The Dot Com Bubble was painful, but we survived. Less than a decade later we are trapped in the Overleveraged, Overreaching Financial Institutions Bubble. This is a truly fearsome bubble. But we will survive.
It is time now to warn you of our next bubble. That siren you hear is your alert to the Productivity Swap Bubble. You heard it here first.
Unlike “credit swaps,” productivity swaps are easily recognized. What’s more they are something we all do every day. It makes Tom Sawyer’s fence-painting deal with Huck Finn look like, well, child’s play. The numbers crunchers, though, have done an excellent job of hiding the truth.
Productivity has always been the linchpin of America’s economic prowess. Our workers, our technology, our business processes have made the U.S. get ’er done like no one else on Earth. Or so the experts have said, from the good old days of the manufacturing economy right on into the service and information economy. Who are they trying to kid?
Pick up a phone, to buy a good or a service or to straighten out a problem with something you already bought. How many times have you marched through endless menus, listening to instructions all the way, punching in numbers . . . and wound up back where you started?
Countless times. Which puts you at the cutting edge of the coming Productivity Swap Bubble. Instead of hiring a pleasant (and productive) human being to help you find what you want, or repair the lemon you bought, these companies have found an ingenious, low-cost substitute. They have you do the grunt work.
No one has yet counted scientifically the amount of labor we all have been doing free of charge on behalf of the very companies we patronize. The onslaught – self-service gasoline – was so blatant that the productivity swappers felt obliged to go high tech. Well, tech. Gas pumping, after all, is physical labor.
For every tick of productivity a customer expends, productivity ascribed to that company needs to be reduced by two ticks: one because it didn’t do the work, another because it outsourced the work making it a debit. (If the company put an actual human being on the line to talk with you, but that human being is in Calcutta, you need trigonometry, not arithmetic, to compile the statistics.)
This is not the scariest bubble we face. But if when you reach the fourth keypad menu while trying unsuccessfully to do nothing more than, say, find a business’s nearest store . . . . then at that moment the Over-leveraged, Overreaching Financial Institutions Bubble might seem trivial by comparison.
Maybe that’s the best way to approach it.
John Psarouthakis, of Ann Arbor, is an entrepreneur and academic who founded a Fortune 500 company. Currently he is the publisher of The Business Thinker Internet magazine. Tom W. Ferguson, of rural Sidney, Michigan, is a retired news reporter and editor.