Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Economics of Laziness

Way back when, a few days before Super Tuesday, The King emailed me excitedly. "Forget about Hillary and Obama. The world needs another Bertrand Russell." He added that I should read this essay for discussion.

Well, clearly, I wasn't going to forget about Hillary and Obama days before Super Tuesday. I glanced at the essay, which was titled "In Praise of Idleness," figured it was some sort of sartorical piece, and headed off to CNN.com.

It wasn't until Super Tuesday had passed, that I realized that The King was going to want my take on this essay soon enough and that I'd better stop stalling.

So I started to read. And it IS sartorical, and yet it's not. And the more I read it, the more I started digging it. I mean how could I not? People, he proposes 4 hour workdays. And says stuff like this:

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

It is insane, and yet, on a macro scale, this is typical of our boom and bust economy. The tech industry gets bigger and bigger and bigger until websites with absolutely no purpose are being publicly traded for billions of dollars, at which point the bubble bursts and recession hits. Then the housing market picks up until more and more condos and houses are built and more and more and at some point the bubble bursts. And on it continues. And yet, no one seems to think, well maybe we should stop building so many damn houses. Because God forbid anyone mess with that hallowed of hallows the "free market." You know, I had some goldfish when I was little that would keep eating food until they died if you allowed them to do it. Funnily enough, we did not think that was a good system either.

So, on its own I think it's worthwhile reading, and definitely provocative whether or not you agree with him. Which I do and I don't.

I reluctantly concede that 4 hour workdays don't seem possible in this world. I do think 6-7 hour workdays ARE a possibility. Let's go back to the bowling pins example. Basically the problem today is that most Americans already have enough "bowling pins" to meet their needs. So companies now have two options. They can go out of business, or they can convince Americans that while they have they may have any old bowling pins, what they need are these PARTICULAR bowling pins. See while ordinary bowling pins fall down when a ball hits them, these bowling pins do THAT TOO but they also play music/act as a camera/have a calendar. (Nevermind that you have a music player, camera, and calendar.) Surely you don't want to be the only one without these new, MORE awesome bowling pins.

And it works. And so we continue to buy crap we don't need. And GDP continues to grow, and traditional economists think that life must be good.

Except it's not. Because while we may have these extra-special bowling pins, we don't have universally high quality schools, or health care, or mass transit, or day care. While our GDP may have gone up, our GPI or Gross Progress Indicator has remained relatively stagnant since 1970. What does that mean? Basically, that an increase in GDP hasn't translated into an increase of happiness.

We Americans are drowning in stuff. And yet somehow, none of it is making us happy.

What would happen if we collectively decided we didn't need those new bowling pins? Would our economy collapse?

Or would a new economy develop? One that was less dependent on exploiting third-world labor? One that was less about stuff and more about society?

Yes, there WOULD need fewer bowling pin manufacturing companies. Some people in those areas would lose their jobs. But what if we took the words of Bertrand Russell to heart? What if we set a maximum workday of 7-8 hours?

Could we create an economy that employed more firefighters and policemen and doctors and nurses so that all those people weren't required to work 10-12 hour days? If we weren't buying so much stuff, would we be willing to pay slightly more in taxes to hire more teachers, or to build more subways, or to provide more aid to public universities?

Maybe we could make up for decreases in employment in retail with increases in employment of daycare workers. Maybe we'd need fewer people to design and build luxury condos, but we could use more people to design and build dams and bridges. Or maybe we could hire people to reinforce the infrastructure we already have.

Okay, this is all very well and good, you might be thinking, but doesn't this mean slowing human progress? What if we had told HIV researchers to take weekends off? Or cancer researchers? Or the scientists working on carbon sequestration or photovoltaic cells?

Well, several months ago a friend of mine was telling me about his mother who was a chemist in the private sector. Apparently she helped to design that little plastic underneath the bottle cap of plastic soda bottles.

Now, this is not to denigrate her achievement. I'm sure the science behind that little plastic is complex, and probably very interesting to chemists. But, what if there wasn't such a need? What if we weren't such a disposable culture and we didn't need chemists working on such a product? What if the financial incentives in science were not on little plastic in bottle caps and were more in line with the public good? What if we weren't squandering scientists on such problems? AND what if our 6-7 hour a day work schedule allowed more women/mother scientists to participate in the work force?

Would it be possible that we'd be able to have our cake and eat it too? Could we continue human progress at a fast rate, and yet allow individuals a more unhurried, relaxed life?

I don't have the answers. But it seems clear that the system as we know it is broken. So instead of finding ways to band-aid the current system, what if we all tried to come up with newer, better systems? Because, while I may not have the answers, what I do know is this: there has GOT to be a better way. And surely we Americans, who pride ourselves on our innovativeness and creativeness, can and WILL find the solution to this problem. Because life as we know it cannot go on forever.

I just hope we find a solution sooner rather than later.


Jennifer said...

A great idea...

though I'm not sure more daycare workers is an answer or even a good place to channel old retail or manufacturing jobs.

I've worked in childcare... it's NOT a good thing. It's a necessary thing for many people... but if we are cutting down hours and making alternate jobs, perhaps a full time nanny or father or mother's helper are better jobs than the jobs of the corporate childcare worker for all involved.

I could go on and on about the attachment problems and social problems daycares cause... it's another thing to fix!

(And for all of you with children in daycare... I KNOW you are doing your best! This society doesn't have it set up well, with forcing a two income household as the standard for living, to paying daycare workers a less than living wage, driving the good ones out. Maybe we can all work together to find better options!)

Now that I've babbled about that ONE half sentence you wrote... :)

On the housing bubble... it's been shocking to watch the builders KEEP building, even when they have tracts of housing sitting unsold. Even when the families they gave downpayment free interest only loans default and declare bankruptcy and move on, leaving those houses empty, too. But, they keep building...

organicneedle said...

I can totally understand your point of view and agree with your thinking...but...there is always one very big flaw when we start talking about an ideal society; whose ideal is it? Who gets to decide which projects are really worth time and money and which aren't? Who decides which jobs are worth keeping? Which products? It is the same problem with paying higher taxes. Most people I know all say the same thing- I wouldn't mind paying more money if I agreed with how it was going to be spent. The thought that billions of dollars were spent on a war the majority of tax payers were against doesn't really inspire confidence. I understand the problems with a free market- but in some ways it does represent what people want better than the government's choices. The reason companies make so much crap...we buy it. We want more environmentally and socially responsible products...we need to find them and support the companies whose ideals match our own. I think it is our laziness as consumers that needs to be questioned as well. I'm all riled up now. Damn it....arduous...this was my No Thinking Day.

Chile said...

Just the other day, I had a conversation with folks about how to collapse the economy: convince everyone to go vegan overnight. Think of all the people who would be out of work from factory farmers to butchers to grocery store stockers to restauranteurs and on and on. 'Course eventually new jobs would emerge providing what the vegans wanted, but it'd be a huge and difficult transition.

My favorite line from the movie, Jurassic Park, is Malcolm's: "Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."

Sam said...

I have a draft post sitting around that addresses some of these thoughts. I think the essay is brilliant (read the whole thing) and I do think the 4 hour workday is definetly possible at least in the fields I've worked in.

I had this thought when I was working in a law office which tends to attract the types of people who think the world will fall apart if this one scrap of paper doesn't go to point B in x minutes. I thought about what would happen if I didn't do certain things...in the big picture, nothing. A messy office doesn't cause people to starve. Many of the cases I worked on didn't need to occur...it was just busy work created by lawyers which then led to a whole host of people (typists, law clerks, lawyers, paralegals, messengers, guards, etc) having something to do. I often get my work done very quick, but have to sit around and waste my time and others' time because its only then I get my little salary.

I know a bunch of people in science, and by and large the work is most unneccessary. Do we really need to isolate genes? Do we need to go into excruciating detail on how the olfactory bulb works? How many more mice should get sickle cell disease so we can study their blood cells in an expensive journal? I think the whole thing is quite idiotic. If its fun for one person to do, why should this fun be subjected to those people who don't find it fun? And after awhile its just like a cog in the machine. Maybe AIDS research is important..it certainly will be to me if I have someone I care about suffering from AIDS. But people have an inability to prioritize...so we have AIDS research and olfactory research vying for the same money and time.

At any rate. I am all for the 4 hour work day. I prefer a 4 hour workweek...and am currently working to get to that goal.

Mouse said...

"Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for the others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever."

– Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad that I found your blog. (I found it while googling the word arduous to check my spelling because I was having one of those moments where my brain froze.)

Lately I've been reading a lot of science fiction, not really rare for me because I'm fairly non-discriminating on matters of reading material. Your post fell right in line with two books that I read not that long ago that totally inspired me. One, Woman on The Edge of Time by Marge Piercy and the other The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. Both books outline hypothetical societies driven not by the need to make money but simply by the need to work and survive and gain fulfillment. The needs of society are analyzed and then addressed. It saddens me though that the most hopeful scenarios I've seen written about are works of fiction.

ruchi said...

hanaonawa- I'm glad you found my blog as well!