A British tradition of inefficiency and silliness

While many British industries are forward thinking and reasonably efficient, i find Britons take particular pride in traditional craftsmanship. That is, while the Swiss seem to take no particular pride in their coo-coo clocks, the British positively glory in their handmade products: hand-woven, tweed jackets, expensive suits, expensive whiskey, and hand-cut diamonds. To me, an American-trained engineer, “traditional craftsmanship,” of this sort is another way of saying silly and in-efficient. Not having a better explanation, I associate these behaviors with the decline of English power in the 20th century. England went from financial and military preëminence in 1900 to second-tier status a century later. It’s an amazing change that I credit to tradition-bound inefficiency — and socialism.

Queen Elizabeth and Edward VII give the Nazi solute.

Queen Elizabeth and Edward VII give the Nazi solute.

Britain is one of only two major industrial nations to have a monarch and the only one where the monarch is an actual ambassador. The British Monarchy is not all bad, but it’s certainly inefficient. Britain benefits from the major royals, the Queen and crown prince in terms of tourism and good will. In this she’s rather like our Mickey Mouse or Disneyland. The problem for England has to do with the other royals, We don’t spend anything on Mickey’s second cousins or grandchildren. And we don’t elevate Micky’s relatives to military or political prominence. England’s royal leaders gave it horrors like the charge of the light brigade in the Crimean war (and the Crimean war itself), Natzi-ism doing WWII, the Grand Panjandrum in WWII, and the attack on Bunker Hill. There is a silliness to its imperialism via a Busby-hatted military. Britain’s powdered-wigged jurors are equally silly.

Per hour worker productivity in the industrial world.

Per hour worker productivity in the industrial world.

As the chart shows, England has the second lowest per-hour productivity of the industrial world. Japan, the other industrial giant with a monarch, has the lowest. They do far better per worker-year because they work an ungodly number of hours per year. French and German workers produce 20+% more per hour: enough that they can take off a month each year and still do as well. Much of the productivity advantage of France, Germany, and the US derive from manufacturing and management flexibility. US Management does not favor as narrow a gene pool. Our workers are allowed real input into equipment and product decisions, and are given a real chance to move up. The result is new products, efficient manufacture, and less class-struggle.

The upside of British manufacturing tradition is the historical cachet of English products. Americans and Germans have been willing to pay more for the historical patina of British whiskey, suits, and cars. Products benefit from historical connection. British suits remind one of the king, or of James Bond; British cars maintain a certain style, avoiding fads of the era: fins on cars, or cup-holders, and electric accessories. A lack of change produces a lack of flaws too, perhaps the main things keeping Britain from declining faster. A lack of flaws is particularly worthwhile in some industries, like banking and diamonds, products that have provided an increasing share of Britain’s foreign exchange. The down-side is a non-competitive military, a horrible food industry, and an economy that depends, increasingly on oil.

Britain has a low birthrate too, due in part to low social mobility, I suspect. Social mobility looked like it would get worse when Britain joined the European Union. An influx of foreign workers entered taking key jobs including those that with historical cachet. The Brits reacted by voting to leave the EC, a vote that seems to have taken the upper class by surprise, With Brexit, we can hope to see many years more of manufacturing by the traditional and silly.

Robert Buxbaum, December 31, 2016. I’ve also written about art, good and bad, about the US aesthetic of strength, about the French tradition of innovation, And about European vs US education.

2 thoughts on “A British tradition of inefficiency and silliness

Leave a Reply