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.)

Update
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.)


13 comments:

D.W. said...

"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? "

I've heard dyed in the wool Socialists bring this up.

Maybe it wouldn't feel right to pay someone a living wage for 10 hours of work a week. What else would people do with there time? Perhaps use their tribal instincts to form amatuer football teams and other non-productive activities.

"e.g. society feels uncomfortable about letting its members have too much leisure time, i.e. time away from collective activity."

The workplace in general has always struck me as being a place of cut-throat selfishness - like Ann Rynd recommends, and the non-workplace is where collective activities are performed - which Ann Rynd hated because she was a frumpy geek.

" [The police] spend hours filling in forms and attending sensitivity courses, "

From personal experience I can tell you the police are intensely Racist. (N.B. capital letter)

"When we go into a pub the first thing we do is look for minority ethnics". At which point the train of conversation abruptly ends.

It's safer.

Good post as always; I look forward to the next one. Perhaps you could give your opinion on the causes and solution to the deep deep cultural depression in the west today?

Fabian Tassano said...

"Perhaps you could give your opinion on the causes of the deep deep cultural depression in the west today?"

I suggest you buy/read my book. (Sorry, but that plug was crying out to be made.)

Stu Savory said...

Parkinson's Law? Work expands to fill the time available.

And of course, as a society, we consume our excess productivity by paying people NOT to work (here in Germany anyway). We just call it unemployment benefit and/or social security.

Neil Welton said...

The bourgeoisie always feel uncomfortable when the proletariat have too much leisure time. For there is always the deep seated fear that crime, unemployability and social dysfunction will infect the lower orders and the copious products of their never ending mating. Much cheaper then to keep the "ancient hard wired tribal instincts" of the workers (along too with the future workers) trained, stimulated and then pacified by school, work, sport, religion and, of course, TV.

Jeremy Jacobs said...

You've struck a nerve here.

"Motion v Progress"

(as one sales manager said many years ago)

Fabian Tassano said...

“The bourgeoisie always feel uncomfortable when the proletariat have too much leisure time.”

Possibly. But then how does one explain the fact that the people suffering most at present from being corporate slaves seem to be middle class managers?

Seems to me it’s a more a case of: “Society feels uncomfortable if people with high IQs have too much leisure time. For there is always the deep-seated fear that they may have undesirable thoughts about the universe, or question the prevailing ideology.”

And/or: “One member of the bourgeoisie feels uncomfortable if a rival member has too much leisure time. For there is always the deep-seated fear the other may be better placed to use his/her abilities and move ahead of you in the evolutionary game.”

james higham said...

It's so true in the public sector, where I am much of the time. the amount of paper pushing, rushing in with documents for signature, rushing out to do this, all with terribly serious faces and it's all a waste of time.

Paul said...

"It's so true in the public sector, where I am much of the time. the amount of paper pushing, rushing in with documents for signature, rushing out to do this, all with terribly serious faces and it's all a waste of time."

Absolutely. I've worked in a couple of public-sector organisations, and pointless document-generation was endemic in both places. Unfortunately, there is a type of person (usually in management) who appears to believe that this activity is indispensable, and who will spend much of their time enforcing it. ...And after leaving one such place, procuring a useful piece of paper (a P45) from them has taken several months (and is still ongoing). I could've written it myself in five minutes, but no, one has to go through the official bureaucratic "process".

Neil Welton said...

"How does one explain the fact that the people suffering most at present from being corporate slaves seem to be middle class managers?"

Middle class managers are the proletariat surely.

Doing the bidding of the ruling bourgeoisie.

Captain Kirkham said...

"Yes, the standard of living has risen over the relevant timescale, but not nearly enough to account for this, in my opinion."

Trouble is, that is opinion, not fact. Do you actually know that this is the case?

Fabian Tassano said...

No I don’t know it’s the case. So it could be true that the reason managers seem to spend so much time on meetings, conferences, training courses, memos etc. is that it’s an essential part of the higher productivity needed to generate the higher standard of living. I just happen not to think so.

If it had been possible for me to make a career in academic economics, this might well have been something I’d have wanted to do research on, to ascertain what’s really going on. To do effective research you have to have an open mind, but it’s useful to have an idea of where there’s a possible paradox or anomaly, since that’s often where new insights are generated.

As it is, I’m limited to expressing opinions on a blog. Which are simply designed to stimulate thought. Particularly in directions which other people may be avoiding for no very good reason.

Neil Welton said...

"As it is, I’m limited to expressing opinions on a blog. Which are simply designed to stimulate thought. Particularly in directions which other people may be avoiding for no very good reason."

Other than the fear of being overly regulated or losing their jobs because they dare to question the consensus.

nigel warburton said...

I'm with you on the subject of pointless busyness in philosophy journals as it happens. Most of it is a form of box ticking or the equivalent of crossword puzzle solving. But at least in the age of e-journals fewer trees are dying to produce such mediocre results than used to be the case.