No denying the costs of efficiency
Business forum
Star Minneapolis - St. Paul
Published April 11, 2004

Every day, Gary pedals past our house on a decked-out three-wheel bike that hauls all of his work gear behind him. My kids have become expert Gary spotters—running to the window and pointing him out as he rides by. They are especially excited in the winter, when an unrecognizable, bundled-up biker passes us.

Gary has chosen to use his bicycle as his only means of transportation. This amazes me for two reasons. First, this is someone who, at least on this particular issue, is living his values. And second, giving up something so convenient as a car is virtually unfathomable to me. But that is where my problem lies.

I am at a crossroads when it comes to efficiency. As much as I love the thought of doing something in less time with less work and better results, I am also repelled by it.

After more than 20 years in financial planning, it is apparent that there are unrecognized costs that arise from this approach. More importantly, the outcomes might not be those that we desire.

Quick stock market gains lead to unrealistic expectations that inevitably result in inappropriate investments and ultimately disappointment. Business books such as “The One Minute Manager” devolve into books like “One Minute Parenting” and help contribute to the breakdown in our time-starved families. Zoning has created a chance to conveniently visit the pet food superstore situated next to the grocery superstore, which, of course, is adjacent to the hardware superstore, which is in the same development as the anything-you-can-imagine superstore. This also means that there are fewer neighborhood businesses where you bump into people you know. Is it any wonder that coffee shops are now our community centers?

Farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry has written extensively on a “properly scaled human economy.” Some of our desire for progress and efficiencies has resulted in our unique human inability to know when to stop. It also has resulted in our not truly recognizing the costs of some of our growth.

In a chapter titled “Six Agricultural Fallacies” from his book of essays, “Home Economics,” Berry points out that “the free market is bad for agriculture because it is unable to assign a value to things that are necessary to agriculture. It gives a value to agricultural products, but it cannot give a value to the sources of those products in the topsoil, the ecosystem, the farm, the farm family, or the farm community.”

This issue is not limited to agriculture. As profits are shipped away from the source of their production, we will continue to care less about the real cost of producing. Aesthetics, environment, community are less likely to be adequately valued in the cost of a product by a business whose only connection to the community is a faceless plant, rather than a business owner who is also your neighbor.

It is interesting that part of the reason it is efficient to ship jobs overseas is because many other countries pay even less attention to some of the non-financial costs of production than we do.

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Personal History,” former Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham wrote that her husband (who was the Post publisher before her) “...was acutely aware of the dilemma that arose from the fact that ‘a newspaper must be a successful commercial enterprise in order to survive. Yet, the publisher must realize that he has obligations which transcend any commercial interest."

These dual objectives are critical to all that we do. In our lives and our businesses, there must be a concomitant responsibility to do well and do good.

Striking a balance

We must look at ourselves and recognize that, to put it crassly, our lives are our product, and our time and efforts are the sources of this product. Spending our lives focused on things that in the end don’t matter much is like shipping the profits away from the production. We must pay attention to some of the hidden costs in what we are doing rather than just the obvious ones.

The money you earn is not your product. The choices that you make and the decisions about what to do with the money is your product. Most importantly, it is the little things that matter. So let’s look at some choices:

Are you dealing with your aging parents in a manner in which you want your children to ultimately deal with you? Are they a burden or a gift? Does it make sense to spend some of your resources to call or spend time with them? Have you spent enough time determining where they will live when they can no longer manage on their own?

Are you spending your money in a manner that is consistent with what you really want? Are you an environmentalist driving an SUV? Are you buying your children the things that you never had and depriving them of the satisfaction in earning them for themselves? Are you buying presents to make up for your unavailability at home?

Are you working to make anyone else’s life better? Have you found some causes outside of yourself that matter? Are you spending your time and your money to make the community better for you and your family?

Are you writing or calling people to let them know that you are happy or concerned for them? Are you walking your dog in your neighborhood with your head up and your iPod off so you can say hello to people?

As I write these things, I realize how inconvenient many of them may be in the short term and yet how in the long run these are the things that make what we do in life more important than what we do for a living.