July 23, 2012 · 2 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Louis Uchitelle, an economics reporter for the New York Times, has written a longish essay about the decline in American craftsmanship. But his piece, which appears in Sunday’s Times, betrays an ignorance of his subject matter and a willingness to toss about unsupported theories to the extent that the reader wonders how seriously he takes his own craft.
Uchitelle begins his essay by complaining about all of the easy-to-use home improvement products sold in the New Rochelle Home Depot. He looks down his nose at “pre-fab windows” and “a not-so-serious-looking power tool: a battery-operated saw-and-drill combo.” Worse, “if you don’t want to be your own handyman, head to Aisle 23 or Aisle 35, where a help desk will arrange for an installer. It’s all very handy stuff, I guess, a convenient way to be a do-it-yourselfer without being all that good with tools.” Uchitelle sees all these “conveniences” as indications of a “deeply troubling … dilution of American craftsmanship.” He decries “The Home Depot approach to craftsmanship – simplify it, dumb it down, hire a contractor.” He calls this approach “one signal that mastering tools and working with one’s hands is receding in America as a hobby, as a valued skill, as a cultural influence that shaped thinking and behavior in vast sections of the country.”
Uchitelle’s thesis — and his “evidence” — are flawed.
With the help of craftsmen and the expert women at the Kohler helpline, I have been renovating my master bathroom these past few weeks. So I’ve recently spent a lot of time in the Home Depot, Lowe’s, local plumbing supply stores, tile outlets, hardware stores and online shopping sites. Not for the first time, either. My personal experience doesn’t make me an expert, but it does tell me enough to say with some certainty that Uchitelle has no idea what he’s talking about. For instance, the “pre-fab windows” Uchitelle disdains are intricate units which can be built only in factories tooled with sophisticated machinery. They contain dozens of components precisely cut to computer-generated specifications, and the process of assembly often includes pumping inert gas between the panes and creating a vacuum seal. Does Uchitelle think the typical homeowner is lackadaisical for not turning out his own homemade windows in the garage? All modern windows are “pre-fab,” because individual craftsmen cannot build them on site. A truly impressive amount of craftsmanship goes into making windows today. In fact, the very reason most homeowners replace their windows is that the old ones were drafty and/or leaky. “They don’t build ‘em like they used to,” a contractor once told me, “… because they’re not allowed to.” Uchitelle doesn’t recognize craftsmanship when he sees it.
Don’t worry; his next example – what he describes as “a not-so-serious-looking power tool: a battery-operated saw-and-drill combo” – is even more ridiculous. I couldn’t imagine what Uchitelle meant here. There’s no such thing as a combination saw and drill other than those little craft tools (like Dremel rotary tools) that have a variety of accessories which bore, cut, abrade, etc. What Uchitelle didn’t realize is that he was looking at two separate tools – a standard circular saw and an unremarkable 3/8ths-inch drill – which accept the same battery – included in the “combo,” along with a charger. (A Home Depot brand Ryobi kit is here.) It’s true that these particular tools are not of a quality professionals would likely choose, but they would suffice for some simple projects. You could build your own deck with no other power tools. I’ve done it, though I’m sure I used a table saw, a scroll saw and maybe a router for some of the railing cuts.
Uchitelle disparages homeowners so lazy they have installers do the tough stuff. Oddly, he is asking homeowners to be jacks- or jills-of-all-trades at the very same time he complains they are masters of none. His demand is nonsensical to the point of nastiness: a young homeowner with a family and a full-time job does not have the time to learn to do all or even most of the complicated tasks involved in maintaining and updating a house, but Uchitelle implies these low-skilled “do-it-yourselfers” are so uncrafty they are undermining the American way of life!
Uchitelle claims to rue the loss of craftsmanship – which requires dedication to developing and maintaining specific expertise – at the same time he suggests homeowners who use products built by craftspeople or who seek the help of craftspeople are too lazy to “master tools and work with their hands.” He has set up an oxymoron and doesn’t seem to realize it. He seems oblivious to the possibility that the homeowner who asks the Home Depot to replace those old sliders with energy-efficient French doors may in fact be an expert craftsperson in some field other than door-hanging, an artist who is smart enough to know that some jobs are best left to pros. At the same time, the homeowner may take advantage of other “simplified, dumbed-down” conveniences that stores like Home Depot afford. Yeah, sure, in the good old days, folks used to make their own milk paint and grind up berries to tint it, but the end product was scarcely as good as the gallon of nontoxic paint available in hundreds of colors at Lowe’s or Sherwin-Williams. (In fact, today you can buy high-quality milk paint made by, um, skilled craftspeople.)
Speaking of the good old days, as Uchitelle does – they weren’t so good. Before the days of the big box stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s, in most parts of the country it was difficult for nonprofessionals to find the tools and materials they needed to make any but the simplest home repairs and improvements. Hardware stores had limited inventories and building supply outlets catered – sometimes exclusively – to tradesmen. In the ’70s and ’80s, I could purchase most of the tools I needed through the Sears catalog, but I also relied on the “Hard-to-Find Tools” catalog. Quality building supplies were much more problematic. Even when I found someplace that had products that “would do,” the proprietors weren’t always anxious to sell retail, especially to people like me. My son reminded me not long ago of a time in the early ’80s when I went to purchase some replacement windows. After choosing the windows, I stood at the counter for 20 minutes while the clerks waited on one contractor after another – all of them men, of course – who came up to the counter after I did. Finally, I asked if it was necessary to have a penis to get waited on there. It wasn’t. They sold me the windows.
That scenario probably doesn’t happen often in today’s big box stores. At least I’ve found personnel to be helpful and courteous – even when I don’t know what I’m talking about. Last week, I went in to buy a three-function transfer valve, and I wasn’t sure what-all it would do and what-all I would need to buy besides the valve. (Neither was the Home Depot guy – a retired plumber – but the women at Kohler set me straight.)
These big box stores – and the Internet – are a boon to people like me. They make available – either in-store or special-order – a vast array of home improvement products, ones that until recently were obtainable only with difficulty or not at all. I’ve also arranged for two major home renovations through one of the big box stores, and the quality of the work was excellent. Uchitelle implies “hiring a contractor,” like buying “simplified, dumbed-down” products, is a cop-out: evidently he thinks I should have replaced 52 windows myself. I don’t feel an ounce of guilt or regret that I hired craftsmen who did a better job than I could have. (Chances of my climbing a ladder carrying a 40-pound window to the second storey – zero.)
Uchitelle has worked at the New York Times since 1980 and he lives in Scarsdale. That makes him old enough to have experienced the revolution in home improvement outlets, and the odds are that he and his wife own their home in Scarsdale, a suburban community of mostly single-family houses. But his essay suggests that despite the likelihood he is a longtime homeowner, he isn’t much of a handyman himself. I’m sure his Scarsdale home has needed repairs. Either his wife made the repairs or they hired, you know, craftspeople to do the work.
Uchitelle goes on to relate his plaint for the “deterioration” of craftsmanship to the presidential election (Obama and Romney lack Jimmy Carter’s carpentry skills!) and the loss of manufacturing jobs: “rarely, if ever, do [Republicans] publicly … assert that a growing manufacturing sector encourages craftsmanship and that craftsmanship is, if not a birthright, then a vital ingredient of the American self-image as a can-do, inventive, we-can-make-anything people. That self-image is deteriorating.” Since Uchitelle doesn’t know much about craftsmanship and doesn’t make much of a case that craftsmanship is “deteriorating,” I won’t comment on his implication that the loss of manufacturing jobs is somehow tied to the loss of manual skills and the “Home Depot approach to craftsmanship.”
Economist Brad DeLong has a running series of blogposts titled “Why Oh Why Can’t We Have a Better Press Corps?” in which he calls out various incidences of bad journalism. He could add Uchitelle’s essay to his list, because DeLong’s question would sure hit the nail on the head here. With a hammer. Or with one of those hammer-screwdriver-pliers gizmos you can pick up at the Home Depot.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com