PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Friday, May 24, 2019

Inefficient people

Inefficient people

We have all made mistakes and some of us are more prone to making mistakes then others. And if that was not enough, many people are also partial to some procrastinating, being lazy or simply doing nothing but contemplate the infinite like penguins.

True as this maybe, this is not our topic on inefficiency. So what is inefficiency and who are these inefficient people? And more importantly why should this be an issue in philosophy?

A standard meaning of inefficiency is not maximising benefits from a task we are performing for the time we have available to do it. In economics we might consider inefficiency to be wasting time and resources and thus not maximising productivity. Inefficiency is a big issue in economics and by definition in political philosophy. But we should not mix up inefficiency with redundancy or production below full capacity.

Redundancy is a sort of back up insurance and this is extremely important in the digital information age. Basically redundancy in information technology follows the rule of thumb that for every back up storage of information we have, in real terms we have at least one storage device less: for example, if we make a backup of the important data on our pc, we basically have zero backups. If we make four backups of this important data then we have the equivalent of three backup units. This is a well known principle amongst photographers ( e.g. Hard Drive Secrets & Tips by Theoria Apophasis on YouTube:

In productivity of goods and certain services, eg printing of books and magazines, production at full capacity means that one might miss deadlines especially if something goes wrong but there is no margin of error to play with. But more importantly one might have to turn away clients with an urgent job which might not be good PR but even worse if it affects relationships with an otherwise good customer.

So going back to the meaning of inefficiency, the two key factors are waste of time or reduced productive or both. At this point I feel obliged to point out that this depends on all things being equal. Sometimes life is really beyond our control no matter how much we plan or how diligent we are. But then the efficient person can probably cope with this.

We also have to distinguish inefficiency from incompetence and bureaucratic hell; and up to an extent waste which is also found in nature. These two factors (maybe waste too) do have a direct and causal influence on inefficiency. Incompetence is a matter of skill and abilities and hints at taking on responsibilities beyond one’s capacity. I would argue that in a work environment incompetent people are in their position because of the incompetence of their superiors or because of nepotism or some other form of corruption.

Inefficiency can happen in all aspects of our individual life: at home, shopping, travelling, at work, dealing with institutions and even our language. But inefficiency may also be the result of a group of people trying to solve a problem. I would, however, argue that when a group of people come together to solve a problem, the level of inefficiency in the solution would be a function of the lack of communication and exchange of information amongst the members of the group before the solution is implemented. Sometimes there are no such groups trying to solve problems.

Group originating inefficiency cannot only cost us time and effort but can easily lead to safety issues. This is very common in a work environment especially in dangerous activities such as building sites. But even white collar workers can be surrounded by inefficiency that can lead to a bureaucratic nightmare if not company collapse. Take for example the inefficiencies built into the Sub Prime saga that practically led to the collapse of the global financial system.

The Measure of productivity, for example in economics and business, is usually a function of output of goods or services minus input of “raw material” (including services; basically costs). Productivity is usually accepted as a reference for efficiency or maybe inefficiency so by this score we can be proud to point out that basically Germany and Spain* are at the same productivity level; Germany only leading by one point (2018: OECD Data but as I said earlier economic and business considerations also affect political philosophy. But when we compare Quality of Life (2017: EU: Living in the EU we find that Spain is at a score of 91 whilst Germany is at 126.

My scope here is not to make an economic analysis of anything but to point out that in business and economics, efficiency or inefficiency is not just a matter of adding figures, especially monitory figures. Indeed an often mentioned weakness of classical economics is that economics does not consider non-monetary values in a model.

The EU comparison is quite unique in economic history because for the first time we have 28 independent countries who belong to the same market and each under the same regulations. Maybe inefficiency at this level is not necessarily a matter of productivity numbers, but lost opportunities. And inefficiency is certainly a cause of lost opportunity. Are we making the most from what we have and the opportunities we can have? This is clearly a moral issue in Political philosophy, including economics. It is not enough to maximise profits but I would say it is also imperative to maximise opportunities.

At the personal level inefficiency in other people might cause us real and serious personal inconvenience. We are all familiar with the treatment of customers by some  customer services departments. Even if we accept that companies try to limit the number of callers to the department, sometimes inefficiencies here can put us off a company. This is why monopolies and cartels might lead to inefficiency, but this is another matter.

What prompted me to consider this topic was a case I experienced two or three years ago when I received a lens I bought from Japan; I left a comment and a photo on my Facebook on this. What is particular about this experience is that this is a case of inefficiency of the type when groups of people do not liaise with each other maybe even intentionally to annoy people.

The second hand lens I bought was 60Euros which included transport, but because the package came from Japan I had to pay customs duty. I first had to go to the Post Office near the airport, to get some paper from there; nothing spectacular here, standard post office stuff. From the PO I had to go to the Customs office across the road five minutes or so away. It took me 10 minutes to get through security, found the window, but after checking my papers the clerk told me that he couldn’t process the request because his colleague was not at his desk and he couldn’t find the relevant book. After fifteen minutes the clerk processed my paper: I had to pay 55 Euros duty. Apart from that nothing spectacular just standard bureaucracy. Except that now I had to go to a specific bank up the road in the sun which took about 30 minutes there and back. At the bank I had to wait for one person then it was my turn. It took me longer complaining to the cashier than for the cashier to process the paper and take my money. Back to the Customs Office, through security, find the clerk and give him a piece of paper. Then to the post office again to collect the lens. A whole morning gone. An inefficient system keeps creating inefficiency years after the event: look at the size of this paragraph.

I must say that all the people I met that morning were very helpful, efficient and professional. But what should have taken no more than fifteen minutes processing time took the whole morning. Hopefully the new trade agreement with Japan does not involve such infuriating processes.

To conclude, you will be justifying in pointing out that other countries and other people can be equally inefficient. Sure, but I did point out that we have to distinguish inefficiency from incompetence and bureaucratic hell. When I wanted to buy a modem in Italy my experience was a perfect storm of incompetence with perfect bureaucratic hell!

My point of the topic is how much does inefficiency cost us, be it our own inefficiency or that of others? And at the political level, how much does the inefficiency of governments and state cost the nation and the welfare of the population? But is inefficiency a natural phenomenon or a function of civilization?

Best Lawrence

* The figures I mention for Spain are factual historical facts and economic in nature therefore not subject to the Spanish politics embargo; blaming a party or another would be. But I will let you decide that.

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