The author brushes the latter issue aside, praising the freedom of speech on a job site. “You can tell dirty jokes,” he writes. “Where there is real work being done, the order of things isn’t quite so fragile.” The office is, by contrast, a prickly environment that “has seen the advent of speech codes, diversity workshops, and other forms of higher regulation.” Without tangible tasks, argues Crawford, “there is no basis for social relations.” But here his enthusiasm for concrete and calluses has led him astray. The challenges for women in the workplace are simply too real to attribute to a “fragile” environment, and a freer atmosphere for dirty jokes will do little to address discrimination, inequities in pay, and the like.
Crawford concedes that a massive shift over to the useful arts might put a crimp in America’s entrepreneurial style. He notes that “it remains for others, better versed in public policy and shrewder about its unintended consequences, to suggest ways in which the space for entrepreneurship can be protected.” Indeed, it will take many others to consider the wider scope of the book’s implications. But cultural norms that assign low worth to trade professions, and those that make women feel unwelcome on job sites, will present much bigger obstacles than the rather mundane question of how tax policy should treat small-business owners.
Still, Crawford sketches out an appealing future, which has some parallels in the local food movement that Michael Pollan and others have popularized. Might a new generation of craftsmen (and craftswomen) thrive not in factories, but in local communities, where their work puts them in direct contact with their customers, and earns them the esteem of their peers? Crawford could certainly provide a little more guidance about how to achieve his vision. At its core, though, his brand of localism presents a welcome alternative to the abstract global economy that gotten us into the current, machine-tooled mess.