Why Are We Still Working So Hard?

Yves here. This post by David Spencer attempts to understand the roots of overwork in advanced economies. Of course, there are many people who have to work brutally hard to make ends meet, but that’s not the conundrum that Specter focuses on. He is instead perplexed by the loss of leisure time across the spectrum of jobs. While his post a good conversation-started, but I think he misses a couple of culprits, at least in America.

The first is that this culture is no longer supportive of leisure. In the much-less-harried early 1990s, I had the peculiar experience of going from having a very intense job to being self employed. When I had a gig, I’d typically be in overdrive, but over time, I was making pretty much the same money as I was before, with a lot of downtime. Mind you, when you are in a slack period, you have not idea when the next project will show up, so it wasn’t as if it would have made sense to go loaf on a beach somewhere. I needed to be able to maintain the appearance to prospective clients that I was reasonably busy and be in a position to swing into action quickly if they had an assignment. Plus that level of uncertainty over income isn’t conducive to spending freely on leisure activities.

But it was hard to find people who could deal with this on/off lifestyle. I was at the gym one PM (and of course it was close to empty) and the man on the stair machine next to me started chatting me up. He travelled between the US and France and quickly diagnosed my problem: “You live in Manhattan. It would be easy to find someone in Paris to see for a two hour lunch when you were free.”

But even worse was that I had internalized the assumptions of the environments in which had worked, and my beliefs were pretty typical of New York City professionals: if you are successful, you are busy or insanely busy. Only losers have a lot of free time.

And even if you haven’t gotten imprinted with that mindset, there’s a second set of factors that encourage overinvestment in work: having a decent personal life is much harder than before. Gender relations are in flux, which means couples have to do a lot more exploration and negotiation than in the past. Children’s time is vastly more structured than in the past, putting more of a burden on parents to organize it and shuttle them about.

I recall reading a piece, perhaps ten years ago, saying it made perfect sense that people liked to work long hours. In a lot of jobs, you have an organized environment, what you do is important in some way (otherwise they would not be paying for you to show up) and in many white collar jobs, your colleagues are interesting. Work is orderly and predictable. Home life is billed in movies and on TV as being warm and snuggly, but real life is messy and often stressed. While family hopefully confers emotional bennies, for parents and even couples with no kids, you are met with demands and expectations when you come home. The limited amount of private time increases pressure to get things done: spend “quality time” with people who are important to you, handle personal administration, have fun, decompress. But with not enough time to do any of that well, personal time may be less rewarding than it ought to be, perversely feeding a retreat into work activities as a way of setting boundaries with people in one’s personal space who expect more than one might be able to give to them at that moment.

By David Spencer, Professor of Economics and Political Economy at University of Leeds. Cross posted from The Conversation

In a world of iPhones and drones, people are right to wonder why they are still working so hard. The past century saw huge technological advances and yet there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in leisure time: people are working as hard as ever.

The Easter break lasts for four days; couldn’t every weekend be like this?

Proponents of shorter work time have received two pieces of goods news recently. One is the announcement of a new law in France to prevent employees being required to read work emails out of office hours. The other is the decision in Sweden to experiment with a six-hour work day for some public sector workers.

These two proposals go against the grain in several respects. The French legislation challenges the prerogative of employers to require workers to be on call when not at work – it recognises that modern technology such as iPhones has extended work time, without additional pay, and seeks to protect and promote the “free time” of workers. The Swedish experiment challenges the norm of a 9-5 work day – it recognises the potential economic and social value of a shorter work day and is consistent with a broader movement to promote leisure time as a means to a higher standard of life.

But the two proposals are also relatively limited in scope. The French law only says that workers should not have to check their work emails after 6pm. There is a concern that workers could still feel pressurised to read emails out-of-hours and there is a question mark over whether the law will be enforceable in practice. The legislation also only covers a section of white collar workers, leaving the rest of the workforce unprotected. The Swedish experiment is limited only to public sector workers. There is no requirement on the private sector to experiment with shorter work time – the quest to deliver positive returns to shareholders is likely to mean that most private firms will continue with normal patterns of work time.

Experiments in shorter work time, however, have proved successful, suggesting that the private sector might benefit from their implementation. WK Kellog – of cereals fame – famously improved productivity at his plant by operating a six-hour work day. The economic benefits from shorter work time stem from workers being more refreshed and focused at work. Six productive hours can yield the same output as a full eight-hour work day.

Evidence shows that longer work hours make us less productive. The example of the Netherlands shows how shorter work time can be achieved without a reduction in productivity and in living standards. Longer work hours are also associated with poor health and higher mortality rates – we may be risking our lives by working longer.

As I have written before, the case for working less is ultimately about promoting a higher quality of life including a higher quality of work. It is about giving us more time to realise our creative potential in all kinds of activities; it is about achieving a life that uplifts us, rather than leaves us exhausted and frustrated.

But, given the benefits on offer, why are we not working less? Here are five reasons:

Employer power: The decline of unions coupled with a more flexible labour market (meaning less job security) have granted employers more power to maintain work hours that suit their own economic interests.

Consumerism: Workers are swayed by mass advertising and sophisticated marketing to demand more goods and services which in turn requires that they work more.

Inequality: Workers are more likely to enter into competitive forms of consumption and to feel more pressure to work longer where levels of inequality are high. Evidence shows that countries with higher inequality tend to have longer work hours.

Household debt: The build-up of household debt, especially in the US and the UK, has put added pressure on workers to work longer.

Technology: Gadgets such as iPhones and laptops have meant that workers can be at work even when commuting to work or at home.

Taken together, these points indicate that legislation to reduce work time is essential. Employers won’t voluntarily reduce work time, and workers remain unable or unwilling to opt for shorter work time themselves. We must gain the collective will to curb the time we spend at work.

Other countries can learn from the example of France and Sweden. But given the barriers to shorter work time, wider reforms will be needed if we are to ever achieve a four or three day working week.

The goal of working less may appear utopian. But the quality of our lives inside and outside work depends on its achievement.

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  1. The Dork of Cork

    “Technology: Gadgets such as iPhones and laptops have meant that workers can be at work even when commuting to work or at home”
    Except they don’t work
    They fill time
    Some are paid for this “job” and others are not.

    Most of the new jobs in Ireland have no purpose other then from a banks perspective.
    People now have a cashflow pulse and therefore can be given credit to buy cars and other good stuff.
    Its really as simple as that.
    Its in the nature of how money is created – as a debt.
    In the west people are no more then a banking asset.
    They cannot be given a catch free allownence.
    You must be captured by the great bank in the sky.in some fashion.
    This means we witness these epic capital goods overproduction events which we call growth and busts so that we can pay for their depreciation.

    1. Thor's Hammer

      Isn’t the free market wonderful? It has created a work environment for the shrinking percentage of the US population who still have a job wherein:

      1–Compensation is inversely related to contribution to societal welfare. The majority of corporate jobs have no utility, but those that destroy the planetary ecosystem (Oil company CEO) or destroy the functionality of the economic system (Bankster) pay 1000X better.

      2–Innovation within the corporate work environment is a near certain path to unemployment.

      3–The best path to a secure retirement at an age where you still have the health to enjoy it is to become a career murder/soldier in the US Imperial Military.

      1. mellon

        Well, I’ve read, I don’t know how near term this is, that the military wants to replace many soldiers- vastly increase the participation of – robots – in warfare.

        I don’t know the time frame.

        One of the biggest reasons is the high cost of medical care for soldiers who are injured in battle.

        Also, retirement benefits/pensions.

    2. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

      The answer is quite simple: they’re printing too much money. It puts everybody on a treadmill with the speed slowly increasing (BenB wants 2% increase per year so the frogs don’t jump out). Add in a little wage deflation from technology and globalization and the cocktail is complete. Remember all those futurists from the 1940s who said we would all be living a life of technological and productivity leisure by now? We should be.

      1. jrs

        Is the problem the printing of the money or that the money printing doesn’t go to us but straight to the oligarchs (that’s where QE goes more or less it seems). Then not only do the rich get richer (in yet another way) but prices can rise on some things quite independent of anything else, as the oligarchs can speculate in the basics that we need to survive like housing driving those prices to the limit of our wages.

        1. Nathanael

          The problem is that the money is mailed directly to bankers, and occasionally to oil companies and military contractors.

          What little is left for the 99% is sucked out by utility companies and landlords (you can’t avoid paying the electric bill or the rent). Then those profits are transferred to corporate CEOs or bankers.

          The money is grossly *misallocated*.

        2. digi_owl

          the core issue is debt fueled speculation on price (“value”) growth.

          I take out a 1000 loan to buy something, then you take out a 1010 loan to buy it from me, i take out a 1020 loan to buy it back, and so the merry go round keeps spinning until one of us hit insolvency.

          This happens on the housing market for the plebs, and on the stock market for the patricians.

          QE is a piss in the ocean compared to the money printing that happens in private banks each time a loan is issued. And do not for one second think that “money multiplier” or reserve requirements enter into it.

  2. run75441

    Good Morning:

    Google Tom Walker (Sandwichman) over at Econospeak who is big on the Lump of Labor Fallacy and talks quite heavily about Sidney Chapman. Basically he advocates a shorter work week at the same pay.

    1. Sandwichman

      Thanks, run. David Spencer does excellent critical work on work time issues and on history of economic thought.

      Currently, I’m mulling a new analytical framework that derives from Thorstein Veblen’s idea of “conscientious withdrawal of efficiency.” As Veblen pointed out throughout his work, the pursuit of pecuniary reward is not always consonant with maximizing productivity or output. For over a century, the “lump of labor fallacy” and its cohorts accused unions and workers of the “fallacy” of believing they could increase wages by restricting output. Then Veblen came along and pointed out that is EXACTLY what businesses systematically do — they sabotage output in order to maximize pecuniary reward.

      One of the non-intuitive ways that business can “withdraw efficiency” at no cost to themselves is to maintain longer than optimal working hours. This is where the Sydney J. Chapman 1909 analysis of the “Hours of Labour.” Over the long run, working excessive hours diminishes not only productivity but total output. Why would firms want to diminish total output? As Veblen pointed out, to maintain higher prices. Factor shares are not some simplistic apportionment according to contribution to output, as the marginal productivity theory assumes. If price elasticities of demand mean anything at all then one that the “conscientious withdrawal of efficiency” will affect not only the price of the final output but, simultaneously, the price of the labor inputs. What the profit maximizing firm would want to do, accordingly, is maximize p*q of the output while minimizing p*q of the input. Voila! You can limit output by extending hours, keeping prices high and depressing wages.

      I’ll have more — a lot more — to say on this in the near future.

      1. Sandwichman

        Apologies for the ungrammatical sentences in the former. I forgot to proof read it.

        “This is where Sydney J. Chapman’s 1909 analysis of the “Hours of Labour” comes in.”

        “If price elasticities of demand mean anything at all then one deduction is that the…”

      2. run75441


        As one of those practical and micro-oriented throughput analysts, I am confounded by what companies will do to Labor to get the product of its manufacture through plants and to market without regard for capacity. I spent enough time explaining to the powers they have maxed the output capacity of a particular tool, press, or line and no amount of beating the drum faster will improve the output. Furthermore, any continuous production at theoretical capacity will result in less throughput as the tool, press, or line needs overall maintenance . . . People/Labor included. Things and people break over time.

        You are right on increasing profitability through less throughput. Suppliers have come in with higher prices and longer lead times for component/product neither of which improves throughput. In 2009/10 we experienced a semi-conductor shortage due to the user industry ramping up production after 2008 with a lagging semiconductor supplier manufacture. Their solution? Lead times went from 16 weeks to as much as 42 weeks with Infineon, Onsemi, ST, etc. followed by increased pricing. Neither of which increased throughput. Weekly meetings with suppliers helped keep us supplied hand to mouth. Enough of the stories.

        Will you be posting your work on Thorstein Veblen’s at Econospeak or Ecological Headstand? For exposure, maybe a few guest posts might be in order at AB? In any case, I look forward to reading it.

        1. Nathanael

          ” I spent enough time explaining to the powers ….”

          Part of Veblen’s analysis of the “leisure class” of businessmen was that they not only disdained actual manual labor, they disdained *understanding* the actual processes in their factory. It’s terribly lower class to actually understand how the production line *works*. The “leisure class” just wants to shove paper around.

          This is why you had such trouble explaining these basics to the powerful.

          Veblen is by FAR the most relevant “famous historical economist” today. Anyone who can help popularize his ideas will be doing a public service.

          1. run75441

            I can not have a better teacher than Sandwichman so I await his review. Thank you for your comments.

  3. HS

    As they say, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” This is particularly true if you are are a beneficiary of our record wealth inequality. It is no accident that the majority of tasks performed by middle class workers are makework bullshit that rarely do more than produce more makework.

    It’s actually rather brilliant. When was the last time you saw a group of US heroin addicts protesting anything? There is a reason for that and it isn’t because they have nothing to be upset about. The reason is that they don’t have time due to the demands and deadlines of their occupation.

    1. Lord Koos

      It is my conjecture that the reason many Americans are not more upset by the decay of democracy is that they are simply too busy making ends meet to search out the truths behind all the propaganda.

      Regarding idle hands… most of public school is nothing more than make-work as well, so it’s handy training for the future workers and consumers.

      1. Nathanael

        Keep the slaves busy all the time so that they can’t think about revolution. Old tactic.

  4. Hugh

    More work (if you can find a job at all) under worse conditions with poorer pay is a function of kleptocracy. The value of most of the labor in this country is stolen. How do you think the Waltons, Kochs, Gates, and Buffetts accumulate fortunes in the billions? Their wealth is your shit job, bad schools, poor healthcare, overpriced universities, non-existent pensions, right down to the potholes in your roads and the tolls on your bridges.

    On top of this, much of the work in this country serves no useful social purpose no matter the hours while at the same time much socially important work like child and elder care is both time consuming and unpaid.

    I have said this often enough. We need to rethink what work is and tie it to its real social value, that is creating and maintaining a decent and equitable society we want to live in.

    1. James Levy

      Your last sentence is powerful, but opens up the question that protects the capitalists: who is to chose, and how. Right now, the “market mechanism” hides those decisions and gives the deceptive appearance that those choices are made rationally and non-coercively. Jeter gets paid more than the woman who takes care of your elderly father and whose life depends on her doing her job competently and compassionately. Nobody “decided” this, the ideology runs; the market determined it. For us to collectively decide, “caring for old sick folks is more valuable than playing shortstop on a baseball team” is perceived, almost universally in out culture, as coercive, presumptuous, dangerous, and wrong. We mostly believe that if the market imposes on us, it is legitimate, but if the government does it, such an imposition is tyranny. Until that magic spell is broken, we cannot go forward.

      1. MikeNY

        Good comment, James Levy.

        ‘The market’ is not an omnipotent, infallible god who relieves individuals of the need to think and act. This is perhaps the greatest failing of American-style ‘market’ ideology: that it has cut itself off from any moral moorings and is adrift in a dreamy, infinite sea of more, and careless of how that more is distributed. ‘The market’ is not an excuse for people to surrender their civility and rationality.

        We, collectively, determine how to distribute wealth and resources. If we, collectively, decide that it is right and moral for every worker to earn a living wage, and that it is unjust and immoral for 400 heirs and oligarchs to hold more wealth than half of the nation, no economic god or market can cast thunderbolts to earth to deny us.

        This is ultimately an argument about human morality, about how we CHOOSE to treat one another. The appeal to ‘the market’ is just an attempt to stifle the debate.

        1. montanamaven

          Also good comment MikeNY. “…it is an argument about human morality.”
          David Graeber has much to say on this topic in “Revolutions in Reverse”. I wrote two essays on his essays called “Grappling with Graeber”. From Pt 2 of my essay,

          The big idea I took away from all the essays in total was that it was time we got our priorities straight. That means redefining work and what gives our lives meaning. For Graeber the inspiration comes in feminism. It is the production of human beings and their nurturing that should be given top priority; while making socks, shoes, and computers for these humans is secondary.

          “…in most societies that are not capitalist, it’s taken for granted that the manufacture of material goods is a subordinate moment in a larger process of fashioning people. In fact, I would argue that one of the most alienating aspects of capitalism is the fact that it forces us to pretend that it is the other way around, and that societies exist primarily to increase their output of things.” (Graeber)

          1. jrs

            Nuturing of human beings is important, but as for production of them if much of the population decided not to have kids it would be good for the world given current levels of overpopulation.

              1. Lord Koos

                It’s interesting (and a little odd) the way that overpopulation has virtually disappeared from public debate. I recall back in the 1970s it was mentioned fairly often, my father liked to donate money to ZPG, remember them?

                1. Nathanael

                  Well, we did figure out how to peacefully solve the problem of overpopulation.

                  Empower women to decide how many children they want to have rather than men. Population growth drops within a generation.

                  This requires a lot of things: emancipation and legal rights for women, education of women, ability of women to earn their own livings, and easy access to birth control.

                  But it’s straightforward, and furthermore, all of these things are being advocated for fairly successfully in most of the world.

                  1. Dan H

                    Yeah but the consumerism and rabid individualism that came along with might kill us all anyway.

    2. Ulysses

      This is so important. How to achieve this transformation? Labor must gain sufficient power to liberate us from the soul-crushing world of work (including the terror of possible unemployment) as now imposed on us by the kleptocrats.

      A guaranteed basic income, as recently debated in Switzerland, might be one way forward. It would have to be high enough to allow people a dignified existence, if still modest. Just to pick an arbitrary number here in the U.S. : $2,350.00 a month. This would still provide a huge incentive for folks to find gainful employment to afford more expensive pleasures. Yet it would also force Walmart and McDonalds to pay higher wages, and treat employees better, to entice them into their workplaces.

      A good single-payer health system, unrelated to employment, would also be required to put labor less at the mercy of capital.

      None of this, of course, will ever happen if the same ol’ kleptocrats are allowed to continue running the show!

    3. Dan Kervick

      One problem is that there is no universal consensus on what work is socially valuable, and no omniscient managerial agent who can decide what work should be done. We can all recognize when some things that most of us agree need to be done are not being done, and try to act through governmental institutions to rearrange things to get them done. And there are other things that some people might be doing that most of us agree we need to put a stop to, and government plays a role there too. But there is a vast terrain in which there are big value disagreements grounded in the diversity of human beings, and in which the only workable criteria we have for whether some activity is worth doing is whether sufficient numbers of people are willing to give something to the doer in return for doing it.

      There are people like David Graeber who think they can look down from some ivory tower perch and decide which jobs are “bullshit” jobs and which ones aren’t. But Graeber is just one human being among billions, and there is no reason to think he has some infallible bullshit job detector. Every job that exists has come into existence because some boss somewhere was willing to expend some resources to employ someone to do that job, and that’s because they deemed it to be a cost effective contribution to whatever they are producing – and usually selling. People miscalculate, of course, but generally speaking it is pretty hard to squeeze resources out of a business’s management and owners, and they are not in the habit of creating make-work jobs.

      It seems to me that it is a basic economic fact of life for all people and all societies that to earn a living in the world, a living that consists in making use of more than just the products we can produce for ourselves, but includes a large number of goods and services that others produce, then we must be willing to do something ourselves that others value. We personally might not like the stuff we have to do. But if not, we can choose to forego doing it at the cost of foregoing the goods and services we are able to consume as our pay for doing it.

      You might want to write poetry all day, and personally find your own poetry wonderful. But if you can’t find any other people who think your poems are at least worth the cost of a ham sandwich, you shouldn’t expect to receive any ham sandwiches for it. It takes a lot of work to produce a ham sandwich.

      Human life is hard. Writers have complained from time immemorial about the cruel tyranny of Necessity, the pressing intrusion of Have To into our.dreams of Want To. Even before modern industrial wage labor and the “alienation” which romantics imagine is some latter-day feature of the “capitalist mode of production”, nobody wanted to spend their days on their knees pulling grubs and weeds out of the rocky soil so they wouldn’t starve during the winter, or carrying heavy water in animal skins on their backs for miles. They did it because they had to. And they often tried to enslave others to do it for them.

      As modern Americans who have lived through the most prosperous era in human history, where untold masses of people enjoyed a level of prosperity far out of the reach of all but the most privileged humans of past eras, we are probably all quite spoiled. Our country used its military power and concentrated capital power to draft impoverished people around the world into a system for satisfying the endless material wants of Americans at extremely low labor costs.

      There is no end to toil and Have To. The best we can do is to think about ways of sharing the work and sharing the rewards as equally as is practicable. And there is good reason to think that if people at the top of the social food chain weren’t taking so much, the rest of us could have either better lives with the same amount of work, or lives as good as we have now with less work. But if we do try to work things out in this way, and want to enjoy the benefits that only come from living a cooperative social life, we have to be willing to submit ourselves to the decisions made by other people, and not just by ourselves.

      1. The Dork of Cork

        People don’t create a demand for products……………
        The credit process creates a demand for products.
        For example in many cases people need a car to gain access to fiat……..but this hamster wheel economy burns through resources at a epic rate of knots and for a negative return .
        Most of the worlds resources is wasted before it sees a real end use.
        The fact that Americans burn through resources at a faster rate does not make them richer people.
        Its better to be Norm in some Boston bar then some former hick living in suburban isolation with not enough spending power to interact on any real human level.

        But I guess you don’t get that being the Woody character in the bar and all.

        1. Dan Kervick

          People don’t create a demand for products……………
          The credit process creates a demand for products.

          I don’t think that’s true. Even in a society in which there were no such thing as credit and all purchases were made from savings, there would still be supply and demand.

          1. The Dork of Cork

            We simply don’t live in such a society.
            Phone me up when we get there,,,,or better yet write a letter.
            The evidence :
            Most of worlds liquid energy is burned by going around in ever decreasing circles.

            You must be one of those people who believe in fiercely competitive markets and other such garbage.
            Real human life is a much much slower trajectory.

            The west is finished.
            Urban areas have nothing to offer but extraction.
            Metro thinking has reached the end game as can clearly be seen by reading these empty liberal pages.

      2. James Levy

        My issue with your post is that some people do get to do whatever the hell they please because they are good at exploiting others or inherited their wealth and connections, and this is wrong. If your iron necessity applied equally, perhaps I might accept it, but even then I think the point of civilization is to collectively move from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom, which I think is attainable with modern technology.

        As C. Wright Mills said, decisions get made, power gets exercised, even if we in America try to pretend things just “happen”. A small number of people are making decisions about who has and who doesn’t, who prospers and who suffers. Your formulation is, in my estimation, way too fatalistic and lacks agency. It is also based on the notion that value is created by return on investment, not on intrinsic merit. I am dubious that the value of human activity can be accurately measured by how much money you can make off the person being paid. My mother wasn’t paid a dime but raised three productive sons who obey the law and pay their taxes. The nuns who taught me as a child were paid peanuts but contributed enormously to our society. By comparison, Johnny Depp and A-Rod just haven’t pitched in all that much. Your surrender to the market is odd, considering your attack on Banger for what you considered a surrender to the System.

        1. Dan Kervick

          My issue with your post is that some people do get to do whatever the hell they please because they are good at exploiting others or inherited their wealth and connections, and this is wrong.

          Yes, this was pointed at in by comments about slavery and exploitation.

          I am very skeptical about the idea that technology is going to give us a world of freedom without necessity. It just moves the frontier by extending our power. But generally no matter how much power people have over life and its conditions, they want more. The life span can always be extended; health can always be improved; delights and pleasures can always be multiplied.

          I don’t know what you mean about value from merit as opposed to investment. There are certain kinds of value that are born in the mind or fall from the sky or spring from the earth without toil. But a great deal of what human beings have been able to achieve, and all improvements in our way of life, springs from the investment of our existing resources, including the investment of our own selves in hard work.

          I’m not fatalistic at all. My view, though, is that to change the way we live people are going to have to work hard together in a more cooperative way, and do more planning and organizing as a society than Americans are used to, which means that a lot will depend on organized reciprocity – social benefits received in exchange for social obligations fulfilled.

          Many Americans seem to dislike these cooperative or socialistic ideas instinctively. They seem to yearn for a world in which each person is an emperor of a personal sphere, where each person writes his own job description but also sets his own income.

          As I have said several times, I think a lot of contemporary Americans are spoiled brats. People who don’t pay much attention to where things come from and how they are produced, and who attend only to their everyday consumption pleasures, don’t seem to realize that many of their abundant goodies, toys, diversions and leisure time were made possible by the systematic exploitation of the labor of very poor people around the world. That is no longer possible in the same degree it was possible earlier, and they are wondering where all the good times went. They are furious at politicians for not serving it up to them and want it all back. But they don’t want to participate more in society and cooperative themselves, because that infringes on their precious freedom, and they don’t want to make more laws or set more rules, or claw back surplus wealth from the privileged few, because that will empower the evil state, and they don’t want to go back to more industry and hard manual labor, because for all their whinging about being “cubed”, they prefer life in the cube to life in the factory or the field. And they don’t want to be encumbered by any rules, laws and obligations in their own lives, because … you know … everything in life should be voluntary and we can make the whole think work through the voluntary, spontaneous exchange of gifts.

          So hey, I know, the robots will make everything for us. Or the magic money machine will conjure up real wealth purely out of nominal representations of wealth and exchange media.

          1. Nathanael

            “I don’t know what you mean about value from merit as opposed to investment.”

            He means value from work or invention (merit), rather than from, well, I guess the classic economics term for it is “rent” (investment as we know it today).

      3. Dan H

        You are discounting the role of nepotism in bullshit jobs, the real bullshit jobs, which then necessitate the type that Graeber denounces.

        1. Dan Kervick

          We could fight that with more forms of cooperative ownership and democratic control over the means of production. But that means understanding ourselves as social beings with social obligations, not just as individuals living according to a code of unlimited freedom.

      4. montanamaven

        Another point that Graeber makes in “Revolutions in Reverse” is about the alternatives to neo-liberalism. And yes, Mrs. Thatcher, there are alternatives , but first we must free ourselves from the boxes of the mind that we have been shoved into by using our imaginations to think of possibilities outside those boxes. Quite literally, of course, most Americans actually work in small boxes called cubicles and aspire to larger boxes with a door and windows called offices. (Other boxes include “voting booths, television screens, and hospitals.” “They are the very machinery of alienation”). Yes, it is always ultimately about freedom. And not the freedom of choice that neo-liberalism has foisted on us. Too many choices “in the absence of any larger moral structures through which to make them meaningful” just makes us nuts. These choices are meaningless. Our lives then seem meaningless. And that makes us angry and drives us literally crazy.
        Graeber theorizes that a good part of the resentment that conservative working Americans have toward the liberals is that these people are seen as elite. Their children get to worry about meaningful work and find jobs that offer nobility (well, at least until recently as recent college graduates discovered and many of whom joined the Occupy movement) while lower middle class working people’s children can only find nobility in serving in the Armed Forces risking literally life and limb. Graeber attended a lecture by Catherine Lutz who had done a study of U.S. military bases. Building schools and giving free dental check ups “were supposed to improve local relations, but they often proved remarkably ineffective.” But its effect on the troops participating in them was enormous. It gave them a sense of making an impact and meaning. For one soldier his service was “really about helping people.” Not so coincidentally it also serves as a very powerful reenlistment tool rather than returning to “mind-numbing, boring, mechanical jobs” and the cages called cubicles.

        1. gordon

          Being a soldier is a government job. So why can’t the government hire people to build schools and clinics without putting them in uniform? The military training is just a waste of time from that point of view. The same goes for the vocational training offered by the armed forces. That training is often praised as a valuable contribution by the military. But the government could more efficiently offer civilian vocational training without bothering about the uniforms and the military stuff.

      5. Ric Can

        You might want to write poetry all day, and personally find your own poetry wonderful. But if you can’t find any other people who think your poems are at least worth the cost of a ham sandwich, you shouldn’t expect to receive any ham sandwiches for it. It takes a lot of work to produce a ham sandwich.

        True but picture a society where JoeBlowfellow, writing his poetry, looks out from his basement window on a wide and receptive audience. Hard to imagine? Indeed, especially an American society. We humans won’t shed the Wanna/Gotta syndrome any time soon but surely we can improve the ratio by changing what we value can’t we? Enough to make the world a little safer for everyone and a lot less tedious too? It won’t be easy or quick, obviously. But these days it seems to me we’re not even trying for that world.

    4. jrs

      It’s the exploitation of labor stupid :)

      (oh the stupid isn’t meant for the OP – it’s just a take on “it’s the economy stupid” – trying to birth a meme here).

  5. ambrit

    Much of the effectiveness of the “Overwork” movement is based upon instilling fear in the workforce. Fear can be conjured up from a myriad of dark places in the psyche. Given the authoritarian root of the Western socio political culture, this fear mongering is understandable. Freedom of thought is the personal characteristic most feared in turn by the beneficiaries of this culture. It was not chance that the Revolutionary Party in post World War 1 Germany called itself the Spartacists. In a quite perverse way, Nancy Reagan was absolutely correct to advocate the mind set of “Just Say No.” That’s how social movements begin, and persevere. Realizing that “No” is an alternative to the status quo opens the doors to infinite possibilities. Many times, ones’ very life can be the price of freedom, but, that choice is open to us. The frog may not realize that it is boiling, but we are not frogs.
    Spread the word. We are human beings. We are not agents. We have agency.

  6. Android 16

    Indeed. Low wages and capitalized disposable income 30+ years into the future give no other option.

  7. Dan Kervick

    A few scattered thoughts on this:

    A lot of people who don’t work overly long hours feel harried because they don’t like their jobs, and put in a lot of additional work on non-job activities that are more rewarding but very time-consuming. If the stuff you really want to do also requires some work but carries no economic reward, and the stuff you have to do to earn your daily bread requires relatively undivided attention, then your life will consist mostly of a combination of economically gainful labor and other kinds of labor, with little real relaxation.

    Domestic life consists of a lot of chores. People in America have decided that the management of a households should resemble as much as possible the management of a business or investment firm portfolio. The household consumes a huge number of goods and services, and invests in long-term wealth building activities, all of which are delivered by separate companies. Managing the household requires a multiplicity of choices, bills, invoices, shopping trips and fielding of solicitations.

    The people who rise to the top in any enterprise often have little life outside the firm, and place their own insane demands for eternal devotion to the life of the firm on everyone around them; and as Spector indicates, the things that employers can now get away with demanding has blown through previously existing boundaries.

    There also seems to be something about the American individual that leads us to try to build a vast burgeoning universe within small, finite, mortal bounds. Many of us now have extraordinarily rich “inner lives” with an effectively infinite horizon for self-expansion and driven by inherently unsatisfiable needs for on going mental improvement, psychic gratification, spiritual seeking and internal dialog, and on which the rest of one’s outer life can feel like an intrusion filled will stressful demands. This is a by-product of the extreme individualism of American life, which seems to result in an intense, lonely split between the universe within and the universe without. This trait is growing worse, and seems to be leading to fantastically unrealistic calls for a new world in which we are all granted abundant economic rewards by the rest of society to cultivate our own lives entirely according to our own rules and our heart’s content. Most of us are limited middle call schlubs, but have the expectations of a landed aristocrat collecting a life-rent on the labor of others.

    1. Banger

      What you say is true and at the bottom of this obsession with work and accomplishment. People imagine that they are doing all these things to “fulfill” themselves but are actually acting like automatons fed by confused and contradictory voices within. Where do these voices come from? The unconscious which is a place most Americans deny exists. Americans will look at a commercial and say that they are not being influenced–but their unconscious is–the advertisers don’t just put up random images and words–they know certain combinations of words and images stick in the imagination.

      On the moral level, individualism as we imagine it, is profoundly anti-moral. We are social creatures–all the current problems we face exist because of the dominance of individualism or, as I prefer to call it, narcissism. We don’t act on climate change because we want the goodies we can get by consuming mass quantities of everything–that is the general attitude not just with conservatives but the most of what we call the left in the U.S. (there is very little real left).

      1. James Levy

        Yes, it is fascinating how all my students would dress alike and own the same do-dads but claim that they were in no way influenced by advertising or peer pressure–they all happened to just like the same things and want to dress and talk the same way! It’s a variation of the “self made man” meme that is so idiotic and corrosive. And as you say, such an ideology must deny and/or denigrate the role and value of family, community, and friends so as to isolate the accomplishments of the individual and downplay all the things we owe to so many people.

        1. William Charles

          Rene Girard has a lot of powerful insights to offer here about the importance of what he terms ‘mimetic desire’ – basically that we get our ideas of what we want out of life by seeing what other people want and deciding we want that too.

          Ultimately it reflects, I think, a spiritual emptiness. As does Girard.

          1. jrs

            Well it seems one at least has to get many of their ideas of what to try from other people (how else? basic drives will just get one to eat, sleep, and pleasure oneself). But whether or not one like what one tries comes afterward.

  8. Ignacio

    Working long hours and having “your” professionals permanently attached by cell phones or/and portable computers is not driven by productivity worries. The main reason to keep employees (public, private, self-employed -in this case contractors substitute the bosses-), permanently attached is to gain control over their lives. This is much more interesting for the managers than any productivity gain. In fact, I believe that one of the most, if not the most important features that recruiters check about candidates is their docility to this kind of labor domination/abuse. It is much easier to stablish a dominance relationship with the employee (or the contracted self-employed) if she or he has not much spare time that can be used not only for leisure but to think twice. Many managers seem to feel comfortable with this kind of relationship.

    In Spain this is clearly the case in most working places I know. It is the case that companies prefer to maintain insane workday schedules in which, for instance, you have 2 hours for lunch time. In this way, after accounting commuting time, working hours, lunch time and extra working ours, you don’t have any extra time, not just for leisure, but for any other thing you could do besides working, commuting and filling your stomach. The extreme domination cases turn humans into self-maintained machines.

    1. Crazy Horse

      The latest scientific research concludes that regularly smoking marijuana permanently alters the structure of the brain. You become less motivated and the pleasure center regions not only become more active but physically larger.

      And to think that some people say that no progress is possible in the USA.

      1. Nathanael

        Tune in, turn on, drop out. Regular pot smokers are probably less dominated by their employers than average people, actually. It may be a sensible reaction to the psychosis of the bosses.

      2. fajensen

        Well, the desire for longer working hours could be because “They” almost lost control in the 1960’s – 1970’s – with full employment, people had lots of time to get creative and ferment revolutionary ideas. The “war on drugs” is partly to crush any new outbreak of “Hippie Culture” – the weird thing is that many of “They” were eager participants in the 1968’s hippie movements. But maybe not so weird – “They” want to eliminate potential rivals coming from “the same pond” as they did!

  9. Banger

    I think Yves really nails it. Work is structured and predictable compared to our personal lives and thus there is a strong appeal to stay focused on work. We can’t put our families and lovers on spreadsheet and most people, due to our attachment to radical materialism and narcissism lack emotional/spiritual “literacy” when it comes to relationships.

    At the same time, bosses don’t care so much for efficiency–they are more interested in power in being feudal lords and ladies in their little sphere. This is, btw, one reason why I predict a gradual move to some form of feudalism. People want order and predictability in a confusing world–and power-addicts are happy to provide that order.

    Our addiction to work is going to kill our society as we march steadily towards climate catastrophe and/or general war.

    1. Andrea

      “We can’t put our families and lovers on spreadsheet.”

      Yes, but, work organization / ethic etc. has indeed crept into the home, which is also supposed to be ‘efficient.’ In the US, I mean.

      Spouses divide up tasks like biz. partners, and get into fights when one person ‘is not performing’ or ‘spending too much’, ‘negligent’, ‘changed his behavior – should I divorce?’ and so on. Children are loaded up with tasks, rewards and punishments, monitored every step of the way. (..truly bad..) Home help is vetted to death, spied on with cameras, etc. Dogs go to obedience training and are left in crates. Shady friends or family members (He did coke once, etc.) are excluded. The slightest altercation or problem leads to calling 911 and restraining orders etc. Not new, I know, and not everywhere, perhaps less common than this post hints at, but increasing? Add in that outside interference (police, social workers, schools, etc.) uses the same authoritarian tools.

      All this makes home life even more stressful than work (for some), because the rules at work are known (including how they can sometimes be violated or circumvented, in any case groups tend to large, not just 3, 5, 6 people) but at home they have to be built up from scratch and can only be kept up or reinforced by authority and power-plays – negotiation sometimes reaches proportions only known on the world stage – strange moves used amongst people who are supposed to love each other, i.e. not use that kind of sh*t.

      The Corporatization of Everyday Life.

      1. fajensen

        Spot On – and this explains why more and more homes are fitted to look like high-end hotels: The “hotel look” makes us feel safe in a normal environment (I travel a lot).

    2. Alejandro

      “This is, btw, one reason why I predict a gradual move to some form of feudalism.”

      Hasn’t this really been going on for a long time? Isn’t “corporatism” an ever evolving mutation of “feudalism”?

      Not everybody is as acquiescent or been hypnotized by the msm…some might find the TINA argument offensive;

    3. gordon

      “Feudalism”? Well, maybe. Personally, I think the 1% is trying to recreate the world of Jane Austen.

  10. Jim Haygood

    ‘Legislation to reduce work time is essential.’

    Yep, having politicians dictate ‘one size fits all’ rules to regulate our behavior is surely the key to fulfillment and happiness.

    I would appreciate finally receiving my pony as well.

    1. James Levy

      As opposed to your boss, who you have no chance of ever having any control over, dictating those things? You are smart enough to avoid knee-jerk reactions like “government is bad, so turn over my life to the corporation which I don’t own and can’t influence and sees me not as a voter or a citizen, but, as Willy Loman so late discovers, an orange to be eaten and the rind thrown away.” And before you tell me that is the way government views me, too, I contend that whereas the corporation exists to see you that way and in no other way, governments do not have to and if they become functioning democracies, don’t.

      1. Jim Haygood

        One has a choice of bosses, including oneself as a proprietor. Most proprietors voluntarily work long hours, pursuing their personal goals.

        Limiting work hours presumes that work is drudgery and misery. Which it is, in a regimented Peoples’ Democracy where a third or half one’s income gets skimmed off to support the welfare/warfare state.

        Thirty hours work for forty hours pay! ;-)

        1. Vatch

          JH said:

          One has a choice of bosses, including oneself as a proprietor.

          Nice slogan, but it avoids reality. There are people in the U.S. (or Spain or Greece) who have been unemployed for more than a year! They have been trying to choose a boss, but none of the candidate bosses has accepted. Most unemployed people don’t have the capital to become their own bosses.

          1. susan the other

            Everything is turned upside down. Original capital (work) now gains very little success. Whereas capital has succeeded beyond imagination making our upside down world a veritable spinning top. Crazy. As Chomsky says, we all need to take authority for ourselves. I think we should also patent ourselves before Novartis does it. But taking authority for ourselves is a challenging task. First we have to stop denying that we in denial. Just take one aspect of our modern lives: garbage. Human garbage. In huge piles and gyres all over the planet. Disgusting really. If each one of us were responsible enough to recycle our waste, and do so creatively it would make the most astounding difference in “the market” we have come to rely on – because it enables us to deny our own responsibilities. We probably have prevented any market mechanism from ever working because we are so lazy and greedy and filthy – we just want to throw all our excess product down the trash chute and forget it. We are not efficient consumers of anything, so overproduction has become the norm. But reality is now here in a strange form: “productivity” itself. We have been so good at avoiding responsibility, over-producing all this shit we consume, that we actually now can produce it with almost no people. So no jobs, so oops, can’t really consume enough to keep the whole scheme afloat. And it is crumbling out from under our fortress of denial.

            1. Vatch

              Reminds me of Frederik Pohl’s satirical novella “The Midas Plague”. It’s part of the collection The Midas World, but I’ve only read “The Midas Plague” — I haven’t ready anything else in that book. It’s also in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, volume IIB. People are required to consume on a gargantuan scale. The richer one is, the less one is required to consume.

            2. jrs

              Of course it has been shown that people who work less hours tend to be more responsible in recycling and making other choices that are beneficial for the environment. They have the time. Besides even motivation is a limited resource and if people tend to deplete it working 12 hour days …

              That’s not an excuse, noone gets a “get of jail free” card, you are responsible for your choices. It’s what many people in this society seem to have a lot of trouble understanding, that are choices are deeply influenced by the social system and we have choice – not either-or.

        2. jrs

          Many people who make adequate income would probably settle for 30 hours work for 30 hours pay, but in this country of course it’s not much of an option to take a pay cut for less hours because long weeks are mandatory for most jobs. But the working poor, they just need more money yea.

    2. jrs

      Well it’s one way for workers who truly are pretty powerless AS individuals to have any impact on their working life (of course given how poorly U.S. democracy is functioning – ie only for the plutes, it’s probably not that vaible an option at present though that doesn’t mean it should be abandoned altogether). The other way is unionizing of course.

  11. Malmo

    I know very few people in love with their jobs. Hell, after only a few years, most hate them with a passion, but they are viewed as a necessary evil–gotta eat ya know.

    For some of the more open minded around these parts here’s a book by the brilliant neo-Marxist, Laura Kipnis, which covers not only the alienating factors within work but also within coupledom. In short there are nearly as many shitty relationships as there are shitty jobs, and for many of the same reasons too, such as soul crushing boredom;


  12. Middle Seaman

    Yves and Spencer lay the right framework. Most of the important arguments came up above. Some further, more marginal, thoughts.

    – The service industry covers an ever larger segments of the work force. Service work is based on 8 hours days where 8 is actual work and lunch is not included. These tend to be less interesting jobs that will benefit, both employers and the served public, from shorter hours.

    – Engineers, programmers in particular, notoriously work well above 8 hours a day with a rather flexible schedule. In my opinion, the efficiency of the workers is typically low and the product typically mediocre. Shorter hours, more analysis and collaborative work could usher huge improvements.

    – Employees, in many cases, are evaluated by effort. Effort for most managers is measured in hours. It doesn’t make sense, but we leave in a world full of senseless measures, values, etc.

    1. James Levy

      Ah, yes, the “but I worked really hard on this” excuse every professor has heard ad nauseam. I try to tell the students that working hard has nothing to do with the product, which is what I’m evaluating, not the work. This crops up when discussing outfielders–the best often glide out there, making it look easy. Crowds, however, love the little white guy whose churning feet and feverish effort gives the impression that he is really trying hard. Woe to the manager (and there are plenty) who misses the results and obsesses on the effort.

      1. jrs

        When they enter the real world, unless they choose some rare field where they will actually be evaluated on product (usually self-employment, definitely very seldom corporate) it will be face time that will be evaluated.

        1. Nathanael

          JRS: correct.

          This is one of the primary reasons bureaucracies eventually become non-functional and collapse. Evaluation quickly stops being based on product and starts being based on stupid primate dominance rituals. The Peter Principle is also at work.

          Eventually idiots rise to every position of power and the bureaucracy stops being able to perform the function it was supposed to perform.

          There are ways to short-circuit this March Towards Failure, but they’re hard to execute. Easiest with very small bureaucracies — very hard with huge ones like the US Miliitary.

    2. jrs

      Does the 8 hour day anywhere include the time spent on lunch? I don’t think so, not in any job I’ve ever worked. However even though you are expected to spend 8 hours working (at least), giving *a* lunch break in addition to that is legally required for hourly workers. If no break is given and workers are working 8 hours straight at non-salaried position the company is breaking labor law.

      “Engineers, programmers in particular, notoriously work well above 8 hours a day with a rather flexible schedule. In my opinion, the efficiency of the workers is typically low and the product typically mediocre. Shorter hours, more analysis and collaborative work could usher huge improvements.”

      completely agree

  13. Mickey Marzick in Akron, Ohio

    Long overdue…

    When I proffered a reduction in the work week a few weeks back I was taken to task by one commenter for such pie-in-the-sky dribble. Yet he did not bother to refute the argument but just vented his spleen. I was going to respond but then decided why bother…

    Americans are hopelessly addicted to the ideology of the oppressor. Yet the “oppressor” isn’t the 1%. It’s US! Even those who subscribe to MMT and the notion of ELR can’t seem to get past the idea of “work”. Yet if a fiat currency can be used to guarantee employment why can’t this same fiat currency be used to guarantee an income? After all, a job guarantee is one step removed from an income guarantee isn’t it? If “work” is not necessary then why compel someone to be in one place for so many hours to do something unnecessary and meaningless? I know… something for nothing and the free-rider rot. See what I mean – the ideology of the oppressor internalized from birth.

    But up until quite recently, a reduction in the amount of time required to secure the material necessities for existence was deemed progress. The dawn to dusk workday in the Satanic mills was eventually reduced to 12, then 10, and finally to 8 where it has seemingly remained stuck for 80 years in this country – Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. And given the increase in productivity since then coupled with the advances in automation witnessed both on the shop floor and the office over the course of the past 40 years it baffles me why the LEFT is more focused on work and a reduction in unemployment then a reduction in the workweek.

    Too many on the LEFT have adopted a Luddite mentality and want to return to the good old days of the New Deal, i.e., WHITE working class men at the “top” of the working class food chain, out of a fear that they are the victims of the technological miracle more than its beneficiaries. So long as they were winning the race life was good, but now this time it’s different because it’s their ass in the corporate meat grinder. Instead of celebrating the advances in technology that make a reduction in the work week possible, the LEFT is stuck on “full employment” when the likelihood of returning to such a condition in most advanced political economies is remote. Chronic excess capacity is not only applicable to plant and equipment, but LABOR as well.

    Shift the debate to “technological unemployment” and a reduction in the workweek as a means of “sharing the work” instead of bemoaning technological progress as something to be feared. Instead of opting for increases in pay in return for increases in productivity which have failed to materialize for 40 years, opt for a reduction in the workweek commensurate with the increase in productivity going forward. Reduce the workweek so as to the share the work and we’ll all be better off. Otherwise, those still employed will come to loathe those without employment and those without employment will come to loath those who do. Guess who wins that battle? It won’t be working people.

    1. William

      “Americans are hopelessly addicted to the ideology of the oppressor. Yet the “oppressor” isn’t the 1%. It’s US! ”

      Exactly! It is because the oppressors have bought nearly total control of the messaging via media including school texbooks.

      I’m a realist in believing that the necessary de-programming will never happen. When revolution comes, other oppressors will arise to control a different message. And to instill the programming is a marvelously simple and easy task!

      Another way we are being robbed and then programmed to accept it is the reduction in unemployment benefits going on everywhere in both duration and amount. Unemployment benefits can be viewed as a kind of guaranteed income, which in today’s environment of worker disposability and growing number of temp jobs, is more necessary than ever. Yet most people still view those benefits as unearned. Our labor pays for those benefits–the employer (often just a temp agency which steals around 40% of the workers pay while providing far less in value) pays an unemployment insurance tax out of the labor the laid off employee has provided. The government portion is miniscule compared to the overall budget.

      A period of unemployment benefits is well-earned by labor already provided and the considerable amount of work now expected of the worker to seek another job.

      1. Nathanael

        “I’m a realist in believing that the necessary de-programming will never happen. When revolution comes, other oppressors will arise to control a different message.”

        Well, that does usually happen (French Revolution, Russian Revolution). But the revolution is still an improvement generally speaking, because the new oppressors are generally smarter than the old oppressors. The old oppressors were coasting, operating by force of habit, doing what their parents did or whatever fad they bought into, with no brains at all. The new oppressors after the revolution have to fight their way to the top, so they have to be SMART.

      2. JTFaraday

        “I’m a realist in believing that the necessary de-programming will never happen.”

        Well, but you know, in the 1970s de-programming was a real day job.

    2. Andrea

      Yes (see the parag. about the Left, the Luddite aspect etc.)
      France adopted the 35-hour week to “Share the work..”

      This legislation is not applied to ‘cadres’, middle or upper management level, CEOs, banks, etc. or in fact in any way in ‘top corps’, be the employee whatever, excepting a factory worker.

      Nor to the ‘liberal’ professions, even if working for the state – notaries, lawyers, doctors, nurses, accountants, physiotherapists, dentists, surveyors, line men for the Electric Co, Ambulance drivers, etc. (Some are paid the 35 hour wage and 10 hours overtime, all that means is that the basic pay is very low.) Nor to independents or small biz – hairdresser, garage, restaurant, artisan, plumber, actress, farmer, – and so on.

      Nor to State employees like policemen!

      How does one regulate the working hours of a day-trader, an estate-agent, a vine-yard owner, a designer for Hermes, an aspiring cook? Does one want policemen who, expensively trained, work 35 hours?

      Imho this legislation in France has been a failure. (Or semi-success at providing more choice / better pay for a few, which might have been obtained in other ways.)

      In the US, the problem is rather, *access to work itself*, not the hours worked. Unemployment and ‘fair pay’ for low-level workers can’t be fixed by ‘hours worked.’

      The last time I looked and the BLS average work week in the US (the average is of course not very interesting) it was under 35 hrs…

      1. Andrea

        Footnote to my own post. Many other job-sharing schemes exist.

        For ex. in Switz. it is sometimes possible to be two people and occupy a full time job (officially 42 or so hours but on the ground much more, no overtime pay.) Totally accepted, not strange at all.

        The two people might be husband and wife, Master and Apprentice, siblings, or two ppl who know each other vaguely, friends, or even ‘matched’ by the Co or oraganism who contracts out for one of those desperate 60 hr. jobs and only has candidates who say “I will work 80%, not more”, or “I am a mother, I can’t work on Wed. or Sat”…It costs the co. as they have to pay the basic social costs for 2 employees rather than one, but can be good option.

        These employee couples are called BINOMES and the responsibility for coordinating / performing is on their head 100%, if anything goes wrong they are both fired.

        A way of getting super-expertise in one job, and even considered ‘advantageous’ by those who implement, as the binome discusses, has different inputs, provide slightly different skills, etc. In many areas, the couple Master-Apprentice (the pay splits in favor to the Master) is considered a civic duty. The Apprentice has basically a half time job but is trained, trained, valued, etc. Think the hydraulic electrical industry, the nuclear industry, the barrages in Switz., farming, traffic control (a nightmare), pediatrician at the public hospital, Vocational teacher, etc. At a lower level, a concierge job with two ppl doing it is better than one. Factory, manufacturing, industrial jobs are not shared afaik.

      2. Mickey Marzick in Akron, Ohio


        But it’s “access to work” itself that needs to questioned because so long as labor-power is accepted as the only means whereby one secures the material means of his/her existence then those who buy and purchase that LABOR-POWER remain in control.

        The DECOMMODIFICATION of LABOR is the way forward… where one’s existence/life is not dependent on work.

        1. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

          It’s articles like this that take things down to the bare bones. Even work that is necessary (setting aside manufacture of cheap plastic crap nobody really wants) is invariably set up in a Dominance/submission super hierarchical way. Are we forever stuck in a simian pack dominance hierarchy?

    3. jrs

      How about this on the SAT:

      Job guarantee is to guaranteed income what universal health insurance is to universal healthcare.

      1. Calgacus

        Job guarantee is to guaranteed income what universal health insurance is to universal healthcare.

        More like job guarantee is to guaranteed income (BIG) what modern medicine is to faith healing.

        “Guaranteed income” can mean several things. The most academically prominent, the “BIG” is a remarkably stupid idea: Give everybody a sum of money sufficient for a middle class existence. This cannot work. It is just a lie, like faith healing because it would very obviously lead to massive inflation, probably hyperinflation.

        On the other hand, MMTers (like Wray) are for a “small BIG” – “welfare” for those who can’t work – or really really won’t work. This could be framed as an income guarantee or negative income tax – targetted programs.

        And if a society has a JG it can afford a bigger BIG. Modern “advanced” societies -but not all societies – are rich enough to support small BIGs But the JG is far more important, effective, universally applicable and required by common decency and humanity. Unfortunately most have a distorted idea about what the JG proposal actually is.

        1. Mickey Marzick in Akron, Ohio

          Of course, as usual, your the only one who knows what JG means…

          But the very DECOMMODIFICATION OF LABOR never crosses your mind.
          If the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is to have any real meaning, then life dependent on wage labor precludes the vast majority of humanity from liberty and the pursuit of happiness. You just don’t get it…

          1. Calgacus

            Of course, as usual, your the only one who knows what JG means…
            No, many people know what it means – MMT academics, and even some other MMT enthusiasts. Poor, working class, homeless people, people who live in slums – to whom it would be a wonderful dream. Rich plutocrats – who hate it above everything. It just means that the government offers a job at some fixed living wage with benefits like health insurance (if your country irrationally doesn’t have socialized medicine).- to anyone. A monetary economy without a JG – a Job Denial program – is an insane idea. The “bad thing”, the difficulty is the necessity of money in order to live, to get what you want – the monetary economy itself. Not recognizing peoples right to get money, the JG.

            But the very DECOMMODIFICATION OF LABOR never crosses your mind.
            Sounds so high, pious and fine. But what does it really mean? – as an argument against the Job Guarantee program, in favor of the Job Denial program? It doesn’t mean – you, your labor is so wonderful, so priceless, so far above mere commodities like food, that it is an insult to you to commodify your labor.

            No, “Decommodifying labor” means here saying to (non)working people – “Your labor is worth nothing. Too worthless to merit any commodity. You are nothing. You are a piece of shit. Starve and die.” But this is simply untrue. Monetary economies without JGs, like ours, are based on an absurd lie. The labor of an ordinary, jobless person is worth something.

            If the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is to have any real meaning, then life dependent on wage labor precludes the vast majority of humanity from liberty and the pursuit of happiness. You just don’t get it…where one’s existence/life is not dependent on work.

            Until we have magic robots, the magic robots that many daydreamers think are already here, this will always be the case. The human race as a whole needs to do some work to live. Human life is dependent on work, on receiving the fruit – the wages – of its own labor. The human race must commodify its labor in order to live. Does this preclude liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Since a JG actually allows higher levels, a wider distribution of guaranteed income, logical guaranteed income fans should support a JG. Again, the big BIG is just wishful thinking of the kind that most, perhaps not the youngest, children see through.

            So it’s not that I don’t get the decommodification of labor. I oppose it. I’ll fight the decommodification of labor in a monetary society on the beaches, I’ll fight it …. etc.

      2. Mickey Marzick in Akron, Ohio

        If I understand you correctly… YES! But why are so many willing to settle for half of the loaf? Perhaps the past 30 years have so demoralized and/or terroized the working classes that they are willing to accept whatever the 1% shovel their way…. Is it the whipped dog syndrome? Once beaten, the dog will never venture far from the porch ever again.

  14. William

    Yes much the value of our labor is stolen. But in the last 10 years especially, the stealing has become an accepted part of our everyday experience. As is being pointed out more often now, the US has become a mean place to live, unless you are wealthy. People will take from others at every opportunity and provide no value, simply because they can.

    Case in point: Today I learned that the Greyhound bus company charges an $18 “gift fee” for any ticket purchased by anyone other than the traveller. This is simply an opportunistic way to exploit the fact that many bus travelers do not have credit cards and they ask friends or relatives to make an on-line purchase for them. Airlines charge nothing extra for this kind of purchase. Greyhound simply steals the money, providing no value in return. This is but on example of the kind of economy faced by the un-wealthy–fees upon fees which do not represent a kind of taxation with no fair exchange of value.

    1. EconCCX

      @William: This is simply an opportunistic way to exploit the fact that many bus travelers do not have credit cards and they ask friends or relatives to make an on-line purchase for them.

      Greyhound offers a substantial discount for a two-day advance purchase. Without the gift fee, resellers could undercut Greyhound’s ticket window for the spur-of-the-moment buyer. The advance discount supports yield management and the correct deployment of crews and equipment, while more costly spur-of-the-moment sales deliver the profit per seat. Intercity bus lines are neos at price discrimination in comparison to the airlines. But they’re working on it. My best ticket to NYC is CoachUSA for Thanksgiving-week travel, Greyhound the rest of the year.

      1. William

        Well thank you for the explanation of the advance ticket strategy, though it was not part of my comment.

        I don’t follow the logic of your “undersellers” argument. And I don’t get your “spur-of-the-moment” slight. That’s how bus travel has always been. Its fine that Greyhound wants to use the advantages of selling advance tickets on-line, but I stand on my assertion that Greyhound is penalizing the un-banked (or in my case, being out of the country with a credit card that isnt working for on-line purchases).

        Seems the problem, if it is a real one, is one Greyhound could easily manage without the “gift fee.” I cannot think of a SINGLE on-line purchase that requires such a fee if someone other than the product recipient makes the purchase. Christmas retailers would be all over that one!

  15. Ed

    I’m skipping the comments (because I am busy myself) to comment on the two practical proposals.
    The email idea is enforceable since email systems track when emails are sent and read. I think it would be more enforceable to allow employees to read work related emails off hours, but not to respond (also make it illegal fo rmanagers to send emails outside of their own set hours)! But this is enforceable.
    However, you can get too fancy with this stuff. You really just need to end or greatly cut back the exemptions of large portions of the workforce to maximum hours/ overtime rules. Once you keep any employee on the job for more than x hours per day/ x hours per week, the employer has to start paying them whatever multiple of their average hourly salary (calculated through tax filings). Perfectly enforceable, and it just de-externalizes a big externality.

    1. jrs

      Agree end most of the exemptions to overtime laws. That simple change would bring work weeks (of full time working people not some average that is skewed by the unemployed or underemployed) closer to 40 than they are now (40 is still too many and we need a 30 hour week – yes I know – but it’s a start).

  16. The Dork of Cork

    Its important to make a distinction between work and a job.
    In South Kerry after the winter storms small teams of men are cutting down damaged trees and distributing the logs in the local area for cash.
    This is real work which happens to subtract income from the anglo dutch monetary / oil cartel which probably means that soon there will be some law enacted against this practice.
    Some man woman Avon Girl types selling useless stuff for a wage is not work – its a job.
    South Kerry is dependent on people with useless jobs spending money in their local economy – this is called tourism
    But the amount of oil (real stuff) needed to maintain this global airport economy is absurdly gigantic.
    Always and I mean always the leaders of the free world must destroy village and market town economies so as to maintain their relative wealth position.
    Its just what they do………………..
    The German low value shopping chains is spreading like a plague through once vibrant Irish market towns………these operations thrive in a deflationary ecosystem.

    1. allcoppedout

      Well said. The argument can’t start until we understand this. Groaf-jawbs ain’t it.

  17. Larry Barber

    If people had time to think about how badly they’re getting screwed by the system, and had time to organize, it would be very, very bad for the 1%. So the riff-raff must be kept busy at all costs, no thirty hour (or less) work week for you.

    Also, since productivity has increased by over 400% since the 1950’s, we could have a 20 hour work week if we only used half of the productivity gains toward reducing work time. So we could have 2 days of work and 5 days off, while still maintaining a better than 1950’s standard of living. There hasn’t been that much difference in most people’s standard of living since the 50’s, either. When I consider the difference between how I live and how my parents lived when I was growing up, the only big differences are air conditioning, microwave ovens, computers and Internet, automatic dishwashers and (maybe) video recording. Sure TV is bigger now, and in color, even, but the programming isn’t any better, and other things have shown lots of incremental improvement, but in terms of fundamentals not that much has changed. So where is all the extra productivity going to?

  18. Pwelder

    Yves writes: “… in many white collar jobs, your colleagues are interesting.”

    Yves, everybody knows you think and write really fast. Nobody cares about the typos, but a brain burp like this one needs some response.
    How did the “white collar” modifier get into that phrase? Did you ever do a blue collar job? If you did, I’ll wager it was at an age when you were too immature to pick up on – or even be interested in – what was going on with the people around you.

    1. allcoppedout

      There is something in this Pwelder. Yves had me howling the other week over rich people being less likely to take ‘brown envelop bribes’ than the poor. In my experience only the rich and comfortably off get offered the fakilaki or have to be paid to get the ‘wasta wheels’ turning. One also finds these systems kickback to our rich.

      I like blue-collar company. White collar types rarely understand work other than as something to avoid or palm-off on others. I’m old and fat now, so people imagine I never did any real work. The real points here need stripped of the personal. Do we ever really understand without direct experience and so on? At university its a mistake to be a good teacher. You end up with big classes that drain you and prevent writing for the vanity journals and the useless papers that get you to the holiday romance conferences.

      I don’t care whether Yves ever went potato digging. What she has to say is enough. The bigger issue, one she makes herself, is why we gave up on manufacturing subsidy and put the money into finance and administration (and boy have we been subsidising that), and whether this is work at all. And what would change if we all had to do our share of the scut-work?

      1. masterslave

        “” why we gave up on manufacturing subsidy and put the money into finance and administration “”

        ” We ” did not do that — the Oligarchs made that decision to facilitate population reduction including exterminations . The seed was planted for that is 1913 .

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Blue collar jobs in America today are increasingly low level service jobs like burger flipping, where workers are very regimented for productivity and don’t get much if any time to socialize (that’s also moving into clerical role, but from what I can tell is not as far advanced). I should have made that issue clear. And I lived in manufacturing towns all through my childhood and my brother working in one and is a shop steward. But I have never worked in a blue collar job.

      1. jrs

        I don’t think most office work lends itself to socializing either really, you’re supposed to be at your desk staring at a screen mostly. Real blue collar jobs (not service jobs) where something actually gets done (construction, etc..) from what I have observed (and I haven’t worked it) tends to lend itself to much more real socializing than the very controlled environment of the average office, where there is the need to “always be on”, in other words maintain the constant “professional image”.

        Service work may be far more the panopticon and total control than the office environment though, where the pressure is to constant self-control.

        1. mellon

          Service jobs are increasingly bargaining chips in the GATS globalization game. “Good” service jobs here are being eyed for their trade-in value, so to speak, for example, if we let 20,000 multinational firms run 50,000 US schools -(or 50,000 US hospitals) bringing their low paid temporary skilled workers in for four or five year stints at a time, that would allow US manufacturing, drug, etc.companies to open more plants in foreign countries, etc. (and make more tax free money) Jobs working in the US even at wages that would seem to be barely above minimum wage here look like a lot of money to a college graduate in India or the Philippines. Those developing countries have been largely left out of the benefits of globalization and this is their promised paycheck, trade in skilled temporary workers, they have been waiting for a long time to be able to do it. This is why education has to be privatized and commoditized public healtcare has to be stopped at any cost.

          Its the magic of the marketplace!

          1. mellon

            Oops.. I meant public education “has to be commoditized and privatized” (sarcastically) I’m sure its seen as a huge bargaining chip. Too big to remain public, they probably feel.

            Our WTO masters apparently do not see healthcare or education – [except under very narrow circumstances](http://www.iatp.org/files/GATS_and_Public_Service_Systems.htm), as being exempt from GATS’s mandate to privatize.

            Google “four modes of supply”

  19. jfleni

    RE: Why are We Working So Hard?

    The Guaranteed Annual Income is the best idea to beat this problem!

    Will the General of the Armies or Admiral of the Fleet or jumped up corporate “chieftain” just lie in bed all day? Almost certainly not, It would be much better for all of us if he did!

    1. mellon

      I see a big problem with your plan in that eventually 90% of society is going to be unemployed due to exponential growth in technology driving a massive wave of automation. Its already happening.

      Sure the bar to employment is rising but, lets face it, its the future, this is what was supposed to happen.

      You should admit that this basic income thing is basically a buyout at a huge discount of the nation’s hopes for a egalitarian, less money obsessed future.

      If I was in the 1% (I’m not) I would be like you, advocating for this “basic income” because its a cheap, really cheap way to dismiss everything that we need to change and make it go away.

      Its a cop-out of the biggest, most exciting challenge ever faced by human society.

  20. allcoppedout

    1. I don’t think this argument really gets going. Much of what we say in here converges on the fact we have no true democracy and hence cannot rationally decide on such as work. If we have global trade, then true democracy disappears under economic argument. You can’t have it because you’ll be out-competed by harder workers elsewhere .
    2. Nearly all our argument forgets economics is a good and an evil.
    3. Definitions are very difficult. In this one, what is work, really? The comments above, almost all of which I agree, only touch on definition.
    4. We forget history. The slaver-Greeks thought work scared the soul. How many holidays were there in medieval times? I’ve seen suggestions there may have been as many religious festivals as not, cutting work days to about half the year (anyone really know? – I’m crap at history). The Greeks and Romans of bread and circuses didn’t work.
    5. This list goes on a lot – but I won’t here. But don’t forget we have experiments on work. Lottery winners (burden of keeping wolves from door) all give up work.

    I’d also contend we live in a screaming monkey society. This is a neurotic condition. 70% of USUK (polls, backroom chats) hate the jobs they do. We live lives of enforced working or schooling. Standard child-minding now extends from 3 to 21. If we tested what people know and can do at 21, surely we’d stop spending on education as we have it. If one similarly looks at the world our work has produced we might similarly examine what work needs doing and reorganise it. Now we are back to 1 above.

    The Colosseum strikes me as telling us a lot about work. You can eat a decent meal in sight of it. A historian once waxed on about the place when we were eating there. She wasn’t the usual BBC rose-tinted spectacles type. Her story was largely about the grim conditions of those building the place and the squalid things human beings do to alleviate leisured boredom. The place was a monument to neurotic work, she said. So what is work, really?

    The Colosseum story can be seen again in discovering how many men have already died building for the soccer World Cup in Qatar under its kafala work system, for games to be played in conditions that will kill the players. Looking back through archives here, most of our argument goes back to 1 above. Could it be these arguments could only exist in a world free of real democracy?

    1. susan the other

      We should reward real democracy. If we all actually see the light and begin to take aughority over our own lives aren’t we also work-creators? Maybe not job-creators in the “free” market sense – (that is a serious disconnect and another topic). Why shouldn’t it be worth a basic guaranteed income for us all to just get real and start to live efficiently. It just doesn’t get any more grass roots than that.

      1. jrs

        What the planet needs is a vacation! Ok I don’t actually believe shorter work weeks will solve climate change, that’s putting a bit too much on it, there’s more direct ways of dealing with climate change (if there was any will to give a darn about the survival of life on earth). But I love the metaphor, the planet actually DOES need a vacation from our ceaseless doing stuff to it (mining, producing, polluting, fishing etc.). It needs rest and RE-creation, time to heal. Just like we are revived by vacation, by RE-creation, just like we heal with rest and with stopping inflicting what is making us sick, just like the body is healed by fasting, the mind by meditation (lack of the usual mental activity). Everything needs a vacation, a sabath:


      1. gordon

        And in the Middle Ages. The historian Christoper Hill notes how English Puritans worked hard to get rid of all those Saints Days, many of which were holidays.

  21. allcoppedout

    Susan said something the other day – we should give the rich their fair share of poverty – whatever – still ringing in my ears.

    1. susan the other

      And I’m just taking a free ride on the slogan “The opposite of poverty is justice.” Gives me the chills too.

  22. The Dork of Cork

    The destruction of Kenmare ( a planned town) by nameless clowns.

    “Why are you pissing in the tent”

    By this summer Kenmare will have a new bypass so that people can go quicker to somewhere else…………but what happens when there is no somewhere else ?

    Needless to say I recently witnessed at least 4 shops empty in the core of the town,….

    You cannot fuck up this badly – its impossible,
    Someone somewhere is planning the total destruction of all that works at a local level.
    its some sort of hoop you must go through when the big boys come to town.

  23. RanDomino

    Over time, the rate of profit of the ‘real’ economy tends to decline in capitalism (because the best sources of profit get exploited first), causing capitalists to seek new sources of profit- land (including raw materials), labor, technology, etc (and, in capitalism’s terminal phase, debt and bubbles and other Ponzi schemes; hence the rise of the financial sector since the 1980s). Since more land cannot be discovered, the raw materials are being extracted at maximum speed or in decline, and technology is approaching its limit of applicability (since the start of the Oil-based economy in the 1940s, there have not been any ‘great leaps forward’ except computational power, which allows for more efficiency and communication but is merely a force multiplier rather than productivity itself), that leaves labor as the last place for capitalists to seek wealth. Thus, declining wages.

    The reason that technology and productivity gains do not reach the working class is because we do not own the means of production. Productivity gains are seized by the capitalists and privileged classes and the rest of us get the crumbs.

    The reason why 400% increased productivity has not resulted in 400% increased unemployment is that you can’t make money by not selling something. New utterly worthless products (such as practically the entire service industry) have been invented to sell, with ever-more-manipulative marketing confusing people into buying it. Technology’s promise of increased leisure time has been replaced by the Society of the Spectacle.

    1. curlydan

      Amen! I think you’ve successfully identified a cause that Spencer has not listed–the corporations are stealing the increased productivity to increase earnings. The onerous yolk of expected earnings growth is making those at the very top push everyone underneath them to work harder and “run faster” on the hamster wheel to squeeze out a bit more revenue that can then be used for higher executive compensation and stock buybacks.
      _You_ aren’t allowed more leisure time because the market _demands_ more revenue and earnings, partly due to the fallacy Yves has highlighted regarding the oft-mentioned “duty to maximize shareholder value” that really isn’t a duty or a prioritized duty at all. It’s just a duty that helps the highest in the food chain extract more wealth than if they focused more on their other duties.
      Until an executive team can either go private and/or avoid the glare of maximizing shareholder value, there will be less and less leisure time. Even the “go private” option is almost laughable since most attempts at going private are not to escape the market’s requirements but to strip any company of its last remaining assets.

      1. F. Beard

        The problem isn’t maximizing shareholder value; the problem is that companies are not broadly and roughly equally owned.

        And you can blame that on government-backed credit creation since that allows those with the most equity to steal the purchasing power of those with the least or none. Egregious examples are companies using their so-called creditworthiness to automate or outsource their workers’ jobs away – with the workers’ own (legally) stolen purchasing power.

        But I’ve been making the same point for years and only a few are finally getting it.

  24. lee

    Excerpt from a short story in progress:

    “I cannot begin to tell you how I’ve suffered for my failure to attain proficiency in some materially or socially significant field of endeavor. I suspect I’m one of those people that Allen Ginsberg was writing about when he said he’d seen the best minds of his generation have their skulls cracked open and their brains devoured by banshees, gyrfalcons or some such thing. I can’t recall precisely what. There are people exhaling their last lungful of air at this very moment who could have been saved if only I had applied myself and discovered a cure for cancer. There are horrible things my country has done at home and abroad if only I had exercised the discipline needed to acquire the necessary credentials to become Secretary of State or, dare I even say it, President. I suppose it’s not too late to start, but just thinking of all the effort and ass-kissing it would take engenders in me an irresistible desire to take a nap or go fishing.”

  25. RanDomino

    Also, this article seems to have a glaring omission in not discussing the fact that, for workers, wages = (number of hours worked) x (pay per hour). Of course wage-slaves try to work as many hours as possible, since the game is rigged so that the only way to keep your head above water is to work yourself into the ground.

  26. Rick

    I’m reminded of the engineer who had taken one four hour break in the last 36 hours – you can imagine the quality of his work.

    But upper management thought this was the way to go, getting more work for the same pay. Crises were regularly manufactured to justify flogging the staff. In the technical world this has become all too common.

  27. subgenius

    Scanned the comments and saw no mention…sorry if it has already been raised…but there are a number of studies indicating actual productivity increases with a shorter work week. The idea seems to be people engage more if there is less time spent on the task. No links as I am out and about, but early studies showed productivity declined as work increased over 40 hours per week; more recent studies have examined the effect of reducing the work week to 30 hours and found it beneficial.

      1. subgenius

        No argument from me…was simply highlighting that control is the only reason for crazy demands on the time of the workforce…

  28. kevinearick

    Monetary Fool Theory

    As you can plainly see, monetary policy is all about delay, employing gravity in the return line. To the extent you chase money with work, the gravity grows, and, depending upon your development, the ivory tower morons can be quite useful.

    All the monetary fools can do is print ahead of wealth creation and hope money returns to money. The whole point of the middle class, from the perspective of legacy, is to hunt down labor and capture the return on its work. “Slaves are wealth.” And neither legacy nor the middle class has any idea what work is, because they have willfully removed themselves from nature, with make-work compliance, as if nature is the enemy.

    Each event horizon operates on its own set of assumptions, and to get anything accomplished you have to do the impossible, which becomes possible when you ignore the false assumptions, ignorance. Don’t waste your time fighting stupid. Empire domestication implodes the moment labor steps out of the way, because the middle class cannot rear its own children.

    Yes, the real estate morons are vacuuming up real estate everywhere, but they cannot do anything with it, but chase real estate inflation with money, real estate inflation. Because RE and its taxation is the artificial control mechanism at the heart of this empire, it becomes relatively ‘free’ to labor in a demographic collapse. That’s the only way to reboot the economy, by discounting the control mechanism to those capable of rearing children.

    Russia is exploiting America’s weakness, and Germany will soon follow, like always. They cannot help themselves. And Asia lost the demographic war a long time ago. Occupying territory is one thing; raising productive children, and grandchildren, is another. When a government applies force, it is already as good as dead. The majority just doesn’t know it yet, because peer pressure groups are incapable of consideration beyond their own event horizon.

    If you look, you will see that the return on labor always falls to 2X the control mechanism, to favor single people in civil marriage, subsidized by the liquidation of real marriage, which requires 4X at equilibrium. Under the equal rights regime, a parent must compete with a single person in a completely artificial workplace, until the subsidizing government collapses of its own dead weight.

    The passive until aggressive civil marriage blows itself up. If you focus on developing skills relative to nature, it really doesn’t mater what the empire does. Divide and conquer works, for the empire, until it doesn’t, when you step out of the way and move forward.

    Your real problem, space travel, is one of location and timing. Grandma is giving her property away to RE by force of habit. That’s not where you want to be. Replacing men with a romanticized version of Jesus Christ, Immaculate Conception, and eunuchs to take the blame, was a really stupid thing to do, but you’ll have that.

    If you choose a location, timing becomes a function of patience. If you choose timing, the location will present itself. Humanity will never exceed nature, because humanity is, and always will be, a derivative. Mach 7 is nothing, but another moron shock and awe development.

    It takes a couple to climb, to produce productive children.

    In the beginning, there was God, a man and a woman. Then came the snake. The future passes through birth, a woman, but she cannot time the location. A divided house may only fall, into miscarriage, which is what you are looking at, globally.

  29. Barmitt O'Bamney

    One word suffices: DEBT.
    A person driven deep in debt has no control over how much they must work. They may need to switch careers, get new training, or downshift as they age, but their debt load won’t permit it. The debtor is a slave. Most people alive are effectively enslaved by our system. They are conditioned – some would say compelled- to go heavily into debt for their housing, their education, their transportation. Even used cars are typically financed these days. The growing use of credit for these necessities drives the prices up, and thus requires more and more debt to finance for the typical worker. Their Master has no face, so they dream they are free.

  30. Hugh

    A central fault of economics is the idea that the economy can be described as the addition of all individual wants, needs, and utilities. The reasoning runs that many of these are in conflict and so no universally accepted direction for the economy is possible. This loss and even denial of the social dimension is why modern economics is so conducive to and complicit in the kleptocracy we live under. Modern economists say economics is a science, value-free, objective. That it is not about morality. If you want morality, go elsewhere. This is deeply and criminally wrong. The invisible hand of our summed individual wants produces miraculously the economy we truly desire, even if we do not want it.

    The Greeks more than two thousand years ago understood that morality is a social concept and that it infuses and informs all our social activities, indeed all our activities, including our economic ones. In other words, we are social animals and because we are, we are also moral ones as well. This idea is important for us to reclaim. We have been indoctrinated to the contrary, that we are autonomous individuals who only interact with other human beings on an as needed, voluntary basis, that we are Marlboro men and women all. This allows us to be atomized, alienated, andd disempowered, preyed upon by a select few.

    But because this is so does not mean it needs to remain so. Social consciousness can be restored. We have been taught to forget it. We can teach ourselves to remember it. We have both individual and social natures. Most of us long to belong to and participate in something larger than ourselves, something that is not just the summation of our individual wants and desires. So yes, an agreement on a social, political, and economic way forward is possible. We can, and will, disagree on the details but accept the overall project. That project is not rocket science. A fair, decent, and equitable society is doable. The metric for it is not minutely quantified measures. It doesn’t have to be exact. Rather it is broader commonsense measures and the perception that we are on the right track and creating the society we want to live in both for ourselves (as individuals) and for each other (as a society).

    1. Banger

      Very well said, Hugh. I agree that a renewed sense of social morality is possible. I’ve seen it erupt spontaneously from people during emergencies–we are hard-wired to live in a convivial state with each other. It takes a constant dose of nastiness from the authorities to keep us living in fear and distrust. This why I’m beginning to think that the best thing that could happen is a disaster or a radical devolution of both state and corporate authority.

      1. MikeNY

        As Yves put it, “democracy doesn’t scale well”. I, too, often suspect “big government” – or simply, bigness — is the problem.

        Politics and bedfellows, oy.

  31. mellon

    It’s been my understanding for a long time that we’re headed towards an era [where we have intelligent machines](http://spectrum.ieee.org/singularity) which will be able to do a very large amount of the work that humans do today.

    I’m reluctant to try to figure out what we as a society should do, (I don’t know, its a big problem) However I think things like a shorter work week are important as a stopgap measure for governments to mandate because otherwise we’ll continue to see a “race to the bottom” on wages and that makes the likelihood of all sorts of problems much higher.

    The following is an urgent issue: We, as a society, should discuss these changes now, rather than pretend they aren’t happening.

    (Denial is a cause of huge potential problems in the US .)

  32. craazyman

    Can we answer this question honestly?

    In my case, it’s because of all the doom & gloom macroeconomic commentary I read in Links since 2010. I missed the entire rally. Or rather, most of it.

    Not just links here. Other places too. The 4 horsemen of the financial apocalypse were particulary devastating to investment results.

    I’d lay around and do nothing if that were possible. Who cares about what the culture supports? I don’t give a sh*t about what the culture supports. I’ll make my own kultcha staring out the window. But You need cash and lots of it — to not work and not worry. For that, you have to get lucky or marry rich. It’s not likely I will marry rich — that would be both hilarious and utterly mutually horrifying — so that leaves the stock market.

    But if you get lucky too late, it’s not luck anymore. it’s just being teased by Time then left alone with a packed suitcase on the edge of eternity.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      There is another way, craazy.

      You can give birth to a self-made billionaire son/daughter.

      And the more sons or daughters you have, the better your odds.

      Just sure to be nice to them when they are young and helpless.

  33. Jim in SC

    The reality of inherited wealth is that it is controlled by Mandarins, lawyers and other trustees, who have no incentive to allow it to flow easily to heirs. Better to milk it, from their perspective. I think if you were to poll the recipients of US trusts about their level of satisfaction with the arrangement, far less than fifty percent would be satisfied. Trusts are taxed at a high rate beginning with the first few thousand dollars of income, so the money tends to be placed in non-income producing assets. What do heirs want? Income. So there is a built in conflict.

    I have several stories of heirs to hundred million dollar fortunes (usually with ten or so beneficiaries) who rarely if ever got any money from them. Their jobs: dishwasher, carpet cleaner, etcetera. Their money was busy putting their lawyers’ kids through college.

  34. TheCatSaid

    I think this discourse about work and jobs just shows how thoroughly we have been brainwashed.

    I highly recommend Bob Black’s article in Yes! Magazine, “Why Work?”:

    Here are the first paragraphs:
    “No one should ever work.

    Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost any evil you’d care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work. In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working.

    That doesn’t mean we have to stop doing things. It does mean creating a new way of life based on play; in other words, a ludic revolution. By “play” I mean also festivity, creativity, conviviality, commensality, and maybe even art. There is more to play than child’s play, as worthy as that is. I call for a collective adventure in generalized joy and freely interdependent exuberance.

    Play isn’t passive. Doubtless we all need a lot more time for sheer sloth and slack than we ever enjoy now, regardless of income or occupation, but once recovered from employment-induced exhaustion, nearly all of us want to act.”

    There’s a great section further down in the article on “How to abolish work”. Thought-provoking stuff.

    Elsewhere I read about a South American (?) tribe that doesn’t have any word for the concept of “work”, just words describing different kinds of activities. Like I said, we have been so brainwashed about how things “have to be”, that we can’t even see it.

    1. Banger

      Well most of us know work sucks but we’re still forced to do it so what’s next? Work is about renting out your body to bosses–but they have the power and we don’t. Why? Because the majority of people believe that we ought to be serfs to the bosses–that’s the great tragedy of the left–we can’t convince the average person that there’s another way.

      1. mansoor h. khan


        By pointing to and showing a working example is how you convince people.

        We need to make the rest of the world aware of how Scandinavian countries think and the “social” thinking they have. These guys are on the right path. These countries know Reaganism and Thatchrism is cluelessness. They know that without taking care of all members of a community the community is doomed. These countries have “shared” the fruits of industrial civilization much more within their community,

        These countries even though industrialized have kept much of the pre-industrial “take care of everybody in the village” mentality.

        Even though atheism is very strong in these countries intellectual honesty (and the Quran) compels to give credit where it is due. I dislike atheism.

        We should not give up so easily. We need to study these cultures and figure out why they think so different from us.

        Mansoor H. Khan

  35. Roland

    When money supply keeps expanding it becomes harder to self-limit your market-oriented activity. Others willing to work more than you will eventually be able and willing to bid up prices of things you need to consume, so you’ll have to get your lousy contemplative butt back to work.

    A central banker can crack the whip on an entire populace. “Expand the production of goods and services, you lazy wretches! Your labour is a resource whose overall utility must be maximized in conformity with my sense of society’s mission! No deflation or degrowth will be tolerated!”

    In the broader sense, markets are social things, and we live in societies. If you’re living in a society with a bunch of people who like to work more than you do, you’re gonna find yourself obliged to work more than you would like.

    1. F. Beard

      If you’re living in a society with a bunch of people who like to work more than you do, you’re gonna find yourself obliged to work more than you would like.

      The banks crack the inflation whip and everyone has to work harder than they’d like and more than necessary too.

      But nearly everyone gives a government-backed credit cartel a pass. As if it’s God’s will that we have a money system based on theft and usury,

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