Nothing clears my mind like a brief visit to my professional pill-pusher. Dr. Kenneth Kopay charges only $3.50 per minute for his couch sessions, which means he makes $210 per hour. At 30 billable hours per week, his gross earnings for a 40-week year are $252,000. Out of this, he has to pay rent for the office, wages and benefits for his staff, and subscriptions to numerous high-end magazines.
“Doc,” I say, “seems to me you are netting less than a quarter-million bucks a year, which definitely makes you un-rich. Don’t you think you are doing a disservice to your med-school colleagues by pulling down their average return on education?”
The good doctor says, “Listen, I get a haircut every week. My barber gets $15 from me each visit. That’s his fee plus tip. If he cuts four heads an hour, for 46 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, he’ll gross $138,000. He’s got rent and reading expenses just as I do, so he’s also un-rich.”
“What’s the point?” I ask.
“What do you think is the point?” he replies with that practiced professional cadence.
“I think you don’t want to talk about your income,” I say. “However, I want to discuss it because I’m concerned about you, barbers and other service-providers who cannot readily increase the productivity of their jobs. All they can do is increase their prices to keep up with inflation.
“Yes,” I continue, “you could work more hours or give fewer minutes to each client, as could the barber. But that might reduce the quality of your work and the demand for your services. There’s not much you can do by incorporating more technology into your practice. Sure, a massaging couch might help you just as computer-guided scissors could aid the barber.”
Suddenly, Dr. Kopay turns on the 54-inch TV screen and asks me to identify an “ink blot” that looks like a foggy photo of Saturn.
“That’s a business going out of business,” I reply promptly.
“Interesting,” he says. “Tell me more about why this business is going out of business.”
“Dirty toilets,” I answer.
“Truly?” he says.
“Dirty toilets,” I repeat. “They signal to customers and employees that management does not care about them as people. Most people take toilets seriously. A dirty toilet is an affront to people who care about themselves, their families and their fellow citizens. Management can always blame the users of the toilets for persistent filth and disarray, but ultimately it’s management’s responsibility.”
“At what age did you become a discerning toilet critic?” Dr. Kopay asks.
“Just after I figured out how the unemployment rate is calculated,” I respond.
He laughs. I laugh. We have good laughs at these sessions.
“Do you have special affinity for toilet attendants?” he inquires.
“Not more than I do for anyone who performs an important social function for which s/he is poorly paid and given little respect,” I reply. “Yet technology can raise the productivity and wages of toilet cleaners.
“However, facility managers don’t have the money to reward productive waste workers. Higher management often does not see the value of clean toilets beyond the executive suite.”
“Is this fixation,” he asks delicately, “on toilet matters something that troubles you? Do you hear commodes running through the night?”
“No,” I say. “It’s just that the important things are ignored, taken for granted, assigned low priority because we believe that, in our times, the basic problems have been solved. It’s not true. Dirty toilets are no different from the disasters waiting to happen to pipelines, computers, sewers, streets, bridges. They are the clear signs of a society that, through ignorance, has stopped caring about itself.”
“Our time is up,” Kenny says.
“It may very well be,” I respond.•
Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.