Simple Ideas

Useless labor

Blogging | April 4, 2012

Yesterday I had to justify not doing something that was commercially impossible to do.

The “something” is getting back from Hawaii to San Diego on a Friday when I teach on Friday. Now even if I cut class short, the best I can do is a noon flight out of town. Since our travel system routes us through San Francisco, I don’t get to the mainland until 9 PM. Add in connection time and I can’t get a flight out of San Fran that lands in San Diego the same day. That means an overnight in San Francisco. Which is just about as costly as an overnight in Hawaii. So the facts is, given the state of air travel in America, I can’t get back on Friday.

But the travel guy has never actually been to Hawaii, doesn’t seem to grasp the time change issue and only has a rule that says “be back on Friday”. So the “fix” is to have our supervisor approve a deviation from policy to allow the only possible solution to take place. The net result of this is that every time we travel there to teach, we have an email chain that says that “we don’t have to do what we can’t possibly do.”

This may strike you as incredibly stupid. It certainly did me. More so since I just finished reading what Abe Lincoln had to say on the topic of labor. His argument is that the main determinant of the quality of our lives is the result of the labor of our fellow citizens. He then broke human endeavors into three classes-useful labor, useless labor and idleness. He argued that useless labor was exactly the same as idleness as far as society was concerned.

So there was the problem. And I can assure you that at my work there are a large number of ‘real problems’ that could be improved by useful labor. But we were now implementing a process that systematized useless labor.

Given this problem, there were at least two ways I could go. One would be to doff it off with “It’s the government, what are you going to do?” and then acquiesce. That is clearly the path of least resistance. And bureaucracies are designed to drive the masses into the path that gave rise to the idiom “you can’t fight city hall.”

Of course, I opted to go the other way. Institutionalizing stupid does not make it smart. So I expressed my concern about this approach and offered another. It was, as best as I can tell, ignored.

While it would have been nice to have extracted a stupid process and tossed it in the dumpster, I think there was value in arguing this one to no avail. I know, this is a fine point. If the process is stupid, isn’t arguing against it and losing even stupider?

I don’t think so. Here is why.

It goes to the Keynesian argument in economics that favors useless labor. Keynes says useless government spending is a societal good when done at the right time. His argument is that even though the labor itself does no good, the laborer getting paid does a net good by stimulating the economy with his pay. This argument has failed in practice and has been discarded by just about everyone on earth (true, Keynesians still exist in Econ departments and one US political party, but by and large Keynes was deposed in the 70’s when something he described as impossible, stagflation, occurred.)

But my point about bringing Keynes in at this juncture is to argue that even though some modern thinkers argue in favor of non value added work, it is clearly not sustainable. The reduction ad absurdum would have everyone digging holes and filling them back in for pay. And there would be nothing to eat, no place to live and no one to heal us up when our backs gave out from all the shoveling. Once again, that is that extreme argument, but I don’t think it can be totally dismissed when we are talking about institutionalizing useless labor. Once you start, how and where do you stop? Since I can’t answer that, I think the right answer is to call it out for what it is every time you see it. If a policy creates useless labor, that to me is a good indicator that you are staring into the maw of a bad policy.

No organization, no government, no business is perfect. But I think the amount of useless activity that goes on inside the organization is a fair predictor of the value of the organization. That is why I think useless labor is the most pernicious. Lincoln did not go quite that far in his writing, but he was heading down that road. The big problem with useless labor is that from a distance, you can’t tell it from useful labor. People appear busy and productive, but in the end nothing of value is created. Idleness, on the other hand, is clearly visible and the kind of thing that sets off the casual observer (i.e. a cop asleep in his car or a fireman playing checkers.) The fact of the matter is, many of the “cures” for idleness are just as bad as the idleness. Worse even if it is not clear that they are in fact useless.

Likewise, this is not the sexiest of topics. It doesn’t condense well to a sound bite. I can’t really come up with an advertising jingle or a captivating commercial to do battle with this. I think the solution is more along the lines of stamping it out on an individual basis. And I will say in that regard I am lucky at my current job. While I’m surrounded on all sides by policies that are destined to create a large volume of useless labor, I can by and large, tip toe around them and convert the labor I do into useful labor.

And you can do your windmill jousting with the local policy wonks. Every time a policy results in useless labor, I think you can make an argument for objecting. I’d say it’s almost a moral imperative.

But my bottom line argument has to do with quality of life, so I’m going to keep making it. Not in hopes of perfection, as we’ll never get there. But it goes to the argument called tournament theory. In that approach to life, all you have to do is be a little better better than the number two guy to be the number to come out ahead. So I think we need to keep fighting these small battles inside our organizations if we want to avoid sliding to the back of the pack.

Any Comments?

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