Harmonizing Music History with Worker Productivity

19188345Technology improvements are generally associated with getting the same amount of productivity with fewer workers. But something called the “quartet effect” – with links back to the lyrics of the Grateful Dead – instead emphasizes enhancing what people do with their time. Governing reports:

In the foreword to David Dodd’s The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, Robert Hunter, the band’s “lyricist in residence,” wrote that the song “Uncle John’s Band” represented “the first lyric I wrote with the aid of that newfangled gadget, the cassette tape recorder. I taped the band playing the arrangement and was able to score lyrics at leisure rather than scratch away hurriedly at rehearsals, waiting for particular sections to come around again.”

What Hunter was describing, of course, was an improvement in productivity resulting from the application of new technology. Productivity is usually measured in terms of the labor cost per unit of production, and in most cases improvement is achieved by using new technology to reduce head count. For instance, a steel mill that once employed 10,000 workers produces the same tonnage with only a thousand employees, bank tellers are replaced by ATMs and elevator operators become a thing of the past. But in Hunter’s application of new technology, no one’s position was eliminated. It’s an example of what has been called “the quartet effect” at work.

When you reduce the head count of a musical quartet, you have not improved its productivity. If what you wanted was the music of a quartet, you have destroyed the product. The technology Hunter employed is the kind that, rather than eliminating jobs, allows existing staff to make better use of their time and gives them the opportunity to create higher-quality products.

How is this relevant to government? For most local governments, public safety constitutes the largest single category of expenditures, typically accounting for about 60 percent of total costs. For states and for some local governments, education is the dominant cost category. But it’s important to remember that within these areas, personnel costs — the salaries and benefits of police officers, firefighters and school teachers — are the real cost drivers. Personnel costs typically represent 80 percent or more of the total cost of a police department, for example. Few would argue that taking cops off the streets or teachers out of classrooms improves productivity.

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