Economists are concerned about the decline in American productivity.

They say our economy remained sound only as long as our rate of inflation was no higher than our increase in productivity. For many years there had been a close relationship between the two, and things went well.

But in recent years, inflation has soared to a double digit rate while productivity began to slip and then actually dipped into negative figures. This caused great worry among economists who saw the disparity as a prime cause of our economic woes.

Before long, even populist politicians were conceding that our tax laws would have to be altered to make it easier for manufacturers to modernize their plants and machinery. Modern, automated Japanese and European manufacturing plants were making it impossible for us to compete in a steadily lengthening list of industries, such as steel, automobiles, cameras, radio and TV receivers, calculators, photocopiers, audio and video recorders, and other electronic machines.

Presumably the next tax bill and a program to "reindustrialize" the nation will help alleviate this condition. However, it has long been my uneducated guess that productivity depends upon intangibles as well as upon new machines and efficiently designed factories.

I know how to count the number of holes per hour a worker can drill with and old-fashioned machine, and I know how to count the number of holes per hour a worker can drill with an improved machine.

But I don't know how one can measure the intangible products of the human mind.

In responding to something I wrote recently about motivating people to do better work, Ruth Chartrand of Silver Spring offered these comments:

"People used to take pride in doing the best they could do, but that seems to be an unfashionable attitude these days. In fact, the current lack of pride in the quality of work done greatly contributes to the declining labor productivity in the USA now.

"While no one wishes to minimize the benefits to workers that unions and labor laws have provided in the past, perhaps now is the time to shift from a policy of 'equal pay for equal tasks' to a policy of 'equal pay for equal results.' What do you think?"

I think that what she says makes enough sense to be worth discussing.

I'd also like to hear some discussion of why we've lost our pride in craftsmanship, and why so many Americans now make a conscious effort to do mediocre work and to waste their employer's money.

These are not people who lack skills, yet they seem determined to turn out work that is just barely passable. They make a point of not doing their best. w

Of those who waste the company's money, some are careless but some do it on purpose. When they leave the lights on or the water running, they know it. They're well aware that it wastes energy to leave doors and windows open. It's not absent-mindedness that causes them to go home without turning off machinery or disconnecting coffee makers, heaters and other appliances that can result in fire. It goes far beyond such things.

In many, it appears to be sullen defiance, disaffection, alienation, or even antagonism. Like slaves who are forced to toil in their master's kitchen, they get even by spitting into the soup.

I don't understand this attitude, but I recognize it when I see it.

I encounter it most often when I write about respect for the flag, or a citizen's duty to his country. Columns of that kind usually bring in a handful of letters from people who are intensely antagonistic toward the society in which they live.

They are not at all bashful about expressing their dislike and defiance. Their letters are almost always signed, and I don't remember ever getting one that bore a false signature.

Sometimes when I am tempted to publish such a letter to give the majority a better understanding of how this minority feels, I phone the writer.

I read the letter to him. Then I say, "Your name and address are signed to the letter and I'd like to verify whether you wrote it." The answer is usually on the order of, "Yeah, I wrote it. I hope you'll have guts enough to print it."

I do not understand how any person can live in this country without developing an appreciation for how much it does for people and how much more it at least tries to do.

Nevertheless, some Americans do feel alienated. And unless we figure out why they do, and apply an effective remedy, productivity will suffer and so will the country.

I have worked with men who wanted to see our employer lose money -- enough money to suffer, but not enough to go broke, of course.

Even the haters realize that when a company goes broke, its employees must begin the tedious task of looking for a new job to hate.

They make me feel very sad.