Friday, August 24, 2012

Judge Posner Wonders How Much Is Enough

There is a new book out by Lord Robert Skidelsky (and fils) that picks up some of the themes he's been arguing about our culture of every increasing overwork in an age of such productivity, efficiency and technology, for example, here. As you might expect, there are quite a few people who find that threatening.

This bizarre review in The New York Times by conservative judge Richard Posner is so hilarious, it seems to be a borderline comedy piece. It’s hard to believe so august a figure a Judge Posner could pen such ridiculous tripe. Maybe that’s why there is no comments section.

Despite the Republican party’s insistence that “not working” is the way of the poor and lazy, Posner actually damns the idea that there is more to life then work by charging the idea with elitism, added with a dash of cultural insult. Talk about chutzpah!
[Sidelsky's] essay is very English, because the traditional aspiration of the English upper class was not to work at all. Keynes, middle- rather than upper-class, worked hard all his life, but he was highly cultivated, a member of the Bloomsbury set, a balletomane, an admirer of the “good life” in a distinctively English sense unrelated to material comfort.
That’s right, not working makes you an upper-class snob! I thought the rich were hard-working and the poor lazy and indolent. I’m confused – can he have it both ways? He then goes on a complete digression about a trip to England back in the 1980’s (presumably before the glory of the Thatcher years), and how utterly miserable the place was:
In recent years, England has become much more like the United States, but I well remember as recently as the 1980s how shabby England was, how terrible the plumbing, how shoddy the housing materials, how treacherously uneven the floors and sidewalks, how inadequate the heating and poor the food — and how tolerant the English were of discomfort. I recall breakfast at Hertford College, Oxford, in an imposing hall with a large broken window — apparently broken for some time — and the dons huddled sheeplike in overcoats; and in a freezing, squalid bar in the basement of the college a don in an overcoat expressing relief at being home after a year teaching in Virginia.. I recall the English (now American) economist Ronald Coase telling me that until he visited the United States he did not know it was possible to be warm.
Aside from how amazingly culturally insulting this paragraph is, what does any of this have to do with the book's central argument? As near as I can tell, he is implying that if we don’t work our forty-plus hour weeks, we’ll find ourselves shivering in the dark, cold and hungry like those miserable Europeans in their tiny houses and drafty four-hundred year old estates with no central heating or air conditioning. Quelle horreur! And what evidence is there to back this claim up? None whatsoever. Presumably the judge knows what evidence is, when he’s not displaying his own biases. It’s just a variant on the same old theme – work ever harder or shiver and starve, even in the midst of technological “innovation”, dead-end jobs, and un/underemployment. How long is this tired old canard going to be trotted out?

So after trying to take on the premise by bashing the entire British county and it's people, Posner gets down to brass tacks. His argument basically boils down to the fact that we need to work hard because we Americans enjoy all these expensive hobbies, and we need the money to pay for them. Seriously, I'm not making this up:
Americans value leisure, but it is expensive leisure, and so they have to work hard in order to pay for it. As a result they have less leisure time than if their preferred form of leisure were lying in a hammock, but on balance they obtain more pleasure.
More much pleasure, eh? He must live in a different America from the rest of us, because I don't see a lot of pleasure on the faces of people working sixty hour weeks in order to keep their jobs, or working two jobs to make ends meet. If we're so damn happy, why are we popping antidepressants to make it through the day? Why is depression and mental illness epidemic? Maybe we just have too much dopamine?

Of course Posner resorts to the oldest trope in the book, we would just get "bored" with all our new found leisure time, or we would fritter it away in "useless" activities:
And what would we do with our newfound leisure? Most people would quickly get bored without the resources for varied and exciting leisure activities like foreign travel, movies and television, casinos, restaurants, watching sporting events, engaging in challenging athletic activities, playing video games, eating out, dieting, having cosmetic surgery, and improving health and longevity. But with everyone working just 20 hours a week (on the way down to 15 in 2030), few of these opportunities would materialize, because people who worked so little would be unable to afford them.
And it is ridiculous to think that if people worked just 15 or 20 hours a week, they would use their leisure to cut marble or struggle with a musical score. If they lacked consumer products and services to fill up their time they would brawl, steal, overeat, drink and sleep late. English aristocrats in their heyday didn’t work, but neither did they cut marble or explore the mysteries of space and time. Hunting, gambling and seduction were their preferred leisure activities.
And if that didn't convince you, working less might even bring about the end of the world as we know it!
Productivity would fall because workers would acquire skills at a slower rate. Nations would be defenseless, with soldiers who were on duty only 20 hours a week and had few weapons because the employees of munitions makers were also working only 20 hours a week. And imagine the maintenance of internal order in a society in which police officers, firefighters and paramedics worked only 20 hours a week.
That's right, without arms factories only churning out weapons part-time, we'd be defenseless! Invasion by the hard-working Red Chinese! With police only on the beat 20 hours, criminals would go wild (I guess we won't be adding shifts then?) And workers wouldn't acquire new skills fast enough, unlike today, where they acquire them and forget them all as they sit around unemployed or stocking shelves. Dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria! Seriously, if this is the best arguments the other side can muster, it's not much work to debunk all of it. You wouldn't have half as many police officers, you would have twice as many people doing the job, which is the point! Not to mention, essential services like medical, police, fire, utilities, etc. would be phased in as new people are trained in those areas. It wouldn't, couldn't, and probably shouldn't happen overnight - it needs to be phased in. Job creation, get it? Guess not. Oh, and most jobs are service jobs or paper pushing jobs anyway. I think we'll survive.
If you ask someone to work half as long for half the pay, you should have better answers to his question: What shall I do with my new leisure?
Um, the idea is that you'd have the same pay for working half as much. I mean - pre-war factory workers worked sixteen hour days, often six days a week. Were they richer? Paid more? Did they have more money for exotic foreign travel and spa trips? Come on, this is ridiculous, and anyone with any economic sense would see through it. By his logic, anything less than working every minute of every day would lead to penury. Our wages are based on a 40-hour workweek. If you base them on 20 hours, you can still pay the same wages. Presumably, then, people who can't stand relaxing in a hammock and enjoy the "expensive" leisure activities that make life worth living would still be able to afford them. Problem solved? He even undercuts his own argument in the same paragraph, quite a feat:
The Skidelskys are correct that because goods and services can be produced with much less labor than in 1930, we could live now as we did then while working many fewer hours. We want to live better than that.
Are we really living "better than that?" Better than what? And I ask you, are all our extra hours getting us any better quality of life? I mean you be the judge, but all social indicators say no. And we know from hard data that all our productivity gains have been going into the pockets of the top ten percent. A new report points out that the middle class has lost a decade of earnings, despite working harder and harder. So where's that higher quality of life? How is that "living better?" the fact is, we don't all have to work 40 hours to enjoy a standard of living greater than that of 1930. We have a lot of inventions we didn't have then; we're a lot more productive; and we've got far more workers than there are jobs.

Are people choosing to sit in their cubicles on pleasant summer afternoon because they want to afford their expensive hobbies? Maybe right-wing workaholics, but not most of us.These hypothetical people must be the same rational utility maximizers that make Chicago school economics function but don't exist in actual reality. I've never met anyone who wouldn't rather be at home, gardening, mowing the lawn, or playing with their kids on a summer afternoon, except they can't.  If Judge Posner actually spent time with real people who are stressed and harried almost everywhere, he might actually realize that.

People spend money in their leisure time as well. And the good judge might want to look into things like couchsurfing, air bnb, rideshare, etc. if he's worried about not being able to afford luxuries like travel on a reduced budget.

Incidentally, those "layabout" English aristocrats founded the Royal Society and developed the scientific method, laying the discoveries that are the foundation for all of the "innovations" since the Industrial Revolution. You know, people like Boyle, Hooke, Malthus, Kelvin, you know people like that. I guess they found some time in between gambling and seduction (and what's wrong with those?)

Come on, these are the exact same arguments against lowering the work week to forty hours. Did the world end? Nope. These are the same arguments against giving Americans guaranteed vacation time, despite the fact that most countries give their citizens twice as much without bursting into flames, riots breaking out, or all the lights going off, such as of Western Europe. Oh, I forgot, they live in drafty homes with no heat, silly me.
What shall I do with my new leisure?
Well, Dick, I've got a few ideas. Have you tried looking into the literally thousand of volunteer organizations that are desperate for members? I'm sure you legal expertise would come in handy. Maybe you could learn programming and help write some free software. You could write a blog like me. I see you've written quite a few books (I've even read some of them). I presume you wrote them in your spare time and didn't shortchange your paying job on the bench. You could write twice as many now. Maybe you could even write one about how the world will end when we only work 20 hours. I'm sure it will be a bestseller - with peoples' newfound leisure time, they will actually have time to read it. Personally, I recommend exercise, as sitting in front of a desk is as bad for you as smoking. Wouldn't we have better health outcomes if people did less of it? Hmmm? Last time I heard, running is still free. Maybe you could try growing your own food; I hear it's all the rage.

And you know what? Some people are going to sit around and take walks and play video games anyway. They do that now with their weekends from their forty-hour-a-week jobs, and they will do it with 20-hour-a-week jobs, and somehow the world still goes round with people engaged in all those "nonproductive" activities. I mean, 48 whole hours with no productive activities! How does society function well enough that I am even able to write this? But I think enough people will use their newfound free time in beneficial way to make up for it.

I guess Posner's answer is the typical "conservative" answer: there is never enough.

I know Posner's not a stupid man, and he's certainly economically literate. This terrible argument wouldn't win a court case, and I think he's just desperate to argue the status quo. these things reveal more about the biases of people who write them than make any kind of cogent argument.

But the ultimate coup-de-grace to Posner's arguments came in the Times itself the very same week. Here's the dirty little secret: working less actually makes us more productive:
Change is important. When we were growing up, we got summers off from school. Summer vacation was change. It was something to look forward to. A few months of something different really meant a lot.

We grow out of a lot as we grow up. One of the most unfortunate things we leave behind is a regular dose of change. Nowhere is this more evident than at work.

Work in February is the same as work in May. June’s the same as October. And it would be hard to tell August from April.

Yes, some businesses are more seasonal than others, but ultimately the stuff we do at work isn’t that much different — it’s just busier some times than others. That isn’t change, it’s just more volume.

I wanted to do something about this. So, at 37signals, the software company I’ve run for the past 13 years, we take inspiration from the seasons and build change into our work schedule.

For example, from May through October, we switch to a four-day workweek. And not 40 hours crammed into four days, but 32 hours comfortably fit into four days. We don’t work the same amount of time, we work less.

Most staff workers take Fridays off, but some choose a different day. Nearly all of us enjoy three-day weekends. Work ends Thursday, the weekend starts Friday, and work starts back up on Monday.

The benefits of a six-month schedule with three-day weekends are obvious. But there’s one surprising effect of the changed schedule: better work gets done in four days than in five.

When there’s less time to work, you waste less time. When you have a compressed workweek, you tend to focus on what’s important. Constraining time encourages quality time.

At 37signals there’s another thing we do to celebrate the seasons: we cover the cost of a weekly community-supported agriculture share for each employee. We enjoy this benefit year-round, but fresh fruit and produce really glisten in the summer months. It’s a simple way to celebrate change.

In the spirit of continual change, this summer we tried something new. We decided to give everyone the month of June to work on whatever they wanted. It wasn’t vacation, but it was vacation from whatever work was already scheduled. We invited everyone to shelve their nonessential work and to use the time to explore their own ideas.

People worked independently or joined up with other employees on team projects. The only rule was: explore, see if there are ways to make our existing products better, or come up with a new product idea, create a new business model, or do whatever is of most interest.

Then, in July, we asked each person to share, with the rest of the staff, whatever idea he or she came up with, on a day we set aside as “Pitchday.”

The June-on-your-own experiment led to the greatest burst of creativity I’ve seen from our 34-member staff. It was fun, and it was a big morale booster. It was also ultraproductive. So much so that we’ll likely start repeating the month-off project a few times a year.
Be More Productive. Take Time Off (NYT)

It's hard to innovate when your nose is to the grindstone, and isn't innovation what we're staking all our hopes on? Face it, excess working hours have nothing to do with choice or lifestyle or productivity or essential services. It's all about extracting the maximium value from each worker for profit. Period. the weakness of Posner's arguments only illustrate that fact.

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