Wednesday, April 5, 2017

What is the Perverse Incentive behind “Close Enough is Good Enough”?

A few months ago, there was a good article written on the prevalence of chabuduo (roughly translated as “close enough”) mentality in China.  A mentality widespread among the nation’s craftsman, it is responsible for countless examples of shoddy manufactures that together plague the reputation for “Made in China” both at home and abroad.  The article argues that the persistence of the chabuduo mentality, so ingrained in modern-day Chinese economy but largely absent historically in its ancient civilization, presents itself as a massive obstacle for the country to move up the value chain.

So why is this phenomenon persistent today but absent historically?  The article blames its rise on the social inequality created by the country’s recent economic miracle.  More specifically, the country’s newly minted wealth has been distributed unevenly, with unfairly little going to those in the blue collar class.  The result is a segment of factory workers and individual artisans than simply cannot afford to purchase the very wares that they spend their whole lives crafting.  In other words, their manufacturing goods for the wealthy does not made them wealthy enough to buy those goods. 

This harsh reality greatly reduces the sense of ownership blue collar workers have toward the very goods they are creating.  The logic goes, if they can never have the things they are creating, then why should they put in extra efforts to make those products perfect?  As long as they can do the bare minimum to ensure those products function the way they supposed to, there really is no incentive to make them any better?  They, as the people who will never use these products, have literally no stake in the improvement of these products anyways.

While this chabuduo mentality rears its head in everything from creaking new buildings to toxic restaurant fares in China, the same, or at least very similar, mentality also plagues rural Tanzania.  It manifests itself very well in the few locally produced goods in circulation.  Misprints and misalignments on notebooks and receipt books are extremely common, delays to projects widely assumed, and supervision of constructions based on some form of standard procedures largely absent.  Any complaints of the work quality receive nonchalant shrugs, or worse, demands for money to rework.

The underlying cause of shoddy work here may also be caused by social inequality, but with a key difference from the kind that instigates chabuduo in China.  In China, the manufacturers are the poor while the clients are the rich, so naturally the attitude toward craftsmanship is mixed with a disdain for the rich’s supposedly ill-received wealth.  But here in rural Tanzania, the oppose relationship holds.  The manufacturers are relatively wealthy urban dwellers, while the end clients are ultimately poor farmers.  The substandard quality of work may be caused by the perceived lack of need to impress the clients.

To put in more specific terms, the manufacturers, knowing that the clients are farmers, can assume that the client would demand less of the output.  For them, these farmers should be grateful that they get service in the first place; they have no right to be demanding certain standards for the work they receive.  Such condescending view toward the clients probably leads to manufacturers deprioritizing requests from rural clients (presumably over urban or foreign ones) despite earlier deadlines and same prices paid.  Thought this way, the delays and substandard work becomes a bit more comprehensible.

This, of course, is not to say that local craftsmen are impossible of crafting something high-quality.  In fact, there are plenty of examples of wooden sculptures and painting made locally that can compete in quality with any other crafts produced anywhere else in the world.  This is exactly the same logic in China, which, despite presence of chabuduo mentality, is home to some of the world’s most innovative manufacturing facilities that produce some of the world’s most cutting edge pieces of consumer technology.  It is just that, in both cases, perfectionist mentality takes a backseat in many industries.

Perhaps this reality is one that is inevitable as a country goes through initial phases of economic development.  But considering that skilled traditional craftsmanship (the kind that allows for beautiful wood sculptures and paintings) developed over generations, in conditions much more economically backward than is the case today, the death of high-quality manufacturing is more or less a side effect of the modern mass production.  It would be a shame if centuries of artisanal skills passed down the generations are lost due to some incentivized carelessness.  

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