Is Working More Part of the Good Life?

Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen

It may be odd for some of y’all to hear (a few times now) that I have ties to libertarians. I used to be an anarcho-capitalist and I was in favor of a minimal government before that. I still have anarcho-capitalist friends as well as minarchist friends (though far fewer) and I still talk to them, enjoy hearing them talk about certain subjects and even agree from time to time.

Why? Well, part of it is because I used to be part of that particular milieu and while I think there’s much to be said for what is wrong with contemporary American libertarianism (e.g. its allegiances to conservatism) there are also ideas that are buried under the sometimes noxious cultural sentiments and economic ideas that I find worth hearing out.

For example, I don’t think markets are an inherently immoral or unjust economic process. I think capitalism is a particular type of markets that tend to produce immoral or morally questionable relations between individuals. It stratifies classes, creates centralizers of wealth through the state and its economic allies in corporations and tends to punish the poor.

Organizations like Center for a Stateless Society probably best describe my politics with the term “free market anti-capitalism” or “left-wing market anarchism” which will sound like an oxymoron to some of my readers here. And that’s OK with me, I don’t mind seeming paradoxical to people, I’ve seemed that way my whole life.

I bring up all of this to introduce Tyler Cowen an economist I found via a libertarian friend of mine.

Cowen did a presentation at Duke University regarding economic progress and the lack of lowered work hours in spite of that. This sort of sequence of events flies in the face of John Maynard Keynes and his essay on economic possibilities.

Most of Cowen’s data I’ll take for granted (he doesn’t cite his sources anyhow and the video I linked doesn’t either) but it’s really his interpretations of the data that really bother me. It’s a conventional American libertarian interpretation with our current policies being referred to as “more or less free trade” and the current amount of work people are giving over the course of decades being therefore the preferred way.

In other words, Cowen sees modernity and then sees progress. He confuses the fact that people acting under economic strictures that are largely not of their choosing may make decisions based on bad incentive models or from not being able to model their own needs very well because they’re too busy at work, stressed, unhappy, etc.

One of the commenters on the video raises a very good point that I’m leading up to:

There are a few things that I think haven’t been considered.

First, why does he not cite any statistics on job satisfaction, or happiness in general among workers. These have been going down.

Secondly, the status effect is not purely financial, less so than ever. Our cultural narrative greatly values hard workers who will do anything for any amount of money without complaining. “Wanting” to work is not the same as being happy to work.

Furthermore, status among younger generations is more tied to the competition and comodification of experiences. Experiences and moods are now commodities. Look at your Facebook if you don’t believe me. People selectively post things to try to create an image of an active fast pace life where they work hard and play harder.

I agree that Cowen’s analysis seems selective at best. He takes the fact that more people seem to be stressed at vacation, that the top 1% tend to work more than lower wage folks and that (Swedish) lottery winners tend to keep working even after they’ve won the lottery. But none of these things means we intrinsically love work because it doesn’t take into account how much happiness or satisfaction people are actually reporting while at their jobs.

And if people aren’t more happy at jobs that they’re not significantly working any less at or getting paid much more at than why would we look forward to a future of it, as Cowen does? There seems to be a general fallacy on the part of economists that because we have consistent data that shows that X amount of people have been doing Y for Z amount of years and doing so despite a large amount of variables then that must be their revealed preference!

But let’s apply this to a different situation: Technology.

We could look at the first five decades of the 20th century and notice that people didn’t use the technologies we have and foolishly used inferior tools to make their lives “simpler”. And I’m sure we could look at such graphs and interpret that therefore it must have been the best way. But we’ve since discovered that no, it’s far better to have washer and dryer machines than to air dry everything and microwaves can be a godsend for many stressed out mothers.

Similarly, we can look at the amount of hours we’ve gained or lost over the decades (see here for one of my takes on it) and conclude that this must just be the way that people want to work. That sort of conclusion however seems to be a leap to me because it doesn’t consider the fact that folks are often stressed on their vacations because they’re thinking about work. Or the fact that that the top 1% will tend to do jobs that are better paid and more personally fulfilling.

When it comes to lottery winners, it wasn’t clear to me if most of those people simply blew their money and then needed to work. Or if they simply put most of it in their savings and then kept working because they enjoyed their job or something else. Cowen doesn’t really explain much about the studies he cites…he just sort of cites them and then walks away with often (though not always) questionable conclusions.

For example, let’s presume the best situation for the Swedish lottery winners: They won a ton of money, put it all in savings and still decide to work. Does that mean that work as a general phenomenon makes us all happy? I think this is missing out on the obvious factor that people with more capital have better opportunities to actually do what they want. People with lower amounts of capital (often) don’t have that same access to this and thus they often work less (according to Cowen’s data) most likely because they hate their jobs and would prefer not to.

And besides that there are cultural factors to think about. Sweden may not have the Puritan Work Ethic like America does, but work is still considered the de facto way to live a fulfilling life no matter where you go. It may be less emphasized in certain countries or emphasized in different ways but the fundamentals of work itself don’t change.

That’s the important part that we need to challenge to begin with, because it convinces people into thinking that working is the only way that they can work. Though, at some point of material wealth can “work” even be called such when you’re simply doing something you want to do and just happen to be getting paid (really well) for it? Somewhere along the line it seems pretty unfair for Cowen to even count the top 1% as “working more” when they probably don’t feel like it’s work.

One of Cowen’s most frustrating moments for me during his presentation was the fact that he cited that unemployed people are unhappy as some sort of evidence that work makes us happy. But this is patently absurd. Unemployed people are unhappy because there is all of this labeling stigma about being unemployed not because work is inherently good for us. And in addition, they’re often unhappy not necessarily because they’re out of work but because now they have to deal with the stress of paying their rent and so on without the economic means to do so.

Lo and behold in a study that Cowen himself cites, when some German citizens went from unemployed to “retired” (legally) their reported happiness went higher. Which lines up neatly with my idea that a lot of this has to do with social stigma around the label of being unemployed as well as the monetary pressures one might feel in being unemployed.

Cowen even references himself (a tenured academic professor) as some sort of indicator that people prefer working which is especially ludicrous given that Cowen’s profession likely makes up a significant minority of job positions compared to (for example) retail workers. So even if he and perhaps other people he knows (though he only cites himself) act this way towards work it really says nothing general about work as a phenomenon because it’s not easy to generalize.

Finally, Cowen asks why people watch so much TV if work is best explained as prevalent because it’s a status game.

Well, I’m not sure if the “rat race” argument is the one that best explains the prevalence of work either but explaining why at least some people watch so much TV (at this point wouldn’t he mean Netflix or Youtube?) is easy:

Because they’re tired from work.

What a beautiful utopia Cowen has imagined for us.

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2 thoughts on “Is Working More Part of the Good Life?

  1. ‘unemployed=unhappy therefore work=happy’
    ^this !! the most frustrating meme doing the rounds at the moment. Im glad you’ve raised the fallacy of it. –
    if you go to bill mitchells (social libertarian-post Keynesian) blog you will see me criticising this (although im doing it in support of ubi but your contribution over there would still be valuable even if you disagree with me on that!)

    I pointed out that all those studies CAN NOT show a group 1 vs 2 conclusion where group 1 is low/middle class who cant afford to live without work and G2 is those who can afford to live without it, because there aren’t enough people in G2. So none of those studies can conclude anything about the value of work or peoples enjoyment of it. All they can show is that a lack of INCOME makes many people unhappy.

    • Great comment as usual, I Hugh!

      I may check out that blog, thanks.

      For sure, it does seem like studies that take mostly G2 folks into account would run into a generalization issue as I mentioned with Cowen himself.

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