On a Spring 2019 walk in Beijing I saw two street sweepers at a sunny corner. They were beat-up looking and grizzled but probably younger than me. They’d paused work to smoke and talk. One told a story; the other’s eyes widened and then he laughed so hard he had to bend over, leaning on his broom. I suspect their jobs and pay were lousy and their lives constrained in ways I can’t imagine. But they had time to smoke a cigarette and crack a joke. You know what that’s called? Waste, inefficiency, a suboptimal outcome. Some of the brightest minds in our economy are earnestly engaged in stamping it out. They’re winning, but everyone’s losing.
I’ve felt this for years, and there’s plenty of evidence:
Item: Every successful little store with a personality morphs into a chain because that’s more efficient. The personality becomes part of the brand and thus rote.
Item: I go to a deli fifteen minutes away to buy bacon, rashers cut from the slab while I wait, because they’re better. Except when I can’t, in which case I buy a waterlogged plastic-encased product at the supermarket; no standing or waiting! It’s obvious which is more efficient.
Item: I’ve learned, when I have a problem with a tech vendor, to seek out the online-chat help service; there’s annoying latency between question and answers as the service rep multiplexes me in with lots of other people’s problems, but at least the dialog starts without endless minutes on hold; a really super-efficient process.
Item: Speaking of which, it seems that when you have a problem with a business, the process for solving it each year becomes more and more complex and opaque and irritating and (for the business) efficient.
Item, item, item; as the world grows more efficient it grows less flavorful and less human. Because the more efficient you are, the less humans you need.
The end-game · Efficiency, taken to the max, can get very dark.
I suggest investing a few minutes in reading Behind the Smiles by Will Evans. Summary: Certain (not all) Amazon warehouses seem to have per-employee injury rates that are significantly higher than the industry average, as in twice as high or more. Apparent reason: It’s not they’re actually dangerous places to work, it’s just that they’ve maximized efficiency and reduced waste to the point where people are picking and packing and shipping every minute they’re working, never stopping. And a certain proportion of human bodies simply can’t manage that. They break down under pressure.
Robots matter, but not in the way you might think. The idea was that robotized warehouses should reduce stress and strain because they bring the pick-and-pack to the employees, rather than the people having to walk around to where the items are. But apparently robots correlate with higher injury rates. Behind the Smiles quotes employee Jonathan Meador: “‘Before robots, it was still tough, but it was manageable,’ he said. Afterward, ‘we were in a fight that we just can’t win.’”
It’s important to realize that Amazon isn’t violating any rules, nor even (on the surface) societal norms. Waste is bad, efficiency is good, right? They’re doing what’s taught in every business school; maximizing efficiency is one of the greatest gifts of the free market. Amazon is really extremely good at it.
And it’s good, until it isn’t any more.
Efficiency and weakness · Let’s hand the mike over to Bruce Schneier. In The Security Value of Inefficiency he makes one of those points that isn’t obvious until you hear it. Quoting briefly:
“All of the overcapacity that has been squeezed out of our healthcare system; we now wish we had it. All of the redundancy in our food production that has been consolidated away; we want that, too. We need our old, local supply chains — not the single global ones that are so fragile in this crisis. And we want our local restaurants and businesses to survive, not just the national chains.”
Bruce is pointing out that overoptimizing efficiency doesn’t just burn people out, it also too often requires cutting into what you later realize were prudent safety margins.
How hard should people work? · Today, we assume the forty-hour week without thanking the generations of socialists and unionists in the Eight-hour-day movement, whose struggle started around 1817 and didn’t bear global fruit until the middle of the twentieth century.
But there’s nothing axiomatic about forty hours. Twenty years ago, France introduced a 35-hour workweek. Their economy still functions. And John Maynard Keynes, approximately the most influential economist in the history of the world, predicted his grandchildren would enjoy a 15-hour workweek. It seems he was wrong. But maybe only partly.
And of course Keynes himself worked like a madman. As did I, for most of my career. Because some jobs are just jobs, but others are vocations; people doing what they love, and who’d really rather be working than not. Nothing wrong with that.
Some ideologists of Capitalism think that every business should try to make every job a vocation, that people should be delighted with their work, with the benefit (for the capitalist) that you don’t have to hire that many. One famous example of this thinking is at UPS, the delivery company, whose leaders wanted the delivery people to “bleed brown”. Here’s an interesting take on the UPS story, in which the “bleeding brown” notion didn’t catch on.
And while there’s nothing wrong with vocations — I’m lucky and blessed to have found one — most jobs are just jobs. Whether it be a job or a vocation, work should at least leave time for a smoke break in the sun at the corner (or its 21st-century equivalent). And it’s perfectly possible that Keynes’ prediction could come true, in certain future economic configurations.
But, wealth! · If we all work less, we’ll be poorer, right? Because the total cash output of the economy is a (weird, nonlinear) function of the amount of work that gets put in.
That sounds like it should be important, until you ask basic questions like “how much money is there, and who has it?” The answers, pretty clearly, are “Too much” and “An inefficiently small number of very wealthy people.” Business Insider has a nice take on the problem, highlighting the evidence for and consequences of there being just too much money around.
In practice, interest rates stay low, governments can borrow more or less for free, and all sorts of crazily doomed shit is getting investment funding. There is really no evidence anywhere of a global shortage of money, and plenty for the existence of a surplus.
Stop and think · Specifically, do it when something is annoying you; at work, or in your personal interaction with a big organization. Could this be explained by someone, somewhere, trying to be more efficient? In my life, the answer is almost always “yes”.
Cracks · “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” sang Leonard Cohen. And there need to be cracks in the surface of work, in the broader organizational fabric that operates the world. Because that’s where the humanity happens. You can be like the people who optimize warehouses and call the gaps “waste”. But that path, followed far enough, leads to a world that we really don’t want to be living in.
It’s hard to think of a position more radical than being “against efficiency”. And I’m not. Efficiency is a good, and like most good things, has to be bought somehow, and paid for. There is a point where the price is too high, and we’ve passed it.