Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Time-saving technology destroys our productivity (spectator.co.uk)
187 points by chesterfield on Jan 12, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 149 comments

>In 1929 John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2029 people in the developed nations could enjoy a perfectly civilised standard of living while working for 16 hours a week.

This is true today if you wanted to live at the same standard of middle class living in 1929, complete with eating only meals hand cooked from base ingredients and no concern with the environmental effects of things like burning coal and garbage.

In real dollars, US per capita income has more than quintupled since 1929. http://www.demographia.com/db-pc1929.pdf (2016 is higher than 2008, to fill in the missing info).

So even if you want a rising standard of living, work hours could conceivably be shorter.

That said, the fundamental point that most of us wouldn't accept 1929 lifestyles for any amount of leisure is right.

Disproportionate growth in housing costs and the impossibility of opting for 1929 healthcare are other factors making it difficult for the average person to afford a 1929 lifestyle on part time work in most developed countries, even if they're happy with cycling and gramophones.

It's also often illegal to opt for 1929 building standards. There's minimum lot sizes, minimum apartment sizes, and other zoning standards that almost make me believe they were deliberately designed to raise housing prices.

Historically, working- and middle-class people have spent all and almost all of their money respectively on 'just living'. House prices are really high now, but other things have dropped. Whatever the combination of prices, 'just living' will always consume all of the income of the poor... unless something truly unusual happens.

Disproportional growth in housing costs is probably ( best bet here; no assertion of TRVTH ) a combination of land rents and subsidy.

It's perfectly possible to opt for 1929 levels of health care.

Housing Cost being the root of all evil in multiple countries.

But given more efficient means of production, isn't it likely our current lifestyles are "easier" than 1929 lifestyles?

Washing machines, for example, use less water than dish washing by hand. Laundry machines similarly. I bet printing presses have gotten better too.

If you accept that maintaining a 1929 lifestyle you can do 16 hour weeks: the price of food alone has dropped immensely, I bet fridges are more efficient than they were in the 30s, not even to talk about automation... Shouldn't we be able to do our current lifestyle with less than 16 hours

Probably yes, but then that might mean total standstill, no?

So, if 16 hours of donating effort to society, in exchange for a standard of living means status quo, would investing in 32 hours now, mean improvements that move the needle forward?

Or... is it possible that we wouldn't be able to exactly measure when 16 real hours are logged, because it would require totalitarian surveillance?

Every office I've worked in is filled with people blathering innanely about things that have nothing to do with finishing up our shared miserable toil, and getting the fuck away from my personal nightmare dungeon.

Then there's the meetings.

The meetings where you sit in a room with people who do almost nothing but talk in meetings. To them? That's what work actually is.

Pointless meetings. Hours long meetings. Reading emails. Emails upon emails. Alerts for alerts. Noise without signal. And why? For what?

Somewhere in all this, there's probably a reason for it, but honestly, I get the feeling that half the people with white collar day jobs serve no purpose other than to dress nice and demostrate headcount to rival departments, to justify budgets and win BIGNESS perception contests among "executives." (my staff meeting is bigger than yours, so who's more important?)

If you started extracting "work that matters" from these kinds of corporate heirarchies, I get the feeling we'd start hemorhaging employment rate, and so it must be prevented because people need boondoggles to feel useful, and have a reason to dress nice and belong somewhere for some reason or whatever.

Yet in 1929 it was only one person working to provide for a family. Now it is two.

It's not like we're ever given the option right, society poses a narrowly defined set of options as to how we can live and the lives of a 1929 person is never presented. If when I was in primary school or high school someone had presented that as an option I might have foregone university and lived simpler

Okay, but that means no fridge, no car, no air conditioning, no television or computer, no air travel, only a few sets of clothing, and many other things missing besides. That's what's being offered as the "1929 life". Not the life of the 1929 affluent, but the life of the 1929 average.

I know a number of people who've intentionally decided to live pretty much like that. Mostly they don't do it anymore after a few years, but it's totally an available option if you really want it. Saying "society poses" an expensive standard of living is not much proof that you're being forced to do anything.

Actually, refrigeration existed by the 1920s, as did evaporative cooling ("swamp coolers").

It existed, but was quite expensive, and mostly not used in homes. People generally purchased ice blocks to put in small iceboxes. Not like the refrigeration that exists now.

In middle/working class urban homes?

I would defer to a period expert at that point.

But iceboxes were certainly common, as were fans. I guess my point being: the people of the 1920s weren't savages, and while it's obvious that they didn't enjoy the same comforts we enjoy today there were still many conveniences that did exist.

The past is a strange place, with odd customs, but it's not totally alien or barbaric.

yep cars too, in fact there were many quite stylish cars back then.

Again, my point is that the average home probably wouldn't have had a car, and if it did, it was far worse in terms of efficiency, safety and performance than all but the cheapest used cars today. This is the mis-perception I'm talking about - people imagine living in the 1930s as though they'd have been in the top 5% or 10% of the population in terms of income, but what we have to look at is the overall level. Just because some people could zip around in a sleek Plymouth Phaeton doesn't mean that everybody, or even many people, could.

Safely maybe but early cars were comparatively fuel efficient. Look at the Model T, close to 20 mpg. That's not far off modern cars.

The curb weight of a Model T is 540 kg and its engine produces 20 horsepower, while a Honda Civic is 1150 kg, produces over 160 horsepower, and gets 35 mpg. It's moving twice as much car, with better efficiency, much faster, over a longer lifespan, with a much higher top speed. The performance of nearly all 30s cars would today be considered terrible in nearly every respect.

At a fraction of the price though. The cost of a Model T at the end of production was like 1/6 that of a Civic. For the price it doesn't seem so bad.

With an extra 3 days of leisure every week I'd think I could handle not driving 80 mph on the highway. There are pictures of these 20s and 30s cars at the top of dirt roads in the rocky mountains so what ever power they had still let them go places.

Do I really need all the car that the civic is?

The inflation-adjusted price of a Model T in 1930 would be about $4000 2008 dollars, but the per capita income was only about $7000. (A big reason the Model Ts seems so cheap is because labour costs were comparatively low - but so were incomes.) Now, US per capita income is nearly $40 000, and a Honda Civic has an MSRP of about $20 000 new. So the average person is not really working more, but they're getting much more. Most modern goods really are vastly better.

And for an extra three days of leisure a week, you'd be giving up not just driving on the highway, but indeed a whole load of things.

Again - for most things, nobody is making you consume these additional goods and services above the 1930 average. But, as we can see, they're quite popular and people apparently prefer to work more and consume more rather than work less and consume less.

Then consider useful lifetime of the car. Ford used to recommend an engine rebuild around 50,000 miles.

I find that very hard to believe. Do you say that in the full knowledge that you'd be giving up roughly 20 years of life expectancy? In 1929, life expectancy was late 50s for men, it's now almost 80 for men. That's roughly a 34% increase, and it's even higher when you consider all of those extra years are adult, master-of-your-fate years.

That life expectancy equation is a bunch of malarky. It means average time a person is expected to live based on death rates. So if you have a high infant mortality rate, it will affect the numbers. For example, in Sri Lanka during my grandparents time the life expectancy was abysmal but both they and most of the people around them lived healthy into old age, probably much healthier than the average elderly person now. The language is misleading because "life expectancy" is a statistic used to measure how likely you are to die not how long you are expected to live.

Your grandparents and their friends may have simply been lucky. You also have to be careful of survivorship bias.

Yes, a high infant mortality rate skews the figures. Still, I'd be willing to bet that the average 40 year old in 1929 had a life expectancy at least 10 years less than the average 40 year old in 2017.

Edit: Table 21 in this report is informative: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr64/nvsr64_11.pdf Expected years remaining for a 40 year old in 1929-31 was 29.67. In 2011 it was 40.58.

Thanks to abundant wasted resources you hardly need any money to get a much better lifestyle than what 1929 had to offer, in Western societies at least. Some folks even go completely moneyless for a while.

> In real dollars, US per capita income has more than quintupled since 1929.

If it's per-capita income, is there any weighting done for different groups of income? I feel if the statistics group together Silicon Valley CEOs and Starbucks waitresses, it's easy to get a non-representatively high (though technically correct) per-capita income.

Also, how much of the increase is from the economy simply recovering from the 1929 crisis back to normal levels?

> So even if you want a rising standard of living, work hours could conceivably be shorter.

2) That assumes that jobs that provide such increased wages are also flexible enough that you can freely choose how many hours per week you want to work. That assumption doesn't seem to be the case in practice.

> This is true today if you wanted to live at the same standard of middle class living in 1929, complete with eating only meals hand cooked from base ingredients...

I'm sorry? Are you suggesting that by working 16 hours a week each, a modern couple could live to the same standard as their 1929 middle class counterparts, i.e. owning thier home and supporting a family on one full time sallary and with one full time housekeeping and child-rearing?

This will be news to the masses of modern couples who are both working full time for a sallary, housekeeping in their spare time, and with no hope in sight of owning a home or being able to afford to start a family.

You can't legally build a 1929 house any more, or use and pay only for 1929 government services.

If you can arrange a remote working gig, you can live comfortable in a by-now first world country like Taiwan on 16 hours/week of American salary. (It might be easier to find a place to work 40% of weeks of the year fulltime, instead of 40% of hours each week. Same principle.)

I think this is a bad assumption. My feeling is that the biggest shortfall from many people working shorter hours primarily cultural, followed by the economic capture of generated productivity away from labor and toward capital owners - which in a way is also cultural in the bucket of accepted business philosophy trends.

FTA: "One is to create genuine economic value; the other is to generate a protective carapace of bullshit to protect their continued employment." So they're actually working shorter hours; they're just exercising presentist tactics to keep that job.

< insert endless " I know he can get the job, but can he do the job?" with Dan Hedaya sequence from the intro to "Joe vs the Volcano" here. >

There is some literature which shows that returns to capital are just as weak as returns to labor.


And there is much better documented data (from Picketty's database) that shows that return from capital is as high as the gilded age.

I don't think you can really blame employees for presentism, I think it's generally more difficult to make part-time work arrangements in the white collar world, whereas at the lower end of wages, where it benefits capital owners, blue-collar workers are forced to be part-time...

No, I did not intend to blame employees - it's baked into the system.

I'd argue that it only benefits capital owners in the sense of having a convenient thing ( that's hopefully nearly irrelevant ) to measure.

Edit: I think Piketty glosses over what's actually capital and what is not. It's not the complement of labor - production is the mixing of land, labor and capital. That's three things.

It's the returns to land, not capital in general. See eg http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2014/02/inequali... and others you can find when looking for "Picketty land".

It's actually towards land owners.

One would argue that land owners are a subset of capital owners :)

One might then be wrong, if we are a bit more strict about separating land, labor and capital as the three elements of production...

I think this a chronic strawman tactic ( present company cheerfully exempted ) - misclassify land as capital, then complain about capitalism.

I can permanently exchange capital for land, therefore land is capital.

If slavery were legal, then labor would be capital too.

You can exchange labour for land or capital as well: go work for money, then buy a house..

Your second point is sort-of true. That's why when Britain freed the slaves they bought them free.

Land and capital are not interchangeable as factors of production.

Next: let's please not confuse accounting and economics :)

Of course they are. I can exchange half my land for capital and now I have both.

You are talking past each other.

And your argument is weird: using the market you can exchange all kinds of things for each other. What's the difference between exchanging land for capital vs labour for capital in that argument?

So you only complain about capitalism when it's applied to an asset class you don't personally own ?

No; so far as I know all of economics ( eru covered Henry George ) considers land, capital and labor as three independent elements of production. "Independent" in the sense of orthogonal, as if they were x,y and z planes in a coordinate system.

One of the things that's interesting about this - if you can substitute capital for it, it's not really land. "Land" also means something abstract, in a manner similar to the ellipsoid used in GPS calculations in aviation. Its a "where", less a "what".

But then again, we tend to conflate rents and profits, which creates a lot of confusion.

Could it be that these people you think of as conflating capital and "land" simply don't accept the definition you take for granted ?

In Marx's definition, for instance, capital is defined by currency, and by the liquidity of one's assets. Therefore, considering land as capital would make sense. Microeconomics analysis is another realm where separating land and capital does not necessarily make sense : because of the liquidity effect described above, it may be useless to distinguish land and capital when you have no macro concern.

My point here is that the definition of capital, and the classification of land related to capital is intimately related to the analysis you're making, and, therefore, to the position you're defending. As a consequence, what you understand as a person building a strawman is related not to that person building that strawman, but to that person's analysis being in conflict with semantics you take for granted. And ironically, when you try to establish a distinction that makes no sense in that person's logical framework, they may think that you're trying to drown the matter.

In fact, they may even be right, in the context of the analysis of social capital, because you're in fact struggling to establish your capital as more legitimate than theirs.

This kind of problematic is why it is so important for the one of us which build products for our clients, to take the time to understand their domain, their vocabulary and the context limits to this vocabulary.

In some sense, yes. ArkyBeagle and my implied argument is that the distinction between capital and land is a useful one. (And that always talking about capital+land is confusing matters.)

You can of course express the original observation in Marxist terms as well: it's not just any capital owners that are getting a bigger slice of the pie, but especially land owners.

Thanks to the existence of market prices, we can even abstract away from the specific owners and say that the factors of production themselves get different slices of the pie.

That works because even when some piece of capital is bought and sold, the new owner gets roughly the same amount of return on them as the old one. (If it wasn't so, we would classify whatever the new owner is doing differently as having input their own labour into the process.)

Oh, even in a Henry George and other economists sense you can substitute different factors of production. The distinction is a bit more subtle.

Ie building a multi-story building swaps capital for land. Georgism is (among other things) about untaxing capital and labour, so that such substitutions can work out better.

Sorry, I don't understand?

Making a clear distinction between capital (which we can produce more of) and land (which is fixed in supply for as long as we stay on earth) is just good economics. See also Henry George's Progress and Poverty (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progress_and_Poverty), the book that essentially kicked off the Progressive Era in 19th century America.

It is a legitimate distinction at macro level, because the dynamics for these two asset classes are different. Otherwise, not necessarily.

> eating only meals hand cooked from base ingredients

Yeah what a nightmare. Where's soylent goo when you need it??

It is probably a false dichotomy to think of this in terms of "1929 standard of living" vs. "what we have today".

I don't see any compelling reason (but I haven't thought about it too hard) to believe that we couldn't have some sort of an increase in standard of living and a decrease in average hours/week worked.

The trade offs are obviously complex, though.

A straightforward way to effect that would be to remove building restrictions: build higher in city centres, and less people would have to endure crazy commutes to find a place they can afford.

Personnally it's not a matter of time per week. It's a matter of chaos and absurdity.

- not having to fake looking busy

- not rushing through contradictory orders

- no draconian hierarchy that forbid solving problems

etc etc

Each one is different but many desk jobs ended up straining me more than prepping sandwiches from 7am to 2pm. In the latter I was sweating but passed a 3 week adaptation phase things were swift and smooth.

Very much this. As our supposed standard of living rises, we blithely add in all sorts of costs we could never imagine living without.

That's where you get the joke: "how many people does it take to dig a hole?"

"One person to dig a hole. One person to make sure they are working under union regulations. Another person to make sure they are compliant with environmental regulations. Another person to handle payroll." And so on.

specific to digging holes - there are strict safety rules about who can go into things like confined spaces, and holes may be close enough to qualify. This may seem "unioney" but it is decidedly not.

If it's "make a pencil"[1] rather than "dig a hole", then the number seems to go up quite a bit.

[1] reference to "I, Pencil"

I realize it's a joke, but it's also kind of not. We have environmental standards because otherwise businesses would not care about spillover costs. We take care of workers rights because the market is pretty one-sided in most professions. We have professional accountants to prevent embezzlement and make taxation possible.

And so on.

I doubt he actually believed this. He thought people would be working 16 hours a week with zero caveats?

Sure if all things remained equal, if basically nothing changed at all from 1929 to 2029 then yes his prediction would be accurate. But did he actually believe that?

J.M. Keynes was basically just spitballing when he said that, in an article called "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren". Basically a non-academic article to make some long-term predictions based on trends of the time. Also this was 1929 and some notable events happened not long after.

Yeah - it effectively took He Who Shall Remain Godwin-ley Nameless to get all the governments of the world to print enough money for a burst of consumption that ran from 1939 until around... 1973?

And that, really, only in the US.

What I'm saying is that, if someone is predicting a certain amount of economic progress for the year 2000 in 1929, then the fact of the Great Depression and WWII will tend to make predictions more optimistic than reality. Those two events caused a huge amount of damage to the world economy and set it back a long way from where it would otherwise have been a few decades later.

Well said.

Working hours had been trending down for a while at that time, so it must have seemed reasonable.

They've continued trending down since then, especially when you count hours of domestic labour, which has dropped a lot (and no surprise, since you're not getting paid wages for those hours generally.)

This, I think, leaves out how much formerly domestic labor has been converted into social labor provided either by the state or market forces. Which could be responsible for a lot of reduction as well, as when one does this efficiencies of scale and rationalization can take place in an organization. I have no idea how or why either aspect would be bigger. Hypothetically, reduction of (for example) childcare hours could be as much about proliferation of daycares and kindergarten and schooling in general as it's about development in domestic childcare technologies. Eating and fix prison is microwaves and McDonald's, etc.

But what I'm saying is that both paid labour and unpaid labour (or "domestic labour") are both going down in number of hours. People working in daycares and kindergartens are already counted in the paid labour hours. What technology does is make domestic labour time-effective enough so that keeping house is no longer a full-time occupation, which permits for the expansion of other kinds of work.

s/fix prison/such things/

How can you claim this when essentially they have doubled - two wages are (usually) needed to provide for a family these days.

So don't family. Problem solved :)

Seems like a reasonable solution for the whole world to adopt. What could go wrong?

I know, right?

> This is true today if you wanted to live at the same standard of middle class living in 1929, complete with eating only meals hand cooked from base ingredients and no concern with the environmental effects of things like burning coal and garbage.

I wished you stopped at "eating only meals hand cooked"

It's garbage that people in 1929 had "no concern with the environmental effects of things like burning coal and garbage"

OK, they probably had no concern, but that was because there was none to have.

They didn't buy stuff and throw it away, there was no disposable society. They lived simply. Not travelling the world, or large distances to go to X every weekend.

But whats worse in your comment to me is you can live a much much better lifestyle than 1929 on 16 hours a week, traveling the world and having great things while respecting the environment.

You just can't have the things society says you should have.

I don't agree with the title, even though it's the original from the source.

The author argues that technology has made us more productive, and as a result we spend more of our time doing ancillary tasks (e.g. writing emails, attending meetings) and that since this isn't directly producing value, it's reducing productivity.

I'd argue that as the work has become more complex-- designing software is not as easy as say manufacturing the same widget 200 times each day-- the planning tasks (e.g. writing emails, having meetings) have grown, though perhaps not entirely linearly.

The author also implies that people are spending more time now looking busy and being busy, perhaps over fears that if they completed their job in 16 hours and spent the remaining 24 hours of the work week twiddling their thumbs, they would be fired.

"the planning tasks (e.g. writing emails, having meetings) have grown, though perhaps not entirely linearly."

Or is it because of the cult of Process and Bureaucracy? Skunk Works is/was one of the badassest engineering units in world history. They did projects that made sense, they had high individual responsibility, very flat organization , and encouraged communication between disciplines above all.

The book "Skunk works" by it's former director Ben Rich contains as an epilogue a lamentation to the new way of doing things by lengthy meandering process and bureaucracy with an inflated middle management - instead of just doing things right.

The book is the best book on the subject on how to do great technical things - but not by way of theory, but by of example. And I can tell you, it does not contain an inch of Scrum, six sigma, RUP or any of that. They had a simple high level process, and then they drilled down on specific processes on per project basis, as needed.

> Skunk Works is/was one of the badassest engineering units in world history.

Yes, Skunk Works is amazing. But I don't think it's fair to view their accomplishments in isolation.

Skunk Works didn't have to worry about where to get money from, Lockheed provided Kelly Johnson with money and trusted him to spend in appropriately. In a normal company you have a lot of people dedicated to sales, marketing, and finance. The first two didn't apply at all to Skunk Works, and while I imagine they did have to plan and budget, I don't know to what extent they had to do controlling/taxes, etc.

> The book "Skunk works" by it's former director Ben Rich contains as an epilogue a lamentation to the new way of doing things by lengthy meandering process and bureaucracy with an inflated middle management - instead of just doing things right.

Yes, and is it not the least bit ironic that Skunk Works was within a company which got into its position through lengthy meandering bureaucratic processes which awarded them contracts for defense programs?

> And I can tell you, it does not contain an inch of Scrum, six sigma, RUP or any of that.

Please don't interpret my comment as saying "and I think the status quo in business is just fine." It's not. The current business processes we have created reward bureaucracy and paper pushing, at the expense of innovation.

This being said, I also don't think the correct solution is to have engineers running everything. It would certainly help people in management to have relevant technical experience, but I studied around and work with engineers. The average engineer would fucking hate things like controlling finances, but it's necessary for the business to comply with tax regulations, etc.

Of finances - Kellys was proud to occasionally return money to the military when they finished complex technical projects under budget. Sure, they had the financial backing of their giant mothership Lockheed but they did not spend frivolously and delivered. Probably because of their capability to deliver they could do things their way.

I was not targeting your comment when I erupted about process frameworks - sorry about that. It was an outburst against the percieved "best practices". Like Cato's "By the way, Carthago needs to be destroyed".

I agree - orgs need finances just like cars have instrumentation, but they should not be running all things unless that happens to be the orgs core business.

China is run by engineers. So was Al Queda. We'll see how that experiment plays out.

fascinating. Do you have a source? I would like to read further on such a statement

> The book is the best book on the subject on how to do great technical things - but not by way of theory, but by of example.

The most pressing question is how well these techniques can be exported. Joel on Software gave us a great take on this quite a few years ago: https://www.joelonsoftware.com/2001/01/18/big-macs-vs-the-na...

Basically, the best 'process' for a small team of smart, skilled people is for someone to hand them a blank check and a vague goal, and turn them loose for a few months. This is basically what Skunk Works did, and the results were exceptional.

With a bigger team, or a less brilliant team, or a team less skilled at execution, blank checks and no guidance is far more likely to produce overspending and wasted time. Six Sigma doesn't have a hope of improving efficiency over Skunk Works, but it was at least intended to provide a minimum efficiency better than "screwing up a lot".

The best cases are certainly hobbled by Process, but most of the world is too big and dysfunctional to match the best case. (None of which is to say that Skunk Works style projects are bad - I still think we need more of them. In particular, pseudo-startups without the time and fundraising pressure can be uniquely effective.)

Skunk works did not have blank cheques nor did they have vague goals. One reason to their success were explicit vehicle operational targets for each project. But skunk works was not only a small crack team of engineers, although this is what they are famous for. They built and operated several vehicles, with 'normal' personnel.

I've been on the local version Skunk Works team most places I've worked ( not THE Skunk Works, but teams modelled on it ).

Eventually you find that a basket of crabs needs no lid. You can hear the click when tolerance for that sort of behavior ends, it's time to fresh up the resume and go.

It's a really loud click if you are listening.

I totally agree with your point about looking busy. But that just means there's a management failure somewhere, right?

Shouldn't management recognize such an abnormally productive employee and a) let them go home after their work is done, no matter when that is, or b) give them more work to do (and a corresponding salary increase)?

  such an abnormally productive employee
It's not ab-normal. Source: Dilbert.com (seriously, the cartoons are based on real work life and not fiction), countless surveys (just two examples: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/fashion/25busy.html and http://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2014/06/20/most-ameri...), and each time the topic comes up (on reddit for example) the thread explodes and it's almost all negative and "Me too!" when somebody says their job is just like that. I've seen it all over my own career too which let me spend most of my time in other companies and not in one and the same office (I'm an IT freelancer, but it was true even when I was employed).

  b) give them more work to do
There were several Dilbert cartoons about exactly this sometime during the last few months. Examples for fun:

1) http://dilbert.com/strip/2011-12-21 -- 2) http://dilbert.com/strip/2016-05-17 -- 3) http://dilbert.com/strip/2017-01-01 -- 4) http://dilbert.com/strip/2016-08-14

> Shouldn't management recognize such an abnormally productive employee

Using what metric? This is really hard to implement in reality, especially when the average corporate management has no idea what engineers spend their day doing.

> b) give them more work to do

This already happens. See companies looking to hire "heros"

> and a corresponding salary increase

Hah! Yeah, maybe at your company. Mine would work you 80 hours per week for peanuts if they could.

Oh, and in an exit interview for a layoff once:

- He: I never see your car in the parking lot after hours. - Me: Yeah, I've been done with everything I was given for months now.

Please note - it was a layoff exit interview.

Alright, you're right. Maybe I was being a little idealistic. I don't think in reality things would happen that way.

But we can dream, right?

So they at least wish to communicate that they have no idea of the value you provide? Not unusual, but quite disturbing.

Letting them go home means risking having less people in the office when the manager's boss shows up, which will lower the manager's prestige, and risks harming morale of the other employees. Giving them more work risks having their department fail if the employee leaves for any reason. Subtly encouraging them to waste time is the safest choice.


Isn't that basically called "being freelance"? If the work's done by the required deadline then you're free to do what you want?

As a freelancer I have some jobs that are like that, fixed cost and my problem how long it takes me, but most clients prefer if I'm onsite and that means I get paid to spend 8 hours a days in their office. I have the exact same problem, I spend half the time looking busy. Or I could go home and only get half the money.

But they DO complete their jobs in 16 hours. It's an interesting number - 40%, or about 1/e. It's the thrash point for classic half-duplex Ethernet segments, the level to which you want administrative workers loaded, etc.

Exceeding 40% makes collisions go up.

Counter-argument: The work described here as "bullshit" -- administration, bureaucracy, ever-finer metrics of people and products -- actually DO generate "real" value in increasing the speed at which information asymmetries resolve themselves. E.g. people metrics actually make it harder to maintain the cocoons of bullshit the author describes, product metrics make the disparity between what's provided and what's desired more apparent more quickly, etc.

The proliferation of these kinds of work is not necessarily out of "filling space," but because information technology has drastically decreased the marginal costs of this kind of information-only work, and so lowered the barrier of marginal utility required to justify it. So, we have information work where the workers actually carrying it out can't perceive the value, because it's too distributed and too many layers removed from the individual, but it's there. The apparent lack of productivity increase is because those metrics, too, are flawed and do not account for these kinds of value.

Now, the question of whether that work is then worthwhile at a societal level is entirely different.

Your argument boils down to 'the productivity metrics are broken'. But since I think we're talking about GDP basically, I doubt you're right.

TFA argues that productivity is squandered by Office Space style ass-covering wastes of time. But I think even good intentioned beaurocratic nonsense can still account for the strong headwind against productivity.

Take a look at the great improvements in supply chain management and JIT manufacturing techniques for true process improvements which result in measurable productivity rise. Kanban works there in ways it simply does not for software, for example.

Similarly, "good" overhead like A/B testing can suck up an enormous amount of time without producing anything useful. Badly-executed A/B tests are an easy way to show single-digit "gains" over and over again without ever producing actual movement, and since executing them well is genuinely difficult there are a lot of companies which are running frantically on a treadmill.

There's a lot of business 'motion' that's fundamentally a mismatch between something looking good at an individual level, and achieving nothing on a corporate or national scale.

I would claim that for analysis work to be worthwhile the organization must be more productive with the analysis than without it. If not, then the analysis is pointless.

This does not apply to scientific research of course, but actual scientifically valuable research is a different thing entirely.

Oh, absolutely. I'm not trying to make a blanket endorsement of, for example, "data-driven decision making" as a groupthink thing that everyone must do. That can, and does, lead a lot of unwary businesses down a lot of blind alleys.

But the flip side is also true -- blanket dismissal of information work as "self-preserving bullshit" is equally, or more, naive.

Sure - to be brief, the data must be actionable and understandable to be of value. A great example of value adding data gathering and analysis process is the work of Eniram - they take a ship, analyze it, and optimize it's usage to save millions in large shipping operations fuel costs globally. This after the shipping companys internal engineers have optimized the shit out of their operations.

This is what value added data enrichment scheme looks like.

I'm sure the analogous thing can be done to all sorts of organizations and processes.

It's not about gathering obscure metrics, running them through excel and creating powerpoints with no actionable items.

> So, we have information work where the workers actually carrying it out can't perceive the value, because it's too distributed and too many layers removed from the individual, but it's there. The apparent lack of productivity increase is because those metrics, too, are flawed and do not account for these kinds of value.

I'm struggling to understand this bit. The ultimate purpose of information work is improve profitability, typically by making more efficient use of their inputs. The appropriate metric therefore surely is whether overall productivity actually changes, and the article argues that it tends to indicate that corporations are not becoming more efficient.

Now I can see one tenable line of argument why work might be valuable to a company even as it drags down the measure of productivity: the information work is positional and therefore valuable for the individual corporation to ensure it doesn't fall behind the others even though the net result of the industry reinvesting productivity savings in additional information work is that generates the same returns as before. (The author of the article, incidentally, chairs a big group of marketing and ad agencies). Another would be the existence of diminishing returns to scale, so if firms are continue to grow they have to spend productivity savings from process improvements on additional labour to allow them to expand into more difficult markets. That certainly applies at a market level, but I'm not so sure whether it's true of individual firms.

But I'm not sure whether those were what you were trying to imply?

You wouldn't mind telling that to the Societs, or the Chinese would you?

I see your point and sympathize with you, but accurate metrics are a necessary but not sufficient to gain results.

Depends on what you consider to be measure of bureaucracy. If it's by the proportion of done aggregate work done in such tasks, China is probably less bureaucratic than USA considering how many of us are essentially bureaucrats and clerks and considering how many of them are farmers and line workers.

If it's percent GDP I dunno, probably similar.

I can count on one hand the number of people I have encountered who could actually design instrumentation from scratch.

It just. Isn't. Done.

A really good example is Microsoft Outlook.

Features like auto-complete make it a breeze to invite 8 people to a meeting. You can burn up 16 person-hours of time with a few keystrokes (assuming these are actual productive people like developers, whose schedules are impacted by more than the duration of the meeting).

> Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK

I wonder if the OP observations of "(box-ticking, arse-covering, fatuous self-exculpating emails, the collection of ever more stupid metrics)" occurs more often in the advertising business? I searched for a chart that broke down stupid metrics by industry, but the closest one I could find is this: http://www.infosecisland.com/uploads/remoteimg/aa043ae12a097...

I mean, advertising is a bit infamous for this. Outside of immediate-action advertising ("Want to buy this?" and "Click here"), it's very hard to prove the effects of a given program.

Sales boosters like coupons are already tricky - did they create new buyers, reengage existing buyers, or do customers just hold off on buying until there's a discount? And brand awareness ads are even harder - did your Toyota add two years ago drive a sale today? You can't even survey for that, since in theory it works on people who don't remember it consciously.

So I have a dark suspicion that advertising is more full of stupid metrics than most roles, simply because real analytics are harder to produce.

The most important problem with advertising is that it is competive waste:

If firms A and B can create a product a cost $X that sells for $X+$Y firm B can create the same product for $X, then A and B will waste $Y on advertising in an attempt to win consumers for each other, for no benefit to anyone (except in any artistic/entertainment value in the advertising, and the possibly useful wealth-redistribution from firm's owners to advertising employees).

I remember reading an article on marginal revolution about how wasteful are charities: The paying customers are scarce and the competition is so fierce that a big sum of the money you donate goes on advertising to gain new donors. In the worst cases most of the money goes into that ...

This is definitely a huge problem, especially with socially-competitive charities. Things like breast cancer awareness and helping the local needy around Christmas are so popular that they're locked into ugly advertising struggles. And if people don't do their homework, the most efficient fundraiser will be the charity that spends no money on the cause (or just enough to stay exempt).

This seems like a good time to plug Givewelll. Their entire goal is quantifying the good done by charities and promoting the most efficient. They compare globally, but even if you want to give to something specific like animal welfare or local homelessness, they have some good efficiency tips.


In the seven years I worked as a software/electrical engineer at Big Company, writing lots of inane CYA emails was the norm. Everybody wanted to protect their tiny fiefdoms... Justing thinking about being in that environment raises my blood pressure.

Can confirm it happens in IT and financial also

The author's theory is completely unsubstantiated. They make a surprising conjecture and instead of proving, asks the audience to disprove it:

"I defy anyone who has worked in an office over the last 25 years to write and say that my theory does not fit the observable facts"

Seems a bit lazy.

I actually consider that a fair challenge - it's just not proof.

"I suspect X, does anyone have data to invalidate that?" is a great question. You just have to avoid argument from ignorance, and follow up with "If not, can we get data to actually support this theory?"

Well, have you?

Not the OP, but... that's not how it works. (a) It is the responsibility of the person making an assertion to back it up. If you disagree, god says you need to give me all your money. (b) The proposed test (compare with 25 years ago) is worse than useless, for the same reason people, as they age, tend to think the Kids These Days are lazier/ruder/dumber/more helpless/whatever than Back In My Day. It is designed to solicit agreement with the writer, not actually demonstrate the validity of anything.

    > The author's theory is completely
    > unsubstantiated ... Seems a bit
    > lazy
This was going to be the case from the point it became clear that The Spectator was the source. It's basically Breitbart, only written by the very articulate and urbane. Surprised he didn't manage to get a jab at THE MUSLIMS in there somewhere.

The money quote:

«Keynes was partly right, and many people today are working a 16-hour week. By which I mean that they spend 16 hours each week engaged in activities which create some useful form of economic value. The other 20+ hours in the office are spent supporting the monstrous extra informational, bureaucratic and administrative burden made possible by new technology.»

Is the bureaucracy in your company so huge? Are engineers in a startup, where bureaucracy is close to zero, several times as productive as in a large company? Are any commercial companies shrewd enough to kill most of internal bureaucracy and crush the competition? Are there any numbers to support this?

> Are engineers in a startup ... several times as productive as in a large company?

You mean 3 times more productive? Easily so. Probably more than that.

That's the general narrative. "Are there any numbers to support this?" Are they really the same engineers working on equally hard problems in a different environment when making this comparison?

This 'lower work week thing' misses the point of social dynamics.

Yes, we could call work '16 hour weeks' and maintain a 1940's standard of living. But to make progress, we need 40 hour weeks.

At least for the time being, we've come to resonate around 40 hours as being 'how long someone should work' - and so we will work those kinds of hours.

Sure - we could all work less hours, but it would mean another kind of social contract.

You can see this in Europe vs. USA vs. Asian attitudes.

And yes, 'more hours' generally does mean less productivity per hour, but you still get more output.

If income distribution still worked the way it did in the mid 20th century, most people wouldn't need to work 40 hours a week for the paltry income they receive today.

How, in your eyes, the income distribution has changed?

Did you seriously just ask a stranger on HN to explain one of the biggest sociopolitical issues of the last 10 years?

Here's an introduction: the GI Bill sent 2 million men to college for free from 1945-1955. In 2017, by contrast, the US has $2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt.

That's comparing Apples to Oranges. More like Apples to Cars.

The US spends more as a % of it's GDP and more $/capita than any nation on earth on higher education - and sends a considerably larger share of it's population to college than most other nations, certainly any European nations where college is free.

The % of young people going to college has increased dramatically from 1950 to 2016.

And FYI - if you join the Army today, you can still get your education subsidized :)

'Raw' dollars debt doesn't help us understand the picture that much, moreover, if everyone in America started going advanced degrees, that would also increase student debt, but that would be a good thing, no?

Americans are on the whole much wealthier, and the opportunity that young people have today vis-a-vis 1950 is so much that it's basically unthinkable back in the 1950's.

That said, it's not so good for working class people without jobs, and little job stability.

That wasn't "free", that was payment for working in the military for several years.

The top tax bracket in the 50s was at 90%, for starters. It all really goes back to tax policy.

"The top tax bracket in the 50s was at 90%, for starters. It all really goes back to tax policy."

The 1% do not earn their income in salary, they earn it in capital gains.

What matters is 'actual tax receipts' not necessarily the brackets.

The fact you quoted is effectively correct, but it's a common 'internet meme distortion'.

Aside from a 'blip' due to WW2, US Government share of GDP has been increasing over time, since the dawn of the Republic, not decreasing - meaning that there has been consistently more socialization of services and industry - not less.

Ooh I love when somebody calls me out on the "90% in the 50s" figure. Let's play this game.

The reason it was ok back then was because it incentivized long term growth. As a result of the tax "reforms" of the 80s, it became easier than ever to leverage yourself into a hostile takeover, gut a company, sell it, and pocket the cash for yourself at a far lower tax rate than most of the corporate raiders had ever seen in their careers.

Not to mention the innocent people who had their livelihoods upended and pensions gutted, and blamed, then as now, for not working hard enough.

So we have more money chasing financial gain than productive output, less support if not absolute disdain for the average worker, and corporations paralyzed to do anything but push short term gains as high as possible lest Wall St alert an "activist investor" to their next target.

How do you make a resilient society to last through generations when the foundation is being sold out from under it?

I disagree with all of your statements.

Again - the 90% tax bracket in the 1960's applied to income - not capital gains.

Ergo - a reduction in that income tax bracket would do nothing to incentive M&A activity wherein surpluses would be taxed as capital gains (i.e. at a lower rate than income).

In fact - the reduction in income tax breaks would have the opposite effect you describe - it would encourage companies to pay more regular income, as opposed to M&A type transactions which will be taxed via capital gains.

Second - M&A activity does not inherently have anything to do with 'short term' or 'long term'. M&A is just as much a strategic activity as anything else. You are a ware that 'HN' is part of YCombinator, at the very heart of this kind of activity, right?

Do you think that YC - which creates companies that will likely fail, or be bought - are an example of 'short term' and 'myopic' thinking? Seriously? No way.

The very site you're writing your words upon is probably the best example of how important M&A and financial transactions are to the health of an economic ecosystem.


Some samples (cap gains rates, via whatever method is used on the site above):

2015: 25%

2010: 15%

2005: 16.1%

2000: 21.2%

1995: 29.2%

1990: 28%

1985: 20%

1980: 28%

1975: 36.5%

1970: 32.3%

1965: 25%

1960: 25%

1955: 25%

1950: 25%

1945: 25%

1940: 30%

1935: 31.5%

1930: 12.5%

1925: 12.5%

1920: 73%

1915: 15%

Cap gains rates policies have fluctuated a bit throughout the decades as well. One could argue (unless it's in one's interest NOT to) that there is at least some correlation between rates lower than 25% and hyperactivity leading to crashes. E.g. 1925/1930; 1985; 2000-2010. Or one could argue that correlation is not causation (in which case, why not "fund the commons", since tax rate doesn't affect business cycle outcomes, anyway).

None of those variations save the 73% are going to cause major changes in behaviour.

Also - they need to be taken into context with the other tax rates: dividends + income. And arguably corporate rates as well.

> But to make progress, we need 40 hour weeks.

Productivity is 5x what it was in 1929. So yeah, most of us wouldn't willingly revert to 1929 standards of living. But realistically, I think a lot of people would take a 20% cut and shave 1-2 hours off their workday.

The counterpoint I find most compelling is that "more hours" lowers personal productivity, but raises organizational productivity. If you have a blocking issue that only one person can resolve, the whole organization does better if they're around full time. That's a serious bar to giving out things like time off in lieu of raises.

So why not do the heavy lifting necessary to not-have blocking issues? That's what I DON'T see - I see blocking issues. I see quite the opposite - I see firemen-as-arsonists because that's what they're rewarded for.

People willfully disregard the most basic principles in organizational design and the result is reduced productivity.

It also has to do with legislation and with marginal value. Above 40 hours or so, a lot of countries have laws, like overtime pay and what have you, that start to kick in and make it less worthwhile for an employer to ask for those hours. As well, most people find that above that amount of time, the value they get from increased income starts to go below the value they get from non-paid-work time. It's sort of a normal equilibrium.

Right, productivity has increased but is probably lagging behind our standard of living which has increased more. Additionally, look at globalization and consolidation of most business. I would venture that there are more companies that are bigger and bigger, and requires more layers of management (and bullshit work) and people concerned with job preservation and not productivity.

Larger companies require more and more areas of micro specialization, and yes, it does get more bureaucratic - but the paradox is - you need that scale to have certain advantages: economies of scale and the ability to micro specialize.

So, while individuals might be less productive ... on the whole, it does add to a level of total productivity by the machine.

Example: I worked with the 'pricing' team for a large service oriented product with 100's of millions of customers.

Sometimes they were inactive, argued for months about things etc. - and at the end of the year they did relatively little - but their impact was huge on the market, and our businesses. Much like a Uni of profs don't seem very productive until every once and a while, one of them strikes it huge with some innovation.

Taking the idea that most "work" done at work is a waste of time, doesn't that suggest there's a big opportunity for an enlightened competitor to eat an established company's lunch? You could do the same amount of productive work for a fraction of the cost . . .

Is this type of thing happening and not widely reported? Is it an under explored opportunity waiting to be tapped? Or is there something else going on that leads the inefficient model to win in the long run?

The playing field isn't even, and big players gets all kinds of benefits from corruption, mind-share among leaders, and honest gains from scale.

We will probably never know if most of the work is bullshit or vital in a way we can't understand.


Startup employees do just as much bullshit to make it seem like they're busy. Their main incentive is to keep their job, not make the company successful.

Startup employees are partly paid in stock, so they do have incentives to make the company successful. At the very least they want the company to break even before the runway money end, else the payroll will stop rolling.

I did some startup (and pseudo-startup) work in college, when I wasn't getting any stock.

From personal experience, it's still motivational to wonder whether your next paycheck is coming out. Not always pleasant, but it was a great incentive to push back against busywork and time-wasting management even if the reception was bad. "We might go bankrupt" really shifts the balance on "how much should I invest in fighting for good decisions?"

Part of the mechanism is that there are fewer layers of management so less room for bs.

I could retire today and be very comfortable for the remainder of my days (I am 41) but man would life get boring. Even if I work on projects I haven't had time for and travelled to places I wanted to go there is still something about working day in and day out, with a sense of urgency and with a group of people to make something greater than you could do on your own that leads to a sense of purpose. I also think that if you are spending that much time covering your arse you are working for the wrong company. You should revel in doing quality work not in covering your arse.

I wish i was in the same position as you. Sounds like a lack of imagination to me.

I'm not sure what the happiness maximizing number of work hours is, but I'm fairly certain it's larger than zero. Even Moore's Utopia posited a six hour workday.

>... fatuous self-exculpating emails

I think the author is on point, but i sense the article will be a litmus test of reader's perception of what Harvard Business School calls 'bullshit' in modern business.

> Why has IT contributed so little to productivity? To understand this, it might help to understand that people in any organisation have two motivations. One is to create genuine economic value; the other is to generate a protective carapace of bullshit to protect their continued employment.

TL;DR - If automation could save work, but people are dependant on work to survive then automation will not actually save work. Who'd have known.

> Robert Solow’s famous observation that ‘you can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics’.

Does anyone know what this observation is based on? GDP per capita adjusted for inflation has been rising for at least the last hundred years.

Productivity growth has not recovered from the last crisis very well, well, basically everywhere

Found a primer (Google link in case paywall) https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=/amp/s/...

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact