Reading Danny Baker's autobiography over Christmas shed light on an aspect of economic history. He writes of his docker dad:
Getting things 'out of the docks' was considered a perk of the job. At one time, any working person who considered a new job would have to factor in what their bunce quotient might be. Bunce can be simple office stationery, or a good supply of cream horns if you work in a bakery. Or, as in the case of my brother's mate Billy who landed a job at the Ford plant in Dagenham, you could see everyone in south-east London all right for tyres and driver's side mats throughout the 1970s.Bunce, and the distribution thereof, lay at the very heart of the working-class community. (Going to Sea in a Sieve, p27)
This corresponds to my memory of the era; pater was a lorry driver who rarely arrived at his destination with a fuller load than he set off with. It's no accident that Fools and Horses and Steptoe and Son were hugely popular sitcoms, and that "Shoplifters of the World Unite" was an anthemic song of the 80s, because these spoke to the fact that we were all ducking and diving.
But this, I sense, is no longer so. This is not because we have been overcome by a fit of morality, but because of (among other things), technical change and more rigorous management. Containerization has frustrated dockers' and lorry-drivers' freedom to redirect goods; CCTV has made shoplifting and pilfering riskier; electronic tills have reduced shop assistants' flexibility in ringing prices; and management now take a more sceptical view of expenses claims than they did a generation ago.
I suspect, then that in important ways, the economy has debuncified since the 70s. If I'm right - and of course the data are little help - this might have several implications:
1. Some of the growth pick-up since the 1970s might have been due not to genuinely better economic performance, but to a shift from a bunce economy to a "legitimate" economy. For example, a fall in the bunce economy from 10% to 5% of GDP over a decade is sufficient to lift measured GDP growth from 2% a year to 2.5%. That's a lot. And the magnitude might be even greater in economies with bigger shadow sectors.
2. This might help explain the Easterlin paradox. If the measured economy grows because of debuncification, people won't really be better off - so (measured) GDP growth won't bring extra happiness.
3.Measures to stamp out bunce boosted profits more than wages, and so might help explain the rising profit share between the mid-70s and mid-90s.
4.Debuncification might have contributed to the low growth in (measured) wages of less skilled workers. Technical changes have allowed managers greater direct oversight of workers which in turn has reduced the need to pay them efficiency wages in order to try and keep them honest.
5.One reason why economic growth has slowed in recent years - and why the profit share stopped rising after the mid-90s - might be that technology-driven debuncification has simply run its course.
Of course, I'm not saying that debuncification is everything - merely that it might be an overlooked part of the economic history of the post-70s period; we must always ask of any piece of data such as GDP: what exactly is this measuring and what not? Nor, of course, am I saying that the theft economy has disappeared. It hasn't. It's just that, these days, it is bosses and not workers who are engaged in it.