Man Without Qualities

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Patently Absurd

Writing in the New York Times, Stephen S. Roach, chief economist for Morgan Stanley, says all that you've been reading about US workers becoming more productive is probably poppycock. According to Mr. Roach, people are just working longer hours and the government isn't keeping track of it:

The denominator of the productivity equation - units of work time - is even more spurious. Government data on work schedules are woefully out of touch with reality - especially in America's largest occupational group, the professional and managerial segments, which together account for 35 percent of the total work force.

For example, in financial services, the Labor Department tells us that the average workweek has been unchanged, at 35.5 hours, since 1988. That's patently absurd. Courtesy of a profusion of portable information appliances (laptops, cell phones, personal digital assistants, etc.), along with near ubiquitous connectivity (hard-wired and now increasingly wireless), most information workers can toil around the clock. The official data don't come close to capturing this cultural shift.

It would be nicer if Mr. Roach could have presented even one tiny bit of evidence for his claim that the government statistics he knocks here are "patently absurd." That's especially true because the workers themselves don't seem to be reporting increased hours worked on a long term basis when they are polled (although they do report a modest rise in hours worked in the past year).

And while it is true that most information workers can toil around the clock courtesy of the new technology, many of those workers sell their labor by the hour, such as attorneys and accountants. It's therefore not likely that their hours are growing but going unreported. Also, it's not really that easy for many people to find quiet time and space to toil around the clock if they are parents of young children or expect to remain or become married. Is the image supposed to be of an office manager phoning in instructions from the freeway? If so, then how does one distinguish such a manager who leaves early because he or she can phone in from one who is actually working longer hours? And are hours spent phoning in from the freeway as effective as hours in the office? Mine never seem to be. Anecdotally, most employers I know who have allowed employees to work from home do not feel that those employees toil around the clock. Far from it. Young investment bankers sometimes toil around the clock. Is it possible that Mr. Roach, who works for an investment bank, has come to view investment bankers at Morgan Stanley as representative American workers? Why is it that thought is so terrifying?

In any event, it's impossible that Mr. Roach could have come to think that way. That would be patently absurd. In fact, it would be as patently absurd as a senior economist with a major investment bank asserting on the pages of the newspaper of record that the official data on a major economic variable is "patently absurd" even though it seems consistent with professional private polls - all without offering any evidence for his assertion whatsoever.

Now that's really patently absurd.

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