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Whither the 15-Hour Week: An Inquiry

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes made a bold prediction that the future would see drastically shorter working hours. Keynes predicted that only the most extreme workaholics would work more than fifteen hours a week.

This famously never happened. The financial crisis of 2008 and continued era seemingly causes the fifteen hour week to come up every and now then in liberal and left circles. The lack of a fifteen hour week has been attributed to a rise in to a rise in bullshit jobs in Strike Magazine. Paul Campos theorizes that America’s thrall with makes it hard for the U.S. to achieve a fifteen-hour workweek of increased leisure. This ignores that there is not one place in the world where a fifteen-hour work week is the rule and not the exception especially for any economy that could be considered desirable. The question remains about why didn’t the fifteen-hour work week happen and whether it is even desirable. This is an issue where I agree and disagree with my fellow liberals.

There are a variety of factors and for the most part I am going to talk about work that is done for survival rather than a labor of love even though they can intertwine.

1. The United States still firmly lacks a welfare-state. Our health insurance is still connected to our employers and receiving benefits like health insurance, paid vacation, and sick leave is often predicated on being a full time employee with 40 hours a week. We see more employers doing everything possible to avoid paying these benefits by capping employment at 35-39 hours per a week. However, even robust welfare states often have employees working 35-50 hours a week.

2. Fear of being laid-off and/or denied promotions or wages. The economy is still very anemic to rocky in many quarters and people have not recovered. People are going to want to prove their merit by working harder and longer.

3. Many or most jobs cannot be done on fifteen hours a week. I can seemingly think of many jobs that are impossible to do on fifteen-hours a week unless you significantly increased the number of people working in the field and radically changed compensation structures. I don’t know how someone could be a teacher or doctor on a fifteen hour work week. Would every classroom be given 2-3 teachers who work two or three days a week? I suppose you could be a computer programmer, engineer, or lawyer and work fifteen hours a week but it seems to make no sense at all.

4. A culture that equates working long with working hard and dedication. The United States is not alone in this but we do have a tendency that likes to make a show of long-hours at the workplace.

5. Potentially an innate belief that work should consume at least 35-40 hours of your life a week. This is again something that is very hard to prove and could largely be based on socio-economics and cultural issues. The old protestant work ethic. When I have seen people try and assert this claim on liberal blogs, they tend to get laughed at.

6. People who enjoy their jobs are probably going to want to spend more time doing their jobs and would see fifteen hours as a strange limitation.

7. People who ask about the non-appearance of the fifteen hour work week really don’t care about the fifteen hour work week. I suspect that the fifteen-hour work week really stands as a diving point for broader criticisms of corporate capitalism, “elite” control, and how we live now. The criticism from Strike magazine seems to boarder on a conspiracy theory about how most modern jobs are essentially bullshit designed to prevent us from too much freedom and idle time. I disagree but there is seemingly no way to disprove the point because it involves starting with axioms and tautologies that I find hard to fathom. I imagine if someone described my job as bullshit, I would immediately go on the defensive. There are plenty of jobs that I am not interested in but this does not make said jobs bullshit. You can take the BS job argument to a logical conclusion and argue that almost anything BS and designed just to occupy our time from when we are born to when we die. When people describe their jobs as BS, it seems to me that they get a kind of pleasure from being in the now and that such descriptors make them sound sophisticated and aware instead of like a naive Pollyanna.

I admit that I am coming from this from a position of capitalist-skepticism rather than outright rejection of market capitalism. I do not see market capitalism as being an axiomatic or tautological good. Market capitalism is a tool and sometimes it is the right tool and others times it is not the right tool. My general views on when capitalism is not the right tool is typical of the left and the subject for another essay.

The fifteen-hour week also seems to be used as a jumping off point for discussions on how consumerism and positional goods make certain sections of the left deeply uncomfortable. Here I depart from my leftier brethren as well. There are serious environmental reasons why overconsumption is bad and we should be mindful consumers but I don’t see wanting or desiring consumer goods and/or positional goods as being inherently immoral, unethical, or wrong. Everyone does it whether they realize it or not but often for different things. I am also not very spiritual as a person. My liberalism is concerned with giving people opportunities to live with dignity, decency, and comfort while on this earth and that involves access to decent education, decent healthcare, food and water but also opportunities or recreation and pleasure. I think consumer goods from video games to movies to music to fashion to fancy cooking equipment and everything inbetween help make life more enjoyable and this makes them acceptable in my mind. The hill of anti-consumerism is not one that I want the left to die on and I don’t understand their never ending fetish for wanting to die on this particular hill. It seems that certain sections of the left sees consumer goods are seen as another avenue for corporate control over our lives.

I think we do probably work too much. Science seems to think maximum human productivity happens at 40-50 hours a week and then suffers diminishing returns. Striving to give every person a 35-50 hour is a worthy goal. There are very few things that demand more work except actual life and death circumstances. In my experience most work after 50 hours is because of a failure to delegate in a timely manner and poor project management, because of perverse incentives from billable hours, and a desire to prove machismo by working long and hard.

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139 thoughts on “Whither the 15-Hour Week: An Inquiry

  1. Saul, could you parse this sentence please ” The lack of a fifteen hour week has been attributed to a rise in . Corporate law is a…”
    Thanks!

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  2. We could have a 15 hour week if we wanted vastly inferior quality of lives overall*. The thing is, we’re more wired to improve our lot in the world than we are to spend our lives lazing around. And if someone wants to do better than his/her peers, they’ll work 20 hours instead, but then someone will work 25 to get ahead, etc, etc.

    * As evidenced by your comment that we couldn’t get jobs done at quality.

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  3. This ignores that there is not one place in the world where a fifteen-hour work week is the rule and not the exception especially for any economy that could be considered desirable.

    This is what gets me. You’d think that for really sweeping values of “What Is Possible”, we would be able to point to somewhere and have us say “well, we should be more like that”. (That’s how we did it with gay marriage, Obamacare, and, perhaps, the war on drugs.)

    Heck, even with work weeks, why not point to France and say “We should be more like *THAT*” as we point to the 35 hour thing.

    As for the whole “15 hour” thing, I think that we can just put that on the already huge pile of things that Keynes turns out to have been holy crap wrong about.

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    • Keynes thought a properly functional society had zero unemployment.
      This is one of the consequences of that view.

      In 20 years, when 50% of the jobs, worldwide, are gone, I predict a lot of folks to still be working 40+ hour weeks. We’ll just sneer at the “nonworkers” (or worse. please don’t let it be worse).

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      • A working economy can have near zero unemployment (disregarding those between jobs or incapable of working). In the last 200 years virtually every job was eliminated. The point is that in a working economy, new jobs are constantly created.

        If there are permanently unemployed nonworkers, it is because we built our institutions (allowed them to evolve?) in such a way as to ensure this outcome.

        Many economic disagreements between libertarians and progressives hinge on this point. You may disagree with them, but libertarians argue against mandatory benefits, minimum wages, employment restrictions, and overly broad safety nets* (aka cots) and such in part to avoid this outcome. Progressives argue for these things and then blame markets when the you know what hits the fan.

        Libertarians and classical liberals don’t usually sneer at non workers. What they do condemn are free riders and parasites who attempt to avoid working productively for others but still want to be rewarded at others expense for doing so. Even more so, they condemn the institutions and social ethos which promote this type of behavior. They perceive it as dysfunctional.

        * there is a big difference between effective safety nets and reasonable regulations and ones which discourage employment and encourage free riding. Libertarians disagree dramatically with progressives on the distinction.

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      • Roger,
        That 50% of jobs? Isn’t going to be replaced. Or isn’t going to be replaced at anywhere near the income level currently.

        The libertarian argument against minimum wages, etc, ought to revolve around slavery and the black market on labor. I’m not quite sure why it doesn’t, honestly. Not having a minimum wage is on much stronger footing when you consider the entire labor market.

        Yes, we build institutions to create permanently unemployed nonworkers. Yes, automation has been preferred over manual labor. Last I checked, you’d cheer over this, even as our wealth increasingly concentrates itself in non-useful places, via the very expeditious principle of paying people less than they are actually worth (bonus points if you kill the troublemakers! too flippant? Real people are dying, let me laugh a little.)

        Next time you can find me a libertarian who will condemn the Kochs and others of their ilk, let me know. Libertarians seem to often fall prey to conservative propaganda, which says that “our betters” nearly universally deserve their money. It isnt’ true, and I can point to the vast array of human history to show you that most wealth aggregation is from stealing other people’s productivity/labor.

        (agree we can argue about what makes an effective safety net. Do you think Obamacare helps to create an effective safety net? I think it honestly does enhance labor mobility, at the cost of more slavery.)

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      • I pretty much disagree with almost every sentence or phrase you wrote. And no, I am totally unaware of why I should be mad at the Kochs. I assume this name is some kind of weird Pavlovian thing in progressive operant conditioning. It is a magic word, which when uttered causes salivation and warm feelings of solidarity.

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      • Roger,
        What, do I need to find some stats showing that Obamacare has led to an increase in slavery? I’d think that would be bloody obvious. There’s always a blackmarket, and increasing the legal wage (via more benefits) means you get more of a blackmarket. I’ve met people held hostage by their employers (you probably have as well, whether you know it or not — these folks worked “illegally” in a mall food court).

        As for the Kochs, I know someone who used to work for them. Whatever any other liberal has to say, I blasted well don’t care. (Yes, if you want, you can file me under “obviously biased party.” I’m not one for holding grudges as a general rule.).

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      • James,
        http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2013/05/12/2-trillion-dollar-underground-economy-recovery-savior/2144279/

        enjoy. (note: naturally the entire underground economy is not filled to the brim with slaves. There’s a certain number, generally in the lower skilled professions, and more common with the larger corporations. I’m defining slavery as “you can’t leave, you can’t another job — and if you make too much trouble, we’ll just kill you.”)

        How much is a person worth? Maybe it’s $5 million — but only if they can sue you. Otherwise, it’s just more convenient to have “happy accidents” for the organizers.

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  4. The fifteen hour work week could happen, some day, but we’re nowhere near the levels of global prosperity or worker/technological efficiency that would be necessary to support such a narrow work week.

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    • When we reach that point, change will be occurring so rapidly that we’ll spend 40+ hours a week just converting from one social media platform to the next to keep up with the Joneses. I’m not sure it will be an improvement.

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    • I agree that it could happen and why we don’t have it yet or as Matty said, this is very much a first world problem.

      How much do you think a fifteen hour week is going to require some kind of Star Trek esque universe where people don’t care about positional goods or conspicuous consumption?

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      • ND/Saul, I don’t see how either of those characteristics will be necessary though I also question the assumption that’s baked into the Star Trek Universe premise.

        Throughout the movies and the television series the various characters almost uniformly possessed and fancied various antiques and bits of past earth society. Sisco’s baseball, Riker’s, Trombone, Picard’s the entire contents of his ready room and quarters. Frankly I see no indication that Start Trek was post conspicuous consumption or positional goods; the goods were just different.

        I grant that in a near post scarcity economy there will be a lot fewer of these things. It’s kind of impossible to lust after a pair of shoes with the swoop on ‘em if they’re a button push or a couple pennies away. In a post scarcity or near post scarcity economy there’ll be a limited number of things that people can’t obtain easily; antiques, particularily scenic land*, art, particular experiences**, I suspect those things will be bid up enormously by the very wealthy. I also suspect it will have virtually no impact on the macroeconomic state of affairs. I just don’t see conspicuous consumption or positional goods as having that big a slice of our current economic pie. I suppose I differ from my further liberal brethren in that. Maybe if they could somehow demonstrate that the vast majority of people spent a large part of their income on such things then I’d feel they have a leg to stand on. Unless we somehow define housing, healthcare or education as those kind of goods then I’d say fat chance.

        *This presumes we’re stuck on Earth.
        **This presumes the absence of holodecks or memory implanting technology.

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  5. I think we do probably work too much. Science seems to think maximum human productivity happens at 40-50 hours a week and then suffers diminishing returns. Striving to give every person a 35-50 hour is a worthy goal.

    Anyone who wants to work 35 or 20 or even 15 hours a week can likely get to a point where they can do so. They would just have to settle for a much lower level of consumption. The fact that so few people do this ought to be enough to make you question the worthiness of this goal.

    Also, I call BS on this point:

    … consumerism and positional goods make certain sections of the left deeply uncomfortable.

    There are lots of positional goods that the left doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with at all: Apple products, top-tier university degrees, organic groceries, etc. (you can find a more exhaustive list here: http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/). You are right not to want to die on the hill of anti-consumerism, because it’s a hill composed of organic vegetable compost and recycled kombucha bottles. What makes these folks uncomfortable is the wrong kind of consumerism and positional goods. It is a basic story of “the things that I like are good and healthy and signal my altruism and general concern for the world, while the things that the other guy likes are bad and unhealthy and show how selfish he really is.”

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    • I think you are conflating different sections of liberals and left too much.

      I am absolutely in the section of upper-middle class stuff white people like liberalism who want universal healthcare and also really like Mill Valley and viewing the “What You Get for X” slideshow every Friday on the NY Times.

      There are plenty of people further to the left who asked me why I needed to go to Vassar instead of a state/public university. There is also a certain kind of person on the left that loves to hate read, rant, and snark against the New York Times Style and Real Estate sections for reasons that are undiscernable to me. This is how it usually goes:

      1. NY Times will run an article/slideshow about the tastefully but expensively decorated house of someone like Mike D or Elizabeth Gilbert or another creative class millionaire. These are wealthy people but not necessarily the Koch Brothers of the world.

      2. LGM or some similar blog will highlight the article as being about the 1% and find some thing that is eyerolling but largely harmless to mock.

      3. The Commentariat will start snarking on the bad taste of said rich creative class person while not offering any reasons why and when challenged will just snark some more. As far as I can tell, the point is that rich creative class people always have bad taste just because.

      I suppose this kind of snarky commentary works as catharsis for some people but I think it is largely useless and not going to spur any kind of progressive revolution.

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      • There is the good 1% and the bad 1% (though actually both part of the same 1%), and we can determine the good 1% based on whether they got their money from endeavors that I like for aesthetic reasons, and whether they vote for and give money to the right politicians.

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      • The NYT Style section is deserving of all snark that it gets. It solely exists to turn weird idiots in wealthy enclaves into vast social movements through the power of anecdata. It makes up fake trends based on what 3 people that are friends with the author are doing.

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      • Actually I like Chris’ sarcastic answer. Judging the wealthy by aesthetic standards and team allegiance is BS but pretty much standard fare today.

        I would suggest judging the wealthy and elites (actually everyone) by whether their endeavors were socially constructive or destructive. Crony capitalism is in general destructive. Non crony versions in properly functioning markets are in general constructive.

        Over the past two hundred years (the age of capitalism) the constructive side has been winning (hence the 20X plus increase in living standards). Longer term, cronyism tends win out locally, though not necessarily globally on competing/cooperating societies.

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      • Roger,
        and yet you give me sh!t for judging folks that I’ve had secondhand experience with? Yes, crony capitalism sucks.

        But I’m pretty sure that it’s winning… Know how many Mexicans are employed by companies that follow the law? In Mexico? [And that’s a random, fairly strong country. I’m not pulling Mali out of my hat and saying “so There!”]

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      • There are absolutely articles like that but I put “nice, expensive houses” in a different category. I kind of enjoy house and design porn and when I look the Fuck You Noguchi tumblr, I think that it looks kind of nice and resent that this makes me a stooge of some kind.

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      • What does it mean to be overly enamoured of the culture industry (borrowing from Adorno I see)? What is the proper level of enamourment? Does it require seeing everything with a wink and a node and that everything is a sham? Would you say the same is true for SXSW?

        I get into this debate with my Californian friends and my mom about New York v. California as a place to live.

        NYC is an embarrassment of riches in terms of the culture I really like. SF is okay to good but I basically can’t read the arts section of the NY Times without sighing for the city. This isn’t just for theatre or museums but it can also be for a good revival filmhouse. The Castro shows good movies but they can also be a bit too enamoured of camp and kitsch. They will show Lawrence of Arabia on that big screen but they are more likely to do a Frozen sing-a-long than show a New Wave revival festival. Give me a Film Forum or a Quad Cinema here and I will be happy, some place with decent art house revivals.

        My mom and Californian friends think life is much better on the West Coast because you get more bang for your buck in terms of apartment rentals (even if the highly desirable Bay Area Market), the weather is much more consistently nicer, the food/agricultural scene is really good here, the cultural scene is decent, etc.

        I don’t think my friends and mom are incorrect that life in the Bay Area wears you down less than life in NYC but I still think the culture of NYC is worth the various inconveniences of NYC.

        Does that make me overly enamoured or is it my free choice to set my own priorities?

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      • Borrowing? I have no intention of returning it. I think I’ve said before that much of my thinking on consumerism, capitalism, aesthetics, and culture, comes through Adorno and Horkheimer (and Marcuse). I steal from them a lot. I steal from them because I think their conceptual framework has a lot of explanatory power, even if you don’t agree with their conclusions.

        When I say overly enamored, I mean to the detriment of what I gather, from your writing here, to be your political goals. I won’t get into it too much, because I don’t want to derail the thread, particularly in your own post, but if you’d like maybe I’ll explain this further (perhaps in a post).

        On the subject of the post, every morning I catch the bus at 6:21 am. Each morning, waiting at my stop with me are two women, I would guess in their late 40s or early 50s, on their way to work at an assisted living community a few miles south of here. This morning they were telling me that they both work at the same fast food joint in the evenings, so that they put in 60 or more hours a week just to get by. They were also excited about the possibility of working at another restaurant, where a friend of theirs’ works, as their full time day job (in place of the assisted living community), because it pays $10/hr and would mean $500+ checks every two weeks (one of them repeated that number several times). I wonder what they would think of the discussion here, much less a taste in items of clothing that cost as much as they make in a month.

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      • All fair and humbling points but we are both largely members of the upper-middle class. There are also plenty of countries that have generous welfare states (or at least nationalized health) and produce the culture stuff that I am overly enamoured with so I think the same is possible in the United States.

        This doesn’t have to be an either/or debate.

        The countries above also have their own social problems.

        In facebook terms, It’s complicated.

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      • While I don’t share ‘s aesthetic preferences all that much, I strongly suspect I do overconsume by ‘s standads in other respects. Things relating to utility, for example. Right now we live in a small house, but we will be back in one larger than we need at some point. I also really don’t need the computers and gadgets I have. I do tend to eyeroll at those with different priorities, like expensive clothes and needlessly expensive cars, though I realize on some level that’s not exactly fair.

        What I find more interesting about the whole “design porn” is that I don’t get the appeal. Unless I’m in the market or plan to be, I don’t look at awesome computer stuff. Despite being a big of a gearhead, I tend not to know what the latest and greatest features are. I don’t want to know. It will just frustrate me.

        It’s like my wife when she looks at the dessert menus when she’s on a diet.

        It’s also how I feel about strip clubs.

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      • “Unless I’m in the market or plan to be, I don’t look at awesome computer stuff. Despite being a big of a gearhead, I tend not to know what the latest and greatest features are. I don’t want to know. It will just frustrate me.”

        I suspect you are in the minority here and commend you for the discipline.

        Most people probably follow the “Just because I am on a diet doesn’t mean I can’t look at the menu.”

        I like it because it is aesthetic. If and when, I become a homeowner it helps me focus on what I want and where I want to live. It is probably a bit gluttonous in the sense of Catholic theology and there is all the keeping up with the jonses that LWA mentions.
        It is also just interesting to see what is out there, what people are doing.

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      • I am a minimalist, and I realize that’s unusual, even among my political brethren. I also chose to live in a pretty damn poor neighborhood for a long time, which again is unusual even among people who think, at least in political terms, like I do. I don’t think these sorts of choices make me better than other people. I don’t even think that they makes me all that different in most ways. One of the upsides to having a lot of knowledge about how people think is that it becomes hard to feel superior to people for them being people. Doesn’t mean I don’t do it now and then, more than I should I’m sure, but any time I catch myself I squash it.

        I do think that people would be surprised at how easy it is to let go of stuff, and how liberating it can be, and how much more of the world and yourself you can see once the stuff is out of the way, but I know from my own experience how difficult it is to see that when you’re surrounded by stuff that seems indispensable.

        Lathe biosas.

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      • I moved to Deseret with what would fit in a Ford Escort (which, let me tell you, isn’t much). I gradually got more and more, including some of the stuff I left behind in my parent’s garage. Our apartment in Estacado was an adjustment because it was less than a third of the size of our previous place. But it was all we could afford. Our places got bigger and then much bigger in Arapaho. It was more space than we needed. We knew it, but didn’t have much in the way of options. Slowly but surely our stuff started to grow to fill it. Then circumstance intervened and the next thing we knew we had a place less than half the size of that. Our current place is about the same size as that one, except without any storage space (we had to rent storage).

        To some extent, I consider it to be a good thing that we couldn’t hold on to that first place in Arapaho. We had our reasons for getting it, but I think it was messing with my head. Our expectations have been recalibrated in a positive way.

        One of my best friends from high school is an honest-to-gawd minimalist. Vikram is quite minimalist as well. I have a great admiration for it. But, as the storage garage will attest, I have a really difficult time throwing things away. And in some areas, like technology, I just can’t cut it. (What I lack in quality, I make up for in quantity.) I also find, that for me personally, a certain amount of more stuff means less stress (as in, if my computer breaks down, I have enough redundancy that I don’t freak out).

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    • Here is an example:

      http://fuckyournoguchicoffeetable.tumblr.com/

      This site strikes me as being by a white person going after SWPL kind of stuff without offering any articulate critique about why this is bad design/taste or what they would consider good design/taste in the alternative.

      I have no problems with criticizing something as being bad design or in bad taste but think a proper critic lays out reasoning and suggests alternatives.

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    • “Anyone who wants to work 35 or 20 or even 15 hours a week can likely get to a point where they can do so. They would just have to settle for a much lower level of consumption.”

      This hits the point on the head.

      For the whole world to get to a point where we only had to work for 15 hours per week, the whole world would have to reach a much lower degree of consumption.

      That would also require that whatever you consume lasts longer so that, you know, you didn’t have to trade your telephone every year because they are only made to last for a year.

      In my view, both having more leisure time and less need for comsumption are good goals, but they are definitely not what our system is pushing for.

      The pervasive concept of planned obsolecence that we have right now push us on the exact opposite direction.

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  6. This subject really needs to be discussed with a firstworldproblems hashtag. Really, what are the hours like for subsistence farming?

    That said I do have some sympathy with the view that we don’t always need to work more hours. One of the factors that led me to become self employed was the obvious waste of going into the office because my contract said 9-5, finding there was only enough work for 9-3 that day and scrabbling around to find a project with two spare billable hours I could put the extra time to.

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    • “This subject really needs to be discussed with a firstworldproblems hashtag”

      There’s also the basic problem that for many in the first world, the problem is too little (or no) hours worked for pay during a typical week (for extended stretches), as Saul alludes to in his post about employers cutting hours to get in under benefit mandate reqs and a U-6 that’s still north of 12% (and much higher in many parts of the EU)

      “Really, what are the hours like for subsistence farming?”

      This is another excellent point, and one I was mulling over myself in reading the post. They (you know “they”) say that medieval peasants worked a fair bit less than industrial workers if you averaged their hours over the year, due to the winter stand down and all the feast days.

      I wonder if it would be acceptable to a utopian vision of the type Keynes had to have spurts where 40-60+ hours in a week were the norm for a month or two, followed by an extended siesta of the same or greater time frame. You get your 15 hours a week on average, but not in any given week.

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      • I imagine this would need to happen for a lot of people depending on their professions. It might happen for a lot of people who work in certain industries already like shipping/sailing (especially people who are on boats), tourist industries, and some of the arts like movie people.

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    • While I agree that this is a first-world problem, I really really hate Really, what are the hours like for subsistence farming?

      I grew up on a family farm. We milked cows. I got up every morning at 4:30, went to the barn and helped with the milking, went in, showered, and went to school. I came home, helped with evening chores, made dinner, and did homework. I was a child laborer, right here in America, on a small family farm, and it was hard, the hours long, the vacations non-existent.

      It was also pretty awesome.

      We too often use subsistence farming in cliche manner, it does little to recognize the vast gulf between a large-scale industrial farm and a subsistence farm, which specifically means farmers who live on the edge of feeding their own families, unable to produce crops to market. That’s a tiny subset of agriculture; and most common in places disturbed by war, civil unrest, and severe drought.

      Farming is honorable work. It’s hard work. It demands your time. Your ingenuity. It can also be intensely rewarding and fulfilling. The joy I felt on summer morns, walking fields to bring cows in for the morning chores is still a wonder to me. Working through the line of cows, making sure each was completely milked and fed to her needs (which helped keep her healthy) took skill and knowing each animal as a living thing I cared about. Haying and growing crops required strength and persistence. The reward of a spic-and-span bulk tank, so carefully cleaned after the milk truck picked up our milk, would be rewarded on the driver’s next trip with the bacteria test that proved that tank wasn’t just spic and span, it was food safe; and I was doing my job responsibly.

      I had all that in my life before I was a teenager. I don’t regret it for a minute. It happens all over the world. It’s an honorable way to support a family.

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      • Yes it is honourable I didn’t mean to imply that it isn’t. My point was that for the majority on this planet the idea of choosing to work less isn’t an option. I’d like to see a source on your claim about the proportions of farming done to feed the farmer versus industrial farming though. I suspect you are right in terms of output but wrong if we look at numbers of people involved.

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      • Matty, I think you missed it — subsistence farming means the farmer is unable to produced crops/products to sell; the family consumes everything. This is the rare thing.

        Market/truck farming on a small scale is incredibly common throughout the world. This type of farming is all too often referred to as subsistence farming. It’s like discussing household income and talking about the top 1% of household and the bottom 1% of household income and failing to see the households in the middle. There is a middle.

        I don’t know about amount of food produced, but in terms of people employed, industrial farming employs few people compared to family/market/truck farming, which is, depending on the crops and how it’s done, labor intensive.

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      • various internet sources put the number of subsistence farmers hndreds of millions to almost a billion In any case, subsistence farmers are the predominant group in the so called ‘bottom billion’ with an income/gdp output of some 1-2 USD a day.

        So somewhere in the vicinity of 5-15% of everyone who walks on this earth (but a tiny share of the actual food grown). Most sources also note that, as you say zic, true year over year ‘subsistence’ is rare (as people in that situation don’t last very long, either passing away, or more often, move to the city), but a great deal of small farming is done by people just hanging on, with an occasional year where they have a surplus that can be marketed for cash. But more often, due to the vagaries of the environment and of the marketplace (and of the lack of a properly functioning market) just grow enough to feed themselves and extended family.

        This is why third-world economic development is so complex. On one level, it’s better in the long run to reduce the agricultural workforce share and increase urbanization, because that’s how wealth is created, but on the other hand, it’s hard to get there from here, and the short and medium term negative side effects of economic dislocation are enormous. (It led to two horrific world wars in the first world). And that’s putting aside the complexity of agricultural policy specifically, where it’s good to see people fed, but bad (in the short and medium term) that a good chunk of people are no longer engaged in economically viable enterprises. Then there’s gaping holes in the rule of law regarding land ownership and tenancy in much of the developing world (which is maybe the key factor keeping it in the ‘developing’ column.) (it’s 3/4 of all the problems in Afghanistan)

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  7. I agree to a large extent.

    I would emphasize a few things though.

    Work is what we refer to as the effort we put into surviving and thriving. We gather firewood, build and repair huts, go down to the stream for water, hunt and forage for food, and build tools, and so on.

    Through division of labor and exchange, people found they can produce astronomically more. Thus the optimal work strategy is not to work for your own needs, but to specialize in something you can do well and exchange this for what others do well. We work to fulfill others needs and in doing so earn “points” which can be exchanged to fill our own. Work in market and command economies is a sophisticated form of cooperation.

    The fifteen hour work week thing can be rephrased as a desire to reduce the amount of effort put into this type of social cooperation between people. It seems to assume that people will someday in the future be so productive as to outgrow their consumption desires. Obviously this is not true for most people yet. It still could be once intelligent machines become the majority of our production capacity.

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    • There does seem to be a Star Trek factor in the desire that we will one day not strive for personal goods and just work in what interests us and for the betterment of humanity, not because someone really wants a Ferrari or a Nice Vacation or a nice house, etc.

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  8. Try being a parent. Even when you don’t work, you’re on call 24 hours a day every day of the year for many years.

    /this is, as far as I can tell, one of the biggest benefits of being divorced and having joint custody — you get to send the kids to the other parent’s home and have a day of rest.

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  9. If I were to only work 15 hours a week, I’m not sure what I’d do with my free time. I’d probably end up spending more money. Money I don’t have. Because I’m only working 15 hours a week. Then again, if the stores were only open 1/3 as long as they are now, that problem might solve itself.

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      • Actually… more seriously… a 15-hour work week or something thereabouts would allow us to have non-overlapping work schedules. I could work 8-11, she could work 12-3, we’d have more free time together, we would not need childcare*, and we’d each have some time on our own. That’d be a nice arrangement.

        * I’d still want to put the boy in some sort of social environment before he starts school, but ideally it wouldn’t have been full time starting at 3 months.

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      • That is a really good question. I’ll be honest and confess I don’t know what the “ideal” number of hours a child should spend in school is. There is probably no one true number as both the individual child and the program itself will drastically impact that.

        If we presume that we want students in school for a roughly equivalent time as they are now, then your best bet is going to have teachers working longer hours. My program would suffer if it were split between two or three lead teachers, even if those teachers were all of similar quality. Consistency is huge for young children. And while there are successful programs that employ part time teachers, there is a level of coordination, planning, and thoughtful required to make it work that it would be hard to guarantee on a larger scale.

        When you move into middle and high school, you could probably get away with it. Students see multiple teachers as it is. So you could have two or three teachers sharing the history load with each just taking fewer sections but meeting consistently with the same students. The question at that point is one of quality.

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  10. A thought experiment.
    Suppose aliens visited us, and made us a proposal:
    They would deliver to us any level of wealth we desired, for every single human on the planet.
    There would no longer be any need to work, since they would provide a continuous supply of food, clothing, consumer goods, etc., for all eternity.

    There is only one catch.
    We have to create our list of desired wealth, and once it is set, it can never be enlarged, only maintained.

    The real question here of course is, what level of wealth would you need to be happy? How much wealth would cause you to say, “I am content, and need no more.”

    I think the answer is there is no answer- no matter how much we have, we always want more. This certainly shouldn’t be a novel or even contestable idea- its been a staple of discussions of human nature for millennia.

    Its true that critiques of consumerism or human greed are often tainted by priggishness and an undesirable need for dominance over others. But it still remains that there isn’t any level of consumption that we can conceive of that would result in anyone working less.

    And so the more interesting discussion is whether this infinite craving is ultimately good for us, if there isn’t such as thing as overconsumption.

    Are we really happier? Is there a level of consumption that brings optimum happiness, or is it infinite? If we each consumed 10x our current level, would we be happier? Our lives more fulfilling? Is there an upper bound somewhere? Or are we reaching a point of diminishing returns, where more and more massive doses of consumption bring less and less fulfillment?

    What would our lives be like a decade after the space aliens bestowed their gift? Would worldwide peace and joy break out? Does anyone really think so?

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    • “The real question here of course is, what level of wealth would you need to be happy?”

      This is kind of a silly idea. Does medical care count as wealth? The entire planet was better off in 2000 than it was in 1900 thanks to broad-spectrum antibiotics and vaccinations.

      Do personal freedom and autonomy count as wealth? It’s obviously worth something to people to be able to travel freely from place to place, and to communicate with the world in any way they choose, to express whatever ideas they have. People certainly pay quite a lot to have cell phones, something that didn’t exist in the 1970s; if we proposed this hypothetical in 1972 would we not today have cell phones?

      I mean, I understand your cynical philosophical point about “people always be wantin’ more” but my response is that of course we always want more, because there always *is* more, and it’s not base materialism that leads us to want more.

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    • Brilliant thought experiment!

      Some answers and commentary…

      1). Your comment that there is no conceivable wealth which would lead to us working less is contrary to all evidence. Working hours have plummeted and liesure hours have skyrocketed over the past century. I’ve posted the numbers before on these pages and can do so again. Furthermore, there are countless examples of people who have reduced their work hours willingly or retired voluntarily at an early age.

      2). Another way to frame it is to consider the selfishness of those accepting the offer in the views of future generations. The acceptors would in effect be selling out any commitment to advancing standards of living for future generations. It is a good deal for the current generation, but within two hundred years at current trends the poor will have higher living standards than Bill Gates if we refuse the offer.*

      3). Consumption refers to the ability of consumers (aka all of us in a market economy) to solve problems. This may be shiny buttons and buckles, or it could be better health care, better environmental protection, more education knowledge and wisdom, ability to protect the planet from asteroids, and the freedom to thrive as a conscious being. Can there ever be enough knowledge? Safety?

      4). Happiness is a lousy measure of long term, cumulative progress. Hedonic treadmill. Our base happiness level is greatly genetic and changes are more of a short term speedometer than a long term gauge of getting to our desired destination. As an extreme example, reducing the mortality rate of children by a factor of ten may not make the population any happier on average. Still, nobody would argue that “what is the point of reduced deaths if we are not any happier?”

      * one of my major disagreements with progressives is that they wish to lock in current income security at the expense of economic progress. Thus they sacrifice living standards of future generations for current. Compounded growth trumps everything over the longer haul, and as stewards of the future we must never lose sight of this.

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      • 1) OK, so do wealthy people work less than poor people?

        2) If I settle for bequeathing my grandchildren a personal jet, and future developments invent jets with beer dispensers, do you consider this a moral wrong?

        3) The thought experiment was to assume that the need for work vanished- there is nothing in the experiment that prohibits anyone from discovering new ways to protect human life or do creative things. But an interesting side note- would you assume such people would charge money? For what purpose?

        4) I agree, actually- happiness isn’t the same as fulfillment and meaning, is it? But if it is true to say that fulfillment and meaning in life requires some basic level of wealth and security, is it true that infinite wealth brings infinite fulfillment and meaning?

        Because this is really what we are considering- the purpose of life, why we do what we do. If we cleared away all the petty reasons for work, is there something about work itself, that gives us fulfillment? Why do billionaires even bother to work at all?

        One of the themes in social justice teaching is that work itself, absent any need for necessities, is sacred and meaningful. In a way, Roger shows this- that it isn’t the pursuit of shiny new trinkets, but deeper things that drive us.

        Personally, I think very few people would want to work 15 hours a week, even if it were possible. Instead, most people would busy themselves finding projects – optimistically, some would find creative and delightful things to create- pessimistically, some would busy themselves making evil.

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      • I enjoyed your questions too.

        1) They often retire early. When it comes to working beyond 65, the total labor participation rate has dropped from 77% to 18% over the last century or so.

        2) I think that large material inheritances reduce the incentives to work, serve fellow humans and produce value. I am not sure how it affects capital investment that others can use in entrepreneurial activities. Certainly this behavior is not in any way sufficient to cut off all economic progress.

        3) This gets to the essence of many of our disagreements. I see economics as a complex adaptive problem solving system. Science is another CAPSS. Once you eliminate money and scarcity you have effectively killed off the former system. Science can continue to advance, as it’s currency is reputation, not money. However absent profit and loss and relative prices, you will effectively shut down most innovation. Think about it and the role of prices and profits.

        4). No comment as your latter question doesn’t follow from our shared premise. Infinite wealth will absolutely not lead to perfect happiness or meaning. It could certainly help a lot by saving lots of life and creating lots of opportunity.

        I do however pretty much agree that people get value and meaning from work and that we need work. For some this is self directed ( I retired early five years ago and have no regrets but I keep myself real busy and try to be productive in self directed ways). The book “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi makes this point on the value of work quite convincingly (he studies the science of happiness).

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    • There are a handful of people out there who would be more than happy enough to live the lives of housepets. Three hots and a cot, some toys, and an abundance of catnip. Throw someone in there to give backrubs and what more could you possibly ask for?

      There are a handful of people out there who get bored with their toys quickly and will be wanting the next big thing from time to time. Can you believe that we grew up with 29″ televisions being called “big”? We were so young! (Heck, it wasn’t so long ago that 50″ was “big”.)

      There are a handful of people out there who want to help others. Not just “want other people to be helped and are more than willing to vote for such things!”, but actually “are willing to help people and demonstrate this by actually doing”.

      I tend to think that the first group is a group that we’d want to keep as small as possible if we’re the ones in charge of care and feeding them. Even in a hypothetical society where there is no want, no want at all, you’d think that you’d want more people capable of being useful than people who choose to live the life of a housepet.

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    • I hear your questions and concerns but I think they just raise more questions on choice and autonomy.

      How much of our desires are freewill and how much is controlled via psychology and marketers?

      I grew up in a nice upper-middle class suburb filled with professional types. I would generally like to live a nice upper-middle class lifestyle whether in an inner-ring suburb or a cool Brooklyn Brownstone or equivalent. These things are expensive and require a lot of hard work to get to. Maybe I will make it, maybe not.

      When I read some on the left, it seems that their implication is that I am not making any choices based on freewill. I am making them how and where I grew up and because that is the American Dream as devised by the elites (TM). This means I am basically some kind of controlled object who needs to just open his eyes man or something like that.

      I often cannot believe that the left does not see how offensive that kind of argumentation is.

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      • I personally take a dim view of the line of logic that lays so much at the feet of marketing and social conditioning.
        Oh, I accept it is powerful- advertising is a billion dollar industry for a very good reason- it works.

        But I think the causality works both ways- we crave things prior to anyone trying to convince us of them, generally speaking.

        Or is that what you are asserting? I mean, do we crave wealth and power out of social conditioning, or are we intrinsically flawed and choose evil out of our own free will?

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      • Denial of free will is hardly just an implication in many quarters. Plenty of people will just tell you straight-up that you’re not actually making choices using a process that resembles what you probably are (might be?) imagining when you describe your decision process as one of free will. I don’t think they’re even particularly people on the left, even, (though I’m guessing they mostly happen to be).

        I think there’s ultimately something that we do that we wouldn’t be wrong to call free will. But I’m not at all sure that thing is much like what people usually think of when they imagine the thing they like to think we humans have that they think of as free will. The evidence is pretty good that that thing that people commonly think about is not something we have.

        I’m sympathetic to the need to account for the feeling that we do choose our actions. That’s why to me there ultimately has to be some room for an account of free will, as even if free will is an illusion, it’s a powerful enough one that I actually think it needs to be accounted for as the phenomenon that it actually seems to us to be – choice in our actions. But even within such an account, our actions can also be determined.

        Consider your example: you’d like to achieve a level of affluence that doesn’t leave you less comfortable than what you got used to growing up, but you don’t feel the need to do better than that. Doesn’t that attitude seem like a pretty good candidate for being determined by your biology? Say that it is, and it determines your choices about what career to pursue, how hard to work at it, and etc. does that fact that those choices were determined by this biologically determined predispostion imply that the choices you are making in your career aren’t choices, or even that they aren’t the product of your free will? Many would say yes, but I see no reason to think that. they can be determined and also free.

        For more on this fascinating topic, I recommend this book.

        For the hard-determinist rejectionist/incompatibilist view, this series of posts, which partly documents what has become a remarkably heated and personal dispute among close friends on the naturalist side of the materialist/agnostic-plus divide, is a good place to start.

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      • Because if you had grown up in a working class family, in a working class neighborhood, with working class peers, you would probably have a taste for extremely expensive clothing and furniture and want to live around other people who did as well? What sort of odds would you put on that?

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      • Maybe yes. Maybe no but for different reasons.

        I obviously grew up with a certain level of comfort and would like to maintain or exceed it.

        If I grew up in a working class or less than working class neighborhood, perhaps I would be content with my life. Perhaps I would be more materialistic and want to be richer because it gets me out of the neighborhood and what not. It depends on all sorts of factors. Would I have been one of the gang or a bullied upon outsider because of my interests/sexuality/whatver?

        I have friends from undergrad, grad, and law school from working class backgrounds. Some to many are just as desiring of an upper-middle class lifestyle as I am if not more so. Others are not and reject bourgeois attitudes and lifestyles.

        I also wonder how much of this depends on your geography. Is it different being working class in a town that is relatively isolated and all working class (like you described your hometown as being) vs. being working class in or near a large metropolitan area with a more diverse population.

        Lorde’s Royals is supposed to be a critique of the materialism in hip-hop culture but has often been met with counter criticism that Lorde does not understand what these items represent to hip-hop culture and people who grew up poor. There was a kid who got arrested for purchasing an expensive 350 dollar Ferragamo belt at Barney’s because he was black and used a debit card. He explained that he purchased it with saved up money and to him it sort of represents respectability. I also read another essay by an African-American woman who grew up poor and was frequently on welfare. The woman said her mom made nice middle class purchases of clothing and purses because people treated her with more respect from welfare workers to school principals.

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      • “Because if you had grown up in a working class family, in a working class neighborhood, with working class peers, you would probably have a taste for extremely expensive clothing and furniture and want to live around other people who did as well? What sort of odds would you put on that?”

        It’s like you have MET my sister. And her husband.

        (So I guess you’ve put the odds at about 1 in 4… although now that I think about other family members of both of their families it’s edging up to about 2 in 4… or maybe 3 in 4 … yeah. It might be *different* incredibly expensive clothing and furniture than what New Dealer likes, but the costs are the same. And there is a huge element of “I want our kids to have what I never had,” involved. Honestly, my own tastes are pretty damn expensive – I’m one of those people who always gravitates to the $1100 rug in a display ranging from $50-$1100, before I check prices. I just keep my tastes in check because I have other priorities, like free time. It shows up when there are kids to buy birthday presents for, though.)

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      • Maribou, when I was thinking about it, I was thinking about some of the people I know who grew up poor or close to it who, as soon as they had real money as adults, went completely insane with buying stuff: McMansions, 10X too much car or truck for any purpose they might possibly need it for, expensive jewelry, and such. New money, right?

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  11. ” I can seemingly think of many jobs that are impossible to do on fifteen-hours a week unless you significantly increased the number of people working in the field and radically changed compensation structures.”

    As Kim points out, one of Keynes’s assumptions was that there would be zero unemployment.

    And what you describe here is one of the reasons he thought that would happen.

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  12. I think the answers are,
    Fixed costs of employment
    Non-Satiation

    For each employee there can be rather high fixed costs of employment including, but not limited to, work space rent, equipment rent, insurance, taxes. So I don’t think we will ever see a 15 hour work week, which was ~1/4 of the then current work week. On the other-hand, if I was willing to live at the 1915 living standards I could have easily worked 50-60 hours a week for just ten years, ~1/4 of the standard work life, then retired. I prefer to be able to use all this new stuff we have invented in the last 100 years, so I will have to work for at least twenty years.

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    • AWP makes a good point about fixed costs. In my line of work it is almost always a cheaper decision to have 4 employees work two hours each of OT rather than hire a fifth worker and take on the payroll/benefits burden. We have to really be seeing diminished returns in order to consider a new hire.

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  13. You kind of say this (but not exactly), but it occurs to me that main reason why we don’t limit ourselves to 15 hours of work a week is that almost no one really wants to work that little. It’s just not how we’re wired. Even retired people find ways to work more than 15 hours a week.

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    • I think this is true but when I’ve presented or seen others present this argument in lefty discussion places, the argument tends to get laughed at because the general consensus is that such argument is for tools enthrall of the corporate elites or something like that.

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      • Aside from the fact that I don’t think this is at all true. There’s a good deal of evidence that hunter gatherer cultures have more leisure time than we do, significantly less than subsistence farmers and pre-industrial farmers of all sorts, and through much of human history winter was, in colder climes, mostly down time.

        What’s more, we’ve come, really over the last century or two, to equate “work” with making a living, usually by earning money from someone else, whereas to the extent that we have an innate desire to “work,” it’s probably more about not being idle, something that can be served well in leisure time with leisurely activities.

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      • Chris,

        I know that adjusted for food preparation and such, the numbers double to about 40 hours for foragers. This is still less than the average modern worker when you add chores. I wonder though if it is more or less than the average person in a modern society considering the fact that we do not work for a huge part of our life.

        For example, if fifty percent of the US is working, and those doing so work on average 34 hours, then that comes to 17 hours of work average per person. Add chores and I wonder if we differ much?

        This really is a question, not a statement.

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  14. Since teaching has come up a couple of times in this thread, it’s worth noting that the State currently demands that 12-18 year olds put in 7*180 / 52 = an average of about 25 hours a week (amortized over a full year). (and that’s without homework or any other studying).

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  15. The more I think about it, the more I think the best way to handle 3,900 hours of work a year would be for work to be more seasonal or somewhat less regular. Instead of working 15 hours a week for 52 weeks a year, work 30 hours a week for 26 weeks a year.

    Being tied to three-hour workdays for five days a week would suck, in its own way. Two and a half six-hour days would be only marginally better. One week on, one week off would allow for more freedom. Well, one week for some jobs. Others (like teaching) you’d want to do differently. Some would be seasonal. Some would be six-month tradeoffs (You work six months, then hand it off to someone else for six months).

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  16. I really struggle with the logic of the “Bullshit Jobs” argument. If the jobs weren’t really achieving anything, why would employers hire people to do them? Because … evil? I don’t understand what their model is.

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    • I too find the concept puzzling. That said, there is one element of Bullshit jobs which is real.

      The culprit here is bureaucracy and organizational dynamics. To gain power, accomplish more of my important function in the org and reduce my workload, I hire an assistant and two employees. Over time the two employees do the same. Now we have a small department working on what used to be done by one.

      But, to work together we need to have weekly staff meetings. We also need weekly personal checkpoint sessions with each employee. Each of the employees need to be hired, trained, replaced every few years, and needs to attend required ethics, diversity, etc meetings. Each of us needs to do our quarterly goal sessions our monthly budgets, our weekly expense accounts. We need to reach out to the other departments by attending their staff meetings, showing up at their quarterly outings and by creating thirty page power point presentations which entertain while informing. Through it all we email each other and cc everyone on everything we do.

      In other words, large organizations become increasingly full of bureaucracy and administrative BS. All of it serves a purpose, much as the additional straw is added to the proverbial camel. But cumulatively it is more BS than productive work.

      As organizations continue to grow, they start to develop huge specialized administrative bureaucracy departments — finance, procurement, HR, and so on. Each of these has to ensure their purpose in the org thrives so they build convincing arguments on more people to demand more bureaucratic BS.

      The only solution for bureaucratic sclerosis is of course competition. The desire for profits forces managers to try to fight it. Over the long haul, the managers invariably lose and the firm becomes Sears.

      Bullshit jobs and bullshit as a major part of each job is real. The culprit is organizational dynamics though.

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      • A better designed system in the first place tends to lead to less sclerosis.
        Volunteer labor, for example, tends not to be so enamored of “do nothing with your time”.

        Ditto with the concept of trashing the CEO. Good companies hire folks smart enough to lead themselves.

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      • You misread me. They are not going nothing, they are communicating, coordinating, getting consensus, fulfilling tasks someone feels is important, complying with regulations, tabulating results and so on. The problem is that they are doing increasingly less that is productive from the perspective of a customer.

        Non profits* and government agencies of similar size and age are often much, much worse. The reason is that they do not have profit signals, and in the case of government they are protected from competition. Creative destruction is the best cure for bureaucratic sclerosis and inefficiency.

        * some non profits have a clear and simple goal and thus can get around this

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    • Here is the article:

      http://www.strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/

      I suspect you, me, and are thinking more in terms of economics than psychology and politics.

      The bias of the author seems to be towards work that produces some kind of physical project or something tangible in the real world and also a kind of anti-corporate, anti-office worker stance. These are the words of a poet-artist, not an economist.

      There is also something conspiratorial as you mentioned. It seems to think that bullshit jobs are about social and moral control.

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      • Thanks Saul, that is helpful, and I completely agree with your narrative on the author’s perspective.

        As a retired Officer of a Fortune 500 firm, my perspective is different, but I agree that modern corporations and government are indeed chalk full of BS responsibilities within jobs and full fledged BS jobs.

        That said, they really are busy and they really do accomplish something in terms of work. They just tend to do less and less productive work.

        I would replace his conspiratorial narrative with one that stresses large scale evolutionary dynamics. Real world is that when downsizing is announced, the executives scramble to protect their function and power and prove the essential nature of their department. Sometimes the most productive department loses. Between downsizings, every manager tries to expand her budget, increase her head count and expand her influence and importance with various nifty new programs. BS grows relentlessly.

        Long term, competition keeps only the worst abuses in check. Over the course of decades, most large firms simply become sclerotic. Sears is replaced by Walmart, and Walmart will be replaced by someone else too.

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      • Thanks for the link. I vaguely remember reading that at some point (it probably popped up on Arts & Letters Daily or something), and reading it again it betrays a profound confusion on the part of the author – in fact since I have a long weekend coming up, I might need to do a whole post on it.

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  17. My memory is just evaporating as I get older. Last week, I read an entire book that I thought I *might* have read before only to remember an anecdote in the last chapter that indicated I had indeed read it before. Anyway, I *think* Hannah Arendt talks about the end of labor in The Human Condition, but damned if I can remember anything she said. I’ll reread it and get back to you.

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