Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Competition Morpheus, competition

The future!  Where we will all have jetpacks, cities on the moon, and robots will do all the work so we can just sit in our armchairs and read.

Unfortunately jetpacks are insanely dangerous, cities on the moon are ridiculous, and there is still plenty of work to be done.  Some people though cling to the idea that somehow all of our advances will lead to a situation where the average person barely has to work at all to be middle class.  I just read a boingboing article on this very topic, and it largely blames wealth inequality.   After all, we are way more productive and things are so much easier to get, so shouldn't we all be working twenty hours a week now instead of forty?

Wealth inequality is bad, for sure.  It contributes to things not getting better for the average person.  I don't think it is the real reason though, because there is a really simple reason - competition.  We compete with each other and our standards for normal are based on what other people have.

If other people are working forty hours a week and I work twenty then I am going to be at a massive disadvantage when it comes to buying a house.  I will be priced right out of the market.  When we all get together and compare who has the fancier home, shiniest car, or newest phone, I am going to be left out.  An awful lot of basic stuff is cheaper these days than it was in the past but that doesn't matter if I am comparing myself to other average people, especially when prices for some things like real estate are purely driven by competition and have almost no fixed cost.

The idea of infinite leisure for the average person simply doesn't hold when people can work and make money.  As long as human effort is required to produce things and that work isn't fulfilling on its own (which is nearly all work, if we are honest with ourselves) then those that do the work are going to have a lot more stuff than those that don't.

I am hugely supportive of a guaranteed basic income, which ensures that people all have a baseline which can meet their basic needs.  However, as long as shiny stuff can be purchased with money people will work to try to get that shiny stuff.  Doesn't matter so much if that stuff is useful for the basic mechanics of life, because we don't measure ourselves by that metric.  We decide if we are successful or not by how we compare to others.  Barring a massive shift in the nature of humanity this is going to continue to be the case.

Imagine a future where we all have all the food we need, a place to live, and even pretty clothes to wear.  However, you can work to make money to get a really super fancy hat.

Like really, really fancy.

People would be working their asses off to get a better hat than everybody else.  Some would do it to try to impress potential romantic partners, some to show their mom just how important they are, and some because it is a way of keeping score.  Doesn't matter why, but work like crazy to get fancy hats would be the order of the day.  Those hats would get *wild*.

So don't expect the average person to start working less as technology progresses.  It ain't gonna happen.  Our measure of ourselves is relative to those around us, and that will keep us slaving away long after there is any practical necessity for it, even if all we get is a really sparkly hat.


  1. I strongly disagree with your conclusions here.

    There simply isn't enough 'work' to go around, and that's only going to get more and more extreme as technology continues to advance. Everyone can't work 40 hour weeks because what exactly are all those people going to do?

    Also, there are plenty of people who aren't all about keeping up with the Jones'. There will be a large variety of ways to compete that aren't just about having shinier stuff. People will play games, or sports, or have lots of sex.

  2. Also I think you're discounting the fact that people will get a taste of true freedom and many won't look back. They'll go back to school, or turn to religion, or debauchery, or what have you.

  3. The idea that people will always work and work and work to get more stuff is not historically accurate either. Human ideas of the value of work changes - enough that sociologists like Weber made a distinction between traditional and capitalist ideas of work. Traditional concepts of work is the idea of work until your needs are met than stop working and have hundreds of days off. How much consumerism is valued is also a social thing.

    For some answers you need only ask what makes you want to write this blog and create games rather than go out and make money to buy a bunch more stuff?

  4. @Nathan

    It is true that in a non capitalist society we would have different definitions of work, and presumably very different hours, etc. However, that is such a huge departure from our current society that I don't think speculating about the details is especially productive. Heck, unless someone could give me some ideas about what the structure of society would look like I don't know that I could say *anything* useful about what people's days would be like. So yeah, work can be different, but I think my premise pretty clearly assumes that capitalism will continue to reign victorious throughout the world. I don't think there is any reason to doubt that will be true for quite some time to come.

    As to me, it is obvious I am an outlier. I don't claim that *nobody* will avoid work, since clearly there have always been people who will! I only claim that the great majority of people will continue to work, and that they will work a lot. We are talking averages and norms here, not universal truths.


    More people are working in the workforce now than ever before, if you look at people between 25 and 65. (mostly due to women's ever increasing workforce representation, I don't think men are shifting that much) The amount of work required since say, 1900 is trending ever downward and yet more people are working more hours. People want more massages, more haircuts, more TV shows, more accountants. They want other people to do all kinds of things that the machines don't do for us. Even though producing a spoon or a TV requires far less people power and is far more automated than ever before we continue to provide services to each other in a circle, and there is no sign that the desire for those services is going away. If society were going to shift to mass leisure in the face of automation it would already have done so long ago, but we continue to find new things for people to do.

  5. The reason for that is income inequality, not the glorification of work. Do you really think the people stuck working multiple minimum wage jobs just to feed their kids would keep doing so if the government paid for their food and housing?

    Sweden is already moving towards 6 hour workdays instead of 8 hour workdays. That's an easy way to see more leisure time spread around 'fairly'.

    As far as more people working, sure, because the world's population is getting bigger. But I'm not convinced that means more work. We used to live in a time where children worked all day every day; in some countries that is still the case. The rich could afford teachers for their kids, everyone else worked. You seem to be picking awfully arbitrary ages and dates to make your comparisons!

  6. It is tricky to make these comparisons. We are comparing paid workweeks, so obviously we can't just sit that side by side with children sweeping out the henhouse in earlier eras because we aren't including making dinner in the forty hour work week either.

    I don't think anyone is questioning that if you go back a few hundred years that people worked more. The main thing that people seem to be confused about is why increasing automation and technology over the past fifty years hasn't resulted in everyone cutting back their workweeks. I am focusing on that sort of timeframe because it is the source of the attitude I am talking about.

    In fact I do think that people will continue to work if their basic needs are met. Have you met dual income middle class families? A huge percentage of whom could get by on one income, but which have two incomes because they want fancy stuff? That isn't a criticism, mind. If people want a nicer house in a better neighborhood and the option to take vacations to faraway places and nice clothes and lattes from Starbucks they have to work for those things. And they do!

    I will definitely admit there are other factors. For example, part time work is rarely as engaging or interesting as full time work. It is really hard to find part time work that pays as well hourly as full time. There is also societal pressure to work a full forty hours, to have a 'real' job. Those things are cultural artifacts, not universal norms, and they matter.

    But I still maintain that the primary moving force here is competition. We want to keep up with others. People compare themselves against their neighbours. As long as people continue to want status they will work hard to achieve that status. That isn't going to just vanish because people sit around having sex all day or otherwise pursue debauchery. People still want to drink and have sex with the highest status people. Want to get laid and get invited to all the best parties? Buy a helicopter or a Porsche.

  7. Dual income middle class families are not the people I'm talking about, by and large. They are not working the truly terrible jobs that the minimum wage poor people are stuck with.

    Some people will still be social and want to get paid to do stuff. My dad likes talking to people, so he enjoyed working in a convenience store. I absolutely still see some people wanting to do things like that, and they'll get extras with their extra money like fancier vacations.

    But there are plenty of poor people who want nothing more than to spend more time with their kids. Or have the time to just watch tv or read a book.

    Those are the people we talk about when we wonder why technology hasn't obsoleted the need for their jobs. Because realistically, we have. But because the wealth generated by technology has gone disproportionately to the rich, that's not how society has progressed. Because of competition! Their are fewer resources to go around for the poor, so they have to work harder and harder to get them.

  8. I think you are dead wrong about people and why they behave the way they behave. You are an outlier in your willingness to flout social norms, not in your basic wants. Different people are motivated by different things, but if you combine those who are driven primarily by an urge to create, primarily by an urge to care for others, and primarily by a desire to fit in/be useful, you'll probably have about 90-95% of the population, leaving only a handful of people who really care much about social dominance. Our current society is caters heavily to the social dominance oriented, but I think that may only be a few decades old, and it's also a ridiculous disaster.

    You talk about how people behave and how we work in a circle, but that isn't because of the interests or motivations of the majority. Take the wealth of the Waltons, multiply by 5% (an underestimate of how much they could earn on that each year) and divide by the mean income on the bottom quintile of Americans and you'll find that one family alone basically has the wealth to command the labour of about 700,000 people. Those people are working in a circle because they want a shinier hat, they are doing it because they want to eat, and they are being told to do it by people who want a hat so shiny that literally millions of people won't have food security so that vast wealth can be funneled into hat making. In America, almost everyone is one or two unlucky events from bankruptcy, homelessness, food insecurity and so on.

    People would still work plenty if their needs were met, but they would do so because they want to work more than because they want the things work buys them. People do want massages, but in a world where we didn't have to work long hours, you'd also find that people wanted to *give* massages too (urge to care for others). They want more TV shows, but far more people want to *make* TV shows than currently can (urge to create). Germans and Scandinavians work about 80% of what Canadians do, about 75% of what Americans do. There are very few who are motivated to work more and more for silly status symbols when we could be spending time with people we care about and working on our own goals and projects.

  9. I had a long post contributing to the discussion that was apparently lost when I had to sign in (again) to post it. It looked like it was posted, but wasn't - didn't realize until now.

    Use a different blog platform! (or, more realistically, push for improvements to this one)

  10. I agree with everything Sthenno said.

  11. I certainly agree with the grotesqueness of the Waltons and their ilk. No doubt the worsening of inequality matters, but it doesn't come close to vacuuming up all of the productivity gains we have made over the years. We are far richer than we were, even the poor and middle class, but our hours haven't budged.

    A lot of that is inertia, and custom, and even laws. Our society is set up for 40 hour workweeks and that would take time to change, even if there were no other factors keeping it in place.

    So I am not saying that inequality isn't a huge problem, it is. I am also agreeing that inequality has an effect of maintaining longer working hours. I just think that competition and the hedonistic treadmill is a greater contributing factor, and I explicitly favour societal changes that will push us away from those things because I don't think they are healthy or productive.

  12. There are so many people who would love to be able to survive on a 40 hour workweek.