Your Lying Eyes

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27 December 2008

Has Our Productivity Gone up in Smoke?

One of my obsessions lately (besides the PofAfromA) has been the decreased rate our economy has been growing since the 60's (see here, here, here,here, and here). There are no doubt many factors that explain the rate of economic growth, such as the quality of human capital (immigration has been pushing ours down), government interference (while the size of government hasn't grown, there are many more regulations - particularly the environmental and safety variety - faced by manufacturers today than 40 years ago), and stability and security.

But how about cigarette smoking? I'm sure it's not a dramatic factor, but I wouldn't discount entirely the notion there's been no effect. People used to smoke more. Looking at the GSS, it would appear that the more productive members of our society have dramatically reduced their rate of smoking. The GSS only asked about cigarette smoking from 1977 thru 1994, but we see a dramatic reduction among white-male college graduates.

Gallup polls also show dramatic reductions in smoking over the last few decades, just as our economic growth has slowed. Nicotine, like caffeine, is an awesome little drug with only minor negative side-effects (in and of itself). It increase mental performance (i.e., productivity). It stands to reason that a society that has substantially cut down on a drug that increases alertness and memory will lose some productive capacity. Not to mention, as Black Sea notes in the comments below, people actually smoked freely at their desks for added inspiration. Plus, nicotine's ideal delivery system, smoking, has severe negative effects that typically don't manifest themselves until its purveyors have reached the twilight of their careers. A mad scientist could hardly have done better than to have designed a drug that is addictive, makes people more productive, then cuts them down just as their wealth creation capacity has waned and their pure consumption life stage has begun. But after a relentless, 40-year USG campaign about its ill-health effects and shifting social attitudes, smoking is now quite rare, particularly among the higher SES groups, and so now we muddle along less energetically in our jobs while lingering on more voraciously in our retirement.


Blogger Black Sea said...

Two anecdotes:

My father once commented that whenever, in his smoking days, he'd encountered a particularly difficult design problem at work, he would lean back in his chair, light up a cigarette, and a solution would miraculously come to him within a matter of minutes.

He really missed that.

Also, I used to work with a woman whose father was a math professor. He told her that in his twenties (when most mathematicians do their best work) he had smoked so many cigarrettes that he'd permanently damaged his heart. But I guess it got him his tenure.

On a tangential note, she and I used to talk about her father's melancholy sense of the world. In such a conversation, I once commented, "Well, as your father says, we're entering a dark age . . . "

To which she interrupted, "No, no, he doesn't say we're entering a dark age. He says that we're IN, not entering . . "

I always liked that distinction. Might as well paint it black.

December 28, 2008 8:55 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

Yes, great point - not only did people smoke more, they freely smoked at their desks.

December 28, 2008 9:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"A mad scientist could hardly have done better than to have designed a drug that is addictive, makes people more productive, then cuts them down just as their wealth creation capacity has waned and their pure consumption life stage has begun."

Maybe the young'uns will make it up with RedBull.

There is supposed to be some kind of "concentration" drug that one blogger has used and blogged about available. I cannot remeber the name. He got off of it for fear that he might get dementia in later years, but swore by it while he was on it. He could block external stimuli out while focusing entirely on the material-at-hand.

December 29, 2008 3:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My god, you've just justified one of Ayn Rand's central beliefs: smoking is a sign of genius at work. I guess the old girl got some things right. :)

December 29, 2008 9:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is this nicotine nasal spray which is prescribed for people trying to quit smoking or for people who can't quit, is a less harmful way of getting a nicotine fix. It's the smoke that kills you, not the nicotine.

December 29, 2008 12:00 PM  
Blogger C. Van Carter said...

I've wondered the same thing, but then I over attribute bad things to the war on smoking.

Scenes in old movies where men smoke and drink at their desks in the office always get to me.

December 31, 2008 12:14 AM  
Blogger Figgy said...

I worked with plenty of folks back in the 80s who sat at their desks and smoked like chimneys. Can't say I recall them coming up with great revelations very often. On the other hand, maybe if they hadn't smoked they would've been totally useless.

Sure was annoying breathing their smoke though.

January 01, 2009 12:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe employees can still smoke at their desk at Phillip Morris.

January 01, 2009 7:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reminds me of a thing I heard 30 yrs ago from a Chinese gentleman born around 1930. He was helping me to explore Chinese opera. Listening to 1940s superstar Mei Lanfang, the gent remarked: "Ah! Listen to that! The singers of today can't get those effects, that feeling! Do you know why?" I confessed I didn't. "Opium! They all smoked opium! When we stopped the opium trade, we lost all our great singers!" I liked that so much, I put it in a novel.

January 02, 2009 11:00 AM  
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January 06, 2009 12:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The concentration drug Anon referred to is probably Aderall or a variant. The US army has also tested ProVigil, but that's more to keep people up for 4 days straight.

January 18, 2009 1:28 AM  
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