Saturday, October 21, 2017

casting the first stone

The question usually comes the second or third day.

When northern guests visit me in Mexico, it takes just about that long for someone to notice the groups of shovel-carrying men filling potholes on the highway. "Why don't they buy some equipment and cut back on their labor costs?"

The question, of course, is posed as an economic one, and I respond accordingly. With an economic answer.

The low cost of labor in Mexico and the high cost of machinery would preclude an employer from recapturing the capital outlay during the depreciable life of the machinery. Even my economic nemesis Paul Samuelson would not disagree with that analysis.

The social answer is a bit more complex. And it is best answered with another question: "Then, what would the unemployed laborers do?" (A question we defenders of liberal globalization too often fail to pose.)

Most of western Europe and the northern portion of North America no longer face the labor cost-capital outlay question. Productivity increases are built into the economic system by the acquisition of more efficient technology. And that is why increases in the minimum wage usually end up with minority young people entering the ranks of the unemployed.

Mexico does not yet have the luxury of increasing productivity with capital outlays. Nor do The Azores.

Ponta Delgada is famous for the black and white mosaics that decorate its squares, sidewalks, and streets. The patterns are created by alternating the cobblestone-sized pieces of the two colors. Even with a limited palette, the possibilities are almost limitless.

But, everything ages. Even stone. Before it is turned to sand and water, the stones can be broken, dislodged, or swept away by its natural enemy: flooding.

That is where human labor comes into play. As far as I know, no one has yet built a machine that can carefully place each stone in a manner to capture the artistic outcome of these guys who repair the Ponta Delgada mosaics.

At least, I hope there is no such machine. I stood for a bit watching them restore a stretch of mosaic sidewalk. I have always admired seeing anything done well by an expert. And that is what these fellows were. Experts. Craftsmen. Artists.

It was almost as satisfying as watching the effortless arc of a Mexican machete clearing away brush along the road. Robespierre could only envy the skill.

One day Mexico will replace its road crews with machinery. After all, the world's 15th largest economy is going to mature soon.

And when it does, even those of us who look forward to seeing Mexico enter a new economic era will feel a bit wistful at the passing of an era.

I have no idea when Mexico moves on if the stone mosaic workers of Ponta Delgada will still be plying their artistry by hand. I hope they will.

After all, all change is good. But it is not always good that things change.


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