Saturday, April 14, 2012

Doing Nothing

Version 0.2
An Idealistic Economic Thought Experiment due to Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America by Tom Lutz 

In terms of a review of the book, I mostly just want to say that it was an extremely thought-provoking book and generally quite interesting. If I had to try to reduce it to a capsule description, I would call it primarily a review of the literature—but what literature! I really hadn't thought about the breath of the topic of leisure, mostly in fiction according to the roughly 700 hundred citations in the bibliography. Or to frame it in a different way, I tend to read over 100 books/year, and I think this is one of the most thought-provoking books that I've ever read.

Hard to come up with a criticism, but I guess I could say that the scope was limited in some ways. For example, there was nothing about hunter-gatherers as slackers who naturally tend to multiply until they lose all of their slack. However, it was thinking about the book along those larger-box lines that led me to the thought experiment. I actually wonder if my ideas, which actually seem original to me, were somehow transmitted implicitly through the book. There was nothing explicit, but I wouldn't be greatly surprised to discover that Bertrand Russell or Paul Lafargue or someone else among the hundreds of authors he mentions had done an analysis along similar lines. (After I finish this description, I'm planning to attempt to contact the author to see if he did encounter anything along these lines... However, if you know of anything along these lines, your comments and pointers would be appreciated--as well as a bit of explanation how you wound up here in the first place. (Yes, Gertrude, I try to remember to look for similar blogs after I prepare one that seems unusually creative or innovative... Usually my searches come up rather dry.))

Today's thought experiment begins by dividing work into three broad categories:
  1. Necessary work covers essential physical goods such as the production of food and crucial services such as garbage collection. The most important characteristic of this category is that the work needs to get done, but another important characteristic is that the demand for such goods and services is fundamentally limited. Food is a good example to work with. It's obvious that everyone need a certain amount of food to live, but you don't need two or three times that amount of food. (Actually, eating too much can even kill you.) From a historical perspective, it's crucial to note that amount of working hours required for this category of work has declined on the long term, though there are obviously major variations. Again using food as an example, hunter-gatherers in a fully loaded environment must spend all of their waking hours working to gather enough food just to survive. In earlier agricultural societies, most of the food-related work could be concentrated in certain seasons, and most of the time there was much less need for agricultural work. In modern industrial societies, only a small percentage of the population is able to produce a large surplus of food.
  2. Entertainment work is for such tasks as writing books, making movies, or programming computer games, as well as non-essential but recreational services. Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of this type of work is that the consumption of the products is fundamentally limited only by the available leisure time of the consumers. We have long since passed the point where anyone could read all of the books that are published each year, let alone all of the books in a public library. The corresponding transitions for movies and computer games were more recent, but now we have the Internet, and we're completely saturated with potential uses of our leisure time. With such a surplus of available entertainment, one key factor is how to motivate the creators, but it's also important to consider the quality of the goods and how the consumers will search for the best content to occupy their limited amounts of available time.
  3. Better-future work is such work as building new infrastructure and doing scientific research. There is some amount of infrastructure maintenance that really belongs in the necessary-work category, but most new infrastructure is intended to support improvements or higher economic efficiency. In the case of research, the most relevant for this category is the research into better ways to do work, so the key characteristic of this category is that what it produces then reduces the amount of time needed to perform the necessary work. If the total amount of working time remained unchanged, then that would mean more time could be directed into creating entertainment or doing more research.
This is just a rough framework for thinking, and in many cases it's hard to classify specific examples. For a complicated example, raising children seems to fit into all three categories. Before starting the actual thought experiment, it's worth noting that there is an obvious tradeoff between the last two categories. If more resources are invested in creating entertainment, then fewer resources are available for making things better and the rate of improvement will be reduced. However, we can't make such tradeoffs for the necessary-work category.

For my thought experiment, I'm deliberately ignoring a lot of complicating factors such as competition between countries and political insanity. In the specific case of international competition, I actually think you can argue the world is becoming more and more integrated across national borders, so it sort of makes sense. The situation as regards political insanity seems to be going in the opposite direction, but maybe part of the problem there is the lack of vision for a better future. (It certainly looks to me that most professional politicians are just in it for the money and thinking in the shortest time frame of the next election, whereas many (perhaps most) of the businessmen are even worse, only thinking of next quarter's profits.)

So for the thought experiment, imagine that you start with the assumption that everyone is entitled to life, and then leap to the conclusion that everyone is therefore entitled to the basic necessities of life such as food, clothing, and shelter. For the moment, don't worry about how it's paid for, but let's just assume that each human being should start out with enough to survive. Let's use food as the example because it's relatively easy to work with. You don't need an exact number, but you can calculate how much food is needed (plus a safety margin) and how many hours of work are needed to produce that amount of food, and you'll come up with a relatively small value, at least compared to the 40 hours/week that is regarded as a normal work schedule these days. (That value will come up a lot in this analysis, though it isn't a sacred number and could be changed. I'm using it mostly as a convenient reference point for a reasonable amount of work. I'm inclined to think that most people would prefer to work less but some would prefer to work more, especially if they liked their work or were especially motivated for any reason.) Of course you would need to total up all of the required work, but I'm confident that our current society has already progressed to a point where it's far fewer than 40 hours/week. For the advanced societies that I know best, I'd estimate the current value is somewhere around 5 hours/week, but that's because I think most service work is not going to qualify for the essential work category. If you simplify it by limiting it to farmers and pretend that each farmer works only 40 hours/week all year round, then the less than 1% of farmers in America would translate to less than 1% of 40 hours, which comes to less than 24 minutes per person per week, if the work of farming were actually distributed across the entire American population.

Since it would be difficult to figure out all of the essential work that belongs in the necessary work category, it would probably be better to do it from the other end, by dividing the GNP into essential and nonessential categories. In many cases it would be pretty obvious. A convenient example would be the music industry. No one would die if they couldn't listen to music, so that entire segment of the economy can be classified as nonessential. Maybe my guess of 5 hours/week for the truly essential work is too low, but certainly it's significantly less than 40 hours/week.

If the first objective is to make sure that the essential and necessary work is done, but the total amount is relatively small, how can we allocate it fairly? For the foundation of necessary work, I suggest we could try to equate it by difficulty to share the load in an equitable way, starting from the maximum load of 40 hours/week for the most pleasant kind of necessary work compared to the least pleasant kind of necessary work.

One way to do this might be by pairwise comparisons by large numbers of people. The key question would be "Would you prefer to do 40 hours/week of farming or 16 hours/week of garbage collection?" It would be especially useful to ask older people who had done several kinds of work during their careers, and their answers could be weighted more heavily. By comparing various kinds of work and various numbers of hours for large numbers of people, you would eventually have rough equivalences for the kinds of work on a average basis without having to worry about the actual preferences of individuals. From that data you could rationally design a basic economic system that would be designed to insure the essential work gets done based on a general metric of fairness.

Since the total amount of necessary work is much less than 40 hours/week, it should work out that the most pleasant kinds of necessary work would still come to less than 40 hours/week. The other kinds of necessary work would then be equated as smaller chunks. For example, there might be a broad consensus that 8 hours/week of garbage collection is equal to 24 hours/week of farming is equal to 40 hours/week of

 Different education for the different kinds. Total amount of time for first class quite limited, but must be filled, with better compensation as shorter hours. Guaranteed enough to live on, since everyone has a right to life, but working guaranteed to have more money to compensate for the lost time. People who choose to work more than needed might earn much more, but where do mega-managers fit in? Unneeded?

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