The Power of Productivity

The Power of Productivity: Wealth, Poverty, and the Threat to Global Stability

by William W. Lewis

This is certainly one of the most thought-provoking and significant books I have read in the last 10 years. As a retailer, I found it to be an enlightening vindication of price-competition and the consumer (as opposed to producer) mentality. It is a well-researched testament to how important retailing productivity really is to the health of our economy, and to why the US economy is so much more productive than other, seemingly as advanced, economies like Japan and Germany. The difference, Lewis concludes, is that while Germany and Japan have arguably more refined and productive manufacturing industries, the United States is light years ahead in terms of productivity and efficiency in retailing, which comprises a huge part of any economy. I can certainly understand why some reviewers might be upset by his conclusions, because Lewis does gore a few oxes in the process: big goverment, mom-and-pop retailers, and any entity that would seek to control or maintain prices are likely to be upset by this book.

The most provocative conclusion is probably Lewis' refutation of Robert Reich's thesis in The Work of Nations: that education on and of itself will lift lesser economies out of poverty. Lewis, professionally trained as a physicist, very astutely and rationally argues that it is not education, but productivity, both in manufacturing and in retailing, that will lead these economies out of darkness, and productivity in a given job is a skill that can be learned quite easily without any formal education whatsoever, simply by imitating best practices from around the world; the example used most convincingly in the book is that of Mexican home-builders working in Houston, TX.

One surprising footnote, however: in his conclusion, Lewis actually DOES make a rather strong argument for the need for liberal education in the poorer nations, but not for the reasons you might suspect. The linchpin of his argument is that competition- free, unfettered, unrestrained, unadulterated competition- is what drives economic growth, and that the only way it really develops without tampering or interference by special interests is when a culture develops a mindset that the consumer, not the producer, comes first. Most Americans take for granted that the whole world thinks this way, but Lewis reminds us that this is not at all the case, and that education and the cultivation of critical thinking may be the only way to shift the focus from producer to consumer in poorer nations.

One thing a reader may find a bit odd about this book is that it was apparently dictated, for the most part, using voice-recognition software, and it shows. It acutally helps the book flow more seamlessly, but I sometimes found the conversational air to be a bit off-putting and longed for "harder edges" in the text. That, however, is a very small complaint in comparison to the outstanding quality of the scholarship, research, and thought contained in this volume.

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