Reflection on Doing More With Less

Political discourse has no shortage of empty or misleading catchphrases.  A particularly popular one is that we must “do more with less.”

It has bipartisan support.  New York’s Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, speaking as a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, was quoted, “We’re going to have to change our orientation in this state, and how can we do more with less. You know, every family, every business, has had to do more with less.” (Newsday; October 30, 2010) Louisiana’s Republican Governor Bobby Jindal (Business Exchange; December 06, 2010) in an interview on Political Capital With Al Hunt said “We have cut higher education by about 4.5 percent. We’re all going to have to do more with less.” 

It’s not only the politicians who say it, of course.  As the recession deepened in 2008 and 2009 and budgets came under pressure, employee’s across the private sector were told what National Public Radio’s Chana Joffe-Walt termed “four familiar words: Do more with less.” (Morning Edition; February 26, 2009)

It sounds good, conjuring up thoughts of waste reduced and fat trimmed.  But anyone who is old enough to remember when airlines provided legroom even in coach class knows that what is doing more for some can mean getting less for others. 

In an article in Forbes magazine, innovation specialist Scott Anthony had a sensible perspective. When you are told to cut your costs, you cannot really do more.  Instead, you focus on doing only what is absolutely necessary to sell your product and figure out what the customer is willing to sacrifice. (“Creative Disruption: Doing More with Less” February 26, 2009)

Anthony writes that there are three basic categories of performance objectives; (1) functional objectives relating to product performance and reliability, like provide a smooth ride or deliver safe-to-drink water on demand; (2) emotional objectives associated with the influence a product has on how customer feel about themselves, for example choosing “the best that money can buy” or opting for frugality; and (3) social objectives associated with how customers perceive others feel about them, seeking for instance to demonstrate solidarity with a group or to impress people.

When it comes to infrastructure, many people lose sight of emotional and social objectives, and they generally view even functional objectives very narrowly.  

Take our public water supply, for example. We take for granted that abundant, safe water is available at the turn of the tap.  Occasional lapses occur: a broken water main can flood a street, force residents of an area to boil their drinking water and, in the aftermath, make faucets run muddy for a time.  Bacterial contamination of two purification plants serving the Milwaukee area sickened thousands and drew international attention in April, 1993.  For the most part though, water is reliably and inexpensively available on demand and it meets quality standards set to ensure public health. (Despite improvements made in recent years, this is still not the case for a notable fraction of the world’s population.  The United Nations World Health Organization estimates 13% of world population lacks any safe drinking water source, piped or otherwise.)

Nevertheless, sales of bottled drinking water in the United States total about $11 billion annually and continue to grow.  People buy it because they think it is safer or tastes better than what comes from the tap.  They buy it because the like the look of the bottle or the idea that it is imported.  They buy it because they identify with the celebrities paid to endorse a brand.  According to water expert Peter H. Gleick we consume 30 gallons per person annually. (Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water 2010)  The marketers have figured out how to give consumers more than the bare-bones minimum of public infrastructure service.

Roman engineer and architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio wrote that a city’s infrastructure—for him,  public buildings, defensive walls and towers, and shrines and temples—should all be built with strength, utility, grace.  (De architectura, Book 1, first century BCE)  Pressed time and again to “do more with less,” we have lost much of the grace or beauty in infrastructure and, I fear, some of the utility and strength.

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