Productivity, growth and wellbeing – the awkward triangle

Two recent developments have tickled this cynical old veteran of office work. There was a successful trial of a four day working week. And there is general excitement at the latest thing in Artificial Intelligence – ChatGPT (generative AI, apparently). Both seem to point to improved productivity. But if that’s true it doesn’t follow that economic growth will result.

To my cynical mind office work can be divided into two broad categories: problem-solving and bullshit. The latter seems to take up most of people’s time: talking about solving problems rather than actually solving them. In any office-based environment remarkably few people in organisation actually seem to be productive problem-solvers. The others supervise, communicate, convene meetings, make calls, write presentations, set deadlines, monitor project plans, strategise and so on. Doubtless a lot of the activity I am describing as bullshit contains an element of necessary work, but it often doesn’t feel that way.

So it’s no surprise that some businesses have found that they can reduce office hours without impacting adversely on output when implementing a four-day week. The saving seems to have been in the region of four hours in a five-day week – four eight-hour days making up for five seven-hour ones, for example, though that’s a saving of three hours. ChatGPT, meanwhile, automates the production of bullshit. It manufactures a lot of plausible but unreliable verbiage that you would be unwise to stake much on. Since producing such verbiage is what so many people spend such a lot of effort doing, it’s not hard to see why people are getting so excited. Both ideas offer ways of spending less time doing pointless things. So productivity should improve.

But, of course, it is much harder to see how either invention increases the production of useful things. The idea of a four-day week isn’t to give people the time for side-hustles. The idea is that people get more time for unpaid domestic things (“leisure” is probably an mis-description of this). The study reported high levels of improved wellbeing among employees – which was seen as the main benefit. As for ChatGPT, it’s not meant to solve tough problems or make hard professional calls – the things you most want service providers to do for you – or provide the warmth of human company, though doubtless some people hope that it will help robots to do that job, it sounds a poor substitute.

Doubtless I exaggerate. But there is a more substantial point here. A lot of improvements made to workplace efficiency – improved productivity in economic speak – won’t have much impact on the sort of economic growth you can measure in money and tax – the holy grail for economists and politicians. But that doesn’t mean that people won’t be better off. Wellbeing and per capita economic income or consumption are quite different things. Some people have been saying this for quite a while – Professor Richard Layard for one, and he still is. I met him when I was part of a Liberal Democrat policy working group looking at the issue more than a decade ago. Lord Layard’s big idea is to use self-reported wellbeing as a measure of progress. I am more sceptical – I don’t think the measure is robust enough to do heavy lifting, though it is interesting nevertheless. Still I wish politicians would take up the mantra of improving wellbeing a lot more. The Lib Dem policy paper I co-authored was adopted as official policy and then forgotten. But people are voting with their feet. If growth is slowing because people are opting out of the money economy and improving their health and wellbeing, then that’s to be celebrated. Economists rarely consider this possibility, though. And Conservatives who advocate cutting taxes don’t suggest this so that people can afford to work for fewer hours – though this could be the result. Indeed they think it will increase GDP rather than reduce it.

In my youth I remember a story of some western development experts and going to an African rope factory. They gave them a machine that improved output per poker ten-fold. A year later they returned and were surprised to find the factory empty. “Why aren’t people working,” they asked. “Well, we finish the production in an hour, and then everybody can go home,” was the replay. Doubtless the original story was play on African stereotypes, but even at the time, we weren’t clear the the joke was supposed to be on.

The goal of advancing wellbeing while economic growth remains lacklustre is a perfectly feasible one. Improvements to workplace organisation and continued automation have their part to play. But public services and infrastructure can be better directed towards this goal too. And political reform to reduce the feelings of powerlessness will also help. This remains a long way off – but eventually public pressure will force it. If the four-day working week starts to take hold, it will be a major step forward.

Lib Dems and the Quality of Life

One of the more entertaining episodes of the last Lib Dem conference was the debate on the party’s new Quality of Life policy paper.  This paper had wended a long but largely uncontroversial path through the policy formation process, including extensive consultation, before reaching the conference – and I was a member of the working group – interest declared.  And generally policy that has followed this path gets more or less nodded through.  Not this time.  The motion and paper got the backs up of many representatives, and there were a number of well-delivered and entertaining speeches against.  For a flavour of this ire see Alex Wilcock’s blog – scroll down past the Dr Who stuff to 20 September.  If you click through to the comments page, you will find Alex describing yours truly as “not so much a thinking liberal as a sneering one”!  The paper was passed, but the margin was quite narrow by the usual standards of these things.

And that’s a bit of a problem.  This is policy that stands behind other policy – important not so much for its direct recommendations as its influence on subsequent policy.  I hesitate to call it philosophical – since it does not attempt to develop the core values of the party, but rather to apply them in a new way.  But if it is considered contentious, it may get ignored.  And for all that it is official policy, this would be quite easy.

What’s the fuss about?  The starting point of the paper is that public policy is too dependent on “hard” economic statistics, such as income and economic growth, to measure success.  But these are only intermediate measures – in other words we like them because they lead to good things, rather than being good of themselves.  That is because of the difficulty of measuring success in itself – the hitherto rather woolly concepts of wellbeing and quality of life.  But social science has been advancing rapidly and it is now possible to measure wellbeing in a rigorous way – mainly through asking people to make subjective judgements on their state of mind.

What the paper recommends is to make wellbeing an explicit policy goal, alongside the traditional economic measures.  To ensure this is done rigorously, it recommended that a National Institute of Wellbeing is established to promote standards. Various other devices (a cabinet champion, for example) were recommended to get it embedded into the business of government.

So far, so good, perhaps – but for liberals some loud alarm bells should be ringing by now.  This could be a charter for highly paternalistic government.  And especially when you come up against the evidence that many people seem to have a poor understanding of what is good for their wellbeing.  So the beating heart of this policy paper is the insight that individual autonomy (“agency” in wonks’ jargon) is central to wellbeing.  The idea is to help people help themselves, and not bullying and cajoling them into making better choices.

Education is central.  And, to make a small digression, this takes you in a very interesting direction.  A lot more is understood about life skills – emotional intelligence, resilience, and such – and the wellbeing insight gives these a much higher priority at all levels of education.

Fortunately there is a wealth of evidence to support the liberal view.  There one further thing – the measurement mechanism of choice for social sciencists, self-reported wellbeing, is a thoroughly liberal idea.  Wellbeing is what the population says it is, and not an arbitrary idea imposed by policymakers.  It’s like voting.

What were people objecting to?  One faction distrusted anything with so little in the way of concrete recommendations – especially when those few recommendations sounded like more bureaucracy and a new quango.  At best they interpreted it as harmless, and so a cost-free policy to rebel against; at worst they thought it was opening the party up to being criticised for being irrelevant in times of widespread economic hardship.  Others, Alex was amongst these though he was not called to speak, understood how dangerous the the quality of life idea could be in the wrong hands, and felt that it was too toxic to touch.  Or, possibly, that the detail of the policy paper did not live up to its liberal intent. At any rate that is my reading of what they were saying.

All this put the promoters of the motion in a bit of a difficulty – it is really quite difficult to push abstract ideas in this kind of debate.  In a short speech you don’t really have much opportunity to say more than “I think this is a good idea” rather than why you think it is good – at least not in a way that will connect to more than a minority of the audience.

Does it matter?  The problem is that the wellbeing agenda is slowly but surely infiltrating itself into the public policy process already.  The word (or “well-being”, the spell-check compliant variant which I don’t like) and quality of life come up with increasing frequency in all kinds of public policy contexts, and especially in health.  The concepts, if not the measurements, lay behind so much of the last government’s meddling in people’s lives.  And David Cameron is an enthusiast too, though with an entirely different agenda -but no doubt paternalist in  a different way.  Liberals need to get into this debate and push back hard against paternalism – but using the language of wellbeing, and not just pronouncing the plague on all its works.

And there is something else, even more important in my view, which the paper doesn’t really touch.  And this is the usefulness of the idea in promoting a more environmentally sustainable economy.  It is important to break through the tyranny of current economic measurements to show that a more sustainable way of life does not equate to poverty – and indeed that it can be better for everybody.  This is why the New Economics Foundation is so interested in wellbeing.  I particularly like their paper on Measuring our Progress.

So we need to keep pushing.  As one of the motion’s supporters said to me afterwards “Who remembers how close Nick Clegg’s margin of victory was for the party leadership?”.  Still, we that understand and support the policy have a selling job on our hands.