A defense of inefficiency

Do you smell that? Efficiency is in the air. Recent negotiations among union workers, the University and management contractors provide the merest whiff of the efficiency phenomenon currently blanketing corporate, public and private arenas around the country.

The efficiency I’m talking about isn’t your usual, run-of-the-mill concept of accomplishing as much as possible with the resources available. No, the efficiency reflected in the union talks and government employment propositions boils down to a couple distinct outcomes: fewer people doing more work faster at less cost or lessening accountability and oversight (aka bureaucracy) by eliminating personnel or outsourcing public work to private firms. While there are other effects associated with efficiency, these two are the most apparent.

Efficiency usually carries a positive connotation while inefficiency carries a negative one. Logically, increased efficiency makes some sense – do it fast, do it right, do it cheap.

However, a little inefficiency can go a long way toward maintaining the human element in what we do and, though it might not squeeze every penny from every effort, it helps make our efforts more than just the mindless pursuit of an impersonal goal.

Imagining an extremely efficient government conjures an image not unlike Germany in the 1930s. They had a relatively small bureaucracy (aka inefficiency) and, tragically, accomplished much of what they set out to do.

The often snail-like political process of debate, compromise, veto, collaboration, etc., is frowned on by citizens who want things “accomplished,” but the only thing worse than an overly slow governmental process is an overly speedy one.

To see efficient business in action, look no further than recent University graduates working executive hours, six days each week for entry-level salaries. Closer to home, University clerical workers are being asked “to make only the same sacrifices” as other University employees to “meet budget challenges” – a trickle-down result from state cuts. Efficiency efforts often reach and have the greatest impact on those who can least afford it, making the term “sacrifice” all the more poignant.

Efficiency is fast becoming an omnipresent component of our cultural identity. From instant replay officiating in professional sports, to federal overtime pay legislation, to high-speed class registration via the Internet, we see efficiency demanding even greater efficiency with all the cold sterility of a calculus proof. Even the act of war is executed meticulously fast, and we become discontented when efficiency breaks down and costs rise with the mess.

As “increased efficiency” is used as a justification or motivation for change, consider the cost of streamlining – not just in fiscal capital, but social capital. Making money at all costs is a paradox only the mind with an appreciation for inefficiency can untangle. Dissenting voices and the slow, inefficient stumbling of all worthwhile human endeavors is a process we should revel in, not try to eliminate.

Aaron North is a columnist. He welcomes comments at [email protected]