This post and this post came up back to back in my feed reader this morning. The first explored per capita GDP between Greece and Germany, and wonders why the published numbers can be so close when visual evidence is that the average Greek is far less prosperous than the average German. Brian Caplan explains the largest difference between Greece and Germany in terms of public sector productivity, with 10% of the workforce in Germany working for the state while a third of Greeks do so.
Knowing the Germans, it's easy to believe that its government employees accomplish as much as the Greeks' despite their smaller population share. This implies that 25% of the Greek labor force is, contrary to official stats, producing nothing.
So using Sumner's other numbers - and assuming output is roughly proportional to labor force - per-capita GDP is more than 50% higher in Germany than Greece. First-hand observation tells me that's still an understatement, but it still closes a big chunk of the gap between official stats and reality. How's that for a mental image?
UPDATE: The NY Times apparently overstated the 1/3 figure, see here.
Right after reading that piece, I read this from Jim O'Brien via Tad DeHaven:
Back in 1990, Halstein Stralberg coined the term "automation refugees" to describe Postal Service mail processing employees who were assigned to manual operations when automation eliminated the work they had been doing. Since the Postal Service couldn't lay off these employees, they had to be given something to do, and manual processing seemed to have an inexhaustible capacity to absorb employees by the simple expedient of reducing its productivity. The result was a sharp decline in mail processing productivity and a sharp increase in mail processing costs for Periodicals class. Periodicals class cost coverage has declined steadily since that time.
O'Brien then tells of visiting seventeen mail processing facilities as part of a Joint Mail Processing Task Force in 1998. During those visits he noted that the periodical sorting machines always happened to be down even though the machines were supposed to be operating seventeen hours a day. Although the machines weren't working, manual operations were always up and running.
A decade later, O'Brien points out that the situation apparently hasn't changed:
More Periodicals mail is manually processed than ever, and manual productivity continues to decline. Periodicals Class now only covers 75% of its costs. How can this dismal pattern of declining productivity and rising costs continue more than two decades after it was first identified, especially when the Postal Service has invested millions of dollars in flats automation equipment?
Years ago, I briefly consulted to the SNCF, the French national railroad. I say briefly, because thought they technically asked us to benchmark them against US firms, its clear they did not really want to hear the results. The one figure that sticks in my mind is that they had something like 100,000 freight cars, but 125,000 freight car maintenance employees. I remember observing to a highly unamused SNCF executive that they could assign one maintenance worker to his very own freight car and still lay off 20% of the staff. And apparently France is an order of magnitude better on stuff like this than Greece.