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The Benefits of Slowing Down

The Benefits of Slowing Down

Many people, including New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, see globalization as a phenomenon characterized by increased competition between countries. People who hold such beliefs will tend to say that developing countries are literally stealing jobs from developed countries. In order to avoid economic failure, governments must figure out strategies to cope with this global competition.


While this view would seem to make sense at first sight, it is mistaken because it assumes that the relation between trading nations is similar to the relation between competing firms.


The fact is that trade between nations with radically different wage levels generates no downward pressure on wages in in the richer countries. The demonstration was first made by David Ricardo in 1817. His theory of comparative advantage showed that international trade is nearly always mutually beneficial, even if one trading country has the ability to produce all goods at lower labor cost.


The fact that an automobile-parts factory in Detroit has been relocated to China does not imply that trade with China is detrimental to the United States. It simply means that China has a comparative advantage in automobile-parts manufacturing. The fact that automobile workers have difficulties finding new jobs is a serious concern, but not one that is representative of all trade with China.


Hence policy makers should not necessarily be concerned about trade relations in general, but rather about how to deal with the specific social consequences of declining industries.


One has to admit that the argument is quite counter-intuitive. In principle, people could go read a book or watch a video and try to figure it out, but very few ever do. And as Paul Krugman observes, it is quite easier to teach it to “docile students” than to teach it to an adult who “already has an opinion about the subject”.


The problem, as Heath notes, is that adults in an everyday social setting are practically unteachable. Ricardo’s argument requires abstract thinking and decontextualization. In most social situations, this would require a heroic amount of mental inhibition and self-control.


Imagine that you have to explain Ricardo at a dinner party. It is impossible to do so without breaking several social conventions. First, “it would take several minutes of talking, for which you would be considered a bore.” Second, there will “always be someone who interrupts, typically to raise a premature objection, make a joke, or raise an issue that is tangential to the central line of argument.”


Students are docile because they are constrained by specific classroom rules that favor the learning process. They are not allowed to interrupt. They have to raise their hand to ask a question, and even then, the teacher may simply say, “not now, wait until I have finished explaining this point.” This favors the learning process because developing a sustained argument requires a crucial ingredient: time.


Heath argues that much of what is described as “authoritarian old-fashioned educational practices” – the teacher’s control of the classroom, the organized desks in rows, the reading assignments, problems sets, deadlines, exams and the assignment of grades – can all be seen as “external scaffolding designed to enhance our own deficiencies of self-control when it comes to concentration, planning and goal attainment.” These institutions essentially force students to slow down, concentrate, and learn.


Managers are not so different insofar as they are prone to the same human flaws. This is why the learning organization can equally benefit from slowing down in order to treat initial individual responses with caution and think things through more carefully.


The critical issue is knowing when, where, and how to slow down. Strategic planning and brainstorming sessions, for example, may benefit quantitatively from a greater allocation of time, but perhaps only up to a certain point – because of diminishing returns and opportunity costs.


They may also benefit qualitatively from rules designed to enhance the emergence and exchange of ideas. This can be achieved by iterating between individual ‘thinking time’ and ‘group discussion,’ by setting clear rules on how to deliberate in meetings and assemblies, by designating moderators to give focus to discussions, and by integrating physical tools to facilitate and stimulate thinking.


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