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The things we do: Why work does not depend on demand

Roxanne Bauer's picture
Bureaucracy - MagritteWhen was the last time you finished a job in less time than was allocated to it?  Have you ever moved from a smaller to a larger home and discovered that your big, new home is somehow filled with stuff after a while? How about car parks or real estate developments that start out small, enlarge, and end up just as packed as before?

It’s human nature to fill the time and space available to us. This phenomenon, known as Parkinson’s Law, states that, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” 

Other variations of the principle includeThe more money you earn the more money you spend,” or “The bigger the available space, the more junk it can hold.”

This principle comes from the opening line of a humorous essay by Professor Cyril Northcote Parkinson published in The Economist in 1955.  

The essay explains the results of a study he conducted of the British Civil Service. The British Civil Service grew between 1914-1928, with a noticeable rise in administrative positions and a concurrent decline in ‘fighting’ positions. In 1914 there were 2,000 Admiralty officials with this number growing to 3,569 in 1928, creating “a magnificent Navy on land.” The interesting part of this shift, however, is that this growth was unrelated to any possible increase in their work.  The British Navy during that period had diminished by a third in men and two-thirds in ships. From 1922 onwards it was limited by the Washington Naval Agreement, signed among the major nations that had won World War I, which limited naval construction to prevent an arms race. Thus, the number of people employed in the bureaucracy increased even as the British Empire collapsed — an event that decreased the amount of work available.

Let Scientific Precision Not be the Enemy of Common Sense

Zahid Hussain's picture

The supply of electricity is a necessary ingredient for economic and social development in low income countries. Electricity is considered to be one of the most important services for improving the welfare of individual citizens. In the digital age, it is difficult to visualize development without electricity. Apart from the availability of energy per se, change in the quality of energy is one of the most important drivers of productivity.

The process of economic development necessarily involves a transition from low levels of energy consumption to higher levels where the linkages between energy, non-energy inputs and economic activity change significantly as an economy meanders through different stages of development. With such progress, commercial fossil fuels and ultimately electricity becomes predominant. Further, the expansion of electricity supply is critical to minimize the consumption of biomass fuel that has been responsible for the massive deforestation, desertification and many health problems.

All of the above sounds fairly straightforward and non-controversial, right? Not really. Count on economists for coming up with Harry Truman’s proverbial “on the other hand”. In other words, there are no straight answers as is most often the case in the infernal complexities, contradictions and ambiguities of our favorite ‘dismal science’.

Building broadband

Siddhartha Raja's picture

Lessons from the mobile revolution

The spread of the mobile telephone over the past decade has been nothing short of a revolution. According to market tracking firm Wireless Intelligence, in September 1999 there were about 340 million mobile telephone subscriptions worldwide. Ten years hence, that is less than the number of subscriptions in India or China alone, and worldwide the number has grown to 4.5 billion. There are valuable lessons from this revolution for the transformation we are hoping to see in broadband access and use.

New Bank report confirms East Asia remains robust amid global slowdown

Claudia Gabarain's picture

In 2008, growth in China, the rest of East Asia and the Pacific, and other developing regions together will fall from 7.8 percent to a still-strong 6.5 percent while their high-income trading partners like the United States slow to between 1 and 2 percent and import less.