An Economy of Meaning – or Bust

Yves here. I hate to be a nay-sayer about a well-intentioned post, and I expect some readers will disagree with my point of view vehemently. However, this article about the nature of work clearly implies that work is valuable only if it is perceived by the person doing it to be “creative”. But this is fallacious because “creative” is the new cool. It professes to be about finding meaningfulness in work in a quasi-Maslowean hierarchy of needs, that people should find some form of self actualization in work.

In fact, what has happened in America is that people have been trained to see manual work, unless it can somehow be seen as being “creative” like making artisanal pickles or restoring fancy furniture, as well as most service work, as demeaning drudgery. If you make something be perceived to be socially undesirable or not very worthy (as an excuse for giving lousy pay), you’ll breed unhappy workers merely by virtue of social contempt (see expectancy theory for more detail).

The fact is most people are not creative. And this is not just my personal opinion, this is Carl Jung. Even though Myers Briggs is over-used, it has its place (IMHO it’s more useful for looking at how certain types behave in organizational settings than in one-on-one or personal relationships). The Jung-derived Myer-Briggs framework differentiates between “intuitives” who are somewhat to very impatient with convention and rules and admire imaginative people, versus “sensing” types, who like following procedures and get very annoyed with what they perceive to be undisciplined “intuitives”. And even though this categorization needs to be taken with a fistful of salt, the population seems to skew heavily to sensing types (an estimated 70%) versus intuitives (30%).

If you believe this paradigm, this says that most people would be perfectly happy doing a routine job, with no doubt some important provisos: that it was treated with respect, that the boss wasn’t a jerk, that the workpace demands were realistic, and that the worker had a way to complete his task and feel he could see he had done a good job. In other words, I suspect widespread workplace anomie has far more to do with the widening gap in status between bosses and the underlings, ever-intrusive supervision, unstable hours and in higher-status but not senior positions, on-call demands, a lack of employer loyalty to employees, which means employees have to put up or shut up, and not work content.

For instance, being a secretary ought to be vastly better now than in the days before word processing. No white-out or having to re-type a page with errors, or where your boss had changed his mind and asked for a complete redo because he’d added a paragraph to the first page of a multi-page document. No hanging out at the copier to make copies, or schlepping to the fax machine and standing over it to feed in pages. Vastly less making and keeping of files. Yet all the technology advances seem to have reduced the status of secretaries, save for executive secretaries, who are screeners/minders/secret-keepers/excuse-makers for their bosses. I thus would bet that if secretaries had been surveyed for happiness circa 1980 v. now, they’d score lower now.

Similarly, I held drudge jobs when I was a kid and enjoyed them. One could say that was because I didn’t have to do them for the rest of my life, but I actually liked having a paper route, selling newspaper subscriptions door to door, telemarketing (yes!). I tried to do a good job and felt that even though it was a little job, the people for whom I was working valued it. By contrast, anyone who has read Frank Partnoy’s book FIASCO, about the wild world of derivative sales and trading in the 1990s, probably remembers one of its last chapters. Let us not forget that a large swathe of the public would have considered derivates to be a creative job. Big pay! Glamorous travel and fancy meals with clients! Lots of intellectually challenging deal structuring and complicated lawyering! And everyone around you is super smart and very credentialed!

The people with whom Partnoy worked made clear to a person that they despised what they were doing. They’d rather do anything else, including digging ditches, rather than be in their current jobs…save of course for the money. They knew they were in the business of ripping off clients and deep down loathed doing it, despite all the “creativity” and other perks.

Or to put it another way, I see in this article too much of the sort of longing I see induced in a consumerist society: “Surely things are better somewhere else. If I only looked better/younger, had a bigger house, worked in a different job…”

As the an old Buddhist saying goes, “Before I was enlightened, I hauled water and chopped wood. After I was enlightened, I hauled water and chopped wood.”

Another problem that this article overlooks is that societies of any more complexity than a single family wind up creating conflicting obligations between the different groups of which one is a part. This is likely one of the big reasons that highly complex societies often wind up failing, that the higher command-control layers start taking too much in resources from the rest of society as well as making other demands that a significant portion find violate their other obligations. As Jamie Lannister pointed out in the Game of Thrones:

So many vows…they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other.

By John Boik, who has a PhD in biomedical sciences from the University of Texas, Health Sciences Center, Houston and has completed postdoctoral work at Stanford University, in the Department of Statistics. He is the author of the book Economic Direct Democracy as well as other books and papers. Originally published at the Principled Societies Project website

It’s not often that a scientist gets to use the words love, creativity, and wisdom in a paper, especially when writing about economics. Perhaps that’s because economics, the dismal science, is obsessed with dismal systems – make that abysmal systems, relative to need.

To be clear, I’m not speaking of the specific policies of the US, the EU, China, the World Bank or others. I’m speaking of dominant economic systems as wholes – especially their underlying conceptual models (macro and micro) and the worldviews upon which they are based.

A human has only so many minutes in life. Time is the bedrock scarcity. If a person isn’t doing something meaningful in a given moment, he’s doing something less than meaningful. He’s wasting at least some of his potential. By meaningful, I don’t mean productive, in an economic sense. I mean important to the person, to her own wellbeing. The Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef identifies nine categories of human need: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, and freedom. Others might make a slightly different list, but the important concept is that meaning stems from addressing real human needs.

It’s not that we should be doing something meaningful with our time, it’s that we want to. We want to express and receive affection, for example, and to fulfill the other eight needs. We want to, that is, unless external pressures so exhaust, distract, distort, or confuse us that we lose touch with who we are.

Current economic systems are dismal-abysmal because they waste our precious time. As a case in point, only 13 percent of workers worldwide are engaged in their jobs. This means, in effect, that 87 percent of workers feel more or less forced to go to work. Short of force, why would someone spend half their waking hours (or more), day after day, doing something that didn’t engage them?

Except for receiving a paycheck, it appears that most workers don’t really care about their jobs. That’s not surprising. Work doesn’t count as a real human need. It’s only a vehicle by which some needs can be (but for most people aren’t) met. Work doesn’t meet our needs because economic systems, as they exist, didn’t evolve to fulfill the real needs of ordinary people. They evolved largely under pressures exerted by powerful people and groups who wanted to maintain and expand their own privileges.

Suppose that we pause to reevaluate. Using insights from psychology, environmental sciences, public health, complex systems science, sociology, and other fields – that is, using as clear and scientifically sound a picture as we can muster of what humans and natural environments actually need in order to thrive – we can ask ourselves the following question: What economic system designs, out of all conceivable ones, might be among the best at helping us meet real needs?

Strange as it might sound, this question is rarely asked in academia, the science and technology sector, or elsewhere. Or if it is asked, the investigation usually lacks imagination. Surely we can move beyond a discussion of capitalism vs. socialism, as if these were the only two possibilities. A wide-open, largely unexplored space of interesting, potentially viable systems exists.

In my recent paper, “Optimality of Social Choice Systems: Complexity, Wisdom, and Wellbeing Centrality,” I call on the academic community, as well as the science and technology sector, to begin a broad exploration in partnership with other segments of society into what optimality means with respect to economic and political system design. I term this nascent program wellbeing centrality, due to the central role that the elevation of wellbeing would play in systems that help us to fulfill real needs.

Viewed abstractly, economic and political systems are problem-solving systems. One could call them technologies of a sort. As such, they are subject to scientific inquiry and engineering innovation aimed at discovering new designs that improve problem-solving capacity. Further, if we seek ideas for new designs, we don’t have to look far. Nature provides a blueprint.

From a complex systems science perspective, the environment is replete with successful problem-solving systems (cells, organisms, immune systems, ecosystems, and so on). Although all look different physically, successful systems tend to exhibit similar underlying mathematical properties. That is, nature has hit upon a good problem-solving approach, and repeats it widely. If we wish our problem-solving systems to be successful, to be as good as they can be, we might want to pay close attention to what nature does.

Moreover, we can view the nine needs Max-Neef identifies as gifts of nature, stemming from eons of evolution over countless ancestral species, to help us focus on and solve problems that matter. Our need to express and receive affection, for example, is also responsible, in part, for our tendency to seek cooperation in solving difficult problems.

In short, “good” economic systems would produce economies of meaning that help us to help one another live meaningful lives—to meet real needs and solve problems that matter.

We don’t have much time to make a transition from current systems to better ones. Mass extinction and other global catastrophes loom on the horizon. We face the unthinkable, not so much because a few CEOs, companies, or politicians have acted greedily (some have), but rather because today’s problem-solving systems didn’t evolve to help us meet real needs. They waste our precious time, as mentioned, rather than focusing our talents and natural drives on things that do matter, such as caring for others and the planet.

But how do we get from here to there? No matter how promising the design of a new system might be, it would be unreasonable to expect that a nation would abruptly drop an existing system in favor of a new one. Nevertheless, a viable, even attractive strategy exists by which new systems could be successfully researched, developed, tested, and implemented. I call it engage global, test local, spread viral.

Engage global means to engage the global academic community and technical sector, in partnership with other segments of society, in a well-defined R&D program aimed at computer simulation and scientific field testing of new systems and benchmarking of results. In this way, the most profound insights of science can be brought into play.

Test local means to scientifically test new designs at the local (e.g., city or community) level, using volunteers (individuals, businesses, non-profits, etc.) organized as civic clubs. This approach allows testing by relatively small teams, at relatively low cost and risk, in coexistence with existing systems, and without legislative action.

Spread viral means that if a system shows clear benefits in one location (elimination of poverty, for example, more meaningful jobs, or less crime) it would likely spread horizontally, even virally, to other local areas. This approach would create a global network of communities and cities that cooperate in trade, education, the setup of new systems, and other matters. Over time, its impact on all segments of society would grow.

Cities, big and small, are the legs upon which all national systems rest. Already cities and their communities are hubs for innovation. With some further encouragement and support, and the right tools and programs, they could become more resilient and robust, and bigger heroes in the coming great transition.

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  1. Massinissa

    Bravo Yves, bravo! The post is ok but your post at the front makes much more sense to me. Thank you so much for being frank.

  2. Sound of the Suburbs

    It is important for those at the bottom to have a strong work ethic so those at the top can live in luxury and leisure, it is the basis of human society.

    For most of the 5,000 years of human civilisation, those at the bottom were incentivised to work hard as
    the alternative was starvation. The work ethic takes its place today.

    Extracting the surplus from day one (almost).

    Mankind first started to produce a surplus with early agriculture.

    It wasn’t long before the elites learnt how to read the skies, the sun and the stars, to predict the coming seasons to the amazed masses and collect tribute.

    They soon made the most of the opportunity and removed themselves from any hard work to concentrate on “spiritual matters”, i.e. any hocus-pocus they could come up with to elevate them from the masses, e.g. rituals, fertility rights, offering to the gods …. etc and to turn the initially small tributes, into extracting all the surplus created by the hard work of the rest.

    The elites became the representatives of the gods and they were responsible for the bounty of the earth and the harvests. As long as all the surplus was handed over, all would be well.

    Later elites came up with money.

    We pay you to do the work and you give it back to us when you buy things, you live a bare subsistence existence and we take the rest. There would be just enough there to keep everyone on board and those at the top could skim off nearly all the surplus to live in luxury and leisure.

    The money scam for extracting the surplus forms the basis of capitalism and quite a few early companies had a company shop where wages had to be spent to ensure there was no leakage into the pockets of others.

    The UK’s aristocracy has seen feudalism, early capitalism and modern capitalism; they all fulfil the primary function of human society, keeping them in luxury and ease while others do all the work.

    Until the early 19th Century the poor lived in squalor and the rich lived in luxury, the 5,000 years of human civilisation.

    Then this awful chap Marx came along with ideas of organised labour movements and those at the bottom start to get a larger slice of the pie.

    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations:

      “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”

      “The Labour and time of the poor is in civilised countries sacrificed to the maintaining of the rich in ease and luxury. The Landlord is maintained in idleness and luxury by the labour of his tenants. The moneyed man is supported by his extractions from the industrious merchant and the needy who are obliged to support him in ease by a return for the use of his money”

      1. Vatch

        Adam Smith said a lot of things that are in opposition to the beliefs of many of his supposed followers.

        Your first quoted paragraph (with a comma between “people” and “seems”) is from Book III, Chapter IV, of The Wealth of Nations.

        I can’t find the second quoted paragraph. Could you please tell us where to find this by book number and chapter number?

        1. justanotherprogressive

          Yes, he did. But never forget that Adam Smith wrote to provide a “moral justification” for the behavior of his financial backers……

            1. justanotherprogressive

              Read his works for yourself……
              You might also want to think about all those statements that he made which (ostensibly) were supposedly to benefit the poor and workers when he knew absolutely nothing about the lives of the poor and the workers…..
              Ex: He claimed workers liked the divisions of labor where they did one thing all day long instead of making a whole product. REALLY?

              1. Vatch

                Smith discusses the division of labor (labour) in the first three chapters of Book I. I reread this rather quickly, and I might have missed something, but I could not find a place where he says that workers like such divisions of labor. He goes to great length to say that it is more efficient and increases productivity, which is true. That’s not the same as saying that the work is more pleasant when it is divided like that.

                I’ll repeat Katharine’s request: please provide a source. Thank you.

                1. justanotherprogressive

                  Actually, Adam Smith discusses labor through out his book, “The Wealth of Nations”. And he often compares the “advantages” workers have in wealthier nations v. what he calls poorer countries or “savages”….

                  If you have actually read “The Wealth of Nations”, particularly the first three chapters, then you will of course, recognize this quote: “He supplies them abundantly with what they have occasion for, and they accommodate him amply with what he has occasion for and a general plenty diffuses itself throughout all the different ranks of society.”

                  And I will repeat what I said. Read Adam Smith, get a few biographies on his life, and decide for yourself. You CAN do that, can’t you? Or do you need a source to tell you what to think?

                  1. Vatch

                    Your quote does not say that the workers liked or enjoyed what he is describing. He is saying that they got what they needed. It may not be true that they got what they needed (the probably didn’t), but Smith is definitely not saying that the workers liked the process.

                    I have read significant portions of The Wealth of Nations, although not the whole book — it’s rather dreary. I definitely do not remember everything that I read. You’re under no obligation to provide evidence when you claim that someone said something, but if you want people to believe what you claim, specific evidence will help. In this case, the evidence shows that your claim is wrong.

                    1. justanotherprogressive

                      You know, if you actually HAD read the book, if you knew any of Adam Smith’s history, if you knew anything about the condition of labor during the time Adam Smith was writing, we might be able to have a nice discussion about how our views about Adam Smith and his contributions differ……
                      I don’t know what “this” is, but it is hard to discuss something with someone who really has very little knowledge on a subject is only interested in doing some kind of one-upmanship based on……?????? But I guess that is the sign of the times these day. Finis.

                    2. Vatch

                      The condition of labor in Smith’s time was quite grim. I’m just saying that Smith did not say what you said that he said. That’s not one-upsmanship — it’s reading. I don’t understand why this has made you so angry.

        2. Sound of the Suburbs

          I got both quotes second hand and checked the first one.

          The second one came from Michael Hudson’s book “Killing the Host” and it looks as though I have attributed it to the “Wealth of Nations” when I shouldn’t have done, I did a PDF search and couldn’t find it.

          You can do a Google search on the first line of the second quote and from what I can make out it comes from lecture notes.

          Google it, to check it.

  3. Lambert Strether

    Re Jamie:

    So many vows…they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other.

    However (cf. Michael Hudson earlier today) the unofficial Lannister motto — “A Lannister always pays his debts” — seems not to be on Jamie’s list…

    Adding, I thoroughly enjoyed my eight years in the mills…

    1. Carolinian

      The piece you once wrote about working in the mills was one of your best.

      I believe we take job satisfaction in doing things we are good at, so perhaps it’s a matter of finding one’s niche. Therefore people who struggle to be innovative but aren’t inclined in that direction are likely to be highly dissatisfied. The intro is quite correct that current arrangements are skewed by bad incentives–not just the all American worship of the dollar but also the current snobbery about intellectual accomplishment. A well executed bit of craftsmanship can be a beautiful thing while not necessarily creative or original.

      1. Katharine

        I agree, and would go a little further. Any honest job well done is admirable and makes things better than they would be if it were ill done. I saw this early and often, especially when temping, when my opportunities for observation were greatly expanded. The conscientious office cleaner, UPS driver, postal clerk, person on the phone who takes the trouble to understand what the caller needs and try to ensure that he or she gets it efficiently are all highly valuable workers who make other people’s days go better.

        For my money, anyone who is snobbish about intellectual accomplishment isn’t really all that intellectual, because they plainly haven’t grasped the necessity of all that unglamorous work to the overall function of the society they are in: they’re still stuck in a sort of childish expectation that the world will automatically produce what they need when they need it, without any appreciation for the process.

      2. Arizona Slim

        Job satisfaction can crop up in the strangest places.

        My favorite job of all time? It was in a bike shop that, to put it mildly, had lousy cooling during Tucson’s beastly summers and no heat in the winter. Oh, did I mention that it was sweaty and greasy work back in the mechanics’ area?

        The reasons why I enjoyed this job were simple: Pride of workmanship and camaraderie with my boss and coworkers. When we see each other now, it’s like an old-time family reunion.

  4. Sound of the Suburbs

    Let’s get capitalism working again while we think of a new system

    The signs are this version of capitalism has failed and not acknowledging it is causing a lot of problems.

    The people expect elites to deliver the goods for the majority. This is their job and if they don’t do it they will be replaced.

    Keynesian capitalism had ended in the stagflation of the 1970s and new market led capitalism came online to get things going again. Capitalism had reached another dead end in the Great Depression of the 1930s, this isn’t a new phenomenon.

    Looking back with two assumptions:

    1) Money at the top is mainly investment capital as those at the top can already meet every need, want or whim. It is supply side capital.

    2) Money at bottom is mainly consumption capital and it will be spent on goods and services. It is demand side capital.

    Pre-1930s – Supply side economics leading to:

    Too much investment capital leading to rampant speculation and a Wall Street crash
    Too little consumption capital and demand is maintained with debt.

    Leads to the Great Depression and the debt deflation of an economy mired in debt

    Post-1930s – Demand side economics:

    Too little investment capital compared to demand, supply constrained.
    Too much consumption capital, leading to very high inflation.

    Imbalance causes stagflation.

    Post-1980s – Supply side economics leads to:

    Too much investment capital leading to rampant speculation and a Wall Street crash, asset bubbles all over the place.
    Too little consumption capital and demand is maintained with debt. Global aggregate demand is suffering and with such subdued demand there are few places for real investment leading to more speculation.

    Leads to the secular stagnation of the new normal, the assert bubbles have yet to burst.

    Maybe capitalism just a balance between supply and demand necessary to achieve that happy medium.

    It is a balance between investment capital at the top and consumption capital at the bottom.

    When the rich are too greedy (like now) they tip the balance and external forces (the Government) need to correct the system.

    1. J

      I have just listened to an interesting program on the radio called “Surviving Post-Capitalism: Hoping, coping, doping & shopping” which is an analysis of where capitalism has been and where it is going.

      It is interesting to hear the author say that capitalism naturally goes awry then is somehow revitalized by its opposing forces; then the solution becomes the new problem and another attempt at revitalization takes place, and so on and so on.

      1. Left in Wisconsin

        Streeck is a smart guy with a lot of interesting things to say. In this case, the title is less interesting than the content.

    2. skippy

      “stagflation of the 1970s” – see advent of corporations increasingly excessive personal profit taking and financialization, along with ideological mouth organs spreading the good word…

      disheveled…. Hudson and Black cover this terrain quite well… the tax is theft loon pond then throws a spanner in it….

  5. Jesper

    Work to live, live to work? For workaholics the choice is easy, they live to work. For many others I suspect that work is something to be done to live and for them it is about work/life-balance.

    For the workaholics I’d recommend to start their own business. Few (no?) laws relating to how much they can work apply to them. And if the workaholics learned that they could have the bliss of unlimited hours of work just by running their own business then maybe the rest of us can use collective bargaining to reduce the hours each individual in employment works.

    Workaholics, the ones who will fight for their rights to be worked to death. Completely uncaring and lacking in empathy for the ones who find ‘meaning’ in things outside of the workplace.

    1. Alex Morfesis

      The workaholic might have a miserable home life and prefers to stay away as much as possible…much as the wife who is always cleaning to avoid interaction with a spouse she longer wants to be with…

      Yves nails most of the problem…bankers in the last 20 years have tended to lend resources and capital to idiots and arses who run a business less to earn a living and more to keep being the bully they were growing up…

      Unreasonable expectations is the slow drip torture of mindfulness…

      Life is boredom and hugging boredom is one of the keys to pleasentness and peace…

      Visual triggers of photography and now videoness has created an unmitigated flow of adrenalin that eats at our souls and confuses millions of years of cranial activities and cerebral processes…

      It’s ok to have been a stablehand in a previous life…but selling that notion wont remove the pieces of paper from the wallett of the mark…

      And when one writes that one should heed the great german economist, manfred max-neef who belives in the “triumph of the cuban revolution”…

      A triumph helped by the loving “little brother” training of the german stasi for the formation of the cuban “commitez”…

      Well…if lifes 9 wonders is to worry about the opinion of some black magic voodoo priestess poking out the window from the house on the corner…

      Maybe manfred might have taken a better look and classified it a bit more honestly as 9 ways to keep the masses “bobo”…and keep those in power in power…

      Not exactly my idea of “a wonderful life”…

      Merry christmas mister potter…

  6. vlade

    Agree that your preface is better than the story :).

    IMO, there are two parts to it. Firstly, whether one can (reasonably, which is a relative word and can differ a lot between people) take care of her/himself and their dependants. But that has a link to the other – one has to see that what they do “makes sense”. That “sense” may be both in the work – doing a good job – whether as judged by you or someone else, or something else – like being able to take care of your family.

    If the work one does has no sense, then there’s a massive problem. And that’s what I see. People doing work where they don’t see it as a good work, but it can’t even feed their family or give them reasonable life.

    “Surely things are better somewhere else. If I only looked better/younger, had a bigger house, worked in a different job…” – this may be a problem or a blessing..

  7. tempestteacup

    Surprised your P.O.V. would be controversial, though perhaps not where you state that most people are not creative. That, it seems to me, would depend on how you define creativity.

    With regard to work, though, I’ve always been suspicious of the oft-repeated preference for “creative” jobs or, as you say, the actualising of one’s identity through labour. You don’t get to negate the facts of alienation and exploitation simply by propagating the fantasy that work is some free zone of creative exploration or identity-fashioning – not least of all because you don’t own the value produced.

    In my own life, I’ve worked in areas that would be considered “creative” – as a critic and journalist, for example. I did them to fund my studies, but found it far more conflicting than more “menial” employment where the division between my passions and creative interests were absolutely clear. I needed money so I sold some of my labour-time to supply me with whatever I considered enough to do what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Working in the media meant swallowing the line that I was joyously and autonomously doing something – and that was simply not true.

    Creative is of course often used today as a cipher for freelance or unsecured employment, too. You’ve often posted unintentionally amusing links to puff-pieces about Uber drivers, for example, pitching their creative ideas to passengers or using their job to launch that most modern of “careers” – YouTube vlogger. It also has a secondary function, which is, as you say, to pour scorn on those who work in “uncreative” jobs, othering them as a battalion of drudges. This plants the seed of expectation that they should be paid less or receive fewer benefits because the work they do is at the bottom of the work-hierarchy. The fact that many of these “drudge” jobs – factory work, for example – have been outsourced to other countries means that this intersects with other forms of otherness, too.

    One last thought. I am, at the moment, connected to an art university and this has given me an opportunity to see how young artists of the future view their place in society. On the one hand, they are aspiring to be creative in an entirely conventional sense. On the other, they have internalised many of the assumptions inherent to neoliberal competition, to the “marketplace of ideas”, and the increasingly commodified art market. Their creativity, in other words, has become commercialised just as commercial interest have become increasingly “creative” – it cuts both ways.

    1. Pickles

      I completely identify with what you’re saying about creative jobs.

      I work in technical writing. It’s about the least creative job a person could hold. People tend to look at me like I’m simple when I explain how much I enjoy it. I’m good at it, though. I’ve done it for years, still find it challenging and satisfying. What’s not to like? I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not clothing the poor or saving lives, but at the end of the day I’ve created a product and I’m usually pretty pleased with it.

      Outside of work, I write fiction. I’d love to write fiction for a living, but if that never happens, I’ll be okay.

      If given the opportunity to work in a creative industry (journalism, for example) I think I’d have to turn it down. I’m much more interested in pursuing creativity on my own terms, rather than forcing my creative drive into an oddly-shaped hole.

      Even the caveman that was really into painting antelopes on the cave walls had to get up in the morning and go spear raccoons for food, I’ll bet. Then, once he was full, he could go back to mashing up berries for paint and perfecting his antelope-drawing techniques. If someone offers him a few rabbit skins to paint the walls of their cave–sure, why not? I’ve gone on long enough with this caveman comparison, you say? Stop it, you say? Okay. I’ll stop.

      As to your last point — I think a certain amount of that kind of thinking (creativity as commercialized) can be a good thing. Obviously it’s a spectrum, with one side being pure product and the other side being pure, lofty creativity. As a fiction writer, I like to sit somewhere in the middle of that and recognize that, while I am telling a story, which is a weird kind of magic, I’m also doing something that’s very concrete. Words, sentences, paragraphs, all forming a structure, and so on. To be clear, I’m not saying that I think a person should make art with only business in mind, but taking a practical view of the work can be helpful. (I don’t wait for inspiration to get words down, for example). I’m not sure how that would translate to other forms of art, though.

      I enjoyed your post. Thanks!

      1. JTFaraday

        I’ve honestly never seen journalism as creative work. Possibly everything that is wrong with journalism today arises from some felt need to force “creativity” into it.

        I suppose it is true that we as readers did not necessarily read “the news.” But perhaps that is our fault, for there certainly existed a market for news, while journalism decided to pander to the masses instead.

        This doesn’t seem to have helped profitability.

    2. jrs

      most people are never going to be paid to be creative, but everyone already knows that, noone says: become an artist and get rich!

      But then I also wonder if the lack of unpaid creativity in hobbies etc. isn’t a driver of a lot of unhappiness. That people actually do need to be creative in some (if unpaid) sense and not just mindless drones and not just receivers of others output but active in some creative way.

      Then again I’m an intuitive talking.

  8. timotheus

    I’m struck by the lack of attention, or even reference, to unions in this article and the framing. Growing up in a highly industrialized Midwest town in the pre-Reagan era, one source of “meaning” (I would say status) for the average worker was belonging to a union that not only bargained with the owners but also provided many ways to engage with one’s fellows and to feel part of a larger entity whose function was to protect and defend the collectivity, i.e., operating from an explicitly benign raison d’être (unlike the company that offered the employment). I think the de-unionization of America has severely damaged workers’ status in their own and others’ eyes, one of the many elements creating the Trump phenomenon.

    1. CitizenSissy

      Couldn’t agree more. The uniquely American myth of an individual bargaining on equal footing with a corporate system willing to recognize and pay for his/her contributions has greatly damaged the US workforce.

    2. hemeantwell

      Agreed. And I’d like to push the point farther.

      that it was treated with respect, that the boss wasn’t a jerk, that the workpace demands were realistic, and that the worker had a way to complete his task and feel he could see he had done a good job.

      The article author’s tech jargon is indeed terribly blurry about the social relations of the workplace, so much so that I’m inclined to accuse him of suppressing the issue because he doesn’t want to directly challenge technocracy. There’s an abundant lit on worker’s control and it’s baffling that the author writes as though it needs to be done all over again.

      Talking about the social relations of the workplace needs to take into account the jobholder’s relationship to organizational decision-making, not just whether the boss is nice or not. There is a world of difference in the experience of someone carrying out tasks defined by the current formulation of the division of labor and someone carrying out those tasks after they have participated in decisions that both define those tasks in light of technological constraints and then link those tasks to a collective goal they can freely valorize.

      I know this is getting into very tricky waters, but I’ve always been dismayed by the tremendous gap, under capitalism between work as the self-interested pursuit of a wage and work as a contribution to a collective good, the sort of framing that was so derided in critical caricatures of socialism. Under capitalism, it is remarkable how the currently available thematics of work tend to valorize work, if at all, as sheer effort that merits personal reward, without any connection to a social good. If one tries to look for a value beyond legitimizing wage acquisition, market fetishism insists that one is to be congratulated for “meeting consumer preferences,” preferences that, in an empty democratic spirit, cannot be considered critically. True, there are “public service-oriented” occupations, most notably the health professions, that are granted license to claim some benefit to collective welfare. But for most people “working for the benefit of others” is something that occurs outside of work. We all suffer as a result.

      1. Toni Gilpin

        Abundant literature indeed, starting with my dissertation adviser’s Workers’ Control in America, which itself was inspired by E.P. Thompson’s seminal The Making of the English Working Class, both of which document how capitalism removes human agency and meaningful engagement from the work process. And that of course the labor movement developed in response to that, in an effort to preserve some semblance of control over how work is done and by whom. And one of the books that influenced me the most is Mike Cooley’s Architect or Bee? The Human Technology Relationship, which draws its title from Marx:

        A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be.

        So yeah, I would say this topic has been pretty well covered and Mr. Boik should do some more reading.

        1. hemeantwell

          David Montgomery was your dissertation adviser? Wow, and good to have you around here.

          Re workers’ control, I should have thrown in this link from Stumbling and Mumbling. Good essay, and he’s got a useful bibliography link.

          One bit of the dialectic that appeals to me is that the acknowledgement of the various benefits of workers’ control gives heart to a critique of capitalists as incompetent. We know this, but it helps to know that there is an alternative to their profit-driven, instrumentalizing domination of subordinates. So much better than being limited to objecting to distributive inequality.

          1. Toni Gilpin

            Thanks for that link — full of good stuff. And yes, I was privileged to work with David. Since he was (as I’m sure you know) a machinist before he became an academic, he understood the nuts and bolts (literally) of the history he so adeptly taught. And he was a fiery speaker too, which came in handy when the clerical workers at Yale went on strike.

            And yes to your final paragraph too. Also when we know the history we know that the soul-crushing is not some inherent and inevitable by-product of technological innovation. The desire to extract control from workers came first; the tools were designed to accomplish that, and often to implement them cost far more than retaining the skilled workers that were displaced would have. So I gnash my teeth every time I read (which is often) that technology=progress=cost-saving.

    3. JTFaraday

      Maybe, but I would be even broader. I think people have a need for community, not work that is deliberately abstracted out of and alienated from community as a means of control. Which unionized labor may still well be.

  9. Foppe

    Yves, thanks for bringing this up. :) Tl;dr: yes, life/work satisfaction is about much more than (Victor) Frankian ‘meaning’.

    Rather than how we currently think of it, economics might also be framed as being the science of need satisfaction. Graeber’s Debt made it very obvious to me that this would make much more sense than our current mode of thinking, and how bizarre it is that we organize society to create material stuff, rather than to organizing our productive systems in order to meet our social/societal needs. Note that needs and ‘wants’ (the strategies we develop and are taught to meet those needs) are very much distinct.

    For those who are interested, I would point you in the direction of Manfred Max-Neef’s attempt to reconceive economics in this way (and to measure societal success in terms of need satisfaction, rather than GDP, or any other one-dimensional scale like “happiness”). :

    Human needs and human-scale development,[1] developed by Manfred Max-Neef and others (Antonio Elizalde and Martin Hopenhayn), are seen as ontological (stemming from the condition of being human), are few, finite and classifiable (as distinct from the conventional notion of conventional economic “wants” that are infinite and insatiable).[2]

    They are also constant through all human cultures and across historical time periods. What changes over time and between cultures is the strategies by which these needs (and created desires) are satisfied. Human needs can be understood as a system—i.e., they are interrelated and interactive. In this system, there is no hierarchy of needs (apart from the basic need for subsistence or survival) as postulated by Western psychologists such as Maslow, rather, simultaneity, complementarity and trade-offs are features of the process of needs satisfaction.

    Manfred Max-Neef and his colleagues developed a taxonomy of human needs and a process by which communities can identify their “wealths” and “poverties” according to how their fundamental human needs are satisfied.

    Max-Neef classifies the fundamental human needs as:


    Obviously, the theory is pretty much wholly unknown and ignored, but anyway.

    To riff a little on what Yves wrote (and forgive my lack of eloquence), creativity is part ‘creation/leisure/understanding’ (trying to find solutions, or learning new stuff, and building stuff, can be fun), part participation (the obvious, plus ‘pro-social’ considerations — wanting to add something that you think is missing), partly about autonomy/choosing your own way of meeting your other needs and others desires. Doing ‘dumb’ / repetitive work (newspapers/mail delivery) can be fun so long as you are meeting needs to contribute, and more fundamentally, so long as you can explain to yourself why you think this is a worthwhile use of your time, which depends on your expectations, ideas of how this fits into your longer-term plans, skills you’re developing, etc.

    1. Foppe

      (Apologies for my not reading the part below the line before posting — I’ve been doing a few things too many, and I allowed myself to get distracted. Anyway, I hope it nevertheless is of some use, if only to clarify how one might employ this framework.

  10. Josh Stern

    Good points. It might be useful to further distinguish between respect from within the work environment vs. respect from the larger social context and creative tasks vs. an ability to keep learning and improving at some task. The more creative an activity is, the greater the likelihood that it is going to be inefficient to product the next unit of it – next innovative, masterpiece please…? In contrast, the amount of new learning, output improvement that’s seen as relevant to performance, and task variation over time, are all things that are easier to quantify and incorporate in a work environment.

  11. Phil Bayliss

    Thanks for an interesting preface – William Davies (2016) in his book ‘The Happiness Industry’ makes the point that Benthamite utilitarianism, underpinning neoliberalism uses money as the measure of societal wellbeing. Inequality (as measured by money), leading to unevenly distributed ‘wellbeing’, is focused on the individual’s response to that inequality, not on the material or social context of where the inequality comes from, i.e poor people lack human capital (Becker) and if they get ill, the way forward is to gain human capital or increase ‘wellbeing’ through other means. Hence, the ‘ happiness industry’, using ‘resilience’, ‘mindfulness’, or pharmacological interventions to make people ‘happy’. Work is meaningful, if it socially rewarded. Hauling water and chopping wood is socially validated. Go for the anti-psychiatry movement, rather than Jung or Freud.

  12. GlassHammer

    “people have been trained to see manual work, unless it can somehow be seen as being “creative”, as well as most service work, as demeaning drudgery.”-Yves

    Its being reinforced at a very early age in most U.S. schools. Children are almost exclusively taught through games/visuals and as a result find it difficult to perform tasks that are less engaging/stimulating. By late middle school most children have a deep disdain for doing work in a manner that is manual/repetitive.

    1. Atalanta69

      Great point, GlassHammer. I’m constantly kicking against this ‘cult of compulsory engagement’, to coin a phrase, which is currently doing its bit to destroy any semblance of difficulty involved in taking a UK university degree. There is huge psychological value in learning to tolerate boredom with good grace; those who never acquire this skill never develop inner resources and are therefore inadequate human beings. I feel truly sorry for young people today – I’m very fond of my students, who are generally delightful people, but I can see how they are being handicapped by ‘kindness’.
      Apart from that, thanks Yves for your prologue. Apart from the essential truth of your words, you also forego from employing the chirrupy pseudo-scientific babble beloved of social scientists who will never make a jot of difference to the toiling millions.

    2. jrs

      I would suspect a larger driver of people not wanting to do manual work or even more so service work (because it pays even less – manual work ranges in pay but most of what we mean by service work pays very poorly) is because they see the paychecks aren’t enough to pay even pretty basic bills (rent, food etc.). And who wants that if they have a choice? Social prestige and all that is nice, but avoiding poverty is a little more pressing!

      Well some bohemians will live a life with nearly no money but most people want enough to buy the basics and maybe a little disposal income etc.. So even if one would be happier at a service job than at white collar job if it doesn’t pan out economically it’s not going to be what people choose if they have a choice.

  13. ChrisAtRU

    I do not vehemently disagree.

    All of this helps build the latest substrata of the robots-will-be-taking-your-jobs temple on a hill. It takes an interesting angle, but if the follow the trajectory of the bullet, the target is clear.

    You don’t like work (only 13% …)
    You don’t need to work (economic systems … didn’t evolve to fulfill …) etc etc

    This gave me a chuckle: “a well-defined R&D program aimed at computer simulation and scientific field testing of new systems and benchmarking of results”.

    I recalled an article about a computer vision system that as yet couldn’t tell the difference between Chewbacca and a horse. But yes, we should let machine simulation decide – ignore the GIGO (Garbage-In-Garbage-Out).

    And there’s your target by the way: a world where the machines decide … thanks but no fucking thanks.

  14. Aaron

    Great post Yves. Appreciate your framing. I think his post inadvertently explains why Trump won the election. The elites and many clueless academics think they have a solution that will somehow placate everyone. There models tell them so, so it must be true. If the price is right you can buy a paper from one of these PhD’s that will twist the facts to fit the narrative you are seeking.
    I have a feeling we’d be much better off as a country if many of these PhD’s spent a few years as tradesmen in a useful, productive job (i.e that manual labor they deem not so creative) prior to receiving their credentials.

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      This guy is clueless and, though he is academically trained, I wouldn’t call him an academic. If he was an academic, as opposed to the (apparently) self-supporting “thinker” he is, he would have a much more sanguine view of “creative” work. And he would quickly abandon the hilarious notion that academics and smart people could simply get together and devise a technical “fix” to the problem of unsatisfying work.

      Many, many problems with this piece. I am impressed with the commentariats’ responses though. Much more insightful.

  15. Uahsenaa

    Viewed abstractly, economic and political systems are problem-solving systems. One could call them technologies of a sort. As such, they are subject to scientific inquiry and engineering innovation aimed at discovering new designs that improve problem-solving capacity. Further, if we seek ideas for new designs, we don’t have to look far. Nature provides a blueprint.


    Viewed concretely, economic and political systems are structures of power that determine who gets what and who gets left out in the cold.

    I’ll be even less kind than Yves. I found this piece to be stupidily naive from the get go. The abandonment of any consideration whatsoever of power relations and the role they play in limiting and constraining one’s self-determination, which lie at the heart of Marx’s theory of alienation that the author would seem to dispose of so easily, seems wholly in the service of yet another “we can engineer our way out of this” technocractic response to what are fundamentally issues of control, who has it, and why. It would propose palliatives in the place of actually addressing what makes people miserable in the first place.

    This unwillingness to undo what has been wrought isn’t even hidden very well:

    We face the unthinkable, not so much because a few CEOs, companies, or politicians have acted greedily (some have) [!!!], but rather because today’s problem-solving systems didn’t evolve to help us meet real needs.

    Read: “let’s not look back at the sins of the past [or how they continually manifest themselves in the present], but rather let’s look forward to a [highly unlikely] bright, shiny future in which the powers that be suddenly give up on all the practices that put them where they are and pray they save us.”

    Thanks, but no thanks.

    1. Foppe

      I don’t disagree that the author’s world view is blinkered, but I do think that he is, in his own, naive way, trying to get his fellow economists to go do something more useful with their time than to come up with justifications for the status quo. :)

      1. jrs

        Yea, I didn’t think the article was that bad either. Ok clearly the author means well. Ideally societies ARE INDEED problem solving systems. If societies were what they should be experimenting to find the best ways to solve problems of human needs (biological and psychological and ecological) within the social system WOULD matter. It would be the purpose of societies.

        The problem is either the innate or induced human need for hierarchy as manifested in the economic system has made the whole question pretty meaningless. When the .1% own as much wealth as the bottom 50% or whatever the stats are then the question of running a society to meet human needs just makes no sense at all. It has NOTHING to do with how society is run. Capitalism is inherently a slave system where some get power and money for having money and others work with no say over their work, and it isn’t messed up because we haven’t run enough A-B testing on how to maximize it or something. But he’s on a really interesting line of thought, it’s just the type of thought that doesn’t seem of much practical use until after the revolution as it were. But being we’re not likely to have a revolution either the question is what to do.

  16. lyman alpha blob

    Uh oh – another social scientist with physics envy –

    Viewed abstractly, economic and political systems are problem-solving systems. One could call them technologies of a sort. As such, they are subject to scientific inquiry…

    Sounds like the author feels some research followed by a some undefined new viral work satisfaction app will solve the problem.

    I much preferred Yves take. Too many jobs are simply useless and serve no purpose other than making an owner wealthy and the owners treat those jobs as such by treating employees as disposable and interchangeable. I’ve heard the argument that one should stop complaining and just be glad to have a jawb, no matter how crappy it is, way too many times.

  17. fresno dan

    Yves here. I hate to be a nay-sayer about a well-intentioned post, and I expect some readers will disagree with my point of view vehemently. However, this article about the nature of work clearly implies that work is valuable only if it is perceived by the person doing it to be “creative”
    I couldn’t agree MORE with you – and I find it hard to believe many would disagree with you. When I started my Federal bureaucratic career, one of the things I did was review sterility tests submitted by firms. As the test HAD to pass for the product to be released to the market, it meant that every single test submitted was “pass.” So it was the archetypal mindlessly stamping a piece of paper***. Yet it was the daily respite from all the even more laborious and tedious tasks I had to do. And I’ve cleaned bathrooms for money – not as bad as many would think. Its a clear, simple task and doing it is something that one can feel one has completed and go home without worrying about it, or getting emails asking about the “status.”

    As I advanced, and my career became more intellectually stimulating, the truth of the matter is that the most creative aspect of the job was essentially lying, or meticulously avoiding acknowledging reality. I’ll put it this way – there is a post today about Ken Arrow – how many articles, papers, and over all yammering is there in economics about the “market” being so, so beneficial when anyone firmly planted in reality sees that there is no “free” commerce what so ever, and that there would be chaos without regulating it (e.g., never mind Obama care, all insurance is heavily regulated, and society has rightly acknowledged the reality that insurance companies would be on the market that could not pay valid claims because it was a scam or the proprietors were too stupid to adequately fund it). How many accountants only creativity is coming up with scams that trouble their conscience?

    How much of Andy Warhols’ day was purely creative? How much did he enjoy lithographing those soup cans (well, he only did one I imagine and had flunkies slaving away running the lithographs….)
    How much was frustration, and self doubt??? How much was artistic compromise, and compromise due to the demands of the “market”? ‘Damn, these Chef Boyardee spaghettios can lithographs just won’t sell, but they express my very soul!!! These Americans are all philistines’ !

    ***Yes, that regulation on submitting sterility tests was changed. I helped write the new regulation, it entailed much more “creativity” but actually was more tedious and difficult “work”, and actually resulted in far more paperwork and bureaucracy than if we had stuck with what we had.

    1. Moneta

      Flunkies slaving away? Maybe some would like doing this work and the problem is considering them flunkies.

      1. rps

        “And that,” put in the Director sententiously, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue-liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their inescapable social destiny.”

    2. JTFaraday

      Accounting isn’t supposed to be creative. “Creative accounting” is (rightly) an insult.

      I also really don’t get the fascination with Andy Warhol. This is supposed to be an inspiration for something?

  18. funemployed

    First I’ve heard of the Max Neef list of needs. Looked it up. On it’s face, it looks pretty flakey, and certainly not very “scientific” (leaving aside, for now, the odd philosophical notion that a meaningful society is something identifiable through scientific analysis). Among Max Neef’s needs are “identity,” “leisure,” “protection,” among other not-so-scientific (i.e. defined clearly by observable behaviors) constructs.

    It’s odd that the author chose such a fringe theory when Self-determination theory is readily available and backed by mountains of already existing research. SDT posits three fundamental psychological needs (it should go without saying that a social system must provide for the physical ones, which are obvious).
    1. Competence (aka mastery)
    2. Relatedness (aka belongingness)
    3. Autonomy

    Perhaps the omission because it is fairly easy to imagine a social/economic system wherein a janitor or delivery driver achieves all three plus physical needs to boot; it only requires abandoning the myth that people who write essays about economics are of greater social value and moral worth than those who clean toilets or harvest crops.

    1. diptherio

      Agree. Having moved out of manual labor into “knowledge work” (I cut and paste things on the interwebs!), I’m now wishing I was back in janitorial. I really miss being able to use my brain for philosophical inquiry while I’m making a floor all shiny. The only things I ever disliked about those jobs was what Yves mentions: no social respect, treated like an idiot by the boss and customers, crap pay and bad hours. The actual work though, was actually not bad.

      1. knowbuddhau

        >> “being able to use my brain for philosophical inquiry while I’m making a floor all shiny.”

        Being there, doing that. :) Had to shove myself into shallow waters before I got too deep just the other day, while cleaning a bathroom counter. And last week, someone saw right through my “just a simple janitor” schtick, saying, watching me mop is like watching someone rake sand in a Zen garden. Guess I was being too obvious.

        If you ever want to take a working vacation, come to Anacortes and I’ll let you spell me for a week (he said in his best Tom Sawyer accent). There might even be free beer and food involved.

        This post really spoke to me. There’s so much more to “job satisfaction” than the pay.

        I’d say the single biggest reason I enjoy cleaning a brew pub and a nightclub (jointly operated) is the respect. In a restaurant, everyone cleans, so they know a good job when they see one.

        Bartenders work really hard. Really, really hard. All day, and into the night, they’re giving the best hospitality they can. I want them to show up for work and see some beauty behind the bar, like a polished stainless steel slop sink and shining brass bar bling, so they know that someone cares about their experience, too.

        So that’s a measure of autonomy. And so is the fact that no one told me to show up at 5am, I just do it so I can be done and out of the way of the front of the house staff. (That, and I can listen to an audiobook version of The Way of Zen (Alan Watts) and totally get my Zen cleaning groove on for 2 hours of working class bliss. One of these days, I’m going to just wade right into those deep, deep waters, and never come back. But not just yet. I’ve got work to do. ;)

        So I get respect, autonomy, and a sense of belonging, But it’s “just” cleaning. No matter how well I do it, it’s somehow not deemed worthy of providing a decent living. I can survive on $12.5/h X 28h/week, but to live takes another 3 nights a week and then every other weekend, and I’m still not making a housing wage.

        It’s an obvious class thing, IMNSHO. Everyone wants to be rich, and to be rich means never getting your hands dirty. So people learn to class signal by their aversion to cleaning.

        I’m reminded of De Tocqueville’s observation: every American he met seemed to consider themselves a temporarily embarrassed millionaire. To do work done by the undocumented, to get one’s hands dirty, is to emphatically demonstrate one’s lower class status. Maybe that has something to do with the reluctance of the documented to “stoop” to cleaning.

        For me, not only as a Zen practitioner but also having spent time with people with degenerative brain disorders, just being able to do the simplest things is “marvelous power and miraculous activity.” Sure would be nice to support myself and participate more in my community, all the same.

        C’mon BIG/JG!

        About that Zen quote by Yves. Not familiar with that particular version. The Way of Zen of course refers to the same work by Watts referred to above. So cool when domains seemingly so vastly different as this blog and my solitary work come together.

        Carrying Water, Chopping Wood

        神通並妙用 Miraculous power and marvelous activity–

        運水及槃柴 Drawing water and hewing wood!23

        P’ang Yün (龐蘊 Hõ Un, 740-808), a lay disciple of the eighth century, also known as P’ang Chü-shih (龐居士 Hõ Koji) (Chü-shih/koji is a title of respect for a lay student of Ch’an)

        (The Way of Zen 221 o)

        23 Ch’uan Teng Lu, 8. (The Way of Zen 133)

    2. Foppe

      One reason to pick Max-Neefs framework might be that a lot of human needs don’t easily reduce to those 3 SDT has at its center.
      A second, fuzzier one, is that any theory that became popular/big since the 1970s is pretty much guaranteed to efface or paper over or depoliticize/psychologize the problems with the societal status quo, and to be overly respectful of disciplinary boundaries — hence the blindness to / denial of the political aspects / ramifications of scientific theories that you find in most places in academia.

      1. funemployed

        Agree with the second point emphatically. The zeitgeist of the elites very much likes to define social/political problems as personal/psychological.

  19. PhilM

    Yves did a noble thing by posting the article that motivated her to write an interesting, humane pensée on this matter. Or, she wanted us to read it because misery loves company.

    Her remarks reflect common-sense, empathetic observation of broad human experience in the workplace. She is absolutely correct that many, even most, people shrink from having to deal with the constant challenge that is creativity and change.

    One of the great trials of parenthood is to teach a child to play the same musical sequence, say, a baseline, for five or ten minutes; then vary it; then vary it; and each time, practice until it is perfect. Tedium? Well that is what musicians do until it becomes instinctual, and suddenly the tedium is gone, and a create world of creativity in fact opens before them. Yet fewer and fewer children, or parents, have that discipline today? Repetition is the task of machines, right? Argh. It is not only musicians who benefit from repetition.

    As soon as Maslow comes up, I know I’m in for it. And when I got here — “engage global, test local, spread viral” — I had to reach for the Zofran.

    1. Patricia

      Yep, developing skill and technique require repetition. But repetition towards excellence is different than the dreary repetition demanded by my daughter in gradeschool homework, which was so dull that it turned her off learning for a number of years. And that repetition is different than the repetition of a menial job, which can be very satisfying if properly respected. I enjoyed my early years of painting (schools, apt buildings, nursing homes). I would have been glad to do it half-time for decades. Such repetition was like rhythm.

      There is a kind of creativity which is in craft, inherent in making a form, say, a cabinet, rug, pot. Then there is innovation, which is making a different version of something that is already there. Innovation is not an intrinsic good—if the different version is worse than the first, it is not worth keeping. It can be worth doing, though, because it is learning.

      Originality is rare. It’s an occasional by-product. There are greater and lesser versions.

      When I was in art school in the 70s, I was told that a fine artist had to break the rules. Highly problematic. The ‘rules’ stopped being taught, which erased skill/technique development. For a while, being ignorant took on a halo. (It took some time to get over my undergrad education, heh.)

      But the biggest problem, I think, is how this idea slid into broader society. In the financial world, for eg, it gave scamming a patina of originality. “That creative rascal. How can one be jailed merely for being a creative? We need more of that, not less.” Oy

      My two cents…

      1. Watt4Bob

        “That creative rascal. How can one be jailed merely for being a creative? We need more of that, not less.”

        I distinctly remember being lectured in that exact manner when I mentioned Michael Milken’s indictment for what I called fraud and my friend called ‘financial innovation‘.

        In fact, my friend was of the opinion that without that sort of innovation the markets would stagnate.

      2. Jeremy Grimm

        My two children were both schooled in the public schools where they learned to hate reading, study and learning. In my view the schools used a combination of the dreary repetition you mention combined with a trivialization of knowledge through its reduction to a rag-bag of isolated factoids. The application of literary deconstruction to musty English literature — like Great Expectations [sorry for any Dickens lovers] — and the compulsion to write essays using that technique helped my son absolutely hate reading and hate writing even more.

        Separate line of thought — Your recall of the 70’s admonition that a fine artist had to break rules made me think of a different meaning to give that admonition. I’m taking some art classes at the local Junior college doing work with glass. My impression of many of the rules applied to various aspects of the art is that they serve to capture details of solutions found for technical problems encountered in the execution of a work — rules-of-thumb. I believe some fine art results not from breaking these rules but from learning their meaning — that is learning the nature of the problems they solve and learning how they arrive at a solution. Knowing this “meaning” a fine artist can re-think the problem and discover a different solution. Often such different solutions are necessary to create a new kind of work. In glass art — many of the problems were solved differently in the past — for example the Roman solution to separating mold blown glass from the blowpipe — and many of the problems have new solutions in the inventions and discoveries of the commercial glass industry.

  20. craazyman

    Nature Doesn’t Watch YouTube and Smoke Pot

    this could be a Calpersville Moment . . . when you put the Philosopher Kings in charge. I was thinking about this possibility if Calpers took it’s 300 trillion portfolio and bought a country and remade it into a retirement utopia. Something similar may happen if academics and technical wizards are put in charge

    It could be like Fantasy Island with Ricardo Montalban and Herve Villechaize . . .

    When you retire to get into a twin engine prop plane and fly to Calpersville, landing on a gravel runway bouncing up and down as the plane comes to a halt somewhere in a valley surrounded by breathtaking mountain vistas.

    Then you notice somebody wearing a cream suit, dark tie and pocket square who looks like Ricardo Montalban approaching the parked plane with his arm waving in welcome. “Welcome my friends, to Calpersville, where your new meaningful and creative life is about to begin.” Then he hands you a contract with the Calpersville code of conduct, that you must obey, or you get “disciplined”. Whoa! You didn’t bargain for that!!! What? No public drunkenness?? No smoking pot?? Everybody has to be employed in either a sport, art, craft or hobby??? What??? This was supposed to be retirement??? You just wanted to lay around. WTF???

    Then you see “the guards”. They dont look very nice do they. Are those tatoos? Yes! Whoa those dudes are ripped and they look mean. Holy smokes. Its only been 5 minutes and you wanna leave. Then you hear the dogs barking. And snarling. Then. You see them! Fkkkn AA. WTF is this? They’re German Sheppards!

    On the drive into town you notice nobody is on the streets — exceept for guards and dogs. That’s weird. Then you see somebody on a corner, crying, and being handcuffed. They must have had a glass of wine and gone for a walk. Drunk in public probably. Whoa!

    You’d have to be careful making Calpersville. Sometimes even the best laid plans go off the rails, like the Russian Revolution. Every time they try for utopia, something bad happens. It’s amazing to me Plato wrote the Republic. Was he crazy or what? All the other dialogues aren’t bad. Some are pretty fantastic. But that one is like: WTF was he thinking???? Hahaha.

    OK, not to be too much of a joker. Any kind of thinking toward making things better is good, but you’re dealing with humans here. They definitely have a way of wanting diffrernt things and things you think they shouldn’t want

    1. juliania

      It’s clear you didn’t investigate the link the author provides:

      “Random Boolean Networks (RBNs) are discrete dynamical systems which have been used to model Gene Regulatory Networks. We investigate the well-known phase transition between ordered and chaotic behavior in RBNs from the perspective of the distributed computation conducted by their nodes. We use a recently published framework to characterize the distributed computation in terms of its underlying information dynamics: information storage, information transfer and information modification. We find maximizations in information storage and coherent information transfer on either side of the critical point, allowing us to explain the phase transition in RBNs in terms of the intrinsic distributed computations they are undertaking.”

      Everything, (and I do mean everything) is explainable by mathematics. Those German Shepherds are just a figment of your Boolean imagination. Which, by the way, is awesome. ;)

      1. juliania

        Oh, and by the way, the above abstract was published in 2008. Something else happened in 2008. Let me think…

    2. flora

      ..wait…wait… The color brochure for the trip to Neoliberal Land (aka Fantasy Island) promised that things would. be. fantastic! in a good way! Based on the great promises in that brochure I bought a ticket. Now you’re saying things that make me think I shouldn’t get on that airplane, even though I already bought a ticket. If I don’t get on the airplane I could call it ‘cutting my losses’, I guess. Wonder if Neoliberal Land has Rover guard spheres as well as the dogs. I’m so confused.

    3. Tigerlily

      Thanks for that.

      I admit my first reaction to the article was “scientific materialism meets utopianism: what could go wrong?”

      I think you have the answer…

  21. PKMKII

    There is a difference between doing “creative” work, and feeling that one’s work has helped create a useful product or service, one with social utility. An accountant may be the polar opposite of “creative,” but if they feel that the entity they work for produces useful products/services for society, they get the satisfaction of accomplishment. Conversely, a “creative” can lack that feeling if their end product is useless or destructive (e.g., a copywriter writing copy for cigarette ads). It’s not about the role, it’s about the end purpose of the role.

    1. jrs

      Of course people would prefer to work for organizations that are doing good over doing harm all other things being constant. But I don’t think whether work is meaningful can be reduced to this at all. Because it’s not about this, it’s about the actual lived experience, the process, the subjective, the phenomenological, the actual experience of working day after day including the human interaction aspects as well, not just some abstract end goal.

  22. rocky

    Test local means to scientifically test new designs at the local (e.g., city or community) level, using volunteers (individuals, businesses, non-profits, etc.) organized as civic clubs. This approach allows testing by relatively small teams, at relatively low cost and risk, in coexistence with existing systems, and without legislative action.

    This seems to me to be the weakest part of an extremely strong argument, which I otherwise agree with completely. I worked for a number of years doing economic development in marginalized communities. I might just not have been creative enough (a real possibility), but the biggest barrier I encountered, over and over, was lack of resources.

  23. RickM

    Great discussion, especially the introduction from Yves.

    I have done “manual labor” in a heavy chemical plant and so-called “creative work.” Both are rewarding when recognized as important, each requiring real skills. And it does take intelligence and skill to operate heavy equipment safely and effectively, or even dig a work hole with a shovel (aka “idiot stick”). Harry Braverman explained it all, or most of it, in Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. In 1974.

    In my career in the “creative class” (sic) my one observation that seems to gain a stronger foundation the longer I live is this: Too many of my colleagues have never had to actually work for a living. But under the neoliberal dispensation, that is coming for their children if not for them. That is, if their children are fortunate.

    1. Katharine

      Could we ever really know? The iconoclastic types may be more outspoken, while more conformist people might read some of NC (with gritted teeth) but not comment.

    2. Dead Dog

      In the late 90s, I was a newly minted Director in a State Treasury and we’d travelled a couple of hundred kilometres to a resort for a three day love-in.

      I knew I was less like my colleagues, sensitive, empathy…

      But to the point, a person came in and gave us all a MB test to do and then the results were put up in a 4 x 4 matrix (iirc) and the results interpreted.

      I’m there in the corner all by self (INTJ) and I remember my boss looking at me surprised. All the other senior people were clumped in a group, can’t remember which, but the whole process made me feel like an outlier, a person with the wrong sort of processes and feelings to be a successful senior manager

      Oh, yes another great post which has made me think, thanks all

  24. Lee Robertson

    I have survived as an artist all of my adult life……it is tedious and difficult work. Anything when done well is intrinsically satisfying. It seems to me that the problem of the ages has been the machinations of intelligent sociopaths. Until they are formally recognized and called out, their predations will continue to cause the cyclical collapse of civilizations.

  25. susan the other

    Nobody liked this essay? I did. I thought John Boik was deceptively simple even. What’s wrong with “engage globally, test local, spread viral”? It’s a reasonably good recipe for solving social and environmental insecurity. We should all question the apotheosis of creativity more often. All it is is curiosity. Everybody and their dog is creative. I’m not sure Boik was really talking about creativity as much as he was talking about stg. like curiosity paralysis. We’re so down and hopeless we don’t know where to start. We can’t even ask the question. He’s right that we don’t have much time to mess around but he’s also right that we have the means to come up with things quickly and good ideas can spread like wildfire. It’s a good recipe for decentralization of the economy into ideas that fit the environment in any given place… etc. With well-being as the bedrock. What’s not to like?

    1. John Boik

      Thanks Susan. Deceptively simple is what I was going for. Why not question what we want from an economic system, whether current designs are giving us what we want, and whether there might be other designs that would give us more of what we want? As a scientist, why not question if there is a defensible set of metrics that could be used to help compare the relative goodness of different system designs?

      These are simple, straightforward questions, but are rarely asked in academia, technology, or other sectors.

    2. TheCatSaid

      Yes! Humans are inherently creative. We are being massively programmed on an ongoing basis not to recognize this–through our many social structures (“work”, “money”, approved social structures, “education”, religion, socially approved thought patterns, etc.). Creativity gets systematically dumbed down or nearly eradicated by social norms and messaging–not because people themselves are “not creative”.

      I take issue with Yves’ opening comment, “The fact is most people are not creative. And this is not just my personal opinion, this is Carl Jung.” Unless she’s commenting on the post-brainwashing effect of many in our so-called “advanced” Western society.

      The good news is that even if we’ve had our creativity turned down to a low level by modern society, life can switch it on in a big hurry. This is why I still carry seeds of hope for situations for a potential Grexit, for example–where there’s compelling evidence that “things can’t work with a new currency because it takes at least 3 years preparation”–that doesn’t include the unpredictability of human creativity to find new ways to deal with “impossible” situations.

  26. Eric Patton

    The fact is most people are not creative.

    I respect the hell out of your honesty.

    Noam Chomsky says that the fact people use language at all is a sign of their remarkable creativity. However, the issue is not who is right, or who is wrong. The issue is just saying what you think, and being honest about it.

    Thinking that most people are not creative is a sign of deep-seated classism. No, I can’t prove it, and I learned a long time ago the pointlessness of arguing about it, since classism is as poorly understood today as racism and sexism were 200 years ago. I know, you don’t take assignments.

    I’m not sure classism will ever be understood, though. Once society collapses, we’ll be returning to rule by strongmen, at which point people will forget everything they ever understood about racism and sexism, too.

    1. Foppe

      It rather depends on how you define creativity — it’s not a one-dimensional trait, and some types involve far larger doses of autonomy, and having to interface with / inspire / manage others, than other forms. Whether you are comfortable with that, and can deal with that, and are aware of the various factors, also affects whether someone will self-identify as ‘creative’.

    2. JTFaraday

      Not necessarily. Creative intelligence is not the only form of intelligence humans possess, and it’s not the only quality that is well remunerated.

      Indeed, usually it isn’t well remunerated. I’m inclined to agree with those who suggest that we’re seeing the elevation of the term “creativity” as a means of separating people from their paychecks.

      Historically, the prototypically creative arts were the province of the independently wealthy who were possessed of sufficient leisure to engage in them and who didn’t need a paycheck, as well those very few truly talented “geniuses” whom they chose to patronize.

      In other words, it’s mostly dilletantism, punctuated by a few bright moments.

      Today, by contrast, the term is being applied to all kinds of crap that, as some point out above, is mostly just computerized drudgery they’ve compared to mopping floors, which still pays something, most of the time.

      This intersects with my feeling that the Trumpertantrums have given us a very distorted view of what and who The Dispossessed Working Class is, where it lives and what it does, whether or not it has a d**k (of course it does), etc.

      1. JTFaraday

        Above, I myself pronounced journalism and accounting, both of which require considerable intelligence, as Not Creative. It doesn’t bother me at all to do so. No one should be offended.

  27. Tim

    This article is spot on. I realize that the USA’s economic moat is ingenuity and creativity, but culturally it is out of hand.

    Being clever is way more valued than being wise which is how we got into the whole financial crisis.

    Now if you aren’t doing something clever it isn’t rewarding?

    I’m an engineer and even many of my peers agree with the statement that the most satisfying thing they ever do is mowing the lawn because they can visibly see that they actually got something got done.

    Creativity job’s downside is that so much work results in so little tangible benefit, that people question if they are even doing anything worthwhile.

    Pay people well to replace our infrastructure and they will have a lot of pride in getting those jobs done, and will contribute back to our society. No creativity required.

  28. Jesper

    Maybe this part is the one where disagreement was expected:

    In fact, what has happened in America is that people have been trained to see manual work, unless it can somehow be seen as being “creative” like making artisanal pickles or restoring fancy furniture, as well as most service work, as demeaning drudgery.

    Do people do that? Or is it the ‘elite’ who does that? Or is it the time-honoured complaint about the young being lazy?

    1. jrs

      A more relevant question is how many places in America is the pay for that a living wage? In places with low cost of living I think it can be, but I think it gets difficult in any larger urban area with a higher cost of living. So you wonder why the janitors are all illegals …

      So is it really about prestige and thought training or more about what it’s always about: the doe ray me, the benjamins etc.. I have often thought I would be happier doing low paid service work, I’ve often looked with envy actually, but not when I think about the pay! That ends the daydream real fast. “I’ve got bills to pay, I’ve got mouths to feed, and ain’t nothing in this world for free” Of course that’s service work, some manual labor is absolutely backbreaking and nothing much to envy.

  29. jerry

    Agree with Yves, this is all much simpler than the author makes it out to be.

    People do not mind working as long as they can have reasonable freedom, benefits, dignity and a feeling of community (dare I say love?) at work.

    This isn’t revolutionary, it isn’t communist or capitalist its just basic common sense that first graders learn – treat people how you want to be treated.

    I personally have no interest in trying to express my creativity through business and the pursuit of money, but I have no problem spending my time working for a good company if they will pay what’s right, and what will allow me to live a decent life.

    In the post-war period, your average high school education, low specialty job still paid enough (relative to cost of living) to get by, own a house, car, have a family, take vacations, etc. Now our minimum wage is poverty, and our median income is enough to enjoy a life of paycheck to paycheck squalor as a member of the precariat, ever at the mercy of automation, financial crises, a broken and corrupt political system, and share-price maximizing corporations.

  30. Geof

    I too found the intro more interesting than the article. I agree with the point you make there, but not in your jumping-off point: “this article about the nature of work clearly implies that work is valuable only if it is perceived by the person doing it to be “creative”.” I don’t see that at all.

    Meaning has little to do with creativity (indeed, originality inherently undermines meaning). You describe a good job: “that it was treated with respect, that the boss wasn’t a jerk, that the workplace demands were realistic, and that the worker had a way to complete his task and feel he could see he had done a good job.” Respect, satisfaction in a job well done: this is a description of a meaningful job.

  31. John Boik

    Thank you Yves for posting my article, and thanks to all who offered comments.

    Many if not most of the comments are related to Yves statement that this article “clearly implies that work is valuable only if it is perceived by the person doing it to be creative.” I address this point first.

    I hope that this implication is not clear, because it is not what I was trying to say. If my article gave this impression, then I am at fault for choosing the wrong wording. I have several other articles on Medium that I hope are more clear on this point.

    Rather, my intention is to suggest that work should be meaningful to the person who is doing it. For some people, this might involve doing something that would be labeled as “creative,” and for others it might involve helping people in some way, developing skills, building friendships, or something else entirely. It seems reasonable to wish for ourselves that we spend our time doing something that we experience as meaningful.

    Another set of comments was on the topic of a technological fix. Note that we already have an economic system of a specific design, and that economists already spend time modeling it in various ways. I am suggesting that the modeling process could be expanded to also include measures of collective wellbeing, both social and environmental. It seems reasonable that if people desire a high degree of collective wellbeing, then perhaps we should include these concepts in our models. Indeed, leaving them out of economic models and economic research might very well lead to other serious problems.

    It also seems reasonable to ask, out of all conceivable designs for economic systems, which ones might be best at elevating collective wellbeing. Why would we not want to ask this question? Modeling is one of many ways to help develop answers. Certainly, no model is prefect. But that does not mean that all models are worthless; good models provide useful insights, or can help to raise new important questions. Many scientists across fields use models to help expand understanding.

    I would not suggest that a community blindly apply an economic model or blindly adopt a new system that has been modeled. But perhaps some communities might be interested in learning about the results of modeling experiments, and about possible alternative designs—their pros and cons—so that the community might make informed decisions about the options available.

    Finally, I would argue that the designs of current economic systems could be improved upon. I am suggesting that a focused R&D effort to investigate new designs would be helpful. Such an effort might lead to designs that look very different from current ones. Besides formal modeling, a good R&D effort would include public outreach and comment. It would also involve small field trials in willing communities, to see how new designs might function in practice. It would generate many ideas for design, each of which could be tested in some way. It would also help us focus our attention on the question, what do we want of an economic system?

    1. Grebo

      My reaction was “more easily said than done”, not least because such things take money and those with money don’t want such things done.

      But maybe some can be found at a place like INET.

      There is some interesting work along these lines at, though their focus is on sustainablility rather than on making work meaningful.

      And you’ll need some physicists: W. Brian Arthur, Jason Smith, because to model alternatives you first need to figure out how the current system actually works and what changes are possible.

    2. Foppe

      Hi John, thanks for coming here & responding. :)

      Might I suggest that, instead of talking of people needing to be able to derive meaning from something, talking about people’s ability to meet needs (play, meaning, creativity, helping others, learning, etc.) in/by doing something? I realize this may come across as pedantry, but given that there’s also a ‘need’ for meaning (-> Victor Frankl), you may be able to avoid some confusion that way. (That said, talk of needs often gets messy because of how people confuse/conflate needs and strategies, because people have memories of being called “needy” as though that’s intrinsically bad, etc.)

      With respect to your remark about models: I’m afraid I don’t really understand what you’re proposing. As I understand Max-Neef’s framework (and I mostly know about it second-hand, as I haven’t yet found the time to read more about it), this might involve something like polling people to find out how well they feel they are able to meet their various needs, and what they feel would help. But I’m not really sure how one could operationalize that, if only because it’s so novel, and dependent on local expectations / familiarity with possible strategies to go about meeting needs or creating / improving societal (pre)conditions so as to allow people to better meet their needs. But you seem to be proposing an aggregate measure ‘wellbeing’?

      Anyway. I think it would be helpful if you could become more concrete on these issues, because as is it’s very hard to see how this might work, also because of people’s unfamiliarity with Max-Neef’s framework.

    3. craazyman

      Don’t worry about it John. When I proposed a plan to use a parallel local currency to help Greece get off skid row, so people siitting around doing nothing but drinking and smoking and drugging themselves can get up and do stuff like carpentry or paying for glasses of wine in a bar, they called me a “QuacK” and said the currency would break all the computers over there. That’s what they said, right here at NC! Even though my idea was for a paper currency and the computers are metal and plastic. I mean really.

      You gotta keep the creativity flowing even when people make fun of you. Because they themselves either 1) aren’t creatiive and can;t see shlit or 2( they have reading comprehension problems. Or maybe 3) they’re right (but it’s just luck if they are, probably).

      Im not kidding, they called me a Quack. But I know absolutely that I’m right and I’m thinking something like that might work for low wage workers. If theyre doingg something people are willinig to pay for as a full time job — like shoveliing shit — for $10 per hour. Then givve them some special local currency other people can user for taxes, 4 times per year to top them off at say $20 per hour. Even rich people will be better off! It’s true. Try it in a few places and see if it works, and if the computers don’t break! Hahahahah. Sorry Clive — just ribbn ya. John it’s in iinside the peanut gallery joke. Clive is a very wealthy Brit with “exposures” as he puts it to global asset classes. Occasionally he comes in here and calls me a Quack. He knows a little bit about computers but he thinks they’re fragile.

      The problem would be if somebody wanted to spend their day conducting hot babe surveys at the beach and expected to get paid since they were working otherrwise for free. You’d have to find a way of gently saying no to somebody like that, as nice of a job as that would be, to be sure.

      1. knowbuddhau

        Sign me up! There’s a chance I might get “creative” if I didn’t have to work all the damn time, though. But I’m willing to take that risk for The Cause.

        This scrip wouldn’t only be good on Magonia’s campus, would it? Got a brew pub that needs cleaning?

    4. knowbuddhau

      Thanks for the post, and for coming by.

      >> “It seems reasonable to wish for ourselves that we spend our time doing something that we experience as meaningful.”

      I hear that. My all-time least favorite of all things to find myself doing, is just going through the motions. I grew up expecting to be a credentialed professional. Now that I clean for a living, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to justify it.

      If I saw my work as having been forced on me from the outside, I’d hate it. But, as I wrote at length above, I don’t.

      OTOH, I have the jobs I do simply because they were available in my area when I needed work. OTOH, I *chose them. I chose to respond to an ad, I chose to accept an offer. I choose to get up and go to work every day (literally, just finished 54 days straight).

      I clean because it’s work I can do that others will pay me for that I can do in-line with the rest of my life. I don’t have to become someone I’m not, and do things I abhor, every single day for the rest of my working life.

      The problem of meaning, as I see it, however, is of much larger scope. If our society is fundamentally flawed in its relationship with nature; if our way of life, as depicted so evocatively in the Koyaanisqatsi trilogy, is, in fact, a way of death, is actually unsustainable (eg, if all the externalities of fossil fuels were priced in, we couldn’t afford it), what meaning is there to be found in being well adapted to a sick society? (Drawing a blank on who said that first. A little help?)

      I agree wholeheartedly that these are reasonable suggestions. But I think the problem runs much deeper than economics. I think economics is an expression of a way of being human. It doesn’t arise out of nowhere.

      Along with a more meaningful economics, we need to R&D a more meaningful mythos. And we need to do it before runaway anthropogenic climate change moots it all.

      If climate change says anything, it says our relationship with Mother Nature is so badly broken She’s rejecting us. We may already be in Gaia’s waste stream. We haven’t got long.

    5. rps

      “I am suggesting that the modeling process could be expanded to also include measures of collective wellbeing, both social and environmental.”
      I say be very careful about your idealistic social science modeling of the collectives’ wellbeing. The benevolent iron hand in the velvet glove will be controlled by the ambitious capitalists; hence, they will define the measure of the collectives’ wellbeing. As an example: George Pullman.

      Industrialist George Pullman dabbled in the modeling process and believed he had engineered a capitalist utopia in 1888. Pullman was established 10 miles south of Chicago as a model community including measures of environmental and social engineering—a place that theoretically would create a visionary community where the employees could be happy with whatever they were doing, and thus, a profitable company in return.

      To quote economist Richard T. Ely (Harper’s Magazine 1885), “It is not the American ideal. It is benevolent, well wishing feudalism, which desires the happiness of the people, but in such way as shall please the authorities.”

      Less than a decade later, Pullman’s utopian community failed. 1893 would be the worst economic Depression the United States had ever seen to that point. The market crashed, banks failed, workers laid off, businesses destroyed, slashed wages, exposing the American economic system was a house built upon sand. Eventually, Pullman the capitalist utopian visionary of a workers paradise was eventually toppled by his ultimate greed. Human nature should never be ruled out. Onto the next social engineering of a workers paradise.

      Google headquarters is modeling their future eco sci-fi capitalist utopian campus. The benevolent capitalist Google, “is going for something like a futuristic city for its thousands of employees and local residents. The company is already known for its on-campus perks encouraging employees to maximize their time on campus, but the new plans elevate that concept” ( Apple, Zappos and Facebook to name a few, have engineered their capitalist utopian workplace/community/environment.

      Does the overarching corporate campus enhance our freedom or impinge upon it? “Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State’s motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY[…] “O brave new world that has such people in it. Let’s start at once.” ~ Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World”

    6. TheCatSaid

      “Rather, my intention is to suggest that work should be meaningful to the person who is doing it. ” This was clear to me from what you wrote.

      Re: developing models, I urge to you look into David E. Martin’s development called Integral Accounting. (You might find it in the website, or just phone them and ask them to point you in the direction of more information.) They have not only been talking about it as something theoretical, they’ve been putting it to use in projects and companies all over the world for decades. Since I learned about it I apply it in many kinds of situations. (It scales, and is a radical departure from how things like “economics” and “money” are usually considered.)

    7. Oregoncharles

      ” work should be meaningful to the person who is doing it.”
      My own comment wound up in the same place (with slightly different words), just on personal experience. And no, that doesn’t mean it has to be creative – the words I used were “productive” and “useful.” I think we have a need to feel useful; at the minimum, it secures our place in society.

      “I would not suggest that a community blindly apply an economic model or blindly adopt a new system that has been modeled. ” This is the ideology problem. Of course, any such model is likely to prove a Procrustean bed. I think it’s essential that any such system be responsive to and under the control of the people in it. I believe this is called “democracy,” but we don’t expect to see it applied to economic systems.

      Our economic model is still essentially feudal, even though our political model supposedly isn’t. That isn’t accidental: capitalism developed out of the tail end of feudalism, so developed within an inherited social model. Factories looked a lot like feudal estates, only more compressed. This was the real issue of the Luddite rebellion: production (weaving) was being moved out of people’s homes into the “dark Satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution, so workers were losing control of both the means and the conditions of production.

  32. djrichard

    When God kicked us out of the Garden of Eden and gave us work, the idea wasn’t to put work on a pedestal.

    1. knowbuddhau

      >>When God kicked us out of the Garden of Eden…

      Assumes facts not in evidence. What if we weren’t? What if heven/hell are right here and now? What if the so-called exile from Eden is just a trick of the mind?

      Even if it isn’t pedestalized, seeing work as the righteous wrath of god against his wayward creatures may not be the way to increase its intrinsic value. We work because we were sentenced to hard labor for being curious? Not helpful, IMNSHO.

      1. TheCatSaid

        Mauro Biglini discovered very interesting things when, as an expert in translating old languages, he was asked by the Vatican to do a precise, non-interpretive translation of the Bible. Once the Vatican found out the results, Biglini was fired. Fortunately Biglini has some great video talks (and a book) about what he found out. Fascinating stuff.

  33. Jeremy Grimm

    This post starts off discussing each person’s “time … the bedrock scarcity” and the importance to each person that they should — no! want to spend their time doing something “meaningful.” Somehow this leads to the problem that the work of most fails to engage them and fails to enhance their well-being. Work is not fun for all and something should be done to fix this — and where better to look than economic and political systems which of course can be abstractly viewed as problem-solving systems. [Economic and political systems? — is that a new formula for the Market? — Isn’t that notion something central to Hayek’s neoliberalism?]

    From this notion of problem solving systems we are brought to the idea of a scientific process for generating — evolving? — a more perfect political and economic system. We’ll engage academia and the technical core with other segments of society and build small local models we can test at least cost. Once we evolve/design/generate … the optimal system we can spread just like a viral meme via a sorta-kinda Internet thing. Did I miss anything?

    I really really dislike the idea that economic and political systems are problem-solving systems we might apply to solving a problem we can select. Economic and political systems may solve problems and often create problems but I can’t stretch their abstraction far enough to regard their properties as equivalent in any way with a problem solving system like a computer running an optimization program — which is how I read this notion in the post.

    Is it wrong to ask why we should be so concerned with work — making work more “meaningful” and producing an economic and political system to optimize its output of “happy workers.” Life — not work — is supposed to be “meaningful”. One source of the cult of work — “the necessity of keeping the poor contented, which has led the rich, for thousands of years, to preach the dignity of labor, while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect.” [Bertrand Russell, “In Praise of Idleness”

    The comments here make clear most if not all the reasons workers are “not engaged.” Much and more and more work is badly paid. Workers are badly treated. Work is created solely for the sake of making work. Workers as a class are increasingly controlled in the most minute aspects of how they execute their work. Work increasingly encroaches on the limited leisure time workers managed to claw away in past conflicts with the leisure class. Workers are fungible and expendable. If somehow we had the power to optimize our Social Choice Systems — how about if we cut a few corners up front and use that power to get better pay checks for working fewer hours with less management and more autonomy?

    1. flora

      You quote Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness”. This reminds me of the online magazine The Idler, in which I found this recent entry:

      “When Facebook was in its infancy, [Thiel] and Mark Zuckerberg were captivated by the philosophy of the late academic René Girard, who signature idea was what he called “mimetic desire”. This is essentially the rather depressing notion that the things we desire are copied from other people, and that we do not really think for ourselves. “

      There seems to be something trendy about the idea that our paid work should be meaningful as well as remunerative. More people are making the claim. Do they make the claim because they believe this, because they would like it to be true for them and for others, or because they hear so many other people making the claim? That’s a rhetorical question, of course.

      1. jrs

        Because they would like it to be true, but how one finds meaning has to do with how one is raised etc.. If one is raised that one’s primary goal in life is parenting then they will try to find meaning in that (many do obviously, but bad parents also abound). If they are raised to find it in work they will try to do that but it’s difficult in this capitalist system. If they are raised to find it in love (only females ever are) then they may try for that but talk about having one’s work cut out for them! And so on. We are simply in many ways the values we were raised. Or perhaps Jung few things have as much effect on a child as the parents unlived life.

      2. Jeremy Grimm

        Thank you for your link to the Idler — an interesting site — though the prices make me very much desire more remuneration for my work.

        Although the behavior of some people may fit Rene Girard’s notion of “mimetic desire” — my own back-of-the-envelope, penny-thick assessment is that people tend to argue within the frame posed without questioning the frame. This is one idea I picked up from watching Mirowski’s presentations on youtube. I also believe many people fail in following the warning — attributed to Socrates — that the unexamined life is not worth living.

    2. TheCatSaid

      A more basic problem with this post (with the introduction in particular) is that the concept of “work” is not challenged. This is a social construct. It is not inherent in human existence, but we’ve been well brainwashed to accept it as a given, as in TINA.

      There are cultures that do not have a word for work, they just have words that describes different activities.

      There are people who find their way outside conventional models of “jobs” and “works”, or who find ways to be gainfully employed in ways that have little or no resemblance to the conventional assumptions of “jobs” and “work”. Ricardo Semler (Semco Brazil) has thinking and actions that are in this direction. So does M-CAM, and this is clear from the relationships and activities of the business itself.

  34. Oregoncharles

    I’ve always tried to be creative – first poetry, then photography – but I also take special satisfaction in highly routinized work, if it’s productive. Dishwashing is OK, processing fruit for the drier is better. This is good, because I spend much of my day (when I’m not doing this) mowing lawns or weeding. I also plant stuff, the fun part, and effectively redesign landscapes in the process of maintaining them. Weeding is more of a creative enterprise than it looks, especially when you have flowers reseeding/volunteering.

    I guess I’m arguing that it’s something of a false distinction. I think it probably is important to people that they not be wasting their time, that they’re accomplishing something, even if it’s only giving other people what they want. We need to be contributing.

    1. TheCatSaid

      Repetitive work can be extremely creative, and highly stimulating. This depends on the mindframe of the person doing it, and their perspective and understanding that this is possible. Anything can provide a way to go deeper into one’s understanding of life and of oneself–if one chooses to do so.

  35. madmamie

    Seems to be, as usual, a lack of comments from women of my generation who have been the unpaid drudge (she who from time immemorial has permitted the male of our species to create empires), the mother, the revolutionary, the paid drudge,philospher and militant and now the backbone (we’re retired!) of the latest revolution(s).
    It’s sad to see that in the US we are still not really talking about women and women’s work which is fundamentally creative and has ALWAYS had meaning for women because it is the glue that holds our families and our society together. There are philosophers and economists who know that and who talk about it…just not in popular media.
    If we stopped ignoring the basic girding of the capitalist infrastructure (instead of talking about the salient problems i.e.: neurosis, psychosis and crime leading to drug addiction and early death, all leading to the disintegration of this civilization) and started repairing that girding we might be able to turn things around.
    As it is, the inertia is just too strong and fixing the cracks in the cement is not going to slow it enough to avoid a crash.

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