Monday, January 24, 2022

More Work Or More Free Time - 2

 Here is the second chapter of my new book More Work Or More Free Time: The Crucial Political Issue No One Is Talking About. The book is available at

Chapter 2: 

From Scarcity to Surplus

In the course of the twentieth century, the United States and the other developed nations moved from scarcity economies to surplus economies. We still have not thought through the implications of this profound change. 

Earlier human history was the story of economic scarcity. Though a small minority was rich, the overwhelming majority lived at a subsistence level, and economies devoted most of their effort to producing basic food, clothing, and shelter. 

In nineteenth century America, the great majority still lived at a near-subsistence level, though industrialization was increasing the amount the nation produced. In cities, many workers lived in tenements where there was little sunlight and only one shared toilet per floor—or shared outhouses in the back. In the countryside, many farmers lived in sod houses or log cabins. Even in the late nineteenth century, when wages had begun to go up, average income for all Americans was what we now consider the poverty level; even if all income had been distributed equally, everyone would still have lived in what we now call poverty.3 And America was relatively prosperous: Europeans immigrated to America in search of economic opportunity. 

In the course of the twentieth century, production increased to the point where we moved from scarcity to surplus. In addition to food, clothing, and shelter, most working people can afford cars, appliances, entertainment, high school education, routine health care—things that most of us take for granted today but that were far beyond the reach of working people in Dickens’ England or of working people throughout history.

Postwar Affluence

During the 1930s, many said that the Great Depression occurred because there was not enough demand to absorb everything that the economy could produce. Technology created more wealth, but it also created the problem of technological unemployment as machines did the work that people used to do. 

The government dealt with this problem by stimulating the economy to create jobs. The word “boondoggle” was invented to describe programs that the government funded to make work for the unemployed though they did not produce anything useful. 

During the postwar years, there were fears that the economy would fall back into depression because of lack of demand. Everyone agreed that we needed to promote consumption to stimulate the economy.
The Gross National Product (GNP), which has since been replaced by the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), became the measure of national well-being.4 The economist Simon Kuznets first calculated the GNP in 1934, and he warned against using these numbers as a measurement of well-being. Yet, during the postwar period, growth of the GNP became the main measure of economic success, and today’s politicians all want to promote rapid economic growth.

During the postwar decades, prosperity was widespread. Median income grew about as rapidly as the GNP, which means the middle class was getting a fair share of increased prosperity. The nation felt optimistic and affluent, but there were also social critics at the time who wrote best-selling books pointing out the problems with our unparalleled material prosperity. 

John Kenneth Galbraith published his book The Affluent Society in 1958, and it was at the top of the best-seller list for six months. He wrote that economic theory was invented in scarcity economies, when more production was needed to satisfy people’s wants, but in our affluent economy, corporations create the wants that their products satisfy, for example through advertising, marketing and easy consumer credit. (He did not put enough emphasis on government creating wants through programs like freeway construction to encourage automobile use.) For example, Galbraith said, “Few people at the beginning of the nineteenth century needed an adman to tell them what they wanted,” because most people spent their incomes on food, clothing and shelter that they needed to survive; if economic problems forced them to consume less, people suffered real hardships. But in the affluent economy, if there is a recession, people who defer their purchases of new cars or refrigerators for a year of two do not suffer in any significant way. The ones who suffer are the workers who lose their jobs producing cars or refrigerators and who have trouble surviving without any income. So, Galbraith said, in scarcity economies, people worked because they needed the products, but in an affluent economy, people must consume more products in order to create more work.5

Of course, this same attitude persists today. President Biden named his early proposal to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure “The American Jobs Plan,”6 because he knows that Americans care less about the infrastructure itself than about jobs building the infrastructure.
Shortly after Galbraith published The Affluent Society, William H. Whyte, who was famous for writing The Organization Man, invented the term “suburban sprawl”7 to describe the extreme suburbanization that was destroying farmland and open space around all of America’s cities. Jane Jacobs wrote that automobiles were eroding cities, as traffic engineers demolished vast amounts of housing to clear the rights of way for new urban freeways, blighting older neighborhoods to let more people drive in from the new suburbs.8 

These criticisms had practical political effects. In the 1950s, New York’s master builder, Robert Moses, proposed building a road through Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, and neighborhood residents stopped him. In 1961, San Francisco stopped a massive plan to build freeways throughout the city, and there were similar “freeway rebellions” in many other cities in the 1960s and 1970s. Though the freeways were mainstays of postwar economic growth, there were many people who thought they made their neighborhoods worse places to live. 

There were even some important politicians who criticized the cult of the Gross National Product. During his presidential campaign, Robert Kennedy give a speech on March 18, 1967 (not long before his assassination) saying:

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product … counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. ... Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.9

Unfinished Business

At that time, it seemed possible that American progressives would develop a new politics that would deal with the profound shift from a scarcity economy to a surplus economy—politics that would let us make good human use of our prosperity rather than devoting ourselves to the Gross National Product. 

But as it turned out, progressives focused on social issues rather than on these economic issues during the late twentieth century. They make immensely valuable strides in promoting equality for excluded social groups. In the 1950s, there was de jure racial segregation in the south and de facto racial segregation throughout the country. If women had jobs at all, they were expected to be nurses or secretaries, subordinate to men who were doctors or lawyers. Gays had to stay in the closet to protect themselves from losing their jobs or worse: Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician who developed the theory behind computer science and who helped us win the war by breaking the Germans’ code, was prosecuted and convicted of “gross indecency” in 1952 because he was a homosexual, he accepted chemical castration as an alternative to prison, and he committed suicide two years later.

We certainly owe progressives of the late twentieth century a debt of gratitude for fighting against this sort of bigotry and cruelty, but they were wrong to let these social issues distract them from economic issues. As they promoted equality for excluded social groups, economic inequality kept getting worse. In the 1960s, economic inequality in the United States was about average for the developed nations, but now the United States has the worst inequality of any developed nation.10
Because we ignored economic issues in favor of social issues, we failed to create the new politics needed to deal with the surplus economy—and as inequality increased, we even lost the economic gains that we had won earlier in the century. Almost all the benefits of growth since the 1970s have gone to the top 10%, while median income has stagnated. Average Americans today no longer feel as affluent as they did during the 1960s—even though the nation as a whole is more than three times as wealthy now as it was in the “affluent society” of 1960.11

Things have become so bad that progressives have started to focus on economic issues again. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns of 2016 and 2020 concentrated on economic inequality, with the goal of taxing the very rich and using the money to help the poor and the middle class. But today’s progressives are trying to recover the ground that they lost during the late twentieth century as inequality increased, and they are not focusing on the deeper long-term issue of how to make good human use of a surplus economy. 

This issue has become overridingly important because it is essential to long-term efforts to deal with global warming and other ecological challenges that will become increasingly urgent during this century. We would have done well to shift to the Dutch model during the postwar decades, because it would have given us more satisfying lives. But now, we urgently need to shift to the Dutch model to counter the ecological crises that will occur if we keep pursuing the highest possible GDP rather than the highest possible level of well-being.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

More Work Or More Free Time

 Here is the first chapter of my book More Work Or More Free Time: The Crucial Political Issue that No One Is Talking About, to be published next month. 

Chapter 1: The Dutch Model

American progressives often use the Scandinavian countries as models for us to imitate, because they have prosperous economies and policies that let everyone share in the prosperity. But the Netherlands is a better model: it also has a prosperous economy and policies to spread the prosperity widely—and in addition, it has pioneered policies that let employees choose shorter work hours. The average Dutch employee produces about as much in an hour as the average American employee, but works only about 80% as many hours.1

By law, Dutch employees have the right to choose part-time work, and about half of them do choose to work part time. Allowing this choice challenges fundamental assumptions of America’s economy.

It challenges our belief that we are better off if we have the fastest possible economic growth. The Dutch would have faster economic growth if they worked as much as Americans, but many choose part-time work because they believe they are better off with more free time rather than more income. Most Americans do not have this choice: they have to work full time to keep their jobs, even if they think they would be happier working part-time.

It challenges our belief that government must promote rapid economic growth to provide more jobs. The Dutch model shows that we can create jobs either by promoting growth or by shortening work hours—or by some combination of the two. Since the end of World War II, America has avoided unemployment by producing more and more to create more and more work. The Dutch model shows that we can also avoid unemployment by letting employees work shorter hours to spread the needed work among more people.

Compulsory Consumption

In postwar America, the government promoted massive development of freeways and automobile-dependent suburbs to stimulate the economy and provide jobs. The Federal government funded freeways and FHA mortgages for suburban houses, and local governments used zoning to create suburbs with low-density housing and strip-mall shopping. Many of the new suburban neighborhoods did not even have sidewalks because they did not expect people to get around by walking. The nation was transformed in just a few decades, as Americans moved to these sprawl suburbs.

This is an example of compulsory consumption: in these suburbs it is almost impossible to get around without a car. Having a car is compulsory, no matter how great a financial burden it is. 

Anyone who goes to the Netherlands immediately sees one reason why they can work shorter hours than Americans: Dutch neighborhoods are filled with pedestrians and with bicyclists but have relatively few cars. On narrower streets, cars drive slowly behind bicyclists and wait patiently when pedestrians spill out from the crowded sidewalks onto the street; American drivers would be leaning on their horns. 

Postwar America promoted automobile use to stimulate economic growth and provide jobs. But the Dutch created a prosperous economy with low unemployment without promoting automobile dependency. 

Though they work less and make less money than Americans, the Dutch have higher average levels of happiness, longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality, and higher educational achievement than Americans—in part because they have much lower levels of inequality than we do, so they do not have a large number of very poor people who bring down the average.2 

Their policies to reduce inequality also help them to work shorter hours. In the United States, median income has stagnated for many decades, despite rapid economic growth, because most of the benefits of growth have gone to the very rich. In the Netherlands, there is less inequality, so people with moderate incomes earn enough per hour to work part-time. 

The Dutch model of low inequality and shorter work hours gives people better lives than the American model of higher inequality, longer work hours, and faster economic growth.

The Global Environment

Shorter work hours and slower growth would make it easier to deal with global warming and other pressing ecological problems. They are essential to environmental sustainability in the long run.

In this century, much of the world could become affluent, and the model that the developing nations follow will obviously have a powerful effect on whether the global economy can be sustainable. If most of the world follows the postwar American model, keeping their work hours long and promoting rapid economic growth to provide more jobs, it will be hard to avoid environmental crisis. If the world follows the Dutch model, choosing more free time and slower growth, it will be much easier to protect the global environment. 

In the long run, following the Dutch model could lead to dramatic changes in the way people live. As improved technology makes it possible to produce what people want in less and less time, most people’s work hours could become so short that their lives center on what they do with their free time rather than what they do at their jobs. We would need changes in education to teach people to make good use of their free time. And we would need to reexamine our ideals: in order to decide how to use that free time, we would have to think about what is a good life. 

The choice between more work and more free time is crucial to protecting the environment and to improving people’s lives, but no prominent mainstream American politician has talked about it since the Roosevelt administration.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Animism and Industrialism

Primitive animists treated objects as if they were people. 

Modern industrial societies treat people as if they were objects. 

Friday, September 24, 2021

Fully Automated Luxury Consumerism

Aaron Bastani has made a bit of a splash with his book Fully Automated Luxury Communism. It pretends to be brave new thinking, but really it just combines two old ideas. 

One idea is extreme technological optimism. He talks about innovations like cultured meat and mining asteroids as if there had never been technological progress before this era.  He apparently doesn't realize that technology has been progressing steadily since the beginning of the industrial revolution. He doesn't realize that some of his ideas are not practical in the foreseeable future, such as mining asteroids, which will not be possible until there is a virtually limitless source of cheap, clean energy. And he doesn't realize that, to keep the planet livable, we need to limit destructive technologies as well as to develop beneficial technologies. 

The other is the old Communist idea that capitalism can produce this wealth but we need Communism to make it available to most people.  He apparently doesn't realize that many European countries have vigorous capitalist economies and welfare states that use their wealth to benefit everyone.  He doesn't realize that world poverty has already declined dramatically, with 70% of the world's population living in extreme poverty at the beginning of the twentieth century and only 10% today, and that the majority of the world's population now is either affluent or "global middle class." He doesn't realize that Communist economies tend to be stagnant and not to produce the wealth that is needed to make life better. 

He doesn't realize that world poverty could end during this century, if we avoid ecological collapse - and the real challenge we fact is to save avoid collapse so technology can keep improving people's lives as it has in the past.

Far from being new, his attitude is something that I often encountered at the beginning of the 1970s, when people were still impressed by 1960s affluence and attracted by 1960s leftist politics. I have never known what to call this attitude, but Bastani has given me the name. 

The common attitude at that time can be called Fully Automated Luxury Consumerism. The capitalist economy would keep providing everyone with more and more consumer goods, as it had already provided almost everyone with big cars and big freeways to drive them on. The future would be hog heaven for those who love to consume.

A more extreme version of the same attitude can be called Fully Automated Luxury Communism. The government has an obligation to run the economy to create hog heaven for everyone. 

In the early 1970s, I was talking about building walkable neighborhoods, and I ran into people who called themselves Communists and said the government should build automobile-centered sprawl suburbs for everyone. I was talking about recycling, and I ran into one person who called herself a Communist and said that it is inconvenient to have to separate recyclables, and the government should set things up so we can just use them once and throw them away.  

I realized that one form of Communism was just an extreme form of consumerism.  Consumerists believe the technological economy should produce everything for us, and our role is just to passively consume. These Communists raised their dependency to the level of principle and said that being a passive consumer is a human right. 

I even remember one Communist orator on campus who was talking about earthquake proofing and took the standard of living so much for granted that he said, "Earthquake-proof freeways are a human right."

This attitude made some sense in scarcity economies, where people go without necessities. It makes no sense when you reach the level of affluence that makes you claim that better freeways are a human right.

If we manage to avoid ecological collapse, the world will achieve widespread affluence during this century. At that point, we will have to focus on how to use our affluence to live good lives rather than on demanding that the fully automated economy produce more and more luxuries for us to consume. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Tesla Is Not Enough


What is wrong with this picture of two young, affluent Tesla buyers from today's New York Times?

Though they are young, they are noticeably overweight. They obviously would be healthier if they drove less and walked and bicycled more. Automobile dependence contributes to America's epidemic of obesity, and switching to a Tesla does nothing to help that problem. 

Friday, July 23, 2021

A Second Copernican Revolution

We have all heard this many times: In the middle ages, people believed that the Earth was in the center of the universe and the sun and stars revolved around it.  But Copernicus showed that the Earth revolves around the sun, taking it out of its central position. Now we know that it is 13 billion lights to the furthest stars, there are hundreds of billions - possibly trillions - of galaxies in the universe, and a hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone. Many of these stars have planets, there must be an immense number of planets that can support life, and intelligent life has probably evolved elsewhere. Far from being in the center of the universe, the Earth is the satellite of an undistinguished star at the edge of an undistinguished galaxy. 

But does that really make the Earth unimportant? Humans have consciousness, reason, and the ability to have some understanding of the nature of the universe, and that is more important than the sheer size and number of inanimate objects in the universe. Despite its small size, the human brain is the most complex object we know of. 

We talk about the number of stars in the universe to show that intelligent life must have evolved on other planets, which itself implies that intelligent life is the important thing, rather than size and number of inanimate objects.

We can test this implication by imagining what the universe will ultimately be like. Based on what we know, it seems that the universe will keep expanding forever, and that all the stars will ultimately burn out, leaving a much more immense but completely dead universe, unable to support life. There is much we do not know about the nature of the universe - we do not understand dark energy or dark matter - so this idea of the fate of the universe may be wrong.  But right or wrong, comparing today's universe with this dead universe should show us that sheer size is not the important thing: the dead universe would be much vaster than today's universe, but it would contain much less complexity, without life and without even the nuclear reactions that power the stars. And I think everyone would agree that that this vast, dead universe has less to offer than today's smaller and more complex universe. 

The Copernican revolution happened when scientists convinced us that the Earth is not in the center of the universe. We need a second revolution that happens when humanists convince us that physical location and size are not the most important thing. 

Pascal got it right in the seventeenth century, as modern science became dominant, when he said: "Man is only a reed ..., but he is a thinking reed. ... Even if the universe should crush him, man would still be more noble than that which destroys him, because he knows that he dies and he realizes the advantage that the universe possesses over him. The universe knows nothing of this."

Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Mystery of Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe, in southeast Turkey, is the oldest monument in the world. The earliest layer dates back to 9000 BC, making it more than twice as old as the oldest pyramid. The pillars are up to twenty feet high and weigh up to ten tons.

Yet it was not discovered until 1994 because it was buried under debris some time after 8000 BC. Scientists do not know why is was buried, but the solution to this mystery should become clear when we think about how it fits into the history of religion.

This monument was built by the Natufian culture. In general, fixed settlements began when agriculture began, and the nomadic hunting and gathering people who lived earlier did not build permanent houses or monuments. But the Natufian culture was an exception. They were hunters and gatherers, and the mainstay of their diet was wild wheat, which was so abundant at the time that they were able to build permanent or semi-permanent settlements where it was found. This monument is so ancient because it was built before agriculture began.

After thousands of years of gathering wild wheat, people in the area began cultivating wheat - the earliest farming in the world. Farming probably began gradually. They carried wheat back to their settlements for processing and noticed that more wheat grew where they dropped grains by mistake. Then they began dropping grains deliberately.  Then they realized that the grain was even more likely to grow if they dug the ground before dropping it and watered it in dry times - at which point they were farmers. It probably took so long for them to begin farming because it was so much extra work that they did it only after population pressure made the supply of wild wheat inadequate for them. 

The religions of hunter and gatherer societies generally center on animals, who are treated as gods or totems. The pillars at Göbekli Tepe have many pictures of animals on them, such as this picture of a vulture, who may have been considered a god of the dead. 

But most early agricultural societies have religions that center on a mother goddess, representing the fertility of the earth. Çatalhöyük, an agricultural proto-city west of Göbekli Tepe that dates back to 7000 BC, is known for the many statues of mother goddesses found there, such as the goddess sitting on a throne flanked by two lionesses that is shown above. 

What is the most obvious reason that a religious site would be obliterated, as Göbekli Tepe was? Some new religion has taken over and wants to destroy all traces of the old religion, which it considers a heresy. 

Göbekli Tepe seems to be the earliest surviving evidence of a religious reformation that destroyed the old idols to promote the worship of its new idols. 

They must have been dedicated to their new religion, since it was hard work to bury the old religion: archeologists estimate that they covered it with about 500 cubic yards of rubble.  But it was successful: the site remained hidden and unknown for 9,000 or 10,000 years. 

photos of Göbekli Tepe by:
Teomancimit - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Sue Fleckney -, CC BY-SA 2.0,