Battlepanda: Taking the Lumps of Labor: Why Adam Smith was right and the Adam Smithians are wrong


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Taking the Lumps of Labor: Why Adam Smith was right and the Adam Smithians are wrong

Mark Kleiman calls it the 'TGIF problem' People are living longer, but extending the retirement age to help Social Security is a non-starter because people really, really don't want to be working any longer than they have to. Majikthise declares the problem to be intractable, and advocates raising the salary cap to solve the so-called crisis. I agree with her, but Mark has raised an unsettling puzzle that extend beyond our current policy woes:
What does make me unhappy is that, in what is by some measures the richest nation in the history of the planet, most people don't really enjoy the activity that occupies about a third of their waking hours.
By now, we have surely reached the stage of development where Keynes predicted that we can work two, three hours a day "to satisfy old Adam", then take the rest of the time "to live wisely, and agreeably, and well." But it seems old Adam has the last laugh. Our current work-and-spend paradigm accords more closely with his observations of human nature than it does with Keyne's macroeconomic predictions.
Some workmen, indeed, when they can earn in four days what will maintain them through the week, will be idle the other three. This, however, is by no means the case with the greater part. Workmen, on the contrary, when they are paid by the piece [or by the hour...ed], are very apt to over-work themselves, and to ruin their health and constitution in a few years.
Excessive application during four days of the week, is frequently the real cause of the idleness of the other three, so much and so loudly complained of. Great labour, either of mind or body, continued for several days together, is in most men naturally followed by a great desire of relaxation, which, if not restrained by force or by some strong necessity, is almost irresistible. It is the call of nature, which requires to be relieved by some indulgence, sometimes of ease only, but sometimes too of dissipation and diversion.
He was talking about British soldiers set to piece-work, but he might as well be describing the American work-and-spend economy. Elsewhere in The Wealth of Nations, he opines that farmers are a superior class of men when compared with 'artificers', because the wide variety of tasks that a farmer must necessarily undertake in the course of a year and the knowledge he must accumulate to deal with all the eventualities running a farm will throw at him, as opposed to the mechanical tasks of a workman.

Not to denigrate how far economical progress have taken us, but somewhere along the lines, we, as a society, seemed to have ended up on a treadmill, where more productivity leads to greater desires, and thus never fulfillment. Now, some would argue that this is what's great about capitalism, that greed is what drives continual progress. And, psychic fulfilment aside, perhaps they would be right. If it weren't for the fact that we are also destroying our environment at an alarming rate in our neverending quest to produce more stuff, that is. But dammit. Why should we set psychic fulfilment aside? Why are we asked to set aside sane questions about where our society is going lest it gets in the way of the magic of the free market?

I feel a series coming on...Stay tuned for part two: Why is knitting yarn so expensive in America?