saving the American Economy AND the Literary Novel. Really.

So, courtesy of our fragile and increasingly unreliable airline industry, I'm blogging from an airport again, during yet another delay: indeed, from the very same airport from which I blogged during the first leg of my trip. And since my Junot Diaz novel is long since finished, I'm reading blogs.

So, courtesy of James Fallows, I discovered a post by David Brin, arguing that the quest for "efficiency," and especially the "just-in-time" inventory model, has created the vulnerable, inflexible Victorian invalid that our national economy has become, escalating a bad case of the economic flu into life-threatening contagion. Brin writes:
For decades, we’ve been told -- by the same fellows who brought us “efficient finance” -- that manufacturing and commerce should be fine-tuned to squeeze every penny of profit, by trimming away all “fat.” Industries that hew close to the teachings of W. Edwards Deming and Toyota’s Taichi Ohno require that their suppliers deliver parts and raw materials at the precise moment when they are needed. Under this principle, any reserves that are kept on-premises will only encourage sloppy management and incur unnecessary storage costs -- a calculation that has long been exacerbated by shortsighted tax policies that punish warehousing and inventory-keeping.

This approach, called “Just-In-Time,” is based upon the very same postulate that led the business-major types to bet our economic farm on arcane financial instruments, leading to catastrophic failure, in 2007 and 2008. A wholly unjustified wager that the economy and its supporting systems will always remain stable and never experience disruption.


Our ancestors’ age-old wisdom of putting a little aside for just-in-case robustness has been replaced by a delusion of just-in-time efficiency, based on a belief in perfectly reliable global interdependence.

But, in real life, animals - even efficient ones - carry fat reserves. Surprises and disruptions happen. And when they do, we worry less about tweaking widgets-per second, and more about survival.

This speaks to me, of course, because it's the "efficiency" of the beleaguered airlines that has made it impossible for them to adjust even to predictable "surprises" this travel season, so that every flight delayed by completely-unforeseeable winter weather in Chicago leads to a backup of canceled flights and stuck travelers from coast to coast. (And sticks me in Philadelphia again, blogging.) When your plan depends on everything going just right, without even the smallest glitch, none of the glitches will be small. I'm a big fan of robustness at the moment, and not just for airline travel.

The policies that Brin points to as damaging the general economy long ago wrecked American publishing, which I suspect is why this insight comes so swiftly to Brin. The near-extinction of the American mid-list writer, and of the model whereby literary writers could gradually build followings, was caused by those "shortsighted tax policies that punish warehousing and inventory keeping," and Brin, as a science fiction writer knows it.

If you read, say, Poets & Writers you will occasionally be treated to an essay about the plight of the mid-list writer, which typically gestures vaguely to the pernicious influence of corporate ownership before going on to bemoan the lack of great literary editors and ask, essentially, "Where has Max Perkins gone?" If you read science-fiction trade journals such as Locus, you'll learn the practical answer: the American publishing inventory and the mid-list writers whose books constituted that inventory have been decimated by U.S. vs. Thor Power Tools, a Supreme Court opinion about tax law.

The "just-in-time" model excludes any time for readers to gradually discover a writer. Mid-list writers don't flourish because their books are remaindered as soon as possible. (It is more profitable, from a tax standpoint, to remainder all of the unsold books at a quick loss than to keep them and sell some more slowly.) "Just in time," for publishers, means selling the books that they can sell immediately, which means the books that customers have already decided they want. There is no leisure, in this model, including no leisure for the customer. They must decide what they want right away, or they can never have it. Least of all is there leisure for any growth or complication of readerly desire.

A new emphasis on robustness, on inventory, would be great for America's economy, and perhaps best of all for American writers and readers. It's important to put things aside for a rainy day, and what could be better on rainy days than an interesting book?

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