A misguided quest for 'productivity'

A nation measures what it values, and the way it measures goes far to determine where it goes. We need to pause often, therefore, and consider the litany of economic statistics the government and media parade before our eyes. These just might hold hidden agendas and paths that, if articulated, we might choose to avoid.

An example came a month or so ago with the release of the latest "productivity" statistics from Washington. It seems the nation's productivity fell by a whole tenth of a percent (although it was revised later). The news prompted hand-wringing and dark prognostication over impending economic decline. "Productivity drop alarms analysts," the headline in my local paper declared.

Productivity is a sacred belief among the policy establishment. As long as workers keep turning out more stuff per hour, the thinking goes, then the nation is on the path to a better life - a higher "standard of living." This belief has been drummed into generations of first-year economics students. It is a mantra in the media, and to question it is to invite ridicule and scorn.

Still, it is just a little strange. We Americans are not lacking for products. Our basements and garages are groaning. A warehouse industry has arisen to hold all our stuff. Yet they tell us that the benchmark of our economy remains whether we can turn out still more stuff per hour. Is that scientific principle, or fetish?

No question, a nation needs to become more productive in some sense. The question is, productive of what, and how? Consider: The official statistics measure productivity only in terms of labor. They don't include energy or other components of production. With energy becoming tight, and the environmental implications of its use more problematic, the productivity of a kilowatt of energy becomes no less important than the productivity of an hour of human toil. Yet for some reason we continue to flog the worker, and in effect let the petroleum and coal loaf on the job.

On top of that, the official statistics look only at the making side of the economy. They ignore the productivity of the resulting stuff. We are deeply concerned about reducing the number of persons employed in making the SUV. Yet, we show little concern that the SUV performs its job of getting people around with great waste of materials, gasoline, and space. We want to produce SUVs more productively but don't worry whether the SUVs provide transportation more productively.

The ultimate question, of course, is where this productivity is taking us in the first place. The usual answer is the higher "standard of living." We'll have more stuff for less money, and in theory, at least, we'll have more leisure time, too, to enjoy all the stuff.

That assumes a great deal. It assumes, for example, that more stuff produces more happiness. Yet for many Americans, shopping has become an addiction - something they literally can't drop. Buying doesn't satisfy; it just whets the appetite. Then, too, the happiness quotient becomes dubious when the stuff in question includes, say, a cellphone with which someone intrudes upon your peace.

If more stuff always meant more happiness, then the US would be the happiest nation on earth. Instead we seem to be the most stressed. As for increasing leisure, could someone please tell us where it went? The more we pursue it the more it seems to disappear.

The quest for productivity, as conventionally defined, has a hidden corollary: We all must consume ever-increasing amounts to keep the same number of people working. We have to eat more, drink more, buy more clothes and electronics. Why are cola bottles today three times larger than they were in mid-century? It's not because kids need the calories - as the rising obesity rate among children suggests.

If all this begins to sound a bit like a Charlie Chaplin movie, it's because it is. The escalator has become a treadmill. The economy needs our buying more than we need much of the stuff we buy.

There was a time in history when the old formula worked more or less. When products were scarce and needs were large, the old version of productivity did tend to produce a more satisfactory mode of life. But yesterday's answer can become today's trap. We need new ways of thinking about productivity - ways that look to the production of well-being, rather than just an ever-increasing accumulation of stuff (and stuff equivalents called "services").

This will require a big shift of mental gears. Increasingly, the things people crave don't arise from production. Rather, they arise from refraining to produce. People want quiet and not just cellphones and jet skis, open space and not just shopping malls. Perhaps this is one reason the Alaskan wilderness looms so large in the energy debate. It is a symbol, not just a thing - a symbol, perhaps, of our growing desire to not do, to leave things alone.

Thoreau observed that we Americans are enchanted with "improved means to unimproved ends." Just maybe people will look at the unspoiled Alaskan wilderness a century from now and say, with thanks, that 2001 was the year in which we finally began to turn around. What better way to begin this new century than to stop worshiping at the altar of means - productivity - and start improving our ends instead.

Jonathan Rowe is a fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute, and former Monitor staff writer.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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