Sunday, January 21, 2018
Opinion

U.S. is producing more, but costs remain high

It only took about three months for the new refuse service in Spring Hill in Hernando County to get my Monday and Thursday trash pickups and Friday recycling collection working smoothly. The new service seems to be functioning acceptably these days. I do notice differences. Real differences.

These days a shining, new, blue, technologically-advanced garbage truck swings into our cul-de-sac. The driver deftly dashes out of the driving station on the right side of the cab, picks up my 40-gallon trash can, expertly dumps its contents into a low-receiving trough, drops the trash can on the straggly grass growing along the asphalt, jumps back onto the truck and is gone. The whole operation takes about 15 seconds. Real hustle. The old, green garbage truck is history. And with it, the crew of two or three trash-can handlers and the truck driver who never left the cab.

The same amount of trash gets collected but the new system is so much more efficient. I would guess the old system with its three or four workers had a wage cost of at least $60 per hour with wages, fringes, and all. The lone driver-trash-handler probably costs a third as much.

Doing more with less. The American word for it is: Productivity. Still I wonder. What happened to the three guys I would say "Hi" to when they collected my trash? And how does our governor add 700,000 new jobs in Florida with this kind job loss taking place?

During a recent five-year period the U.S. achieved an 8 percent gain in productivity. This means doing the same amount of work with fewer workers. The report also indicated that this 8 percent productivity gain was distributed thusly — 1 percent went to the workers who achieved these productivity gains and the remaining 7 percent went to corporate profits. I am not about to argue if this distribution of newly created wealth is good or bad; however, none of us can avoid asking what this trend will mean for all of us over the long haul.

When we hear that our manufacturing jobs are being shipped to China, we need to keep in mind that, by value, the U.S. remains the world's largest manufacturer. We are not producing less. U.S. manufacturing jobs are not disappearing because we are manufacturing less; manufacturing jobs are disappearing because we are making more stuff with fewer workers. The issue is: How will we distribute the incredible gains we achieve in productivity? How will our society manage the huge social cost of displaced workers? Political ads never address real issues like this.

My wife and I had to make a quick trip to New Jersey this summer. I was just about to cross the bridge into Pennsylvania when I looked at the fuel gauge on the dashboard of my Suzuki wagon. I did a quick U-turn and went back to a filling station I had just passed. (No, we don't call them service stations anymore because there is no service.)

I got out to top my tank, when somewhat sheepishly, I saw the attendant walk up and ask me how much gas I wanted. Oh yeah! This was New Jersey. Self-service is prohibited.

As he filled my tank I remarked to the attendant how amusing it was to see a spiffed-up woman pull up in a Cadillac to perform the menial task of filling her gas tank. I asked, "What happened to all those service attendants who used to check the oil and clean the windscreen while you remained seated in the comfort of your Buick?" He had no idea either.

"At least it makes gas cheaper," I said. Another gain in productivity. The labor we expend filling our own gas tanks never becomes part of gross national product.

Then I crossed into Pennsylvania where only self-service stations exist and gas was 10 cents more a gallon. A real productivity gain.

C.D. Chamberlain lives in Spring Hill.

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