Why Are We Making Ourselves Miserable?

What is necessary to make a better world?

Fruggo / CC_1.0

One thing that is almost never talked about – and yet which seems to be a huge problem for developed nations – is whether we are wisely allocating our time to make us happy.

We hear about productivity. More of it is assumed to be a good thing. And yet we rarely talk about how we are measuring productivity. Is it in material goods produced? In money spent?

Are either of those things good reflections of happiness or virtue?

In his 2009 article “Can’t Get There From Here?” Stanley Schmidt points out that as automation has decreased the amount of human labor necessary for survival, instead of giving us more free time to live, love, and pursue happiness and virtue, we have created new, completely unnecessary, work for ourselves.

Consider our standards for social acceptability: material goods, which often don’t actually make their recipients happy, are often viewed in our society as markers of competence and virtue.

For all our talk about saving the planet, if someone doesn’t have a car but rather lobbies for better public transportation, it is often assumed to be due to some essential failing on their part; taking the bus is something that poor people do.

Likewise, take the matter of clothes. A professional worker in America is expected by their peers to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on clothes each year. This is not merely a luxury or hobby; it is a necessity into which many people are forced to maintain an aura of credibility.

Take the matter of lawn care. Mowed grass is literally about the most useless plant imaginable. It has no nutritional or medicinal value; it does not improve the soil, but rather depletes it. Yet mowed grass, devoid of pesky “weeds” (which nearly all have greater nutritional, medicinal, and ecological value than untouched grass) is what is expected of a well-kept home or business.

Urban farming initiatives – that is, attempts to use one’s property in a highly efficient way to create a sustainable food source – have been discouraged on countless occasions by homeowners’ associations and zoning boards which deemed useful plants to be “unsightly” or assumed that a biologically diverse yard was a sign of neglect.

Portrait of Louis XIV by Claude Lefèbvre, from which the Versailles; located at the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art, New Orleans at the time of this photograph.

Interestingly, the practice of mowed-grass lawns was begun by Louis XIV of France, the same monarch who was later beheaded by a populace outraged at his practice of intentionally wasting resources while the French underclass literally starved.

Louis XIV is also largely responsible for the modern concept of fashion. Faced with a highly competitive noble court, Louis had the bright idea to set ridiculously high standards for how a nobleperson and their estate must look if they wished to be considered in good social standing; this prevented lesser nobility from amassing sufficient wealth to threaten his power or popularity, by enticing them to constantly spend it on material excesses that were, in fact, utterly useless.

In our modern era, we may not be intentionally forcing each other to spend money in order to keep each other down. But “keeping up with the Joneses” is keeping us all down! Time, money, and space that could be devoted to building healthy, vibrant, sustainable communities is instead being spent on consumption, which is not only bad for the health of our bodies and our planet, but for our lifestyles.

After all, everything we discard unnecessarily is not only an example of material waste; it is an example of wasted time. And time, I think we can all agree, is more precious to us mortal beings than material or money. Somebody had to make everything you throw away.

It speaks to the backwardness of today’s society that we are taught to think of this as a good thing. We are encouraged to buy things we don’t need, that won’t make us happy, because we are told that this creates jobs, which allows somebody else to get paid enough to eat.

This fails to consider the question: if those goods are not necessary to our society, why is it necessary to pay somebody to do them?

If all of our society’s needs are met without employing everyone at 40 hours per week, why in God’s name do we have the expectation that everyone needs to be employed at 40 hours per week?

Why are we struggling to create jobs – things to do that are not necessary, or we would not be struggling to create them – at the same time we’re fretting and bemoaning as a culture the lack of time we have to spend with our families?

The ideas that “jobs = money” is so deeply ingrained that we now largely view it as immoral to get paid – and subsequently enjoy food, shelter, and healthcare – without working.

Which would be less nonsensical if we weren’t openly struggling to come up with enough jobs for people to do at the same time.

Our society does not have a productivity deficit; if anything, it has an excess, spending millions of hours and billions of dollars each year on things that are not actually making us happy. We are told that this excess consumption is good because it creates jobs, without considering the fact that creating unnecessary labor is actually a very bad thing to do.

The obvious question that readers will ask upon reading this post is “how do we get people paid if they are not working?”

There are a few methods to consider.

The immediate problem with the idea of eliminating unnecessary jobs is that this will leave some people completely jobless, while others remain employed at the same gainful economic level. Some entire industries may be phased out or drastically reduced in size if people stop buying things that don’t make them happy.

And yet, isn’t finding a way to distribute time and wealth to maximize everyone’s happiness preferable to upholding the vaguely vindictive principle that “if I have to work to make a living, so should they?”

Isn’t it a more promising prospect to find work for these newly unemployed people to do that actually matters – such as community improvement or learning useful new skills – better for our society as a whole than treating them as useless because they don’t presently fill an existing production niche?

Isn’t it more appealing to reduce the number of hours of labor required of everyone by equally distributing work and resources, rather than creating unnecessary and counterproductive tasks to consume our short lives?

People will say that this smacks of communism, and that communism doesn’t work. However, there are two important caveats to that:

1) There is nothing about this concept that precludes a free market. It may communities to take a less competitive approach to distributing wealth – but making sure that everybody’s eating in a world where farming processes are distributed between the home garden and automated commercial farms run with minimal human labor should not be a large challenge.

Photo by Livioandronico2013 / CC 4.0

2) Communism has only gone badly when it has been enforced over large scale by a government. These remote governing bodies, predictably, failed to anticipate both the needs and abilities of their people (hence causing “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” to fail miserable.

Historical practicioners of voluntary communism include the disciples of Jesus and Ghandi. Motivated by care for the well-being of people whose needs and abilities they actually knew, these people practiced communism quite successfully until they were eventually forced to integrate into a wider, competitive world.

“Competition” is the name of the vice, here. It is what is making us all miserable. Competition for the best lawn; for the best clothes; for the best paycheck to brag about; for the best car.

Competition for things which are probably the true passion of only a tiny percentage of the population; and which for the rest of us represent burdens on our time, energy, money, bodies, and planet.

Some top economists are recommending a solution to the problem that sounds downright blasphemous to our deeply ingrained “work = wealth = virtue” sensibility. Their suggestion? A government-enforced maximum work week of 20 hours.

The logic is surprisingly straightforward: in a world where we suffer simultaneously from some people lacking any employment at all and others working so many hours they do not see their families, limiting the amount of work any one person can do will force a redistribution of labor and pay.

A mandatory 20-hour work week would also fundamentally change the bargaining scene when it comes to wages; every worker would have to reckon for wages they could survive on at 20 hours/week, and employers would have to expect to pay them.

We might also see a “reverse inflation” (since inflation is largely a result of competition for goods and services among consumers) whereby the price of everything is forced to drop according to what people can afford.

Of course, as with the endeavor of raising workers’ wages to increase the health of your business, enforcing a mandatory work week cap would likely not be successful by itself. As with the restaurants who drastically reduce workers’ pay and then see profits rise, other initiatives would also be necessary to help workers, consumers, and employers make the best use of their resources.

But perhaps such measures could work towards the demise of Louis XIV’s influence in our culture. A mandated shorter work week could, at least temporarily, substantially reduce pressure to appear rich through wasting unnecessary resources.

What do you think?


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