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Copyright

Title: The New Ruthless Economy
Author: Simon Head
Publisher: Oxford
Copyright: 2003
ISBN: 0-19-516601-9
Pages: 222
Price: $28.00
Rating: 90%

As the US economy experienced an unprecedented boom in the 1990s, partly fueled by increases in productivity brought about by the IT revolution, "the inflation-adjusted wages of most Americans have stagnated."  In addition, corporate practices such as "reengineering" and "enterprise resource planning" have "reduced the role of skill in both factories and offices, subjected employees to an unprecedented degree of monitoring and control, and exposed them to wave upon wave of corporate restructuring." Simon Head, a journalist specialized in economic issues, sets out to examine these questions and the implications they have for the future workplace. 

Manufacturing has long been ruled by concepts and principles developed by Henry Ford and Frederick Winslow Taylor in the early 20th century. Early attempts to Taylorize white-collar work met with little success, but the IT revolution of the 1990s gave managers "formidable new powers of measurement and control", allowing them to apply industrial methods of efficiency to the service industry. This book contains an overview of how industrial processes have been codified over the past century and more, beginning with Ford and Taylor and continuing with the Japanese automakers and their refinements of these concepts in the 1970s. 

Mass production began in the 1820s, but only became the dominant industrial system after Henry Ford applied it on a large scale with his Model T in 1914. With a constant search for efficient processes, Ford was able to drastically reduce the amount of labor required to build a car. By making cars cheaper, he was able to democratize them, and sell more. 

However - and journalists and economists choose rarely examine this variable, and Head is no exception - it is this very democratization of all types of products that leads to a cycle of lower prices, less labor, and more stringent demands on workers to become even more efficient. Consumers generally look for lower prices, especially for manufactured goods, enforcing this cycle and indirectly hurting themselves. This factor, coupled with the 90s concept that greed is good, are just so many nails in the coffins of workers, as amorphous corporate entities find it easy to give high salaries to top management and demand ever-increasing sacrifices from the lower echelons. 

Globalization is often cited as another cause that brings pressure on wages. Again, Head does not examine how outsourcing affects demands for increased efficiency in the US; when you consider that developing nations can offer similar services at a fraction of the cost that US workers can, it's no surprise that wages spiral downward and conditions become harsher.  

One example of this - one that Head examines in several chapters of this book - is that of call centers. In order to keep customer service costs down, companies put workers in strict, stressful settings and demand the highest possible productivity. If you don't cut muster, you're out the door quickly.  

Call centers are perhaps the "jungle" of the new century, and have reduced what was once a job requiring empathy, patience and communication skills to a series of pre-scripted steps that has rendered these workers powerless. It shows a great deal of contempt to customers as well, as many of us know from experience, since we have no choice but to deal with these human automata when seeking information, assistance or advice. 

The conditions that Head describes in some of these call centers are almost Dickensian at times, and makes one wonder how all those involved - from top management to supervisors - can allow such environments to exist. Are they "just following orders"? Have they lost all sense of humanity? 

While "digital assembly lines" are "truly Orwellian in [their] ambitions", Head never says how many people work in these conditions, or what percentage of workers are affected by this trend. While he opens the book citing stagnant wages overall among workers, he never addresses this issue globally, but only focuses on a few isolated areas. 

However, one area where this trend is worrisome is health care. Head devotes two chapters to this, but could easily have written an entire book about it. As health care in the US has succumbed to Taylorist principles, for-profit managed care organizations do everything they can to make doctors spend less time with patients and cut costs. Living in a country (France) with a national health care system - often cited as one of the best in the world  - I shudder at the thought of only having an average of 8 minutes to talk to a doctor. This says little for the future of the US economy and its workers; this type of short-term, bottom-line thinking is truly appalling. (Though not as appalling as the fact that so many Americans have no health insurance at all.) 

Simon Head depicts a dismal picture of some parts of the new economy, but, unfortunately, does not give clear statistics as to how many people these problems affect. This is indeed an eye-opening book, and one that should make many people reflect on which direction computers are taking us. But it lacks any clear suggestions as to how to react, and Head's treatment can be cold and impersonal at times. He is no Sinclair Lewis, but he certainly has shed light on a new jungle.

 Kirk McElhearn  

Kirk McElhearn (kirk@mcelhearn.com) is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site, http://www.mcelhearn.com.