Empire States of Mind

Sam Valadi for Wikipedia

Peter Thiel cites the fact that the Empire State Building was built in 15 months as a sign that maybe our society has stagnated. Can we build things any more? Why not?

I’ve wondered if part of the answer was the political power of Al Smith, who was appointed head of Empire State Inc, and various other elements of the former Tammany/Democratic machine that controlled New York City at the time. An argument for the efficiency of political machines?

But what if the answer was: fairness?

The Empire State Building was constructed in just 13* months, and that included the dismantling of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel that sat on the site. Paul Starrett, the builder, treated his workers rather well by the standards of the time, paying much attention to safety and paying employees on days when it was too windy to work. Daily wages were more than double the usual rate and hot meals were provided on site.

The concept is known as “efficiency wages”. Companies that compensate workers well and treat them fairly can attract better, more motivated staff. Unlike most construction projects, the Empire State Building had low staff turnover, and workers suggested productivity improvements such as building a miniature railway line to bring bricks to the site.

That’s Bartleby in the Dec 12, 2020 Economist, reviewing a book called The Art of Fairness, by David Bodanis. Starrett was not “naively generous,” the article also notes. He checked worker attendance four times a day.

I’d kind of resolved to stop reading these books that are just collections of neat anecdotes under some big umbrella, but maybe I’ll make an exception here. Another example cited: Danny Boyle used thousands of volunteers for the 2012 London Olympic Ceremonies, but he also had to keep details of the show secret:

The conventional approach would have been to make the volunteers sign a non-disclosure agreement. Instead, he asked them to keep the surprise – and trusted them to do so. They did, thanks to the grown up way he treated them.

Also in this week’s Economist, Buttonwood reports on a study in India:

The study’s main finding is that retail investors who were randomly allocated shares in successful IPOS view their good fortune as evidence of skill.

* note the revision to Thiel’s figure



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