Friday, February 21, 2014

A Permanent Leisure Class

One suspects that it’s yet another attempt to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

Looking out at an economic recovery that has conspicuously failed to generate new jobs, several commentators have sought solace in a prophecy that John Maynard Keynes made in the depths of the Great Depression.

Then, Keyes foresaw a future where human beings could be freed from the burden of work. Modern technology would allow them to make a living by only working for 15 hours a week. With the extra free time they would be able to enjoy what truly matters in life: leisure, aka, doing nothing of consequence.

Ross Douthat summarized the Keynes argument:

IN 1930, in the darkening valley of the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay on “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” which foresaw a much happier future — one of growth, abundance and the steady decline of full-time work. Eventually, he suggested, civilization might settle on a 15-hour workweek, with three hours of daily labor being sufficient “to satisfy the old Adam in most of us.”

Of course, this assumes that the meaning of life is leisure and that human beings are happiest when they have more of it to enjoy. We need not worry about the fact that work force participation has not budged over the past five years. We should celebrate the fact that the long term unemployed now have more time to watch soap operas and to play Parchesi.

All we have to do now is to increase government subsidies to the point where the newly entitled leisure class will be able to take one vacation a year to Disney World and to have two flat screen televisions. Then, all will be well.

One hates to throw a monkey wrench into such a well-crafted argument, but it betrays an ideological bias against work. If these great minds were correct, people who retire voluntarily from the workforce with sufficient resources to play golf and bridge to their heart’s content would, as today’s buzzword has it, flourish.

In truth, nearly all studies have shown that retirement is bad for your health. When you retire you are more likely to get sick and to die than to thrill to the sound of the waves lapping the shores of Miami Beach.

Apparently, the notion that people might like to work, that they might enjoy working, that they feel better about themselves when they are on the job has escaped the minds of these great thinkers.

They ought to place Harvard psychiatrist Richard Mollica’s quotation on a plaque where it will always be in their faces. Mollica once said: “The best anti-depressant is a job.”

Those who disparage work in favor of leisure are standing on shaky ground. Or worse, they might be stuck in quicksand.

Douthat quotes Martin Wolf, distinguished center-left columnist for the Financial Times:

… we must reconsider leisure. For a long time the wealthiest lived a life of leisure at the expense of the toiling masses. The rise of intelligent machines makes it possible for many more people to live such lives without exploiting others. Today’s triumphant puritanism finds such idleness abhorrent. Well, then, let people enjoy themselves busily. What else is the true goal of the vast increases in prosperity we have created?

To understand this correctly, we need to know what Wolf means by “for a long time.” If he is talking about a time long past when a decadent aristocracy lived off of the labor of peasant masses, he might have a point. If he is offering up a leftist caricature of capitalism, he has missed the mark. Most capitalists work long and hard. They did not get where they are by taking time off for leisure time activities.

This does not mean that some of their heirs don’t turn out to be slugs, but still, Wolf should have been more precise.

Surely, reality will intrude on Wolf’s utopian vision.

While you are resting on your laurels someone else might build a better product and kill your market. Worse yet, someone else might build better fighter jets and cruise missiles. Will you gain any consolation from knowing that while they were working long and hard to produce the new military technology you were lying around the pool, inhaling chlorine fumes while working on your skin cancer?

If someone else decides to out-work you, you will become less competitive. The techno marvels that you counted on will decay, become decrepit and malfunction. If you have lost the habit of working hard, what are you going to do then?

The Keynesian vision depends on a self-contained world. It feels like a new mercantilism. It fails to take into account international competition and free trade.

Douthat adds that this vision of a new economy of leisure might just become dystopian. In fact, it is almost guaranteed to become so.

In Douthat’s words:

They’re leaping from a policy designed to protect the new economy’s potential losers to an optimistic vision of more general age of leisure, and based on current trends I’m just not sure that leap is warranted. It seems just as likely that what Wolf calls (perhaps not entirely aptly) “triumphant puritanism” would continue to set the tone for the more successful portion of society, who would continue to work 40, 50, 60 hours in a quest for positional goods, and that as a result you would end up with an even more exaggerated version of the social segregation limned by Charles Murray and others — in which Belmont is Belmont and Fishtown Fishtown, and never the twain shall meet.

He continues:

The promise of upward mobility and equality of opportunity would look like a transparent sham in a society with a hypercompetitive elite and a non-working working class. Likewise, the ideal of social equality — which is the really valuable thing that many liberals are groping toward in their critiques of the 1 percent — would probably suffer dramatically if full-time work, like the two-parent family before it, became something that only the better sort of American was likely to experience. And while a sufficiently generous basic income would no doubt raise living standards and reduce deprivation at the bottom, the experience of Appalachia, among other blasted social landscapes, suggests that it’s very easy for the absence of work to intertwine with social pathologies in ways that government assistance can’t necessarily ameliorate. The workless society could be a place where the “potential for a more enjoyable life” is available to all … but it could just as easily be a society with more alcoholism, more drug addiction, more obesity, lower lifespans, more social isolation, and less human flourishing overall.

Well said…. “A workless society” might very well be a breeding ground for psychopathy. More people will work off the books and their work might not fall within the bounds of the legal. How many of the chronically unemployed find jobs with gangs?

No one is likely to sit idly by while others gain the satisfaction and the prestige that comes from work. No one is likely to content himself with an iPad while others possess larger homes, cleaner neighborhoods, better-educated children and so on.

The chasm between those who work hard and enrich themselves and those who are living off the dole is likely to produce resentment.

In the absence of work, people will experience more anomie, more “social isolation,” as Douthat puts it. People who are isolated and alienated, and who feel insulted by being made part of a permanent group of people that society has deemed useless or unnecessary, will often express their feelings antisocially.


Sam L. said...

Not actually to make one, merely to call it one and hope that's close enough. Which it is for the NYT, WaPo, alphabet TV...

Anonymous said...

re: "In truth, nearly all studies have shown that retirement is bad for your health."

You could as well say "In truth, nearly all studies have shown that the universe is mostly empty." and you'd be saying almost as little.

How many people need to stay at jobs they dislike so they can afford health insurance?

My dad "retired" when he was laid off in his 50's and lived frugally off from stock options, and odd part time, no benefit jobs until he was 65+ and spent the rest of his time with his church community and ham radio community, doing things he loved doing.

OTOH, he also had no health insurance for those 10+ years. It's a risky choice, and society pays the price anyway if "irresponsible" people like my dad eventually need expensive care.

So if we now have 5% of "responsible" people ages 50-65 who stop working at McDonalds for health care benefits, because they've paid off their mortgages and can cheaply live off savings, ACA allows them a chance to retire, I don't think its going to hurt their health one bit.

Ares Olympus said...

Envy seems the real problem with the wealth disparity and the declining middle class, with millions of people in deadend jobs they hate under crappy bosses, and underwater mortgages they'll never pay off, maxed out credit cards, and no hope of escape except by illness and death.

So some people under such burdens can easily be manipulated into believing their suffering is caused by someone else's poor work ethics.

The "work ethic" isn't a credible vision any more when everyone knows "real wealth" comes from investing money and getting lucky.

The idea that employment is the only access to "community" for people is proof what our TV-addled consumer brains have become.

Anonymous said...

AO, good point. The work ethic only works if people have a vision how to succeed and that vision actually works.

The real "slackers" are in training as we speak, those who don't have the self-discipline to use what they have been given prudently. So they can work two jobs, feel miserable, act out addictions and consumerism for instant gratification and self-pity and shame and denial at the end of the month, until they finally graduate into mental illness and government assistance.

So Liberals "Help the poor" rewards failure and fails self-respect, and Conservative "People need pride in their skills to contribute to thrive" fails without a proper foundation which they refuse to fund.

How do we rebuild a sense of community? Freedom to earn and spend money to buy things you don't need to impress people you don't like apparently isn't enough, even if it helps create jobs.

Anonymous said...

Work is a blessing. Adam was charged with taking care of the Garden of Eden before the fall and sin entered the world. For Anonymous who says early retirement was great for his dad, he also said his dad worked part time, and kept busy with his church, etc. Ben Franklin observed that humans are social, that being isolated or shunned was harmful to the well being of individuals.

It isn't all about working for health insurance. You have to eat, wear clothes, keep warm (or cool), watch tv, etc., that costs a lot also.