August 24, 2012 by Tamara Piety
Surely there is no one in America who has less leisure time than Judge Richard Posner. He is not only a judge on the Seventh Circuit (which most occupants view as a full time job) he is also a professor at the University of Chicago and a prolific author, one whose annual output is enough to to make most of us tired just reviewing his prodigious productivity. So it is not surprising that he wouldn’t think much of leisure time. Surely he must have some leisure time, but it seems that for him work is leisure and so we can surmise that he doesn’t have much use for just laying about.
Last year we got a peek at his attitude toward leisure in his review in the New York Times of Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s book “Money and the Good Life” in which the Skidelsky’s – pere and fils – discuss John Maynard Keynes’ essay in which he predicts a shorter work week and more leisure in the future. The Skidelskys argue that people in the US and the UK miss out of the true good life by working too many hours. Posner is dismissive of the purported pleasures of leisure asserting that “It is ridiculous to think that if people worked for just 15 or 20 hours a week they would use their leisure cut marble or struggle with a musical score. If they lacked consumer products to fill up their time they would brawl, steal, overheat, drink, and sleep late.” And he mocks Keynes’ vision of the 20 hour work week of the future. Saying, ” Nations would be defenseless, with soldiers who were on duty only 20 hours a week and had fewer weapons because employees of munitions makers were also working only 20 hours a week.”
These objections suggest that his honor hasn’t thought this one through.To be sure Keynes’ prediction of the future of life and labor in a developed economy was comically (or tragically, depending on your view) off. He was right about our productivity, but not what how we would achieve it. Although most people do not work the hours which were standard before the Great Depression (50 plus according to Posner), the standard of 40 is twice as much as Keynes envisioned. The whys and wherefores of that are beyond my ken but I was struck by the weakness of this argument against the proposal that we ought to have more leisure: (1) people don’t really want it, (2) it would lead to national collapse with nations unable to defend themselves, let alone generate the productivity that fuels the American way of life, and (3) if they had this leisure they would do bad things with it.
He might well be right (although somewhat paternalistic) as to that last one, but the first two seem to me not to follow at all from the proposal of a 20 hour work week. It seems rather obvious to me that a shorter work week would inevitably = more people employed, not shutting the factory down. And more people employed would mean more people would have the money to buy the things produced by those with something to sell because employed people (as a rule) have more money to spend than the unemployed. We don’t have 24 hour military protection, emergency room, police and fire service because those employees work 24 hour days, 7 days a week. Instead, they work shifts. A number of employees working in shifts are needed to cover the full 24 hours, 7 days a week. If we shift from a 40 hour work week to a 20 hour work week one “solution” to the labor problem that shift creates is to close the office, shut down the factory. But there is another solution, one that is more sensible. Hire more workers.
As to the argument that people don’t really want more leisure, well, it is hazardous to judge others from one’s own vantage point. And as I say, Judge Posner may not be the best person to assess the value of leisure since he doesn’t seem to have much even though he surely could have more if he wanted it. But it may also be that as a noted proponent of the application economics to law and one-time booster for market solutions and laissez-faire, it may be that he is just philosophically inclined not to see the labor solution here.
Posner is one of our most entertaining, thought-provoking and erudite commentators on law, political and the economy. He is has an enviable way with words and an ability to make difficult ideas accessible to lay readers. Indeed, that is on display in this article as he offers an excruciatingly funny description of the myriad discomforts of English life in the 1980s when he says England was “shabby,” “the plumbing terrible” (right that!), the floors and sidewalks uneven, the heating “inadequate” and the food “poor.” He describes the master’s quarters where his hosts lodged him on a visit to Brasenose College at Oxford as “like stepping into a Surrealist painting, because the floor sloped in one direction and the two narrow beds in two other directions. (I imagine he heard from a few of his English friends on this passage – “I say, Richard! Steady on! It wasn’t quite that bad, surely?” or “Was that strictly necessary?). But his conclusions seem informed more from ideology than the defects of Keynes’ vision or the Skidelskys proposals. They propose that Keynes’ prediction could come true, and we be the better for it, if we put in place a number of reforms that would allow us to have much more leisure.
First, they apparently propose a wage or a capital endowment from the government which would allow most people to work less. Second, they proposal imposing a progressive tax on consumption. Third, firms would not be allowed to deduct advertising expenses since advertising encourages consumption. Posner indicts these proposals for the reasons outlined above and concludes his essay with the observation that the book curiously spends little or no time describing how people would use this new leisure time as if that was a vital concern. That seems to me to focus on the most trivial part of the dilemmas that these proposals invoke. To my mind some of the more pressing ones are questions like, how do we maintain any semblance of economic health if we reduce our consumption to the levels seemingly demanded in order to ensure we don’t destroy the planet? In light of this sort of question, what to do with our free time seems like the least of our problems, although, of course, it isn’t really our problem, it is future generations’ problem. The current problem is how to provide full employment and restore the economy from its doldrums and the shorter work week with the corresponding addition of more people to the workforce might be one way to get there. But that could conceivably make everything more expensive if you double the number of employees in firms because some costs associated with adding new employees are fixed and can’t be scaled to the number of hours they work. And if goods are more expensive because costs of making them are higher, there might be less consumption and then less demand which might further depress the economy. It is a stubborn and intractable problem how to get everything going so as to achieve economic efficiency, economic growth and full employment. When you add in also trying to scale back the level of consumption it seems like an insoluble problem.
I haven’t read the Skidelskys book but it looks interesting and I look forward to doing so. But I share Judge Posner’s skepticism about the practical reality of adopting these proposals even if for different reasons. For one, the first proposal, a guaranteed income or capital endowment to everyone without any requirement that one do anything at all to “earn” it runs smack into Americans’ almost hysterical veneration, not to say worship, of the ennobling and uplifting value of work. This is probably a remnant of the Calvinist strain in our culture and not some sort of absolute truth. But I think it safe to say that this is one At the moment politics is already dominate by heated debates about “entitlements” and the suggestion that we can’t afford the ones we have, let alone new ones. I think there is a good case to be made for something like this, particularly with respect to education, but I doubt it would have the slightest chance of surviving the onslaught of scorn poured on the head of any politician earnest enough to attempt to put this forward as we seem to be hurtling full tilt into the 19th century view of what constitutes appropriate social safety nets. The other two proposals, a consumption tax and no deduction for advertising expenses, particularly the latter, are only slightly less viable. First, any sort of tax is going to be opposed, especially in a period of high unemployment and when the burdens of the tax will fall heavily on the poorest people who by necessity spend almost all they have on consumption. Eliminating the advertising expenses deduction, by contrast, will probably seem reasonable to most people (although not if it means higher prices) but will be vigorously opposed by industry.
So none of these proposals seem to have any chance of succeeding. Yet we have to do something. Our basic mode of existence is not sustainable. I don’t know what the Skidelskys intended to address in this book. The title and Posner’s review suggest that their aim was to argue that sustainable levels of consumption might be achieved if only all of us valued leisure more and if we had a political and social structure that valued it and gave us more of it. Yet, in order to avoid Judge Posner’s parade of horribles we would need to have more people working. And in Posner’s account, consumer products and services play a heroic role in filling the void left by leisure time. Without things to buy and consume we cannot be trusted, apparently, to use our leisure time well Judge Posner seems to argue.
Yet part two and three of the Skidelskys’ proposals are clearly aimed not JUST at having more leisure but at doing different things with it besides consuming. Judge Posner observes that Keynes, though he was not gentry himself, was working from what Posner claims was the “traditional aspiration of the English upper class was not to work at all.” And despite his observation that most of the aristocracy did not fill that free time with art, music and other noble pursuits but rather with “hunting, gambling and seduction,” it seems to me that English history is filled with accounts of talented amateurs in a number of academic and scientific fields which in turn suggests that not all of the gentry filled their leisure time with these pursuits. The question, it seems to me, is whether our current level of consumption is necessary to the good life. The Skidelskys seem to suggest that it is not. That may or may not be the case, but I think the more pressing question which this work hints at and that Posner’s review avoids, is whether consumption can continue in this heroic role of rescuing us from boredom and propping up the economy. After all, the reason why some economists have called for more stimulus money and more employment is that people need jobs in order to spend money and that our economy is dependent on consumption — a lot of consumption. But these levels of consumption are probably not sustainable. Eventually this cycle will probably result in more leisure time — whether we plan for it or it happens in wrenching social upheavals. In the latter case, what to do with this new leisure will be the least of our problems.