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(Cross-posted to GroundSwell Magazine)
Productivity, as determined by labor output, has been measured for decades, or longer. But, while it's important to look at who, or what, is the most productive person or enterprise, shouldn't we also look at the least productive people, that is, the least effective laborers? Perhaps by understanding who the least productive people are, we can learn how to make them more productive. This would help them, and help society.
So, who are the least productive people?
Well, on the first take it might be tempting to look at those who don't labor at all, or those whose labor doesn't produce anything that satisfies human desires the ultimate goal of production. Let's exclude children and the very old or infirm from this tally. While it is true they are not productive, in the case of children, we expect great things from them in the future, and in the case of the every old, they may have produced a lot in the past. Finally, in the case of the infirm, there is only so much one can do when nature limits your abilities.
This would seem, at first, to leave the poor, or even the homeless. After all, the modern-day cold and calculating economists tell us, if those people were productive, than society would reward them for their labor.
So, is that it? Do we get to the zero line and say, "That's the bottom. That's the least productive people are capable of being"?
No. There is another class of human beings we've neglected, a group that exists below the zero line, sometimes reaching up to drag us down below with them or, at least, to take our money down with them. This, of course, is the criminal class, not just the robbers, burglars and muggers who directly take our money, but the ones whose labors injure us or our loved ones and make us incapable of producing ourselves, thereby adding a second minus to their own.
So, maybe that's it then. We just need to find the most heinous criminal; the one who's taken the most lives, or swindled the greatest amount of money out of productive people, and we have our candidate for the Most Unproductive Person, the winner of the Golden Unpro.
Let's see if we can think of a few individuals to nominate then.
How about Bernie Madoff? According to Wikipedia, the amount
missing from client accounts, including fabricated gains, was almost $65
billion. However, the court appointed trustee estimated actual l(http://www.progress.org/2010/barofsky.htm): losses to investors of $18 billion.
But, wait a minute. Henry George tells us that investor money is really "speculative money" and doesn't actually produce very much, if anything. That is, I may buy a stock from you, and you might make a profit while I eventually sell it at a loss, but nothing of value has been created between us. Your pile of money has simply grown while mine has shrunk. True, companies that are invested in are able to borrow money, using their investor's money as collateral as highly volatile and unreliable as that is, as we recently discovered during the Great Crash of 2008. But nothing is actually produced from investors' money. There is not much labor involved either which, of course, is what makes investing in the markets so attractive, at least until the bubble bursts. Yes, of course, the investor-speculators will all say they polish their green eyeshades daily and scrutinize their investments mercilessly. But, when 95% of the money managers can't beat the dumb S&P index over 10 years, perhaps this is labor we can redirect to more productive uses. Or, as Michael Hudson stated in a recent article:
The wealthiest 10% lend out their surplus to become debts owed by the bottom 90%. By charging rent and interest and by shifting taxes off themselves onto workers, the wealthiest enjoy a rising share of gains.
This is not what Adam Smith described in The Wealth of Nations. This extraction is a form of overhead, not a technologically or economically necessary cost. It is a zero-sum game -- one party's gain (that of Wall Street usually) is another's loss.
Well, there is no doubt the legal system found the labor of Madoff to be counter-productive, or at least, wealth-destroying, since it sentenced him to 150 years in prison or more than 10 times the average sentence length for First Degree Murder in states without the death penalty. At least the courts have their priorities straight! Paper wealth, even if unlabored for, is legally worth far more than a human life.