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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Monday, December 05, 2005

Toilet Paper as Paradigm

I've worked for a lot of large, institutional employers. One thing they seem to have in common is completely unusable toilet paper dispensers. The typical public restroom in a large organization of any kind has one of those Georgia Pacific monstrosities (or something similar), encased in a plastic housing that makes the toilet paper roll difficult to reach and often almost impossible to turn. The housing is locked, so that an empty roll can be changed only by a housekeeper with a key, and it's impossible to just take the roll out for easy use.

This is also true in the various hospitals and nursing homes I've worked at over the years, where by the nature of things there are dozens or hundreds of individual patient bathrooms. You'd think that, in a business catering to people whose manual dexterity is often impaired, ease of access to toilet paper would be a consideration. Sometimes a patient will call for help. But more often than not, they manage to snatch maybe three squares off the roll, after a prolonged period of fumbling, and give up in frustration.

The worst part of it is, these toilet paper dispensers probably cost $20 or more each. I wouldn't be surprised, in the case of some government institutions, if their paper dispensers were custom designed (at great expense) to an elaborate set of specs, worked out in painstaking detail, for the individual institution. And what's really sickening is that you can probably go to Home Depot and get a toilet paper spool that actually works for less than a dollar.

I'm at an utter loss to understand what rational purpose this serves. Maybe they're afraid vandals will piss all over the toilet paper if it isn't properly shielded. Or maybe someone will try to make a fortune selling it on the black market. But you'd probably break your back stealing enough gross of cheap scratch-ass paper to equal the money wasted on a single one of those over-designed dispensers (not to mention the labor wasted in getting a housekeeper to make a special trip to the supply closet and unlock the dispenser every time the roll is empty).

Back when I was in high school, one of my teachers (Mrs. McDuffy) used a paper airplane contest to teach us a valuable lesson in design philosophy. Most of the design teams attempted to boost performance by adding all sorts of gewgaws, bells, and whistles: an extra set of wings, a stabilizer fin, a needle in front, multiple stages, just about anything you can imagine. And you know what won? A simple, no-frills paper airplane, folded the old-fashioned way.

That lesson in simplicity should be mandatory not only for every engineer, but for every administrator. But instead, administrators seem to take special classes to knock anything they already know about simplicity and elegance of design right out of their heads. (It's the same class where they learn that "utilize" and "assist" are more professional-sounding than "use" and "help.")

Years ago, I worked on a hospital ward where the supervisor prided herself on being a management theory/motivational guru of sorts (the walls were plastered with "Change is Good" and similar slogans). In other words, she was the kind of shithead who thinks Who Moved My Cheese? was written on Mount Sinai. She had designed her own patient care tracking form, to be hung on every patient's door for recording care as it was provided throughout each shift. Instead of simply leaving a blank area to chart each activity at the time it was done, she attempted to list every sort of care that might conceivably be provided, and assign each one a number. So instead of being able to just jot down an entry, "Bed bath, linen change @ 0900," we had to spend several minutes finding "bed bath" and "linen change" in her long list of options, look for the appropriate time box, and then copy the corresponding numbers into the right box. And since she did not, in fact, manage to anticipate every possible kind of patient care, we had to waste time making arbitrary decisions about which option was least inapplicable.

The irony is that she'd no doubt attended all sorts of seminars on Total Kwality Management and related philosophies of "employee empowerment," whose common denominator (supposedly) is streamlining the work process so the workers can do their jobs without interference. She could quote Deming chapter and verse. But all such philosophies translate, in practice, into Taylorism, because they're implemented by--you guessed it--bosses. When the bosses get through digesting it, the end result is shit. It's as if they'd adopted Jeffersonianism as a management philosophy--and then discarded all the stuff about local self-government, and just kept the part about screwing your slaves.

So, back to our starting point: why do we find so many examples of this sort of thing? Why does just about any large institutional building have toilet paper dispensers that seem deliberately designed, at enormous cost, to perform their function as badly as possible? The answer lies in the nature of large organizations.

First of all, the dispenser is produced for a "customer" who is not the actual user of the toilet paper, but some government or corporate procurement officer. And the procurement officer himself probably doesn't even set the product specifications. There are so many layers of bureaucracy between the producer of the crappy dispensers, and the ultimate user, that a company can specialize in producing such hardware for institutional customers without ever worrying that anybody will ever refuse to accept it on grounds of quality. In some cases, like prisons, mental hospitals and publik skools, the end user is a captive client whose satisfaction doesn't matter enough to warrant even lip service.

Just about anyone who comes into contact with the dispensers on a daily basis (in a hospital that would be patients, nursing staff, and housekeepers) could tell the central supply organization: "Just mass-order the $1 dollar kind from Lowe's, increase patient satisfaction, and save yourselves many hundreds of bucks."

But, again, there are so many layers of hierarchy that the cost of tracking such things would be greater than the cost of the irrationality itself. Worse yet, nobody knows which decisions are rational and which are irrational, because the information required to assess that is divided among so many individuals that the transaction costs of aggregating it are prohibitive.

Anyway, since just about every step of the health-care production chain is heavily cartelized among a handful of firms sharing the same insane insitutional culture, the penalty for inefficiency isn't all that great. It's not like there's any real competition in price or quality, or any difficulty passing the cost on to the consumer (or his insurance company). The only thing that prevents the firm going out of business is that every other firm in the same industry is run exactly the same way (how many times has your employer justified an ass-brained new policy by saying it's the "industry trend"?); as well as that some minimum of actual use-value is created by the front-line production workers, who have sense enough to disregard the irrational decrees from above and keep things staggering along.

Besides that, the housekeepers are already so overworked, they probably have no interest in helping management to save money--they figure the bosses are already saving enough on labor cost, squeezing the work of two people out of one $8/hour employee. That's another thing about the modern corporation: the people who know most about the work-process and could make the most helpful suggestions about improving it, have no rational interest in doing so. In fact, they may be so overworked and underpaid that they look for ways to drive up costs and reduce profits, just out of spite.

Back in the days of the centrally planned Soviet economy, the people at Gosplan devised elaborate economic plans based on the enormous mountains of fabricated data they received from the industrial and branch ministries and from the factory managers. The people at the top of the pyramid, as Kenneth Boulding said of large organizations in general, lived in completely imaginary worlds. I still remember an anecdote I read in David Shipler's The Russians, about a "factory" in the USSR. So much had been allocated in raw materials for the construction of the factory, under the five-year plan, and it was producing so many widgets a month--all on paper. In reality, the construction ministry's local people had sold off all the building materials on the black market and pocketed the money (with bribes to the inspectors, of course). Similar falsification and bribery was involved in the production stats for all those widgets. So while on paper this magnificent factory was producing all sorts of nifty things for the building of "full Communism in our lifetime," in reality it was nothing but a concrete foundation with a guard shack (occupied by a guard whose sweet job consisted mainly of drinking and listening to the radio).

The large American corporation takes on the characteristics of a planned economy. It can't afford to be quite as inefficient as that Soviet factory (not yet, anyway), but it can come pretty close when it's one of three firms that control a majority of production in an industry, and they're all managed by equally ass-brained idiots who went to the same business school. (And each firm justifies its policies as being the "industry trend.")

Multiply the example of toilet paper dispensers times a million, and treat it as a paradigm for the kinds of decisions made by every person in authority in every hierarchy in America, and you get a pretty good lesson in organizational behavior. You also get a pretty good understanding of why, in a decentralized, worker-controlled economy, we could probably produce pretty much the same standard of living with half the average work-week.

In an efficient, decentralized economy of neighborhood clinics and small factories manufacturing for local markets, we'd be dealing with firms (with a few exceptions) that maxed out at a few dozen workers--already far fewer layers of administration and less internal tracking, even with no change in organization. And with production organized on the basis of worker cooperatives, and management elected from below, the people directly in contact with the work process would be making the decisions based on what worked or what didn't. A production team wouldn't have to submit an "employee suggestion" to travel up eight layers of hierarchy, gestate for several thousand committee man-hours, and then be implemented (if at all) in some half-ass way that was a 180 degree reversal of the original intent. A simple instruction to the elected plant manager at the next meeting, after a brief discussion of its merits by people engaged in actual production (the equivalent of a town meeting's instructions to a selectman), and it would be done. The production workers would see first-hand whether the change worked or not, and provide appropriate direction at the next weekly or monthly meeting. And in making suggestions to lower costs and improve the process, workers wouldn't be helping someone they had every reason to despise; they'd be helping themselves.

In the specific case of toilet paper dispensers, since the workers would live in the same community as the users and meet them on a daily basis, they'd get plenty of feedback. For that matter, since the production of toilet paper dispensers would be carried out by production teams who actually used toilet paper themselves (I think administrators just store the shit inside their bodies until they die), they could apply their own common sense to the design.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

In this matter of institutions, lavatory paper, and the greater insight/competence of people at the work face, I once heard this apocryphal story about the British military effort in the 1930s.

It was a time of defence retrenchment in the face of wrongheaded lack of foresight. There weren't the funds to support the (quite small but seminal) work being done on radar. But then someone had a brainwave.

Official lavatory paper came in the form of rough paper with a sort of glazing. They started ordering in a cheaper version with glazing on only one side, diverting the ill gotten gains to the radar project.

Thus, came the war, Britain had workable radar in time for the Battle of Britain.

Si no e vero, e ben trovato.

December 06, 2005 1:51 AM  
Blogger Vache Folle said...

In one of my jobs, I was in charge of, among other things, physical plant, and I had the honor of sitting through many sales pitches. One was by a vendor of toilet paper dispensers who showed me with graphs how such dispensers and his company's system of providing "just in time" refills would save the company money and free up warehouse space. The bottom line (no pun intended) was that the dispensers controlled the number of sheets that employees in our many locations could get at a time and that this would encourage them to use only so much toilet paper as was necessary for the purpose. The savings in the aggregate were quite substantial, but I could never bring myself to stick it to the employees in this way. The company offered little in the way of morale and discretion, and I felt that minimally comfortable and freely available toilet paper was the least we could provide.

December 06, 2005 6:30 AM  
Blogger troutsky said...

The above post highlights an interesting aspect of markets, that of "marketing".Salesmen, advertisers and promoters all hell bent on convincing you that the coat you are wearing is the greatest thing since sliced bread despite the fact you are freezing your ass off in it.And the degree to which people will say"you know what,if Michael Jordan wears this coat, I don't care how cold I am.

Not only can design, production and allocation processes be irrational but often times consumption.People see those crappy toilet paper dispensers and want one for their home because it matches their plastic decor.

December 06, 2005 9:02 AM  
Blogger itchycoo parka said...

ever hear of the concept of TIAC? it stands for "Turd In A Can". in other words, we can sell you any kind of shit if the packaging is nice enough.

of course the information age brings us to TOAW, "Turd On A Wire" - no can necessary.

my favorite ploy, however, is one i've been trying to pitch for a long time: selling people things that they already own.

December 06, 2005 10:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just because I hate to see people citing numbers without backing them up, here's a catalogue page from a large industrial fixtures company, showing toilet paper dispensers and their prices. Here's another one from ReStockIt, which is a discount outlet: Toilet Paper Dispensers. Enterprising souls may wish to note the price of the dispenser key -- 37 cents.

I never knew that being an entrepreneur could be so subversive, but apparently I am large corporations' worst nightmare -- and I like it just fine that way.

December 06, 2005 10:28 AM  
Blogger freeman said...

The dispeners at my work aren't being sold on that site, but the price of the one that looks closest to it is $42.49.

It's as if they'd adopted Jeffersonianism as a management philosophy--and then discarded all the stuff about local self-government, and just kept the part about screwing your slaves.

Accurate and funny!

December 06, 2005 11:03 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

P.M. Lawrence,

I suspect the unglazed side actually did the job better.

vache folle,

I usually just use paper towels, since the dispenser is a lot more user-friendly. Of course, they're a lot more prone to clog up the plumbing. But I figure the boss is saving so much on labor costs by keeping us deliberately understaffed, my time is more important than his money. Fuck 'em!


My favorite was the guy I saw on the news who drove a Hummer because he thought it was "patriotic" to drive in the same kind of vehicle "the troops" drive. It's too bad he wasn't really in Iraq--it would have been natural selection in action.


OMG, it's worse than I thought. I guess I could go to the Georgia-Pacific site and find out the exact price, but it looks like I guessed the general range about right. But gosh, the way the dispensers ration toilet paper, they should pay for themselves in only what--about 300 years?

December 06, 2005 11:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good point, Adam. The managers also don't weigh the COST of their counter-measures against the cost of the disappearing toilet paper: a failing they share with their counterparts in government bureaucracy.

If I want to waste the toilet paper bad enough, I can do so with comparative ease and virtually no chance of getting caught.

That's a basic principle of moral hazard theory that you don't hear very often: workers can circumvent management surveillance and counter-measures for a tiny fraction of what it costs management to implement them. It's a classic case of asymmetrical warfare.

The only thing saving management is that most workers don't fully realize it, that they've got a little boss inside their head telling them not to do so, or they're conditioned to look to paternal protection from a union or government bureaucrat. Once they break these habits of thought and realize how fundamentally vulnerable the enemy really is, all they have to do is fold their arms (as the saying goes) and the world will come to a stop.

Kevin (from public computer)

December 06, 2005 3:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

BTW, has anyone noticed that the Google Ads robot has responded to my post by placing four ads for toilet paper dispensers at the top of the page?


December 06, 2005 5:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They make the toilet paper hard to get at precisely because people will mess the toilet paper, throw the roll in the toilet, and so on. It's stupid and childish, but it happens anyway.

- Josh

December 06, 2005 5:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, Josh, but the point is that their countermeasures cost many times what the waste itself costs, and they're too stupid (collectively, at least) to make a rational cost-benefit calculation.

December 06, 2005 6:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is more to the cost than the price of a roll of toilet paper. There's the morale-lowering effect of having clogged toilets, messy bathrooms, dirty toilet papers rolls, and so on.

- Josh

December 06, 2005 9:26 PM  
Blogger Vache Folle said...

Decent toilet paper is one of the least expensive job benefits that an employer can offer. As owner of a sensitive nether region, I appreciate the good stuff. If the boss started stocking the cheap stuff, the kind with bark in it, I would notice and resent it. My productivity would plummet, assuming it is possible to be less productive than I am right now.

December 07, 2005 6:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful tirade!

At one of my work places, someone responded to a downgrading of the quality of the toilet paper by hanging a grinding week in the cubicle, with a note suggesting that this would be a more forgiving alternative to that provided by the management.

December 08, 2005 3:14 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Grinding week? Now that's a bit of British slang I'm unfamiliar with. I'm not sure what it means, but it sure sounds nasty!

December 08, 2005 10:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It isn't slang its bad typing! I menat to say grinding wheel!

December 12, 2005 4:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


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Lea Go
Dog Containment Systems

April 11, 2007 11:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

annie031959 says: My complaint is where the container is located. The opening to the roll of paper is nearly 12 inches below the stool on which you are sitting. This makes it very hard to dispense the amount of tissue you require.

April 08, 2008 8:05 AM  
Blogger James Schneider said...

The parable of the toilet paper - fantastic.

I find large organizations and our being culturally wedded to them pretty bizarre. Everybody (worker) who I talk to moans about the idiocy of their bosses and know that greater efficiencies could be generated "on the front line". I think the debate will be won on the common sense level (just like you state in your "Organizational theory" about a "just price"), not by people with MBAs and Kennedy School educations, whose self interested position leads them argue for managerialism just as the investor in a bubble, as described in Mackay, can't think its going to burst because to think so would undermine their position.

Excellent blog and I'm currently reading Organizational theory, which is highly enjoyable. Thanks to Chris Dillow for linking repeatedly.

November 28, 2009 12:53 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Thanks, James. I'm a fan of Dillow's blog.

December 02, 2009 9:53 AM  

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