A line in an article in Der Spiegel from a few months back caught my attention:
“Because of the higher levels of illness it creates, smoking damages the economy by diminishing productivity and burdens the health care system each year with billions of euros in costs,” he told the newspaper.
Diminishing productivity? Productivity, according to Wikipedia, is a measure of output from a production process, per unit of input. Labour productivity is typically measured as a ratio of output per labor-hour, an input.
This isn’t an antismoking argument that gets aired very much. Not in the UK, in my experience. Usually the complaint is about health, odour, etc. Yet the Spanish health minister suggested the same not long ago. So in what way does smoking reduce productivity? If the notion that smokers are any less healthy than non-smokers is discounted, it may simply be that smoking makes for relatively leisurely work. It’s rather difficult, but not impossible, to do much physical work – carrying stuff around, etc – if you’ve got one hand occupied holding a cigarette. Even if you’re doing ‘intellectual work’ sat at a desk thinking, you’re still lighting, repeatedly drawing on, and stubbing out cigarettes. Either way (and even more so when they stop all work for a cigarette break) smokers are relatively leisurely workers. Perhaps this is the real reason why many employers won’t employ smokers now. They want hard-working workers. It may also be why antismokers hate smokers.
It then occurred to me that a lot of the antismokers are rich people, almost always with their own companies. Bill Gates of Microsoft, Richard Branson of Virgin, NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg (Bloomberg), Duncan Bannatyne (care homes and health clubs). And, 100 years ago, there was of course Henry Ford of the Ford motor company. Perhaps when you become the chief executive of a company, rather than an employee, you want to see your employees working hard. Same also if you’re a senior politician, because that’s equivalent to being a top executive.
And perhaps this desire to see your employees working hard intensifies during a recession or a depression? Because then prices tend to fall, competition intensifies, margins get tight, and any slack in the system has to be squeezed out. Smoking is one example of slack. During boom years, it doesn’t matter too much. But during a deep depression it does.
Back in the 1930s’ depression, it was alcohol that was seen as the principal cause of slack, and it brought Prohibition in the USA. Now, in what is arguably the deepest economic slump since the 1930s, there’s a new prohibition, but this time of tobacco. It may not be the medical establishment who are the only drivers of this new prohibition. On their own doctors are all but powerless, but once they get the support and funding of the bosses of industry, they become very powerful indeed.
Employers almost always want to get as much work as possible out of their employees for as little money as possible. Employees almost always want the opposite, and to do as little work as possible for as much money as possible. During economic booms, employees gain the upper hand over employers, and wages rise, and the conditions of work improve (i.e. become more leisurely). Conversely, during economic slumps, employers regain the upper hand over employees, and wages fall, and the conditions of work get harder.
And the deeper the slump, the worse it gets. The employers may even drive wages and the conditions of work down to the levels of slave labour. The Nazi state of the 1930s with its labour camps, and also the gulags of the Soviet Union at the same time, may have simply been the consequences of a far deeper economic slump in those countries. In WW1 Russia had been pretty much defeated in war by Germany, and its tsar overthrown. And then a few years later in 1918, Germany was pretty much defeated in its turn. Both countries entered into far deeper slumps than was experienced in Britain or America. Hitler was perhaps simply the energetic, non-smoking, non-drinking, vegetarian CEO of Germany who led by example, and who acted vigorously to restore the German economy and to get rid of its burden of criminals and invalids and misfit workshy Jews and Gypsies. All of it accompanied, of course, by a propaganda drive to cut smoking and drinking and obesity, and produce fit, hard-working workers.
If some of us feel we are witnessing the dawning of a new Nazi era, it may be because we are entering (or already in) a similar period of economic slump as that in which the Nazi state emerged, and history is simply repeating itself, although not in precisely the same way as before. Instead of Jews and Gypsies, this time it’s smokers and drinkers and fat people who have been deemed necessary to eliminate.
I have a book somewhere called Downwave, by Robert Beckman, published in about 1980. In it he argued that deep depressions happened every 70 years or so, at the end of a 50-year upwave of rising prices that everybody thought would never end. When the downwave hit, prices (and particularly house prices) fell. During the upwave, people borrowed money, because with rising prices money was continually being devalued. During the downwave, the opposite happened, and people hoarded cash (banks don’t seem to be lending much money these days). During the upwave, people splashed out, and women’s hemlines rose. During the downwave, people spent the minimum, and women’s hemlines fell.
I must dig it out. Although I don’t think he actually made any of the arguments that I’ve just been making.
Anyone seen any long skirts yet?