Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Stick to Your Knitting

When I was a child, I used to knit. My mother, who knitted for pretty much her entire life, taught me how, and I did some knitting for a while. I have not knitted in years, however, and this is not unusual. As Kyoko Mori, a teacher at Harvard, explains in her 2004 essay “Yarn,” knitting is now almost exclusively a feminine craft, although “[t]he knitting masters and apprentices of the medieval guilds were all men, since women were not admitted into guilds.” I started thinking about taking up knitting again last year, when some friends and I visited a yarn store in Portland, Oregon. (Mori mentions visiting a yarn store, presumably the same one, in Portland, and obtaining a pattern for a knitted hat.)

I haven’t done anything about knitting yet, but I have done some thinking about knitting as a metaphor for other activities. I was particularly struck by this sentence in Mori’s essay: “The small mistakes in a knitted garment disappear when the garment is on the body, where it belongs.” It seems to me that this lesson applies as well to a lot of other areas of human endeavor, as it does to knitting.

For example, I work for the information technology (IT) department of a large telecommunications company. We go to a lot of trouble setting standards for software development, testing newly coded software, and trying to ensure that our applications perform in real life as our customer expected. Sometimes everything goes as planned, but often there are errors, glitches, and problems with the software. What I find interesting is that it is very difficult to predict which of these shortcomings are going to cause the customer to complain, and which will be accepted as part of “business as usual.”

I think it’s useful to think of a complicated software project, involving a number of applications and databases, and taking months or years to complete, in much the way Mori characterizes a sweater. If you make a really big error – having three arms, for example, or writing a system that won’t produce an invoice at all – this will be noticed, because once it is “on the body” its deficiencies will be obvious. If, on the other hand, the system does pretty much what the customer wants, you may not get a complaint about the formatting of a certain report – the equivalent of having one sleeve slightly shorter than the other.

An old expression I picked up as a child, probably from my mother, was “Stick to your knitting.” The surface meaning is the same as “Mind your own business.” Don’t meddle in affairs that don’t concern you, in other words. A deeper meaning is to give your full attention to your own work; don’t let yourself be distracted. If each of us does her own job as well as she can, rather than doing someone else’s work badly, we’ll all be better off. And if each of us does the best he can, then the mistakes will surely disappear when the work is on the body.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Free Trade and Immigration

Both free trade and immigration are hot topics in the United States these days. Senator McCain’s position on immigration has angered many conservative Republicans. On the other hand, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was enacted during the administration of Senator Hillary Clinton’s husband Bill, and anti-free traders oppose her nomination for that reason. Opposition to free trade is based largely on the idea that imports are harmful to Americans. While this may be true for some workers, it is not necessarily the case for either consumers or business owners.

Today, it is generally the Republicans who are the strongest supporters of free trade, but such was not always the case. For many years, the Republicans espoused the protectionist policies of Hamilton’s “American System” and a regime of high tariffs. One of the great high-tariff Republicans in the 19th and early 20th centuries was Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. Senator Lodge was an opponent of Chinese immigration, a big issue on the West Coast, and justified his position by asserting that letting Chinese workers into the United States was no different than allowing the free importation of Chinese goods.

This asserted equivalence of immigration and imports can be illustrated with a simple example. Let us suppose a manufacturer of pots and pans in Wisconsin employs 350 workers, all U. S. citizens, at $25.00 per hour. Then suppose that foreign immigrants are willing to do this work for $10.00 per hour. Moreover, foreign manufacturers are prepared to sell pots and pans in the United States at half the price charged by the Wisconsin firm. Now, if either imports or immigration is unrestricted, the effect on the workers in Wisconsin is the same: the company replaces them with foreign workers, or it goes out of business. In both cases American jobs are transferred to foreign workers.

Does this equivalence extend to consumers and business owners? If we allow free importation of the foreign pots and pans, then consumers will be able to buy them for much less than the domestic product. But if we allow free immigration, while restricting imports, manufacturers will be able to cut their labor costs and maintain their prices. So the consumer will only reap the benefits of lower labor costs if trade restrictions are also removed, thus creating a competitive environment in which prices will fall.

While the effects of free immigration and free trade are equivalent to the incumbent workers in domestic industries, from other points of view they are not equivalent at all. Free immigration offers manufacturers the benefit of a cheaper labor force. Consumers, on the other hand, will see that free trade leads to lower prices. Given the different effects of free trade and immigration on different groups in the society, it is little wonder that these have become important issues in the current election campaign.