Friday, January 31, 2020

Efficiency Is The Opposite, or, A Walk In The Woods


utilizing a particular commodity or product with the least waste of resources or effort (usually used in combination): a fuel-efficient engine.


Along with other dramatic life changes, I've been doing an inordinate amount of backpacking this past year. I've spent most of my time in the greater Klamath Mountain Ranges, trekking through the Marble Mountains, Trinity Alps, Siskiyous, Russian and a few others.

Anyway, on one of my solo hikes in the Trinity Alps, I ran into a couple brothers who had a mule team bring up their "80 pounds each of ultralight gear," as I gently chided them.

One was in finance and one was in Medical Technology, as the money guy. Smart, socially conscious, moderate Democrats interested in the debates, clearly solid family guys.

Anyway, we get to talking about politics and the economy, as you do when you see another human for the first time in a day and have time and a little whiskey with you.

The medical brother was discussing the efficiency of producing their products in Asia, and I made some reasonable rebuttal about the corrosive nature of wage arbitrage, but it wasn't quite right.

So as I walked silently through the wilderness for the next seven hours, I really pondered what bothered me about the efficiency argument.

It brought me back a memory of an old article from Cnu's Sewing Circle about money as an illusion, a literally not real thing we choose to collectively accept - with a long history of this acceptance failing when it stops matching reality.

Here's what the people who run the world mean when they talk about efficiency. They mean that we will burn the planet to the ground for a few extra pennies. I'm not being dramatic.

Let's say you have a WIDGET, made in America.  It costs $15 to make; $2 for overhead, $2 for materials, $3 for energy and shipping, $8 for labor. Sells for $20, $5 profit.

Here's the sick, universally accepted version of efficiency:

$2 for overhead, $2 for materials, $8 for energy and shipping, $2 for labor (non-US). Sells for $20, $6 profit.

What we have done is allow a 20% increase in profits for the owners, Elimination of jobs (and spending) in the US, and a 166% increase in literally burning up the atmosphere and our finite oil supply.

Except my example is unfortunately too generous. It's really done for fractions of these results, like this:

$2 for overhead, $2 for materials, $8.95 for energy and shipping, $2 for labor (non-US). Sells for $19.99, $5.04 profit.

This is considered a necessary "efficiency." We rely on tenuous supply lines, eliminate the vast majority of income and spending power at home, and triple our carbon footprint to enrich a minority of asset owners to make fractional gains. Since they are leveraging their money by many multiples, these 1% "efficiency" increases still have the desired 30% return.

Nice guys, but we were deep in the woods, and even I needed a few more hours of hiking to get there.

"efficiency" should revert to a more classical meaning in our thoughts and actions.