TCS Daily

The Case Against the Case Against Efficiency

By Radley Balko - February 18, 2004 12:00 AM

Editor's note: The essay "The Case Against Efficiency" appeared on the front page of the Outlook section in the February 15 edition of the Washington Post. TCS contributor Radley Balko provides a point-by-point rebuttal -- a "Fisking" -- in the article below.

Nicols Fox is the author of Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art and Individual Lives (Shearwater Books), and lives in Maine. She is currently writing a book about efficiency. In an essay published in the Washington Post on February 15, she writes:

As an idea, it seemed the model of efficiency. Stew up an assortment of unwanted animal carcasses and call the resulting material rendered animal protein. Include it in animal feed and you'll see increased growth and, in the case of dairy cows -- never mind that they are natural herbivores -- increased milk production.

It might have been recycling at its best, wasting nothing, but it turned out to be efficiency at its worst. Feeding diseased animals back to animals led to Britain's epidemic and North America's outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. Fed the same material, some domestic and big zoo cats contracted the feline version as well.

First, if cow feed enriched with animal protein was indeed responsible for the mad cow epidemic in Europe, it was poor assessment of risk on the part of the farmers and grain manufactures that made and fed the feed enriched with animal protein. Any scheme that results in the extermination of millions of head of cattle is of course anything but the model of efficiency. Second, it has yet to be shown that the prions responsible for mad cow disease can be transferred through blood -- and most U.S. feed today is enriched with blood protein. Third, feed enriched with animal protein might still be an economic winner. It's still fed to chickens and swine, as lab tests have shown chickens and pigs can't get the disease from cattle, even when tainted protein is injected directly into their brains.

Moreover, recycling is probably the least efficient industry still kicking. And the only reason recycling is still around is because it's subsidized, both with direct payments from government, and by governments forcing people to recycle. Recycling is an economic loser -- it actually uses up more resources than making things from scratch. But that's a bit of a digression.

As for the animal feed and mad cow, the quest for efficiency is an endless effort in fine tuning. Since we first emerged from caves, we've learned to use the whole of the animal, perhaps because we were never sure when the next animal would come along. It only makes sense to let as little of an investment go to waste as possible. Farmers and grain companies now know that such actions carry significant risk, and so we now have policies in place to minimize those risks.

Even with the assumption that cooking would kill any pathogens, common sense might have predicted a bad outcome from such an unsavory practice.

I'm not sure how feeding the remnants of one animal to others is "unsavory." We eat animals. Animals eat animals. It makes more sense to make maximum use of a carcass, if it can be used, than to discard it. As for cooking, heat has no effect on the prions that cause mad cow disease.

But common sense has little currency just now. Instead, what counts is doing whatever needs doing in the fastest, cheapest, most intensely productive way, expending the least effort or energy with the minimum of raw materials. We call that efficiency -- and it has become the value that trumps every other.

Doing things in a way that's fast, cheap and productive is inconsistent with common sense? Is "common sense" then doing things in a way that's tedious, expensive and wasteful? Should we strive to lose money on industrial endeavors? Should we try to burn off as many raw materials and natural resources as possible? Again, in the case of mad cow, if feeding bovine carcasses to the next generation of cows caused the need for mass populations of cattle to be slaughtered, then it was a pretty blatant exercise in inefficiency. Risk assessment (including assessing the potential hysterical overreaction of media, consumers and government) is crucial to running a business efficiently.

It's in our heads now, a dogma that has been internalized: To be efficient is good, to be inefficient is bad.

Actually, it's a dogma that was first internalized when we emerged from a clump of molecules animated to life by a bolt of lightning. Evolution is nothing more than an eons-long efficiency pageant. The organism that best utilizes its energy and survives to pass its genes on to another generation wins the great biological sweepstakes. Every being breathing on the planet today is the result of millions of years of nature fine-tuning for efficiency. Any expenditure of energy not directly concentrated toward that end is wasted energy, and puts the organism that wasted it at a disadvantage. Evolutionary biologists will tell you that everything an animal in nature does is an efficient use of energy. Even seemingly innocuous activity -- like young pups playing for example -- has a purpose. In the case of play, it's to build coordination, muscle, and to test out tactics at fending off rivals and prey. That we want to get things done with as little expenditure of energy as possible isn't a product of progress or industry. It's ingrained in us.

Questioning that creed begins to feel like heresy.

Not heresy. Just foolishness. Efficiency isn't religion. It is, despite what the author wrote earlier, common sense. If you have the capital and want to start an inefficient business, that's certainly your prerogative. If you want to run your life inefficiently, that's your prerogative too. Just don't expect others to bail you out should your life or your business turn out poorly.

Other values don't stand a chance in the equation. Yet efficiency operates too often without regard for long-term consequences, and giving it our unquestioning allegiance is creating more problems than anyone might have imagined.

Again, by definition, efficiency that operates without regard for long-term consequences isn't efficiency. Efficient businesses and industries keep an eye on the long-term because they want to remain viable in the long term. Consequently, logging companies, for example, make sure they regularly prune their forests for brush and undergrowth. Contrast private logging companies to forest preserves operated by the federal government. Government has no interest in efficiency, because government's always going to be here, and government faces no competition. And so it's inevitably public, not private forests that are destroyed every summer by massive wildfires.

Researching a book on emerging food-borne pathogens about a decade ago, I began getting clues that efficiency wasn't living up to its reputation. The small-scale food poisoning outbreaks of the past, the spoiled potato salad at the family reunion kind of thing, were being supplanted, I discovered, by huge, nationwide outbreaks from contaminated commercial foods that were efficiently mass-produced, mass-processed and widely distributed. One salmonella-tainted, nationally distributed brand of ice cream produced 224,000 cases of salmonellosis in 48 states in 1994.

And yet in the ten years since, consumers have continued to consume mass-produced, mass-processed, widely distributed foodstuffs. Again, a critical part of the efficiency equation is to balance risk with the faster, the bigger and the better. Were salmonella outbreaks affecting a quarter million people more common -- once a year perhaps instead of once every ten -- we'd likely see consumer preference shift a bit to locally produced food. Markets -- the models of efficiency (and I suspect the real target of the author's ire) -- correct for these things. Consumers read the news. And if anything, the media vastly over-exaggerates food safety scares. If consumers conclude more modest pricing and greater availability aren't worth an allegedly increased risk of tainted food, they'll change their buying preferences accordingly, and locally grown and prepared food will thrive.

We've become too efficient for our own good. Watching the dwindling catches of local fishermen from my vantage on the Maine coast, it has occurred to me that efficiency is the reason that every bite of haddock feels like it could be my last and the taste of cod is rapidly becoming a distant memory. The giant commercial pair trawlers, dragging their great nets between them and using sonar and other high-tech tools to find fish, are devastating the resource as efficiently as possible.

Ah, here the author has stumbled onto the prototype of inefficiency -- the commons. Certainly sonar and "great nets" enable fishermen to catch more fish each time they go out to sea (thus saving money, time, labor, and yes, fossil fuels). But the larger problem here is that there are no private property rights in Oceania. Because fish stock is public property, it makes more sense for each fisherman to maximize his take without leaving fish behind to populate future generations -- because whatever he leaves, his rival fisherman is sure to take. Granted, property rights on the sea would be a difficult scheme to negotiate. But it could be done. The single best way preserve the taste of cod and bites of haddock the author so enjoys is to entrust the cod and haddock population to competing, private interests. That is, remove the fish population from the dangerously inefficient commons, and entrust them to the efficiency of private enterprise. Private interests won't let fish populations die out, because private interests want to be sure there's enough fish around for them to stay in business.

Unfortunately, our policymakers are doing just the opposite. California, for example, just banned the private farming of salmon and genetically modified fish off its coastline. Guess what that means? It means fishermen will need to turn to wild salmon stock to supply consumer demand. And with less salmon on the market, the temptation to overfish natural salmon stock will only prove more lucrative. Banning GM fish means banning the opportunity to breed meatier fish that can be raised with fewer resources (yes, raised more efficiently). Which means that fishermen, again, will turn to natural stock, and will need to kill more fish to fill the same sized nets.

Looking north to the Maine woods, it becomes obvious that efficiency is the culprit in clear-cutting. Huge machines known as feller bunchers strip and stack trees at a rate that virtually precludes the possibility of sustaining the forests, while putting traditional chainsaw loggers out of work.

It's certainly possible that "feller bunchers" put traditional chainsaw loggers out of work. I'm not sure why that's such a bad thing. I guess where chainsaw loggers were once the bane of environmentalists, they're now recalled fondly as icons of a bygone era, like typewriter repairmen and buggy whip salesmen.

But unless the clear-cutters are harvesting lumber on government land (which might be the case), it's preposterous to think they'd cut at a rate that "virtually precludes the possibility of sustaining the forests." And if they are, at risk of repeating myself, efficiency isn't the culprit, inefficiency is. Because once they run out of trees, they're out of business.

Modern transportation is just as efficient at conveying diseases as it is tourists and trade -- now plagues are only a plane ride away.

As are life-saving organs, which can be flown from Los Angeles to New York in time to still be useful. Efficiency also enables us to track disease outbreaks to limit their impact. And the vaccines and medicines we have to fight illness were also honed and developed with the tools of efficiency.

The efficiencies of interconnected electrical grids mean that whole sections of the country can lose power if a squirrel knocks out a transformer on a country road.

Well, no. Any electrical grid that can be tripped by a squirrel is, by definition, not efficient. The author seems to be confusing efficiency with complexity. The electricity grid is complex, but it most certainly isn't efficient. It's also heavily regulated and planned at the state and federal level. What our antiquated grid needs is the series of tests, risks, successes and failures that promote efficiency, and that only a less regulated electricity market can provide. Think about it. You can run the electricity grid the way the federal government and various consortiums and hybrids of state and federal government say you must, or you could let five or ten or one thousand entrepreneurs try their hand at distributing electricity more efficiently -- at each step of the way from generation to delivery. Then let consumers pick which methods they find most suitable. One solution from government, or dozens of potential solutions from the private sector. This is efficiency in action.

Efficiency tells us that it is necessary to fly to Chicago or Dallas or Atlanta, often in the wrong direction, to get anywhere at all. Efficient, perhaps, but for whom? The hub system keeps planes in the air, but at the cost of customer convenience.

But it is more efficient for the airlines, or the airlines wouldn't do it. As for consumers, I'd argue that the hub system makes things more convenient for us, too. You can still buy a direct flight, you just need to pay a little more. Indirect flights give consumers the option of trading time for dollars. They pay less, but it takes longer to get there. I suppose we could demand that the airlines fly to every airport in the country. You'd pay a lot more for an airplane ticket. And you'd have a lot fewer carriers to chose from, as several of them couldn't afford the added costs.

And the author seems to contradicting herself a bit, here. The article is an attack on efficiency, on our need to be everywhere at once, but here she's upset that she's inconvenienced by indirect flights, that she can't get to her destination in less time. Isn't this an argument in favor of efficiency?

What appear to be efficiencies may actually result in inefficiencies. Using new technologies, medicine can identify illnesses efficiently, but at stages that may not be harmful; or it can discover conditions that seem abnormal yet may not be dangerous, but which physicians feel obliged to treat, increasing the cost of health care to little benefit. Positive screening tests for prostate cancer, for instance, are raising just such questions in older men who may not live long enough for their cancers to become life-threatening, and for whom treatments may be unpleasant without guaranteeing a longer life.

True, but the problem here isn't the efficiency of medicine, it's that Americans are increasingly less responsible for the cost of their own health care, a trend that's hostile to markets and, thus, inefficient. If each of us were forced to pay for those optional and questionable tests and screenings out of our own pockets, instead of having third parties (or, worse, a single-payer) pay for them for us, we'd be more selective about what tests we have run, and what treatment options we pursue. When someone else is paying at little or no cost to us, we of course want every test run, we want every second opinion, we want no stone unturned.

The problem with health care is that it has too few market mechanisms built in to streamline its efficiency. We should work to make the health care system more efficient, not to undermine efficiency, innovation and discovery in medicine.

Appliances have certainly become more efficient, yet energy use hasn't gone down. To the contrary, points out energy consultant Andrew Rudin, it has risen, as we simply add new appliances to our lives. Nevertheless, our culture works on the assumption that efficiency is an unquestionable benefit.

It's true that energy use hasn't gone down. But energy is also more abundant (that is, cheaper), in large part because we've found more efficient ways of harnessing it. We use more energy because it's cheaper, because efficiency has made us affluent enough to afford it, and because the added appliances make our lives more pleasant. Why is this such a bad thing? If and when energy grows scarce, it will become more expensive, and we'll opt for more energy-conserving appliances, or perhaps for fewer of them.

As a concept, efficiency is relatively new. It grew out of Jeremy Bentham's early 19th-century philosophy of utilitarianism, which set the stage for the Industrial Revolution. While Marx and Lenin liked efficiency as well, it has a close and obvious link to capitalism and the factory system.

And, as mentioned above, to natural order, evolution and the genetic code of everything living.

But, like some virulent virus, it has crept stealthily out from behind the factory doors to infect the culture. Every aspect of life is dominated by the demands of efficiency: How can I get from here to there in the fastest possible way? How can I find and prepare and consume food as rapidly as possible? How can I get this job done more quickly, expend the least amount of fuel, communicate more cheaply and faster? What more can I fit into my day? We've reached the point, as author and critic Sven Birkerts writes, when "Just sitting in the park while our kids play on the swings feels like truancy." How and why did we allow this to happen?

We choose to let it happen. We want to get the "must-dos" out of the way as quickly and painlessly as possible so we can get to the "want-to-dos." We eat quickly when we've determined that there's a better use of our time that particular day than savoring a meal. We drive the shortest route when we conclude that getting to a destination quickly is more important than enjoying the scenery. But that's not always true. HOV lanes are a great example. Here's an option in many congested urban areas that allow us to get to work in a fraction of the time -- an environmental movement-approved attempt at "efficiency." Yet most of us choose not to use them. Why is that? Well I for one treasure my "alone time" in the car. I savor my morning commute. I like to nurse my morning caffeine buzz, and be alone with my thoughts and some music before starting my day. I find it cathartic, and the longer commute is something I've decided I can tolerate if it means trading my alone time for forced early-morning conversation.

There's still time for long dinners, Sunday afternoon drives, and taking the kids to the park. It's just that we now have the luxury of choosing when we do and don't want to indulge in these activities. That, and modern society now gives us lots of other options. Some of us want to experience as many of these options as possible. Others are content to enjoy just a few. Why is the fact that we have the option to experience lots of life or to savor choice bits of a development akin to a "virulent virus" "infecting the culture?"

Blame Frederick W. Taylor, known as the father of scientific management, efficiency and systems engineering. Today we would call him obsessive/compulsive; in his day, he was just a bore, counting his steps, measuring the angle of croquet shots, rattled by idleness and attempting always to save time. Working and writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he divided tasks into specific actions and applied his stopwatch, attempting to demonstrate that the lazy rhythms of workers, left over from artisan days, could be efficiently reformed by the application of fractionated time analysis. "In the past," said Taylor, ominously, "the man has been first; in the future the system must be first."

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth took the concept further in the early 1900s, analyzing workers' body movements and isolating basic patterns -- reach, move, grasp, release and combinations thereof. Then they took efficiency home and applied it to their large family, a funny if flawed effort immortalized in the book and film "Cheaper by the Dozen," which confirmed that attempts to apply efficiency to domestic life are fraught with peril. It's a lesson we seem to have forgotten.

I don't have much to add here, other than to say I doubt that Frederick W. Taylor or Frank and Lillian Gilbreth are responsible for the everyday decisions we make in life. We value leisure. We want time with our families, our hobbies, or to relax. This is why we like paying our bills online instead of running to the post office, why we enjoy prepared food instead of preparing it ourselves, and why businesses and entrepreneurs develop the technology and tools to make those things happen for us.

How often do we stop to consider that one person's efficiency can be another person's burden? Voice mail may be efficient from the business perspective, but it has ended the receptionist's job and transferred the work to the caller, for whom it is often very inefficient.

Which is why some businesses have transferred call centers overseas, where labor is cheaper, and where call operator jobs are highly sought after, which makes them friendlier and more receptive. I recently called an India-based help desk for Compaq, and found it to be the least painful call-help experience I've had in some time. I'd agree that automated voicemail systems can be tedious, but many companies are already correcting this problem -- allowing you to talk with flesh and blood operators if you purchase a more comprehensive warranty, for example. As for unemployed receptionists and operators here in the states, it's an example of Joseph Schumpeter's creative destruction. Their jobs are anachronistic, now. They're freed to pursue a line of work that adds more value to the economy.

The filling station's efficiency now has granny trying to figure out how to pump gas and check her oil.

Or she can visit a full service station and pay a little more.

Production in America has increased partly because a great deal of work is being transferred to the consumer, as we serve ourselves and clean up after ourselves. Now we are told we must learn how to check ourselves out at the supermarket. It's the great labor transfer that makes us all feel out of breath all the time. Perhaps we've just about reached the limit of what we can take on to save somebody else's time.

Oh, come on. We all eagerly awaited the day when we could check out of the grocery store ourselves. I've never seen a store that only had self-service. It's an option. And it's usually an option I appreciate -- it gets me out of the store in much less time. Perhaps it does save the store some labor costs, but it also saves me time. If you're one who likes to read the tabloids while waiting in line, you can still do that (though the line will be a bit shorter thanks to us self-checkers). How exactly is it that giving consumers the option of paying less to do more themselves came to be an ominous development? And aren't we constantly being told that drive-through service and suburban convenience is making us fat? Is "efficiency" making us more belabored or less belabored? It can't be both.

Most of us today are caught between the efficiency we have been conditioned to aspire to and the emotional, impulsive, creative, quirky natures we humans are gifted with -- the very natures that have guaranteed our somewhat frightening success on the planet. The result is inevitably frustration. Perfection is never achieved because the machine standard is not only unachievable, it's undesirable. We don't operate that way, and we shouldn't. Yet in the end we poor, besieged humans, forgetting our own advantages yet no match for the tireless, unemotional machines and systems that have become our models, feel constantly obliged to apologize for our inadequacies.

Who are these people? I don't think I've ever heard someone complain about their inadequacies as compared to a machine, save for the few protectionists who groan when new technology displaces a few jobs.

Here and there, though, are healthy signs of real rebellion against the efficiency model. It's obviously more efficient to buy a machine-knit garment, but across the country I have friends telling me they've joined knitting groups. The renewed affection for gardening in the past decade or so is another sign of rebellion -- there's nothing efficient about herbaceous borders or growing your own vegetables. It's about pleasure. Those who scoff at the busy working mothers who are nevertheless devoted fans of Martha Stewart don't recognize the longing for the traditional pleasures of craft and home and hearth that still flicker in these super-efficient, multi-tasking moms.

And that's exactly the point. We grow our own vegetables today because we have the leisure to do so. Affluence has given us the free time to pursue our interests and hobbies. Efficiency allows us, for example, to telecommute from home, to bank by computer, to generally get life's necessary mundanities accomplished with less effort and in less time, so that we can pursue the more soul-enriching activities endeavors life offers. Women today knit in their leisure time because they enjoy it. Women 150 years ago knitted and weaved so their children wouldn't freeze in the winter. We grow vegetables today because we enjoy being around greenery, or perhaps because we enjoy eating food that we've nurtured ourselves. We grew our own vegetables 150 years ago because we'd starve if we didn't. Efficiency turned both from necessities into hobbies. Vegetable growers and knitting enthusiasts aren't rebels against efficiency, they're its progeny.

What we are missing is the time to waste time -- on things that really count, like handwritten letters, the thump of a baseball in a leather glove on a summer evening, lemonade from lemons and flowers on the table. Advertisers know this. Notice how often a high-tech sales pitch will be backed by sepia-tinted, nostalgic, hometown, farm-fresh images. There is a huge gap between what we think we want to be and what we really are.

I live in one of the busiest cities in the country. I still go to baseball games in the summer, even though the nearest stadium is about an hour away. I still occasionally cook for myself. And I still occasionally buy flowers for romantic interests. I do prefer the convenience of email to hand-written letters, mostly because my handwriting is barely legible. But technology has given us other ways to foster and develop personal relationships. Perhaps an instant message isn't as thoughtful as a personal letter, but it certainly gets to its recipient a whole lot quicker. I don't pen thoughtful missives on elaborate stationery to friends, but I do regularly make personalized mix CDs for them.

Even in the most active areas of modern society, there's leisure to be enjoyed. Some people trade it in for more money. Others indulge it.

My own preference would be for simply banning certain super-efficient technologies. We could outlaw the fish-finding sonar on the trawlers, return to traditional fish-finding skills and let the inherent inefficiency of the small fisherman help preserve our oceans' fish, not to mention the families and communities and related businesses that depend upon them. Ban the feller bunchers from the forests, localize electric production, go back to telling airplanes what towns they have to serve, put people and their needs before systems, and reduce the risks of massive systemic failure in the bargain.

And watch the price of fish, paper goods and air travel skyrocket. Watch as those who don't live on the coast have almost no access at all to seafood. Keep electric production local, and watch class activists fume when electricity goes spotty in poor and rural communities.

I don't underestimate the challenge of finding a way to incorporate other values into corporate bottom-line equations, given charters that require companies to maximize profits ahead of other priorities, and a culture that encourages pleasing the short-term expectations of analysts.

Other values already are incorporated into corporate bottom-line equations -- in the form of consumer behavior. Corporations are delivering the values and lifestyle consumers want, or else they wouldn't be doing business. That the author's values happen to contradict prevailing consumer values is unfortunate for the author. But why should her values supercede everyone else's by fiat? Why should people in Iowa pay triple the price for fish because she likes the romanticized notion of humble fishermen plying their trade with bamboo poles and modest nets?

But it can more easily be accomplished by privately or family-held companies that can do as they please, practicing less profitable but sustainable forestry on their lands for environmental reasons, for example, or putting employee satisfaction and better working conditions ahead of profit. I myself am the proprietor of a determinedly inefficient bookstore where the cash is kept in a drawer and the accounts are maintained on a ledger. My 14-year-old Lab sleeps on a rug in the corner, I pick titles on the principle that someone will like what I like, and I have time to prescribe for a customer who needs a book but doesn't know which one.

There are undoubtedly bookstore customers who prefer the personalized service the author offers to the more automated service of the chain stores. They frequent her store because they feel it's a better use of their time to purchase books she recommends to them than to browse the thousands of titles at a Barnes and Noble. The author unknowingly -- and to her shame, I'm sure -- has committed an act of efficiency.

Challenging efficiency is easier still for individuals willing to prioritize. Buying locally grown or produced fresh foods, for instance, could save transportation costs, keep farmland open, preserve a way of life, revive cooking, family dinners and dormant taste buds, and perhaps, as a bonus, limit large food-borne disease outbreaks. The rewards of inefficiency have undoubtedly only begun to be explored.

There are assuredly people who will and already do take the author's advice. And good for them. There are also those who enjoy the value of mass-produced food and the convenience of the George Foreman Grill. Good for them, too.

I don't begrudge the author's wish for a simpler life. I, too, enjoy fresh and slowly cooked food. I, too, enjoy wasting time with my dog at the dog park. I frequent independent bookstores, and I sometimes get in my car and take a drive for no reason at all.

But I also appreciate that improvements in efficiency brought on by markets and capitalism made it possible for me to do all of those things. I enjoy a white-collar job and five-day work weeks because our free-market economy unleashed that "virulent virus" efficiency, which enabled us to secure the necessities of life -- food, transportation, shelter, clothing, etc. -- with less effort, fewer resources, and less waste. Today we have the option to live a life that's slow or a life that's hurried. But we don't have to worry about where our next meal will come from.

Where two generations ago someone like me might be happy to work six days a week on an assembly line, today I get to do what I love -- write and think for a living. And it means that where two generations ago, someone like the author might have worked seven days a week raising a family without the convenience of modern appliances and amenities, she today is free to run an independent bookstore, and write articles for the Washington Post lambasting the concept of efficiency.

Radley Balko last wrote for TCS about the states and outsourcing of jobs.


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