Monday, 16 July 2012

Am I A Busy Fool?

“Are you a busy fool?” I was asked that question last week in the context of The Productivity Puzzle. The Productivity Puzzle is something we currently face in the UK where overall employment has been rising, but overall production has either fallen, or is stagnant, as the economy flatlines. This is counter-intuitive, because, as employment rises, we would expect output to rise as well. It suggests that overall productivity in the economy is falling. One possible explanation of this is that, to a certain extent, we are becoming a nation of busy fools. A busy fool is one of those people who rushes around all day in a hive of activity, but actually achieves very little. They may be very busy, but they are not very productive. I am sure that we all know someone in our working lives who is like this.
My initial reaction was to say that perhaps I am a bit of a busy fool. The nature of our business model makes me so. The way it works for us is that our prosperity depends upon our professional reputation. We operate on the basis that free work builds reputation, reputation generates enquiries, enquiries lead to commissions, commissions give us the money to be able to undertake more free work. And so the cycle continues around and around. As our reputation grows, so does the level of fees that we can command. Without the free work (i.e. the busy fool element) at the start of the cycle, then our future prosperity will become severely impaired. A sacrifice of productivity now ensures greater productivity in the future.
As I was driving home from the meeting, I found this aspect of the conversation nagging away at me. I think that the aspect of the question that made me most uncomfortable was the time horizon that underlies the question. On reflection, I found the question to be very short-termist. An implicit assumption in the question is that every new hire needs to join an organisation at their maximum level of output. I question this on two counts. First, even the most experienced person needs a bit of time to find their way in a new organisation. We normally reckon on people needing six months to find their feet. Second, if inexperienced people are hired, then not only does it take much longer for them to find their way (we reckon on two to three years), but also it makes the existing workforce a little less productive as they have to support the inexperienced member of staff in finding their way. This diminishes the productivity of an experienced workforce, but it is part of the cost of training and developing people within an organisation.
The whole issue of productivity, particularly my own personal productivity, led me to think further about the subject of which we were talking. This needed a bit of deeper thought – a problem to take to the shed at the weekend. On deeper reflection, I am not happy with one of the underlying assumptions of the busy fool argument. To argue such a case makes the presumption that the purpose in life is to work productively (i.e. in generating money). What, I wondered, is the role of love and service (two important elements in my life) in this worldview? In thinking about it, I feel that we have touched upon a major flaw in modern economics. There is a presumption in economics that the role of the individual is to produce more stuff – the rational utility maximising economic agent. I haven’t lived that way for over a decade.
Instead, I operate a system which nowadays we call ‘enoughness’, and which previously we called ‘satisficing’. What I do is to arrange my affairs so that I can earn enough money to satisfy my material needs, plus a bit over so that I can put something by for rainy days, plus a bit more so that I can make a contribution to my community. Beyond that lies making money just for the sake of making money, which doesn’t attract me at all. In my present arrangements, this means that I only need to work one and a half to two days a week to satisfy my material needs. What, you might ask, do I do with the rest of the time?
The answer to that is quite complex. I spend time with my family (yes, I was the dad at the netball matches watching his daughters play in the frost) because I am not impressed by absentee parents. I devote time to providing service to my community. This occurs in various roles. For the past two years, I have been spending time with my local authority on helping them to cope with the problems of austerity whilst making their services future ready. They can’t afford to pay me a fee, so I don’t charge them one. I find myself working with young people, helping them to find their paths in a pretty hostile world. They don’t have the money to pay me, so I don’t ask for any. In my mind, although it makes me poorer in a monetary sense, it actually makes me far richer in a sense of well being. To my mind, in order to live a good life, one has to volunteer and to provide service to our communities, however we may define them.
Indeed, economists are now arguing that economics, as a discipline, has lost sight of the ends (living a good life) by an excessive focus upon the means (material accumulation). The argument is that, in order to re-adjust ourselves properly from our current malaise, we need to move away from the central premise that the purpose in life is material accumulation. This would represent a change in values which, if it caught hold, would revolutionise economic theory. The current body of theory, without the central premise of the rational utility-maximising economic agent, would simply fall apart. Economists could then learn what the rest of the world has known for some time: that economic theory is bunkum. It fails in its core purpose of describing the world as it is.
Taking the argument further, there are those who argue that our current problems stem from the real world not quite following the recipe laid down by the neo-classical logic of economic theory. If you doubt this, then brush up on the Efficient Market Hypothesis. We had a banking crisis because markets aren’t efficient when we assumed them to be. It has taken us five years to wake up to the real world being right and the theory being wrong, although there are still those, mainly in the United States, who deny this. Attempts have been made in the past to describe an economics without homo economicus. The revival of these works is a really positive step in the right direction. Who knows, we may even end up with a body of economic theory that is fit for purpose.
Coming back to the original question, am I a busy fool? I guess that I am. However, I would also argue that I am a better person because of it, and I would invite as many as possible to join me in my foolishness.
© The European Futures Observatory 2012