Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Too Much Productivity?

HAS the pursuit of labor productivity reached its limit?

Productivity — the amount of output delivered per hour of work in the economy — is often viewed as the engine of progress in modern capitalist economies. Output is everything. Time is money. The quest for increased productivity occupies reams of academic literature and haunts the waking hours of C.E.O.’s and finance ministers. Perhaps forgivably so: our ability to generate more output with fewer people has lifted our lives out of drudgery and delivered us a cornucopia of material wealth.

But the relentless drive for productivity may also have some natural limits. Ever-increasing productivity means that if our economies don’t continue to expand, we risk putting people out of work. If more is possible each passing year with each working hour, then either output has to increase or else there is less work to go around. Like it or not, we find ourselves hooked on growth.

What, then, should happen when, for one reason or another, growth just isn’t to be had anymore? Maybe it’s a financial crisis. Or rising prices for resources like oil. Or the need to rein in growth for the damage it’s inflicting on the planet: climate change, deforestation, the loss of biodiversity. Maybe it’s any of the reasons growth can no longer be safely and easily assumed in any of today’s economies. The result is the same. Increasing productivity threatens full employment.

One solution would be to accept the productivity increases, shorten the workweek and share the available work. Such proposals — familiar since the 1930s — are now enjoying something of a revival in the face of continuing recession. The New Economics Foundation, a British think tank, proposes a 21-hour workweek. It may not be the workaholic’s choice. But it’s certainly a strategy worth thinking about.

But there’s another strategy for keeping people in work when demand stagnates. Perhaps in the long run it’s an easier and a more compelling solution: to loosen our grip on the relentless pursuit of productivity.
Let's Be Less Productive. Tim Jackson, The New York Times

Based on the fact that this has been on the Times most emailed list, I think this article has struck a nerve with people. I think there's a widespread sentiment that what he's saying is true. I'm quite pessimistic, however, that these ideas will have any chance of making an impact. Our productivity increasingly benefits our rulers rather than ourselves. They've managed to make us work harder and harder for less and less. Why would they want to upset that?

For a contrary opinion, see this eyebrow-raiser: Why We Will Soon Have More Jobs Than People (Yahoo!)
The story "Jobs may outstrip people" by Duane Marsteller of The Tennesseean illustrates a surprising dilemma the region faces. It is the same story in Detroit. That doesn't even include the promise of "Cloud Computing." Northeastern University Economist Barry Bluestone finds the same thing happening all over the place.

That's because each generation's size is shrinking. People are having fewer kids, a combination of more workplace opportunities for women and the high cost of having and raising children. And far from the image of the permanently sputtering economy, businesses are attracted to America for its skilled labor, dynamic infrastructure and purchasing power.

Short of a baby boom that would probably create more problems than solve for future generations, the best solution is to work hard to create more skilled labor. Yet a number of political solutions seem designed to slash aid to college students, increasing the chances of experiencing this economic nightmare.

“A zoologist who observed gorillas in their native habitat was amazed by the uniformity of their life and their vast idleness. Hours and hours without doing anything. Was boredom unknown to them? This is indeed a question raised by a human, a busy ape. Far from fleeing monotony, animals crave it, and what they most dread is to see it end. For it ends, only to be replaced by fear, the cause of all activity. Inaction is divine; yet it is against inaction that man has rebelled. Man alone, in nature, is incapable of enduring monotony, man alone wants something to happen at all costs — something, anything… Thereby he shows himself unworthy of his ancestor: the need for novelty is the characteristic of an alienated gorilla.” 

― Emil Cioran

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