Paul Greenberg

The discreet language used to describe how the system works may be very 21st century, but the system itself sounds remarkably like Charlie Chaplin's nightmare vision of a dehumanized future.

This approach to work -- dividing each job into parts and timing each employee to see how long it takes him to perform each segment -- springs from the theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor. He's the efficiency expert who introduced time-motion studies early in the last century. His approach soon became known (and detested) as Taylorism.

Today's version is fine with some shoppers. "I am 84," says one, "and I get behind some old person and I can't stand it."

Another shopper is not a fan of the new system. "Everybody is under stress," she says of the cashiers. "They are not as friendly." She says some old folks feel so rushed at the store, they've stopped coming back.

Me, I'm not 84 yet but I've grown more sympathetic toward the old in recent years. (I wonder why.)

Reactions to this Labor Waste Elimination System may vary, depending on how much value you place on human contact versus a quick profit. I was exposed to the conflict between these competing values at an early age. As a child, I spent a lot of time in my father's little shore repair and dry goods store. He was the shoemaker, my mother the seamstress. Whenever he would throw something extra in a customer's bag -- call it lagniappe -- she would give him a cold stare. She didn't like to see him give away the merchandise. He tried to explain: "Sarah, it's not just the one sale that counts. It's the return business. They'll be back." She had her doubts.

He on the other hand thought of commerce as friendship. He knew his clientele, mainly sharecroppers in from the country or city laborers, not just by name but through instinct. When he retired, he opened a little booth in a friendly competitor's store to close out his accounts receivable. How many of his customers would you guess came by to settle their debts? Upwards of 95 percent, which they tell me is remarkable. Talk about return business; sometimes he'd dealt with generations of the same family.

When it came to extending credit, the old man had an eye for character; he didn't just go by the numbers in his little card file of payments. Frederick W. Taylor, the granddaddy of American efficiency experts, was big on numbers. He timed how long it took to do a job and how many movements it required. I wonder what numerical value he would have placed on friendship.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.