In Praise of Inefficiency

A recent announcement about a giant new fishing boat boasted that its automation would be capable of baiting and setting 17,000 hooks per day.

I put the announcement on my Facebook page, adding a disparaging, "We need this?"

Although dozens of people agreed with me, it's the people who disagree that help you better understand what you think you know. (I never learned anything from anyone who said, "Hey, that was great;" and the only place that's helpful is in bed. 'Nuf said.)

Someone who disagreed with me wrote, "this new modern vessel might result in safer and more efficient fishing than a bunch of small, old fuel-wasting inefficient and less honest boats might carry out."

I don't know why he assumed they'd be more honest. But let me get right to his core point: efficiency.

Is using natural resources (X tons of fish, say) or any raw materials, while drastically reducing the number of people employed while using those resources, really "efficient?" Or is throwing people out of work while using the same resource really a terrible waste, a waste of the potential for those resources to support people? In other words, is it really less efficient?

A person might see a giant, automated boat as "efficient." I see it as wasting human potential. Even if it catches no more fish than the smaller boats it displaces, it employs fewer people. To me, the only justification for using a resource is to support people. So the more people supported, the more efficient.

So, we've come to two opposite views of efficiency. Are we using the word the same way? Let's define efficient as "getting more" for the amount used. Efficiency is often a great thing. Not wasting time or money. Having a well-insulated home, or a high-efficiency car, getting more out of a gallon of fuel. That's all for the best.

But in a country where unemployment is the economy's worst problem, employing fewer people is efficient only for the person who has learned how to un-employ. They have learned to use the same fish, the same forest, the same farmland that has supported people, remove those people from the picture, take the fish, trees, and produce, sell them, and keep the proceeds for themselves. Legal or not, the non-technical term for that kind of efficiency is theft. It takes from others, limits options, precludes futures, causes pain, and undermines communities. It's efficient. And it lays waste.

My Facebook dissenter implied that bigger businesses are "more honest," and must play by the rules. But, seems to me, this kind of stolen efficiency doesn't like playing by the rules as much as it likes making the rules. Owners of owner-operated boats are out fishing. Owners of a boat that has machines baiting and deploying 17,000 hooks per day are not out on the boat. Part of their efficiency is that other people do the actual production. Their ideal efficiency is that they do nothing but get richer. This frees them to look after their investments, donate to political candidates, and then send their lobbyists to make friendly visits to those same elected representatives. Just little reminders, of course, of what they need and what they want. And what they expect.

In other words, the over-accumulation of fish hooks, of fuel, trees, farms, seeds -- of anything -- is a threat to democracy. Democracy means that people, acting as individuals, decide who rules, and what the rulers do. The genius of democracy is that the majority rules. The genius of our constitution is that although the majority rules, the majority must also guard the minority's rights. Everyone -- and no one -- is supposed to be "in control." It used to work pretty well.

Could industrialism ever embrace this approach? Ah, roads not taken.... None other than the inventor of the assembly line, Henry Ford, said, "My ambition is to employ still more men, to spread the benefits of this industrial system to the greatest possible number, to help them build up their lives and their homes. To do this we are putting the greatest share of our profits back in the business." He got sued, and in a case that took civilization down the wrong path the Supreme Court's judges posed a short question: What is a corporation for? The judges answered themselves by saying corporations are "primarily for the profit of the stockholders." (More here.) That decision ended a grand industrial ideal, and began the idolization of maximizing profits for people who do no work (my opinion, just sayin').

Some people get rich by creating good things, and they support many people. But some people -- they used to be called robber barons -- succeed at others' expense. So just as wealth isn't necessarily bad, "efficiency" isn't necessarily good.

Waste and pollution are inefficient. I wish "economic efficiency" would downsize those inefficiencies in how we do business, instead of focusing on how to cut work forces and break unions. I shudder to contemplate a world in which "efficiency" is the only metric for deciding what's desirable -- because we would need to ask, "Who's idea of 'efficiency?'"

Small businesses that are in one sense inefficiently employing people are, in another sense, efficiently supporting their communities. Businesses that grow large while efficiently laying people off are wasting enormous human potential and with them, the things that make life worthwhile.

In fact, just about everything that makes life worthwhile is inefficient. Music is inefficient. Art. Dancing. Playing games. Walking. Gardening. Good food that takes time and is beautifully presented (the most efficient food delivers the most calories per bite; it's called junk food).

Actually, we could start criticizing the inefficiency of the Big Bang, or the sun, wasting all that energy. That the entire universe tends to dissipate energy is both the second law of thermodynamics and the thing that makes humanity possible.

And so, efficiency is double-edged word. Sometimes it's a great thing. But sometimes, inefficiency -- efficiently directed where it increases beauty and compassion, in other words where it does some good -- is exactly what you need.