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Originally published May 18, 1984

SEVERAL Sundays ago the New York Times business section had one of its recurring roundups of professional opinion on productivity. This is a live issue because publicists and politicians keep it alive. President Reagan and his retiring, but not bashful, chief economic adviser, Martin Feldstein, never tire of talking about it. The Atari Democrats also fancy the issue, though they began keeping their heads down once their advisee, Gary Hart, became a serious candidate for the party’s Presidential nomination. At least two White House commissions are supposed to have been working on the question for the past two or three years (no one knows the results, if any). Innumerable editorials have been written on it, and not a few books.

Yet the whole debate is an elaborate scam, because what is presented as a value-free examination by sober social scientists is actually a struggle over the distribution of the national income. Some (maybe most) of those perpetrating the scam may know not what they do. It is a scam, nevertheless.

As pseudo-science, the argument goes like this: Of the various factors of production, labor is the largest. Employees’ compensation-wages, salaries, bonuses, fringe benefits-comes to about two-thirds of the Gross National Product. That being so, it would seem plausible to take this largest factor as an index of the efficiency of the whole.

As the Times puts it, “A worker who produces 100 widgets an hour, for example, is clearly more productive than a worker who produces only 50 widgets an hour. ” There are many sleepers in the seemingly innocent example and the Times isaware of some of them: “the machines that are used, the worker’s education or skill, advances in technology, the working environment.” The worker can be praised or blamed for few of the items in this little list; most are someone else’s doing. That fact is not noticed by the judgmental types who complain that people don’t work as hard as they used to.

But the trouble with the Productivity Index starts with the GNP itself (see “Sinking by the Numbers,”NL, May2, 1983). The GNP has nothing to do with widgets, or with shoes or ships or sealing wax. The reason for this is obvious enough: You can’t add shoes and ships and sealing wax and widgets, any more than you can add apples and pears. All you can add is the prices of the widgets and shoes and so on, and you get a result in dollars that depends as much on the prices of widgets and shoes as on the numbers of widgets and shoes.

This is true for the economy as a whole, and it is true for the firms that make it up. Even the rare company that makes widgets alone judges its productivity in numbers of dollars rather than numbers of widgets. If it manufactures 100 widgets and can sell only 50, the remaining 50 are not products but waste. Companies that deal in a variety of products have no choice except to measure their total output in dollars.

Nor is this procedure necessary only in market economies. In the purest communism of our time, the brief reign of the Gang of Four in China, several streets in Shanghai were lined with thousands of boilers quietly rusting under the plane trees. Somebody had built them and no doubt got a commendation for exceeding his quota, but there was no use for them. They were waste, not products, and (if they’re not still there) they had eventually to be broken up for scrap.

The next difficulty with the GNP is as I argued last year – what it includes and what it excludes. The Times article provides a good example of the mischief that results. “Increased regulation,” says the Times, “aimed at such things as clean air and water and increased safety in the workplace . . . absorbed management time and business resources in the ’70s. Now that the pace of new regulation has slowed, if not reversed, business will be freer to concentrate its money and effort on other things, such as productivity.

“You’ve heard so much of this kind of talk that you may not be immediately struck by how fatuous it is. If you will read the passage again, you will notice the unstated (and unstatable) assumption that clean air and water and increased safety are worthless in comparison with more widgets or cheaper widgets or anything at all (a widget being the ultimate nondescript object). Well, there may be some things more important than clean air, but a widget isn’t one of them. In a rational world, what you produce is a more important question than productivity.

Productivity is a ratio (see Productivity: The New Shell Game,” NL, February 8, 1982). So far we have dealt only with the numerator. The denominator is suspect in its own way. The figure usually used is the total hours worked by everyone in producing the GNP. This is a moldy fudge. Since you can’t think how to quantify (except in dollars, of which more later) the relative contributions of the designer of the widget, the operator of the machine that stamps it out, and the fellow who sweeps up the scraps, you sweep the problem out with the scraps and conclude that Gertrude Stein would have been right if she had said, “Hour is an hour is an hour.” Or as Karl Marx did put it, “We save ourselves a superfluous operation, and simplify our analysis, by the assumption, that the labor of the workman employed by the capitalist is unskilled average labor.”

On this basis, you’d have to say that if a skilled journeyman carpenter could increase his output 50 per cent by taking on an unskilled apprentice, the result would be a 25 per cent decrease in his productivity. In addition, you’d have to say that the apprentice’s productivity was equal to the journeyman’s. Worse still, you’d have to say – and people do –  that it’s better for national productivity to have millions of men and women unemployed than for them to be working and producing less than their co-workers. The Times, for instance, says: “The entry of 20 million new and inexperienced workers into the labor force during the 1970s acted as a drag on productivity.”

Any theory that makes you say things like that is silly, and any figures that lead to such conclusions are mischievous. Productivity, at least as everyone measures it, is a grievously misleading notion. If you take it seriously, you believe that clean air and water and increased safety are bad and should be opposed. You believe, too, that employing young people and women and blacks and others without experience is bad, and that therefore an unemployment rate of 8 per cent is not merely acceptable but desirable.

IT MAY OCCUR to you to wonder why the denominator of the productivity ratio is “hours worked.” Why not “workers’ compensation?” Then at least you wouldn’t have silly results like our journeyman-apprentice example or the all-too-real unemployment problem. Then you wouldn’t have to pretend, as the Times does, that management has been wasting its valuable time on the environment.

You would, however, be in danger of calling attention to one of the hidden aspects of the scam – that is, the place of management, especially top management, in the whole picture. For the chief executive officer of a company is a wage slave just like the operator of the widget machine. As long as you focus on hours worked, you meld his allegedly productive hours with the less valuable hours of the operator, thereby improving the index and demonstrating your scientific willingness to put the faltering American workingman in as favorable a light as possible.

You also diminish the risk of having someone point out that CEOs are often paid five or six thousand times as much as widget machine operators (I’ll say more about this in another column). Or of someone separating management productivity from working-stiff productivity and introducing a brand new ball game: It would no longer seem that the Japanese are catching up with us because their production workers are workaholics, while ours are goof-offs; the catching up, if any, would appear to be due to the fact that they have fewer managers, who have fewer Lear jets, stretch limousines, three-martini lunches, tax shelters, and golden parachutes.

The scam has yet another aspect. Labor may be the largest factor of production, but looking back on the others the Times mentioned (“the machines that are used, the worker’s education and skill, advances in technology, the working environment”), you will note that the first and last of these are supplied by capital, the second is largely the responsibility of the state, and the third is a joint activity of capital and the state. A capital productivity index would be at least as reasonable, therefore, as a labor productivity index. The numbers would not be markedly different, but they’d have a vastly different meaning.

You can carry this a step further. For although productive capital is not money, it is bought with money, and money has a cost, namely interest. The prime rate has gone from 1.5 per cent (really and truly) in 1947 to 12.5 per cent today, having had flings as high as 21.5 per cent along the way. In other words, with every dollar American industry now pays (actually, or as opportunity cost) for interest, it is able to buy only one eighth as much of capital goods as it could have at the end of World War II (and this is without counting inflation).

There is the real drag on the American economy, and on the world economy. As I said at the beginning, the uproar about labor productivity is a scam to distract attention from a massive shift in the distribution of the goods of the economy. The share of nonmanagerial labor is being reduced; the share of managerial labor is being increased; and the share of those who do no labor, who merely have money, is being increased most of all. This is what Reaganomics.

(or, if you will, Volckerism) is about, and the Atari Democrats have been gulled into going along with it.

            The New Leader

Originally published September 19, 1983

LAST MONTH (NL, August 8-22) I suggested that the world’s Less Developed Countries might be better off if we denied their manufactures (mostly produced by multinationals) unlimited access to our markets. Here I propose to look at the problem from our point of view, starting with the reiteration of some observations I made a year ago about the Atari Democrats’ notion of inventing “sunrise” industries to replace “sunset” industries lost to foreign competition.

One of my points was that whatever we devise can also be devised or copied or, it is occasionally claimed, stolen elsewhere, particularly in the Orient. I must confess my astonishment at some people’s reluctance to accept this point, which seems to me as obvious as a sore thumb-now rendered somewhat sorer by the decision of Atari itself to start moving to Hong Kong. For again and again we have lost our domestic markets to multinational competition, with the results that millions of us are out of work and that our industrial plant is operating at 70 per cent of capacity.

The New York Times ran a story recently about the Sinchu Science-Based Industrial Park, currently being developed in Taiwan. “Sinchu has all the ingredients of Silicon Valley 20 years ago,” says Irving Ho, the park’s director. That may be commercial puffery, but why not? And how could anyone fancy it might be different with the as yet uninvented sunrise industries?

In the famous peroration of The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, Keynes wrote: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” The almost universal obeisance to the doctrine of free trade confirms this observation. Adam Smith lives, defunct though he has been these two centuries.

Adam Smith indeed lives – that is, has a place in history – and we will better understand our own place if we understand his. The first eight chapters of his Book IV [of The Wealth of Nations], where his thoughts on foreign trade are laid out, are not written in a vacuum. They are an explicit, devastating attack on the mercantile system and especially on Thomas Mun‘s England’s Treasure by Forraign Trade, the leading exposition of that system.

Foreign trade, as Smith saw it, served two purposes: it enabled countries to exchange surpluses, and it facilitated the division of labor by expanding the market. In furtherance of these ends he opposed the monopolies and bounties and other restraints on, or inducements to, trade that were root and branch of the mercantile system. And he advocated independence for the colonies, largely because he judged trade with the nearby Continent more profitable.

But a lot has happened in the past 200 years, especially in America, and this makes The Wealth of Nations a historical document, not a present help in trouble. Our domestic market is now far larger than any world market Smith could imagine, and the division of labor has gone far beyond the 18 operations in the manufacture of pins that he immortalized. More important, his merchant adventurers have been succeeded by our multinational conglomerates.

Today’s problem with foreign trade is that our industries are losing out to foreign competition or are being shipped abroad by the multinationals. This happens because foreign labor is cheaper than ours. We are told by the three Harvard Business School authors of Industrial Renaissance: Producing a Competitive Future for America that the members of the United Automobile Workers had better shape up because they are paid 80 per cent more per hour than their Japanese counterparts, who are, in addition, more productive. The American man in the street reads this and says, “Just what I always suspected. American automobile workers are way overpaid. No wonder we’re having this depression.” The American man in the board room reacts a bit differently. “It’s a healthy thing we’re having this depression,” he says. “Now we’ll be able to get those wage scales back down where they belong.”

I venture to suggest that there is another way of looking at these figures (whose accuracy I will not question at the moment, though I may do so another time). One might as logically conclude that Japanese auto workers are underpaid as that our fellow citizens in Detroit are overpaid. Indeed, on the basis of the history of industrial relations, I’d lay even money that a better case could be made this way than that. When you stop to think of it, the idea that a working stiff anywhere is overpaid is not, on the record, over plausible.

Everyone talks about automobiles, but they’re comparatively well off. Sol C. Chaikin, president of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, points out that 25 years ago imports accounted for 5 per cent of the sales of ladies’ and childrens’ apparel, but it is estimated that this year they will account for over 50 per cent. In the Peoples’ Republic of China, garment workers are paid 16 cents an hour; in the Federal Republic of China, the rate is 57 cents; and in Hong Kong it’s a little over a dollar. Does anyone seriously propose to reduce American wages (which in the garment industry are already low) to these levels? If not, what does the incessant chatter about “productivity” mean?

Fashionable economics tells us we should be delighted to buy cheap textiles from the Orient and should concentrate on selling “information” in return. Information about what? one wonders. Books are not meant, because they happily pirate whatever they want right now. Nor is hi-tech (as we’re learning to call it) meant, because our multinationals are already manufacturing “hardware” there. That leaves “software,” but that’s easy to pirate, too. And if Orientals should perversely take an interest in the data we busily beam at each other, they can pick up all they want off a satellite, with a disk they can make cheaply.

We’d better face it: until the world standard of living is brought up to ours, there is nothing whatever that cannot be manufactured less expensively abroad than here. Nothing whatever. How long will it take for the world standard to approach ours? If you’re old enough to read this, you’re too old to live to see the day. The question is, what do we want to do about it now?

There’s no doubt what the National Association of Manufacturers wants to do about it, or the Business Roundtable, or the Reagan Administration. They want to lower labor costs every way they can think of: cut wages, cut fringe benefits, cut safety regulations; and to keep those who still have jobs in line, cut unemployment insurance and welfare generally.

Let’s assume, however, that you and I don’t find labor-baiting attractive. Let’s assume we think it a good thing that the American standard of living is higher than the Japanese or the Taiwanese. If we make these assumptions, how can we protect our standard?

Well, the way to protect is to protect. First, we decide that certain of our important industries are threatened in our home market by severe competition from foreign industries. Second, we determine whether that threat is made possible by wages or conditions that we would consider exploitative. Third, we refuse entry to goods produced in grossly exploitative conditions.

The proposal is not complicated. It does not cover all industry but only the industries we declare to be important and threatened in our home market. It does not require elaborate cost accounting (as do the reciprocal trade provisions against “dumping”) but simply straightforward questions of fact: What are the wage scales? What are the working conditions? Is child labor employed? It does not interfere with foreigners’ or multinationals’ trade anywhere else in the world. In every respect the proposal is analogous to our present laws refusing entry to contaminated foods or dangerous drugs or unsafe automobiles. Those laws protect Americans as consumers; the proposed law would protect us as workers and, incidentally, as entrepreneurs.

IT WILL be objected that the proposal can’t work because it is impossible to compare foreign wage scales and working conditions with ours. In reply, I would enquire how, if the comparisons can’t be made, the noisy critics of the American workingman know he is overpaid. What is proposed is merely the reverse of the critics’ coin. The fact of the discrepancy in wages is accepted; but instead of saying that our fellow citizen Americans are overpaid, we say that our fellow-human Orientals are underpaid. Mathematically, there is no difference in what is said; morally, there is an astronomical difference.

Of course the comparisons can be made, and they will be invidious. The real question is, as the lawyers say, who should have the burden of proof? I am reminded of Thaddeus Stevens‘ reaction to proposals that the North tell the South eliminating slavery was not its war aim. “Ask those who made the war what is its object,” Thad growled. In the present case, I think we could reasonably ask those who want access to our markets to prove that their workers are fairly paid and fairly treated by our standards. American unions and American companies would have the right to challenge the proof. No need to make a big fuss about it, any more than a big fuss is now made about determining that certain foreign automobiles don’t meet our emissions standards or that certain drugs are impermissible.

No doubt many will argue against protecting the American standard of living. Two arguments stand out. The first purports to be consumer oriented. Cheap imports, it says, benefit everybody. But they don’t benefit those millions whose jobs are taken by the imports, and those other millions who are being forced back to the poverty level.

The second argument purports to be producer oriented. Restrictions on international trade, it says, threaten all our industries, because exports now represent our margin of profit. To this argument there are three answers: (1) Our really threatened industries-automobiles,

steel, textiles, etc.-have already lost their export markets; (2) our biggest export business-agriculture will continue because the world needs it; and (3) we have at home an unexplored market larger than any we might lose.

Our 14 million unemployed, plus the millions of working poor, plus their dependents, comprise a “nation” of up to 50 million people-bigger than all but a handful of the 157 members of the UN. In spite of our failures, these people are better educated than the rest of the world, have a better understanding of the work ethic, and are closer to the rest of us in needs and wants. If our national and industrial policies were directed to helping these our fellow citizens, there would be plenty of domestic business to keep U.S. industry fully occupied and highly profitable.

 

The New Leader

Originally published January 1, 1979

(Editor’s note – Occasionally the New Leader would print selections from correspondence in the form of a mini-article.  This is one)

NEW YORK-The United States probably could not and certainly should not do anything to advance or retard the palace revolution that now seems to be proceeding erratically in the Peoples’ Republic of China. We can and should, however, try to understand it, and our understanding will be clearer if we recognize at once that literal translations of Chinese political slogans and epithets are, let us say, inscrutable.

We of course have some experience ourselves with inscrutable politics. A long line of humorists from Artemus Ward through Mr. Dooley and Will Rogers to Russell Baker and Art Buchwald has found that taking political slogans seriously is always good for a laugh. And we are not alone among Western nations in this regard. The wit of W. S. Gilbert had a similar base; nor is political confusion dead in France, where one of the most conservative parties calls itself Radical.

The present Chinese epithet “Gang of Four” strikes us as a bit bizarre, but it is not likely in itself to mislead us. We know that the Chinese are fascinated by numbers; they have Five Kinds of Red and Seven Kinds of Black and much else. In the present case, the four people have been named, and there seems no reason to doubt that they shared similar ideas.

It is when we ask about these ideas that we run into trouble. The Gang was, we are told, counterrevolutionary, which is odd, because this is the very charge the Gang leveled against its successors. The Gang plotted a return to capitalism-again an odd coincidence. And the Gang distorted the Thought of Mao-still another odd coincidence.

Are we faced, then, merely with a clash of personalities? Is all the uproar caused by a personal aversion of Chiang Ch’ing for Teng Hsaio-ping? Or perhaps by his male chauvinism? Or, as in the ostensible occasion for the Great Cultural Revolution, by a dispute over a critique of a play produced two years ago? Such a reading of the situation is by no means impossible, and it does not exclude other complementary readings. There is plenty of precedent for this sort of thing, both in China and elsewhere.

A famous slogan of Teng’s may lead the way to clarification. “It doesn’t matter,” said he in 1967, “whether a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice.” Few Westerners, with the possible exception of doctrinaires like the late Joseph McCarthy, would dream of objecting to this sentiment, which seems the very model of no-nonsense, can-do, winning-is-the-only-thing pragmatism. Yet this apparently innocuous aphorism was an assigned cause of Teng’s fall from Mao’s grace in 1967 and again in 1976.

This happened for a reason surprising and simple: Mao Tse-tung, one of the greatest movers and shakers of history, one of the most successful of doers, one of the most eloquent proponents of dialectical materialism, was not, in the sense generally understood in the West, a materialist at all.

Mao and the Maoists were certainly proud of their material achievements. Wherever visitors went in the early ’70s they were informed that the farm or the factory or the school or the hospital had produced x before Liberation, 2x after Liberation, and 3x after the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. At the same time, it was clear that material progress was not an end in itself. The real objective was equality, material equality to be sure, but liberty and fraternity, too. The Cultural Revolution everywhere shamed and degraded those who enjoyed power or status in industry, in education, in medicine, in the Army, in politics, or down on the farm.

That the systematic-unsystematic, rather-destruction of elites disrupted production may have been a surprise to Mao, but it was evidently a price he was willing to pay. “The class struggle,” he reiterated, “is by no means over.” He followed the Marx of The Critique of the Gotha Program in insisting that distribution was not the problem, that once socialist equality was achieved material progress would take care of itself. In any event, there was for everyone to see the degeneration of the Soviets into the totalitarian bureaucracy of Djilas’ New Class. It was this bureaucratic society that the Maoists saw as Right deviationism, as opportunism, as, in the end, capitalist roadism.

A capitalist roader, then, is not necessarily or even probably sympathetic to the ideals or practices of American society. It is unlikely that free speech and the free market hold charms for him. He is, indeed, more likely to understand and seek to emulate the achievements of the Soviets. Mao, on the other hand, was attracted to the United States just because he found Russia repellent.

In short, China’s capitalist road is not an extension of Wall Street. There are no capitalists or protocapitalists in China, in power or out of power, and we will only be misled if we expect ideological slogans to make allies-or enemies- for us. We will find allies, and enemies, too, but we should look for them on the grounds of real rather than imaginary national interest.

GEORGE P. BROCKWAY
January 1, 1979

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