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.