Sunday, September 19, 2004

The Myth of Efficiency



Two men walk into a bar.

One man says that Henry Ford was a great man because he invented efficiency; he invented the modern assembly line: a long sequence of tasks where each individual did one small thing and did it very well and the cumulative result of the individual efforts was the gleaming marvel we call an automobile, the most evolved and sophisticated package of power and function in the world of its time.

Au contraire, says the other man. Henry Ford didn’t invent the modern assembly line, Louis XIV did it back in the seventeenth century. Every morning at Versailles a whole assembly line of top aristocrats got him out of bed and pissed and crapped and wiped and bathed and wigged and fed and underclothed and shirted and trousered and shod, each aristocrat fulfilling one small, specific function and doing it very well, and the cumulative result, the final product of all this effort, which emerged from the Royal Apartments, was the gleaming marvel they called the Sun King, the most evolved and sophisticated package of power and function of his time.

But that wasn’t efficient, says the first man.

Oh? says the second man. It was for Louis XIV.

The point of the anecdote is what? Henry Ford enjoyed pointing out that the men who worked on his assembly line could afford to own what they built. Did this make Henry Ford a nice guy? Louis XIV liked to point out that a Prince of the Blood was grateful to wipe the royal ass. Did this make Louis a monster or a shrewd economist?

I think the point, which we sometimes forget, is that technologies such as the assembly line work more than one way. They deliver goods out one end and money into the pockets of the workers and the owners, but the meaning, the net gain, of the transaction is negotiable. It can be tailored to suit the world-view of the owner. If you own the hall and the workers there’s nothing preventing you from having the drones put you into your clothes instead of putting horsepower into a Body By Fischer and creating an automobile, the only difference is the efficiency you are advertising as if it is something everybody ought to celebrate is really narrower than you say, narrow in the extreme, individual in fact. Efficiency which serves the individual at the top of the pyramid could just as well be called convenience, or laziness, or helplessness, or sloth, or evil.

In the more obscene version of the anecdote the bartender interjects that the assembly line wasn’t invented in Dearborn or Versailles; it was invented in Auschwitz. Should we redefine the word “efficiency” to guarantee some broader common good? Or should it, like some foreign currency, have its value pegged to the dollar? Should it be defined by economists or philosophers, or by theologians? Tying the value of a system of production to the dollar doesn’t make it antiseptic, money being filthy by definition, it just glamorizes it.

© Pasquino 2002


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