28 February 2007

Pointless busyness

Another theme of mediocracy: pointless busyness. Looking like you're doing something, you have a terribly full schedule (lots of meetings, courses, and so forth), reports/memos must be written and read, etc. etc.

Probably affects public sector workers, e.g. police officers, medical professionals in the NHS particularly badly.

If you ask, does anybody actually benefit from all this activity, it's not clear.

One of the central mysteries of modern Western economies is this: Why, when technology has vastly reduced the amount of manpower required per unit of output for most goods, do most adults of both sexes end up working all the livelong day? Yes, the standard of living has risen over the relevant timescale, but not nearly enough to account for this, in my opinion.

I would like to postulate the following answer to this conundrum. One of the features of contemporary Western social culture is that content is replaced by appearance, and this seems to have happened with work as with everything else. So policemen, for example, spend hours filling in forms and attending sensitivity courses, but aren't actually available to help with burglaries. Or, the number of personnel employed by the NHS goes up and up, but the quantity of medical care delivered actually goes down. (By "medical care" I mean things that patients actually want, rather than things delivered by diktat.) And similar things probably apply to most other professions these days.

Precisely how and why this could have arisen is unclear. Perhaps there is some hidden collective motivation at work, e.g. society feels uncomfortable about letting its members have too much leisure time, i.e. time away from collective activity. (Perhaps based on ancient hard-wired tribal instincts?) In industrial economics, there is a phenomenon known as "rent dissipation". Two member firms of a duopoly with market power compete away their surplus profits ("rents") by means of pointless expenditure. E.g. Coca-Cola and Pepsico compete away their monopolistic profits by spending millions on TV campaigns which ultimately gain neither firm any market share. Perhaps something similar goes on in societies, to keep people occupied for however many hours the culture dictates should be worked. This seems counter-intuitive, but then we have known since Freud that people don't always behave consistently with what they say they want.

There's an interesting article about this in relation to academia in a recent issue of Oxford Magazine. As it's not online, I've reproduced it below in JPG format. (Click on each of the two images to read.)

On a related note, there's a post about whether "thinking hard" — or looking like you're thinking hard — beats quick judgements, over at Stumbling & Mumbling. (Though I have a problem with the associated question, referred to at Virtual Philosopher, of whether weblogs are compatible with "the rigour, discipline, and seriousness of real, grown-up philosophy". Although Nigel Warburton thinks yes, it sounds like he also believes that the sort of stuff typically published in current philosophy journals constitutes "real, grown-up philosophy". I don't know what "real" and "grown-up" are supposed to mean, but if it's "having real intellectual significance" then I don't share his belief about journals.)

Via Mark Thoma, I just came across this article in the NYTimes by Hal Varian on whether leisure time has increased significantly since 1900. Apparently it has not. So some empirical support for my anecdotal data, even if not for my speculative theory. (Incidentally, I have a certain fondness for Varian, as he wrote one of the few microeconomics textbooks free of gobbledygook and gametheoretical pretentiousness — Microeconomic Analysis.)