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September 7, 2003 Mail "Light"

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I do send out some odd email, and receive equally odd email in return.  Here I will print some of it, with, now and then, my responses.   Before I post anyone's writing, I will ask your permission to post your comments and whether I should use your name or not, or use an alias you wish to use.
The mail flies back and forth regarding the success of the American economy ....

As I was putting together the magazine last weekend I came across this.  I was reminded of a conversation I had with a conservative friend of mine a few months ago as we finished off, after a fine meal, a second bottle of extraordinary Tuscan red wine, or maybe it was a third bottle, and maybe it was a Bordeaux.   Things were a little hazy. 


He was arguing, as I remember, something about the superiority of the American economy, and I was countering that not everyone wanted that kind of superiority what with the cut-throat competition and the way no one felt they could ever take vacation, or should, and the usual left-liberal stuff I trot out for such occasions. 


He tried to trump what I was saying by telling me to look at American productivity.  We were more productive than any other nation had ever been. 


I countered with a "So what?" kind of something or other, suggesting not everyone around the world worshipped productivity as we do.  Some folks liked a slower pace and liked enjoying life. 


The Italians were an example - one might consider the "slow food" movement that started there.  The French too with their long lunches, thirty-five hour workweek and long August vacations.  Some things are more important than productivity, or career. 


I'm not sure we settled anything.  But we did finish the wine.


I was reminded of that conversation when I came across the item below.  Looking at it one way, France is more productive than we are.  What?  We do pride ourselves on never taking vacation, or if we do, toting along the laptop and cell phone.  My friends do that.  They keep working, no matter what.


Here's the item: 

U.N. study: U.S. Workers Lead World 

Reuters  31 August 2003

U.S. workers top the world's productivity league table, with annual output having risen much faster than in Europe and Japan in recent years, according to a United Nations study published on Monday - Labor Day in the United States.

But they owe their prime spot for 2002 partly to the fact that they worked relatively long weeks and took few holidays, and output per hour in Norway, France and Belgium was higher.

Americans worked on average 1,825 hours in 2002, between 280 and 480 more than people in Norway, France and Belgium.

But their output per hour of $32 was below the $38, $35 and $34 respectively in the three European states. 

When I sent that out to my online discussion group I got this from one friend...

I may be confused here.  Does this mean the Europeans produce more expensive goods at a higher profit than the American worker, or that they get paid more per hour on average than an American worker?

I replied -

Damned if I know.  I think it means the folks in these three European countries each hour produce, on average, more crap no one wants to buy than a similar worker produces here in one hour.  But since we work far more hours than those folks, we OVERALL produce MUCH more crap no one wants.  Much more than they do.  We don't use each hour as well, but we spend a whole lot more hours producing crap.  So we win.  But they get more vacation time off.  Evil bastards.

And another friend commented:

Okay, so the French take more vacation time than we do, but to make up for it, they also have a higher output of work per hour, meaning they work too hard!   Or something.


I replied:

Being presently without position who am I to say what this means?  I perhaps have no right to comment on the economy, since I am not participating in it at present.


It is just odd. 


Getting hammered by the media and the politicians with the "we're the best, the rest are scum" line, over and over, day after day, I find it odd that a news services is actually allowed to report the "hourly" data here regarding the Norwegians, Belgium folk and the French.  It seems unpatriotic to point this out.  But I'm getting too sarcastic.  Time for another Diet Coke and some chat with the cat. 

The second friend then sent this -

[name withheld] does bring up a good point: What does the study use as its base dollar value? I'm assuming they mean to compare apples to apples as much as possible - for example, that Norwegians crank out $6 more an hour of roughly the same crap than Americans do.


But I have to largely side with what I think your conservative friend (who, of course, has said nothing here, so God only knows where I'm getting this) would think on your essentially negative view of markets.  Markets just don't work that way.  I think the problem with the latest "just-in-time" economic system is NOT that we have a huge surplus of crap nobody wants - markets these days try not to do that -- but that there isn't really enough of what people DO want.


I want a TV set with a mute button on the front, instead of having to locate the remote every time I want to say something to my kids; as far as I can tell, they don't make these. I want to be able to send and receive email from my laptop through my cell phone. (I used to be able to, but every few years, technology seems to take two small steps forward and one large step backwards, so there you are.) My first calculator, in the mid-1970s, cost $38 but it could do square-roots and had a backspace button so that if you made an error typing a large number, you could correct it without having to retype the whole thing; nowadays, they cost $1 but can't calculate numbers larger than a few million. I would like to watch a local news show that doesn't lead with murders and fires and car chases, but instead gives me intelligent little tidbits on what's happening around town.


Why don't markets give me what I want? Because they can so much more economically serve large crowds of folks who don't want to spend scads of money and will be just content enough not to bitch about whatever they end up with.


But speaking of productivity, how much am I making an hour thinking and writing about this stuff? Think I'll sign off here and go do something useless, for a change.

And that was some of the economic stuff discussed this week -statistics and theory.  And all week long items were being published in the press on the latest statistics.  Productivity is way up fewer and fewer folks are producing more and more.  Profits are up and labor costs down.  But workers still employed are working longer and longer hours and reluctant to take any vacation for fear of losing their jobs should they do so.  People who used to work fifty-hour weeks are putting in seventy or eighty.  And unemployment remains quite high.  Jobs keep disappearing - this week instead of the predicted 12,000 new jobs created, 93,000 were eliminated.  Economists are talking about a structural change in the economy, a situation where the more than two and a half million jobs lost in the last two or three years will never return.  Productivity is high and more workers just aren't needed, and much work that used to be done here can be done more cheaply, and done well, at a fraction of the cost in India or wherever.  Were productivity the sole measure of the health of the economy, things would be fine.

There are other ways to judge success.
We shall see how this all works out. 
All I can see is a bundle of economic problems and no good solutions to those problems.  We can indeed maximize profitability and hold labor costs down, by running "lean" organizations and outsourcing as much work as possible overseas, where good work just costs less.  Productivity will continue to soar.  But in doing so we throw a whole lot of folks out of work, and we sort of need those folks to buy the goods we can produce so efficiently.  They can't buy much if they don't have jobs.  But if you artifically create jobs that really aren't needed, or forbid businesses from seeking the best work at the lowest price, even if it is in India, then you really handcuff businesses.  So?  I don't see a way to fix this all.