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I'd go further than you on this line.  Efficiency has gotten to a point that it is directly harmful to society as a whole.  In short, when the majority of people are not needed to produce the goods and services which they, and the wealthy, would like to consume, then they are irrevocably reduced to the position of slaves, as they simply have nothing to bargain with.  When the last weapon of the proletariat, the ability to withhold labor, is no longer meaningful due to the massive gains in efficiency and productivity thanks to modern technology, then their bargaining position in society as a whole will inevitably decline and they will be inevitably impoverished, as the distribution of wealth is primarily a political matter of power.

At its heart, efficiency is about cutting as many people out of productive transactions as possible.  But is a world where Central Asia has no purpose (where it was once a home to the great synthetic societies of the silk road), where the small shopkeeper and small farmers have been squeezed out by Walmart on the one hand and Archer Daniels Midlands on the other, or where the masses subsist on gruel handouts while squatting illegally in great camps of the dispossessed really an improvement?

In Japan, I see around me the decaying remnant of the boom time economy, one composed of hundreds of small businesses, small shopkeepers, and small farmers all tied together in economic networks of general equality and reciprocity.  Sure, this was not terribly efficient, but it worked, and created a livable society.  Now Japan seems dead set on following the lead of the US, with big box stores selling imported goods to customers who drive in from miles away.  It's sad.  

by Zwackus on Sun Nov 7th, 2010 at 02:09:29 AM EST
The "efficiency" of gross centralisation is entirely based on ultra-cheap energy (i.e. fossil fuel).  It's actually grossly inefficient in any real sense.  Only the wonderful (and transitory) EROEI of fossil fuel (as good as 100:1 initially, now falling off sharply) made all this maze of transport and energy-intensive processing look "efficient".

Then again, when "efficiency" is mentioned -- even in a discourse narrowly and artificially limited to dollars -- we have to ask "efficient at what or toward what end?"  Capitalism, for example, is very efficient at concentrating wealth and ownership in the hands of a small elite, and at pillaging biotic and mineral resources in record time.  Whether these are desirable goals is not really discussed;  all we ever discuss is how much more efficient we can be in achieving them.

The fetishisation of Efficiency goes back to the early industrial revolution and the invention of machine-based mass production (though it was already established as early as corvee labour, thousands of years earlier, it took the engineering/mechanistic mindset of C19 to blossom into its full cultic prominence).  The guy to google is Taylor (Frederick), who at first seemed to be helping the worker (who in those days was often paid by the piece or unit) to earn higher pay by getting more done in a day.  But the principles of "Taylorism" rendered factory work more and more mindless, compartmentalised, and insanely boring;  a win for the bosses, as this meant that the labour force could be nearly skill-less and completely replaceable/interchangeable (i.e. more machine-like and controllable, more "efficient" to manage and exploit).  And so on.

If we started with the goal of making people's lives happy, satisfying, and interesting, we might have a whole different notion of efficiency -- call it "Efficacy" perhaps -- something more oriented to Quality than Quantity, and more oriented to the whole/organism rather than the rigorous analysis of decontextualised, atomised parts.  But if one starts down this path one is generally accused of "sentiment," "luddism," anti-scientism etc -- despite the tantalising and maddening fact that almost all the recent advances in bio and neuro science come to the same conclusions:  a) "it's more complicated than we thought," b) "it's far more interconnected than we thought," c) "actually, it seems to be nonlinear."

recommended reading:  S Dehaene's "Reading in the Brain" -- for a glimpse of the massively parallel processing (not a linear assembly line as previously modelled by C19 thinkers) done by stacks of neurons as you and I read these little squiggly marks and render them into more-or-less shared meanings.  not an assembly line, but a semi-anarchistic crowd of peers, far more similar to the traditional Japanese village economy than the Toyota plant.  fascinating stuff.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Sun Nov 7th, 2010 at 12:01:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I enjoy reading anything about the mind and brain (any species),  for a review of the misperceptions as well as the insight. We are still in the coastal waters of mind - we don't yet have robust enough ships nor the navigational skills to cross any major tracts of awareness.

But there is this anecdotal 16th C feeling that there are definitely other lands to explore. For the moment, we are still putting 'there be dragons' on our maps. But that's just rorschach projection. To which we are prone.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sun Nov 7th, 2010 at 12:14:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The "efficiency" of gross centralisation is entirely based on ultra-cheap energy

What makes you think that centralisation is, in general, less energy-efficient than decentralisation?

Centralisation allows you to take advantage of economies of scale (such as running a furnace 24/7, thus saving the energy required to re-heat it after cooling down overnight), and it makes the distance you need to ship intermediate goods much shorter.

Further, centralisation allows you to organise your production around energy sources and modes of transportation that require expensive infrastructure to work - which is the case for almost all sustainable energy sources and almost all modes of transportation powered by sustainable energy sources.

Centralisation also enables a much more fine-grained division of labour, which enables organised knowledge and technology to be brought to bear on the production process in much greater detail. So it is less than perfectly clear that centralisation is always less energy efficient than decentralisation.

The fact that these advantages have in the past been used to optimise production for man-hour efficiency at the expense of energy efficiency does not necessarily mean that this is how they will be used in an energy-constrained economy.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Nov 7th, 2010 at 12:33:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's not all fossil fuels.  There were huge gains to efficiency to be made in international transportation to be gained by the shift from overland caravans to long-distance sailing ships in the 1500's.  That's what killed the silk road - buying directly from the producer, and selling directly to the consumer, while cutting out the middlemen.  Then the Dutch went a step further, and vertically integrated the producer by setting up slave-run spice plantations.

Energy consumption is one way to compensate for man-hours, and thus create "efficiency," but there's another sort of efficiency to be had by squeezing people out of the trade.  Middlemen who formerly had a cut of a particular enterprise are squeezed out, and their profits accrue to one side or the other.  That's all fine and good for the end producer and the end consumer, but in the end whole societies are wiped out as inefficiencies, un-necessary to the transaction.

by Zwackus on Sun Nov 7th, 2010 at 10:55:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
where the small shopkeeper and small farmers have been squeezed out by Walmart on the one hand and Archer Daniels Midlands on the other

The life of a traditional small shopkeeper or small farmer is grueling. Frankly, as a choice of two evils, most people in the West today would find being a WalMart employee earning crap money far less unpleasant than being a small traditional farmer.  Heavy physical labour in the hot sun or freezing rain, day in, day out, is not most people's idea of a good life.  

There is absolutely no reason why the same sort of process which turned the industrial working class from horribly paid individuals working horribly unpleasant and dangerous jobs with insane hours to decently paid individuals working unpleasant jobs with decent hours can't work for the new service sector jobs which, as bad as they are, aren't as horrible as the industrial ones of a century earlier. What we need is government action and a new empowered union movement. Not that these are on the horizon, but reacting to that by romanticizing an even worse past is not helpful.

by MarekNYC on Sun Nov 7th, 2010 at 11:18:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not so sure that in the proper conditions, the small shopkeeper is so much worse of than the Walmart employee. VietNam is only starting to have supermarkets, and when I see the small shopkeeper, the shop is essentially an extension of the house, rather than a place where "normal life" is put away eight hours a day. And the comparison between small farmer and factory worker doesn't hold that much here, either ; many factory workers go back to the family farm after a few years....

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Mon Nov 8th, 2010 at 05:37:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And the comparison between small farmer and factory worker doesn't hold that much here, either ; many factory workers go back to the family farm after a few years....

And many don't. This when the comparison is between old school style factory labour and traditional farming.  Given the choice between WalMart type work, for WalMart type PPP adjusted wages, my guess is that the number who would freely choose farm labour over the WalMart option to be rather low.

by MarekNYC on Mon Nov 8th, 2010 at 08:06:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Actually, for the factory workers, my guess would be that most go back to the farm. The figures I have seen was that a fifth to a third of the employees do not go back after the Tet vacation... Each year.

As for US-Walmart type work, I guess nobody in Vietnam would go for it at anything like minimum Vietnam wage. A consequence of low wages is that in most service employement (restaurants, supermarkets, even most offices) you will find about 3 times the number of employees you'd expect in the West. And that means much, much less intensive work. Much more time to take a break, etc... compared to the typically hurried service worker in the West. And even at a PPP-adjusted wage, which could be 2 or three times the VN minimum wage, you don't see people working as hard as they'd have to at Walmart.

Also, the real reason people left the countryside for the factories in the west isn't so much that they liked factories, but that there wasn't that much land available - Vietnam having had a thorough land redistribution not that long ago, land ownership is much more equal than, say, in 19th century France.

The dream in Vietnam is the small shop, not walmart. A major difference between Vietnam and the West is that startup costs for the small shop/restaurant are still very small, and usually included with having housing, whereas in the West this requires high investment, and habits and housing patterns mean people will go to the mall, not to a small shop...

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Mon Nov 8th, 2010 at 09:07:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The minimum wage in the US is $7.25. Adjusted using the PPP multiplier that would be about $3 in Vietnam.  At forty hours a week that's $120 or roughly double the monthly minimum wage in Vietnam's urban centers.  You're saying that your typical Vietnamese peasant or worker wouldn't be interested in working a moderately physically demanding and very mind numbing job at eight times the minimum wage for forty hrs/wk of work?
by MarekNYC on Mon Nov 8th, 2010 at 10:34:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
First, at PPP indeed the Walmart wage would be double the monthly minimum wage ; considering the social realities of Vietnam, Walmart would indeed be paying minimum wage, not twice the minimum wage.

And considering cost of living differential between the big city and the countryside, and the Vietnamese taste for living close to home (which remains in the countryside ; the Vietnamese don't like to be away from their ancestral home), yes, the typical peasant would rather stay on his farm, the typical worker would prefer to own a family shop.

The monthly minimum wage is not enough to live in Hanoi, for example, except in the faraway suburb ; and the combined cost of housing and the loss of the family support network means that wage isn't that attractive for someone not otherwise attracted to city life.

And anyway, at that level of wage (ie from minimum wage to 2x minimum wage), such job as parking lot attendant (which are much cosier than Walmart...) are available.

Also, the 40h Walmart job is much less attractive when you realise the flexible work hours mean an "effective length of work" away from home much closer to 50h or more.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Mon Nov 8th, 2010 at 10:43:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's eight times the minimum wage, not double. What kind of unskilled jobs are available that pay 8x minimum wage?
by MarekNYC on Mon Nov 8th, 2010 at 10:53:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Sorry, misread the 120$ per week as 120$ per month. But PPP is a poor adjuster if it considers comparable 7.5$ in the US and 3$ in Vietnam. For similar standard of living, and considering the differences in mandatory costs between the US and Vietnam, 120$ is closer to granting the same social status in Vietnam as that of a Walmart worker in the US.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Mon Nov 8th, 2010 at 11:06:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
PPP is simply based on prices, so it says nothing about social status. And are you saying that food, energy, transport and housing (the primary expenses for most households) are more than two and a half time cheaper in Vietnamese urban areas than in generic American sub/exurbia or rural areas?  Given the cost and necessity of cars, I wouldn't be surprised if you have a point, but cars do offer a rather big increase in quality of life to anyone who doesn't live in a very high density urban area with great public transport above and beyond the basic necessity aspect.  Also, it's not like the other stuff is a minor matter.  
by MarekNYC on Mon Nov 8th, 2010 at 11:32:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm pretty certain that food, energy, transport and housing is more than two and a half time cheaper in Vietnam than in rural US. The street restaurant serves a meal for about 75 cents, transport is done by motorbike (which you can get for a few hundred bucks, and are used all across VietNam, even the most rural parts ; after a few weeks in Vietnam, you start wondering exactly what's the point of a SUV, since the average motorbike has exactly the same uses), energy means a ventilator for A/C and some coal for cooking (plus more electricity for the TV, an impressive amount of which are large and flat) - the real expense is housing, which will require a 200$/month rental if you aren't a homeowner ; note that most people of Hanoi origins got the land (and potentially the house) for free at the time of de-collectivisation.

Another point ; you'll find quite a lot of westerners settling for 500$ to 800$ a month in Vietnam. The only problem is that a few years later they realise they can't buy a plane ticket to go back West...

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Mon Nov 8th, 2010 at 12:15:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
$2000 a month ($800 x.2.5) in actual average spending will provide a quite adequate standard of living in much of the US for a childless single person absent health care costs.  
by MarekNYC on Mon Nov 8th, 2010 at 12:37:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If Walmart pays minimum wage in the US, why would they pay eight times minimum wage in Vietnam?

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Mon Nov 8th, 2010 at 11:24:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
They wouldn't.  The original question was whether a typical Vietnamese peasant's life is better than that of a minimum wage employee in the US working at WalMart.  Linca says yes, I say no and now we're playing with numbers.
by MarekNYC on Mon Nov 8th, 2010 at 11:34:23 AM EST
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It's not nature of the job, but the economic and political status of the overall situation that's important.  The small farmer or shopkeeper is infinitely more than a paid employee - they are owners of functional capital, and as such have an ownership stake in society as a whole, and thus greater political clout.  And, as Linca mentions, there is a level of integration into the entire society that is different from that endured by the wage slave.
by Zwackus on Mon Nov 8th, 2010 at 07:41:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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