Saturday, August 18, 2012

Posner: The Good Life as a Battery Chicken

Richard Posner, the well-known law-and-economics judge, reviews (in the NYT) the new book How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life. I discussed it the other week starting here. Posner is very "economistic" and Chicago-school, so much so he writes a blog with Gary Becker, the most reductionistic of all economists.

Not surprisingly, Posner is dismissive of the Skidelskys' book. He thinks it is a very English way of seeing the world, from a people who not so long ago couldn't even manage central heating (really). His evidence is the poor maintenance of Hertford College, Oxford, in the early 1980s, when he ate in hall there - seemingly ignoring the eight hundred years of wealth evident in the fabulous architecture, vast libraries and museums and labs all around him. Central heating apparently trumps all.

Americans would not go for more leisure, he says, because unless you lie in a hammock, leisure is expensive.

And what would we do with our newfound leisure? Most people would quickly get bored without the resources for varied and exciting leisure activities like foreign travel, movies and television, casinos, restaurants, watching sporting events, engaging in challenging athletic activities, playing video games, eating out, dieting, having cosmetic surgery, and improving health and longevity. But with everyone working just 20 hours a week (on the way down to 15 in 2030), few of these opportunities would materialize, because people who worked so little would be unable to afford them. Nor could leisure-activity services be staffed adequately.

This is just remarkably wrong. The main leisure activity in America is watching tv, for four or five hours a day, not yachting or going to Per Se. The basic channels are free to air, cable would still cost half a day's work on average wages a month, and services like Netflix are making things cheaper. You can play Angry Birds all day or free, or get the full version for the princely sum of a dollar. Leisure services like Facebook or Flickr are free. In fact, the Internet is a roaring whirlpool sucking things towards free.

Many leisure activities rely on public goods, of course, like parks or playing fields. But the entire budget of the National Park service last year was $2.6 billion, a rounding error in an overall budget.

And leisure is more than just consumption, in any case. It is spending time with loved ones, or the local voluntary organizations which commentators back to Toqueville have seen as the essential strength of America.

That is before we think about productivity. If it rises 3% a year, living standards double in about 23 years. So people would indeed be able to afford current services from half the paid hours, if productivity flows through to wages. And many leisure activities are falling in price.

Posner evades entirely the Skidelsky's methodological criticisms of mainstream economics, and so begs the question. Economics is built on the marshy ground of utility. The foundations are cracking.

Posner does inadvertently put his finger on something important in his concluding remark:

If you ask someone to work half as long for half the pay, you should have better answers to his question: What shall I do with my new leisure?

That points to the void around purpose in the culture, which I keep coming back to. That is indeed the problem. You might equally ask if you work twice as long for double the pay, what is it for? You pay much more in tax, of course. You might buy a bigger house, but the price would likely have been bid up proportionately by other people working longer hours, so the net gain is minimal.

We still have a veneration for work in the culture, of course, because it is a displacement or substitute for exercise of the virtues - excellence, judgment, responsibility, discipline, the whole notion of "earning" something. Posner actually leaches off those older associations.

It is just sad if we run society so people are stuck in cubicles because they can't think of anything better to do to pass the time. It is a life suitable for a battery chicken.

What would people do if they spent less time in the office or shop floor? Without working to pay for expensive products ... Nothing, he says.

If they lacked consumer products and services to fill up their time they would brawl, steal, overeat, drink and sleep late.

It represents a deeply impoverished and inadequate conception of the good life. He simply can't imagine anything better to do. Just think. Raising a family Is in the "brawl, steal, overeat" category, because it's not a consumer good. So is meeting friends. Or jogging in the park.

That is not to say that for many or most people, leisure would be spent sculpting marble or writing symphonies, as he rightly questions. But how to lead a good life is the central issue. Answering that, by default, with working forty hours a week at Payless Shoes for $10 an hour or ninety hours a week reading legal briefs on derivatives documentation to buy Bollinger or cocaine is not self-evidently good.

Posner simply fails to come to terms with how productivity potentially alters choices. The review has a sanctimonious sneering tone. But it is a little nervous.


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