By the sweat of your brow

1924 Model T Assembly Line“There is something worse than a foolish son: a hard-working foolish son”

At first sight, productivity seems a good idea. In its simplest form, labour productivity, it measures the amount of output delivered per hour of work in the economy. The more productivity, the more output with the same effort, or the same output with less effort. Output is everything. Effort is costly. Therefore productivity is sought in modern market economies as gold was sought during the gold rush.

Some economists are pointing now (incorrectly) that productivity might not be so good an idea (Tim Jackson, “Let’s be less productive”). They reason that too much productivity is the cause of job losses in the global economy, and unemployment means fewer people have access to wealth. Therefore, they say, we should not continue to seek productivity rises.

As I have already argued, we should be more than happy to work less in order to produce the same output or even more. Keynes thought the same quite a few years ago:

“But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!” (Keynes, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”)

The problem is not productivity. The problem is that jobs continue to be the main and often the only possible access to wealth. In thousands of years we have not managed to find a better way to share the wealth we create in a fair and reasonable way:

The problem is not that the productivity revolution has caused unemployment or under-employment. The problem is its fruits haven’t been widely shared. Less work isn’t a bad thing. Most people prefer leisure. A productivity revolution such as we are experiencing should enable people to spend less time at work and have more time to do whatever they’d rather do. (Robert Reich, “The Answer Isn’t Socialism: It’s Capitalism that Better Spreads the Benefits of the Production Revolution”)

However, there is actually a dark side to productivity, and it is also related to this biblical curse that forces you to eat your food “by the sweat of your brow” (Genesis 3:19). The dark side to productivity is hiding behind the definition of “output”. Let me show you why:

I had a boss who used to say:  “There is something worse than a foolish son: a hard-working foolish son”. His remark pointed directly toward something nobody realises or wants to face up to: not all the output of everyone’s job is valuable. Sometimes output has a negative contribution to wealth: a foolish son (or daughter) who dilapidates his (or her) parent’s fortune after promoting a ruinous business.

If you analyse the net contribution of many of today’s jobs, you will divine the hand of many of those foolish children at work around you:

  • Tons of laws, local short-sighted regulations that prevent the fluid functioning of wide open markets, limit commerce and end up blocking development and growth. No, I am not thinking about any specific example, just speculating…
  • Forums, meetings, conferences, that nobody is really interested in, but are promoted to foster well-intentioned ends; and by the way, to keep working and pay a salary to “VIP” retired people, ex C-executives, ex-politicians, etc.
  • All counterproductive work behaviour and the work done by corrupt people who take advantage of their position to spoil other people’s properties, savings, etc. Take for example, the work of policemen who instead of being guard dogs become vultures who prey on the citizens they were supposed to look after.
  • You may continue the list yourself in case you have an appetite for depression…

Once you give someone a job/position, he or she will feel obliged to produce something, even it what he or she produces has no value or, even worse, has a negative value. It is even the case with serious jobs. G. Gordon Schulmeyer compellingly describes the effect on negative producing programmers on software development projects:

There are net negative producing programmers (NNPPs) on almost all projects, who insert enough spoilage to exceed the value of their production. So, it is important to make the bold statement: Taking a poor performer off the team can often be more productive than adding a good one. (G. Gordon Schulmeyer, “The Net Negative Producing Programmer”)

Or take physicians in this paragraph from an excerpt of Nassim Taleb’s forthcoming book “Antifragility”:

If you want to accelerate someone’s death, give him a personal doctor (…) Rory Sutherland signaled to me that those with a personal doctor on staff should be particularly vulnerable to naive interventionism, hence iatrogenics; doctors need to justify their salaries and prove to themselves that they have some work ethics, something “doing nothing” doesn’t satisfy. Indeed at the time of writing the personal doctor or the late singer Michael Jackson is being sued for something that is equivalent to overintervention-to-stifle-antifragility (“Noise and Signal – Nassim Taleb”)

If we did not rely on using jobs as a way of paying people and thereby distributing wealth, we wouldn’t have all this negative work. If we only measure output but not the real quality and value of output, we might actually be feeding a beast. Negawork might be the real reason why productivity is killing us.


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