Guest Post: Productivity

A guest post from a reader:

From time to time some well-meaning and probably very intelligent and able person bemoans the failure of New Zealanders to improve their productivity. Some time ago, puzzled by this, I contacted a statistician to find out whether it really was possible to measure this very nice word, as the people who wring their hands about it aren’t statisticians. His answer was that it is a very difficult thing to measure, and that is what I thought, and still think. It may even be impossible to measure accurately.

The way I see things is that we are bathing in if not wallowing in ongoing improvements in productivity that we often have no choice but to employ, and otherwise can choose whether or not we employ them. In my working life, in my personal life, in my observation of social life, dramatic changes and improvements in productivity have been all around me, thrust on me. It just seems bizarre to be told otherwise.

Here are some trivial examples, chosen precisely because they are trivial. 1) My car. It was once necessary to have a warrant of fitness check every six months, but improvements in motor vehicles now mean I only need to do this once a year. This means the expense and time involved whether or not repairs are needed are roughly halved. But not only that, the time thinking about it is reduced from twice a year to once. That may be trivial for me, but multiplied by the team of five million it’s actually non-trivial, and in my case it means I can think about something else entirely instead and this may be quite earth-shaking. 

2) Not only that but my rego notice comes through email. I can pay online. The poor old Post Office only gets one opportunity to deliver something related to this once a year instead of three times (letter to me telling me to renew, letter from me including cheque, letter to me with rego). The PO may get a slight boost from being the agency for in person payments but. . .well, you must get the idea. These are very small beer factors in a universe swimming in productivity improvement. 

I worked in journalism for about a quarter century. When I started there were banks of reporters and subeditors using typewriters and carbon paper. When I retired the newsroom where I worked had two rows of subs at one end and two rows of reporters at the other of a vast space once filled with workers. Measuring that is not easy but I know that going from a typewriter to the Atex system on a computer multiplied my output many times. 

Today the print media is mostly online, and there is a great range of copy available. Where once it was pretty much a duopoly there are many choices, some free, some subscription. Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” has been at work; the new technology is cannibalising the old. 

And it seems to me pretty obvious that what has been true of that profession is generally true. 

Everywhere we look just about changes in productivity make our lives different and for the most part sez your admittedly unworthy correspondent, better. New Zealanders are “early adopters” of new technology for the most part, at least as consumers, and “early adoption” means improved productivity, even if it is not the productivity employees, employers or businesses or others (teachers, for example) might like. We can be confronted by these improvements too. They may challenge us, but we accept them in the end.

It is true I am not young. But look – virtually everyone living today will experience the entire life cycle of productivity improvements. In my case this includes the fax machine, the video cassette, the sound cassette, the CD-Rom, the electronic typewriter, certain diseases*, and who knows what all. In my case I also have seen the end  of life of many other cycles, including the typewriter, but many many other once vital tools of daily life.

Karl Marx – yes, that one! – claimed that our species “only sets itself such problems as it can solve”. He went to great lengths to illustrate this and his observations really do repay the effort. An example of this in our time, it seems to me, is the present pandemic. This has been a wrenching experience  on every level and of course very tragic for those who’ve been ill or worse. It was caused as a global phenomenon by the very existence of a global economic system (as was the influenza epidemic after WWI). Its solution has also been global and the challenge has in viral terms been met. Typically vaccines need quite a number of years to be developed yet more than a few are now out there after one. Who is measuring that productivity? How are we going to compare that against the loss and distruption?  The problems thrown up by it, social including economic, will be solved in the end. That’s how the system works! Until it doesn’t work any more. The aforementioned Karl M said it’s only when the capacity to meet needs is exhausted that this can happen, and of course that’s a matter of subjective judgment. Certainly it’s not here today, in our place.

So here we are, confronted by ongoing, one could say relentless improvements in productivity, and we’re told that we’re not doing well enough. “Work smarter, not harder”! We are doing both, as we should. But it seems to me that New Zealanders are given far too little credit for how they manage in this world, far from markets, and needing to maintain infrastructure and its ever increasing demands in a country the size of Britain or Japan with a fraction of the population. We’ve got problems without doubt. Auckland for one! Dear reader, do you realise that New Zealand is the only developed economy of any geographic size with so much of its population in one place? That’s the elephant in the room, caused by productivity demands, yet the productivity worshippers don’t seem to notice it. Still, I’m with Karl on that one.

*(I was a “Salk baby”, one of the first to get a polio vaccination in a city rife with this terrible disease, which is now apparently out of circulation. How does one measure my productivity as a walking human being instead a life-curtailed one in an iron lung? Don’t answer that, but think about this: Charlie Haden, a truly great bass player, took up the instrument instead of making his living as a singer after getting this disease affecting his throat. How do you measure that?)  

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