Greenspan's "Great Society"? [Fribble] March 20, 2000

Fribble Greenspan's "Great Society"?

By Clark Troy (
March 20, 2000

As Greenspan, Krugman, and all the merry bands in the land eternally scan for signs of inflation, one wonders if it hasn't already long since arrived. Such macro-pundits are actually looking for quantitative documentation of the arrival of higher prices, and for the NAIRU -- the Non-Accelerating-Inflation Rate of Unemployment -- which should be maintained to stave off inflationary woe. However, while rising prices are the most reliable means of measuring heightened expense, they are certainly not the only ones.

A few weeks ago I needed to have my car's oil changed, so I went to a nearby chain shop. There weren't many cars waiting outside, so I figured I'd sail right through.


It took over an hour for my car to get worked on, because the place was understaffed with not-particularly-vigorous employees. The hourly cost of my time is not too high, so the economy was (fortunately!) able to survive the shock of my reading magazines as I waited. Still, the aggregate effect of hundreds of millions of such daily slowdowns cannot fail to take a toll on the economy as a whole.

Almost everywhere the non-rich go in our ballyhooed service economy, the quality of service is down. Compared with a few years ago, we seem to wait longer on corporate phone trees to be connected with an operator who is in turn less competent and less experienced than an operator would probably have been in 1990. Retail customer service personnel are likewise often much greener and less broadly informed than once they were. As a result, it often takes longer to find things and information, and to make purchases. And if time is in fact money, the things we cannot do because we wait represent inflation. We cannot always multitask our way out of these time knells.

But really, it's not so bad. What the consumer experiences as lost possible production is in fact growing productivity on the producer side. Very often, lower-level customer service jobs are being filled by people who were once regarded as chronically unemployable. If the expansion continues and they are allowed to grow into their jobs, they should become not only more productive employees but socially more assimilable to middle-class society. If it is, in the end, Greenspan who ushers a "Great Society" into being, it will be more than a little embarrassing for those of us who have long considered ourselves liberal Democrats.

I hope it works.