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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Why the average workweek isn't decreasing faster ... and what we can do about it

This is another post on political, economic and futurist themes ... starting out with a reflection on a bogus patent, and winding up with a radical social policy proposal that just might improve life in the near future and also help pave the way to a positive Singularity... (yeah, I know I know, lack of ambition has never been one of my numerous faults ;-)

Let's start with the simple, oft-asked question: Why isn't the average workweek decreasing faster ... given all the amazing technology recently developed?

One clue is found in some news I read today: IBM has patented the idea of a specialized electronic device that makes it handier to split your restaurant bill among several people at the table:,457,767.PN.&OS=PN/7,457,767&RS=PN/7,457,767

The patent application is really quite hilarious reading ... and the number of references to prior, equally bullshitty patents for related inventions is funny too.

What strikes me most here is the amount of effort expended by lawyers, patent examiners and judges in dealing with this crap. Not to mention their paralegals, secretaries, and on and on and on.

Why does this part of the contemporary human workload exist?

One could argue that some wasted work is a necessary part of a complex economic system, and that it would be hard to eliminate the crap without throwing out a lot of useful stuff as well.

I'm sure this is part of the truth, but I don't think it's the whole story.

Another part of the answer, I think, is: This kind of BS work exists because people have time to do it.

If people didn't have time to do this shit, because they all had to be occupied gathering food or making shelter or defending themselves against attackers -- or conceiving or manufacturing truly original and interesting inventions -- then the legal system would rapidly get adjusted so as to make bullshit patents like this illegal.

But, because we have plenty of extra resources in our economy ... due to the bounty created by advances in technology ... we (collectively and without explicitly intending to) adjust various parameters of our economy (such as the patent system) in such a way as to create loads of bullshit work for ourselves.

But there's a little more to it than this. Granted that we have the time ... but why do we choose to spend our time on this kind of crap? Instead of, say, doing less useless work and having more free time?

One important, relevant fact to grasp is that people like working.

Yes, it's not just that we're ambitious or greedy, it's that we actually like working -- in spite of the fact that we also like complaining about working. (Don't blame me -- humans are just fucked-up creatures....).

There is loads of data supporting this idea; I'll cite just a smattering here.

Americans work more and are happier than Europeans:

Old folks who work longer are happier:

I can't remember the link, but studies show that people are on average happier at work than at home (if asked at random times during the day), but will when asked SAY they are happier at home than at work.... I think this study was done by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who you can find out about at,8599,1606395,00.html

He is the pioneer of the study of "flow", the state of supreme happiness that many humans enter into when carrying out some highly absorbing, satisfying activity, like creating an artwork, participating in a sport, acting in a play or doing scientific or other professional work ... or gardening ... or chopping down a tree ... actually the activity can be almost anything, the real point is in the way the mind interacts with the activity: it has to be enough to fully occupy the mind without causing too much frustration, so that the self is continually lost and rediscovered within the ongoing dynamism of the interactive process....

Among many more interesting observations, he notes that:

Those at work generally report that they wish they were at home, but when they're home they often feel passive, depressed or bored. "They have in mind that free time at home will make them feel better, but often it doesn't,"

But, the plot thickens ... because, although we like working ... this doesn't necessarily mean we like working long hours.

People who work part-time are happier than those working full-time (84 per cent are happy versus 79 per cent):

So where we seem to fail is in creating more part-time jobs...

This seems to be because, for an employer, it's always more cost efficient to hire one full time worker than two part-timers ;-(

So, instead of making use of the bounty provided by technology by creating part-time jobs and also creating more opportunities for creative, growth-producing, flow-inducing leisure ... we make use of it by creating more and more full-time jobs doing more and more bullshit work, like processing patents for "inventions" like the one I referenced above.

Given the way our brains work, we're better off working full-time than we would be not working at all.

But there is at least some evidence to suggest we'd be even better off working fewer hours....

But, given the way the market system works, there is almost never any incentive for any employer to allow part-time workers. It just isn't going to be rational from their perspective, as it will decrease their economic efficiency relative to competitors.

The market system, it seems, is going to push toward the endless creation of BS work, because no individual company cares about reducing the workweek ... whereas individual companies DO in many cases profit by creating BS work ... if they can bill other companies (or the government) for this bullshit work....

So, this leads to the idea that the government of France may have had the right idea at heart, in creating the 35 hour maximum workweek. Which they have since rescinded, because in a global context, it made them uncompetitive with other countries lacking such a restriction.

But anyway, outlawing long work hours is obviously not the answer. People should have the freedom to work long hours and get paid for them, if they want to.

So, an interesting question, policy-wise, is how the government can create incentives for reduced workweeks, without introducing punitive and efficiency-killing regulations.

One possibility would be, instead of just government projects aimed at paying people to build infrastructure, to launch government projects aimed at paying people to do interesting, creative, growth-inducing stuff in their spare time.

Basically, what I'm suggesting is: massively boosted government funding for art and science and other not-directly-economically-productive creative work ... but without making people jump through hoops of fire to get it (i.e. no long, tedious, nearly-sure-to-fail grant applications) ... and specifically designed NOT to discriminate against people who do not-directly-economically-productive creative work only part-time.

This would make it harder for companies to find full-time employees, because it wouldn't be all that much more lucrative to work full-time than to work part-time plus earn a creative-activity stipend on the side. But, unlike France's previous restrictive laws, it would enable companies that REALLY need full-time employees to hire them, so long as they were able to pay the required premium salaries ... or recruit workers who preferred the offered work to paid on-the-side creative-activity....

I suspect this would actually boost the economy, by shifting effort away from BS make-work like processing bogus patents, and toward creative work that would end up having more indirect, ancillary economic value in all sorts of ways.

This may seem a funny thing to think about in the current economic context, when the economy is in such trouble globally. But I consider it obvious that the current economic troubles are "just" a glitch (albeit an extremely annoying one) on the path to a post-scarcity economy. And even so, the government is still giving away money right now to people who are out of work. What if the payment were decreased to people who didn't engage in creative activities, but increased to people who did. Peoples' lives would become richer, as more of them would be more involved in creative activities. And, the human world as a whole would become richer because of all of these new creations.

And this sort of thing will become all the more interesting once robots and AI software eliminate more and more jobs. At that point the market system, unrestricted, would probably create an insane overgrowth of bullshit full-time jobs ... but a part-time creative-activity incentive as I've described could interfere with this dynamic, and nudge things toward a more agreeable situation where people divide their time between genuinely economically useful work, and non-directly-economically-useful but personally-and-collectively-rewarding creative activity.

Furthermore, this would create a culture of creative activity, that would serve us well once robots and AIs eliminate jobs altogether. It would be great if we could greet the Singularity with a culture of collective creativity rather than one characterized by a combination of long hours on useless bullshit jobs, combined with leisure time spent staring at the tube (whether the TV or the YouTube) or playing repetitive shoot-em-up video games ... etc. etc.

OK -- now ... time for me to get back to work ;-)


Peter said...

Another direction some companies, namely Google, take advantage of this phenomenon is to allow people to be creative and engage in personal activities at the workplace. That way the business itself benefits from the creative "leisure time" of its employee, while still making the employee happier, more productive etc.

If this sort of strategy works, it would theoretically also create competition for other businesses to follow suit.

Gary Y. said...


I like much of what you write but this one -- not so much.

Forget 'money' for a moment; national productivity (or world or village productivity) depends on people doing useful stuff -- for others. Money is rather like an IOU that doesn't have to be redeemed personally. I do useful stuff for you; you give me tokens (money) which I can then use to get useful stuff done for me.

The "market system" is just a fancy label for letting people make the exchanges they freely choose to make. The only alternative involves forced exchanges or forcibly prohibited exchanges. The specific alternative name largely depends on who gets to control the force and how much force is used.

The solution you propose seems to come down to requiring people who do useful stuff to give over some of their tokens to the political process to be doled out to others to encourage them to do stuff that (however 'creative') isn't considered particularly useful.

I just can't see how that would increase our national economic productivity at all.

If I were to address the issue, I'd first consider how much of our national productivity is forcibly redirected already via the political means -- over fifty percent, I think -- and how much of that is utterly wasted.

Perhaps if we relied rather more on the 'market system' and very much less on forced exchanges we would see an entirely voluntary reduction of the standard work-week and 'part-time' employees with considerably more disposable income than they enjoy today. (Need I say that I mostly see governments as creating friction in the gears of the economic machine?)

And yeah, I'm one of those L guys if you hadn't already guessed. :)