Sunday, January 25, 2009

After Hours

John Maynard Keynes, after years in the woodshed, is back in fashion. As most of us struggle this year to keep our heads above water, the government is following his advice about aggregate demand by spending astonishing trillions of dollars.

John Maynard Keynes should be on anyone's short list of great 20th century economists and thinkers. Yet he did make several predictions that proved false. One of them was that, as incomes rose (as by and large they have, though not this year), people would choose leisure over additional income and so would work less. This certainly had been the case previously, which is not surprising: in the 19th century 12 hour days and 6 day weeks were the norm. Who wouldn't want shorter hours than those? Yet it turned out that there was a point at which substitution stopped. Average hours-worked leveled off by the 1950s and actually have risen slightly since while two income households became the norm.

Material desires are part of the reason. Old luxuries are now viewed as necessities. Completely new necessities such as satellite and cell services have arisen. Meanwhile, some of the old basics -- notably housing, health care, and education -- have risen sharply in cost relative to incomes and other prices. So, we struggle to keep up with higher expenses by logging more overtime.

There is more to it than simple materialism though. Even those who can afford to cut their work hours without scrimping typically don't, largely because, by and large, we don't use additional leisure time in very satisfying ways. For most people, more free hours do not translate into more art, literature, or travel. (Travel, of course, is expensive and requires more work to pay for it anyway.) Though it is the rare person who does not describe himself or herself as "creative," creative output is remarkably unrelated to the amount of time available for it. Most people with more time on their hands simply watch more television. Apparently, at least in the absence of truly sizable wealth that can buy constant entertainment, if there is anything more boring than a regular work week, it is the absence of one.

All that may seem a long and oddly irrelevant introduction to the real topic, but there is a connection. The topic is vice.

Thanks to a puritanical heritage, we still tend to classify almost all pleasurable indulgences as vices, even if we revel in them. In the proper measure, many of them are integral to the enjoyment of a full life; others may not be integral, but aren't always harmful in moderation either. Paracelsus: "Everything is a medicine. Everything is a poison. It is all a matter of dose."

Some people consider excessive work a vice. The TV viewing mentioned above has greater cultural value than it usually is credited as having, but beyond a certain point it is stultifying, and being a couch potato is actually dangerous to health. Sex, even among consenting adults, can be destructive in the absence of basic precautions -- or in the presence of some complication such as an unwitting spouse back home. (In my observation a spouse rarely stays unwitting.) All the same, it is one of the basic joys of life. Consuming alcohol in modest amounts apparently is physically healthy, and in moderate amounts can be socially enhancing, though we all know the hazards of excess – and we all know people who think a six-pack every night is moderate. Legalities aside, a similar argument can be made about recreational drugs. (For the record, I am sober when it comes to alcohol and other recreational chemicals; my vices are of another sort.) In short, all so-called vices can be self-destructive – though too strenuous avoidance of some of them may be so too.

The moderate folks are not much trouble to themselves or others. Unfortunately, excess – not just as an occasional celebration but as a way of life -- is far from rare, and I wonder if leisure time is a large part of the problem. There are, of course, people who live desperate lives and who try to numb their awareness as a way of escape; however, in first world regions at least, there are far more whose lives are not (or need not be) noticeably terrible, yet who still strive to escape through drugs and dangerous behavior. I think many of these folks just don't know what to do with themselves, and seek out excess as a way of feeling alive; lazily whittling on the front porch just doesn't do the job for them.

Who would have thought it? Leisure apparently is a challenge to human happiness. Not all of us can cope with it.

No, I offer no grand solution, and wouldn't put any trust in anyone else's. I certainly propose no laws. Each person has to work this out for him/herself. I merely note the unexpected risk. Perhaps there is an upside to the widespread failure to save for retirement. Assuming one survives a life of excess to reach old age, there will be work to do.

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