Saturday, April 28, 2007


Very few people comment on the tremendous waste built into our lifestyle, governance and culture. Consider food. Having been raised in a simpler time by people whose childhood memories were of the Great Depression, wasting food remains tantamount to a sin.

Have you observed how many people (adults and their kids) treat food today? As something of so little value that it can shoveled into the garbage while still warm. This still makes my blood boil--not because of memories of hunger or want, but from the awareness of how hard it is to nurture and harvest the foods we eat. It is not effortless, or free.

The level of waste in every sector and every level of our society is staggering. Like everything else we've addressed in "Disconnect from Reality" Week, this truth has been obscured by habit and cultural blindness. Thus we accept as "normal" that vehicles get 20 miles per gallon of gasoline rather than 30, 45 or even 90 m.p.g.--as if petroleum, like food, water and employment, is limitless.

If you think that level of fuel efficiency is farfetched, then please read the Rocky Mountain Institute's The Hypercar® Concept about a standard-looking car which achieves 3 to 5-fold increase in fuel efficiency through lightweight materials and other technologies.

The RMI site is a revelation, from its slogan--"Abundance by Design"--to its many practical alternatives to wasting energy. In many American homes, the heat or air conditioning is on much of the time; if buildings were designed properly (and a McMansion is not), there would be much less need to burn energy to heat or cool interior spaces. This is a non-trivial issue, for a huge amount of our energy is devoted to just that.

The general view in our culture is "let the market handle it." In other words, when gas is $5 a gallon, people will start building and buying hyper-efficient vehicles. Nice, but it takes about 15 years to replace the nation's vehicle fleet. So if Peak Oil strikes with a vengence--as evidence suggests it will--then gasoline could rise quickly to $5/gallon and then move ever higher. So what do you tell the 95% of the citizenry who still own a gashog vehicle? "The market will handle it" sounds pretty hollow.

The question will be: why didn't someone anticipate $10/gallon gas and prepare the nation?

Consider granite countertops, jacuzzi tubs and oversized appliances. At least 15 million new homes /condos have been built in the current housing boom, and the vast majority feature essentially useless expenses such as huge refrigerators, granite countertops, marble entries, three bathrooms, water-wasting jacuzzi tubs (in the desert, mind you) etc. ad nauseum. These essentially needless "features" cost at least $20,000 per housing unit (a very conservative estimate).

What if the installation of $20,000 solar panels had been mandated or encouraged by tax credits, and the marble/granite/Subzero fridge had not been installed? Would the nation be better off with 20% of its electricity being generated by solar panels rather than 2%? Would we as a nation be better off if the funds misallocated into useless McMansion "features" had been invested in energy independence?

When the cost of energy doubles, and then doubles again, we will look back not just on the waste but on the misallocation of capital as terrible sins against our children and grandchildren.

If you still harbor doubts about Peak Oil, please read Peak Oil: Denial Won't Fill Your Tank (April 12, 2007) and check previous entries in the 2005-2006 archives listed under "Oil/Energy Crises."

Waste has another venue--jobs. The level of wasted motion and money in our economy is stupendous and little-noted. Is it really necessary to spend 30% of our healthcare dollars on shuffling paperwork around? No doubt you each have your own stories of insane inefficiency--due to incompetence, habit, union rules, Congressional mandates--the list is endless.

Though I can't find the clipping, I saved a "Nobody Asked Me, But..." column from the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings awhile ago. Here is the story it told. A Reserve officer recounted how hard he and his mates had to work to maintain the aircraft and sortie rate in his stateside unit. Then the 90s budget cuts lopped away about half the unit's staffing. Lo and behold, the same number of sorties were flown with half the people. What was left undone: tertiary reports and paperwork, meetings--all the usual non-productive "essentials."

Here's another story. I worked for a privately funded non-profit in the late 80s. The staff consisted of about 8 or 9 part-time people, all doing specific jobs: bookkeeper, PR, publications, ad sales, class schedule, registration, manager, etc. There were always meetings to attend, many in the evening because everyone was so busy.

The recession of 1990-92 took down much of the center's funding, and by the middle of the decade, virtually all the tasks which had once "required" 8 or 9 staffers were performed by one-full time employee and a single on-call very-part-time assistant. The publication got trimmed, but the number of events/classes offered remained the same, as did the clientele served.

My point: there is no way to know just how extremely efficient people can be until there is no choice but extreme efficiency.

We have a "full employment" economy now, but if a recession or depression kicks in, as many of us expect, how many of the jobs that will be lost won't ever come back? Once efficiency is required to survive, much of what was once considered "essential" drops away as unnecessary.

To consider just one example of hundreds of thousands, here is The Wall Street Journal reporting that companies have "celebration assistants" whose entire job is flitting about heaping recognition on fragile young employees desperate for lavish praise: The Most-Praised Generation Goes to Work (subscription required, but hopefully your library carries the WSJ).

Bosses, professors and mates are feeling the need to lavish praise on young adults, particularly twentysomethings, or else see them wither under an unfamiliar compliment deficit. Employers are dishing out kudos to workers for little more than showing up. Corporations including Lands' End and Bank of America are hiring consultants to teach managers how to compliment employees using email, prize packages and public displays of appreciation. The 1,000-employee Scooter Store Inc., a power-wheelchair and scooter firm in New Braunfels, Texas, has a staff "celebrations assistant" whose job it is to throw confetti -- 25 pounds a week -- at employees.

She also passes out 100 to 500 celebratory helium balloons a week. The Container Store Inc. estimates that one of its 4,000 employees receives praise every 20 seconds, through such efforts as its "Celebration Voice Mailboxes."

Excuse me while I gag (as are my 20-something readers). We all know the vast majority of American companies have zero loyalty to their employees, and so this "tossing confetti" nonsense is offered up as a painfully bogus simulacrum of actual caring. This kind of phony corporate programming reminds me of the old Soviet joke: "we pretend to work, and you pretend to pay us." The updated U.S. version might be: "You pretend to care about us, and we pretend to care about your product/service."

Still, one has to wonder about the current zeitgeist. In my day--not that long ago, really--our supe also had words for us, but I reckon they don't quite measure up to today's standards. If he thought we weren't working hard enough (this is construction), he'd snarl, "I want to see assholes and elbows" ( i.e. us bending over shoveling or lifting lumber, etc.). Would a delicate employee simply dissolve into mush and file a worker-compensation claim, or perhaps a lawsuit alleging abuse, were such words to reach his/her vulnerable quivering ears?

If your job is "celebration assistant": look, I'm sure you're doing great work, and you may well be boosting the productivity of the crew immensely. All I'm saying is, in a deep, lengthy recession, people start working to eat, not garner heaps of praise for showing up on time, and the company goal is to survive, not juice up happy-happy praise.

The larger question is: if 10 millions unproductive jobs disappear in the coming recession, what new enterprises will generate 10 million truly productive new jobs? In other words, if the 10 million (a low estimate, I wager) unproductive jobs in our economy are cut as no longer necessary, then what productive work will arise for those displaced?

Perhaps we should consider the possibility that there will be a structural imbalance in employment in which 10-20 million jobs will be eliminated and no new jobs created. How could this occur? It's not hard to come up with some potential causes: offshoring of expensive tasks, the deflation of debt bubble reduces overall spending by 20%, rising interest payments reduce consumer spending by 20%, as a result government tax revenues fall by 20%, and so on.

This is a sobering prospect, and one which should not be discounted as improbable.

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