August 18, 2012

BUT THAT ISN'T THE ISSUE:

Working 9 to 12 : 'How Much Is Enough?' by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky (RICHARD A. POSNER, August 17, 2012, NY Times Book Review)

In recent years, England has become much more like the United States, but I well remember as recently as the 1980s how shabby England was, how terrible the plumbing, how shoddy the housing materials, how treacherously uneven the floors and sidewalks, how inadequate the heating and poor the food -- and how tolerant the English were of discomfort. I recall breakfast at Hertford College, Oxford, in an imposing hall with a large broken window -- apparently broken for some time -- and the dons huddled sheeplike in overcoats; and in a freezing, squalid bar in the basement of the college a don in an overcoat expressing relief at being home after a year teaching in Virginia, which he had found terrifying because of America's high crime rate, though he had not been touched by it. I remember being a guest of Brasenose College -- Oxford's wealthiest -- and being envied because I had been invited to stay in the master's guest quarters, only to find that stepping into the guest quarters was like stepping into a Surrealist painting, because the floor sloped in one direction and the two narrow beds in two other directions. I recall the English (now American) economist Ronald Coase telling me that until he visited the United States he did not know it was possible to be warm.

The Skidelskys are correct that because goods and services can be produced with much less labor than in 1930, we could live now as we did then while working many fewer hours. We want to live better than that. 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.

The quandry we face though is quite different than a choice between wealth or work, it is what to do when wealth is increasingly independent of work.  

Posted by at August 18, 2012 6:50 AM
  

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