How An Artisanal Mindset Influences Public Policy Choices, By Uddin Ifeanyi
When we point to the failure of government here…the difficulty with explaining an alternative to bad policy choices lies in this failure of the artisanal mind. How can a people who cannot properly count their costs and compensate for it in a way that enhances the quality of their lives hold their governments to standards higher than we have been used to?
Few experiences are more disorienting than managing transactions with our local artisans. Across the service experience, and after hours of repetitive, often mind-numbing chatter, nothing feels quite right at the end of the process. Unsupervised, odds are that several corners have been cut as part of the “fixing” of whatever problem there was. In this universe, a quasi-utilitarian mindset prioritises outcomes over processes. Ensuring that post-service, the vehicle owner (to take but one, familiar, example) is likelier to have more loose wires dangling beneath the bonnet than was the case before the vehicle was checked-in.
Vehicle headlights were not coming on? Fixed. Does it matter that the resistance on the replacement fuse is far in excess of what the vehicle’s manual recommends? Not if the headlights come on — which was the main plaint, to begin with. Try arguing with the vulcaniser that 40 pounds per square inch (that’s what the “PSI” on the driver-side door jamb stands for, by the way) isn’t the default pressure for car tyres, for example? Not only is he going to inflate the tyres past that point. But his gauge is nearly always decorative — completely useless for resolving further disputes in the not-too important matter of tyre pressures.
To insist on things being done properly, therefore, is to come across (in the estimation of the average Nigerian workman) as pernickety — prone, in other words, to wasting everyone’s time. Understandably, patrons of this persuasion get shunted to the rear of the service queue. After all, by being choosy and fussing over minor details, they drive up turnaround times, and cost a packet to keep in good cheer. In addition to which, they’re no less finicky attending to their properties than they’re when counting their kobos.
All of this is to nit-pick, though. In the end, the standout worry in all these transactions is our artisans’ apparent want of a proper sense of their cost of being in business. True, they do have a semblance of market segments, according to which they charge their clients tiered prices. But even this, incidentally, is a pretty rough-and-ready procedure in which bigger and newer vehicles get charged more than smaller and older ones. Clients in a suit, necktie, and all pay more than would those in T-shirts and jeans. Younger folks pay a little less than older ones. And longer-term patrons, those ones they call “customers”, are made to feel like every transaction is a favour from the service-provider, just before they’re properly swindled.
Across members of the artisanal community that I’ve met, I’ve laboured to make sense of the different pricing models that have been thrown at me. Invariably, once I am asked to pay anything for services just recently rendered (this because the artisan has done work for me more than twice, and on the basis of which we have “become family”), I run the artisans I do business with through the motley costs they bear — not all of which I know, and most of which they are not properly aware of either. The smile on their faces rapidly goes from patronising, to jaw-dropping incredulity. It gets more interesting when this conversation turns to their expected return on these costs. I always draw a blank at this point. Which is not so bad.
At the end of this process, it’s obvious that my poor artisan’s billing arrangement is in overcharging some and under-charging others in his portfolio of customers. I’ve been told that the “law of averages” should mean that these troughs and spikes even out ultimately. Conceptually, though, the problem is much bigger.
It’s not enough, I tell them that having covered their miscellany of costs, there’s a little left to cover quotidian needs — enough, that is, to meet feeding needs at home at the end of the day, and for the most part of tomorrow (including the kobos that make it easier for the kids to go to school every morning). Daily needs matter, true. But no more so than the need to set aside a portion of earnings for reinvestment in the business. “Do you have a service plan for your machine?”, I ask. “Not without it breaking down”, I always get told. “How about plans to replace it?” None. “Don’t you think the prices you charge your custom should include a plan to replace this machine at the end of its useful life, with a newer more efficient one?” No response to this query until I run through the concept of “useful life”. After which, I still draw blanks.
And another portion as savings. “How much of what you charge your customers include a portion that goes into your “kolo” daily?” None. “What, then, do you do, when there’s and unforeseen spending need — from the hospitalisation of a family member, for instance?” “It is on account of poor folks like us that God blessed people like you” is the most interesting response I get to this angst over the poor’s lack of savings.
At the end of this process, it’s obvious that my poor artisan’s billing arrangement is in overcharging some and under-charging others in his portfolio of customers. I’ve been told that the “law of averages” should mean that these troughs and spikes even out ultimately. Conceptually, though, the problem is much bigger. It is doubtful that any business can thrive in the absence of a rational estimation of the costs that drive it. This, unfortunately, explains the high mortality rates for micro- and small businesses.
It does explain more, however. When we point to the failure of government here (especially when, as under the current administration the failure is the result of a conscious decision to suspend the “laws” of economics and finance), the difficulty with explaining an alternative to bad policy choices lies in this failure of the artisanal mind. How can a people who cannot properly count their costs and compensate for it in a way that enhances the quality of their lives hold their governments to standards higher than we have been used to?