A Collation of Bits

More whistleblowers, a looming economic boom?, and Silvia Federici on domestic work as unpaid labor

I am reverting to a collation of bits for this issue, simply because I have too much to share.

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The Race to Fix Virtual Meetings | Yiren Lu uncover an interesting factoid about minimum office: more people are becoming whistle blowers.

Matt Levine, who writes a Bloomberg newsletter called Money Stuff, recently riffed on the fact that company whistle-blower reports have increased by 30 percent in the work-from-home era. He concluded that when people work together in person, a conviviality develops that makes ratting colleagues out feel like an act of betrayal; this inhibition disappeared once co-workers saw one another only on screens. “I guess this story is good news from a prevention-of-financial-crime perspective,” Levine wrote. “But it is sort of a sad story from a human perspective. All these people feeling disconnected from their work and their colleagues, with no strong personal ties of loyalty and friendship and common mission. Sure, the common mission in these particular cases was crime, but still.”

One of the side effects of strong ties becoming looser?

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On the Post-Pandemic Horizon, Could That Be … a Boom? | Ben Casselman talks to some business leaders, and many — like Greg Maurer of the fitness chain Workout Anytime — are seeing the start of a boom, as people are eager to do the things they couldn't in 2020:

“This may be the biggest growth period we’ve ever had coming up,” he said. “There is a huge group of people out there saying, ‘I cannot wait to get back to the club.’”

Mr. Maurer doesn’t just expect to get all his old customers back, or even to resume the company’s old growth trajectory. He expects business to leap ahead of its path before the virus. That’s partly because the pandemic has wiped out many smaller gym chains, leaving less competition. But it is also because the pandemic led Workout Anytime and other chains to adopt digital tools, like online bookings and video workouts, that could open up new revenue streams.

“We are a way better organization today as a result of these challenges than we were a year ago because we had to get better,” Mr. Maurer said.

Stories like his are behind one of the most intriguing possibilities for the post-Covid-19 era: a surge in productivity. Companies and workers have been forced to embrace a wide range of technologies and policies — online meetings, file sharing, flexible work schedules — that could make their operations more efficient. Spread across the whole economy, such changes could allow faster growth that is sustainable over decades, not just a short-term burst.

Constance L. Hunter, chief economist at the accounting firm KPMG, likened the possibility to the period after World War II. The war led to the development of new technologies and spread existing ones to factories across the country. Those advancements helped make the postwar period one of the best on record for productivity growth, and for economic growth in general.

Economist Robert Solow said in 1987,

You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.

This is known as the Productivity Paradox or the Solow Paradox, a widely disputed viewpoint. But figures like Erik Brynjolfsson have shown that despite large investments in information technology productivity has slowed after a brief surge following the emergence of widespread IT adoption in the 70s and 80s. Maybe the reorganization of business and operations around minimum office principles and new thinking about organization and management will in fact lead to a new spike in productivity. We'll see if spending less time commuting, less time in meetings, and more time coordinating asynchronously will translate into better outcomes.

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Jordan Kisner has written a long and wonderful profile of Silvia Federici, one of the feminists most closely associated with the concept that domestic work is unpaid labor, in The Lockdown Showed How the Economy Exploits Women. She Already Knew. I pull out the following extract to entice you to read the whole piece:

The promises of liberal feminism have never sounded more hollow as the huge population of women who were left out of this vision entirely has grown. Gender parity in the work force (signified by equal representation or even equal pay) never materialized, and has been set back generations by the unsolved problem of domestic labor. These issues are gaining traction in the halls of power — not because they are new, but because they now affect even middle- and upper-class women, particularly white women. Similarly, a broad interest in socialism hasn’t come about because capitalism has only just begun to harm workers, but because the gig economy and a vanished social safety net have broadened whom they harm.

“The lesson we have learned in this process is that we cannot change our everyday life without changing its immediate institutions and the political and economic system by which they are structured,” Federici writes in her book “Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons.” There are models for resisting “a social system committed to the devaluation of our lives,” she argues. There are ways to restore that value, relocating it where it was all along.

I plan on reading several of Federici’s books, including ‘Caliban and the Witch’, in which, as Kisner summarizes,

Federici proposes a new theory about the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe, marshaling historical evidence to argue that this also was the moment when women’s work was brought under the control of male heads of household and confined to the domestic sphere. Women were the ones who could birth and raise the labor force, so their autonomy, and especially their childbearing capacity, needed to be “enclosed.” Then it needed to be made “natural,” as if domesticity was simply women’s inherent condition and desire. This transition was violent, she argues, citing thousands of women killed during that period, usually women who failed to conform to their new, radically constricted reality and were accused of being witches.

Kisner offers a most excellent read, a deep wellspring.