Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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October 21, 2008
"most productive" fundamentalism

Thanks to Horst Brand in the new issue of Dissent (Fall 2008), for pulling together a couple of the sources regarding recent trends in US worker productivity that TiR, 5 weeks ago, wanted but was too overcome by ennui to gather.
(tho Brand kick-started us into gathering them)

Brand's article is entitled "Rising Productivity, Deepening Inequality."

TiR's desire to collect and contemplate productivity data came in response to the prominent statements of a would-be champion of the American working class. This Champion identified the ("strong") "fundamentals" of the US economy with "the American worker," who was said to be "the hardest-working, the best-skilled, most productive, most competitive in the world."

Support for the Champion's characterization comes in last month's BLS data, which showed, as one commentator put it:
Not only are American manufacturing workers probably the most productive in the world, they keep gaining on workers in other countries.

"Productivity" seems to be a notoriously ambigous term. There's more to it than simply longer hours, harder work. Brand, in a footnote, lists examples of its components that include equipment, workforce competence and cooperation, the social division of labor, and so on.

However, earlier this year, Robert Reich zeroed in on one critical component of the engine of recent US productivity gains:
The typical American now works more each year than he or she did three decades ago. Americans became veritable workaholics, putting in 350 more hours a year than the average European, more even than the notoriously industrious Japanese.

Similarly, a month prior to Reich's column, a stalwart backer of the Champion explained how her state's economy presents a stellar instance of the strong "fundamentals" that the Champion later praised so highly:
I am so proud to be from the state of Minnesota. We’re the workingest state in the country, and the reason why we are, we have more people that are working longer hours, we have people that are working two jobs.

We wonder why it seems unsurprising that the Champ would bet a big pile of his chips on this aspect of the "fundamentals" as the hope for the future -- of his plan for the American economy (to the extent he has one) and his polling numbers (as reflected in his choice of campaign talking points).

The preoccupation (with, i.e., ever longer hours imprisoned in the workplace) parallels nicely with an ur-theme and fixation of his campaign, and its cluster of (vaguely sadomachistic?) assocations: the redemptive power of long terms of captivity in confined spaces; the importance of having a macho ability to withstand (or inflict on others) prolonged stress positions; implicit vision of a society in which (lower) tiers of the polis are reduced to an objectified mass, subject to increased fear, paranoia and constant physical surveillance and control; blah de blah de blah.

Then there are the more concrete reasons why certain more elite echelons can perhaps only pray that their ride on the comfy cushion of the US worker's axiomatically tireless productivity can be indefinitely extended. Robert Reich again:
The income of a man in his 30s is now 12 percent below that of a man his age three decades ago. Per-person productivity has grown considerably since then, but most Americans have not reaped the benefits of those productivity gains. They've gone largely to the top. . . .

The dynamics of the situation have been apparent for several years:
[A]lmost the entire gain from increasing productivity since 1980 has been appropriated as surplus by capital. The manufacturing sector neither lowered prices nor increased wages in keeping with the growing output per worker.

Brand in Dissent quotes an exhaustive 2005 study as follows:
[O]ver the entire period 1966-2001, as well as over 1997-2001, only the top 10 percent of the income distribution enjoyed a growth rate of real wage and salary income equal to or above the average rate of economy-wide productivity growth. . . .

Indeed, to the extent that the productivity growth 'explosion' of 2001-2004 was achieved by cost-cutting, layoffs, and abnormally slow employment growth . . . then the historical link between productivity growth and higher living standards falls apart. Not only have the bottom 90 percent of American workers failed to keep up with productivity growth, many have been harmed by it.
Brand took the above from "Where did the Productivity Growth Go?" by Ian Dew-Becker and Robert J. Gordon of Northwestern U. (downloadable in .pdf form here and here; abstract here; discussion of, here, with a follow-up paper discussed here)

Evidently, the previous hope for endless lifestyle sustainability and salvation from overreliance on productivity gains alone has worked out very nicely for some. So far.

But what if the trend begins to falter? What if the returns begin to diminish? What if that long-term strategy for growth is revealed to have been premised on a great deal of wishful thinking and illusion?

The gloomy Stephen Roach wrote a few years ago about the "productivity paradox":
[W]e are woefully underestimating the time actually spent on the job. . . .

This is not a sustainable outcome -- for the American worker or the American economy. To the extent productivity miracles are driven more by perspiration than by inspiration, there are limits to gains in efficiency based on sheer physical effort. . . .

Productivity growth is sustainable when driven by creativity, risk-taking, innovation and, yes, new technology. It is fleeting when it is driven simply by downsizing and longer hours. With cost cutting still the credo and workers starting to reach physical limits, America's so-called productivity renaissance may be over before Americans even have a chance to enjoy it.
(emphasis supplied)

Eek. How to respond to Roach's pessimism?

Last month presented one rhetorical option: Take umbrage!

"How dare the pessimists and elitists insult the American worker? And their productivity? And their ability to be ever more productive?

"Who says grandma and grandpa    grandson and granddaughter can't get a second job? And a third job? And a fourth -- to keep fuel in the multiple houses and superyachts of those who have them?

"To suggest otherwise is an unAmerican putdown against which the American worker must be chivalrously defended."


The Watching the Watchers blog last month took in part a narrower focus, one that TiR considered for the above post, on the possibly curious use of the word "fundamentals." However, our curiosity was more about whether a review of the word's recent history might perhaps show its strange migration from the context of micro- to macroeconomics, pushed via the lexicon of those who have aspired to see and run the government "like a business."

Maybe such persons (or their speechwriters) picked up the word from their perusal of investment prospectuses, their half-attentive attendance at corporate board meetings, or phone calls with their personal stock-pickers and financial advisors; thought the word sounded technical and impressive; and began to apply it willy-nilly to half-baked analyses of entire national economies. Who knows?

TiR considered developing this line of inquiry. But then, as usual, ennui and self-loathing overtook us, before we could post.

The more productive (than TiR) HuffPo seemed to be scratching its head along somewhat similar lines over use of the word "fundamentals".