The Cucumber or the Grape?

…Calvinism is “perhaps the first systematic body of religious teaching which can be said to recognize and applaud the economic virtues.” No longer was “the world of economic motives alien to the life of the spirit.” Here is Zwingli, quoted by Wiskemann, quoted by Richard Tawney: “Labor is a thing so good and godlike…that makes the body hale and strong and cures the sickness produced by idleness…In the things of this life, the laborer is most like to God.”
Adam Smith: Supermoney, pp.137-138

Last time we took a historical survey of how large-scale civilizations were made possible by human slaves, and all of the major forms that it took. We also looked at some of the common misconceptions about how slavery worked in ancient societies.

Today, slavery is essentially illegal everywhere, despite all the underground forms of slavery that persist (human trafficking, migrant labor), and legal forms (incarceration and indentured servitude like H1-B Visas and student debt).

I’d like to consider this post by Nate Hagens et. al. which delves into the psychology of work: Why do we need jobs if we can have slaves working for us? (Cassandra’s Legacy)

Hagens makes a familiar point: much of the “work” performed by modern society today is no longer performed by flesh-and-blood human and animal slaves but by devices powered by fossil fuels, which he calls “energy slaves.” Some of this is performed via heat engines like internal combustion engines, electric dynamos, boilers, and so forth, while others tasks are performed through electricity: electric motors, transistors, heat pumps, cybernetic devices and so on. Recall that the ancient world had none of these:

…every American has over 500 invisible energy slaves working 24/7 for them. That is, the labor equivalent of 500 human workers, 24/7, every day of the year, mostly derived from burning fossil carbon and hydrocarbons…

We use the “slave” metaphor because it’s really a very good one, despite its pejorative label. Energy slaves do exactly the sort of things that human slaves and domestic animals previously did: things that fulfilled their masters’ needs and whims. And they do them faster. And cheaper. Indeed, it probably wasn’t a big coincidence that the world (and the USA) got around to freeing most of its human slaves only once industrialization started offering cheaper fossil-slave replacements.

The things we value are created with a combination of human and energy-slave work combined with natural capital (minerals and ores, soils and forests, etc.). There are huge amounts of embedded energy in the creation and operation of something like an iPad and the infrastructure which makes it work…To an ever-increasing degree over the last two centuries, wealth has been created more by fossil slaves than by human labor, significantly more – and it’s at its all-time peak about now…

In fact, we have so much energy, we actually make things expressly designed to be used once and thrown away! Or to fall apart quickly–so-called “planned obsolescence.” People who buy used goods often notice that older products tend to last longer than new ones, and often perform better and more reliably. Recently Apple admitted that they intentionally slow down older devices in order to get people to upgrade.

We increasingly buy disposable everything – used once and tossed away. Most everything is short-life these days; when your authors were young if you bought a fan, you expected it to last 20+ years. Now if it lasts 2-3 before you toss it, that’s about par for the course. Planned obsolescence exists because it’s “good for GDP.” A new dishwasher now lasts 6-8 years when it used to last 12-16, because they now have integrated cheaper electronics that fail.

Our GDP has become tethered to rapid product-replacement cycles keyed to our short attention spans and our enjoyment at buying new things. This creates “jobs” for car salesmen, advertising executives, etc., but has tilted the scales in favor of “useless GDP” rather than real societal utility. We know how to make things with high quality that last, but due to time bias and the financialization of the human experience, such an objective is relatively unimportant in our current culture. Many people get a new phone every 18 months with their cell plan, and perfectly functional ones wind up in the landfills.

After making a good case that our prosperity is actually the result of a massive surplus of energy channeled into heat engines of various types, Hagens and his co-authors consider the concept of “work.” Why, they ask, if so much of the work in our society is performed by energy slaves, do we place such a high value on “work”?

And place a high value on it, we do. In fact, we are well on our way (if not there already) to a society of “total work” where work encompasses every aspect of our lives and determines our entire value as a human being. Silicon Valley enthusiasts use polyphasic sleeping to reduce their “downtime” (a computer term) to only three hours a night. They scarf down meal replacement shakes and powders to avoid eating so they can spend more time at the office. Family time is seen as “unproductive,” and students labor away at several hours of homework a night. Entry to many professions has less to do with necessary training time as being a hazing ritual (e.g. law, medicine). Amazon employees openly weep at their desks and answer emails at three in the morning. We skip vacations for fear of being cast aside, or inundated upon our return. We cower at the tyranny of the punch clock and time sheet. The most admired person in our society is the business executive who sleeps only a few hours a night and arrives at the office by 4 AM, or the Wall Street trader who works past midnight.

We (especially Americans) then castigate anyone not willing or able to embrace this Stakhanovite work ethic as “lazy” and not deserving of any consideration; not even the bare social minimums of survival like healthy food, decent shelter and basic health care.

For upper-middle class men, notes sociologist Michèle Lamont, ambition and a strong work ethic are “doubly sacred…as signals of both moral and socioeconomic purity.” Elite men’s jobs revolve around the work devotion schema, which communicates that high-level professionals should “demonstrate commitment by making work the central focus of their lives” and “manifest singular ‘devotion to work,’ unencumbered with family responsibilities,” to quote sociologist Mary Blair-Loy. This ideal has roots in the 17th century Protestant work ethic, in which work was viewed as a “calling” to serve God and society. The religious connection has vanished…or has it?

Blair-Loy draws parallels between the words bankers used to describe their work — “complete euphoria” or “being totally consumed” — and Emile Durkheim’s classic account of a religion ceremony among Australian natives. “I worshipped my mentor,” said one woman. Work becomes a totalizing experience. “Holidays are a nuisance because you have to stop working,” said one banker interviewed by Blair-Loy. “I remember being really annoyed when it was Thanksgiving. Damn, why did I have to stop working to go eat turkey? I missed my favorite uncle’s funeral, because I had a deposition scheduled that was too important.”

Work devotion marries moral purity with elite status. Way back when I was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, I used to call it the cult of busy smartness. How do the elite signal to each other how important they are? “I am slammed” is a socially acceptable way of saying “I am important.” Fifty years ago, Americans signaled class by displaying their leisure: think banker’s hours (9 to 3). Today, the elite — journalist Chrystia Freeland calls them “the working rich” — display their extreme schedules.

Why Men Work So Many Hours (Harvard Business Review)

Every moment of our waking lives becomes “work”, from the creation of art, to eating (“still working on that???”) to sex. Everything we do must contribute to the totalitarian productivist ethos of society. Even social maladies such as obesity and mental illness are never dismissed as intrinsically bad, but rather only undesirable to the extent that they “decrease productivity.” We have been reduced to productivist meat-machines, where anyone who does not continually contribute to the maximization of GDP must be ruthlessly cast aside as a mere speed-bump on the highway to the Singularity and Martian colonies.

Work-obsessed indeed.

…how, in this world of total work, would people think and sound and act? Everywhere they looked, they would see the pre-employed, employed, post-employed, underemployed and unemployed, and there would be no one uncounted in this census.

Everywhere they would laud and love work, wishing each other the very best for a productive day, opening their eyes to tasks and closing them only to sleep. Everywhere an ethos of hard work would be championed as the means by which success is to be achieved, laziness being deemed the gravest sin…In this world, eating, excreting, resting, having sex, exercising, meditating and commuting – closely monitored and ever-optimised – would all be conducive to good health, which would, in turn, be put in the service of being more and more productive…

Off in corners, rumours would occasionally circulate about death or suicide from overwork, but such faintly sweet susurrus would rightly be regarded as no more than local manifestations of the spirit of total work, for some even as a praiseworthy way of taking work to its logical limit in ultimate sacrifice. In all corners of the world, therefore, people would act in order to complete total work’s deepest longing: to see itself fully manifest.

This world, it turns out, is not a work of science fiction; it is unmistakably close to our own… We are on the verge of total work’s realisation. Each day I speak with people for whom work has come to control their lives, making their world into a task, their thoughts an unspoken burden…

If work dominated your every moment would life be worth living? (Aeon)

Thus, despite all our fossil energy slaves, despite all our labor-saving devices and cybernetic achievements and artificial intelligence and self-driving cars and robots and fully-automated lights-out factories churning out more widgets than can ever be consumed, it seems like we are more “work-obsessed” than ever before in human history! People in past societies worked far less than we do.

And yet it’s difficult to see what much of the extra added “work” has really contributed to society:

In 1930, the British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the end of the century, the average workweek would be about 15 hours. Automation had already begun to replace many jobs by the early 20th century, and Keynes predicted that the trend would accelerate to the point where all that people need for a satisfying life could be produced with a minimum of human labor, whether physical or mental.

Keynes turned out to be right about increased automation…But he was wrong about the decline of work.

As old jobs have been replaced by machines, new jobs have cropped up. Some of these new jobs are direct results of the new technologies and can fairly be said to benefit society in ways beyond just keeping people employed. Information technology jobs are obvious examples, as are jobs catering to newfound realms of amusement, such as computer game design and production.

But we also have an ever-growing number of jobs that seem completely useless or even harmful. As examples, we have administrators and assistant administrators in ever larger numbers shuffling papers that don’t need to be shuffled, corporate lawyers and their staffs helping big companies pay less than their fair share of taxes, countless people in the financial industries doing who knows what mischief, lobbyists using every means possible to further corrupt our politicians, and advertising executives and sales personnel pushing stuff that nobody needs or really wants.

Economists Are Obsessed with “Job Creation.” How About Less Work? (Evonomics)

Anthropologist and activist David Graeber contends that if we consider the economy-wide job profiles we had in the 1930’s when Keynes wrote his treatise, then we truly have eliminated most of the jobs! That is, we have indeed eliminated most of the human labor from large swaths of the economy thanks to our energy slaves, along with dramatic gains in efficiency.

Conventional economists argue that economic growth engendered by these changes to the economy has created enough new positions to absorb all the displaced labor from the automated and eliminated sectors of the economy such as manufacturing and agriculture. Furthermore, they argue the need for labor is essentially unlimited (the “Lump of Labour” fallacy). Graeber, however, argues that, even in theoretically “efficient” capitalist economies, a good portion of the displaced labor has been absorbed into unnecessary, or even socially harmful, make-work tasks, what he terms “Bullshit Jobs.”

Graeber lists five categories of Bullshit Jobs:

1. Flunkies – People who are there just to make someone else look good.

2. Goons – People whose jobs only exist because their competitors have them as well, such as corporate lawyers, lobbyists, telemarketers, etc. in a sort of zero-sum arms race.

3. Duct Tapers – people paid to continually apply patches to a broken system without fixing the underlying problems which are clearly identifiable. See, for example, the entire American health care system.

4. Box Tickers – people who are there to permit an organization to say they are complying with various rules and regulations that they are not actually complying with.

5. Taskmasters – people who are there to supervise people who don’t need supervision, and to make up new bullshit jobs.

An increasing number of people in capitalist societies are also employed in “guard labor,” that is, working to keep other people in line—police officers, FBI agents, prison guards, security guards, detectives, investigators, and countless other assorted “criminal justice” occupations. Keeping people in line and imprisoning them has been a major source of new jobs. And many new jobs have been created attempting to cope with the corrosive effects to the fabric of modern society such as counselors and social workers. We even have people whose full-time job it is to get other people into full-time jobs!

Graeber notes that, had we kept the same job profiles as we had in the 1930’s, we truly could have eliminated most of the jobs! Instead of doing that, though, we have instead created millions of low-productivity make-work tasks like those he cites above, most of which revolve around useless paper-pushing and professional lunch-eating:

“They could have done that if we’d kept up the same type of job profiles…you look at what jobs existed in the 1930’s. There were a lot of people working in industry, there were a lot of people working in agriculture, there were a lot of domestic servants—all that’s gone. A lot of the domestic servants have been replaced by service jobs.”

“There are a lot less people employed in industry, even if you count places like China where the factories have gone. People think it’s gone to the service sector. But actually, it’s not so much service. What it’s gone to is the administrative/clerical and supervisory sector. If you count service and that together, its gone from a quarter of all jobs to seventy-five percent today. So, you have all these people administering other people. And they’re not really doing anything—they’re just pretending.”

“It seems to come from the idea that work is a value in itself…”

BULLSHIT JOBS – David Graeber (YouTube)

Graeber also notes that there seems to be a notion that if you’re getting something meaningful out of what you do for a living (for example, making art or helping others) then you shouldn’t get paid at all, or at least you certainly shouldn’t get paid very much. That is, the knowledge that you’re actually doing something of value has come be seen as subtracting from the value of the job rather than adding to it! There’s resentment on a unconscious, or sometimes even conscious level against those who actually do real work, he contends. He cites the resentment against teachers and auto workers receiving high salaries and good benefits, despite bankers, corporate lawyers and middle-managers earning much, much more. The reason, he suspects, is because the main tasks of the latter cohort—filling out useless paperwork and attending boring meetings—are so soul-crushingly pointless and awful that we convince ourselves that they somehow “deserve” to be paid more money. Notice how business executives, Silicon Valley programmers, and Wall Street bankers constantly tout their endless work hours and personal sacrifices as the justification for their outsized paychecks, perks, and golden parachutes, without referring to what, if anything, all their excess work actually accomplishes for the benefit of anyone but themselves.

Gray notes that the problem is really not a technological one, but an economic one:

The real problem, of course, is an economic one. We’ve figured out how to reduce the amount of work required to produce everything we need and realistically want, but we haven’t figured out how to distribute those resources except through wages earned from the 40-hour (or more) workweek. In fact, technology has had the effect of concentrating more and more of the wealth in the hands of an ever-smaller percentage of the population, which compounds the distribution problem. Moreover, as a legacy of the industrial revolution, we have a cultural ethos that says people must work for what they get, and so we shun any serious plans for sharing wealth through means other than exchanges for work.

And that last point is the core of the most interesting part of Hagens’ argument. He has already established that “work” is primarily performed by energy slaves in one form or another in modern Industrial societies, whether mechanical work, or, increasingly, routine intellectual (i.e. non-creative) work. Most of our “jobs” have been purposely routinized and made fungible by design through “deskilling.” This was done long ago during the Industrial Revolution to ensure that labor was easily replaceable, and hence would be at the mercy of capitalist employers (i.e the “job creators”). These days “digital deskilling” is advancing rapidly thanks to complex algorithms.

Hagens’ et. al. contention that work isn’t all about accomplishing anything intrinsically useful at all. Rather, they contend, it is really all about the socially accepted amount of “suffering” that we must go through to “earn” our paycheck. There is nothing inherently good about jobs or work per se. They point out that most animals in nature do not seek out extra work and see it as something to be avoided if possible:

…if you kick open an anthill or a beehive, the insects will not be grateful for the sudden boost in job creation, and they will effectively utilize the cross-species language of biting and stinging to inform you of this opinion. From this we may infer that insects don’t understand economics…

Many hunter-gatherer societies don’t even have a concept of work:

Some anthropologists have reported that the people they studied didn’t even have a word for work; or, if they had one, it referred to what farmers, or miners, or other non-hunter-gatherers with whom they had contact did. The anthropologist Marshal Sahlins famously referred to hunter-gatherers as comprising the original affluent society—affluent not because they had so much, but because their needs were small and they could satisfy those needs with relatively little effort, so they had lots of time to play.

Hagens argues that the 40-hour work-week job is simply the rationing mechanism we’ve ended up with which allows people to get access to the collectively-produced wealth of society, including the output of our ubiquitous energy slaves. As they put it:

… there are a lot of jobs in the USA, which keep us very busy not making much of anything of long term value.

We do advertising, hairstyling, consulting, writing, and a lot of supervising of the things our fossil slaves do. We don’t care all that much what we’re doing as long as we feel we’re getting paid at least as well for the same task as the other…people around us…

These days in this culture, a “good job” is defined by how much it pays, not by what it accomplishes. Many people would consider it an optimum situation, a great job, to sit in a room for 40 hours per week and make $100,000 per year, just pulling a lever the way a capuchin does for a cucumber slice…

The reference to cucumber slices comes from a famous experiment where researchers had Capuchin monkeys complete a nonsense task in exchange for a food reward. Some monkeys got a cucumber slice, while others got a grape for doing the exact same task:

If you give capuchin monkeys the “job” of doing a nonsense task in exchange for a reward, they will happily do it all day long as long as they keep getting a reward – cucumber slices. But if a capuchin sees the monkey in the next cage get a (better tasting so higher value) grape while it still gets a cucumber slice, it’ll go ape, throwing the cucumber slice in the face of the experimenter in a rage. It gets the same cucumber slice it has been happy to work for before, but it no longer wants it, because it no longer feels fair in comparison to its cage mate’s effort and reward. Instead, it wants the experimenter and the other monkey to be punished for this inequity.

We’ll…refer to the term “capuchin fairness” because a similar mechanism turns out to be behind a great deal of human behavior. We’re outraged at the notion of somebody getting more reward than we do for doing the same thing. Indeed, many large-scale human institutions now stress perceived fairness of process over quality of end results.

A similar mechanism exists among ranked primates like chimpanzees:

…On the flip side, when two unrelated chimps put side by side were presented with a tasty grape and a less tasty carrot, the chimp with the grape sometimes threw it away. “I would say that the most likely cause was either fear of retribution or just general discomfort about being around an individual getting less than you,” says Brosnan. Differences in the social hierarchy also played a role, she says. Dominant chimps were angrier when they were on the receiving end of a lesser reward than those lower in the pecking order.

Why Do You Care About Fairness? Ask A Chimp (NPR)

And in human children too young to have been socialized in the concept of fairness:

A few years ago, a team of psychologists set out to study how kids…would respond to unfairness. They recruited a bunch of preschoolers and grouped them in pairs. The children were offered some blocks to play with and then, after a while, were asked to put them away. As a reward for tidying up, the kids were given stickers.

No matter how much each child had contributed to the cleanup effort, one received four stickers and the other two. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children shouldn’t be expected to grasp the idea of counting before the age of four. But even three-year-olds seemed to understand when they’d been screwed. Most of the two-sticker recipients looked enviously at the holdings of their partners. Some said they wanted more. A number of the four-sticker recipients also seemed dismayed by the distribution, or perhaps by their partners’ protests, and handed over some of their winnings…The results, they concluded, show that “the emotional response to unfairness emerges very early.”

They Psychology of Inequality (The New Yorker)

This, Hagens contends, is the reason we are so all-consumed with “working hard.” It’s got nothing to do with your real social contribution. Instead, he argues that this is rooted in human social instincts, which are biologically-rooted and which we share with other large-brained social primates such as chimps, bonobos and monkeys.

In other words, it all has to do with our innate primate sense of fairness. Especially in the United States, we are obsessed with punishing “cheaters” and ‘scroungers.” We constantly berate the “lazy,” as if all the people living in cars and shelters just collectively decided to suddenly stop working one day. We are collectively as crabs in a bucket. Everyone must suffer equally.

This is backed up by a recent book by a University of Wisconsin sociology professor who found that right-wing “blue collar” voters in the Rust Belt are motivated almost entirely by grievance and resentment toward “elites:”

What I heard from my conversations is that, in these three elements of resentment — I’m not getting my fair share of power, stuff or respect — there’s race and economics intertwined in each of those ideas.

When people are talking about those people in the city getting an “unfair share,” there’s certainly a racial component to that. But they’re also talking about people like me [a white, female professor]. They’re asking questions like, how often do I teach, what am I doing driving around the state Wisconsin when I’m supposed to be working full time in Madison, like, what kind of a job is that, right?

It’s not just resentment toward people of color. It’s resentment toward elites, city people.

And maybe the best way to explain how these things are intertwined is through noticing how much conceptions of hard work and deservingness matter for the way these resentments matter to politics. We know that when people think about their support for policies, a lot of the time what they’re doing is thinking about whether the recipients of these policies are deserving. Those calculations are often intertwined with notions of hard work, because in the American political culture, we tend to equate hard work with deservingness.

“Part of it is that the Republican Party over the years has honed its arguments to tap into this resentment. They’re saying: “You’re right, you’re not getting your fair share, and the problem is that it’s all going to the government. So let’s roll government back.” So there’s a little bit of an elite-driven effect here, where people are told: ‘You are right to be upset. You are right to notice this injustice.'”

And a lot of racial stereotypes carry this notion of laziness, so when people are making these judgments about who’s working hard, oftentimes people of color don’t fare well in those judgments. But it’s not just people of color. People are like: Are you sitting behind a desk all day? Well that’s not hard work. Hard work is someone like me — I’m a logger, I get up at 4:30 and break my back. For my entire life that’s what I’m doing. I’m wearing my body out in the process of earning a living.

In my mind, through resentment and these notions of deservingness, that’s where you can see how economic anxiety and racial anxiety are intertwined. Part of where that comes from is just the overarching story that we tell ourselves in the U.S. One of the key stories in our political culture has been the American Dream — the sense that if you work hard, you will get ahead.

Well, holy cow, the people I encountered seem to me to be working extremely hard. I’m with them when they’re getting their coffee before they start their workday at 5:30 a.m. I can see the fatigue in their eyes. And I think the notion that they are not getting what they deserve, it comes from them feeling like they’re struggling. They feel like they’re doing what they were told they needed to do to get ahead. And somehow it’s not enough. Oftentimes in some of these smaller communities, people are in the occupations their parents were in, they’re farmers and loggers. They say, it used to be the case that my dad could do this job and retire at a relatively decent age, and make a decent wage. We had a pretty good quality of life, the community was thriving. Now I’m doing what he did, but my life is really much more difficult. I’m doing what I was told I should do in order to be a good American and get ahead, but I’m not getting what I was told I would get..

A New Theory for Why Trump Voters Are So Angry That Actually Makes Sense (Washington Post)

Trump voters were collectively throwing the cucumber slice back at the researcher.

Hagens contends that rather than 40 hours per week being some sort of necessary amount of work time to get done with the tasks-at-hand to keep society up and running, it is instead established as a sort of socially-acceptable threshold of discomfort that people are expected to endure in order to justify their right to the output of our energy slaves (our grapes and cucumber slices). The source of this is a historical contingency that has nothing to do with productivity or what we actually accomplish, but really operates as more of an adult babysitting operation:

And that’s where the perceived equality is: the equality of inconvenience. The 40-hour work week is a social threshold of inconvenience endured, which is now what we keep primary social track of rather than the productive output of a person’s activity…Because socially, everyone who isn’t a criminal is supposed to have a job and endure roughly equivalent inconvenience. Any segment of society which went to a 15-hour work week would be treated as mooching freeloaders, and be pelted by cucumber slices and worse.

In a society in which we’re all basically idle royalty being catered to by fossil slaves, why do we place such a value on “jobs”? Well, partly because it’s how the allocation mechanism evolved, but there also exists considerable resentment against those who don’t work. Think of the vitriol with which people talk about “freeloaders” on society who don’t work a 40-hour week and who take food stamps. The fact is, that most of us are freeloaders when it comes down to it, but if we endure 40 hours of inconvenience per week, we meet the social criteria of having earned our banana pellets even if what we’re doing is stupid and useless, and realized to be stupid and useless. Indeed, a job that’s stupid and useless but pays a lot is highly prized.

So “jobs” per se aren’t intrinsically useful at all… They’re mostly a co-opted, socially-evolved mechanism for wealth distribution and are very little about societal wealth creation. And they function to keep us busy and distract us from huge wealth disparity. We’re too busy making sure our co-workers don’t get grapes to do something as radical as call out and lynch the bankers. Keeping a population distracted may well be necessary to hold a modern nation together.

Why do we need jobs if we can have slaves working for us? (Cassandra’s Legacy)

Finally, in a strange way, it turns out that the old Labor Theory of Value might be correct after all.

The Labor Theory of Value is one of the most controversial ideas in economics. It was an attempt by economists to identify such a thing as “value” and then determine how to quantify it. What makes some things more valuable than others? Many early economists (including both Adam Smith and Karl Marx) thought that the amount of labor that went into producing something determined its value (and note, not it’s price).

While most economists have dismissed this notion, looked at another way it is correct. Instead, we can determine the value of something by how long we are willing work to get it. That is, we will work longer for a grape than a cucumber slice, and that is how we can determine its value, as Chris Dillow argues:

…I think of major expenses in terms of labour-time because they mean I have to work longer. A trip to the vet is an extra fortnight of work; a good guitar an extra month, a car an extra year, and so on.

When I consider my spending, I ask: what must I give up in order to get that? And the answer is my time and freedom. My labour-time is the measure of value.

This is a reasonable basis for the claim that workers are exploited. To buy a bundle of goods and services, we must work a number of hours a week. But taking all workers together, the hours we work are greater than the hours needed to produce those bundles because we must also work to provide a profit for the capitalist….For Marx, value was socially-necessary labour time…From this perspective, exploitation and alienation are linked. Workers are exploited because they must work longer than necessary to get their consumption bundle. And they are alienated because this work is unsatisfying and a source of unfreedom.

In Defence of the Labour Theory of Value (Stumbling and Mumbling)

Seen from this perspective, the value of something can be determined by the amount of often socially useless labor time we must sacrifice in order to get it. And we are very sensitive to others getting value that (we think) they did not deserve. Thus we establish the 40-hour work week as the threshold to ensure fairness of distribution. But is that a good idea? Is it even relevant anymore??? It turns out that there is no connection between the 40-hour work week and productivity. In fact, it might even be less productive:

The reason we have eight-hour work days at all was because companies found that cutting employees’ hours had the reverse effect they expected: it upped their productivity. During the Industrial Revolution, 10-to-16-hour days were normal. Ford was the first company to experiment with an eight-hour day – and found its workers were more productive not only per hour, but overall. Within two years, their profit margins doubled.

If eight-hour days are better than 10-hour ones, could even shorter working hours be even better? Perhaps. For people over 40, research found that a 25-hour work week may be optimal for cognition, while when Sweden recently experimented with six-hour work days, it found that employees had better health and productivity.

This seems borne out by how people behave during the working day. One survey of almost 2,000 full-time office workers in the UK found that people were only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes out of an eight-hour day. The rest of the time was spent checking social media, reading the news, having non-work-related chats with colleagues, eating – and even searching for new jobs.

The compelling case for working a lot less (BBC)

In other words, the exact opposite of the way we’re going.

We know that most employees are disengaged at their jobs, and studies show that most of us only actually “work” for a small portion of the time we are on the clock, with the rest spent socializing, trying to look busy, or goofing off. Yet we must physically be physically present under some sort of supervision for 40 hours a week minimum to secure our right to our banana pellets. Does any of this make sense? Do any of us really want this? After all, books that promise a four-hour work week are best sellers.

In fact, all the evidence shows that many of us would be more productive if we worked a bit less. In addition, there would be many more jobs to go around:

Even on a global level, there is no clear correlation between a country’s productivity and average working hours. With a 38.6-hour work week, for example, the average US employee works 4.6 hours a week longer than a Norwegian. But by GDP, Norway’s workers contribute the equivalent of $78.70 per hour – compared to the US’s $69.60.

As for Italy, that home of il dolce far niente? With an average 35.5-hour work week, it produces almost 40% more per hour than Turkey, where people work an average of 47.9 hours per week. It even edges the United Kingdom, where people work 36.5 hours.

So why don’t we do that? That’s a story for another time.

4 thoughts on “The Cucumber or the Grape?

  1. Love this post and all the great material you have collected and annotated for us. I’ve been saying this stuff since I was a teenager and no one takes me seriously and often they are quite offended. Lot of guesswork in what I’m about to say but my estimate is that I do less than an hour of important work on most days and I’m not even the least effective person in my department. Some people appear to do no productive work at all and are simply there as legacies from times when they had real work to do. Then there are the bosses. Where I work these guys are truly useless. They create work for other people and manage systems that they themselves don’t have a good understanding of and get paid more than the rest of us to do it. I’m not so much of a capuchin, I’m OK with my cucumber but the control that bosses have drives me nuts. It would require a huge change of consciousness to leave our current system, even I fall into believing it sometimes.

    Our belief in the value of work also gives us meaning. I think that’s why I get so much hostility for challenging the value of doing more work or in some cases any work at all. At my employer a lot of time and energy goes into determining which courses are popular with students. Administrators and people with stats backgrounds go on and on about this. I’m a relative idiot but I discovered right away that students choose classes that are requirements for their program of study, advertised in more than one medium across the entire campus, and are offered more frequently. Students will take any course, I mean “any”, that meets all those criteria. When I suggested this at a meeting I was literally asked to leave. I think admin felt I was disparaging their work which focused a lot on second guessing the content of courses they didn’t teach and then determining the prospective merit of these courses in the eyes of students. All meaningless if students choose on expediency and necessity. Who would thunk it?

  2. “This is backed up by a recent book by a University of Wisconsin sociology professor”

    Do you know her name and/or the book title?

    Good work.

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