Question. In what ways can a recession be useful for forcing inefficient public-sector agencies to lay off redundant workers and reduce bloat?
Every recession, going at least back to the Great Depression, you get economists and others who are certain that high unemployment can discipline firms into greater productivity. Back in the 1930s, this was Joseph Schumpeter saying that there was no need to fear a depression because it was good, like “a cold douche.” Liquidating unproductive firms and forcing the rest to get leaner was supposed to improve economy-wide efficiency. Today, you can find people arguing the same for inefficient public-sector agencies strapped by budget cuts.
It doesn’t happen. Productivity decreases in bad economic times; labor-saving productivity improvements happen when wages are high, not when sales are low. Cash-strapped firms do not have the ability to invest for the long run – they just sell portions of themselves and shrink to be easier to manage, to limit the loss.
In public-sector public transportation, this really is the same. The best time for converting a metro line to driverless operation is when unemployment is 3%, not when it’s 15%. When unemployment is 3%, it’s possible to place workers in the private sector, which means they’ll work well through the transition. This goes doubly so when the productivity improvement lets one person do a job that previously took three rather than eliminating the job entirely: workers can go on strike if they’re unhappy, and transit as an industry is very amenable to unionization, to the point that unions have succeeded in organizing the tech shuttles in Silicon Valley in an otherwise union-hostile setting. (Of note, American public-sector anti-union successes have mostly been about screwing young workers, who are already the least empowered within the union, rather than doing anything to 20-year veterans who are about to retire with a full pension.)
The issue here is that very, very few workers are redundant on a next-day basis, even in severely overstaffed agencies. New York can eliminate subway conductors but requires some planning in advance to do so, for example to move mirrors around and place CCTV cameras to enable drivers to see the platform and close the doors. American commuter rail agencies can eliminate rail conductors, in what is as close to next-day redundancy as I can think of, but even that requires hiring fare inspectors for proof of payment checks and often also buying ticketing machines at outlying stations where previously passengers bought tickets directly on the train.
More often, eliminating a large amount of waste requires spending a bit more money in the short run. It can be on capital, like more ticketing machines. It can be on labor, like more dispatchers to make the buses run more regularly to reduce delays and bus driver overtime. But it’s usually not something that can be done by the Chainsaw Al school of management. It takes time, and in a lot of cases, the cooperation of the workforce is necessary.
Time and time again, we see transit managers who think in terms of just cutting avoid making long-term investments to improve efficiency. We see hiring freezes, wage freezes, reticence to engage in any long-term hiring and planning even in temporary recessions, and hostility to electrification even among American governors who propose to spend billions of dollars on parking more trains in city center between the morning and afternoon peaks. Even below the top political level, managers who develop a siege mentality never think in terms of long-term improvement. That’s not what will get them ahead; avoiding short-term controversy will, and they adapt to bad practices readily.
The workers adapt, too. If they expect sudden layoffs, their morale will tank and so will their productivity doing anything but the most routinized work. Maintenance workers will skip things – nobody will notice until it’s too late. Cleaners will slack, and if the message sent from the top is that it’s time to retrench, it will be hard to argue for aggressive standards for cleanliness. Even absent unionization, productivity will flounder, and there will not be much room to replace truly lazy workers if there is a hiring slowdown.
So what works for increasing efficiency? The answer is growth. Kopicki-Thompson’s report on best practices for rail privatization has a chapter about the history of the breakup of Japan National Railways in the 1980s, which makes the connection between growth and efficiency clear. Between 1980 and the breakup of JNR into seven constituent JRs in 1987, the company laid off two-thirds of its workforce, after complex negotiations with the unions, some of which were militant socialists. Japanese work culture is that a man is expected to work for the same firm for his entire working life, from age 22 for a university graduate to retirement at 65; JNR had to place these workers in the private sector for a mid-career layoff. This could happen because Japan’s economic growth in that era was famously high, to the point that Americans soon bought business books about how to think like a Japanese manager.
It is best to instead use weak periods to plan for the long term. If there’s stimulus spending, take it and go build things. Even if there isn’t, remember that the recession won’t last forever and plan in advance. Part of the plan should be knowing which workers are supernumerary and making a plan to place them at private-sector jobs as soon as they become available. But don’t expect to be able to send masses of pink slips in a recession; that must be saved for when jobs elsewhere in the economy are plentiful.