no third solution

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All of Our Productivity is Wasted

July 17th, 2008

There is some evidence that we’re making progress: working less, living longer, getting fatter. All this, to an extent and in certain context, appears true. I certainly won’t argue that the average life in 1870 was better than it is now (although none of us are really qualified to make that determination), and I think you really (and I mean really) have to go out on a limb to say that life was better in 1970 than it was in 2007. Reality just doesn’t play out that way. Most things we buy are better than they were then, many things we buy didn’t even exist a decade or so ago. All the stuff we have is better, or we have more of it. I often find myself reiterating: the true indicator of wealth in a society is an abundance of goods and services.

But are we that much better off with all these things? Do we really put the costs in perspective? I think we don’t.

Neglected, is the (mostly recent) prevalence of two principal income earners in a household. We might be working less, but there undoubtedly are more of us, doing more work.

I am also quite skeptical of the claim that the average person worked 700 hours more in 1970, than does the average person in 2007; that’s basically two full days of additional labor each week! Do the figures include commuting time? As we’ve become an increasingly suburban society, commute time has increased significantly. It’s not uncommon for people to spend an hour (or more) in the morning on the drive in to the office, and another hour (or more) in the evening, on the way home. This isn’t work, and it’s not a household chore, but it sure is a pain in the ass and it ought to count against something.

There is some crazy math going on here. Through technology and innovation, the average worker is several orders of magnitude more productive than he might’ve been a half-century hence, and a hundred times (or more) more productive than he was a century ago. We’ve got more more people doing more jobs, producing more things and still we’re working 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week.

And this doesn’t strike anybody as being just a little bit insane?

At The Picket Line, David Gross asks:

How does it make sense to spend extra hours at work to earn enough money to pay for a gym membership so you can lose the pounds you’ve put on from sitting in your desk chair all those extra hours at work? How does it make sense to work extra hours so you can afford a meal in a nice restaurant once in a while because you don’t have time after all those extra hours at work to shop and cook and do the dishes if you want to do it yourself?

…One measure of abundance is this: what percentage of your time and energy — what percentage of your life — are you spending on your own priorities and passions, and what percentage do you have to spend on priorities that contradict and oppose them. Now, by “your priorities” I don’t just mean “your own selfish interests” but your values, the things you think are worthwhile and important.

Has all of our stuff really made our leisure time so much more enjoyable than it was, that we’re willing to work more, for less? I doubt it. People work because they have to in order to enjoy their leisure (and to generally keep living). If they didn’t have to do it, it wouldn’t be called work. The “right” ratio is the smallest amount of work to the greatest amount of leisure. All else being equal, less work doesn’t make our lives less satisfying; the optimal amount of “work” is zero. As in none.

If you’re having difficulty following me here, (with apologies to “Fight Club”), repeat after me:

I am not my job. I am not how much money I have in the bank. I am not the car I drive. I am not the contents of my wallet. I am not my fucking khakis.

None of these things define us as a people, none of these things makes us better or worse human beings.

If money was no object, you’d be riding your horse somewhere, shooting hoops with your friends, hiking the Appalachian trail, reading poetry by a campfire, training for that marathon you’d always wanted to run but for which you could never find the time, learning how to play guitar, spending more time with your kids.

Even if you love your job, you’d never step foot in that fucking office again.

Discussing the concept of buying out at the bottom, Vinay Gupta gets to the heart of the matter:

The slack – the waste – in our old ways of life were consuming 90% of our productive labor to maintain.

A thousand dollar a month combined fuel bill is your life energy going down the drain because the place you live sucks your life way in waste heat, which is waste money, which is waste time. Your car, your house, the portion of your taxes which the Government spends on fuel, on electricity, on waste heat… all of the time you spent to earn that money is wasted…

Ninety-percent is probably a pretty accurate figure for most people, when you sum all the direct and indirect forms of taxes to which we’re subjected. Add up the State and Federal withholding. Add to that both “halves” of the OASDI/SS/Medicare. Don’t forget about property taxes. Literally, or figuratively, the rent that you pay to a landlord who took out a mortgage on your future. Gas taxes. Sin taxes. Telephone taxes. Add the invisible ones, too.  Account for the inflation that destroys our savings, the costs of taxes and regulation borne by the businesses we patronize, passed on in the form of higher prices.  There are a million fucking reasons why we’re working too hard, for too little.

For most people, 90% of their life is cannibalized by government. We can’t imagine living on just 10% or 20% of what we currently earn.

The irony is that we’re already doing it.




no third solution

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