Posts Tagged ‘leisure’


What happens when you combine conspicuous consumption and conspicuous productivity?

You get Barracuda Straight Leg Jeans—complete with “crackled, caked-on muddy coating”—on sale for $425 at Nordstrom.

When Thorstein Veblen invented the term “conspicuous consumption,” in his Theory of the Leisure Class (pdf), he was referring to late-nineteenth-century America as having entered the “predatory phase” of culture, when the people at the top obtained their goods by seizure and imputed indignity to the “performance of productive work.”

The clothing of the leisure class reflected this distancing from the world of work—conspicuous consumption combined with conspicuous leisure and conspicuous waste.

In dress construction this norm works out in the shape of divers contrivances going to show that the wearer does not and, as far as it may conveniently be shown, can not engage in productive labor. Beyond these two principles there is a third of scarcely less constraining force, which will occur to any one who reflects at all on the subject. Dress must not only be conspicuously expensive and inconvenient, it must at the same time be up to date.

Nordstrom’s muddy jeans are therefore a perfect example of contemporary predatory culture, when those at the top are afforded the luxury of ironically quoting—but not actually doing—any productive work. Instead, they capture a portion of the surplus and use it to purchase clothing that—in the form of conspicuous consumption, leisure, and waste—shows they are exempted from the exigency of work imposed on everyone else, who are of course required to dress in neat and clean uniforms, just like the servants of the first Gilded Age.


Now, in the latest stage of predatory culture, those at the top can purchase fake mud-stained jeans while McDonald’s employees will now wear uniforms reminiscent of the Hunger Games.

What’s next, corsets?*


*Here again is Veblen:

The dress of women goes even farther than that of men in the way of demonstrating the wearer’s abstinence from productive employment. . .

the woman’s apparel not only goes beyond that of the modern man in the degree in which it argues exemption from labor; it also adds a peculiar and highly characteristic feature which differs in kind from anything habitually practiced by the men. This feature is the class of contrivances of which the corset is the typical example. The corset is, in economic theory, substantially a mutilation, undergone for the purpose of lowering the subject’s vitality and rendering her permanently and obviously unfit for work.


The rule is, as countries get wealthier, their annual hours worked per capita tend to decrease.

But the United States is the exception. Americans work longer hours than people in any other advanced country (and just a bit less than people in much poorer countries).

American exceptionalism therefore means that people are forced to have the freedom to work longer hours in order to achieve a shorter life expectancy, less leisure time, and higher levels of inequality than in other advanced countries.


Note: the chart above show, on the vertical axis, annual hours worked per capita and, on the horizontal axis, GDP per capita as a fraction of U.S. GDP.


In a piece forwarded to me by a former student [ht: jm], the Economist reminds us of John Maynard Keynes’s 1930 prediction [pdf] that, in one hundred years, a new age of abundance and leisure would mean we’d have to do very little work—perhaps three hours a day, just “to satisfy the old Adam in most of us.”

Well, sixteen years shy of Keynes’s century, we’re still working many more hours than we need to. And not because we don’t know what to do with our leisure time. It’s because current economic arrangements are such that, to earn enough income for ourselves and our families, we still have to work (or, according to the information in the chart above from the American Time Use Survey, engage in work-related activities) more than eight hours a day—which leaves, on an average work day (and after sleeping, eating and drinking, taking care of our households, and so on) just 2.5 hours of leisure.


The problem of time lost doing work is particularly acute in the United States, especially when compared to other rich countries (such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom). Starting in 1970, Americans worked on average fewer hours per year relative to other countries—and, while the total number of hours worked has decreased since then in all four countries, it’s declined the least in the United States (essentially having leveled off since 1982).

fredgraph-2 fredgraph-1

And it’s not just a matter of “yuppie kvetching” as the Economist (and, earlier, Elizabeth Kolbert) argues—as if we were in a world of “time-poor haves” and “time-rich have-nots” (although the readers of the Economist might like to imagine themselves in those terms). As readers can see in the two charts above, the average annual hours worked by production and nonsupervisory employees almost perfectly tracks the annual hours worked by all employed persons in the United States (the difference in 2011 amounted to merely 24 hours per year).

The fact is, those near the top, who do in fact spend a great deal of their time at work, serve the tiny minority above them by making sure everyone else—the vast majority of the population—also spends a large portion of their time working and, in the process, creating much more value than they receive in their wages and salaries. Those hours—the many hours people spend working not for themselves but for the small group who own and control the enterprises where they work—that’s the real lost time we should be worried about.

And that’s what keeps the entire system—of a great deal of work and very little leisure—firmly in place, especially in the United States.

If only Keynes had been right back in 1930:

Of course there will still be many people with intense, unsatisfied purposiveness who will blindly pursue wealth—unless they can find some plausible substitute. But the rest of us will no longer be under any obligation to applaud and encourage them.

The only way to eliminate that obligation is for the people who work to have a say in how many hours they work and in what is done with the value they create while they work.

Otherwise, as long as things stay the way they are, the rest of us will continue our search for lost time.


Martin Wolf is right: “technology itself does not dictate the outcomes.”

But the capitalist use of technology to increase profits does pose some serious problems:

there could be a large adjustment shock as workers are laid off; the market wages of unskilled people might fall far below a socially acceptable minimum; and, combined with other new technologies, robots might make the distribution of income far more unequal than it is already.

And so the obvious question: what should be done?

Wolf appropriately rejects education as a “magic wand.” He suggests, instead, reconsidering leisure:

For a long time the wealthiest lived a life of leisure at the expense of the toiling masses. The rise of intelligent machines makes it possible for many more people to live such lives without exploiting others. Today’s triumphant puritanism finds such idleness abhorrent. Well, then, let people enjoy themselves busily. What else is the true goal of the vast increases in prosperity we have created?

And redistributing income and wealth:

Such redistribution could take the form of a basic income for every adult, together with funding of education and training at any stage in a person’s life. In this way, the potential for a more enjoyable life might become a reality. The revenue could come from taxes on bads (pollution, for example) or on rents (including land and, above all, intellectual property). Property rights are a social creation. The idea that a small minority should overwhelming benefit from new technologies should be reconsidered. It would be possible, for example, for the state to obtain an automatic share in the income from the intellectual property it protects.

Sounds like a good start to me. . .