workers of the world produce

Are Canadian workers unproductive? Studies by the Fraser Institute would appear to show that we are, and who can question a track record like the Fraser's? The much-quoted right-wing think-tank has already proven that kids do better in overcrowded classro

Are Canadian workers unproductive? Studies by the Fraser Institute would appear to show that we are, and who can question a track record like the Fraser’s?

The much-quoted right-wing think-tank has already proven that kids do better in overcrowded classrooms, that clear cutting leads to healthier forests, and that industry-sponsored studies are more accurate than independent ones.

The clear thinkers over at the Fraser have proven beyond doubt that Canada lags behind the civilized world (hint: 90 per cent of us can get there by driving south for half an hour) because our corporations still pay taxes, and our unions are still allowed to bargain for contracts.

John Baldwin and Ulong Gu at Statistics Canada set out to test this proposition.

On the first count, that productivity in Canada is chronically low, Baldwin and Wu were clear. Between 1960 and 2008 the rate of productivity in Canada grew by an average of four per cent per year. During the same period, and measured by the same standards, American productivity rose by 4.5 per cent. So it’s official: each year the Canadian economy gets more efficient at a rate .5 per cent slower than the world’s largest economy. What a bunch of slackers!

You might think Statistics Canada would settle for that. Clearly the Fraser Institute’s point is made. Just look at that half a percentage point. That means that the Canadians who spin the rat cage are accelerating at one two-hundredths the rate of the rats next door. It couldn’t happen if we weren’t all overpaid, overserviced by government and overrepresented by unions, and our corporations weren’t overtaxed and overregulated. This reduced productivity, caused by overfed workers taking too many naps, stymies our economy.

But somehow the Baldwin and Gu study failed to prove these points. Somehow, it came to a far different conclusion. According to a story on the CBC webpage: “Baldwin and Gu have joined the growing number of experts who cite business factors as the main factors underscoring Canada’s productivity woes.” The article goes on to say that while the Statistics Canada report relies on large trends, rather than cataloguing the specific ways in which business factors have affected productivity, an earlier study digs deeper.

In 2003, the Centre for the Study of Living Standards found that the productivity of Canadian as compared to American companies is compromised by: underinvestment in equipment, a lack of innovation, smaller plants, less training, and a relatively tiny high-tech sector. The study’s author, Andrew Clarke, was even more specific about what isn’t responsible, declaring that “our research has shown that high taxes and unionization rates are not barriers to productivity growth in Canada.”

Fade out the overunionized hard hats and evil tax collectors and bring on the incompetent managers and lazy CEOs. But do we really need to find someone to blame for 47 years of continuous growth in productivity at almost the rate of an economy 10 times the size of ours? And anyway, what it this thing we call productivity? If it’s a matter of innovation and investment by business, why doesn’t business innovate and invest and quit whining?

Pretend for a minute that these studies don’t make bunk of the notion that taxes and unions are dragging the country to its knees. Say for the sake of argument that American workers are just that bit leaner and meaner than we are. Say we’re slipping behind in the ability of employers to screw that extra bit of labour out of our workers. What does that mean? It would seem to suggest that Canadian workers are very slightly less pushed at work everyday. Is this such a bad thing?

The rate of increase in productivity is a measure of human madness. Every year people are working harder with more efficient equipment to produce more stuff for a planet already choking on stuff. Productivity is measured by the quantity, and not the quality, of the stuff you produce. By this standard an economy that churns out cheap toxic toys that poison your kids for a day or two and then break and go to the landfill is only healthy if its workers continuously accelerate the churn-rate.

Productivity is a good thing if you’re producing good things, things that people need, things that last, things that don’t threaten the future of the human species. It should be obvious that forever increasing productivity without concern for the nature of the product or the sustainability of its production is like planning a trip to hell, and rushing the manufacture of the hand basket.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.