Thursday, 7 June 2012

Let's be less productive

I like this opinion piece in the New York Times Sunday Review, for most of what it says, but there are still underlying assumptions with which I disagree.

The author (Tim Jackson) uses this definition of productivity: "the amount of output delivered per hour of work in the economy". So productivity = output / time. OK, but what is output, and how do you measure it?

Here's where Jackson goes a bit wonky, in my view:

"there are sectors of the economy where chasing productivity growth doesn’t make sense at all. Certain kinds of tasks rely inherently on the allocation of people’s time and attention. The caring professions are a good example: medicine, social work, education. Expanding our economies in these directions has all sorts of advantages.

In the first place, the time spent by these professions directly improves the quality of our lives. Making them more and more efficient is not, after a certain point, actually desirable."


"the time spent by these professions improves the quality of our lives". No - Jackson has mixed up his quantities. If he had said what I think he means - 'the output of these professions improves the quality of our lives' or even 'the output of these professions is improvement in the quality of our lives' - then I would agree with him. The point is that output that does not improve the quality of our lives should not be seen as positive by society, even if economics does not discriminate this.

Jackson also misses the point about employment, in a related way, by classing all employment as good even if is not beneficial to the quality of our lives. I disagree. Here are quotes from Jackson making the point:

"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."

Less work to go around is GOOD. It seems obvious, doesn't it?

"Increasing productivity threatens full employment." Yes it does, but so what? It is right to be more productive in improving the quality of human lives .

"there’s another strategy for keeping people in work when demand stagnates".

There is, but our end (and therefore our strategy) should be improving the quality of llives, not keeping people in work for its own sake.

"By easing up on the gas pedal of efficiency and creating jobs in what are traditionally seen as 'low productivity' sectors, we have within our grasp the means to maintain or increase employment."

 No. We should not be less efficient in improving the quality of people's lives. We should be more efficient. Again it seems obvious. Jackson is limiting his definition of efficiency to cost efficiency.

"At first, this may sound crazy; we’ve become so conditioned by the language of efficiency."

Yes it is crazy  because we have been conditioned by the language of cost efficiency, albeit just called 'efficiency' and not of resource efficiency.

We have to use less non-renewable resources (here I agree with Jackson) and we should aim to increase total life quality (as I believe Jackson agrees). We should pull in the human labour we need to do both these things, not seek to create work for its own sake.

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