Better Government

Lessons from the Grateful Dead on Replacing Workers with Technology

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. READ MORE

Want More Crime with That Burger?

I first encountered Bob Crutchfield in 1967 at basketball tryouts at Thiel College. He went on to get a Ph.D. in sociology at Vanderbilt and a professorship at the University of Washington, where he has been for many years. Recently, he summarized his long career in the book Get a Job: Labor Markets, Economic Opportunity and Crime. It examines the relationship between two things that public officials care a great deal about: jobs and crime.

The book is an unusual and interesting read because it is based not only on Crutchfield’s own academic research but also on his lived experience as a young black man growing up in Pittsburgh’s low-income Hill District and then working as a probation and parole officer in county and state government. READ MORE

How to Get Public Workers to Care About Their Jobs

It’s about a whole lot more than free pizza, casual Fridays and the boss’s open-door policy. That’s the main message of Engaging Government Employees, a book by Robert Lavigna, and it’s one that leaders of government organizations large and small should pay attention to.

Lavigna, who was a Governing Public Official of the Year in 2000, is currently director of human resources for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has more than 30 years of experience leading public-sector personnel operations. But he tells you straight up that insights “culled from my many years of experience” are not the basis of his book. Instead, he has built it on empirical research. READ MORE

The Real Threat to Democracy: Money Problems

Critics of democracy -- and they are many -- believe that democratic governments eventually fail because the people will tax themselves less and less while voting themselves ever-increasing benefits. The fact is that failure to exercise prudent fiscal stewardship is one of the surest ways to undermine democracy. (Just ask the residents of Detroit how much democracy they enjoy.) The failure to make wise choices will steadily erode the ability of any entity to control its own fate.

America’s founders conceived of democracy as a form of government controlled by people like themselves: white male property owners. It’s hard not to think that they would see the reforms we have accomplished since -- extending the vote and the opportunity to serve in elected office to the broad swath of ordinary people -- as placing power in the hands of the rabble. But if you believe in the intrinsic value of human beings, then of course the franchise should be shared broadly. In these times we call it crowdsourcing. READ MORE

A Better Way to Save Jobs: Employee Stock Ownership Plans

Do you recall the single word of advice for achieving prosperity that Dustin Hoffman was given in The Graduate? “Plastics.” Well, Chris Mackin has a one-word prescription for public officials looking to reduce economic inequality and increase prosperity: “Assets.” Mackin, who for eight years ran a program for the state of Massachusetts focused on employee ownership, calls assets “a seemingly magical set of resources that work for anyone who owns them.” A powerful way to get assets into the hands of workers is through employee ownership.

A look at the data confirms the power of employee ownership, the dominant form of which is through employee stock ownership plans (ESOP). During the Great Recession, the average job loss for U.S. companies was 12 percent. For ESOP companies, it was only 2.5 percent. ESOP companies grow about 2.5 percent a year faster than the average company, and employees get two and a half times as much in retirement assets as other employees. In 2013, while 7.3 million private-sector workers belonged to unions, more than 12 million were employee-owners. READ MORE