The Problem with Productivity

I may have mentioned before that I stay in contact with a number of friends collectively known, at least among ourselves, as the “Mutants of the Round Table.” Our group appellation has nothing to do with Arthurian legend. It derived from us meeting in the cafeteria of the office complex where we all once worked and sitting at a large round table for lunch. There we would discuss weighty issues of politics, philosophy, religion, and other things geeks talk about among themselves when there is little chance of offending ‘normal’ people. Occasionally, other subjects would come up — things like women or sports, but as many of us were relatively unfamiliar with these or found them less interesting, our conversations about them tended to be brief. We’ve gone our separate ways since then, but we keep the email conversation going. There are still world problems to resolve.

We are not a diverse group. We are all white, college educated, and male. Despite these similarities, we have varied political and philosophical outlooks and our conversations can become heated. When especially incensed, some of us have been known to RESPOND IN ALL CAPS – sometimes even ending with an exclamation point! Yes, we can be an impassioned and opinionated bunch.

One topic that resurfaced recently was the economy. This one comes up a lot. We all have ideas about what should be done or not done to fix things – including those who don’t believe anything needs fixing. I’m in the camp that sees a fundamental problem and I hope there is something I’m missing.

Let me take a moment to digress here. I read a lot of science fiction. I especially enjoy tales that look at current events and extrapolate what the future might hold and how people respond to changes that occur over time in science, technology, politics, or belief systems. Normally in such stories, as in real life, a culture will survive if it can adapt to change. If it cannot, it collapses. (I prefer those stories in which people show enough intelligence to prevent catastrophe.)

(Yeah, I do have a point and I plan to get to it soon. It’s not funny or related to my books, writing, or anything like that. This post falls into the category of ‘things that momentarily excite, annoy, or distract me.’ Feel free to skip it, but thanks for sticking with me this far. I’m sure I lost all the non-geeks a couple paragraphs ago. I probably need to figure out a way to put more sex and sports in these things.)

I believe we (the U.S.A., Europe, and the U.K. especially, and soon the rest of the world) may have an emerging economic problem related to our success and we will need to adapt to deal with it. High unemployment might be a symptom of this.

(Just another digression. I’m especially peeved about unemployment because my son who recently earned a Master’s Degree in Aerospace Engineering can’t find a job in the field and he has student loans to pay. If anyone can offer him a job building spaceships, I’d appreciate it. His thesis was on nuclear powered spacecraft, and I have no doubt he could design anything from a robotic asteroid miner to a multi-generational interstellar starship. He’s a bright lad and quite good-looking, too. He takes after his humble dad. His likeness appears on the cover of my book ‘The Warden War.’ But enough of that. Now, back to our previously scheduled blog post.)

The success I’m concerned about is productivity. In terms of human work hours per unit of production, we have made great improvements in productivity since the industrial revolution in all areas I can think of. Whether we are talking about a piece of hardware, transportation of a product, a ton of food, an article of clothing, or pretty much anything else, it takes fewer hours of human labor to produce now than it did before, and those productivity improvements are continuing in many areas. We’ll probably never get to a point where it will take no human labor to produce everything we need. Unless somehow we have robots doing everything, to include designing and building new robots, people will still need to be productively employed. In the future, however, it seems likely that we will be able to make whatever we need with less human labor than it now takes.

So why is this a problem? It’s not, or at least it doesn’t need to be. Productivity improvements have led to items costing less. Most people really can now have ‘a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage,’ as Herbert Hoover summarized prosperity in his 1928 Presidential campaign slogan. People have benefited, their lives have improved, and all we have to do is continue on like this, producing more and consuming more until everyone can have an infinite number of chickens and cars, right?

Well, no. At least, I don’t think so. The more production / more consumption train can’t go at full speed forever. Resources are one limiting factor. If we could continue to consume as much as we could make, we’d eventually run out of the resources to do so. Even if resources were infinite, though, we would still have a problem.

No matter how productive we become and how inexpensive we make things, there will be a point of market saturation. Even considering population growth, there are only so many things people are likely to buy. Certainly, creative advertising can entice us to spend vast amounts of money on things we don’t need, but even incredibly rich people who have more dollars than sense can only buy so many houses, cars, or yachts.

The problem we may have in the future if productivity continues to improve is that we will have the ability to make all things we might need except for people able to buy them. By making more stuff with fewer people, we will end up with a surplus of both stuff and potential buyers for that stuff, at least from a free market perspective.

From a purely economic standpoint, businesses are motivated to produce as much as they can sell, to employ only the number of people needed to make those items, and to get as much production from each employee as possible. They will not make things they can’t sell and they will not employ people they don’t need.

You probably see what I’m getting to, but I’ll try to summarize a bit. Let’s say you are an automobile manufacturer. You will produce as many cars as you can sell, right? So let’s say that in 1920, it took one-hundred hours of labor for you to make a car. In order to keep selling cars, you need to produce them as efficiently as possible because if you don’t, your competitors will. That’s all well and good, and it encourages advancements in technology. You’re successful, you embrace new technology and methods, so by 2020, you can produce a car with only ten hours of labor, and it’s a much better car. (Note – these are not actual figures.) There is no problem so long as the demand for cars continues to increase. With greater productivity, you increase your production far more than you increase your workforce. This increases profits and makes your investors and managers very happy. But eventually, everyone who wants a car has one. They replace them when they can afford to, but your slacking customers are not producing new consumers as fast as you need them to. Your market has plateaued, but your productivity improvements have not because you are still motivated to be more productive than your competitors. The only way to increase your share of the market is to take it from someone else. Some companies will continue to grow but only at the failure of others. Regardless of which companies come out on top and which go under, eventually, the industry overall will have to reduce its workforce.

But those who end up out of a job as a result were not just workers, they were also consumers, and without a job, they are likely to be consuming far less.

No problem, right? They’ll just get a different job. But all other businesses have the same motivation to improve productivity, and they, too, can find themselves requiring fewer workers to produce all they can sell to meet a now shrinking demand. The result, if you stick with our current definitions for ‘fulltime’ work and compensation, is increased unemployment and shrinking demand, which dominoes. The workforce shrinks, causing the market to shrink, causing businesses to cut back, causing the workforce to shrink again…. One can only increase the market so much, and no matter how good your advertising is, you can’t sell to people who don’t have jobs or money. It’s like telling the peasants to ‘eat cake.’ I’m sure they’d love to, but they can’t, so they don’t.

The problem isn’t productivity per se. Increased productivity allows us to produce more with less labor. Who would say that’s a bad thing? The problem is that we see labor as a cost of production to be minimized and profit as the thing we want to maximize. Instead of filtering productivity benefits to the actual people who produce things, it turns into profit for owners and managers who must reduce their labor force to remain competitive and keep their profits flowing as long as possible.

At this point, the most conservative of the Mutants would probably argue that the owners will use that money to buy things like yachts and planes and that will create jobs. Yes, a few. But use the same amount of money to keep a thousand people employed, and they’ll buy a thousand homes, and a thousand cars, and keep local small businesses open. They also won’t be drawing unemployment or welfare and will be less likely to resort to crime. In terms of best use of capital for the overall economy and society, there’s no contest.

“Ah, but you can’t do that,” he might say. Why would anyone hire more people than  they need even if they did have the money to do so? It makes no sense. And, of course, he’d be right if labor hours per employee were fixed, but they’re not.

The ‘normal’ eight-hour workday is a fairly new idea. Up until late Nineteenth Century, a ten or even twelve-hour workday was common and worker benefits were rare. But increases in productivity allowed the possibility for shorter work hours. Of course, businesses had to be willing to share the benefits of increased productivity with their workers rather than reap all of the benefit as profit. Many would not do this willingly. Workers had to strike for an eight-hour workday. The most famous such strike, perhaps, was the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago, which ended quite messily and which is now commemorated each year by International Workers’ Day on the first of May. (Oddly enough, it is not so recognized in the U.S.A., which celebrates ‘Labor Day’ in September instead.)

My point here isn’t that workers need to unionize or strike for shorter work hours. My point is that a shorter workday may be one way to avoid unemployment and economic problems resulting, ultimately, from increased productivity. A market economy is, at the core, a balance of production and consumption. It is people earning money by producing goods and services and exchanging that money for goods and services provided by others. From a narrow, individual perspective, both that of a worker or of a business, the goal is to maximize the amount of money earned and minimize the amount of money spent to buy what you need or want. From a broader societal perspective, the goal is go keep everyone employed so that the production/consumption cycle is not broken. When the amount of labor required to produce everything needed falls, the best course of action for a business is to reduce the number of employees. The best course of action for the society at large, however, may be to reduce the number of hours each employee must work for the same pay and benefits. At least, that’s how it appears to me. The advantages to such a strategy seem obvious so I won’t belabor them. The only disadvantage I see is to business profits, which, at best, would be short term if they were gained at the expense of employment.

Of course, worker pay and benefits, if such exist, must be retained at least at present levels, though. Many companies, especially retail stores, already limit the number of hours per employee so they won’t be considered ‘fulltime’ and therefore eligible for benefits such as medical insurance or paid holidays. This makes perfect short term sense for them. They can reduce the cost of labor overhead by hiring more people who each work fewer hours. Reducing the number of hours people work each week may be necessary in the future, but it must not come at the cost of worker pay or benefits. From a purely economic standpoint, this makes the employees poorer consumers.

Another possible mitigating strategy might be to lower the retirement age so that people can retire earlier and open jobs for younger folks. I just don’t see a realistic way to do either of these things, though, because both will cut into short-term business profits, and business profits, at least in the U.S.A., have somehow achieved a sacred status that lowly workers must admire from afar but dare not touch. I’m fairly sure nothing will be done anytime soon that might adversely affect them, so I’m doubtful that our society can adapt to the economic changes caused by increased productivity. If something like this does not happen, though, I can’t see how increased unemployment and a declining economy can be avoided without a whole lot of government spending, which is also unlikely given the current political environment. But that’s another issue and one I won’t rant about, at least not here.

As you may have probably surmised by now, the Mutants can have rather long, esoteric emails. I will try not to write any more posts like this, but this issue has been on my mind recently, not as something I can do anything about but mainly as an intellectual and philosophical question, as are most of the things the Mutants discuss. In any event, I promise my next blog offering will be much more fun and related to books and writing.


About Dave

A reader and writer of speculative fiction. See my website for more information on me and my writing.

Posted on May 6, 2012, in Thoughts and Observations and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. This post resonated with me. I’m in the same boat as your son. Since I graduated school in 2003, I’ve never had a 9-5. Back then, there was a mini-recession going on. So I started temping, you know, doing little jobs like reception and managing databases. It wasn’t what I was trained to do, I should have been making at least $24 a hour but instead, was making 60% less than that.

    I figured, things would get better, I mean how long can a recession last? Four years later, things indeed got worse!

    Some of my friends had college alumni associations that warned them to start sending their resumes overseas. I thought that was crazy, but then I had to look at my own situation.

    Now, I’m striking out with my own business, I’ve published a book and have much more down the line. It’s a huge risk and it terrifies the hell out of me, but what other choice do I have? Stay in the same boat for the next 10 years while I wait on the world to change?

  2. Nice article with original point of view (and quite right). Complicating fact (and hardly mentioned) is the growth of services during the last century. An increasing part of the work force will find a job in that sector. May be the number of people employed in the services tells us also something about the development of an economy.

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